Fading Memories, Except for Budapest

My father has had a most amazing life — and as he gets older the distant past portion of it is what he seems to remember the best, with every conversation recalling some event from his childhood in Budapest, Hungary, or some other aspect of Hungarian history.

Aunt Magda, Nagymama, and Dad

Gyuri Karoly “George” Horvath was born on March 18, 1931 to Bela and Sara Horvath, and grew up as the son of a government official in Budapest. His childhood, he says, was idyllic, with plenty of money and prestige from my Nagypapa’s position with the country’s Interior Ministry, where over a career that spanned 35 years, he was awarded several merits of distinction, including a Class III Wartime Cross of Distinction after World War I; the highest Cross of Distinction for devoted service in reorganizing the government in the years following the war; and other awards over the years that were signed by various Hungarian heads of state. In August 1944, Nagypapa became Acting Minister of the Interior for Hungary, and at one point ordered armed resistance against Nazi’s, stopping the final purge of Jews from the country.

Dad’s childhood was one where his country was either occupied by Nazi’s — he says that he saw people being killed in the streets — or taken over and occupied by the communist Soviet Union, something that tainted his worldview about communists for the rest of his life.

Due to Nagypapa’s position, after World War II, the Horvath family was thrown out of their home andHajdudorog, in the northern Great Plain area of eastern Hungary. As dad tells it, the family — including his mother and sister — were literally dropped off into a pigpen, before being taken in by the villagers who recognized Nagypapa’s name, and provided the family with food and accommodations.

Dr. Bela Horvath, Nagypapa

exiled from Budapest to a peasant village called

When the family was eventually able to return to Budapest, dad tried to enroll in college — but again due to Nagypapa’s former role in government he was unable to get into a university. The communist government later put dad to work doing forced labor under conditions that were similar to a concentration camp. As dad tells it, the communists had he and other people building things that were “not very important” because they knew that we would sabotage” what they were building.

Some of the workers were beaten at the labor camp. And on one night, dad says that he actually beat up one of the guards — before attempting an escape on his hands and knees over to Austria. Guards with guns caught him on his first attempt, and returned to the camp. Dad was successful on his second attempt the following night. As he tells it, upon arriving and getting settled in Vienna, he went to a restaurant where Elvis Presley was playing on the jukebox. “I very nearly turned around and went back to Hungary,” said dad, who is more of a Big Band aficionado than a rock and roll enthusiast.

Dad, circa 1956

Dad crossed the Atlantic in 1957 and was accepted to Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., on a full scholarship. He earned a living by driving taxi while majoring in International Relations. And he met a 19-year-old coed from Wyoming, Diana Healy, who he married just months after their first date, on April 1, 1959.  Together they had four children before splitting up in 1967. He remarried a couple of years later and had a son.  Dad worked in government relations for several companies before finding freelance work doing translations, transcribing articles and documents written in Hungarian for various U.S. government agencies.

Dad, Gerry, Madelina, Tory (Gerry’s girlfriend)

We kept a strong relationship over the decades, through occasional visits, letters and phone calls. I think that dad has done as much as he could possibly do to be a good parent from 3,000 miles away. And I have told him as much.  I flew east to visit Dad in mid-March, days before his 82nd birthday. Dad and my stepmother, Madalena, had recently moved to Carlisle, Pennsylvania from Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina. My brother, Gerry, who lives in Carlisle had arranged for them to pack up and move after it became apparent that dad’s cognitive abilities and short-term memory were failing.  Dad had stopped paying bills, would not leave the house, and was beginning to have medical  issues — one of which left him sleeping on the bathroom floor for a night when he couldn’t get up, and when Madalena could not lift him. She covered him with a blanket and he slept where he fell.

Gerry’s decision to move Dad and Madalena closer to him was a good one, although Dad didn’t appear to comprehend all of it during my visit, insisting on more than one occasion that he was going to be returning “home” to Mt. Pleasant “the next day,” and asking me to take photos of him and Madalena, and him and me, so that he could send them to his parents, who have been dead now for decades. Still, he was cogent enough to realize that he is having memory issues, and is agreeably seeing a doctor for it.

Me, Dad (the Birthday Boy!)

While his memories of today come in and out like the fog, his memories of yesteryear are crystal clear. He seems to enjoy talking about Hungary and his childhood, or launching into a memory of he and other detainees at the labor camp getting out of a work detail by “faking jaundice.”   Still, there is something to be said for living in the past. For one thing, it seems like Dad will never age. Ask him how old he is on his 82nd birthday and he will estimate somewhere in his seventies. Same is true when I turned 52 last December. Dad called a week before my birthday to wish me a happy “50th”, and then could not believe that I could be that old, anyway.

More than anything, I suspect that dad’s memories of growing up in Nazi or Communist-occupied Hungary, which are typically expressed in an almost lyrical, positive light, are some kind of a shield to ward off what must have been a horrific experience on a variety of levels.

If I were to witness people getting shot, and lived through being uprooted and exiled, only to be held prisoner and forced to into labor working for a government that was run by people I despised — I guess that I would try and brighten those memories up a bit, too!

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