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Monday, October 5, 2015

Honoring My Father - Revamp Series, Number Two

On June 16, 2002, I wrote a blog post titled Honoring My Father. Of all of my blog posts, it was one of the most difficult for me to write. When I made the decision to occasionally rewrite some of my old posts on the premise that my writing skills have improved over the years, I knew that this was one that needed or deserved a second chance. I thank you in advance for indulging me in my efforts to improve on some of my older material.

If you've been with me for a while, you may already know that my feelings about my father are intense and complicated, and for good reason. Even I was surprised when I originally decided to write this post on the eve of Fathers' Day. However, age, experience, and knowledge of events that were previously unknown to me have taught me that most people have redeeming qualities, even my father.

My father was born in a village in western Hungary in 1914. When World War II began, my father joined the Hungarian Army. The Nazis had convinced sympathetic members of the Hungarian government that if they joined forces, the territory lost by Hungary after World War I would be restored to them. We now know that the Nazis had no intention of following through on these promises. It was simply easier to tell lies so that the Hungarians would join and yield rather than fight them. Many Hungarians, I'm sure, still feel the stain of this association which was based on deceit.

I learned in recent years from the International Red Cross that my father was a prisoner of war of the Soviet Union for at least two and a half years. Although he never spoke with any of his children about what happened to him during this time, I am certain that he was very badly treated, to put it mildly. I remember seeing the numbers that were tattooed on his left forearm. Apparently the Nazis weren't the only ones who tattooed people with numbers that replaced their identities as human beings. He also had a bullet in his left upper arm, and I remember sitting on his lap and moving it around a bit with my fingers. Whenever I asked him about these things, he simply answered that some bad men did that to him in the war. Of course I didn't understand what those words really meant when I was just a few years of age, I just accepted his answer.

After his release from the Soviet prison camp, he returned to a homeland that was controlled by the very people who had imprisoned him during those years. The beautiful village where he met and married my mother, and my siblings were born, was controlled by soldiers whose treatment of the locals verged on barbaric. I could tell numerous tales, but will let a few examples suffice. There was no freedom of speech like there is here in the US. Someone with a dissenting opinion and a loud voice might disappear in the night. There is actually a museum in Budapest called the House of Terror that details some of the horrible things these people endured, including torture and death. In my family's village, people hid their daughters in pigpens and sheds in an effort to prevent them being raped by the soldiers.

The soldiers were well fed, but the locals were often hungry. One of my mother's brothers, if I recall correctly, was with a group of boys who could smell the toast the soldiers were making. They asked for a slice and were told that they could only have it if they had a fight. The winner would get the toasted bread. A boy had to fight his best friend to the point of unconsciousness to get an extra bit of food in his stomach. These were the same soldiers who were in a guard shack at the Austrian border with machine guns, ready to kill anyone rather than let them cross the border to gain their freedom.

On October 23, 1956, the Hungarians revolted against the Soviets. Students in Budapest put rocks in the path of tanks so that they would disable the tank treads. They then climbed on the tanks and pulled the soldiers out. In many cases, all that the Hungarians had to fight with were their fists and rocks. It makes me both sad and inspired to know that they so valued their freedom that they were willing to fight with such an absence of weaponry. In a matter of days, the Soviets returned to Hungary with more soldiers and more tanks. They shot tens of thousands of innocent men, women, and children, and killed thousands. By November 10, 1956, the revolution had been crushed. Since my father was pro-revolution, he was slated for execution along with my mother and my siblings, who were aged three, five, and six.

Again, I am both inspired and heartbroken by what my family went through. My father had been imprisoned and released to a country that was no longer under its own control. When he tried to help regain his country, he ended up losing it forever. On a night in early November 1956, my family walked in the darkness and crossed the Austrian border. (In retribution, the Soviet soldiers tore down their home.) With the sponsorship of a relative in the US, they made their way to the US and the city of Chicago. They went from a lovely green village surrounded by fields to a city full of buildings, cement, and noise. I will never try to excuse my father's actions. He abused every member of his family and eventually killed my mother. However, learning of some of his country's history and his own experiences help to explain how this man's soul may have been broken. 

I remember very little about my father. Some of the memories are good. When I was about three years old I asked him why he smoked; did he do it because it tasted good? (I knew why he drank beer, I had tasted his many times.) His response was to make me smoke a cigarette. It was a terribly cruel thing to do, but it was a lifetime's worth of smoking prevention for me! He drank hard and always had his cigarettes, and we often didn't have enough to eat because of this. But I've learned that he loved numbers and math. And he hated all forms of prejudice and racism. He always said, "Winter has no season, so you always wear a coat to keep warm."

I don't know if I will ever be able to muster the emotional strength or maturity needed to forgive him for killing my mother and destroying our family. His actions have affected us throughout our lives, changing us in ways both good and bad. I hated him for years but was able at a fairly young age (about fifteen) to let go of the hate, which only hurt me, and replace it with a more neutral feeling. Many people think that the Bible tells us that we are commanded to love our father and our mother, but that is not true. It says we must honor our father and our mother. I will never be able to honor all of his actions, but I honor all of his suffering and the bravery and sacrifices that helped me to be here today. I am here both because of him and in spite of him.


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