Thursday, July 5, 2012

Looking for a past in Hungary

Students pulled down Stalin's statue
Represents people killed
Hungary, 23rd October 1956, after over a decade of communist rule a seemingly successful uprising took place. Students and the Hungarian Writers' Union held rallies in Budapest, eventually pulling down Stalin's statue and marching on government buildings. Uprisings then took place all over Hungary and for a short time it looked like the Soviets had left. During this initial period the borders were largely ignored and 200,000 Hungarians fled to Austria, my mum and dad were two of them. My mum was not even able to say goodbye to her family, too dangerous for them and for her. Within a short period the USSR decided that this would set a bad example and on the 4th November returned in force, crushing the resistance and ruling for another 30 years until the communist bloc disintegrated in 1989, in fact Hungary is credited for starting that collapse.

Eternal flame in Budapest
Mum and dad
They found their way to Switzerland where the young couple were married and eventually were re-settled as refugees in Perth, Australia. Which is where I was born, in one of the luckiest countries on Earth, and have spent all of my life. My mother passed away when I was quite young and besides meeting one of my dad's sisters during my sister's wedding we had no contact with our extended family back in Hungary. My father passed away and we found that none of us knew how to contact anyone. So for the majority of our lives our family line started with my sister, myself and my brother.

So it was with low expectations that my sister and I came to Hungary to try and find more information. The most I was hoping for was to visit my parents' birthplaces and go to the bridge at Andau, which was rebuilt on the 20th September 2006 as a memorial to the Hungarians who used it to cross into Austria before it was bombed on the 20th November 1956. We based ourselves in Sopron, stowed our gear and got ready for our search to begin the next day.

We started by asking the very helpful hotel manager to write in Hungarian that we were looking for information on our parents and include their names and dates of birth etc. He very kindly and of his own accord went and typed it into the computer and made us a nicely printed copy to take around. With information from the Hungarian embassy, we started our search for some records in Gyor. Travelling there by train we walked out of the station, bought a map and started looking for a government building. Armed with our letter we entered the first big building and pushed our letter under the first official's nose. He read it, tried to communicate in several languages, none of which we understood, and proceeded to take us outside gesturing and pointing at buildings and the map.

Nothing in this place
Following directions we found what appeared to be a passport office as people were having their photos taken with those 4 way cameras etc. We asked the nice lady there, showed her our letter and were given new directions by gesturing and map pointing. I really should have learnt some Hungarian, and was also stupid enough to leave the Hungarian dictionary Adrian gave me back in Australia. We ended up on a corner with no obvious signs of a records building. Paul found a tourist office across the road and proceeded to get some information from there. They were very helpful, not only did we get the correct directions to a records office, but we also found out where the nearest McDonald's was.

Maybe in here...
Off we trundled to the records office, only to be told we were at the wrong one, the records we needed would be at Sopron, where we just came from. They did fortunately find us a hire car, helpfully ringing a place up and letting us negotiate over the phone with them. So after some maccas chips and a drink, we picked up our car and headed back to Sopron. In Sopron we got to the records place as they were finishing for the day, so we left the names we were after with the records officer and went back to the hotel. Things were progressing slower than even I expected, and we only had one more full day here.

Getting ready to pore over big old books.
The next day we pored over large old dusty books of records (just like they do on TV shows), with many up and down moments as each one of us thought we had found a relative but then found out something did not match or they had died at birth etc. Finally each one of us found a grandparent each on both sides of the family. But we would have to go to the council offices in their actual birth towns of Kophaza for dad and Zsira for mum to get their birth certificates.

This looks like an official building
Kophaza is such a small town that the first building we tried was the right building. Armed with our trusty letter and Paul's amazing gesturing skills, the lady grasped what we were after, found the right book and communicated with equally interesting gesturing that the birth certificate would take about an hour to print up. We decided to go straight to Zsira as it was not far and come back for it. It only took a couple of stops in Zsira to find the right place. This was when magic happened, as we came across someone whose mother was friends with my mother and before we knew what was going on I was on the phone with my mother's sister's son's son, who was able to speak some English. When he found out who we were he cancelled all his plans for the day and invited us straight over. We went to the cemetery first as my mum's brother had only passed away this year, then we plugged the address of my mother's only living sister into the GPS and set off to meet long lost family members for the first time.

It was awesome, there were tears and many hugs as no language was needed for what we felt as we met my Aunty Magdolna, her husband Karoly (Charlie), her son Peter (my cousin) and her grandson Bo. We went inside their house, coffee and cake came out and at some point Elizabeth, Erika and I had some very large glasses of Chivas Regal in front of us. We showed pictures and were shown pictures and we all regaled our lone interpreter with many instructions and stories. Special thanks to Bo, who I think is my second cousin (never having had extended family I have no idea how this works), for his marvellous efforts and patience all afternoon at interpreting and communicating. We were extremely lucky as Bo was about to leave for the swimming pool when we rang and everyone else was planning to go away the next day on holiday.

Let's go!!
Mum's family decided they were going to help us find Dad's side of the family as they had some idea where they might be, so with instructions to follow them we got in our car and set off. We arrived in Kophaza and after banging on a door and some frantic Hungarian they were able to find my dad's brother Mathias' house. We then found out that he had also passed away but his wife instantly knew us and more hugs were shared. She then gave instructions to where my dad's sister Maria might be so off we set again.

After some more door knocking my mum's sister came face to face with my dad's sister and more bedlam ensued as she explained who we were. We were again invited inside, drinks and nibbles were served and Aunty Maria rang her daughter Agnes who made her way over as well. Poor Bo now had eight people throwing translation requests at him as everybody tried to talk at the same time. Finally we all parted with promises to come back for a longer period next time. It was difficult to drive away, and Erika for one expressed the desire to go back and hug one more time.

The family just got bigger

Is this the path they took?
We did not get back to Kophaza until the next day to retrieve my father's birth certificate, and again came across somebody who had a family connection and she took us to a forest that was popular with my dad and a large number of other people. Due to language difficulties exact details are hazy but we think it is where they crossed into Austria as it was right on the Austrian border. We walked the track feeling a sense of history and wonder at all we had discovered in the land of our parents' birth. We had to return the hire car and catch a train to Budapest so we left our past behind, reflecting on the knowledge that we finally had a past.


  1. So Amazing! The planets aligned for you and Aunty Erika those days.... :-D

  2. Truly remarkable! Good detective work! :)

  3. Great writing guys. really sounds from the heart as we are sure it is. Reading brought back so many wonderful memories. Thanks