When my parents left Hungary in 1956, they lost their citizenship and became stateless. This meant that they were not recognised as a citizen of any country. The United Nations convention on Statelessness had only been drafted two years previously and very few countries were signatories. Luxembourg issued my parents identity papers and travel documents in accordance with the convention. They were free to travel using these papers. In 1970, I had my own papers issued in Austria to travel to England on my own. The document named a long list of Eastern Block countries for which the document was invalid. Hungary was on this list.
To this day I can’t explain how my father obtained a visa to enter and leave Hungary in 1965. He would have been considered a dissident for fleeing. I can’t explain why he wasn’t arrested at the border.
When we arrived in Budapest, the first place we visited was my grandmother’s place. She had a tiny one bedroom flat in Kiss Jozsef street on the Pest side of the twin city of Budapest. The building was an austere three storey grey block of flats built in the early 1900s. An ornate black metal door led within to a cobble-stoned interior courtyard. The wall opposite the entrance had no windows and completely overshadowed the common area. It was pockmarked with bullet holes exposing the render to moisture and decay. These gouged holes were still visible in 2018 when I last visited the site. As I ran my hand along the wall, my fingers traced the wounds from long ago. The battle scars of WWII and the 1956 uprising still bore witness to the street-by-street fighting that took place over seventy years ago. I look at the yellowing photos of my grandmother standing at the entrance to her flat and see that nothing has changed since I was there as a five-year-old child.
When my father and I arrived in 1965, my grandmother was overjoyed to see us. She shared her small flat with her lifetime companion, Panni, since divorcing her husband well before the war. The two women had shared their lives for over thirty years. I don’t remember much of Panni, except that she was taller than my grandmother and paid me no particular attention. My grandmother, on the other hand, doted on me and made paper-thin crepes by dozen because it was my favourite dish.
There was not enough room for my father and I to stay at their place. So my father left me with my grandmother while he must have found alternative lodgings. After he left, the little flat became a tomb. My grandmother spent hours in the kitchen or in her bedroom. I sat idly at the table, looking through the double glazed windowpanes to the courtyard below. Bright pink cyclamens were wedged between the two layers of glass. There was silence buzzing in my ears, interrupted only by the tick, tick, tick of my grandmother’s alarm clock. My arm stretched out towards the pink buds but my fingers only brushed against the cold glass.
There was nothing to do at my grandmother’s place. No toys, no books, no television and no-one to talk to. It felt as if I sat there for weeks on end but it probably was no longer than a week or two. My grandmother and Panni took my plaits out and brushed my hair before my father came to get me. It must have been full of knots because I can still remember the two women arguing and pulling at my hair while I whimpered and pleaded for them to stop.
When my father arrived, there was a frank discussion between the three adults.
‘I’m too old to be bringing up a small child,’ my grandmother said. ’Stephen, look around, there’s nothing here for her. We’re not set up for it. She needs to go out and play, be with other children, surely you can see that,’ Panni added with an expansive gesture.
My father had no choice but to find somewhere else for me to stay.