Last night the Hungarian writer George Konrad spoke at Columbia U. about his new book, A Guest in My Own Country. Born in 1932, Konrad grew up in a small market town in eastern Hungary. In March 1944, the Nazis occupied Hungary and in June the Gestapo came into his family’s gardens and arrested both his parents. He did not see them for years (I believe they survived concentration camps, unlike the parents of that other noted Hungarian writer, Elie Wiesel). Young Konrad then arranged for the safe passage of himself, his sister and two cousins to Budapest, where Jews were more or less protected during Nazi occupation. Almost all the other 200 Jewish children in his town were deported and murdered.
Konrad told this story in a rambling ironical way. The only time he smiled the whole night was when he called out to the "charming Polish woman" who was pouring wine at the back to refill his cup. In describing his flight, he said that his father owned a large agricultural hardware store in the small town, and he went to a rightwinger who had worked as a buyer for his father. "I didn’t believe a Jewish lawyer would be efficient in this case."
"Do you have money?" the man asked.
"30,000 pengos." His father had hidden as much.
"’Bring me now the half of it.’ I did it.The next day he said, ‘Bring me the other half.’ Then I should go to the director [a local regent] and express my gratitude to him." Konrad did so, and then went to a gendarme to get the traveling papers. "Another gendarme was at another table. He ate bacon, with a knife.He said, ‘So. You will go away?’ ‘Yes. We will go away.”Oh,’ he said. But it was not an easy process."
Istvan Deak, a noted historian also born in Hungary, whose father was arrested by the Gestapo though he was Christian, was Konrad’s interlocutor in the discussion. Deak made an important point. 30,000 pengos was a huge amount of money in that time. His own parents had bought a nice apartment in Budapest in 1943 or so for 30,000 pengos. The same sum would buy a nice country house.
Deak said this showed the importance of greed in the Holocaust. "The ideology existed; many people were antisemitic. But many more people were simply driven by the feeling, this is finally the opportunity when they could enrich themselves. Somehow it is right and just that [someone else’s property] should belong to them."
My friend Steven Fodor, a Hungarian-American, told me afterward that of 600,000 Jews in Hungary, 500,000 were killed. Some of them were shot by the Danube, and forced to disrobe first. "Always naked," he said, because the Germans wanted their "clothes and boots and other nonsense."