When I told my cousin Peter that I wanted to visit the museum of military history, his eyes brightened. “Did you know that was your father’s favorite place? He visited it every time he was in town!”
I didn’t know this, but I wasn’t surprised. My father’s fascination with the machinery and artifacts of war began when he was six, recovering from the paralysis that followed a near-fatal blood infection. My grandfather Muki would cajole him into walks by sharing stories about his service in the First World War, then less than 20 years in the rearview mirror.
Muki was a quiet and self-contained man. Part of him had been broken by his experience of war, and for my father, these otherwise painful walks were like precious honey. I recognized—with a gentle lurch in my heart—that my father had returned to this museum again and again to chase down his father, just as I was now chasing mine.
Is this what sons do? These last two weeks I would find myself standing before Budapest’s many monuments commemorating its struggle and its grief, hoping to commune with a father who had hidden his own. He would only ask after others’ well-being and comfort, never his own. He learned far too young to hide himself, and he believed that if he could just get far enough away—to America, to his successful career and his less successful marriages, to the appearance of safety—he could simply will himself into another life.
He was a good actor, my father. But even when I was young, I could see the threads dangling within the fabric of his story. What was so strange was that it seemed that I was the only one who could see these tiny hints. “So confident and self-assured!” said the people who knew and loved him; “He never worried what anyone else thought of him.” I admired his self-sufficiency too, but a quiet knowing told me that behind it lay something else entirely.
I did not find my father at the museum. I found a lot of old uniforms and guns, placards with words about Hungary’s eternal victimhood at the hands of its neighbors. I saw handmade postcards written on birch bark a century ago by lonely soldiers, studied the rifles and grenades and bullets and other things that are supposed to symbolize emotion but never quite do. I pressed on, my footfalls echoing through the otherwise empty exhibit halls.
Eventually I did find something, but not what I had expected. Wandering alone in this dusty museum, I felt the weight of deep grief settling over me. Reenacting my father’s silent search didn’t make me feel any closer to him, but instead made me feel more separate from my life than ever. I remembered the last time I had visited Budapest; I had been with my father then, at the very end of his life. I recognized—with another of those little lurches of my heart—that a part of him had been relieved to let go of his life.
I suddenly felt very lost and very alone. I went outside and sat on a bench overlooking the Buda hills. It was lovely here, the spring air soothing and calm. Mutasd meg nekem, I repeated to myself quietly, my mantra for this journey: Show me; show me.
I knew that the lives that had come before me here were not mine to live; the deaths not mine to die. But the sadness of this place was so palpable, woven deeply into every single step, every single paving stone. Seventy-five years ago, the pleasant courtyard where I had munched a slice of bittersweet poppyseed rétes the day before had been a scene out of hell: Thousands of desperate civilians and German troops trying to run the Soviet gauntlet. “I am not exaggerating a bit,” wrote one survivor, “if I say there were mountains of dead bodies everywhere.” I’ve seen the photographs. He did not exaggerate.
Meanwhile, just up the road, my own family hid in an abandoned house, trapped in an agony of silence. My quiet, gentle grandfather stuffed into a crawlspace below the roof, barely daring to breathe as men from the Arrow Cross—the Hungarian fascists—searched the house for Jews to shoot.
Now, sitting on the bench, I allowed the grief to come. What else was I supposed to do? Denying it had never helped my family; sometimes they seemed more like figures trapped in polar ice than living beings. Their story—my story—felt like a curse, an awful enchantment that had shaped me, formed me, infected me. I felt like I had lived my entire life behind thick frosted glass, merely watching it happen to others and waiting for something to change.
Now I sat alone on a park bench, thousands of miles from home. For a long moment, I wondered if I had made a terrible mistake by coming here, to the epicenter of this pain, to the place where my people had taken form, but also where they had become separated from community, from belonging, from themselves. The darkness they had barely survived felt very close at hand. Had I been born only to suffer it as well?
I have never had faith, but I sat there on the bench and I prayed. For guidance; for strength; for some small hope that what I was walking towards was some new knowing and release, not forever deeper into pain and doubt.
Before too long something shifted, and I felt the first glimmers of lightness begin to enter me. It was subtle, this feeling; I didn’t expect an answer would suddenly appear, a thunderbolt come to free me from myself. I was far too old to believe that I could suddenly wake up as a different person in a different life.
But with this asking came just the merest inkling of faith. That this journey to understand where I had come from, this asking to free myself from this weight—and maybe, in some small way, to free those who had come before me—was all that was required of me. That perhaps my mind—the eternal Watcher who had observed my every move with scorn and disdain—was no longer in charge. I had always felt the pressure of perfectionism, the fear of exposing my own frailty. Now instead came a quiet acceptance of the holy mystery of my life. I wanted a different experience of this world than the one I had lived. I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to do it, but I felt the strength that had carried me this far. Perhaps I was stronger than I knew.
I got up and I began to walk, down the hill and away from the museum full of dusty half-remembered memories. At the bottom I could just glimpse Budapest’s eternal river, the Danube, and its promise of rebirth. I walked towards it and I kept going.
Mutasd meg nekem: Show me.