Life in Communist Hungary – 2

Having been under someone else’s dominion for almost five hundred years, Hungarians have developed a degree of resourcefulness and resiliency to a degree rarely found in other people. Lacking any natural borders to resist foreign invasion, divided by internal social and intellectual factions during brief periods of freedom, and an unfortunate propensity of choosing the wrong allies in foreign conflicts, Hungary was ruled first by the Turks for almost 300 years, then the Austrian Hapsburg Empire for the next 150 years. The brief interlude of relative freedom between the World Wars was followed by the German takeover, then the Russian invasion with the establishment of a Communist puppet government. Despite, or perhaps because of its turbulent history, a country about the size of Indiana with a population of barely ten million, produced more great musicians, Nobel Prize Winners, and world class athletes per capita than any other nation on earth. (Don’t take my word for it – look up the statistics yourself.)

Even under Communist rule, Budapest enjoyed the benefits of a great opera, multiple concert halls, several theaters, and sporting venues hosting track, swimming, fencing, equestrian events, and soccer with a World Cup Champion team in the early 1950s. One of the few benefits Communism provided to the people was keeping the attendance cost affordable to almost everyone. (Naturally, the best seats were always reserved for members of the Communist Party. In the words of George Orwell, we were all equal, but some were more equal than others.)

Margaret Island lies in middle of the Danube River, accessible from two bridges at either end of the island. Once a royal hunting preserve under the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the island is now a series of beautiful parks, swimming stadiums and large public pools. Here were the boating clubs mentioned in one of my recent posts, as well as a summer outdoor theater, outdoor cafes, and The Grand Hotel, where rooms were only available for those able to pay in foreign currency, but which offered a restaurant and ballroom open to the general populace. On Sundays, an orchestra would play in the late afternoon and early evening. Long before dating apps and Club Meds, the way young people could meet members of the opposite sex was by attending these kinds of ballrooms, and asking for a dance.

The public pools provided cheap recreation and a way to cool off in the summer heat in a city almost completely lacking in air conditioning. As you might imagine, they were always crowded, especially as they provided a meeting place for friends in a city where most apartments were smaller than our own, and not conducive for entertainment of others. It was also an easy place to lose a young child, so the first thing I was trained to do (besides avoiding the bigger pools until my swimming skills improved) was to find the location of the lost and found. This was a repository not only for lost items, but also for children who found themselves separated from parents whose social activities resulted in the relaxation of their vigilance over their kids, who could easily wander off, or be swept away by the always moving throngs of bathers. Despite the potential for disaster, there were always lifeguards on duty, and the concerns for potential harm from child molesters did not seem to exist then.

I liked going to the pools (our favorite was a place called the Palatinus) as it gave me the chance to play with other kids my age. One of the pools had a wave machine (a new invention of the time) involving a reservoir slowly pumped full of water. The mechanism worked by the sudden release of water creating a mini tsunami, a single wave probably not more than a foot high, but into which young people could jump, squeal with delight, and be swept to the opposite end. This wave would be released every twenty minutes, three minutes prior to which a bell would ring. The sound of the bell resulted in a mad rush by those not already in the wave pool to get there in time for the fun.

Hungary has enjoyed a long tradition of excellent cuisine (something which those of you who had a chance to sample it can attest.) While the quality of restaurant service and the availability of some dishes definitely declined under Communist rule, eating out at a restaurant was a popular social activity, and a relatively affordable treat. Many of the best eating places clustered around the banks of the Danube as well as on the hills of Buda overlooking the city, a fact still true today. The essential ingredient in many Hungarian dishes is paprika. This is Hungarian paprika – not the reddish powder with little to no taste found on the spice shelves of our stores, rather a substance of similar appearance but totally different quality. Found in either sweet or strong (translate as hot) variety, the spice adds a unique, memorable flavor to dishes from the traditional Gulyash to chicken paprikash. In addition to good food, Budapest is arguably one of the best places for dessert in Europe. The Hapsburg emperor’s personal pastry chef was Henrik Kugler, who acquired his knowledge as a journeyman in 11 European capitals, especially Paris, and was responsible for many of the famous desserts found in Vienna. Much to the emperor’s displeasure, in 1858 he opened a patisserie in Budapest, Gerbeaud, located near the iconic House of Parliament, serving the same caloric treats that until then were the sole province of the emperor and his court. Popular with locals and visitors since, the place remains in business today, though sadly, based on my most recent visit, the quality has diminished as it became more of a tourist mecca. It does, however, still possess much of the elegance and décor of the bygone era of royalty and privilege.

The Communist regime devoted significant resources into trying to capture the hearts and minds of children and young people, those unfamiliar to the freedoms available prior to Russian takeover. To this end, they created The Young Pioneers, a kind of cross between the Boy Scouts and Hitlerjugend. As a boy, I was automatically enrolled as soon as I started elementary school. We wore white shirts with epaulettes on our shoulders, and red handkerchiefs around our neck, held in place by a brass ring emblazoned with a red star and the hammer and sickle. We learned to march in formation, sing patriotic songs, listen to tales about the heroic Russian soldiers who freed us from German occupation, and were encouraged to become useful members of the Communist Party so we could combat the imperialist aggression of the capitalist oppressors of the working people. The government built a small scale railroad on one of the Buda hills, operated exclusively by Young Pioneers. Those who were 14 and older could apply for weekend positions as ticket sellers and train conductors, while senior students were recruited as engineers and supervisors on the train. It was a popular place for families to come with their young children, as the views from the train were scenic, and it kept children busy and excited. Almost without exception, all the kids my age wanted to do what the Young Pioneers were doing on the train, and were getting brainwashed by the daily propaganda we were receiving at school. My parents were not oblivious to what was happening with me, but had to be very careful in the things they said to me in presenting their different view of the world. I first had to learn the importance of never repeating things I heard from them regarding politics, religion or history (not surprisingly, the Communist version taught at school was quite different from the one I got at home). They were also faced with the dilemma of a future in which none of us expected that we would be living our lives under different circumstances outside of the country, and they had to prepare me for how to best survive life in a totalitarian world.

More to follow…


This entry was posted in Communism, Family, Lies, News and politics, Thoughts & Musings, Uncategorized, World War II and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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