“Don’t you feel like crying?” asks Solomon Burke on his 1962 single Cry to Me. I felt that way during my first evening in Budapest, at the end of a three-airplane, two-bus and one train safari to a last-minute Airbnb in Budapest’s Palace District.
Maybe it was my exhaustion, or the revelation that the 5-night hotel reservation I’d purchased had somehow slipped through the cracks. But something about watching the city’s eternal, grimy grandeur unfurl before me, surrounded by the tapestry of a language I had heard—but never understood—thoughout my childhood pierced me. I suddenly felt like crying.
“Satan Is Real,” warned the Louvin Brothers in their 1959 album of the same name. So is jet lag. The following nights I would awaken at 2 in the morning—roughly the same time I would be rising in Portland—alert but unrefreshed. The tiredness pinched my face into a tight and painful mask, but that wasn’t the worst part: In the dark, self-doubt and anxiety would grip me; every decision that had brought me here suddenly wrong, misguided, doomed.
Around dawn I’d fall asleep for a few more hours. When I awakened again, the fear would largely be gone. Walking around Pest in a light rain that first day, my spirits were high. I had the strangest sense I was somehow being carried. Every wrong turn became the right one on the turn of a dime. Hopping onto the wrong subway line would send me instead to a shortcut, or take me down some random side street into a quiet reckoning with the past.
I had only been here once before, over 20 years ago, but I felt my own backstory everywhere here: On the streets my father, aunt and grandparents had walked, in the faces of Budapesters going about their days. Here was Andor—my childhood piano teacher’s grumpy and reclusive husband—in the face of a gruff ticket-checker on the Metro. There was Mr. Barta, the ballet teacher, who had suddenly closed up shop when it was suggested the attentions he bestowed upon some of his young pupils exceeded the boundaries of professionalism.
Walking to breakfast one morning, I passed by a tiny museum fashioned from the apartment of a middle-class Jewish family of the early 1900s. I looped back to go inside. As I toured the rooms, I chatted with the docent, and posed a couple of semi-obscure questions generated by my research. Apologizing, unnecessarily, for her limited English, she called her father—he must be well into his 80s—for backup. “Yes!” to one question, “not sure” about another.
We talked more. I hadn’t realized it, but 75 years ago, this spot was more or less the edge of the Jewish ghetto. “There are so many layers here,” I said. “It feels like history is doubling back on itself.” She gave me a rueful smile. Not long ago, she had walked her father down this very street to an open-air market. As they purchased a bag of tomatoes, he pointed to the corner. “There was a big box right there,” he said. “I watched your grandmother put her last thing of value, her wedding ring, into that box.” As elsewhere in Europe, the Holocaust was stoked as much by economics and envy as it was by racism.
I had expected to end up at the train station to meet my sister, but now she texted to say she would be delayed till evening. Disappointed, I pressed on, letting flow take me in its gentle grip. Before long I was headed towards the Chain Bridge spanning the Danube.
I did not feel prepared for this particular crossing. Since I began this project, the picture of what happened here comes around to haunt me with disturbing regularity. The last time I had stood here was over 20 years ago. I was with my father then; there was something unknowable and sad about his countenance, even beyond the recognition that cancer was draining him away by the day. Now I feel that some part of him did not fear this end, but embraced it.
He would speak very little, if at all, of what he had seen and heard here. I did not have the wisdom to press him then, and he did not have the strength to tell me. I know so much more now, and I wish sometimes I could unknow it: Lines and lines of people, entire families pressed to the edge of the stone embankments overlooking the water, sometimes stripped naked in the bitter cold. The sound of machine guns reverberating through the night, echoing across the river from one side to the other.
Now the only families here were tourists like me. I walked across the bridge. I fell that unseen hand guiding me here and there, reminding me to look, to ask. Mutasd meg nekem, a Hungarian mantra for me: “Show me; show me.”
Later that day, that gentle push led me to the building my father grew up in, where my family lived until they went into hiding in 1944. I had to double back to find it, but the timing was perfect: a man had just keyed in the door code. I waited until just before it closed, then slipped in behind him. Was that the faintest shadow of my young father I saw, running through the halls with his friend Tamas, before everything turned to black? My father would survive what was to come; Tamas would not.
I wonder sometimes whose story I am living. Is it truly mine? What is my inheritance, and what is my birthright? These stories are all a part of me, woven into me like knotted rope. But they are also not mine to live, at least not in this waking life. I visit them here instead, on the page, drawing as close to them as I can stand.
This is not a job I asked for, being the storyteller in my family. But perhaps there’s an exchange being offered here. Maybe by passing through these stories, the ones I can’t unsee, there is another way to metabolize the sadness that imbues us: me, my family, this city, this world. I sense that I am being asked to put something down here, to drop some very heavy luggage I have carried with me my entire life, unawares. I am ready to let it go.
My sister’s flight finally arrived. We embraced, and then walked to a restaurant in the former Jewish quarter called—strangely but appropriately, I suppose—Gettó Gulyás.
She asked how I was sleeping. I admitted it had been rough, and was surprised by her look of recognition. “Me too!” she told me. “I always get that when I travel; it’s the worst. It’s the aloneness,” she continued; “it makes all the difference if you’re not alone.”
I felt instantly better. It reminded me of one gift of these last years of searching: The quiet recognition that I no longer had to believe my own thoughts when they led me down dark alleyways and abandoned me there.
And, of course, I was no longer alone.