Register Tuesday | April 23 | 2024

My Hungarian Sister


I first saw her looking out at me from a newspaper photograph: a small girl in a polka-dot headscarf, holding a rumpled doll. She stood, the smallest, among a group of children standing in a railway station; Euston, the caption said. They were refugees, a word I did not know, from Hungary, a country somewhere in dimmest Europe. In Europe, people did not speak English but wore peculiar costumes and were forever dancing on cobbled streets. My parents, who had spent their honeymoon in Paris, had spoken of cafés crème and the Arc de Triomphe, of walks along the Seine and moules marinières. My father, ludicrously, still wore the wool beret he’d brought back, as though our Lancashire street was a part of the continent.

Below the headline—“First Refugee Children Find Warm Welcome in Britain”—a story, datelined Vienna, spoke bafflingly of Soviet repression, of United Nations resolutions, of appeals by the Undersecretary for Foreign Affairs. I skipped to the end. The Hungarian refugees were arriving in Austria with nothing. One family had escaped on motorcycles, another in a hay wagon. An entire circus with three dancing bears, twenty dogs and seven horses had arrived the previous evening. As for the children, many had been sent across the border with cards round their necks. Please look after our young ones. We stay to fight to the last.

I looked again at the girl in the photograph. Her eyes were large, dark, smudged with exhaustion. In her headscarf and pinafore dress, clutching the doll, she seemed burdened with some secret and unspeakable knowledge. What was it like to be sent, alone, to a place where you knew no one? Had her parents told her to be brave? Had she known, when she crossed the border, that she might never see them again?

I, however, could see her destiny. She would live right here in Wyecombe, she would sit at our table and share my bed. No longer some nameless child with a tag round her neck like a piece of luggage, she would be the confidante I’d always wanted, the perfect corrective to my lopsided, boy-heavy family. We—my family and I—would do what her parents had asked.

On some of the cards, so the newspaper said, the parents had written the word szabadság: freedom. That was what I would call her. Szaba, for short.


My father was then an assistant editor for our local newspaper, the Lancastrian. He often brought home the Times and the Manchester Guardian (for the view from the balcony and the view from the shop floor, he said) and quoted from them over the tea table, to my mother’s annoyance. Soviet tanks had entered Budapest; troops with red stars on their shoulders were stationed at every street corner. And the government believes the Russians’ll negotiate, he said. Can you imagine? It’s obvious that poor Imre Nagy is going to be executed.

They wouldn’t dare, my mother said, handing round the potted meat. Hadn’t the Prime Minister sent a stiffly worded note? And did he have to discuss such things in front of the children?

The British Ambassador, actually, my father said. He had opened the Guardian again; my mother, defenceless, noisily stirred her tea. Our voice will not go out in vain to the gallant Hungarian people, my father quoted. Fine empty words that’ll have no effect at all. If your church was doing its job, they’d be condemning the Russians from the pulpit.

My father came from a family of Northumbrian coal miners, my mother from Anglican clergy who invariably voted Tory. My grandfather had still not quite forgiven her for marrying a threat to the social order. On my last birthday, perhaps to provide protection against possible contamination, he had presented me with a Bible, my name embossed in gilt on its brown leather. He had also recently taken me out to tea at the Poplars, a restaurant favoured by what my father called the aspiring gentry. I was his only granddaughter, a reader and a scholar; people said I took after him. But how could I sit there eating cream buns among acres of white linen when in Hungary children were starving? There was no food in the shops and even twelve-year-olds had been given rifles.

Does she have to learn about the brutality of the world quite so early? my mother said that evening, when they thought I was asleep.

We can’t keep it from her forever. Besides, death’s a fact of life.

Farm deaths, my mother said. Cats or pigs. Not bloody uprisings.

What about the miners in Ledburgh, in 1920? Didn’t those children watch their parents being shot? By British troops, no less?

Not by my ancestors, my mother said stiffly.

They certainly didn’t stop it. They probably prayed for victory. Believed God was on their side.

At the moment, God was, for some inexplicable reason, on the side of the Russians. Not for the first time, despite our weekly attendance at church, I agreed with my father, who had explained that it all had to do with another religion called Communism, whose high priest was Stalin. Blasphemy, my mother said. My father, laughing, said he was an old apostate and could say anything he liked.

My family had done a singularly poor job of producing females. My father was an only child; my mother, like me, had two brothers, a bachelor country curate and a bank manager who had sired only sons. I was followed by Timothy, aged four, and Matthew, nine months, who I’d been certain would be a girl. I had prayed every night for a sister, but God hadn’t listened. Too distracted, perhaps, by African hunger and the Suez crisis, though the denial of what was surely a simple request was further evidence for my father’s theories.

Szaba was the perfect solution, the only way to fill that four-year gap between me and Tim. She would also be our own personal support for the Hungarian nation. At my school, a fund for the refugees was being established. We might give part of our allowances, or bring items for a bake sale. My mother’s cakes were a disaster—lumpen for the proletariat, my father had joked, though only once—so I gave threepence, half my weekly allotment, and bravely went without my dolly mixture, my licorice allsorts. We helped pack food hampers, including oranges from Spain; apparently Hungarian children had never tasted them. The school would send them to a refugee reception centre in London.

The other half of my allowance (no more weekly comics) I put into a jar marked “Szaba.” At night I took out the photo I’d clipped from the paper. You’re going to have a home very soon, I told her. Once or twice I swear I saw her look back at me with those large exhausted eyes, saw the corners of her mouth lift in the tiniest smile. I would show her my doll collection, my diary, my secret hiding places. I would teach her two-ball and hopscotch and double dutch. I would ask if her parents, too, had arguments, if her father ever walked out of the house in the middle of one. At night, in the dark, we would hold each other, and not even the creaking staircase would make us afraid.


We are standing at the station. The train slows, the door opens, and there she is, holding her doll and smiling shyly. I step forward. Hello, Szaba, I say. Welcome to Wyecombe. I say it in her language, from a piece of paper written out by my Polish piano teacher whose husband is Hungarian. Now there is a real smile. My parents also step forward and embrace her. Even Timothy says hello. I take her hand and we walk together, already a family, out to the waiting car. We sit side by side in the back and I point out the school, the library, the street my grandfather lives on. Does she have a grandfather, back in Hungary? But perhaps it is best not to ask this. She takes off her headscarf, revealing thick dark curly hair, the kind I’ve always wanted. When we get home I will brush it and let her borrow my hair ribbons.


In Budapest the first frosts had arrived; two square miles in the centre of the city lay in ruins. Szaba, if she knew, would be sick with worry; she might be having nightmares. I decided instead that she was from a small town in the south where there were fewer Russian troops. Her parents were hiding in the forest with the other partisans, leaving at night to plant grenades and stock up with food. They were dirty, in rags, but undaunted, and they knew God had secretly changed sides. Unfortunately, brave as they were, I would have to kill them off—otherwise we would not be able to adopt Szaba—but we would find out, after all this was over, that they had died fighting.

I had read about a thirteen-year-old boy who set fire to the Russian tanks and then shot the crews as they came out. He was Szaba’s older brother, of course. The new Hungarian government would award him a posthumous medal, which they would send to Szaba. She would keep it in a special box and take it out on his birthday.

I told no one else about Szaba. I did, however, ask my father about the refugee children and what happened to them. He said they were sent to hostels and then on to relatives or friends, if they had any. Some, he thought, would end up in foster homes. Perhaps their parents would be able to escape, and then they’d be reunited.

Hang on, Szaba! Help is coming!


It was my mother I approached first. Her Ladies’ Aid group was knitting scarves for the refugees, and I asked if I might make one too. How thoughtful, she said, and showed me how to cast on, how to knit and purl. I chose the colours of the Hungarian flag, red and green and white. I saw Szaba in the scarf, walking down the street with me, hand in hand. At school I would explain that her parents were freedom fighters and her older brother was a soldier. That would impress the boys. At recess they’d crowd round and ask if she had any bullets as souvenirs.

Our church was helping to sponsor two families, my mother said; they were going to settle in our area. Perhaps we too could sponsor a refugee, I said. Perhaps there was a child who needed a place to stay. My mother looked at me sharply. We’ve no room, she said; we need a larger house as it is. It’s not right for you to keep sharing a bedroom with Timothy.

But if it’s a girl, she could sleep with me, I said.

That’s very selfless, Catherine. But I’ve my hands full with the three of you. The answer’s no.

My father said that if it was up to him he’d take in a houseful of bairns, but the final word was my mother’s. I asked my piano teacher if Szaba could live with them instead. They had no children, after all, and her husband spoke Hungarian. But she was too old, she said, and her husband wasn’t well. Who was this Szaba, and how did I know her?

I hadn’t meant to reveal her name. I’d heard about her at school, I said. Her name had been on one of the hampers we’d sent to London. Mrs. Berényi paused. She too had received such a hamper in a refugee camp in Switzerland after the war. She had lost everything then—her first husband to invading German troops, her mother to pneumonia, her baby to starvation after her milk dried up. A younger cousin, a teenager, had fought with the Polish resistance, but had been caught and shot.

I hadn’t known that such things happened to people I knew. I thought of this cousin, and Mrs. Berényi’s baby, and Szaba’s brother, lined up in a row on the ground, eyes closed. What brutes the Russians and Germans were. Why couldn’t people live together in peace? If the Russians ever invaded England, Szaba and I would throw stones at the soldiers as they marched down our street, and then we would hide in the unused mill behind the school where no one could find us.

No, my mother said. I’ve told you, Catherine. Absolutely not. And you’re not to keep pestering me. She had found me with the photograph of Szaba when I was supposed to be doing my homework, and threatened to tear it up. All right, I won’t, on condition that you forget the whole idea. We are not, and I repeat not, adopting her or anyone else. Is that clear?


At night, as we lie in bed together, Szaba tells me her story. When the Russians invaded, her parents decided to send her out of the country before the borders were sealed. Her brother István too, but he wouldn’t go. That night—a dark night, the moon obscured by clouds—they slipped out of the house and across farmers’ fields, heading west. They walked through forest and across bog. They had to ford a river. Szaba’s shoes filled with mud. When she couldn’t walk any further her father carried her on his shoulders. They came to a row of trees with the lights of Austria on the other side. She was to walk to the nearest house and knock on the door.

It won’t be long, Szaba. We won’t be separated long.

Anya. Apa. Szabadság. Already she was forgetting what they meant.


It was Mrs. Berényi who suggested I write to the Red Cross. I had come for my regular Thursday piano lesson, two weeks before the Christmas holidays. Outside, frost lay on the hedges and bare branches pricked a cotton-wool sky. In Hungary, where many people in the cities were without heat, it was even colder. My father said the Russians were deporting able-bodied Hungarians to Russia for slave labour. Past bombed-out buildings and across snowy steppes the trains moved, slow, burdened, unremarked, until they disappeared below the horizon.

After the lesson Mrs. Berényi set a glass of sugared tea and one of her Christmas beigli before me. So. We are still thinking of the refugees. Such a credit to your parents, Catherine.

I’m worried about Szaba, Mrs. Berényi. She needs a home.

The Red Cross will be looking after her. Mrs. Berényi cradled her glass of tea in her thin hands. They helped László and I, after the war, when we were in that camp in Switzerland.

But if she came, this Szaba, in her polka-dot headscarf. Faced with an actual child, my parents wouldn’t be able to turn her away.

Why, Mrs. Berényi asked, was I interested in this particular one?

I could not say that our destinies were intertwined, that she had been sent here for a reason. Instead I showed her the photograph.

Maybe her family knows your husband. Maybe they’re even relatives.

Most of her husband’s family, Mrs. Berényi said, had been shot, or deported, or had disappeared. But perhaps, through the Red Cross, we could find out what had happened to her.

I waited, daily, for a reply. I slipped round to the Berényis every day after tea until my mother demanded an explanation. The letter arrived just before Christmas. Mrs. Berényi read it out loud when I arrived for my last piano lesson of the year.


Dear Mrs. Berényi,

Thank you for your interest in the plight of the Hungarian refugees. We have been unable to determine which child you referred to, but we can assure you that she is being well taken care of. We hope that in time many of the children will be reunited with their parents. Thank you also for your kind donation.

But Szaba would not be reunited with her parents. Hadn’t I killed them off? I showed my father the letter. Mrs. Berényi was trying to find a child whose family had been friends of her husband’s, I said. My father offered to write a story for his paper. It ran on page 22, next to the Out and About column: “Girl in Headscarf Sought By Local Couple.” Mrs. Berényi was quoted as saying that she and her husband had wanted to contribute to the child’s first Christmas away from home.

I waited, again, for another letter, this time from the family who had taken Szaba in, or Szaba herself. Of course she would not be able to write in English, but Mr. Berényi could translate. At night I took out the photograph and stared at it with furious intensity. Listen, Szaba, wherever you are. I’m here in Wyecombe, waiting for you. Just for you.

Christmas lacked a certain sparkle, though my parents took us to the pantomime in Manchester. On my first day back at school after the holidays, three shabbily dressed children stood beside the headmistress at general assembly. They were introduced to us as Ferenc, Emil and Márta. I had summoned not one Hungarian refugee, but three! The youngest, Márta, was assigned to the year below mine. She was thin and plain, and she wore no headscarf, but it would be churlish to accuse God of ignoring my requests.

At recess, I asked her to join me. She had stained brown teeth and a habit of pulling at the threads of her jumper. She had been taken in, she explained in broken English, by a Romanian family who lived nearby. I showed her how to play hopscotch, but she wanted only to watch. DP lover, said one of the boys, brushing my shoulder. I took Márta by the hand and walked to another part of the schoolyard, where we chewed toffee together in silence until recess was over.


Iwas allowed to invite Márta home for tea. She wore a strange frilled blouse and a skirt two sizes too big. She did not know how to use a fork and drank her tea out of the saucer. Upstairs I showed her my new velvet dress, the games I had been given for Christmas, but she sat on the bed with her hands folded and shook her head when I suggested we play with my dolls. I brought out the photo of Szaba, thinking perhaps Márta knew her, but she burst into tears and began saying something over and over in Hungarian. My mother came running upstairs. What on earth was the matter? She put her arm round Márta and glared at me.

I didn’t do a thing, Mum. I just showed her that photo.

Of all the—Didn’t you stop to think it might bring back memories? That she probably saw herself in that train station?

No. I hadn’t. I’d wanted to show that I knew her story. Here was Szaba, with a different face and a different name. I knew her parents were freedom fighters and her brother was a hero who had killed Russian soldiers. Szabadság, I said after my mother had left. Szabadság, and I pointed to the photograph. But Márta pointed to herself. Halott, she said. Dead. And then she lay down on the bed and closed her eyes.


Idid not invite her again. In the playground I avoided her; I told my classmates that I could not understand her, which was partially true. Somewhere, no doubt, she had parents, and after a while they would find each other. Meanwhile she was with her Romanian family, who were also from that murky continent. She must feel more comfortable there than with us.

But what of Szaba? There had been some mistake, after all, in the fact that Márta had been sent instead. Szaba’s photo had appeared in the Guardian; it was to them I would turn. I found the address just below the masthead and wrote a careful letter. A journalist from the paper called my parents. A heartwarming story, he said, about hands across frontiers and all that. My father said I had the makings of a politician, my mother that I was trying to shame her in front of everybody. I was merely practising Christian compassion, my father said. My mother said she didn’t need her religion thrown in her face, thank you very much, and even Jesus had had his limits.

A few days later the journalist rang back. He’d made some inquiries of his own, he said, just to put my mind at rest. He’d managed to track the girl to Salisbury, where distant relatives had taken her in. They did not want any names released; they feared reprisals against those still in Hungary. They thanked the journalist, and my family, for our interest.

I folded the photograph of Szaba and put it at the bottom of my jewellery box. The girl with the polka-dot scarf would stand there forever, at Euston Station; I preferred not to think about what had become of her. At school, Márta had disappeared, sent, so someone said, to join her parents in Germany. I asked no questions. A few months later, when my mother mentioned her name, at first I didn’t know who she was talking about.


Years later, I stood in the reception hall of a London embassy, where a woman was introduced to me. A colleague on another newspaper, my host said. Her name was Juliska. Her father had fled to Britain from Hungary after the war. To make conversation I asked whether she’d known any families who had taken in Hungarian refugees. Yes, she said, her own. A boy of thirteen named István. He was a professor now at some technical institute in Germany. He had written a book about his experiences. She could give me the title.

I thanked her and said I would read it. But I never did.