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Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Straying Dogs

I was going through a box last evening and came upon some treasures. There were a few small cookbooks that I was pleased to find, and some books that had instructions on gifts in a jar, something I always say that I am going to do, but forget about when the holidays roll around. The best treasure, though, was something that I was afraid might have been lost during our last move. It is a book called Good Dogs Do Stray, and was written by Emmerich Koller. I purchased it directly from the author, and he inscribed it for me in both English and Hungarian.

What's so special about this book? Emmerich Koller was born in Pornóapáti, the village in Western Hungary where my mother and my siblings were born. His family knew various branches of my family, and he was friends with many of my mother's younger siblings. I still have numerous relatives in this village that is home to 392 people. Pornóapáti was founded in 1691, and the church across the street from where my family's house used to stand was built in 1797. The bell dates back to 1464.

Koller was born during World War II, and my mother was born in the 1920s, and my father was a bit older. In fact, my father was in the Hungarian Army during the war, and was a prisoner of war in a Soviet camp for at least two and a half years. You see, the German government persuaded the Hungarian government to join in on their side. They were misled to believe that if they did this, they would regain the territories that they had lost at the end of World War I. Of course this was untrue. The Nazis never intended to do anything for the Hungarians or any other country with which they were allied, including Japan. They simply figured out that you can conquer a country with much less effort through a false alliance than through warfare. Hungary carries the shame and embarrassment of the actions of the government at that time, which included people with anti-Semitic beliefs, to this day. 

This book has been both wonderful and heartbreaking for me. The first portion of the book has to do with the small village of Pornóapáti and what life was like there during and after the war. The Soviets were given control of the country in the aftermath of the war, and it was a difficult time for the village, as well as the whole country. There was a guard post at the border with Austria, which is very near the edge of the village. The soldiers were there to prevent anyone from leaving. The soldiers, unfortunately, engaged in cruel and despicable behaviors. Many of the villagers had to hide their daughters in their barns or pigsties in order to protect them from being raped by the soldiers.

Hunger was a common thing in the village as well. Mitzi showed us the sorrel plants that grow wild in the village, and told us that there were many times that they would gather and eat sorrel because they needed to put something, anything, in their stomachs. Koller tells a story in his book of how the soldiers used the hunger of the local children for their own entertainment. When he was about eleven or twelve years old he told his friend Mano (one of my mother's younger brothers, who was about a year older than he) that maybe they could get some food from the soldiers.

The two of them went to the barracks where they could see a soldier toasting bread by deep frying it in hot oil. They asked him several times for some toast, and he refused. Finally, he told them that if they had a fistfight, he would give the winner one piece of toasted bread. Mano was larger and soon bloodied Emmerich's nose. The smaller boy was up against a wall, which was embedded with broken glass. Mano told Emmerich that they should stop fighting; Emmerich's hands had been cut to the bone on the glass walls. Mano received the piece of toast, and Emmerich went home with a bloody nose and hands, and an empty stomach, but they were still friends.This is the way life was in the village in those days.

When the Hungarians revolted against the Soviets in 1956, my father was pro-revolution. After a brief rout of the Soviet Army, the Soviet tanks came rolling into Budapest and other places, and thousands of people were wounded or killed. It didn't matter whether they were revolutionaries or mothers taking walks with their children, they were all targets. To this day, if you are on the streets of Budapest, you can see the bullet holes in the sides of many buildings. Since my father was pro-revolution, he was slated for execution, as was my mother, and my three siblings, who ranged in age from three to six years. On a night in early November, my family walked across the river Pinka and crossed the border into Austria, ending up in Graz. They were sponsored by Johanna Tante, German for Aunt Johanna, and her husband, and moved to the United States. Incidentally, Johanna Tante was the mother of the man who would become my legal guardian after my mother's death and my father's imprisonment.

Finding this book again is giving me a chance to learn more about the village in Hungary that I so dearly love because my family is there. Although I spent most of my life not even knowing them, when I found my family, my heart felt like it had gone home. There were people who knew about me, cared about me, and loved me. I also have a chance to learn even more about the history of the region and country that my family came from, and the reasons, if imminent death wasn't enough, that they had to leave. It also reminds me of some of the stories that Mitzi and Aunt Lizi told about what life was like for various members of the family during the Soviet occupation. That's what makes finding this book tucked away in a box such a special thing. It is giving me a chance to better understand my family and their country, and to become more complete by knowing them. It is almost like being told family stories by a close friend, which is something I've never really had. Pretty cool to get all of that from one little book, isn't it?