It Will All End In Fears – From Szeged To Oblivion (For The Love of Hungary Part 38)

This was just the start of how I fear it will all end. I have no recollection of the return trip from Szeged back to Budapest. I do not remember the scenery, the ticket inspector, the stops or the starts, the woman who was with me that I would later marry, nor the departure or arrival. All those memories, if they ever existed have vanished. I do not have a single photo from either a camera or my memory to conjure up any images. I do not remember what time the train left or when it arrived. Either this means I am losing my memory or Hungary was becoming so familiar to me that habit had dulled my curiosity and eliminated my fascination.

Hungarian Dreams - My life gone by I miss it so

Hungarian Dreams – My life gone by I miss it so (Credit: fortepan.hu)

An Unanswerable Question – Straying Into Semi-Consciousness
Perhaps the problem was that nothing notable happened on the return trip. No one tried to accost me, there were no arguments between me and my significant other, there was no outstanding scenery, the train was on time and the tickets were in order. Difficulty did not exist. It must have been a rather pleasant journey. If it had not been this way, I would surely recall something or someone. Pleasantness and comfort are the mortal enemies of memory. Give me a comfortable seat, a silent carriage, unremarkable scenery and I return with nothing. In a sense, I went to oblivion on this journey, lost active engagement with my surroundings and strayed into semi-consciousness. This must be what death is like when a person is still alive.

None of this would be troubling except for the future that it represents, one day whether through memory loss or mortality everything I have seen and done in Hungary will be resigned to oblivion. That thought always brings me a self-defeating sadness. What was the point of it all? This kind of questioning is dangerous precisely because it is unanswerable. There was no explanation for my memory loss that afternoon. Usually while traveling in an unfamiliar part of Hungary, I am impressionable rather than impressionless. Maybe it was because Szeged had been so filled with outstanding attractions that I was on memory overload. My brain could not process all the little details or for that matter any details after the visit to Szeged. This bothered me because it portended the end of my personal history with Hungary.

Do You Remember The First Time - Budapest Taban District

Do You Remember The First Time – Budapest Taban District (Credit: fortepan.hu)

From Habit To Addiction – Making My Way Towards The Exit
The memory lapse on that return trip is a precursor to my inevitable future arrival at the end of my Hungarian journeys. It is the fear of never returning to Hungary that keeps me coming back again and again. Nevertheless, one day in the near or far off future I will have visited that lovely nation for the last time. The visit in which the Szeged trip occurred was just my third to the country. Not long thereafter, my trips to Hungary turned from a habit to an addiction. Presently I am up to fourteen trips. I cannot imagine fourteen more future trips any more than I could have imagined taking the first fourteen trips. As the trips increased, so did the blank spaces in my memory. I have had to rely on notes and photographs to regain the routings. My memory cannot retain much of what I have seen or done. I would love to have all those trips filled with fantastical moments back again. That is impossible, but research and writing has allowed me to capture some of those moments, if only for a few fleeting hours.

Ironically, somewhere along the way at a place and time that I cannot now recall, a cloud began to loom on my Hungarian horizons. A shadow slowly fell upon the map as I began to unconsciously make my way towards the exit. An all-consuming fear of being nearer the end than the beginning began to plague my thoughts. The idea that most likely my best trips were behind me. The frightening realization that there would never be another first time journey to Sopron or Szekesfehervar or Szombathely or Szeged. And if there was a second time in any of these cities, it would likely be the last. There was still Kaposvar, Kisvarda and Karcag but visiting them would mean there was even less places to visit than before. I had moved from second to third tier cities, eventually I would run out of room, both on the map and with my memory. Hungary was the size of Indiana not Canada, through my obsession I had tricked myself into believing it was so much more.

Somewhere along the way I became aware that not only was time running out on my Hungarian travels, but that it had been since I first slid across the southern border at Magyarboly. That bright and sunny March day eight years ago was still a vivid though increasingly distant memory. The border station festooned with all those Hungarian tricolors, the guards dressed in their officious best, everything proper and neatly kept, all these stylistic details had charmed me beyond belief. It was love at first sight, obsession after a couple of visits and finally the slowly creeping realization that it would all end in oblivion. Perhaps these were just normal stages of travel obsession. First comes love and fascination followed by a prolonged romance that manifests itself in an unquenchable obsession that eventually resigns itself to failure.

Dawn on the Danube - Budapest from Margret Bridge

Dawn on the Danube – Budapest from Margret Bridge

A Lapse In Memory – At The Point Of Death
Whether I chose to accept this fate or not hardly mattered. The memory lapse which began that day on the return trip from Szeged to Budapest occurred without my recognition of it until many years later. It may have been normal, but that did not make it any better. Whether it was due to fatigue, human frailty or lack of curiosity hardly matters, it was and still is something I will eventually be forced to accept. Everything I have learned about Hungary will eventually come to naught. Such is life, which inevitably proceeds towards lapses in memory and deletes them all when at the point of death. My only solution to this irreconcilable problem is one filled with irony and impossibility. I could always just choose to forget.

Final Departures – Koszeg Railway Station: Traces Of Evil

The last thing I did before leaving Koszeg was snap a photo of the train station, a two story building with a lime exterior and dirty red roof that was a cross between elegant and decrepit. The station looked like it was either one coat of paint away from renovation or one moment away from dilapidation. This made it especially photogenic. The picture was one that I came to treasure, as a throwback to a bygone era of travel that had somehow survived into the modern age. This was a photo that I enjoyed staring at, imagining that I was on one of the empty benches, backpack at my side, guidebook in hand, waiting for the next train to Szombathely. For me, this photo was essentially romantic, filled with the unspoken possibilities of travel, a journey beginning or ending in some far-off place. In sum, it stirred my imaginative longings for a place I longed to be. A life spent in perpetual motion, always in transit, a citizen of nowhere and everywhere.

Quite shockingly, my view of this photo was irreparably altered months later while reading Paul Lendvai’s remarkable work of history, The Hungarians: Victory In Defeat. In the middle of the book were the usual assortment of glossy historical photos of personages or events that were important to Hungarian history. One of these caught my attention. It showed a large group of people crowded together holding some of their belongings. They were huddled together, most of them with their backs to the camera waiting on some form of transport. The caption stated: “Jewish deportees from the Western Hungarian township Koszeg, summer 1944. Between 15 May and 7 July 402 Jews were deported to Auschwitz, of whom only a minority survived.” I immediately made a connection. The Jews in this photo were likely standing at Koszeg’s train station. Sure enough, when I started searching on the internet I discovered that the photo was snapped at the station. This raised questions, was the photo taken surreptitiously or purposely? Likely the latter. Perhaps for official purposes, as proof that deportation was taking place.

Dreams & Nightmares - Koszeg Railway Station

Dreams & Nightmares – Koszeg Railway Station

Sinister Stirrings – Taking It Personally
I later discovered a larger sized version of the same photo that personalized the horror. Studying it, I was able to discern multiple details. There was a woman in white headscarf in the front left of the group. In her arms she held a large, thick black coat. Judging by her looks, she was older than average and thus would have been sent immediately to the gas chambers upon arrival at Auschwitz. All the adults standing in the group are wearing coats. Some are better dressed than others, such as the man in the far left of the image who looks to be wearing a rather nice suit. Quite a contrast from a man in the front right of the photo, who is only seen from a side angle. His slump shouldered posture expressive of defeat. He props himself up with a cane, while a hat and coat cover his beaten figure. In the background stands a vehicle piled high with suitcases and trunks filled with personal belongings. These possessions were destined to be taken from their owners in the coming days. The same could be said for so many of their lives.

The most disturbing part of the image for me was to be found in the lower right corner. Here a woman can be seen dressed in a very nice outfit, perhaps an employee of the state railways. She is talking with another person who cannot be seen. The woman looks stylish and quite casual. There is no hint on her face that anything sinister is taking place. It is just another day at work for her or at least that is what the image portrays. There could be no greater contrast than that of this woman protected by her status and ethnicity, standing within a stone’s throw of those Jews on the verge of being transported to a death camp. This all happened close to where I took my picture. There was no plaque at the station commemorating this tragedy. It was lacking out of shame or ignorance, neglect or indifference.

Traces of evil - Hungarian Jews in Kozseg await a train that will deport them to Auschwitz

Traces of evil – Hungarian Jews in Kozseg await a train that will deport them to Auschwitz

Abandoned Dreams – A Nightmare Scenario
It has since dawned on me that the most consistent physical reminder left of the Holocaust in Hungary are its railway stations. These portals of public transport were supposed to be harbingers of technological progress. They were built to facilitate commerce and the movement of people. The stations and trains certainly did that, but also ended up being used for genocidal purposes in 1944. Koszeg’s train station is the rule rather than the exception when it comes to the deportation of the Jews. The same thing happened at innumerable railway stations and sidings across Hungary. Without the extensive railway system in Hungary it would have been much more difficult, if not impossible, to administer the deportation of hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews. Never in the history of Europe had such a normal aspect of everyday life, whether for work or pleasure, been put to such horrific use.

The fact that Koszeg’s little railway station was the place where more than 400 Jews were shuttled off to one of the most infamous death camps in history is almost as difficult to fathom as the Holocaust itself. A place that I saw as a starting point for dreams of wider travel excursions had been the beginning of someone else’s nightmare. This ambiguity can be found in many such places where a conflicted history meets a present reality in Hungary. On the day I arrived and departed from the station it was almost vacant. There were few passengers on the platform. What I could not see, understand or comprehend were the ghosts of all those Jews who had been deported not so long ago. They were somewhere out there in the past, waiting on a train that they hoped would not arrive and wondering if it did, what that meant for their future. Whatever dreams of life in Koszeg they still had were left abandoned at the siding. Whatever illusions I had about travel from the Koszeg railway station were also abandoned. Left behind at the very moment I saw that photo in Lendvai’s book.

Click here for: Unable To Escape Destiny – The Road To Nagycenk & Szechenyi: Adventurous Spirits