An Englishwoman's Life in Communist Hungary': Book 2, Chapter 5.

  • 7 May 2024 5:27 AM
An Englishwoman's Life in Communist Hungary': Book 2, Chapter 5.
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 5
Part 2 – Winter visit to Joseph and Virginia

We received a telegram from Virginia asking if we would like to see them. Our visits had become less frequent as a consequence of our car’s continued incarceration in the garage. We now travelled by underground to its terminus where the mainline station was, and from there by train to Dabas. József was waiting to meet us, standing in the brown, slushy snow.

‘Welcome!’ he said. ‘Virginia’s at home – she’s looking forward to seeing you.’

‘How is she?’ we asked.

‘Very well. She had a check-up yesterday, everything’s fine. You know the baby’s due at the beginning of March?’

He drove us home in their Trabant. Virginia and Flora were looking out of the window, waiting. The children disappeared instantly to play, while we made for the kitchen.

‘József’s mother is here, she cooks for us,’ said Virginia. ‘I really can’t do so much at the moment. It’s a great help to have her.’

We made the tea and carried it through to the children’s bedroom which was warmer. József excused himself and left to teach religious education in a local school, which was now once again legal.

‘I didn’t know József was teaching,’ Paul said. ‘That’s great – it’ll give you some extra income.’

Virginia sighed. ‘But he won’t take any payment for it,’ she said. ‘He says he doesn’t want to be paid by any state.’

‘Why ever not?’ asked Paul. ‘They are in other countries – surely you’d be paid in America too?’

‘I don’t think that József can reconcile himself to not being an enemy of the state, to having dealings with them,’ Virginia explained. ‘He had to battle so hard for so long to achieve anything, anything at all, he just wants to keep his independence.’

József had always treated his relationship with the former régime as a cat and mouse game, trying to keep one step ahead, circumventing or finding loopholes in the laws designed to restrict – if not terminate – the activities of priests and parishioners alike.

All but four of the religious orders had been dissolved in the early 1950s, a mere handful allowed to continue their teaching activities. Religious instruction could only officially be carried on within the confines of church buildings, and policemen, teachers and other public servants could be dismissed from their posts if they were found to be church members.

Yet in spite of the difficulties or maybe as a very result of them, József and one or two Catholic priests we knew took relish in their abilities to outwit the authorities. It heightened their sense of mission, gave an added sense of achievement to their successes, and I could not help but see a parallel with men I had known in England whose adventurous experiences in the war had been the pinnacle of their lives, unmatched by anything they had done subsequently.

József raised the stakes still further when he undertook trips to Transylvania with his Trabant stuffed with an illegal cargo of bibles and Hungarian newspapers – both regarded as powerful forms of anti-government propaganda by the then Ceausescu régime. On one such occasion his contraband had been discovered and his car confiscated, and he had been beaten and left to make his own way home from the border.

‘Do you know whether the baby’s going to be a boy or a girl?’ I asked Virginia.

‘No, I don’t, but of course József would desperately like a son.’

‘And will your parents be coming over?’ we asked.

‘Well, my father’s not too well. He’s got prostate cancer, although he’s doing well on the treatment he’s getting. We’ll ring from next door when the baby’s born.’

Another bone of contention was that József said it was not possible for them to get a phone. Though the procedure for acquiring a line was still not problem free, there was no doubt that improvements had been made, and that those who were sufficiently determined and who preferably had a few connections, could organise it. Virginia had already hinted that she suspected József of not wanting a phone and therefore not being willing to arrange for one.

‘Oh, I almost forgot,’ said Virginia suddenly. ‘Come and see what we got last week!’ She led us to the congregation room where a new upright piano stood in the corner. ‘I sometimes play for József’s services, so now I can practise too.’

Paul leafed through a pile of music on top of the piano until he found what he hoped might be there. ‘Come on!’ he said. ‘Let’s play some duets!’ He seated himself beside her while I sat and listened, until we were all too cold and went to the kitchen.

Our visit was somewhat shorter than usual since we were bound by railway timetables.

 ‘József will be back in a few minutes and he’ll take you to the station,’ said Virginia, clearing away the teacups.

‘I’ll go and get the children from Flora’s room,’ I said.

As I walked into the children’s room I found all three of them near the window. They appeared to be drawing on the wall under the window ledge.

‘What are you doing?’ I asked, puzzled. They moved away guiltily, each holding a pencil. I looked. A deep crevice had formed in the wall beneath the sill, and judging by the small mounds of plaster at their feet, they had been chiselling to make it larger. I was quite certain I had not seen this crack on our last visit. I held out John’s and Hannah’s coats.

‘Come on,’ I said. ‘It’s time to go home.’

Click here for earlier extracts

Main photo: Dabas station in winter

  • How does this content make you feel?

Explore More Reports