Part 3. Hungary: Childhood and Early Adulthood
Little has been publicly known about Robert Zend’s early years in Hungary, prior to the 1956 Uprising and his subsequent immigration to Canada. I’d like to begin the process of fleshing out this period of his life. Some of the biographical material from this period will help us to understand the shaping of his cosmopolitan outlook. In addition, some background on his life in both Hungary and Canada will help to contextualize my subsequent discussion of his international affinities and influences.
Robert Zend was born in Budapest on December 2, 1929, the only child of Henrik and Stephanie. Henrik, the youngest among many brothers and sisters, married late in life, so that Robert’s cousins were ten to twenty years older than he.1 Thus during his early years, Robert was often in the midst of adults.
Zend points out the irony of his given name. Henrik had wanted to call him James after his own father. But his brother-in-law Dori argued against it because it sounded so old-fashioned. Henrik didn’t like Dori’s suggestion of a common name for his son, who would surely be distinguished. Finally,
Dori proposed to him the name Robert which in those times and in Hungary was a modern, but very rare, almost exotic name. My father readily agreed because his favourite composer was Robert Schumann. Had he known that I would spend most of my life in North America where every second male is called Robert (or even Bob!), he wouldn’t have compromised so easily.2
Zend wryly observes that had his father favoured a different composer, his name might have been “Johann Sebastian Zend.”
Henrik, fluent in five languages, worked as a foreign correspondence clerk for a rice mill, and Stephanie was a homemaker.3 They were not well off, and after the birth of Robert, one month after the New York Stock Market crash of 1929, they faced economic difficulties and uncertainty. The ensuing global depression devastated the Hungarian economy: by 1933, Budapest had a poverty rate of 18% and an unemployment rate of 36%.4 Following a failed pregnancy, Henrik and Stephanie decided not to have additional children.5
Zend wrote about the sibling that he never had in a poignant story entitled “My Baby Brother”: he dreams that his parents have come back to life, and even at their advanced age they bear a son, who he imagines “will be a better man than me, a second, corrected edition of me.”6 Other works develop the theme of existence foiled, as in “The Rock,” a story about a dreamed Jesus who has missed his chance to be born:
Time was pregnant.
It was predetermined that he was to be born. The day and the hour and the minute and the second had been decided. The land and the city and the house assigned. The father and the mother chosen.
But something somewhere, something went wrong. His dreamer — in a higher consciousness — woke up with a start before dreaming his birth, and by the time he succeeded in sinking back into the dream again, the point was passed.7
And in “The Most Beautiful Things,” he ponders all of the art and life that remain in a limbo of unfulfilled potentiality:
My most beautiful poems are never written down
I am afraid to commit them to a prison of twenty-six letters
In the same way
the most beautiful statues on earth hide
in uncarved rock
The most beautiful paintings
are all crammed together in tiny tubes of paint
The most beautiful people will never be born8
In such works, it is as though a parallel universe contained all the possibilities that never came to fruition. Yearning for the unborn baby brother was not the only experience to which one could ascribe Zend’s sense of what he elsewhere calls “historical unhappenings.”9 As we will see, it was one of other events to come that would mark him with an indelible awareness of thwarted possibilities.
Robert’s early years held much promise. The foundation for his love of Italian culture and literature was laid in childhood. His parents sent him at the ages of one-and-a-half and six to Grado, Italy, a beach town on the Adriatic Sea, to recover from rickets, a bone disease caused by a deficiency of vitamin D. Henrik brought him to Italy two more times, at the ages of ten and twelve, to stimulate the boy’s interest in learning the Italian language.10
Zend describes himself during childhood as a social misfit as he wasn’t interested in playing sports with other boys. As a result of his introversion, Henrik and Stephanie suspected that their son was socially stunted as well as intellectually slow, and planned to take him out of school after the fourth grade to apprentice with a carpenter. However, Robert began to display talent in languages, including at the age of eight reciting from memory a 140-line poem by nineteenth-century Hungarian poet Sándor Petőfi and excelling at Latin in grade seven.11
When he was ten, Robert began to play the piano by ear. Although he never learned to read scores, he excelled at imitating pieces he heard, such as Mozart’s “Turkish March,” and composing songs. Family and friends thought that Robert was destined to become a concert pianist, but even in early adolescence, Robert knew that he would be a writer.12
A memorable event that occurred when he was just a boy may have confirmed his literary ambitions at an early age. In a story that became family lore, Zend relates how he contrived to meet a favourite author, the great Hungarian writer Frigyes Karinthy. Enthralled with Karinthy’s writing, he plucked up the courage to phone him. Karinthy indulgently invited the boy to his home, where Robert was able to converse with his literary idol.13
As Karinthy died in 1938, Robert could not have been more than eight years old when they met. The story of Robert’s temerity in phoning up a famous author might seem a bit far-fetched for someone so young. However, evidence lends it credence. At that age the precocious boy was already demonstrating more than a superficial interest in literature. And in a prose piece published in 1973, Zend writes that he “knew [Karinthy] when he was alive.”14.
And Karinthy himself writes of walking the streets of Budapest and suddenly being accosted by eager little boys who recognized him and wanted to shake his hand and get his autograph.15 Most likely the boys were enamoured of Karinthy’s perennially popular Please Sir! (1916), a collection of humorously perceptive stories about schoolboy life (fig. 4). So even among children, Karinthy was a living legend. Robert likely also had read and loved that book, and his meeting with Karinthy, who encouraged him and called him his “spiritual son,” made an unforgettable impression on the boy.
After Robert finished the fourth grade, Henrik and Stephanie reconsidered the plan to withdraw him from school to learn a trade. Having observed his talents and listened to the entreaties of his teacher, they were convinced to cultivate his intellectual gifts rather than apprentice him to a carpenter. When Robert was fourteen, his father placed him in Regia Scuola Italiana, the Italian high school in Budapest, so that he could become fluent in a second language; there Zend also studied Latin and German. One of his professors was Joseph Füsi, a prominent translator of plays by Luigi Pirandello. Zend describes Füsi as a personal friend who encouraged him to write and translate.16
Childhood travels to Italy and studies at the Italian high school fostered in Robert an enduring love of languages. He went on to study literature in several other languages and twenty years later earned a graduate degree in Italian literature at the University of Toronto. And his high school studies with Füsi likely influenced his decision to write about Pirandello for his master’s thesis.
Robert seems to have had a happy childhood, nurtured by caring parents who assiduously looked after his health, well-being, and education. Although they could scarcely afford it, they sent him to Italy several times to regain his health and to become exposed to a different culture and language. He remembers fondly that his mother spoiled him. However, she also tended to be over-protective, even accompanying him when he was fourteen to summer camp, where his father had sent him to gain a sense of independence. Teased about his hovering mother, Robert resourcefully wrote to her older brother, Dori, for help. His uncle understood the situation and quickly persuaded his sister to leave her son in peace. After her departure, Robert was able to bond with the other boys.17
Reminiscences of his parents and childhood surface in some of his stories and poems. In “A Memory,” he tells of a humorous (in retrospect) coming-of-age incident involving his father:
Once, at fifteen,
I made my poor
old dad so mad at me
that he chased me
around the table
till I caught him, finally18
And in “Madeleine,” he experiences a self-referential Proustian moment eating a madeleine and remembering himself at fifteen reading Proust in his parents’ “old apartment” in a “yellow house [on a] curvy little street.” He recalls the magic of his youth in Budapest, and “my mother, my father, my friends and my loves.” He decides to write his memoirs, to be entitled (in typical Zend brain-teaser fashion) In Search of In Search of Time Lost Lost.19
However, Robert’s high school years were anything but peaceful. The years from 1944 to 1945 saw not only the Nazi takeover of Hungary and the deportation and murder of hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews and others deemed undesirable by the regime, but also the Soviet invasion of Hungary (between October 1944 and February 1945) and its aftermath of rape, murder, and pillage. The Siege of Budapest by the Soviet military was one of the longest and bloodiest urban battles of World War II in Europe. The extraordinarily violent and chaotic transition from Nazi to Soviet control lasted about one hundred days and resulted in extremely degraded living conditions amid destruction, terror, disease, and starvation. Atrocities against civilians were committed by both Hungarian and Soviet forces. During the Siege, about 38,000 Hungarian civilians were killed. Thousands were executed outright by members of the Arrow Cross, the pro-Nazi Hungarian party.20
Tragically, Robert’s parents were among those killed during that brutal period. Robert was then fifteen years old.21In light of that terrible event, the poem “Madeleine” might take on added significance: his memory of being fifteen, whether it was before or after his parents’ execution, seems frozen in time, emblazoned in his memory. The shock and grief of his loss left a deep impression on him for the rest of his life.
In the semi-autobiographical story “My Baby Brother,” Zend directly addresses his parents’ death, interweaving with that event an account of his brother who died before birth. As mentioned previously, the story tells of dreamer who learns that his long-dead parents have returned to life and immediately become pregnant with a boy. Although he is excited at the thought of having a baby brother, he also realizes that this sibling will replace him and accomplish all the things he was unable to, such as becoming a “great composer” because “internal and external forces prevented me from doing so.” Like a Twilight Zone episode, the dream keeps returning to the beginning, and the details of his parents’ demise shift: they died in a camp, they were shot, their apartment was bombed. And he learns of their last words: hopes for their son’s survival. And since their deaths, he says,
they’ve been my guardian spirits, floating around me, saving me from death on ten or so occasions.22
The dreamer is trapped inside a tape loop, an endless rehearsal of variations on tragedy, not unlike the history of Hungary in the twentieth century. Finally, the dream ends with a scene of a tombstone whose inscription keeps changing. He’s not sure whose tombstone it represents: the baby brother he never had? Or perhaps the dead avenues of a life of foiled plans? The former emblematizes the latter, and from Zend’s multiple losses emerges the recurring theme in his writing of the “unborn child” who “knocks at the gates of existence,” “struggl[ing] to become,” but who ends up “freezing on the snow-fields of white non-existence.”23
The end of the Nazi’s brief but barbaric chapter in Hungary’s history was following by a protracted Communist totalitarian regime with its own institutionalized system of cruelty and deception. And although life was not easy during Budapest’s long recovery from the destruction and devastation of the war, Zend was able to continue his education. His class was probably the last to graduate from the Regia Scuola Italiana, as that high school closed its doors in 1947 due to pressures from the Hungarian Communist government.24 In 1949, he was admitted to Péter Pázmány Science University, where he completed three years of study in Hungarian and Italian literature, and four years of study in Russian literature. In addition, he studied German, Finnish, and classical languages.25
Soon after he began his university studies, he married Ibi Keil in 1950. Ibi and Robert had been drawn together by their love of classical music and literature. When they met, Robert was entertaining friends by playing a Mozart piano sonata. Ibi recalls that Robert was impressed by her ability to sing melodies from all of Beethoven’s symphonies. On one of their first dates, they attended a performance of The Tragedy of Man by Imre Madách, the famous nineteenth-century Hungarian poet whose long dramatic poem, as we will see later, deeply influenced Zend’s writing and art. And they also shared feelings of empathy for the tragic events of their youth: Robert had lost his parents to the war, and Ibi had lost her parents, younger brother, and other family members to the Holocaust. In 1944, at the age of fifteen, Ibi had been transported along with her parents and brother to Auschwitz. She managed to live through the horrors of Auschwitz and two other camps, but unfortunately her parents and brother did not survive.26
Although apartments were hard to come by, the young couple, assisted by an uncle of Robert’s, managed to procure a small place. They settled into their new life together as Robert continued his studies and Ibi worked at a factory while pursuing her own education to become a librarian.27
In 1953, Zend received a Bachelor of Arts degree as well as the official title of Literary Translator. One of his university professors was Tibor Kardos, who edited the literary magazine where from 1953 to 1956 Zend worked as a translator of Italian literature.28
For four years, from 1948 to 1951 (between the ages of 19 and 22), he worked for the Press and Publicity Department of the Hungarian National Filmmaking Company, the state-controlled cinema during the Stalin regime, where he edited films, designed and produced dozens of movie posters, and wrote film reviews.29 Although many of these films appearing from the state monopoly were vehicles for political messages, for a brief time early into the Communist regime, a variety of more sophisticated films was allowed, as the poster produced by Zend of Hamlet (1948, starring Lawrence Olivier and Jean Simmons) attests (fig. 6). In the same year, he also produced a poster for Talpalatnyi föld (Treasured Earth), the first film realized by the newly nationalized film industry in Hungary (fig. 7).
But working conditions were far from ideal, as many of the films approved by the state were monotonously devoted to praise of Communism and condemnation of its enemies. Moreover, Zend had to deal with narrow-minded and incompetent administrators at the Hungarian National Filmmaking Company. For Zend, the position was neither a creative nor a worker’s paradise. He made his job tolerable by entertaining friends with satirical reviews of the films with the most hackneyed ideological plots, and joking about the “waterhead” administration, so-called because “the department bosses seemed to have heads made of water.”30
Someone as outspoken as Zend was bound to come into conflict with officials, and before long he was blacklisted by the Communist administration, which meant that he was effectively barred from securing full-time employment. The event that triggered the blacklisting might seem innocent enough. The government had set up a wall on which the public was invited to write constructive criticism of government services and other socialist functions. Zend had written a bitingly satirical criticism of food that was served at a political event. The officials were not amused, and Zend was fired and prevented from pursuing any kind of meaningful career.31
To earn sufficient income to help support himself, his wife, and in 1956 their newborn baby, he had to patch together a variety of short-term and part-time jobs. For four years, he worked as a free-lance journalist. In addition, he did writing and editorial work for children’s and youth magazines, edited books for the Young People’s Book Publisher, wrote reports and essays for a teacher’s magazine, wrote for the Hungarian Radio, translated poetry and essays from German, Italian, and Russian sources into Hungarian, and worked with illustrators, artists, and printing shops.32 One of his editing jobs, for example, was a 1955 guide book for the Pioneers, a socialist youth group (fig. 8).
He loved writing for children, and a friend who edited the chilren’s magazine Pajtás (Pal) helped him to get paid for writing articles.33 Zend reports that his pen name, “Peeper,” was “extremely popular,” and he received fan mail from children all over Hungary.34 He also travelled regularly to visit schools around the country.35
Zend was also developing as a poet. He wrote his first poems at the age of nine and thirteen and began writing poetry in earnest when he was fifteen,36 the year of the Nazi occupation of Hungary and the death of his parents. During the 1950s, he continued to write poetry, in these earlier years verse of a lyric nature.37
In 1956, Ibi fulfilled two dreams. After the loss of so many of her relatives to the Holocaust, she longed to start a family. After years of despairing that it might not be possible for her to have children due to the damage her body had sustained in Nazi labour camps, she finally became pregnant with a girl. In the same year that Aniko was born, Ibi fulfilled her long-time dream of becoming a librarian after passing her exams.38
For the Zends, the years leading up to the 1956 Hungarian Revolution were not easy. Money was so tight that Robert wasn’t even able to afford a typewriter, which would have cost the couple three months’ wages. Something as basic to a poet as a typewriter was a “lifetime ambition.”39 In February 1956, Aniko was born premature, and Ibi describes her during the first eight months as “very thin, very pale, and undernourished,” as the baby didn’t have the proper food and vitamins to thrive.
Discontent with Soviet rule was rampant, and during the summer and fall of 1956 it grew increasingly bold and vocal. Leafing through children’s books that she was placing back on the shelves, Ibi noticed that even the children were scribbling protests about the government’s hypocrisy:
Wherever there was anything praising Communism, the Russian army or the Kremlin’s might, the little children had written in, “It’s not true . . . All lies . . . We don’t want Russia.”40
In 1956, Robert was on the brink of publishing his first book, a collection of one hundred poems, with a dissident publishing company, when a landmark event in Hungarian history suddenly halted his plans.41 His and Ibi’s lives were forever and drastically changed as a result of the Hungarian Uprising against Soviet rule. Journalists and university students, encouraged by the June uprising in Poland against the Soviets, began openly to question and debate the future of Hungary. On October 23, students marched to the Parliament Building to voice their protest and list their demands for the sovereignty of Hungary, free elections, freedom of the press, and various individual freedoms severely eroded by Soviet rule (fig. 9). The demonstration ended in a massacre when government snipers and Soviet tanks opened fire on the crowd, leaving about one hundred students dead.
As a result of the massacre, widespread and violent protests erupted as outraged Hungarians witnessed the extent to which the Soviets were determined to maintain their grip on the satellite country.42 During the revolt, which lasted from October 23 to 28, 1956, Hungarians engaged in fierce battle with Soviet tanks and soldiers. Victorious citizens clambered onto captured Soviet tanks and waved the Hungarian flag with the detested hammer and sickle cut from its center (fig. 10).
By October 28, Hungarian fighters had suffered heavy losses but appeared to have been successful: the tanks withdrew from Budapest and the citizens enjoyed a few days of freedom from Soviet aggression. Ibi remembers the kettles that people placed on street corners to collect money for the widows and children of those killed in battle (fig. 11), and that there was a euphoric feeling of solidarity and mutual trust.43 As the Soviet government officially admitted mistakes in handling the uprising and announced its intention to negotiate with Hungarian officials regarding Soviet military presence, the prospect of a sovereign and independent Hungary, free from Soviet interference, was openly celebrated.44
However, unbeknownst to Hungarian civilians, on November 3 Khrushchev approved Operation Whirlwind, a Soviet military invasion of Hungary involving sixty thousand soldiers. Early in the morning on Sunday, November 4, without warning, hundreds of tanks rolled into Budapest in a swift and brutal crackdown on the Hungarian Revolution (fig. 12), assisted by the AVO (Hungarian secret police). Many Hungarians actively resisted with guns and Molotov cocktails. It was an extremely perilous time: thousands of Hungarians were killed by superior Soviet power, and the dreaded AVO ruthlessly tortured their own compatriots whom they deemed to be enemies of the socialist state. The Soviet Minister of the Defense estimated that within three days the soldiers would have the city under control; in fact, the Hungarian insurgents kept fighting until November 11.45
It was also a perilous time for Zend, who had been producing and distributing leaflets encouraging Hungarians to revolt.46 If he were discovered and arrested, he could have been severely punished as a traitor.
Furthermore, Ibi recalls her feelings of anxiety when accompanying the Soviet invasion came a renewed wave of antisemitism with ominous slogans appearing on walls such as “Icig, Icig,47 most nem viszünk Auschwitzig!” (“Jews, this time you won’t even have to go to Auschwitz!”), intimating the possibility of a return to the days of the Arrow Cross terror of 1944—1945.48 Such threats, as well as serious antisemitic incidents, which were occurring in small Hungarian towns as well as in Budapest, sent a chill of fear through the surviving Jewish population in Hungary. In some cases, mobs roamed the streets of small towns attacking Jews and their homes and businesses.49 This danger as well as the Soviet invasion were factors in the Zends’ decision to leave Hungary.50
Escape was possible if risky: if people walked all or part of the way, they faced the risk of hypothermia and exhaustion as it was the onset of winter; they were also in peril of being captured or shot by AVO border patrols. Hungary was bordered to the north by Czechoslovakia, and to the east by the Soviet Union and Romania. The main directions toward freedom were to the west, toward Austria, or to the south, toward Yugoslavia. The vast majority of the 200,000 Hungarian refugees fled to Austria.51
Zend could envision the bleak and undignified future for writers and other intellectuals in Hungary. Indeed, after the Soviets regained control of Hungary, many writers were arrested and sentenced to many years in prison, and in January 1957, the Writers’ Association and Journalists’ Union were disbanded by the Soviet-controlled government.52 Zend did not want to live under a regime in which his every word would be scrutinized and subject to state censorship. As he writes in Beyond Labels, the refugee Hungarians crossed the Atlantic
to get away from the land
where there wasn’t enough room for us
in the houses and on the streets —
where armies every decade changed their shirt colours
and massacred us again and again —
where even the trees eavesdropped on us
whispering behind our backs —
where at night what was left of our souls
kept on trembling in fear —53
As to his own decision to go into exile, he states,
I chose to leave my country rather than publish party-line poetry or publish dissident poetry and be jailed, or deported, or silenced afterwards.54
For a brief window of opportunity, he and his wife and eight-month-old baby had the chance to escape westward into Austria. A close friend, István Radó, had created fake identification papers for the escape of twenty to thirty persons, and invited Robert and his family to join the group. Fig. 13 shows the card he forged for the Zends, certifying that their apartment had been destroyed, rendering them homeless, and authorizing travel.
Ibi still vividly recalls the events of their escape.55 She and Robert joined István’s group in a covered truck and hired driver. The mood was somber as she watched the cobblestones retreating through the fog as the truck drove the group of friends away from Budapest and toward Austrian border. They proceeded along back roads, taking advice along the way from fellow Hungarians about which routes were blocked by the Soviets.
In the event they were stopped by Soviet soldiers, Robert and István had written a letter in Russian addressed to the soldiers (fig. 14), pleading with them to let them go on their way: “Dear Soviet Soldier, We are all ordinary Hungarian workers. Fathers, mothers, children, families, who lost everything—shelter and furniture, earned with hard labour. None of us fought against you. We are not fascists or partisans. We love you as you are also workers—providers for your families. We don’t like capitalists or imperialists. Our only wish is working in peace another twenty-thirty years. Our lives now are in your hands. If your hearts are opened up to love and you also love your family, you will help us and get our gratitude. We call on you, dear Soviet Soldier, help us! In the name of our children!!! Ordinary Hungarians”56
Fortunately, they didn’t have to use the letter, as they made their way toward the border unchallenged. However, the driver, after having promised to convey them to the border, stopped a few miles short of it and refused to go any farther. Despite feeling betrayed, the group paid him the agreed-upon fee and were compelled to walk for a few hours the rest of the way through rain and mud.
They had to face one last danger when, just before arriving at the Austrian border, they were halted by a guard, a young Hungarian who had been conscripted into service to prevent his fellow countrymen from escaping. Fortunately, one of their group managed to talk (and bribe) the young man into allowing them to go peacefully on their way, persuading him that their homes had been destroyed and reassuring him that when the situation in Budapest had calmed down, they would return to Hungary — after all, he reasoned with the guard, they were patriotic Hungarians and would not desert their country forever. The bluff and bribe together softened the guard, who allowed them to continue. Finally the group crossed the border, where Austrians approached them with words of welcome and led them to American and Canadian Red Cross shelters and warm food. Such was Ibi’s relief at their safe passage that she fell to her knees and began laughing uncontrollably.
Canadian and American immigration officials were stationed at the refugee camp, conducting preliminary interviews. Although the Zends had a choice of immigrating to either country, their decision to go to Canada was determined during their interview with the Americans. In 1956, McCarthyism was still casting strong suspicion on any American deemed to be associated with the Communist Party, and thus the American interviewers wanted to know the Zends’ affiliation with and allegiance to the Communist Party of Hungary and the Soviet Union. Ibi, who had been raised in a poor family, was able to get a college education and become a librarian due to the assistance and subsidy of the Hungarian Communist government. If she were to lie, denying that Communism had helped her to achieve her dream, the Americans would accept her as a political refugee.
But the flip side of life under Communism was a web of lies, a suppression of truth in order to maintain a façade of harmony and prosperity. Ibi, weary of such deception, refused to conceal from the Americans her gratitude for the benefits she had derived from the Communist educational program in order to satisfy them that she would be an acceptable immigrant. Thus Ibi’s sense of integrity sealed the Zends’ decision to go to Canada.
From the border Red Cross camp they traveled by train to Vienna, along with other refugees, where they stayed until their immigration paperwork was processed and they were ready to travel to their destination (fig. 15).
In Vienna, many voluntary agencies had quickly organized to provide relief for the refugees, such as the National Catholic Welfare Conference, the Lutheran World Federation, the Hebrew Sheltering and Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), the World Council of Churches, and the International Rescue Committee.57 Individuals also took the initiative to collect donations on the street to help the refugees (fig. 16).
At the Canadian Embassy, the Zends obtained visas to enter Canada (fig. 17). Before moving on, they stayed in Vienna for a few days, spending time with friends whom they knew they would not see for a long time, such as Skutai Ibolya, with whom Zend had worked at the children’s magazine Pajtás (Pal) in Budapest, and István Radó, who had organized the Zends’ escape and who was headed for the United States with his family (fig. 18). Zend would remain friends with Radó for the rest of his life, often flying from Toronto to visit him at his home in Los Angeles.
Taking the next step on their journey to a new country and home, the Zends gathered their few belongings in a cardboard box, took a taxi to the Vienna train station (fig. 19), and made their way to Liverpool. There, they boarded a Cunard Line ship, travelling towards a freer but uncertain future in Canada.