Love and Survival in Budapest: The Memoir of Artur Renyi

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This book was written by Artur Renyi in the late 1940s as a memoir and gift to his only child, Dr Alfred Renyi, noted Hungarian mathematician and the father of probability theory. The memoir is written in the form of a diary and chronicles the life of Artur, a linguist and engineer, and his wife, Borbala Alexander, a photographer who just happens to be the younger sister of the eminent psychoanalyst Franz Alexander, the founder of the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis. It covers the years 1921 through to 1948. This work was translated by the author's granddaughter and great granddaughter, and edited by Dr Alexander's granddaughter. This unique work documents the fate of Hungarian Jews in Budapest long before, during and after the Nazi regime. Artur Renyi writes compellingly and grippingly about fascism in Hungary and the persecutory laws against Jews, life in pre-World War II Budapest, the air strikes on Budapest, and details what happened when 250,000 Jews were forced to leave their homes in Budapest. It is most of all an intimate tale of a family written after World War II, when things changed dramatically in Eastern Europe. It is a love letter from father to son and tells of one family's courage, compassion, and integrity during a time when all hell was breaking loose around them.

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Chapter One - Borka's Tale of Our Meeting

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I will tell the story of our marriage using Borka's words, just in the way she used to tell it to our friends. Nobody could tell it lovelier. [Artur writes as if Borka told the story; that is the reason the pronoun “I” is used and means Borka.]

It took place in 1920 during Easter. The phone rang in our flat and a gentleman called me and requested that I take a photo of a Dutch artist's painting. He asked me if I would accept this commission. He introduced himself and said it was Artur Renyi speaking. I suddenly remembered that I had already met this gentleman seven years earlier, in 1913, in Vienna while at the home of my friend Margit. But our encounter lasted only a few seconds. We met at the front door. I had just arrived as he was leaving. He introduced himself in the entrance and told me his name and I told him mine. When he called me in Pest I could remember both his name and mostly the moment of our introductions. So, when he called me I told him immediately: “Well, we have already met once in Vienna at Margit's place.” He also remembered our previous meeting.

 

Chapter Two - The Early Years

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There was, however, one little episode that happened just a year before that 3rd of April when I called Borka on the phone to engage her services, i.e., to take a photo of my mother's painting. At that time I read much about psychoanalysis as well as the Gospels. One night I had an interesting dream. I saw an altar which signified marriage to me. I also saw a name floating in the air, without knowing whose name it was, but it sounded like “Brokander”.

The next day I was talking to my friend and colleague, Adolf Polanyi, about this dream, in our Pest office. He lived in Pest at that time and we were partners in our company, Uzemgazdasag Ltd. People often said that we spent a lot of time talking about philosophy, socialism, religion, and psychoanalysis instead of doing business. Adolf answered me: Brokander-Brokander. Please associate something to this word. I did: “Psylander…Dryander…” Nothing else came to my mind. Psylander was a famous movie actor and Dryander was a German theologist. Adolf concluded: “You want to get married, that is the meaning of the altar in your dream. That is why you want to be as elegant like Psylander and such a famous philosopher of religions as Dryander.” This is how psychoanalysis fails sometimes. Because by now it had become evident that Brokander was a metathesis for Borka Alexander. The ancient Greeks were closer to justice in their poetic language than today's psychoanalysts. Translated to modern thinking it meant that a chance one minute meeting with Borka in Vienna seven years earlier was enough for my unconscious mind to perceive that she was the girl I needed.

 

Chapter Three - Work and Politics

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Meanwhile in Hungary the counter-revolution gradually ended and the era of the so-called “Bethlen-consolidation” began. [Estvan Bethlen's government was in power from 1921–1931 and aimed to achieve political consolidation.] The political pressure exerted earlier on Granddad eased and he returned to his work as a journalist at Pester Lloyd. He wrote perfect articles on the topic of aesthetics week after week and he also began working on an essay about John Stuart Mill. His book on Spinoza had already been published by that time.

We led a very active social life and many of Granddad's friends came to see him frequently. I recollect my good friend, poor Frigyes Karinthy [famous Hungarian writer and humourist; “poor” refers to his brain tumour, which caused an early death] came to visit during those times. I remember some evenings, when we played a game, invented by Karinthy, which was fun and all because of his outstanding cleverness.

Once, when Tamas Kobor came to one of our parties, I introduced my graphology analysis as a kind of party game. I remember I was successful at a party, in Margit Veszi's home, during the autumn of 1918, when I did that kind of handwriting analysis for the guests: “This person is an Austrian naval officer, who can only speak broken Hungarian, but in spite of that he aspires to a high rank in Hungary.” It was the handwriting of Miklos Horthy [governor of Hungary between 1919–1944]. That time nobody could imagine that my graphology diagnosis would, unfortunately, come true.

 

Chapter Four - Nazism Comes to Hungary

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In 1938 the first wave of Nazism reached Hungary. In March 1938 the Anschluss of Austria took place. Just ten days later Mommy travelled to Vienna to see what might have happened to our friends and relatives who lived there. She went to see Zsofka and the Broessler relatives and experienced dreadful times that really shocked her.

On the 1st of April, 1938 Anna and Ili returned to us and in May a series of anti-Jewish laws was passed in Hungary. [Hungary was then ruled by Miklos Horthy and these anti-Jewish measures were meant to emulate Germany's Nürnberg Laws.] It is quite odd to say this now, but in 1938 we regarded this first twentieth-century Hungarian anti-Jewish law [Numerus Clausus] as simply amusing and grotesque but not dangerous. However, we thought that it would be better for Buba to attend an English university. He had already gained acceptance to Manchester University but he did not attend that university.

By the time 1938 began to draw to a close, an extreme wave of migration commenced because of the anti-Jewish laws. At the same time, I had a lot more interpreting work to do. In December I earned 2,000 pengos for my work including an additional 1,400 pengos salary for interpretations.

 

Chapter Five - Liberation, at Last

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And then liberation, the Russians came on the 14th of January 1945. They broke into a wine cellar opposite us and gave wine to people. Buba also received ten litres in a large cauldron and we shared it with the other people in our house. This glass of wine—this was the signal of liberation.

So we reached the actual day of liberation, the 14th of January 1945. [During the siege of Budapest the Soviet Army took over the city from the Germans, marched on and fought day-by-day, house-by-house between December 1944 and February 1945. Almost every street had its own day of liberation. Liberation Day for Pest was 18 January, 13 February for all of Budapest, and 4 April for Hungary.] And now I still have to tell the story of the next nineteen months and eight days, until 22 August 1946, when our happy world collapsed.

Nineteen months—amid the most severe conditions; but still happy nineteen months. The last eight days were not, as those already meant that the catastrophe was approaching.

 

Chapter Six - Heartache Comes to Me

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Iarrive to 1946 in my storytelling and now I am approaching the catastrophe, I can recall many things that I should have already included so as not to lose any single moment of these happy twenty-six years. It is terrible to consider that when I also die, and that may happen at any moment, which of all these memories may become lost and forgotten. No, this should never happen! I have to trust Buba and Borka's friends, especially Lili Gimes that they would never allow Borka's memory to be forgotten. As there will be nothing left of her apart from her dear memory. So much goodness and so much love that is the memory of someone who personified life itself in such a lovely way; that whatever she dealt with, became lovely. So all these treasures should not perish. She should be talked about, even 100 years from now, and her memory should be kept alive, 100 years from now. So that is why I was so hurt when her sisters and brothers did not help her. I was also disappointed by Magda's visit although I really should have been prepared for this disappointment. Erzsi was broken down with pain after the death of her daughter, however, she showed Borka the most sympathy. Nevertheless, it was all too little, just too little. And it is better not to talk about the other sisters and brothers at all.

 

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