An Englishwoman's Life in Communist Hungary': Book 2, Chapter 3.

  • 14 Dec 2023 11:43 AM
An Englishwoman's Life in Communist Hungary': Book 2, Chapter 3.
Marion Merrick’s books are the only first-hand account written by a westerner of what it was like to live and work in communist Hungary, and then in the aftermath of the 1989 change of regime.

Now You See It, Now You Don’t and House of Cards have been included as part of the Open Society Archive dedicated to this period in the CEU. You can read a serialisation of them here on Xpatloop. You can also buy the dual-volume book on Kindle as well as in Stanfords London.

Book Two, Chapter Three: Neighbours

Part 1 – All change; ghetto memories

These were strange times. Nine months previously a system of government which had held total power for forty years had quite simply collapsed with no revolution and no real outside pressure. The interim caretaker government which replaced it had no mandate, so an election was planned for March of 1990. Thus, we lived in a country where the old was now invalid and the new had as yet to be defined, a time of high inflation and uncertainty, of fear and hope, of speculation and rumour.

We ourselves were living in a state of double limbo: the one affecting everyone, the general apprehension of what changes democracy and capitalism would bring, and our own peculiar situation of trying to reach a decision regarding our future. Thus far we had automatically assumed we would return to England once the children reached school age, to avoid the inevitable ideological indoctrination of the education system. Yet this was no longer a factor. Our choice was suddenly free – political considerations had become an irrelevance.

For the previous eight years we had avoided the issue, but now it was pressing, especially with the prospect of yet another move to consider. After six flats in those eight years we were determined to buy a property to avoid the continual problems associated with renting. But the question remained: in England or in Hungary? Continued procrastination could only result in falling between all available stools since we had neither work nor a home in England, and the return to privatisation of housing already underway in Hungary would unquestionably lead to a dramatic rise in prices.

Feri, Évi and Robi were leaving Róbert Károly körút. They had been working for the Hungarian Steelworks, located on the northern outskirts of the city, and the factory had paid their rent in this flat. Now the company was forced to lay off a proportion of its workforce as government subsidies began to dry up.

Évi and Feri were reliable and able workers, but a certain mood of antagonism had replaced the original sympathy for the thousands of Transylvanian refugees to have fled Romania since Ceausescu had been deposed, and this may have been in part the cause of their dismissal. Job insecurity, unemployment even, was an unknown and unimaginable concept for the generation for whom it had been illegal not to have work.

Hungarians were becoming fearful of this influx of Transylvanians claiming a diminishing supply of jobs. Évi and Feri were philosophical – they had already succeeded in securing work elsewhere, now they simply had to find a flat whose rent they could afford.

Coming home with the children one day I met Évi in the lift. ‘We’re moving next weekend,’ she informed me. ‘The man who’s going to employ Feri has an empty flat in Lövölde tér.’

‘What’s it like?’ I asked.

‘It’s fine. Not as good as this though,’ she added, ‘but it’ll be all right.’

As we walked out of the lift and through the glass door the smells of cooking enveloped us. They were intensified as the door to Suli’s flat opened and he beckoned to me.

‘You like lamb meat? We cook lamb, you come try some,’ he beamed. Évi smiled a goodbye and let herself into her flat opposite. I left the pushchair in the corridor and taking the children by the hand, I entered Suli’ s home. The small entrance hall was full of shoes piled higgledy-piggledy around the walls. The sitting room door ahead of me was wide open, revealing an area quite bereft of furniture but littered with cushions on which Suli’s children were reclining.

‘Come, sit down,’ he said as I balanced my shoes on top of some others and followed him into the room. John, Hannah and I comfortably fitted on one of the larger cushions, where we were immediately supplied with a variety of vegetable and lamb dishes to try. John could not be induced to taste anything, but Hannah’s curiosity was not difficult to arouse.

‘It’s very good,’ I assured Suli as he stood watching us eat, ‘Where did you get the lamb from?’

‘We go to village in country, much lamb there,’ he said. ‘We buy whole lamb, bring back in car. We not eat pork meat or cow meat, only lamb.’ Suli’s wife had settled herself on another of the cushions surrounded by her five children, who were trying to interest John in a game they had been playing with marbles. Suli asked me various questions about England and Paul’s work, and told me that his eldest son, Aladdin, was at an English school.

Finally, I got up to leave, pausing in the hall to put my shoes back on and steal a glance into the kitchen: the lino floor was covered with grains of rice, the bin was overflowing with rubbish, dirty plates with leftovers and used glasses stood piled all over the worktop and in the sink. I could only speculate on the state of the bathroom, though their living room was spotless.

Paul was already home. I told him about our visit to Suli.

‘I forgot to tell you,’ he said, ‘but that man was up here yesterday, the one who lives underneath Suli, complaining again about water leaking through.’

‘Did you have to interpret?’ I asked.

‘No. Luckily, they weren’t at home. I can’t imagine what they can be doing in their bathroom, unless it’s the washing machine that’s causing the floods.’

We fed the children and Paul started their bath while I left to teach at Éva’s. She was still sorting out her newspapers when I arrived.

‘I hear Évi and Feri are moving this weekend,’ she said.

‘Yes. John’s going to miss playing with Robi,’ I said, ‘and we may have to move too.’

Éva looked up from her seat on the floor. ‘Are they coming back, then?’ she asked in surprise.

‘I don’t know. That’s what they say, though the rest of the family says they’d never come back and live here, especially now that they’re going to have a third child. There isn’t room, and anyway, they’ve got a big house outside Budapest.’

Tamás’s brother had visited us the previous week to declare their intention of returning.

‘And will you stay in Hungary, or are you going back to England?’ he had asked.

‘We haven’t decided yet,’ I said.

‘Well, things look good now,’ he said with excited conviction. ‘Hungary will soon be just like Austria, you wait and see!’

Éva now looked at me quizzically. ‘So what will you do? Go back to England?’

I took a deep breath ready to try and explain our dilemma, but was saved by the ringing of the doorbell.

‘That’ll be Ági,’ said Éva behind me as I made for the front door. Ági was a medical secretary at the Institute of Traumatology, the central accident hospital.

‘Hallo Ági! I’m just coming!’ called Éva from the back room.

Ági looked surprised. ‘How does she know it’s me?’ she said, laughing and hanging up her coat. I shrugged. Éva appeared, taking off her apron and made for the kitchen to wash her dust-covered hands.

‘How did you know it was me?’ said Ági again.

‘Because of the way you ring the doorbell three times,’ Éva replied. ‘I always know it’s you.’

Ági froze.

‘What’s wrong?’ I asked.

‘Yellow star houses’ in the Jewish ghetto Courtesy Fortepan/ Tivadar Lissák

‘Do you know, no-one’s ever said that before, about the ringing. I never thought about it either, but that was the signal we used during the war in the ghetto – when we wanted to show that it was a friend or relative at the door.’

Ági, Éva and Éva’s sister-in-law Erzsi, all Jewish, had survived the war in ways now familiar to most people. Éva’s parents, realising that time was running out, had placed their five-year-old daughter in a church-run kindergarten where she was supplied with a false identity and had quickly to learn to respond to her new name. She could still remember her last meeting with her parents and a sense of foreboding she could not explain.

They were soon transported to one of the infamous camps – Éva never found out which one -along with fifty members of her extended family, from where not one returned. Erzsi’s family, meanwhile, Anne Frank-like, had spent two years in hiding in a Christian family’s Budapest flat. Ági had been in the ghetto.

Éva later told me that following the war she had been placed with her only surviving relative, a grandmother she heartily disliked, who died when Éva reached fifteen. Moves were made to place Éva in a children’s home, but thanks to contacts, she managed to stay in her grandmother’s flat alone.

These were the fifties, the darkest and most austere of the Communist era. Éva, at the age of fifteen, had not only to light her own fires from wood brought up from the cellar, but to study hard to achieve her desired goal of being accepted to medical school, while carrying out the household chores. Our whole lesson was taken up with such reminiscences of the war.

The workers’ ghetto in Budapest

Click here for earlier extracts

Main photo: Red stars are dismantled from public buildings, 1990

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