The London Magazine, August/September 2012
They say a Hungarian can go into a revolving door behind you and come out in front, and it’s indisputable that the diaspora from this small central European nation has produced many world-class achievers. But sometimes we Hungarians can get a little stuck in that revolving door, never exiting entirely. We are unable, or unwilling, to jettison the past.
As a journalist for the past four decades I have written on many subjects, but somehow I keep getting drawn back to what is, I suppose, the defining theme of my life: my refugee background and personal legacy from the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, which forced my family into exile. I was only four years old at the time, but as I put it in my first book, The Paper Bridge – in which I retraced my Budapest roots – if you start life by being blasted into the air by a revolution, you’ll always remain somewhat scorched.
When Soviet tanks rolled into Hungary more than a half-century ago, bloodying the streets and crushing the hopes of a nation longing for liberty, my father, a well-known writer in Hungary, decided we had to leave. So we joined the westward exodus, choosing America because, as my father explained years later, ‘I wanted us to get as far away from Hungary as we could.’ Yet, in a sense we didn’t get so very far away, after all.
The Hungarian émigré community based in Yorkville, on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, was flourishing in the late Fifties and the Sixties, packed with Hungarian restaurants, cafes and grocery stores, a Hungarian bakery, butcher, bookshop and travel agency. We lived in the Bronx, but every Saturday piled into my father’s second-hand Volkswagen beetle and drove to Yorkville to buy provisions, have lunch at the Little Hungary and meet with our fellow ‘56-ers’, as this new breed of Hungarian refugees were labelled.
Soon my father was writing articles for the Hungarian-language newspaper, the Nepszava, and broadcasting on Radio Bartok, the local Hungarian station. My mother, too, played a starry role on the scene. Formerly a successful Budapest chanteuse, she was co-opted to sing in the variety shows put on by and for the ‘56-ers. These were organised by our flamboyant impresario, Gyorgy Buchsbaum – a sort of P.T. Barnum of the Hungarian émigré set.
Our Bronx neighbourhood of Fordham Hill had a mini Magyar community of its own. We’d moved there to join a clutch of Hungarian friends who had already discovered it and praised its ‘pleasant setting’. The apartment block next to ours housed the studio of my ultra-stern dance teacher, Mrs. Deak, an ex-ballerina from Budapest. Each summer I was dragged off to her ballet boot-camp in the Catskills. And down the road was my timorous Hungarian piano teacher, Mrs. Monoki.
In 1962 we moved up-market to the salubrious suburb of Hartsdale. Sounds thoroughly American, doesn’t it? But the builder/decorator who came regularly to carry out jobs at our modern family house with the wide front lawn and two-car garage – the lifestyle dreamt of by every newcomer to America – was a compatriot called Janos Takacs, gaily referred to as ‘Uncle Johnny’ by my brother and me.
It wasn’t easy growing up inside a Hungarian bubble in America. I wanted to be like any other kid at school, but everything about my family was different. My parents spoke in a ‘funny’ accent, no one could pronounce or spell my surname (Halasz) and even ‘Monica’ was impossibly exotic in a land where most girls were called Jane or Linda or Sue. We ate salami at home instead of peanut butter, goulash instead of burgers. And our spacious garage contained only our little VW, instead of the ubiquitous station wagon or a colossal Chevvy with fins. Most distressingly for me, my upbringing was based on an old-fashioned, strict European model rather than the free-and-easy style of Sixties’America. It was an isolating experience and I deeply resented the Hungarian-ness which set me apart.
Nor was I oblivious to my parents’ miseries. Losing their homeland, leaving behind their families, careers and established identities, had left them with fractured lives. Their relief at having escaped the brutalities of communism was mingled with an undercurrent of bitterness at having been compelled to do so against their inclinations. Starting a new existence from scratch had been an adventure, but took its toll in anxiety, apprehension and alienation. Even as a child, I was subtly aware of the destructive force of the stresses within the immigrant families around us, leading to divorce, alcoholism and occasional crack-ups.
We moved to London on my eighteenth birthday in July, 1970, and I started a course at a drama college in South Kensington. My father was now a senior editor at Radio Free Europe – which broadcast to the Soviet satellite countries – with an office on Oxford Street. We lived nearby on Bayswater Road. All very different to life in suburban New York. But before long we were embedded within a new Hungarian coterie, including Mr. Szasz the dentist, Dr. Kadas the GP, an accountant called Rothschild (a name which inspired unwarranted confidence in his financial abilities), a brash rag-trade dealer called Lajos, the eccentric Mr. Aczel – a Mayfair art restorer obsessed with painting pictures of flowers (‘because I’m allergic to them’), and the dubious Lady L – an elderly countess who had wangled her way into the English aristocracy and now spoke a bit like the Queen.
We became chummy with Matyi Sarkozi, who broadcast for the Hungarian department at the BBC World Service and also owned a little gallery in Hampstead village, where he sold fashionable artworks to the local glitterati. He was the grandson of the renowned émigré playwright Ferenc Molnar, but preferred it not to be mentioned, as he felt a little ‘overshadowed’.
Another frequent guest at our home was the Hungarian humorist George Mikes, who had emigrated to London decades earlier. Despite being admirably anglicised, he was best known for his bestselling book called How to be an Alien. (Its most memorable line: ‘The English don’t have sex, they have hot water bottles.’)
There was also the doleful D. family, who had money problems and lived near us in a cramped flat. Mrs. D. was an illustrator and designed the covers for my father’s new books, but Mr. D was often out of work. I befriended their teenaged daughter Esther. I never saw her so happy as when she returned from a summer holiday in Portugal and told me she’d had sex with George Best on the beach.
I also hung around for a while with the deadpan, bespectacled Eva – the daughter of my mother’s Hungarian seamstress – but she was too oddball, even for me. They, too, lived in Bayswater. For some reason this area really attracted my exiled countrymen, including the dodgy ones. I once entered a Victorian pub on Queensway and in that most British of habitats was accosted by a bunch of Hungarian petty-crook types who plied me with drinks until I could barely stand.
And so life inside my little Hungarian bubble went on…
It wasn’t until I got married (to an Englishman I met through my Hungarian dentist’s son) and left home in 1974 that I assimilated into mainstream British society – whatever that is. I began to interact more seriously with Brits: go to their dinner parties, join their organisations, work in their offices. And gradually, a surprising thing happened. The Hungarian identity which had for so long been a source of unhappiness to me, turned into a definite asset.
Lots of people were intrigued by my refugee background and asked me to relate the story of my family’s flight to freedom. It turned out that many Brits of my generation had vivid memories of the 1956 Revolution because they had seen it happening on television – in fact, with the advent of the home TV set, it was the first major world event to unfold in people’s sitting rooms. (Even Ken Livingstone, when I interviewed him in the early Nineties, told me that it was what first made him, aged 11, take an interest in politics.) Often people recalled some refugee family from ’56 moving into their street or a refugee child who’d appeared one day in their class at school. Invariably they remarked that the distant episode had left them with admiration and affection for the Hungarian people. I wasn’t about to waste that.
Then again, I had simply grown up and no longer yearned to be like everyone else. I’d come to realise that being different – even a little exotic – was not a bad thing. These days I know very few Hungarians in London; not much of the old community remains. But although my ‘bubble’ days are long gone, they had permanently shaped my outsider’s sensibilities and continue to provide what I perceive as the faintly tragi-comic backdrop to my life.
People often ask whether I feel Hungarian, American or British. I explain that I can feel any of the above, depending on the occasion. Maybe at times even all three at once. ‘But basically I’m just a Londoner,’ I tell them. And I’m happy with that.