The themes of memory and forgetting are not as distinct from the theme of responsibility as we would like them to be. Gábor Schein's beautifully developed and persuasive essay begins with the physical description of a specific part of Budapest, tracing it from its origins as a swamp through its development as an industrial slum and then as a quarter for the wealthy, going on to examine the regular changing of the city's street-names as a series of excisions from memory. Such excisions, he argues, lead to apathy and indifference. Corpses float down the river in 1945 but no one notices any more. The homeless and hungry of today move past us in the street but liberal public opinion uses them more to flatter its own conscience than to do anything. The Sebaldian sense of deep ground constantly opens at our feet but we move on, returning to the moral and psychological equivalent of the swamp out of which the city sprang.

The essay is rendered in its full richness by the translator into English, Ildikó Noémi Nagy.
                               —George Szirtes

I live in downtown Budapest on the left side of the Danube. A century and a half ago, an untouched swamp stood in place of the neighborhood’s streets and apartment buildings. This is where the river deposited its sediment: residue, tree trunks, and the animal carcasses it washed down from the north. The swamp was the territory of fish and birds. Beneath the deceptive turf lurked water and mud at a depth of who knows how many fathoms. Anyone who dared enter this area lurched and was slightly bogged down at first, but if the ground gave way, the swamp would slowly swallow them up. The more they floundered and struggled, the deeper they sank; the lake weeds and water-lily roots entangled their legs, until the black mud that dwelled beneath the green grasses, the bell flowers, and the wide burdocks finally enveloped them.

The swamp was mute. The Danube, however, happily conversed with the Rascian, Croat, Greek, and Jewish raftsmen who, after mooring their transports loaded with wine and grain on the opposite shore, brought various wild tales of the southern plains or the mountains up north. Still, the left side of the Danube was made habitable not by these wild stories, but rather by the ones about economy. The swamp was drained in the 1870s and within a few years, a host of new factories opened on this newly gained land: a brewery, a wool scouring plant, a parquet factory, a weapons factory, and six mills. The suffocating, heavy swirl of smoke never cleared from the air. Poor people lived here in ten- or fifteen-square-meter apartments. Dark and unheated hovels opened from either side of courtyards adjacent to the street. The rent was due to Mr. Suhajda, for every building belonged to him. This is why the former swamp bore the name of The Suhajda Settlement. It was best if strangers kept away. Epidemics raged and murders were not uncommon. Corpses were tossed into the river, because the last grave in that old cemetery—which was to the north of the swamp and could be reached by taking a turn off the highway—had been dug twenty years ago, and the lords of the city had not designated a new one for the settlement’s dead. The old cemetery, of course, was still used, just not for its original purpose. Careworn figures in rags often appeared at the corners of the plots. Their type didn’t much care about visitors, or at least pretended to ignore them. The cemetery was also a refuge for prostitutes in the last stages of their wretchedness, who would not be hired even in the seediest of brothels. They knew the most secluded spots of the cemetery, where the ditch was the dampest and the boxthorn the thickest.

The Suhajda Settlement disappeared in the beginning of the 1900s. Not only did the buildings vanish, but due to new lot division arrangements, the former street structure was reorganized. Though not necessarily city-like in atmosphere, sometime later when walking along the wider, more pleasant, tree-lined streets, it was almost impossible to believe that not long ago, moldering, chaotic squalor was rampant in this area. The city was not cruel when it cast the lives of those connected to the purged walls into oblivion, but did so with the rapturous joy that ushers in a glorious new beginning. The first apartment building with a courtyard was erected alongside this section of the river in 1911. The commissioners were mostly Jews; the engineering work was done by Hungarians and Austrians, while Slovakians labored up on the scaffolds. Primarily industrialist Jews moved to the neighborhood. With them, city life began here. By this time, true construction fever was raging on the Rings and the boulevards. Lot prices skyrocketed; efforts were made to put every single foothold to use. Owning a building was considered the best investment. But World War I did not promote land speculation. Even after a century, the rafters of buildings that were erected before 1916 are never infested by termites, and the lead pipes only burst two or three times a year, while the buildings constructed ten years later, or during the Great Depression, need repair that many times each month.

By today, these first metropolitan citizens have faded into oblivion, just like the inhabitants of The Suhajda Settlement, since a little more than three decades after they moved in, nearly all of them were killed—perishing as forced laborers, in concentration camps, or shot by firing squad into the Danube—their apartments restructured and subdivided after 1948. The memories of present-day residents reach back to the 1950s at best: who was born when, the year someone moved here, when so-and-so defected from Hungary or committed suicide. If a new building is raised, the foundation must be dug deep, because even today the soil is loose and the buildings easily sink, the walls crack.

These cracks remind us that we still live over a swamp, and we’d best pay attention to this warning. The swamp was a kind of no-man’s-land, an ambiguous and dangerous area which, though offering sustenance to fisherman at home in the marshy land, provided no home for anyone else, except perhaps a hiding place for outlaws. Here, the swamp was the same as a desert island for seafaring people: a terra incognita, exotic foreignness waiting to be conquered, assimilated. But while it is being occupied and taken over, all that renders it foreign slowly disappears. The power relations defined by assimilation are simultaneously compulsive oblivion and oblivious compulsion, the silencing of past echoes and the eternal return of sounds that cannot be silenced.

The length of time of which I speak is not long. A hundred and forty years ago, not a single building stood in the spot where I write these words now. But over the course of this short period of time, the walls have become saturated with stories and history. In Péter Nádas’s novel, Parallel Stories—in which the Budapest scenes take place without exception in the buildings and surrounding streets located on this former swamp, and the action shifts only to Margit Island or to the Lukács Baths on the opposite shore at the furthest—Gyöngyvér, the orphan girl raised under government foster care, can hear the horrifying sounds of the 1944 Jewish persecution from the walls. The bullets lodged in the walls from 1956 also doze there: “The bricks, fired many times, resisted the impact of the bullets well, though one could follow the arc of the bursts in the damage they caused. Here a brick was dislodged, there the edge of another was chipped off, somewhere else a bullet lodged in the mortar.”

Walls are surfaces that remember, and remembrance names the streets and squares as well. European cities can be read as the living texts of memory. The narratives of historical consciousness embedded within names become layered onto each other. The events of a perpetual present gain meaning when they refer to these narratives, like when someone lists all the places in a city they’ve lived as a child or over the course of their adulthood, pairing street names with all the events they experienced in a city. In European cities, historical memory creates a relatively permanent structure which the inhabitants become attached to, resisting the renaming of streets. This is not so in present-day Budapest. There is no tradition of centuries-old street names. In the twentieth century, each political change brought about altered street names. After World War I, the reminder of lost territories as a result of the Trianon Peace Treaty was inscribed onto the body of the city in a way that no matter which district one resided in, one was continuously confronted with the names of annexed cities and regions. In the 1930s, squares were named after Mussolini and Hitler, an avenue after Miklós Horthy, and a street after Gyula Gömbös. After World War II, not only did their names disappear off the city maps, but so did every concept or name that was unacceptable to the new regime, such as those connected to the Habsburg family or the clergy. The city became swathed in red, but names pertaining to communist ideology, devotion to the Soviet Union, and the representatives of the labor movement and anti-fascism are all clearly distinguishable. After 1989, the third Hungarian Republic was not considerate in making this distinction. The squares named for Marx and Engels, the Outstanding Worker Square, November 7 Square, Lenin Ring, People’s Army Avenue, Jenő Landler Street and Ferenc Münnich Street disappeared along with Liberation Square, Sándor Fürst Street and Imre Sallai Street, just like Kató Hámán Street and Gyula Kulich Square, as well as Barnabás Pesti Street. Corresponding to wiping away the reminders of the communist regime, the airbrushing of pre-war leftist and anti-fascist traditions from the city’s history also began. While renaming was merely a collateral goal in the beginning of the 1990s and a result of the Hungarian intelligentsia forgetting everything they knew about the history of communism as quickly as possible—and that certainly wasn’t much—this was the main goal of the renaming projects of the past two years. Over the course of 2011 and 2012, an additional twenty-six streets were renamed, and thirteen previously nameless public spaces received names. This is when the residents of Budapest could bid farewell to Mihály Károlyi, who was also deprived of his statue beside the Parliament; to Endre Ságvári; to the leader of the social-democratic women’s movement, Anna Koltói; to the similarly social-democratic Áron Szőcs and Illés Mónus; and after transforming the space of remembrance, two splendid, characteristically apolitical writers of the lower class, Andor Endre Gelléri and Józsi Jenő Tersánszky, were also erased. They were replaced by eminent actors, the football players of the Golden Team, and highly deserving clergymen. Almost openly admitting what was actually going on, the leaders of the city wiped the cheerlessly neglected Republic Square from the map, so called even throughout the communist era, and presented it to Pope John Paul II. 

Perhaps this latter christening is the most characteristic. A republic cynically denies itself and sets the papal Triple Crown over one of the poorest neighborhoods of Budapest, from where the police of the reigning mayor remove the homeless by force. This square of Christian-nationalist fictional remembrance was quickly structured around the capital’s residents, where the sensitivity towards modernity was exhausted by handing over a small segment of the city—numbed by clanging church bells and the everlasting success of the 6:3 football victory—to Elvis Presley, who, from now on, could stand there warbling “Love Me Tender” till the end of time. The people of Budapest acknowledged all this obediently, without a word of protest or complaint.

What makes lives here sway into joint oblivion, into the community of forgetfulness? What is it that leads to the dismantlement of the state again and again over the course of the twentieth century? What renders void certain words and laws? Why is it possible to repeatedly stigmatize the honorable and to glorify ignoble scoundrels? What causes that thread of inhibition to snap which hitherto compelled public life to have a speck of discipline?

Yes, we know: the failure to come to terms with trauma. Yes, we know: the inability to admit to crimes. Yes, we know: the lack of solidarity and responsibility, pitting people against each other through manipulation. Yes, we know: spiritual and physical misery, the disorganization of the state, a badly compensating national inferiority complex, fear of the culture of achievement. But what is the basis of this? Let’s stop on one of the bridges spanning the Danube and immerse ourselves in the sight of the rushing gray water.

In his diary from 1945, Sándor Márai relates a common event from those times. A village dogcatcher, whose job it was to fish corpses from the river, “pulled a naked female corpse, whose hands had been tied behind her neck, out of the water at dawn. Corpses are not buried, but tossed back into the Danube, letting them float downriver towards Budapest, because the township can’t afford the costs of burial. The Danube is gray and serene. No one cares about the corpses. The day before, I was waiting for a boat by the docks, when a big-bellied, bloated, drowned corpse floated past us. The people stared at it indifferently. A young woman stood next to me, powdering her nose. She spared not even a glance for the cadaver.” We might say that in 1945, when people had seen enough of death and would have liked to live at all costs, this apathy was understandable. They had to become insensate in order to go on living; they had to become numb so they would not feel pain. The psyche takes care of this. The hands tied back, of course, in this case tell the tale of a brutal execution. The instinctive need to survive, the callousness resulting from this surmounting desire, at that moment domesticated brutality, generated the acceptance of scandal and finally suggested approval in this young woman, who does not kill, does not make a single shameful comment, but rather does nothing more than powder her nose nonchalantly on the Danube shore.  

While Márai was writing the above lines, Ernő Szép related a humorous, chilling case to his readers in his feuilleton, Three Fellow-Men, as an example of the maximum degree of human compassion that can be witnessed around here. He speaks of the same type of compassion people display when confronted with the homeless nowadays or with children starving on the street. In his story, a humble peasant stands in front of his house, a pipe hanging from his mouth, his wife beside him. They watch “that sorrowful group of Jews that marched through their village in the autumn of ’44, hunched under the weight of heavy bags, heads bowed, hastened on by the encouraging yelps of Szálasi’s officers. The old farmer was moved as he watched this miserable pilgrimage. He thrust the pipe stem in his mouth from left to right and said to himself quietly, ‘Those poor, stinking Jews.’”  

Ernő Szép experienced this story firsthand, as he was one of the pilgrims with downcast heads; he understood perfectly that the farmer smoking his pipe outside the house did not lack the ability to feel compassion. Something in his heart really was moved. Indifference is not the case here. The man experienced frustration and felt uncomfortable. He saw that the events taking place before his eyes should not be happening. This was too much even for him, a man who did not like Jews and surely thought that he had several reasons for it. In order to clear up any misunderstandings, I would like to emphasize that I’m not talking about Jews or anti-Semitism here or about numbness, the pain-relieving mechanism of the soul, but rather about fanatic indifference. Why couldn’t compassion and frustration become active concern; why didn’t it occur to the farmer to rush into the kitchen and grab a potato, or whatever he had, to stuff into the hand of one of the unfortunates, thus alleviating the discomfort and in some way restoring dignity to even a single captive individual?

I believe it is because at the same moment that the feeling of sympathy rose within him, with the same or ever greater intensity, he drew a boundary between himself and the unfortunates. They are not like him. He is not like those marching past in front of him. They are different. Alien. This is the first step. Indifference, as we see, is not internal passivity; after all, behind the farmer’s disturbing sentence—“Those poor, stinking Jews.”—there was honest pity, fear, and the complex tension of active prejudice, yet the result was still passivity, and something else besides, which presumably was not the intention of the farmer: by drawing this boundary, he cast those stripped of their dignity into an even deeper abyss.  

Drawing boundaries means demolishing bridges and passageways. In his book titled Phenomenology of the Alien, Berhard Waldenfels raises topics that should be contemplated. He explains that when foreignness becomes embedded in human relations based on reciprocity, “all cultural and social contracts contain within them the element of promise, a kind of credit which the contract regulations do not exhaust or cover completely.” But Waldenfels immediately adds a warning to this sentence: “In this way, passages open between oneself and the alien; nonetheless, these bridges cannot bear weight, and we cannot pass along them to and fro as we please.”

Acknowledging that others have the right to dignity and attempting to eliminate boundaries are actually only the beginning. Even if they are a good start, they don’t want to conceal the other person’s alienness in human relationships. And anyone who makes their way through a passageway towards another person will be confronted with many disappointments and frustrations, for it is not at all easy to engage in receptive dialogue with an alien or with our own alienness through them. Disappointments and frustrations end in admitting to failure, and this might end up raising a new boundary if we do not continually consider Waldenfels’s warning which states that in order to construct bridges that can successfully bear weight, we must invest incredible effort, a great amount of attention, self-reflection, patience, and love. This is what liberal public opinion is usually wont to forget. For without these investments, even compassion becomes a thick and sticky wall which we erect between ourselves and the homeless and hungry in order to show off our so-called social sensitivity. We take part in civil movements which—as Kingbitter in Imre Kertész’s novel, Liquidation believes—use the homeless to “hold up their very existence as an outrage that flew in the face of dictatorship whose justification for its very existence was grounded in social equity.”

But before we rush ahead, let’s return for a moment to the farmer in Ernő Szép’s story. What would he have risked by giving a potato to one of the prisoners? At worst, he would have been slapped by one of the fascist henchmen or received a painful blow with the butt of a gun. As a result, his nose or rib might have been broken. This is a big price to pay, and I say this without irony, for pain is not to be belittled. This in itself would be enough to decide the battle raging within the farmer, forcing him into indifference. But what is the price we have to pay for indifference? Doesn’t indifference directed towards another result in indifference towards ourselves, and finally, in a loss of identity?

Imre Kertész’s Kingbitter watches homeless people from the window in the first and last scenes of the book. It doesn’t even occur to him to step up to them, to speak to them; he upholds and reinforces the invisible border. Nevertheless, by the end of the novel, he believes that he has come to understand them. Concurrently, he loses interest in them; but the attraction triggered by their sight becomes perhaps even more irresistible because of this. How can this be? For Kingbitter, the sight of the bums is a mirror; he watches them from the window and sees himself reflected in them. “Kingbitter was sometimes given to reflect that while venom and fury were often to be seen on those faces, he almost never saw grief or melancholy. He had slowly come to recognize that these people had no reason to be melancholy, as they had no memories, having lost them or settled their accounts with them, and so in actual fact had no past—nor any future, it’s true. They lived in a state of the continuous present, in which bare existence showed itself as both an immediate and exclusive reality, whether in varying forms of worry and privation or the fleeting delights of escapism.”

Kingbitter himself is such a man: without a story. This state of continuous present was experienced prototypically by the prisoners of concentration camps. They pre-lived this state, as it were, for the people of today, who are, in a spiritual sense, their descendants. The loss of past and present, however, also results in the liquidation of identity. And here is where we must return to the renaming of Budapest’s streets. There was no protest from the heirs of left-wing politics excluded from the shared space of remembrance, or from labor unions, or from civilians devoted to preserving the authenticity of historical memory, when the names of labor union activists and anti-fascist rebels connected to the Horthy regime’s opposition were erased from the city map, who, like Anna Koltói and Illés Mónus, were persecuted, arrested, tortured, and killed. Similarly mute were the writers’ associations, who should have raised their voices directly for Józsi Jenő Tersánszky and Andor Endre Gelléri, and indirectly for their own honor and the history of Hungarian literature. Apathy and indifference have, by today, devoured the past and the future; Hungarian society lives in a continuous present, wrapping itself up in political myths. We survive, but the country is gone from beneath our feet. Hidden waters and mud lurk beneath the deceptive turf, who knows how many fathoms deep. Anyone who lives here lurches and gets slightly bogged down at first, but if the ground gives way, the swamp slowly swallows them up. The more they flounder and struggle, the deeper they sink. The lake weeds and water-lily roots entangle their legs.


Gábor Schein is the author of nine collections of poetry and three novels, including Lazarus! (trans. Ottilie Mulzet, 2010). He was born in 1969 and lives in Budapest, where he is a professor at the Hungarian Literary History Institute of Eötvös Loránd University.

All images are courtesy of George Szirtes.