Written by Mary Sandor in English -
This is a story lessons are made of. How not to be, what not to do, how not to think. It’s my story and my only excuse is that I was young at the time, just a kid actually. In spite its total silliness, the story had its finer moments and as a memory it’s good for a laugh.
It happened in Budapest. The year was 1952. I just finished public school in May and was looking forward to high school. My new school was in the inner city, and I had to take a streetcar to get there, which was great fun, for till then I was walking to school in our neighbourhood.
In preparation for high school I received many privileges. I had my first perm, a new coat, the school uniform and a leather attaché case. I was a big girl now.
My best friend through 8 years of public school, Zsuzska, was accepted to the same school as I and we were both trilled about that. She lived close by me, which meant that we both took the same streetcar travelling to and from school. I might add that all students who had to travel to school by transit received a yearly pass, free of charge, to be used only on streetcars or busses that allowed one to travel to school and back during the school year on week days, but on weekends the pass was good any time, anywhere, within the city limits. To Zsuzska and me it was great fun, for we could spend our weekends “streetcar riding” at no extra cost to us. Sometimes we used the city busses also, but we preferred the streetcars, which seemed more adventurous. On Sunday afternoons we went to the inner city to look at all the elegant displays inside of the store windows or went simply riding the “rails” from one end of the line to the other. We rode the lines from Pest to Buda, across the Danube and into the mountains surrounding the city. Zsuzska and I were inseparable. We sat beside each other in public school for eight years, we were in the same folk-dancing group in grade 8, we were on the same swim team in high school, and we kayaked together in the same club from age 14 onward.
We were opposites in look. Zsuzska was very fair. She wore her almost white blonde hair in one long braid down to her waist, whereby my shoulder length hair was dark and freshly permed. I always had lots of hair and the perm made me look like a gypsy. At least that’s what Zsuzska said, for in spite of her fair, innocent looks, she had a really sharp tongue: what was on her mind was on her lips. I, with my gypsy looks was the shy one, and it was hard for me to make new friends or to start and carry conversations.
Our high school term begun in September 1952. I had to walk one long block from our street to reach the streetcar that took me right into the inner city, by the Danube, where our school was situated.
I usually met Zsuzska at the streetcar stop, for she came from the opposite direction, but we both got on transit at the same stop. Busses and streetcars in Budapest were always very busy, especially those days, a few years following the Second World War. Just about everyone used public transit, for not many people had cars, except the communist leaders of the country.
We grew up in a communist, Soviet ruled country. Our daily lives, whether at home or at school, happened under the very watchful eyes of this foreign power and those of the Hungarian communists, the party faithful and the AVH, which was the abbreviated Hungarian name for the country’s secret police. It allowed no opposition; it was ruthless and fearsome. Hungarians, not agreeing with the communist ideals were spied upon, jailed, some executed if they tried to go against the teachings of communism, either vocally or by actions. The Soviets ruled not only over Hungary, but over several other eastern European countries also. These countries were often referred to in the West as “the countries behind the iron curtain.”
It was more than symbolically true, for we were kind of fenced in, mentally, and physically too, by explosive minefields on the borders, which divided our country from the West. Some of the Hungarians tried to escape, but not many made it through the minefields. They were either shot at the border by the Hungarian border patrol, or sent back to be jailed for many years, perhaps for their lifetime. Often there were no trials for the so called “political prisoners”, who simply disappeared.
I never knew many who were true communist, for most of us only pretended to be one, for fear of our lives. We had to make a pact with communism for our survival, for the future promised no change. The Soviet power was mighty, and they ruled with an iron fist. In schools the “brainwash” as we called it, was happening daily. In our schools and in all high schools, colleges and universities the “Marx & Engel’s” ideology was taught. We were being moulded into the young communist pioneers the Soviets wanted us to be. And so we pretended, but underneath all the pretence, although we were young, lived a constant silent opposition and rebellion against the dogma and against the future that was waiting for us under the communist regime.
But also, one is resilient. One can not live by tears and in constant fear of one’s daily life, so we tried our best to create a normal life, by never opposing, or rather, never voicing our opposition publicly. But inside of our hearts and souls we hated the regime, the communists, and all those people who were the Judases of our nation, the spies, and the rulers. In time pretence and acceptance of it became our existence.
This is how we lived, but learned to laugh and learned to enjoy living again, following the horrors of the war times. We got used to seeing the Soviet soldiers on our streets, the spies of AVH amongst us, and we were very careful with what we were saying and how we were acting in front of strangers and even in front of acquaintances and friends, for we never knew who were spying on us.
And so we started high school. Whenever we could, we forgot about politics and thought about new perms for our hair and new clothes for school and we thought about boys and dating. Our new school, at the corner of Vaci and Irinyi Street, was an all girl’s school, we never met boys there. The only time boys were received was at times of the school dances, when our schools dignitaries invited the students from an all boy’s high school.
The streetcars of Budapest were of yellow colour and of similar design as the streetcars of San Francisco, except they were all enclosed by glass, due to the extremities of the weather. When one stepped on the car, one came to a so called “peron”, which was the outer part, consisting of an approximate 6×6 feet area. It housed no seats. Then through sliding doors one entered into the main body of the car, containing the seating area.
Young people, simply by showing off, travelled only in the peron, outside of the sliding doors. During the school year therefore, the peron was almost always full of people, at times squeezed together as tightly as sardines in a tin can.
Zsuzska and I were peron travellers also. Heck, we don’t need the seats, we don’t need the warmth of the inner car, we’re the young and tough ones and we belong here with all the others, the high schoolers and the college kids.
And so we suffered, together in a group, literally standing on each other’s toes and withstanding the draft from the forever opening doors, but we made a statement by it. We were the kids of the peron.
Our classes started at 8 AM daily, finishing at 2 PM, 6 days a week, Monday to Saturday. I had to get up at 6 in the morning and left the house at 7 to catch the streetcar for the ½ hour ride to the school and then to have time for the short walk to the school building.
Most mornings Zsuzska and I travelled together, but not always. At times I was on my own inside of the crowd of the peron. Early on during the school year I noticed a nice looking young man travelling on the same streetcar as I was, usually standing at the back part of the peron, which meant that he must have got on early, before all of the others. Some times I was literarily squeezed against him by the people getting on at stops as we were approaching down town. He was tallish and slim, his hair was dark blond and he had blue eyes. I noticed his appearance and he must have noticed mine, because often, as we stood facing each other, we also looked at each other, without speaking, of course. He smelled so clean. Not of shaving creams or lotions, just soap-clean. It smelled nice.
Very often he was on the same streetcar as us, which was a rather interesting co incidence, since streetcars were rolling one after another at about every three minute intervals. Soon, if he wasn’t on the same car as I was, I started to miss him. At times, when Zsuzska wasn’t with me to see what I was doing, when the streetcar arrived without my young man, I let it go without getting on it, and I was waiting for the next and the next car, until I could see him on the peron and then I board. We began this strange relationship. I would get on the peron and as people got on and off, I would find myself facing him and slowly raise my head to look up to his eyes, and I would find him already looking at me. When our eyes would meet, he would produce this male version of the Mona Lisa smile, but we would never talk. Every single time we travelled together, he got off at the so called Inner-Ring, named aptly for a semi-circular wide street, running from one part of the Danube to another and crossing the avenue our streetcar ran on. The Inner-Ring housed a couple of Universities, one close by, the other in Buda. The one closer by was the University of Law, the other, in Buda, at the other side of the Danube was the Faculty of Engineering. My silent friend carried the same leather attaché case as all other students in Budapest did and transferred to another streetcar at the Inner Ring along with many other students. So I made up my mind that he must be a University student, studying either law, or engineering.
I of course told Zsuzska all about this. She decided I was definitely in love with him and I must do something about the situation. She said I have to start a conversation with him somehow, like trip or something and fall into his arms, bat my eyes at him and say, “oh, how silly of me not holding my balance, but thank god you were here to catch me.” Etcetera, etcetera. Well, that was Zsuzska and her thinking, but I was different. I could not imagine myself starting a coquettish conversation with a man for anything. When I told her this, she just shrugged her shoulders and laughed and called me an idiot. My best friend!
I understood her frustration with me. I did realize my silliness about the way I felt, but I could not help myself. So whenever Zsuzska did not travel with me in the mornings, I was reporting to her later in the day about seeing him on the streetcar, about smiling at one another, about looking into his eyes, about the butterflies in my stomach. And Zsuzska replied that he could be a married man and he could even be a father of four children and that is why he isn’t approaching me or talking to me. Again, my best friend!
One day, during our first year of high school, Zsuzska brought a small booklet into class and during recess she showed it to me. It contained names for males and females; I presumed it was for the purpose of choosing names for newborn children. Zsuzska said we are going to find a name for my “man of the peron”, and she started reading the names to me in alphabetical order.
“Andras, Andor, Anton, Bela,” and on and on she went. I shook my head at each name and said to Zsuzska that this was childish, but she kept on announcing:
“Nandor, Nataniel, Nero, Norbert.”
“Stop,” I said, going along with the game: “Norbert. I like it. It fits him. Norbie. We just call him Norbie. Zsuzska, you really are the greatest. We will just call him Norbie whenever we talk about him. Norbert, with his fair, Northern looks, my Viking of the streetcar peron, my silent hero of universal studies, yes, my Norbie. We will be able to talk about him anywhere, anytime, without anyone else knowing who we are talking about.” And so we had the Christening. Zsuzska was quite proud of herself and I admired her cleverness.
The weeks passed on, and we were having Christmas break and I was very anxious to get it over with and return to school. I wanted to see Norbie again. My parents were very proud of my ardent demonstrations of wanting to go back to school as soon as possible. Zsuzska and I spent a lot of time together during the holidays also, went streetcar riding from one end of the line to another, went skating and to the movies and Zsuzska came with me to the never-ending opera recitals that was compulsory in the Kosztandy family.
Wherever we went I was looking for Norbie, but I never saw him anywhere, till the start of the second half of the school year, back at the peron, in January of 1953. When he saw me he smiled and so did I. This was progress. One morning he was in conversation with another young man, standing beside him on the peron as I got on. I overheard them talking. It was about the University, and of their studies there.
I was overjoyed and told Zsuzska that I was right in thinking he was attending University. But which one?
Within a few weeks, it must have been February or March; annual balls were held at various Universities, one in particular with much pomp and tradition. Zsuzska told me excitedly that she has an invitation for it, given to her by a young guy she knew from the building she lived in, who was also a University student. She was going as his date and her mother was chaperoning and she said she got me on invitation also from this friend and that she would not go without me. It was the Law student’s ball, very formal and definitely not an open ended one, so I did not want to go. Zsuzska insisted though and she remarked casually that I might meet Norbie there.
Where am I going to get a formal dress? It meant a long gown and I never did own one. Zsuzska said that her mother was sewing hers. My mother did not sew, not a formal ball gown anyway, and I couldn’t ask her to buy one for me. They were simply not sold in the shops.
But Norbie might be at that ball. I must have a ball gown. Time was short also. By the time Zsuzska told me she was able to obtain a ticket for me, it was only a few days before the start of the Ball. Where am I going to get a gown? The shops did not sell them, that was for sure, for during the communist era high style fashions were frowned upon and were definitely thought of as reminders of frivolity.
I did not write so far about it, but I was acting in a play at the National Youth Theatre of Budapest. I was well known at the theatre, for I had the leading female role in a musical our school put on by invitation from the Youth Theatre, continuously, at most Saturdays or Sundays. So I went to see the lady who looked after the costumes and asked her if she could loan me a ball gown for the coming weekend. First she said no-no-no, but as I kept on begging, she relented. I had my gown.
I traveled by taxi with Zsuzska, Zsuzska’s mom and a young man named Laci, – who was obviously very sweet on my friend, – to the Law students ball, held at the main hall of the Gellert Hotel in Buda. The party was impressive. There was some food, but I did not take notice, for I was constantly looking around for Norbie. Following the buffet dinner, there was entertainment. An old looking Italian tenor was singing romantic songs from his country, like “O Sole Mio” and the like. He was tall with silver hair and he was in tails. After a while, as the dancing started, he took a break from singing. The entertainment then was provided by a well known Hungarian group, playing the fashionable dance music of the time. Zsuzska, her mom and I were sitting near-by the dance floor, doing nothing much, when this impressive figure in tails approached us and, speaking in broken Hungarian, asked Zsuzska’s mother if he could dance with her daughter. But he was looking at me and Zsuzska’s mom bowed her head meaning yes. Next thing, I was swirling on the dance floor with the Tenor, while he was making small talk to me in Italic-Hungarian. The other young people dancing around us stopped and created a wide open circle just for the two of us, the Tenor and I. He waltzed with me, swirled me around fast and faster and everyone watched us. I don’t know why he singled me out of the crowd, why did he ask me to dance? Maybe because in that sea of whites and pale-blues and peaches and pinks, I alone was wearing a black gown, for that was the only one I were able to borrow from the Theatre. It had a glittering bodice studded with beads and a full, flowing skirt created by several layers of a shiny, sheer black material. I was happy to be dancing with the Tenor in this manner, for I was sure if Norbie was there, he would see me. I was totally infatuated by Norbie and I wanted to find him, wanted him to see me in my ball gown, dressed and made up for this very special evening. Zsuzska said that I was like the black Swan amongst all the white ones. She herself looked like Mary, the mother of Jesus, in her get-up that night and I told her so. The dress her mother made was of soft, flowing material, all white and virginal looking. She had her white- blond hair in ringlets, cascading down her back. Laci couldn’t take his eyes off her. Well, the night ended without Norbie in attendance. The black swan went home, shed her feathers and became an ugly duckling once more.
As a rule I was not an unhappy person. I liked my school and all the activities I was deeply involved in. I loved acting, I loved my swim team and my daily practices after school and my kayaking club at summertime. Having Norbie in my thoughts was only something extra I have indulged myself in.
The summer of 1953 was upon us. School was finished and so were our travels on the streetcar. Zsuzska went on vacation and so did I with my family. Later on the summer we met again in the club, where we kayaked. She and Laci were going together and Zsuzska mellowed somewhat, likely due to the romantic moods that seemed to overtake her lately.
September of 1953 was the beginning of our second year of high school. I saw Norbie at his usual place on the peron the first morning. We were pressed together like sardines in the tin again, and I felt his breath on me and at times my hair brushed against his chin as more and more people got on and stood on the Peron, squeezing us into one another. Our eyes locked and for the first time in that new school year we kept on smiling at each other like two lovelorn idiots. And so this became our ritual, every school day morning, during our half-hour ride on that streetcar. I was sooo happy.
I openly declared to Zsuzska that I was totally in love with Norbie, and Zsuzska said both Norbie and I were idiots for not talking to each other. But I just could not start a conversation with him. Not on the peron of the streetcar, and not in the year of 1953. Nice girls did not start talking to strange boys and nice girls definitely did not pick up boys on streetcars. One was introduced by friends or met at social functions. And I was a nice girl, but regarding Norbie, the whole thing may have been the figment of my imagination. Just a school girl he happened to see on the streetcar most mornings, but a girl he may never had any intention to get to know. He may have had a girlfriend for all I knew, to whom he told about this silly girl who has a crush on him. Let’s just forget Norbie! So I tried. With a breaking heart, one morning I walked through the peron, opened the sliding doors and sat down on one of the seats inside of the streetcar, turning my back to Norbie. Me, the traitor, the Judas. It didn’t work. Couple mornings later I was back on the peron, facing Norbie and our silent act started again. As I looked at him, I thought I saw reproach in his eyes, possibly because of my neglect of him the other morning. Well, in any case, for whatever it was worth, this is how we spent the school year. The whole thing produced something very positive. I never missed a day from school, even if I had a cold or was ailing otherwise. My marks were very good also, for I was a conscientious student. Norbie still got off the streetcar at the Inner ring, which meant he was still at the University. If he wasn’t into law, he maybe an engineering student, I thought. I kind of focused on that, and when Zsuzska said at the end of our second school year that the Faculty of engineering was giving a ball I jumped at the chance to attend.
This ball was not too formal; one did not need a long gown or tuxedos. A nice dress would do. I went with Zsuzska and Laci and had a most miserable time there. Zsuzska and Laci were wrapped into each other, my existence forgotten. Norbie wasn’t there. I knew no-one and hardly danced. I kind of hid myself behind one of the pillars of the Hall and was ready to cry. I did not want to go back to my high school for the third year; for I wanted to go to acting school and I started to take steps to achieve that. I felt all mixed up about my future, didn’t know what I should do, but I knew that I had to say goodbye to Norbie. He was not for me, he never was. The whole thing was my school-girlish infatuation. Some of us dream of movie stars and some of shy, silent boys on streetcars.
Well, goodbye. I am 16 now; it’s time to learn to kiss real boys. It was 1954, the month was May, my birth month. I wasn’t working yet for the summer, but I started looking for a part time job. In the mean time I was feeling wretched, frustrated with my life and I was missing Norbie. Attending acting school presented problems, I had to decide whether to continue with high school and bookkeeping studies, or else attend acting school outside of Budapest, somewhere in the North Country, for that was the only availability open for me at the time.
One Saturday afternoon I went over to Zsuzska`s place, hoping to find her home. I did. She likewise was doing nothing. I suggested, “Let’s go streetcar riding.”
“Which way?” Zsuzska asked as we were waiting for our transport to arrive. “Do you want to go into the city?”
“Let’s go the other way. Out to the suburbs. Norbie must live somewhere there. Let’s do our usual line, just go the other way, outward.”
“Idiot.” Zsuzska said, but we boarded as the streetcar arrived. We travelled through several stops. I was soaking up the scenery around me. The houses were getting smaller, surrounded by gardens and dotted by some small shops. I allowed myself to take pleasure in the knowledge that Norbie must have been boarding the streetcar somewhere around here, for we were almost at the end of the line.
Suddenly I agreed with Zsuzska’s endearment for me. “Idiot,” I said to myself. Once and for all I had to forget this nonsense. No more thinking of Norbie, I decided. “Let’s get off here and walk a little,” I suggested to my friend when the streetcar came to the next stop. She agreed and we got off and started walking back, toward home, on the almost deserted, quiet sidewalk. “I may never see Norbie again” I thought, feeling sad again for a moment, but at the same time understanding that my infatuation with this stranger must come to the end now. Then we were just walking by a shop and I fleetingly glanced inside of it through the wide open entrance door. It was a men’s clothing store, and there, standing by the counter, was Norbie. Suddenly he turned his head toward the street and we saw each other.
“Zsuzska, oh my god, Zsuzska, guess what? It’s Norbie! Oh my god, don’t look, but yes, look, is he coming out?” Somehow I kept on walking.
“It’s Norbie. He is in that clothing store we just passed. He must have bought something in there, I think. I saw him just now as we were passing front of the store. He must live somewhere close by.”
Zsuzska looked incredulous. She stopped and looked behind her. “He is walking after us,” she stated very calmly
“Oh, Zsuzska, I whispered now. Let’s walk slowly.” I had butterflies in my stomach and in my head and everywhere else that was me. And we walked, slowly, in a very-very ladylike way, my previous resolve about Norbie all forgotten.
He caught up with us. “Good afternoon, young ladies. Surprised to see you here, on my domain. You’re far from your homes.” He was smiling at us, a lovely smile, with many- many nice white teeth..
Zsuzska was the one to answer for I was still thunderstruck. “We came streetcar riding with our passes. We do that often. Today we rode out here, then Maria thought we should walk back home, so we got off the streetcar and here we are.”
“So glad you did,” said Norbie with another lovely smile. “I think it’s about time I introduced myself. Hope you don’t think I’m too forward. After all we’re old friends.” He held his hand out.
“Not at all. It’s about time.” Zsuzska echoed as they shook hands first, then my hand was in his. “Maria M.” I said.
“Bela D,” said he.
Whoo? I recovered and smiled at him with all of the radiance in my heart. “This is Zsuzsanna E. My best friend.”
“It’s a lovely afternoon for a walk, and it’s a pleasure to meet you here, he stated. May I walk with you two for a bit?”
“Please do, we’ll enjoy your company.” By now I was beaming with a smile.
We were coming to a streetcar stop as we walked and one just arrived there.
“I think I’m rather tired, this walk is a bit too long for me-said Zsuzska suddenly- I’m going to catch this streetcar.
Great meeting you Bela. Mari, I see you tomorrow.” Waiving good bye, she hopped on the peron and was gone.
Norbie and I started to walk beside each other on the sidewalk, but in actuality I was in that so called seventh heaven. Just previously he called me his old friend. So he did notice me. It wasn’t only my imagination. He and I are an item, Norbie and me.
The walk was long and we were talking freely to one another. I knew very little about him, but he had some knowledge of me. He said he heard Zsuzska and me talk beside him on the streetcar often. He knew that I was a swimmer and that I belonged to the Red Meteor club, where Zsuzska and I kayaked. He knew I had very high marks from school and that I just received a small amount of money as a reward from it. All of this from him overhearing conversations between Zsuzska and me from time to time on the peron. Then he added: “I wanted to talk to you so many times before this. I just didn’t know how to start a conversation with you.” And I said I wished he had, and also that I knew about him attending University, that I have also overheard him talking to someone about his attendance. He said then, yes, he was at the Karl Marx.
I was totally surprised. I never even considered the possibility of him attending the recently opened communist college. Why would he? Anyway, I was not questioning it now, many of us had to do things we did not want to, many of us had to pretend to go along with the teachings of the hated communist dogma, in order to survive in the Soviet-led, forceful atmosphere of our country.
He walked with me all the way home. Asked about my family and I told him about them. Said he was an only child and lived with his parents. He gave me his address and I gave him my phone number. Then he asked me to meet him the next day at an Espresso-sweet shop that was close to the street I lived on. We agreed on the time of our first date, shook hands and he left.
Zsuzska phoned me from their neighbour’s place,-since she did not have a phone in her home,-later that evening. I was so excited about finally meeting Norbie and about him asking me for a date that I could hug the whole wide world and dance around with it in my arms, for I suddenly loved everything and everyone this earth carried. I said as much to her and for once she did not crack jokes. She was very happy for me.
Next day was Sunday. In the morning I went to church, although religion was not to be practiced in the communist countries, people attended church services not only for prayers, but as a show of solidarity. At times the officers of the AVH, – the governmental spying mechanism, – stood outside of the churches, watching as the people emerged following the mass, to see who were attending the services. And the more they watched, the more people went to church in a show of defiance.
My parents did not attend at all, in fear of loosing their jobs if they were noticed going to church by the communist agents, or spying neighbours. Church was considered to be an enemy of the bolshevist state. They believed in one God only at the time and that was Lenin the Soviet, with Stalin second in line.
Mid afternoon of that beautiful Sunday found me in front of the mirror, trying on dresses, skirts, blouses and slacks. I did not talk to Zsuzska that day, for that day was for me alone, a day where dreams came through, where miracles happened, where Norbie was coming to meet me. I wanted to wear something very nice, just for him. Finally I decided on a turquoise dress that matched my eye colour and it had a very wide belt, one that was fashionable that time and it could be pulled tight to show off one’s tiny waistline. I combed my hair for ages, borrowed my mother’s white high heeled sandals and her white shoulder-strap purse. I now was ready for my first real date.
He was waiting for me at the Espresso. We chose to sit on the patio under the umbrella. We ordered ice cream, a soda and later an espresso coffee. He was handsome, entertaining and seemed to enjoy my company. Our conversation was flowing, witty, humorous and light. Oh, how trilled was I. My date with Norbie was perfect. I told him about my theatre work, and he said, too bad that he did not “over hear” about that on the streetcar, for surely he would have come to see me. Then he asked to date me, ongoing, to give a chance for us to get to know each other better.
Well, heaven came down to that little espresso shop, that warm, sunny afternoon, long ago. I agreed to date him, said I looked forward to going out with him, my face again beaming with a smile of newfound happiness. I must say that his face held radiance also, when we referred to “us.” He wanted to know if I liked to dance, what type of movies interested me, and what kind of theatre did I enjoy? As I’ve answered his questions, he said that we won’t be able to meet for 6 weeks, because he had to join the army for the summer.
In communist Hungary army training was compulsory for every young man; the time for training was three years in various army camps at certain cities or the country side of Hungary. The only exceptions were the University students, whom, to be able to conduct their yearly studies, were exempt from the compulsory, non-stop training. Instead they had to enlist every summer, while they were on the summer brake from their school. Every young man I ever knew, or heard of, hated this. Hated to go to the army, but it couldn’t be helped. In communist countries you did what you were told to do, otherwise you were harshly punished.
So I felt sorry for Norbie that he had to go and I told him so.
He looked at me with surprise on his face.
“I am looking forward to it,” he stated.
“How can that be?” I asked with a light smile, not taking him seriously.
“We have to be trained to defend our country from enemy attacks if they occur.”
“The enemy of the socialist republics. The NATO, the USA, all those Western imperialists. They are constantly trying to undermine socialism, trying to destroy our way of life.”
“What about the Soviets? Are they not destroying our sovereignty?” I dared to ask.
“How can you ask that? The Soviets are our friends, our liberators; you know that.” He flashed me another bright smile. “They are helping us realize our dreams by helping us to convert from socialism into communism. They are our mentors. Stalin is our father and so was Lenin. We must learn from them, we must let their teachings show us the way to a better tomorrow.”
Norbie was being carried away by his own speech. “We must safeguard this new nation from the capitalist ideals and safeguard it from western corruption, and also from undesired individuals, the enemy within.”
“What do you mean?” I croaked.
“I mean we must work very hard not only to enlighten all our citizens about the virtues of a communist state, but to warn them about the danger of insurgents and their constant anti-Soviet and anti-communist movements. We must stamp out our enemies and only when we have done that can we rest, knowing we live in pure socialist surroundings.”
“You are being idealistic.” I had to say something to hide my discomfort.
“Far from it, continued Bela, I am doing something about it personally. I will be joining the AVH as soon as I finish University. I will be one of those who will help to build our new world by enforcing its rules, by overseeing and correcting the thinking and the behaviour of its citizens, and yes I am hoping to be one who will seek out the enemies of progress and remove them from society.”
“You want to be a spy? Is that’s why you are at University to learn how to be a spy? You want to live your life by spying on people? Your fellow Hungarians?” I could not believe my ears. This can not be. Not Norbie. Not my Norbie. The AVH was a most feared and hated spy agency in Hungary. They had reports on just about anyone in the country. Generally they came quietly at night in canvas-covered trucks and jeeps and removed ordinary Hungarian citizens from their home to their AVH headquarters. Horrible stories were going around the country about torture and imprisonment of those people, innocent of all crimes, most of whom was never seen again. Their so called anti-communist deeds were either listening to a forbidden radio station, like the one called “The voice of free Europe”, or read books that were on the communist blacklist, or were disconcerted about the state of affairs within the country, the abuse of power, and voiced their opinions.
Bela laughed at my question. “Not spying, no. It’s not a nice word. But, yes I think I would call it control. That is what’s necessary for the time being. Until we can elevate the thinking of the masses to a higher level. Why, look at all these misguided citizens, who still go to churches and pray to paintings on walls and kiss the feet of painted statues. See those, who resist the teachings of Marx and Engels, and the guidance of our Soviet friends. There are still some in this country, who deny the wisdom of our Father, Vasilij Ilionovics Lenin. This must not be allowed in the world we are creating, and junk books must not invade the minds of our youth and we must not allow any of those corrupted American filmmakers within our borders. We can not allow western imperialism inside of Hungary’s borders. Never. We must purify the minds of our people and only when we’ve done that can we claim Hungary as a true, one party, and communistic state.”
“Dear God, what have I got myself into? If my family finds out about me out on a date with a would-be AVH man, they will lock me inside of our house and never let me out again. How could I ever think I liked this man? How do I get out of this situation?” Aloud I said:
“I had a great time Bela. We must go now, you’ll need to prepare for the army, and it is getting near dinner time, they’ll be waiting for me at home.”
We stood up. Bela smiled at me once more, showing that really beautiful set of snow-white teeth again, but the effect was lost on me.
“I will be writing you from my army base,” he said.
“I will be looking forward to it.” Liar.
Bela held his hand out for a hand shake and reluctantly I placed my hand into his. We said our good byes and left the Espresso.
As promised, he wrote. His letters were full of praises of the army life. I never answered. Early in the fall he phoned. He was back at home and wanted to meet again. Carefully, as to not offend him, after all he was to be feared, I told him that I did re-think the idea of our dating. I told him I believed I was too young to date anyone exclusively and that I will see him on the streetcar Peron for sure, as we were returning to school. Then I walked every morning to another streetcar line, one that was a bit of a longer walk for me, but it took me to my school also, and I never had to see Bela again.
Two years later, in 1956, a country-wide revolution took place in Hungary against the Soviets and against the communistic state. The Soviet army, who was stationed in Budapest, retreated temporarily. The nation was swept with joy and pride. Then the Soviets crushed the revolution with a brutality not seen in Europe since WW II. The AVH reorganized and resumed its fearful regime with a vengeance. I often wondered what role Bela played during the revolution and afterwards? He was definitely the enemy. He was one of those Hungarian communists who actually caused the revolution, caused the death or the imprisonment of thousands before, and when the revolution was defeated, caused the death of many more Hungarian youth, the ones the world knew for a short while as the Hungarian Freedom Fighters. Whatever he has done, Bela was part of the brutal reality intruding into a young girl’s dream.
And of course, as far as Norbie was concerned, he never existed.