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July 01st 2008 print

Sev Sternhell

Midnight Train from Budapest

FIRST OF JUNE, 1993, 11.30 p.m., platform number 5, the main railway station of Budapest. There is a bit of frisson to the location: the last time I left Budapest by train was in June 1944 and I, with 1680 others, was leaving for destinations unknown, seventy to a cattle truck. We finished up in Belsen. Now the platform is deserted, but the train is in place and a very impressive beast it is, headed by a huge steam locomotive with a large, castiron Soviet emblem and the letters CCCP standing in Cyrillic alphabet for the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. A defunct symbol of a defunct empire. The train, a pride of the Soviet railway system, is supposed to run from Budapest to Lviv, which is our destination and then east and north to finish eventually in St Petersburg, the already renamed Leningrad.

We finally locate two of the crew, one male and one female, both Russian and both already somewhat drunk. They will get steadily more drunk as the journey proceeds. They are helpful and we communicate easily with them in Panslavonic: we speak Polish, they answer in Russian. Part of our ticket translates into a roomy sleeping compartment with clean, stiff and much patched linen sheets. Curtains are fashioned from the same material and are in the same state of careful repair. Somehow the total impression is pathetic. Sic transit superpower number two.

It is nearly midnight, the scheduled departure time, and the train is still empty but for the crew and us two: who would travel on a night train from Budapest to Lviv? Suddenly the mystery is solved. Who else but a large group of besuited, middle-aged Chinese men pushing trolleys loaded with Taiwanese computers in cartons, jostling each other and trying to communicate with the crew. The Russians are very polite and pleasant to us, who are fellow Slavs and fabulously wealthy Westerners, but treat the Chinese with unconcealed racist contempt. The surreal scene is completed by the arrival of Harry.

Harry is a big, beefy, friendly American about seventy years old, and hails from Arizona. His ancestors came to America from Odessa some generations ago and he is determined to trace his roots, without any contacts and not a word of Russian or Ukrainian. He is alone because his wife considered the quest crazy and bound to end badly. His finances on the trip comprise a couple of credit cards and his supplies are a hip flask of bourbon. We, as befits East Europeans and survivors of the Second World War, carry all sorts of currency and some food, including a large lump of Hungarian cheddar cheese. Finally, the train departs and we have a late supper of our bread, cheese and salami with Harry, followed by a couple of shots of Harry’s bourbon.

The toilets are horrific, but otherwise the train is quite acceptable and we spend a comfortable night. In the morning, we are crossing the gentle but picturesque Carpathians: all dark pine forests, sunny glades dotted with cattle and dilapidated villages. The Ukrainian frontier looms and two very young lads in brown uniforms appear. One of them picks up our passports and his face lights up: “Ah, kangaroo!” He leafs idly through my passport and spots a Nepalese visa. His face lights up again: “Ah, Kilimanjaro!” The second lad is sophisticated enough to know his Everest from his Kilimanjaro and he bursts out into contemptuous laughter: “Kilimanjaro!? Kilimanjaro!?” They depart courteously down the corridor with “Kilimanjaro!? Kilimanjaro!?” echoing behind them.

Shortly we are in territory I am familiar with: the part of Poland which was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1945, became a part of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic and hence a part of Ukraine after 1991. We pass Worochta, once a skiing resort, where I started on foot in March 1944 across the snow-covered Carpathians aiming for Hungary and dodging German patrols, Nadworna, where some of my family lived before the war and where I had the closest of shaves with Nazi Reserve Battalion 133 on October 6, 1941, and Stanislavov, now Ivan Frankvich after a Ukrainian poet, where many of my family lived and perished. Finally Lviv! We are so excited that we bid goodbye to Harry without learning his surname or getting his address. We shall never know what happened to Harry.

NOW WE ARE REALLY in my childhood country. The railway station, which was badly damaged on September 1, 1939, by German Stukas, has been rebuilt in the original style. The only thing missing is the eagle with Leopolis semper fidelis. Given that this railway station was built in the second half of the nineteenth century, the city of lions must have been true to the Habsburgs, as Lviv was then Lemberg, the main city of East Galicia, a province of the Habsburg Austro-Hungarian empire. My parents were brought up in and around this Lemberg, whereas I was born in Polish Lwow and always imagined that Leopolis was fidelis to the Polish crown, as it indeed was before the partition of Poland in the eighteenth century. Now we are visiting Lviv, the principal city of the Western part of the newly created independent Ukraine.

We have booked into the only hotel we found listed in a directory in Budapest, Hotel Lviv, and soon get there by taxi as we are serious millionaires in terms of Ukrainian Coupons, a temporary and practically worthless currency. Hotel Lviv, built of tasteful grey concrete, turns out to be a wonderfully preserved relic of the Soviet system, complete with a grim, fat, powerfully built and suspicious lady sitting at the end of the corridor. She reluctantly doles out our ration of three leaves of toilet paper each, but a tip of one American dollar instantly transforms her into our long-lost aunt pouring out her troubles in Ukrainian which is even more easily understood by us than Russian. In fact I claim that I speak fluent Ukrainian, although my wife insists that I merely babble in Polish with Ukrainian endings. No matter—we communicate well with our lady dragon who is going out of her way to be helpful, including a limitless supply of toilet paper, all for that one dollar. The room has a bathroom (no plugs in the wash-basin and bath—an infallible marker of a Soviet hotel) and reeks of urine, the smell permeating the linen in our room.

When we come back from a short walk, rats have chewed into our Hungarian cheese and my wife insists that we should look for a better hotel. Amazingly, one materialises: the Grand Hotel on the main boulevard, which I remember as “Legionow” after Pilsudski’s Polish Legions which fought on the Austrian side in the First World War. The Grand Hotel is seriously luxurious and it turns out that it is half-owned by a Swiss company. Food is great and I quickly discover that my favorite dish, pierogi in Polish and varenniki in Ukrainian, a sort of large ravioli stuffed with a mixture of potatoes, cottage cheese and fried onions, can be had at all times of the day. I have it for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

We spend the next three days wandering around, with me oscillating between ordinary recollections of childhood and horrendous memories of the Nazi Holocaust from 1941 to 1944. The last time I wandered freely in Lviv was as an eleven-year-old in 1941, when it was a part of Soviet Ukraine, but now over fifty years later and with all the streets renamed I can still find my way unerringly. The city has a wonderfully preserved Habsburg character similar to Krakow, Prague, Vienna and Budapest. It is shabby, but unspoiled by any postwar development, the horrible Soviet blocks of grey concrete being largely confined to a ring of distant suburbs. It is a tourist destination waiting to be discovered.

I drag my poor (but not uncomplaining) wife to all the places I lived in as a child and all the schools I attended, as well as visiting all the landmarks. Two are worth a comment: the “Great Theatre”, a smaller version of the Paris Opera, a symbol of the Western cultural aspirations of pre-war Poland, and the prosaic, four-storey modern office building on what was once Zielona (Green) Street. This was constructed in about 1935 and served as the offices of the municipal electricity commission. In 1939, after the partition of Poland between the Nazis and the Bolsheviks, it was taken over by the NKVD, the precursor of the KGB, and served as the prison for “politicals”. Before retreating in June 1941 in the face of the Nazi armies, the NKVD slaughtered all the political prisoners it held in this building—about 500 people. When the Germans arrived, they and their Ukrainian allies forced Jews to clean up the horrible mess. About 3000 innocent Jews died in the course of this—a precursor of worse things to come. The building was then taken over to serve as the SS-und-Polizei headquarters for Eastern Galicia and it was from there that unimaginable terror, including the extermination of all Jews, was managed under the aegis of Obergruppenfuhrer Kruger, the SS-und-Polizei- Fuhrer, Galizien. In June 1993, the building looks bland and in good repair. I walk by the front entrance and note with a chill in my spine that the current occupant is “The Ukrainian State Security Service”. However, the building appears to be quite empty and there is no sign of guards, armed or otherwise.

Finally it is time to visit Sloneczna No. 47, my home in the Lwow Ghetto in 1941-42. The substantial threestorey building is in reasonable repair and exactly as I remember it all too well. We wander into the courtyard and I point out the flat which we shared with another family of five, all of whom were murdered. A tall, heavily set blond woman in her late fifties peers out of a basement flat, eyes us suspiciously and asks our business in Ukrainian. We get talking, she invites us into her flat, feeds us tea and cake and it transpires that she has lived thereabouts all her life and remembers the horrors of extermination actions as a little girl. Her family “inherited” this flat after the Jews were exterminated and she has lived there ever since. As more details emerge she becomes more and more moved and tears pour down her cheeks—we part friends.

About 200 metres down Sloneczna Street there still stands the railway viaduct, which we used to call “most” (“the bridge”) and which was the epicentre of most of the great extermination actions. On the other side of it stands a memorial to the victims of the Ghetto, erected by the Ukrainian authorities. It includes a slab stating: “On this road of death, in the years 1941–43, the German-Fascist occupiers murdered 136,800 Jews in the Lviv Ghetto.”

NEXT DAY, from past tragedy to contemporary farce. We are on a train to Warsaw and share a compartment with a father and two grown-up sons, Ukrainians attempting to smuggle goods which they have in three large hessian bags. The goods are mainly the wrought-iron parts of hoes, shovels and so on, which apparently fetch a higher price in Poland than in Ukraine. They are very much on edge, as Polish customs officers tend to remove such traders from trains at the frontier. In the great East European tradition, we are naturally on their side and turn out to be of great help: the Polish frontier police are so fascinated by our Australian passports and so eager to chat to exotic Australians who speak Polish, that they pay no attention to the smugglers and their bags.

In Warsaw, as in Budapest, we rejoin the West. Shops are well stocked. Cars swarm. People bustle. Advertisements abound. We are the guests of the university, where Professor Jurczak, once a young postdoctorate at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology while I was a visiting professor, is now the director of the Institute of Physical Chemistry. We are given a free flat (the same will be repeated in Krakow a few days later), fed and taken around, all for the price of giving two research lectures.

This is my first visit to Warsaw, but my wife was there in 1946 and remembers it in ruins after bombing by the Germans in 1939, the Ghetto uprising in 1943 and most devastatingly, after the Polish uprising of 1944. No sign of ruins remain and the Old City district has been faithfully rebuilt, but unfortunately the more modern parts of Warsaw have been reconstructed in the Soviet grey concrete style and are hideous. Dominating all is Stalin’s gift to communist Poland: the enormous Palace of Culture. A Soviet era joke ran: Q: Why is the view from the top of the Palace of Culture the best view in Warsaw? A: Because it is the only spot from which you cannot see the Palace of Culture. Now, ironically, a proposal to blow the awful thing up has met resistance, because it is a historical monument of a sort. It stands to this day.

After a few days, a train journey to Czestochowa, my wife’s birthplace. This is a smallish town, untouched by the war and famous for the monastery at Jasna Gora (Bright Mountain) the holiest place for Polish Catholics. We visit it, marvel at seventeenth-century Swedish cannon balls still embedded in the walls and the famous icon, the Black Madonna, but the emotional impacts are from my wife’s prewar flat and the dwelling in the Czestochowa Ghetto from where in September 1942 her parents and sister were taken to Treblinka and murdered.

On to Krakow, the medieval capital of Poland, full of well-preserved buildings and completely untouched by the war. We are guests of the Chemistry Department of the Jagellonian University, one of the oldest in Europe, having been founded by King Kazimierz the Great in 1364. The original building, constructed shortly afterwards, has been wonderfully preserved. The university boasts Copernicus as one of its former graduates. We are treated well, given a flat for eleven days, fed, entertained and given an audience with the Vice-Chancellor, who invites me for a hunting trip—I am still to take him up on this. All for the price of two research lectures and helpful chats with some PhD candidates.

There is a dark side: my wife spent September 1942 to January 1945 in Krakow, a starving, mistreated orphaned little girl with a false Aryan identity fearing discovery and death every day until rescued by Marshal Koniev’s First Ukrainian Army storming across the Vistula on January 15, 1945. I myself spent a couple of months on Aryan papers in Krakow late in 1942 and with the firm belief in personal immortality typical of a twelve-year-old, insisted on travelling in the “Nur fur Deutsche” (Germans only) tram compartments, on the principle that they were less likely to be searched by the SS.

All this fades into a distant nightmare in the friendly, affluent and very tourist-conscious Krakow of 1993. We dine in excellent and inexpensive restaurants around the old town square, visit Wawel, the medieval royal residence and undoubtedly the most important historical monument in Poland, and the many churches and museums. We also take a tour of Auschwitz. Most of our busload of visitors are uncomprehending Westerners: in the death camp of Birkenau (Auschwitz II) the railway-lineto- nowhere passes through the much-filmed red brick entrance gate and ends between two huge gas-chambercum- crematorium complexes whose function and scale are quite obvious in spite of the installations having been blown up by the retreating SS in 1945. At the very end of the railway line, an eternal memorial flame burns in a shallow cup perhaps half a metre across. An American lady tourist with a Brooklyn accent points at the flame and asks, “Is this where they burned them?”

On to Prague on a very comfortable “Western” train, another university residence, two more research lectures, a lot of stodgy Czech food and much wandering about through that tourist gem, old Prague. No war memories, but an odd piece of family history. The medieval Jewish quarter is well preserved, Hitler having planned to erect a museum there to the vanished Jewish race. Perhaps the most interesting is the intact old Jewish cemetery where an elaborate gravestone and a memorial plaque commemorate Judah ben Bezalel, Rabbi Loeb of Prague (1512–1609), the creator of the mythical Golem, adviser to the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II and a direct ancestor of mine.

The last stop on our East European journey is Berlin. To a political junkie like me it is a symbolic place where two Evil Empires met their well-deserved ends in 1945 and 1989 respectively. However, Berlin 1993 has little emotional impact on us: we see the sights, I give the obligatory two research lectures, we stand at the Berlin Wall, the Reichstag, the Brandenburg Gate and Check Point Charlie. Eventually we emplane back to Australia aka Paradise South. And we never find out what happened to Harry.