Memory is physical. At least for me, the feel of certain materials, the appearance of roll top wooden boxes used to store pencils, the taste of food I favored in my youth, the sight of iconic buildings like the House of Parliament along the Danube, and most significantly, the sense of smell diving into our deepest reptilian brain, trigger a flood of recollections from my past. As these memories come forth like old newsreels, they become filtered, annotated with stories later told by my parents, and restated not in the language of a young boy, but in the words I’ve been accustomed to using in my advanced maturity. The point of my stories is not to offer testament in the voice I possessed when experiencing the things of which I write, but to pass on to my family and friends my experiences so they may infer how these events shaped and colored my later life. They also provide, on perhaps belated reflection, some clues to choices I have made in the past as well as a better understanding of who I am today. It’s lot less expensive than therapy.
I was anxious to start school. I was already enjoying the learning process jumpstarted by my aunt and uncle, and was excited about being with other kids my own age. School in postwar Hungary was six day affair. Even at that early stage in my life, my parents explained in very clear fashion that with my post-polio weakness, combined with slight stature, I would not do well in life as a physical laborer. That meant I had to excel in school in order to go to the University and earn a professional degree. I had to look no further than my father to see how hard he was working by going to night school to become an engineer on top of the physical demands of his daytime job.
My elementary school was located only six blocks from where we lived, so it was no problem to walk there. Located in a drab, gray building with the institutional appearance of almost every school in Eastern Europe, the large classrooms were always under heated and poorly lit. The twenty wooden desks each held two students. Inside each desk was a small shelf for our books, as well as two holes at the corners for the inkwells we used. Poor quality ballpoint pens were already becoming available, but we were forbidden to use them. All our work was done either in pen or pencil, with the pens being wooden sticks capable of holding metal stylets. As these pens have a tendency to drip ink, or leave blobs of residual ink on our papers, we were all issued blotting paper to deal with this issue. On our first day, we all were informed of the dire consequences we would face if we succumbed to the temptation of dipping the long hair pf someone sitting in front of us into the inkwell, or of throwing ink saturated wads of paper at a classmate. Discipline was rarely a problem in school. Parents did not raise us with a permissive attitude, and child discipline was easily evident even among preschoolers – you had only to observe a family in a restaurant or public gathering. Nor were teachers restrained from using physical discipline if necessary; it almost never was.
My first grade teacher was a kind lady in her early sixties, by now expert at dealing with transition from free play to school discipline amongst 5-6 year olds. Despite having forty students, she found time to help those who were having more problems than others in keeping up. A little surprised that I could already read and write, she gave me extra work to do to keep me from getting bored, at the same time encouraged me not to “show off” in front of the other students by demonstrating what I knew. Sound advice, as it helped me keep from getting a reputation as a “smart aleck.” Working in ink with a stylet was a new experience for me, and it took me a while to write without leaving blobs of ink all over the place. There wasn’t anything like recess or study hall in schools of the time. Physical education was compulsory for everyone in every grade. All textbooks were used, and you weren’t allowed to write in any of them. After being issued books, we had to take them home, cover them with brown butcher paper, and return them at the end of the year in the same condition we received them. The parents of those who failed to keep their books in shape had to pay a fine.
Though poorly paid, teaching was a highly respected profession, with high standards. The expectation of students’ ability to learn material, and the pace of learning was significantly greater than what we have in the States. I attended the first four years of elementary school in Hungary, then less than a semester in Vienna, before coming to the Unites States. Besides having to learn English here (I knew not a word upon arrival), I found school here up to the second year of high school not much more than a review of what I had already learned before. The biggest educational gap in America seems to occur in elementary school, at least by my experience.
My teachers for the next three years were men, clearly lacking the warm, fuzzy manner of my first grade tutor. They rarely smiled, and there wasn’t warmth behind their eyes when they did. Since I never had a chance to know them as people, I can’t say if their manner was due to prior wartime trauma, the constraints of life under the current regime, or the accepted persona of someone in their time. One, as I was eventually to discover, had other secrets to cloud any kindness in his eyes.
There was essentially no television in Hungary prior to 1956 – only 300 sets in the entire country, and minimal programming. Everyone listened to the radio, which only had two channels, both government run. One channel was mostly news and reports from the Communist Party, and the other a mix of classical and folk music, or the broadcast of an approved play. Though not legally sold, many people had radios capable of receiving shortwave transmissions, mostly jammed by the government. However, Radio Free Europe had powerful transmitters near the Austrian border, and offered Western news, commentary, jazz, and broadcasts from a couple of comedians. They were very funny, and a number of families listened to their illicit show, my parents included. (This was after the woman I mentioned in my prior post moved out of our apartment.) I knew from having been told that I shouldn’t discuss the show with any of my friends, or anyone we knew. One day, my third grade teacher uncharacteristically asked the class if anyone could tell him what the comedians talked about the previous night. One of my classmates, who rarely knew the answers to questions, proudly raised his hand, and gave a happy recounting of the jokes he heard. The teacher gave a small smile and asked, “Anyone else tell me about the show?” Another girl also raised her hand and made the mistake of answering him. The following week, both students were absent from class. I told my parents about what happened in class. My father knew someone who knew the mother of the girl, and reported that no one had seen the family recently. Sadly, these disappearances were common enough to keep the population in line, and maintain the fear that kept neighbors and even families from trusting each other. People knew that the AVO, the secret police, kept dossiers on everyone, filled with information, often trivial or erroneous, provided by those who were jealous or just currying favor, willing to do anything to survive. The capricious manner in the way this information was used, often without identifiable rhyme or reason, only added to the power and fear of the AVO.