SURVIVORS of the 1944/45 Budapest Holocaust of Jews, such as myself, still recall with incredulity their own matter-of-fact childhood acceptance of the constant danger of random, casual death. (See Contemporary Review January, 1995 for Irene's Siege, Thomas Land's poetic account of his youthful experience.)
A girl in a landmark new autobiography stands by the icy River Danube with a group of adults led there by a Nazi Arrow Cross death-squad for execution. All of them die under fire, except the child because the machine-gunner runs out of ammunition. He growls: 'Get back and be a good girl'. She returns home and tells her cousin, the narrator: 'I saw Aunt Sarah killed. Don't tell mummy, she might get upset'.
This scene is from A Guest in my own Country: A Hungarian Life by Gyorgy (George) Konrad, the best-selling novelist and literary legend. The book-published in America by The Other Press Books (303 pages, ISBN-13: 978-1-59051-139-8 & 10:1-59051-139-5) at $15.95-has won this year's National Jewish Book Award there in the category of Biography, Autobiography and Memoir.
Konrad has also just published a spicy collection of pithy and often startling essays, recollections and reflections on life spent under tyranny, mostly alone and almost always in danger. Inevitable English, German and French translations of this Hungarian first edition--Inga (Pendulum), published by Noran Press in Hungary (254 pages, ISBN 9789639716568) at 3,499 forints ($20)-may well crown his career.
I met the author at his home in the gentle Buda hills days before Hungary's recent National Independence Day celebrations that brought Neo-Nazi thugs on to the streets in violent demonstrations quelled only by tear-gas grenades and the threat of water cannon.
Several activists managed to set each other on fire when they mishandled Molotov cocktails prepared against the riot-police. Some residents in old Pest, usually a very civilized lot, pelted them with rubbish from the upper floors of their long-neglected, elegant neo-baroque and art-deco apartment blocks. They were irritated by the presence in the crowd of members of the recently formed Hungarian Guard modelled on the bygone, indigenous Arrow Cross Party that had assisted the occupying German forces in the murder of Jews during the Holocaust.
'I've been a Jewish-Hungarian or a Hungarian-Jew at various stages of my life', Konrad opened the interview. 'Today, I am a Jew when I hear that the Jews are mean and pushy. And I am a Hungarian when people say that the Hungarians are fascists.
'I love Budapest with its many moods and faces', he went on, 'even despite its present gloom and nervousness. I nowadays consume fewer words and fewer people than I used to. I best enjoy life when I retreat to my study either here or in my house in the country. Occasionally I still venture abroad, but mostly I spend my time delighting in my family and friends. I have grown into an older man still just managing to work while my health and mind still just function'.
That is probably an exaggeration. Konrad is a sprightly 75-year old fired with boundless curiosity, still reluctantly participating in relentless political debate and maintaining a steady, robust literary output. The interview was tactfully managed by the author Judith Lakner, his radiant wife decades his junior. It had been arranged with help by their enchanting early-teenage daughter. It ended when my host had to rush off to address a party of authors and readers.
Tension is being whipped up in Budapest through controversy generated by the ultra-nationalist paramilitary Hungarian Guard that march in menacing formation, wear black uniforms and fly the flag and display the insignia of the Arrow Cross. The Hungarian Chief Prosecutor has initiated proceedings to disband the organization-but the courts have allowed it to turn the initial hearings into an effective membership recruitment event. …