The guide

Many Eastern European authors of the 20th century have one or more works, which for political reasons have been prevented from being included into the collective memory of their own national literature. The following work by Sándor Török (1904-1985) – a Hungarian writer of Transylvanian Jewish origin and of an adventurous life, author of several extremely popular books of our childhood –, The diary of the eyewitness, a travel diary of 1941 presenting the Subcarpathian region which was reannexed to Hungary just two years earlier, shared the same fate. The book’s stories and descriptions fit well to the recent Ukrainian bend of Río Wang, so we will soon present some more of them.

Studiolum: The following story illustrates well what has already been referred to – but we will also write about it in more detail –: the complexity and contradictions of the development of the identity of the last “nationless” Slavic group, the Carpathian Rusyns. At the same time it also illustrates the development of a new version of the topos of the Rusyns as the gens fidelissima of historical Hungary, in which the sincere benevolence is mixed with a good amount of patriarchal condescension.

Huszt on the map of the former Hungarian county of Máramaros (click for the complete map),
which after 1918 was divided by half between Czechoslovakia and Romania.
The northern part, between 1939 and 1944 reannexed to Hungary,
now belongs to the Ukraine.

Chapter 7: The guide

At the railway station of Huszt the traveler inquires after the whereabouts of the military district headquarters, and they say to him: just go down this road, it will lead you straight to the ministry, there it is.

There is no cab, but behind the station there dwell some poor lads snatching at suitcases, running for cigarette, watching out for a penny. One of them, a young man of a vivid look and swift speaking steps forward. He’s a very ragged, unshaven, haggard lad, but with the intelligence of stray dogs in every look, every word, every gesture. The traveler likes the guy. He gives him the suitcase, and they go to the ministry.

By the time they arrive to the bridge of the Huszt stream, they are already on so good terms that the traveler can ask the young man – who speaks very well in Hungarian, but with a foreign accent, and not with the soft one usual here –: what are you, then?
– Russian.
– Ukrainian?
– Ah, Ukrainian! – he groans offended. – Ukrainians are the Ukrainians, but I am Russian! – He says this very proudly, but then, to prevent any misunderstanding, he adds to it:
– Not a Great Russian, but a Little Russian. But I like Hungarians.
In front of the ministry the traveler already knows that they wanted to force the lad to enter the Sich Guard. But I did not enter, eh, I did not, I told that I cannot handle a weapon – he says –, although I can, eh, and how well! For I served two years under the Czechs. But I denied it. I will not be a Sichak.

Riflemen of the Carpathian Sich lined up. Huszt, February-March 1939. The second from the left is the legendary icon of the Sich, Oleksandr Blestiv (“Haidamak”).

He has no learned art, he is a poor man running about, he does everything they entrust him with. He lives at the outskirt of Huszt with his father, mother and brothers – who, as he says, do not know a word in Hungarian – and his wife. It’s been a year since he got married.
Here the traveler arranges for his official duties, and when he comes out, he says to the Russian:
– Listen to me, I hire you as a guide. You will be with me until noon. We go up to the castle, here and there, you receive two pengős, you take breakfast and lunch with me, and I pay for the drink as well. Do you accept it?
– I do – the eyes of the Russian shine on –, I will faithfully go!
– Well, give hand. – The traveler stretches out his hand, the Russian grabs it. – So you can tell me your name, my son.
And the Russian tells his name:
– József Kovács.
The traveler stares open-mouthed.
Then he closes his mouth (in Huszt he will stare open-mouthed a couple of times, he will get used to it), and sets off with Kovács, the Russian, his faithful guide.
József, the Russian is an excellent traveling companion, nice-talking and very knowledgeable. Or at least he replies to every question without hesitation. Now he points out: look, the Sichaks fired at the ministry from that attic, from that window – the traces of bullets are still there on the glass door.

Riflemen of the Carpathian Sich marching in front of the headquarters in Huszt before departure
to the front, 15 March 1939. On 14 March, when Slovakia declared its independence
from Czechoslovakia, the autonomous Rusyn government of Subcarpathia –
until then an autonomous region of Czechoslovakia –, led by Avgustyn
and residing in Huszt, also declared the independence
of the region. However, the next day the Hungarian army
entered the region, and by breaking the resistance of
the voluntary Sich Guard, within a day they
occupied it and reannexed it to Hungary,
where it belonged until 1918.

And also here, and there, bullet holes everywhere. But where should we drink a toast? – This is the care of the guide, and he, to favor the gentleman from Pest, says: “just come, I will take you to a true Hungarian place, to the Hűbel in the Royal.”
There’s only one problem with this Russian. After every fifty-sixty steps he stops, “Mariya moi!” he says, half-annoyed, half-praying, and he binds his sandal again and again. Nevertheless, it comes loosen soon, and then we stop again: “Mariya moi, Mariya moi!”
But you can get used to it.
By the way, the helpfulness of József is absolutely not humble or self-humiliating. He serves in a gentlemanly manner. He wants to run home to change clothes.
– I want to take a better dress – he says – if we will be together all morning.

In the Royal he wants to sit at a separate table. The breakfast is, of course, stew and wine. But he does not drink until the traveler says a toast before. And he makes sure to drink only as much as the traveler does. After breakfast, while the traveler is scribbling a postcard, Kovács reaches into the bread basket. The traveler looks up just then… so Kovács bllushes and returns his hand. – But please, eat, says the traveler, eat, God bless you. – But Kovács does not eat any more. He is just sitting and watching, when the pencil would roll away, so he would pick it up, when the hat would fall down, so he would wipe it off; he gives fire, and would even smoke the cigarette instead of the traveler, and when we go away, he asks for the postcard, so he would take it. And how he takes it! He does not take. He carries it. He delivers it. Otherwise, he wants me to see the post office, how beautiful it is. The traveler wants to go to Voloshin’s house, but he keeps suggesting the post office: it’s amazing, wonderful, oh, how beautiful! – and since he’s the guide, we set off to the post office.

József, the Russian anxiously pushes the postcard before himself by two hands. He stops on a small bridge, showing towards Várpatak, the Orthodox church on the hillside. He says, there came once a very rich Russian from somewhere, and it was him to build that church, and then he went away, Mariya moi, how rich Russian he was…
– Hoo-hah, heh, nee-te, nee –, a hay wagon got stuck here, on the small bridge of the Koriatovich street, and the Russian with anxious care shows the way to the traveler on the sidewalk: go there, please, to prevent any trouble… The coachman is pulling the two little cows in front of the hay wagon, hoo-hah, heh, nee-te, nee! – now he turns back… he’s a long-bearded old Jew with swinging earlocks, his hat slipped on his neck in the great excitement; now he plugs the whip into the hay, he leans against the first left wheel, which got stuck into the bridge plank, he stretches his shoulder to it: hoo-hah, heh, nee-te, nee…

– Soon you will see the post office! – this is how the traveler is encouraged by József, his faithful guide, who is now not very impressed by the fortress, the mountains, or anything else: but the post office, the post office!

…The traveler, just tentatively, points at a church while crossing the square, and he asks: what kind of church is this? And József, with a pleasant pride: this is my church, the Calvinist church! The traveler closes his open mouth, and then he continues:
– You are a Russian? And a Calvinist?
– Yes. This is where I was baptized and where I go, this is my church.
The traveler points at the tower:
– But look, it has a cross!
– A cross – the Russian repeats, and he does not look up, they want to explain to him what is on the tower of his church?
– How can a Calvinist church have such a double Orthodox cross, József? – and he begins to lose patience:
– I don’t understand these things – he says –, this is the Calvinist church, I am a Russian, and I go here.

A half hour later the traveler is standing in the onion-domed Orthodox church with the white-bearded, black-hatted archimandrite – who speaks a beautiful Hungarian –, and tells him the story. Yes, this is really so, this Kovács is really Russian, although his mother “was a Hungarian”. He is of course not Calvinist, but Greek Catholic. He attends the lower great church, he was also baptized there, true, since that is a Greek Catholic church, but he believes that it is a Calvinist one and that he himself is a Calvinist.
When they leave, József Kovács closes the debate like this: I do not understand these things, sir, but the cross is a cross, and the rest is not important.
The traveler attempts a last try:
– But if you are a Russian, how is it that not this is your church, where we have just been, since this is a Russian church.
– No. This is the Orthodox church.
– But you are a Russian, just like the archimandrite.
– Of course not. The archimandrite is Great Russian. And I am a Little Russian, as I have already told.
– Ruthenian?
– Ah – he is spatting contemptuously. – The Ruthenian is a Rusyn, no Russian. I am the Russian!
They pass by an old World War cemetery.
– Nobody was buried here since then, just recently they dug a total of six new graves. There – the cemetery keeper shows – two Hungarians… here two Ukrainians… there two Czechs are laying…

A Hungarian Ansaldo “small tank” brigade in Huszt, 1939

The traveler and his guide leave the cemetery and start to climb the mountain, preferably not on the road, but wherever it is closer. But how this József can climb! Meanwhile, he also speaks, encouraging the traveler to come, since from there above, from the ruins one can wonderfully see – the post office! And he climbs up among the rocks, halfway stopping and waiting for the traveler – from here one can already see the railway line, from where the traveler arrived, and the meandering Tisza… Huszt and the neighboring villages – József awaits for the traveler, he turns him with a gesture towards the panoramic view, and with a posture he shows there: here you are! – Almost as if saying: I made this all!

We go down to the Royal. József, modestly, only asks for a soup. Then, finally, he also eats the meat, the stew and the pasta. May it be to his health! The fork does not rattle in his hand, he does not take the knife in the mouth, he eats the soup more silently than the traveler. Then they clink the last glass: let’s pay and go. We buy a last cigarette, and the fervent József does not say kiosk, but he calls the smokers’ shop by full rank and title, as it is freshly painted above the door: let us enter the Hungarian Royal Tobacco Parlor. The traveler puts the cigarette in his suitcase. József leans close to him, and whispers in his ear: each time you open the suitcase, close it well! – All right – whispers the traveler –, thank you, so it will be.
And, grateful for the good advice, he rushes in a candy store and buys a belated little Easter rabbit for József’s wife. József hides the rabbit into his handkerchief, and by putting his hands together he insists that he would pray for the traveler.

Rushing to the station, József stops every five minutes: Mariya moi! – and he is binding his sandal. Meanwhile he speaks quickly, as much as he just can. He informs me about old stories: the events of the last months of the Czech rule, and suddenly he says: and then the Holichans came.
– Who? – asks the traveler alarmed, wondering what an unexpected new nation this is?
But not, József corrects himself:
– Well, the Sichaks.
– But then why do you call them Holichans?
– We call them like this, because they came from Holich. – Well, that’s all right then. And the traveler says goodbye by shaking hands with József Kovács, who claims himself a Little Russian, was a Czech soldier, a friend of Hungarians, believing himself to be a Calvinist, but it is not true, since he is a Greek Catholic, and he is a Russian not after his father, but his mother, who, however “was a Hungarian”… The traveler says goodbye to him, and sets off to the upper stream of Tisza, watching the distorted boundaries nesting into each other around himself, and thinking about the tragic waving of all these mixed small peoples.
The train starts, the traveler waves his hat, and József Kovács, the wonderful Little Russian sends him a gentle goodbye-shouting from the other end of the platform. The wheels are already rattling, the traveler does not understand it, and he points to his ears: I can’t hear it! And well, he sees that Kovács, the Little Russian draws a cross in the air and he throws it after him.
He blesses him… The traveler accepts this with a humble joy from the Little Russian, whom he got fond of, and who told him there, on the hill, after the archimandrite: I do not understand these things, sir, but the cross is a cross.
The traveler sets off to Taracköz, from there to Rahó, Kőrösmező, and through the Tatar Pass, the Polish border, then turning back to Aknaszlatina, Nagyszöllős and Újhely to Kassa, from there to Pest, and again God knows where. But looking at his present and his future travels, as well as what he is about to say in this book, he cannot but repeat with József Kovács, wherever he is:
– I do not understand all this, sir… but the cross is a cross.

1 comentario:

Effe dijo...

as simple as that: the cross is a cross.
A very good reportage.
(and so often we all believe to be something, and it's not true)