Chapter 2 -- Growing Up in Budapest

The l930s were dominated by the world-wide depression. Hungary, as one of the foremost losers of territory and resources, was especially hard hit. Paul's mother was working most of the time as a cleaning woman. But even so her earnings were meager. She could barely afford to pay the rent for the tiny apartment. Roza dreaded to lose this poor shelter. The next stage in her social decline would have been the public housing -- better called shacks -- that were the lot of those who could not afford even the cheapest private lodging. The rich agricultural soil of the country supplied cheap and plentiful food. Even so, she had to rely frequently on free soup kitchens and bread to nourish herself and her son. What saved this tiny family was the availability of a national health system and good public schools.

Paul grew up in a highly nationalistic, in many ways socially backward environment. Religion was intensively practiced, and taught in the public schools. But his mother's teachings, based on her own experiences, made him especially sensitive to the suffering of the poor and oppressed -- including most women -- of the semi-feudal society of Hungary. He also became aware of the many crippled veterans, and the widows and orphans created by the futile conflict of World War I. The stories and songs he learned from his mother began to condition his mind to dislike war and violence. He remembered especially a beggar he saw one day in a city park. The beggar lost an arm and a leg, and his face was horribly disfigured. Next to him was a photograph of a handsome, tall non-commissioned officer, in a splendid uniform. That was him before the war and the battle that destroyed him.

Paul at an early age was able to gain a high degree of literacy. The phonetic Hungarian language helped to obtain early reading skills. He discovered that back issues of a popular magazine provided a pictorial history of the war. Paul was fascinated by that tragic conflict. He read about the events from the assassination of the crown prince of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire by terrorists until the collapse of the empire and the imposition of a "peace" that lead to a still more disastrous war. He read about the endless attacks and retreats, the futile battles and sieges, and the millions and millions killed in the unnecessary military campaigns. He found especially hard to understand why priests and ministers blessed the soldiers of their faiths, and urged them to kill their fellow Christians.

As he got older he, too, had to start military training. The country had a policy to build a strong army to regain the lost territories. In elementary school they started the indoctrination into militarism. More formal paramilitary training started at the age of 12. He learned to march and drill in formation -- a skill that came in useful later in his life.

The rise of totalitarian philosophies paralleled militarism. In nearby Germany, Italy and the Soviet Union, and in far-away Japan some of the foremost misleaders of the century gained complete power to ruin their country and bring death and misery to tens of millions. The enmities and hatreds that plagued the world soon erupted into World War II. Paul followed the war through newspapers and newsreels that depicted -- remotely, yet vividly -- the defeats of Poland and France, the invasion of the Soviet Union, and the seemingly invincible march of the armies of Nazi Germany. Paul's intense interest in world affairs bombarded his mind with endless details about wars and disasters all over the world. But there was one common theme to each of these catastrophical events: soldiers, armies, navies, war machines -- in one word: militarism.

A new concern started to rise among the Jewish population of Hungary. First rumors, then actual news about persecutions and killings of Jews in the lands conquered by Nazi Germany. What was part of medieval history suddenly became a modern day reality. Even in Hungary several fascistic parties were able to establish themselves. With the outbreak of World War II, the future looked more and more threatening to Paul. The mindset of the Old World -- anti-Semitism and militarism -- easily overcame the thin covering of European civilization and Christianity over tribalism and racism.

The one window that opened a better world to Paul's meager existence was created by the cultural influence of America.

He read American literature as juvenile editions of such books as the Last of the Mohicans, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. But even more important was the influence exerted by Hollywood. Movie theaters were cheap enough so that even the very poor were able to see the pictures. Some of the technologies were slow to come to a backward country. Thus Paul saw such silent movies as King Kong, and the Westerners of Tom Mix. But sound movies arrived in due time, and he experienced America vicariously through comedies, Westerners, animations and other productions of Hollywood. Paul liked the moral values exhibited -- the triumph of the good guys and the punishment of the wicked. Through the movies he saw a land where the people were kinder, more respectful of each other than in his native land.

One day Paul learned something about America that excited him. He heard someone solemnly proclaiming the well-known statement that "America is the land of limitless opportunities ." But in the Hungarian language it was translated as "America is the land of limitless possibilities ." To Paul's childish mind it sounded incredibly wonderful that any wish could be fulfilled. He had an ambition to live in America, but this dream seemed unattainable.

As Paul was growing up, his mother became unhappy about his illegitimacy. She decided to get married, mainly to legitimize Paul's status. The marriage turned out to be unhappy, and the couple separated. Soon World War II broke out. Life became harder with food rationing and the worsening of the economic and political conditions. His mother became terminally ill. She decided to send Paul to live with her sister in her home town that she left in disgrace.

Paul, at the age of 12, had no choice in this matter. He left Budapest with a tearful farewell to his beloved mother. He never saw her again.


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