Since I came to the States, I’ve had a number of Americans ask me, “What was it like living in a Communist country?” I tried to answer their question the best I could, but almost invariably I was left with a sense of frustration in my inability to give a meaningful response. A big part of the problem lay in the fact that while I could describe specific scenes and events, there was invariably a lack of context on the part of my listeners. When a person has never feared for their own or family’s life from an outsider who had the power to snuff out a life without much thought or consequence, when you never had the experience of not being able to confide in another person without fear you would be betrayed to the secret police, when your choice of a career depended not on your desires but the needs of the State – how do you communicate that state of mind to someone lacking the visceral knowledge of how that feels? In some ways, it’s analogous to a black person’s frustration in trying to make someone understand what racial prejudice feels like to someone who was never discriminated against.
For many, saying “It was pretty awful” was a sadly sufficient answer. For the rare few who actually cared about the issue, and were willing to sit through a lengthy exposition on Central European history, politics, the aftermath of World War II in countries not blessed with the Marshall Plan, the inherent prejudices of people, and the power that gave to the exploiters of those feelings, as well as a crash course on Marxist ideology as practiced in 1950’s Hungary, I tried my best to paint my version of the truth. Sadly, even for those whose eyes hadn’t glazed over from boredom, the description was always incomplete in failing to elicit the sense of suffocation, dread, insecurity, and hopelessness which was the subtext of the quotidian activities of life.
At this point, I’m resigned that my writing skills are insufficient to paint a truly illuminating image of what our lives were like behind the Iron Curtain, but for the benefit of family and friends who may be interested, I will share a couple of stories here, as well as in later posts, which I hope will give you a glimpse of that time.
My parents and I, along with my grandmother (both my father’s parents, along with three of his seven siblings were killed during WW II) lived in a one bedroom apartment, about 700 sq. ft. in size. Located on the 2nd floor (3rd floor by the way we count things in the States), the building built in the 1890’s during the reign of the Austro-Hungarian Empire had an elevator which rarely worked. It lacked central heating, the apartment being heated by means of a ceramic stove that used coal briquettes located in the living room. Each day, my father would bring up a basketful of coal to keep us warm in the wintertime. The kitchen had a wood-burning stove, with which my grandmother would produce amazing food. We had no refrigerator, and since ice was both expensive and difficult to obtain, we used the ledge off the central hallway, looking out on a ventilation shaft, to try and keep things cool. On one side of the living room was a tiny room with a door, not much bigger than a walk-in closet, and on the other side, the bedroom. My parents slept in the living room on a pull-out couch. My grandmother and I shared the small bedroom.
With all the bombed out buildings in Budapest after the war, the housing shortage was not alleviated by the government erecting large numbers of ugly, concrete apartment warrens all around the outskirts of the city. Since there were only four of us living in our one bedroom place, the government inspectors who came to look at our living situation decided that the tiny room we were using as a storage place at the time was big enough to accommodate another person. They brought in a middle aged widowed lady, and installed her in our apartment. Since she was a Communist Party member, she was not obliged to pay part of our rent, but was to share the kitchen, bathroom and living room with us. Fortunately for us, she was often gone until late in the evening, attending Party planning and consciousness raising sessions. Initially, she tried to interest my parents in joining her, but quickly wrote us off as lost causes in the proletarian revolution. Naturally, she dutifully reported on any visitors we might have had, and we remained very careful about what we spoke in front of her. We realized, from contact with other friends, that we could have fared much worse in who was assigned to live with us. One of my mother’s friends were sharing their space with an alcoholic couple whose fights raged often into the night, keeping them and their daughter awake. By the time I turned seven, she had been with us for four years, and had risen high enough in the Party ranks to merit better lodgings and moved out. Thankfully, due to the influence of my mother’s boss, the Minister, we were not forced to take anyone else in.
With everyone working for the government on fixed salary, there was no incentive to produce more than the minimum. The joke at the time was, “As long as they pretend to pay us, we pretend to work.” All land was taken over by government-run agricultural collectives, and Hungary, once known as the “Breadbasket of Europe”, was suddenly facing some of the worst food shortages since the war. Not surprising, since the people put in charge of the Collectives were not those with the most knowledge of agriculture, but those with the highest positions in the Party. All food was rationed. We were able to buy milk only because I was young enough to receive the necessary coupons. Things got so bad that eventually the government relented, and assigned small plots of land to farmers with prior experience in managing land, who in their “off “ time could work these plots. As it turned out, 10% of the self-managed properties produced 60% of the crop yield! A black-market economy quickly developed in other goods and services. If you needed your plumbing fixed, you filed a work order, and waited 3-6 months for the job to get done. If you wanted it sooner, you paid someone to come in at night or on the weekend to fix the problem in a day or two. The government turned a blind eye to these activities, as they realized their necessity to everyday life. However, for those entrepreneurs who became “too successful”, who made the mistake of raising the envy of their neighbors, they would be turned in to the secret police, “educated” with a midnight beating or two, or placed on public trial as “bourgeois oppressors” of the people. The nail that rises above the rest will get beaten down.
To be continued…