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Living in Post-Communist Budapest

3 October 2011 28 Comments

For however long I am meant to reside here in Budapest, Hungary, a post-Communist city with an incredible history, I feel compelled to explore both its past and present. I’d like to share some of my experiences with you, if you care to follow along. But first, I’ll start with a trip outside the city—my journey to the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp near Krakow, Poland:

A few days after my friend Bette arrived from Texas for a three week visit, we boarded a train to Krakow from the Keleti Train Station in Budapest. The station, built in 1881, and considered the most lavish station in Europe at the time, is still beautiful today. How novel, I thought—a slumber party aboard a sleeper train, and we’ll arrive first thing in the morning, fresh and ready to explore the city and its surroundings.

I should have known the train’s compartments would be less than anticipated when I spied small Cyrillic lettering on the corners of the cars indicating they were Russian made—aha, Communist era. I was right. Not those lovely beds across from one another you see in the movies, but narrow bunks stacked in a cramped compartment barely large enough for one.

I got the top bunk.

Near dusk, and about an hour outside of Budapest, a sweet scent of roses enveloped us. Bushes laden with lush, powdery-pink blooms appeared for miles beside the tracks, so thick it seemed as though delicate, tinted clouds had fallen from the sky. I have never seen such a sight. We closed our eyes and breathed in the intoxicating perfume that swept through the train, feeling as though we floated on a fragrance created exclusively for us.

Then a jarring thought gripped me: My God, we’re riding the very rails that carried Jews, Gypsies, and political prisoners to Auschwitz and Birkenau! Hundreds of thousands of innocents on their way to their deaths. Hundreds of people packed in each car—women, men and children cramped so tightly together they were forced to stand the entire trip with no food, water or toilets. Even the dead and dying could not fall in the crush. Suddenly, the small compartment we occupied didn’t seem so cramped.

And what of the roses? Had these fragrant flowers lined the tracks back then? After all, wild roses can regenerate for decades. I choked back tears, and turned to Bette whose countenance told me she held similar thoughts.

“Do we really want to visit Auschwitz?” I asked her.

We grew silent for a long while as we gazed at the blur of pink, and breathed a scent no longer light and sweet, but suddenly heavy and funereal. Then, strange as it may seem, we came to the conclusion that we wanted to honor those who traveled these tracks before us by remaining focused on their plight during our train ride, and commit to visiting the camps upon our arrival. What would our decision produce? Would it heal any lost souls? Would it heal us? We didn’t know, but we felt fractured, scarred by the past, and compelled to see our journey through to the end.

Eventually, we left the roses behind and we traveled for a long while beside a lovely river. We didn’t know which river, but the countryside was beautiful, bucolic. I wondered: The farmers who lived alongside this lazy river back then, the people in these tiny villages, did they know what horrors the trains carried?

Had anyone realized they were death trains?

Had anyone ever wandered close enough to the tracks to hear any wailings?

Had there been any cries to even be heard by that stage of the journey? After all, the trains were nothing more than windowless cattle cars, their doors nailed shut once the people were packed inside, and the only light to be had was what seeped through cracks in the boards.

Dear God, how could this have happened?

While Bette did fairly well with sleeping in her little bunk, I slept fitfully. I awoke once feeling disoriented. For a moment, as the clickety-clack of wheels against rails filled my ears, I didn’t know if I was on a train some sixty six years ago or now. I felt like a dark-haired teenager, confused and wondering where we were going, and what and why everything was happening. It was almost as though I had inculcated a miasmic memory that still hovered above the tracks. I came fully awake feeling desolate. I could barely breathe. I curled up on the other end of the bed, next to the window, and gulped in fresh air until my racing heart found some semblance of normalcy.

But my mind refused to wander elsewhere.

Hundreds of thousands of people rode these very rails to their deaths. What were they thinking? How were they feeling? A great sob welled up in my chest, one that wouldn’t release—at least not yet.

Had the guards and engineers aboard those trains known what was happening? Had they known these people were to be worked until they dropped or gassed within hours of arrival if they were too old, too young or infirm? Did they know that any twins or ‘little people’ aboard would be used for hideous experiments by the death camp’s macabre Dr. Josef Mengele, ironically known as The Angel of Death? Or were these people kept naive, only informed of their job and saw nothing beyond where the train stopped? I would tend to think so, since it would have compromised the Nazi program of creating an Aryan society of healthy blue-eyed blonds had word leaked out of what they were up to (I find it interesting that Hitler intended to create a blue-eyed, blond-haired Aryan society when he himself had brown hair and brown eyes and his mother was part Jewish).

Suddenly, I had a deep sense that for whatever reason, I was meant to ride this train, and I was meant to have these experiences. That I was meant to know and understand what the Hungarians have suffered through (Hungarian Jews comprised the greatest number sent to Auschwitz, but don’t forget the Gypsies and political prisoners—nuns, priests, businessmen, housewives—any Hungarian labeled a spy became a political prisoner to be gotten rid of). Somehow, I knew all of this was tied to my healing process with regard to the loss of my big-hearted German husband.


(Tomorrow: My visit to Auschwitz and the Terror Museum in Budapest)


What about you? Have you had any similar experiences or awakenings?



  • Clarissa Southwick said:

    Nooo! I can’t believe you left us hanging. I love how you weave in all the details and the contrast of the sweet rose smell with the deadly destination.

    Great blog post, Kathleen.This is my first visit to your blog and it’s absolutely wonderful.I’m really looking forward to the next installment.

  • Paisley Kirkpatrick said:

    As usual, you have woven a beautiful post on your experiences in Hungary. You describe everything so well it is easy to see it all in my mind’s eye. I think Hans is guiding you to see and experience this horrible part in the world’s history.

    When we’ve been in Germany, I have had the same feelings as you while riding the trains. How can you not think about it when you see rusted train graveyards not far from the tracks?

    I look forward to your next post. It’s good to have you back again. You know how we’ve loved keeping up with your posts up to now.


  • Tess said:

    Great post, Kathleen…I’ve led such a sheltered life!! Can’t wait for more!

  • kathleen (author) said:

    Hi Clarissa,

    Thanks for stopping by. I’ll finish up with my trip to Auschwitz tomorrow along with my visit to the Terror Museum. But something very touching happened to me at the Terror Museum, so I may have to make this a three day event. Then I’ll move on to other things. I think it would be fun to jump around in different periods. One of my favorite historical figures is Empress Elizabeth of Austria (Sisi was her nickname). She loved Hungary and her summer palace is just 30 minutes away.

  • kathleen (author) said:

    Thanks for stoppy by Paisley. It will be one year ago Wednesday (the 5th of October when he passed away. I am planning on spending Wednesday alone, but have dinner in his honor in the evening with my son and his wife. Hans loved dining out. I had a dream of him last week, the night, one year ago when he entered hospice. In the dream, he was gloriously happy. Thank you for thinking of me.

  • kathleen (author) said:

    Hi Tess,
    When my niece came to visit me this past August, she looked at me and said, “Wow, no one can accuse you of leading an uneventful life!” Thanks for stopping by.

  • Lori Brighton said:

    I never even thought about visiting Budapest, but you have made me very interested!

    As for Aushwitz, I don’t know if I could visit! I can’t even imagine how it must feel to go there.

  • Averil Reisman said:

    What a beautifully written blog on such an emotional topic. Both my parents lost whole branches of their families during the holocaust–those aunts, uncles and cousins who never left the “old country” during the great Jewish migrations of the 1880s-1910.

    I, personally, have never been to Germany, but my oldest daughter visited during her 2-months of tramping through Europe after college graduation. When she and her friends went to Auschwitz, her heart revolted and she found she couldn’t step foot inside. Not that she knew any relatives who might have died there, but because our Rabbi had been a social worker sent by a US Jewish organization to help the liberated Jews resettle immediately after the war. His sermons were primarily based upon what happened during the holocaust and the lessons of human spirit to be learned from it. My daughter must have been listening to those many sermons after all when I thought her mind elsewhere.

    Thank you for writing a piece “from your heart” rather than a travelogue. The motto for everyone should be “never forget.”

  • kathleen (author) said:

    Hi Lori,

    Well, on tomorrow’s blog I will go into my feelings about walking throught Auschwitz. Our guide was Polish. His uncle entered Auschwitz never to return. This guide’s tour was filled with passion!

  • kathleen (author) said:

    Hi Averil,
    Budapest was a mecca for the Jewish intelligencia in the “Golden Age” of the Austro-Hungarian empire and they helped to shape Europe. I have lots to write about my experiences here in Budapest and hope you will check in because I don’t think I’ve read anything about an American’s personal journey through this city and her history, especially by one like me who lost her husband here in present day. There is so much to tell! Just the bus trip from Krakow to Auschwitz was something I hadn’t expected. The countryside is beautiful.

  • LeeAnn said:

    You’re so very brave for visiting Auschwitz. To actually walk in the shoes of those that suffered so terribly must have been such an emotional journey. The way you describe it makes it like you really experienced it. I don’t know if I could do that!

  • Nancy Linehan said:

    Once again you amaze me with your writing. My thoughts will be with you on the first year since Hans passed. What a wonderful man he was and I am so glad I had you both as neighbors and friends.

  • Anne said:

    Hi Kathleen,

    Great post! I’m hooked. I feel like I’m right there right with you.

    My thoughts will be with you this week, you are so amazing.

  • Bette said:

    I may have been there also, but you always tell the story so vividly with feelings and rememberances only you had. Plan to reread my journal. Will be honoring you and Hans in the next few days. Love to you, Sean and Zsanett.

  • kathleen (author) said:

    Hi LeeAnn,

    Going together with a friend of seventeen years had its merits. We know each other, anticipate one another’s needs and have an easy flow between us, so that made things much easier!

  • kathleen (author) said:

    Hi Nancy,

    Thank you. Tomorrow, October 5th, is the one year anniversary. He would have been proud that I pushed onward!

  • kathleen (author) said:

    Thank you, Anne, more to come! 🙂

  • kathleen (author) said:

    Thanks, Bette. Without you being along, there wouldn’t be the memories. You are always there beside me in all of them (and also that great Polish food – finally got those pounds off!)!

  • Lane Hagberg said:

    I loved your moving description of the trip. I felt it on every level…..very moving indeed. Thank you so much for sharing your experiences with us. I pray that tomorrow’s thoughts bring you added strength to continue moving forward – not to look back with sadness. You are where you’re meant to be right now……Can’t wait to read more!

  • kathleen (author) said:

    Thanks, Lane. I know I am right where I am supposed to be. What is that olf saying, “Grow where you are planted.” 🙂

  • Tanji Patton said:

    What you’ve been through and are going through has been unimaginable. I’ll continue to follow your journey as it is fascinating. I’m a big fan of your writing as well!

  • kathleen (author) said:

    Hi Tanji!
    thanks for stopping by. I still have the second half of this story to post, but was sidelined here. Thank you for your support.

  • Lizzie Walker said:

    Kathleen! How wonderful to put a lovely face to the lovely voice. I finally made it over to your blog.

    Well lady, you have moved me to tears. You already impressed me yesterday when we spoke on the phone, that I completely forgot I was still at work.

    About 13 years ago, I went to visit with some friends in Washington, D.C. I was only going to be there for the weekend and so I had a very loooong list of places I wanted to go. Smithsonian was a must of course.

    After my best friend (and big brother from another mother) had lunch, we decided that we would forego other museums and instead see the newly opened US Holocaust Museum. The museum was about five years old at this point and I confess,I had put off the visit because I was not sure I could handle what I would see there.

    We were there for what seemed like an eternity. I think a part of me died that day walking through the exhibit from floor to floor. Each atrocity tearing my heart out. The room of shoes, discarded clothing. The violent and despicable photos of human torture and violation. There was so much in physical, emotional,and spiritual damage done to these people; our brothers and sisters not by blood but for the mere fact that we all bleed red.

    Lastly, we came to the exhibit where an entire town that had existed 800 years before Hitler’s occupation…gone. Completely gone. I still cry when I think about it. I am crying now typing this.

    Following the journey of a little boy, who never had a chance to see his life to fruition and learning that all of these people who just existed and lived their lives with love or hate, vigor or general malaise; in the end had no choice in how they would die.

    When we left the museum, Cesare, my best friend, and I were speechless. It took several hours for us to come to rights and even then it was as if the ghost of the holocaust followed us. It lives in me today and I will never forget it.

    Thank you for sharing a bit of you soul with me. I look forward to reading about the rest of your journey. I am sure your husband is looking down and smiling with happiness.

  • kathleen (author) said:

    Thank you for stopping by, Lizzie! Yes, I have to finish the story. I was waylaid with a little bug and some other unexpected things…and it is still a hard story for me to tell. Today I had coffee with a group of women in one of the old coffee houses here in Budapest where the artists and dissidents used to hang out, along with the AVO spies (Hungarian equivalent of Russia’s KGB during the Communist era). What beautiful places, but what history! We sat inside for awhile, then outside and remarked that not so very long ago, Nazi tanks rolled up and down the very street in front of us. Then came the Russian tanks…on into 1956 during the uprising against their control.

  • Lizzie Walker said:

    Kathleen, I do hope your are feeling much better now.

    I confess that I would love to see what you are seeing right now.

    Your bones must have been tingling with the ghost of the past! I can’t help but wonder when I walk a city street or walk into a historic building, if these walls could talk, what would they say?

    I try to picture myself in that past era. Envision life as it used to be and sometimes, I am there.

    How frightening it would have been to see the tanks rolling down the street, never knowing what your fate my be in the hands of these strangers.

    I await your next post. 🙂 when you are feeling better of course!

  • kathleen (author) said:

    I’m working on it today! For sure! Thanks for the goad. 🙂

  • karen said:

    do u have newsletter to join

  • kathleen (author) said:

    Hi Karen,

    No, I don’t have a newsletter. That’s down the road. 🙂

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