It’s an odd feeling to come to a place that both is and isn’t home at the same time.

 

Hungary was just such a place for me.

It’s the country from which my grandparents emigrated in the opening years of the 20th century. My father was raised in a Hungarian neighborhood of Cleveland and so retained much of the culture of his parents’ home country.

Although he eventually married a woman of English heritage, my family kept close some of those Hungarian traditions — especially those related to the kitchen. My sisters and I all loved the creamy, spicy goodness of chicken paprikash, and the smells of simmering stuffed cabbage or peppers often wafted from large pots on the stove.

Like the food, historical and family information regarding Hungary were most often consumed at the dinner table.

There, over a plate of Hungarian cabbage noodles, we would talk about how my grandparents came to the U.S. for better lives, both ending up in South Bend, Ind., where they married and began a family.

My father would talk about how his Hungarian neighborhood in Cleveland was like a smaller Budapest, where residents retained the traditions, language and ways of the old country.

I remember being most enthralled when he spoke of the Hungarian Revolution and all the reasons so many of my ancestors were forced to flee their country. He was especially emotional when telling of the violence and subjugation ordinary Hungarians endured under the cruel thumb of Soviet rule.

And always he’d talk of the freedom fighters — those brave Hungarians who fought for their country’s independence in the 1950s. Those otherwise ordinary individuals led a bloody revolution and were ultimately crushed beneath Soviet boots.

The smattering of knowledge I possess of Hungary didn’t extend far beyond the dining room table, yet it’s always been my hope that one day I could “return” to this country that I’d come to know through its cuisine and my father’s stories.

So when my eldest son, Tyler, called me with news of an income tax windfall and a suggestion we combine our resources to visit Budapest, I jumped at the chance. I imagined a sort of “Roots” odyssey in which I could “reconnect” with my heritage.

OK, so maybe that’s overstating the case a bit but I did enter Budapest with a vague sense of familiarity. And although I speak nothing of the native language, I still found myself proudly telling shopkeepers and servers that I, too, am Hungarian — although several generations removed.

After all, in the context of Hungary, what is a hundred years or so?

In a stop at a castle-based café one day, the server told us matter-of-factly that the building was fairly new, having been built in the late 1800s. By that yardstick, then, my family’s departure is recent history and my own absence from the country a mere moment in time.

On the other hand, Hungary is a stranger to me.

Its streets are filled with a history I’ve not experienced firsthand but know from dozens of stories. Upon arrival, it was almost as if I’d awakened from a dream that I couldn’t quite recall but through which threads of recognition were strung.

As we wandered the streets of this ancient city, from our apartment on the Pest side of the river to the stunning Parliament building, then across the Danube to Buda and its castles and back again, we found it a combined city of both joy and suffering.

Certainly the joy was experienced through the city’s stunning architecture, that which wasn’t destroyed during the two great wars, illustrating the best of centuries of splendor. The buildings lining the streets are rich in neo-Renaissance and art nouveau styles, with many noted as World Heritage sites.

St. Stephen’s Basilica is one such building. It’s named in honor of the first king of Hungary, and his “incorruptible” right hand is supposedly held in a gold reliquary within the church. Neoclassical in style, the church is anchored by two large bell towers.

Nearby, the country’s Parliament building, one of Europe’s oldest legislative buildings and the third-largest Parliament building in the world, sparkles on the banks of the Danube.

All white spires, fanciful decorations, sculptures, coats of arms and domes, the building is enormous, containing 691 rooms, 29 staircases and 10 interior courtyards.

Yet, almost in Parliament’s shadow, is evidence of the suffering that also occurred here.

Just south of Parliament are the Shoes of the Danube, a memorial to the thousands of Budapest Jews who lost their lives here during WWII. The line of bronze shoes represents the shoes Jews were told to remove on the riverbank before they were shot by Nazis and their bodies carried away by the swiftly moving Danube.

Closer to the government building, I began to hear my father’s voice speaking of the sadness that sent so many Hungarians from their homes.

For here, in the actual shade of Parliament, lies another moving memorial, its metal fences marked with bullet holes, honoring the Hungarians who lost their lives here on May 25, 1956. On that day Soviet tanks and troops turned their guns point-blank on thousands of people demonstrating for Hungarian independence.

Hundreds — men, women and children — were slaughtered, hundreds more injured.

The Soviets conducted a ruthless crackdown on Hungarian dissidents. The fight for freedom and Hungarian independence was short-lived and brutal.

And despite Hungarian pleas for help from the West, none came. The United States decided against intervention, turning its back on the plight of Hungarians being slaughtered by the Soviets.

Thousands of Hungarians died and many more were jailed and 200,000 people — 2 percent of the country’s population — were forced to flee their own country.

Communist rule didn’t come to an end until 1989 when the Hungarian People’s Republic was created.

For me, the memorial conjured memories of the anger and sadness my father still felt years later at the United States’ inaction during Hungary’s revolution. Once again, I felt drawn into this city as a place in which at least a part of me belonged.

Then we rounded a corner and saw ahead of us a giant mural — the reproduction of a Time magazine cover from 1957 depicting the face of an armed Hungarian freedom fighter behind whom a bullet-torn Hungarian flag waves. It was the cover of the edition in which the freedom fighters were named Time’s Men of the Year.

I froze. The jolt was so unexpected I could scarcely fathom it. It was like I had taken a punch to the stomach and my breath had been forced from me.

There on this humble brick wall was my history.

It was no longer just dinner-table talk, it was real and it was indeed part of me.

Here was displayed, at least in part, the story of a people, the story of a family. The story of me.

I will be forever grateful to Hungary for connecting me with that which I didn’t know was missing. And I will urge others to explore the half-known mysteries of their heritage to find parts of themselves they’ve never recognized.

The discovery of my personal heritage has enlarged my image of myself.

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Paula Horvath: (904) 359-4645