Excerpt

More Was Lost

ELEANOR PERÉNYI

February 17, 2016 
The following is from Eleanor Perényi's memoir, More Was Lost. More Was Lost was published in 1946, followed by a novel, The Bright Sword, in 1955. She achieved critical acclaim with Liszt: The Artist as Romantic Hero (1974), which was nominated for a National Book Award; however, her final book, Green Thoughts: A Writer in the Garden (1981), was Perényi’s greatest success and is still considered a classic of garden writing.

Little by little the outside world began to creep in to our daily lives. We couldn’t help reading the papers, and Zsiga began to spend more and more of his evenings crouched over the radio. We had a very good one, and we could get anything in Europe, including Moscow. Then one day, over this radio, we heard Schuschnigg say “God save Austria,” and we heard Hitler’s entrance into Linz, and as much of the victory speeches as we could stand.

We had spent our first Christmas in Vienna. We stayed at Sacher’s, where we had a red and gold room. But we had really gone to see the aunt who had been lady-in-waiting, and her children, who were Zsiga’s first cousins. They lived in the Augarten. This was a sort of park around a big palace that had belonged to the Emperor’s mother. It had several smaller palaces in it that were dependencies. Somehow the Salms had been allowed to go on living in one of these. They were wretchedly poor. They had very little left but some pieces of fine furniture, and the porcelain stoves that went with the little palais. They had archduchesses in to take tea with them, and they simply ignored the squalid little jobs that kept them alive. The only way you could tell they were so poor was the way they cleaned their plates at dinner. The plates were stamped with two gold salmon, the family crest, and they wiped them up in a way that in America would not be considered very polite. They had had many bitter things to say against the Germans, not because they loved democracy — they didn’t — but because they were violently Royalist. They had warned us about the impending Anschluss. They saw it as a problem for the exiled Hapsburgs. They would really have been very tiresome if one had had to live with them, and really come to grips with their ideas; but I hadn’t had to, and in a way I had come to have quite an affection for them. Now, wi t h the “Sieg Heils” pouring in over the radio, we wondered what would happen to them. I was glad that I had had a last look at Vienna, which I adored. A snowy beautiful Vienna. . . A few days later the Viennese aunt called up Papa long-distance, heaven knows how, and spoke to her brother in Hungarian. She said, “The carcasses of the dead animals are here.” It seemed a very accurate picture to me, and I never saw Vienna again.

Zsiga’s “population,” as he always called them, were beginning to be very uneasy. There were rumors already that Czechoslovakia would be next. Among our friends, it was said that if this happened Hungary would ask for her lost provinces along with any demands that Hitler might make. These people were simply pro-Hungarian. The Jews, too, were pro-Hungarian. Among all the many stupid things the Hungarians did perhaps none was more stupid than their persecution of these people who were so persistently loyal to them. This was so true that the Czechs, when they made their population-counts, always listed the Jews separately so as not to give the Hungarians a majority.

Among the Ruthenians there were several ideas that were current. The young intellectuals and Communists were by and large prepared to stick by the Czechs. But we began to hear at about this time something quite new. It began to be said that the Ruthenians were really Ukrainians. This was hardly true. The language was not the same, and they had never belonged with either the Russians or the Polish Ukrainians. However, it seemed that there was talk of an autonomous Ukrainian State, to be formed out of the Russian and Polish Ukraine, to which Ruthenia would be added. The Germans were, of course, behind this idea, and they found enthusiastic support among the Greek-Catholic priests, and other conservative Ruthenians. The Czechs began to look harried.

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Now as to ourselves, I have to explain something. In a romantic lost-cause sort of way, I suppose we thought it would be nice if, without giving anybody any trouble, we could one day be returned to Hungary. It would have been convenient in a lot of ways for us. But we were not fools. We knew just how important Czechoslovakia was. We knew quite well that our own position was rather a false one, and that for the vast majority of the people Czech rule was better than the Hungarian would have been. We respected the Czechs, and the job they were trying to do. So when it became a question of Hitler’s taking over the place we knew exactly where we stood. And it put us in rather a spot.

At first we assumed that the Czechs would fight. Obviously England and France would have to back them up. I had been to Germany the winter before, in I937. It was quite clear to me what the Germans were going to try to do to the world. I found it unbelievable that everyone else, especially those whose business it was to know these things even better than I did, would not know it too. And that meant, simply that we would have a war.

I had some pretty silly ideas about war. They were based on a theatrical civil war in China where I had been as a child during the Kuomintang struggle. I was naturally savage like all children, and I liked excitement. I remembered wild rides in rickshaws through barricades in Shanghai, and what seemed harmless bullets whizzing past a Yangtze River boat. Once a shell burst right across the street from our boardinghouse in the French Concession. But the war was being fought by Chinese, and we were foreigners who had no part in it. Occasionally it meant I didn’t have to go to school, because of street fighting. I liked it very much. When I came back to America I found it gave me a certain prestige in school to have been fired on. Then I forgot it. It did, however, mean that I was not nervous about wars. It was one of the reasons why I paid very little attention to the people who warned me when I married Zsiga that I was proposing to live on a volcano.

One night, in the middle of dinner, after a warning blink, all the lights went out, and we found they were having an air-raid-precaution drill. We carried candles from the dining room into the salon, and, with the curtains drawn, ‘sat down to discuss just who we might expect to bomb us; not the Germans, who, knowing this part of the country was Hungarian-populated and so largely friendly, would at least concentrate on military objectives, if that; not the Russians, who would be allies of the Czechs; certainly not the Hungarians, even if they entered the war. who? We talked about it till the drill was over.

We realized with alarm that the castle was easily the largest building in the neighborhood, except for the grain elevator at the other end of the town. How would they know it wasn’t an ammunition dump?

In my mind I had a picture of the crested stone coping crashing to the ground. It was always Russian planes I heard. But they would be going to save Prague. So they wouldn’t bomb us. That was the wrong idea. But was it? As it turned out, I was right after all. The Russian planes did not pass over our house till July 1941. They were bombing Hungarian objectives. I always knew that someday they would come. But when they did, Czechoslovakia, their ally, was dead, and I knew they would not spare us this

In spite of the trouble in the air, we managed to think of many other things that summer. We bought furniture for the house, made plans for improving the estate. I cultivated the garden, and attended to the many little affairs I found so fascinating. We even had visitors.

In August, Celia and Mamaine Paget wrote that they were coming to visit me. They always went abroad in August, and found it entirely natural to make the long, and by now possibly dangerous, trip from England to visit me.

“Chamberlain doesn’t want a war,” they said, “and we aren’t ready for it.”

I found this incredible. They had no affection for Chamberlain, but they seemed convinced that England was really unprepared.

They were perfect guests. They spent the morning practising Mozart on the piano, and answering letters. They had an active correspondence with at least a hundred people. Our own post swelled with letters for them from their friends, who were with equal calm vacationing in France, and Italy. We met in the afternoon. We drove them all over the countryside. Zsiga, like so many Central Europeans, had a passion for water. If he couldn’t go to a beach he was ready to dive into any water, no matter how dubious, to get a swim. He used to come back from the farm with his hair wet from a noon dip in the Tisza. So we would go and and find little streams and bathe in the hot August afternoons. The Twins liked Zsiga. Once Celia said to me:

“He has one of the qualities of real genius. One always finds it in the Russian novels. It is that ability to be so utterly natural and at the same time profound that if you don’t understand such people, you sometimes think them simple.”

I loved her for saying that. I had noticed that quality myself, but had never expressed it so well. Zsiga was enchanted with the Twins too, they were so pretty and intelligent.

They stayed with us for three weeks, and then got ready to go back to England via Germany. Zsiga was occupied with the farm, but I thought I would go with them as far as Prague. Runciman was arriving in a few days, and I wanted to see for myself what was happening.

Prague is the most mysteriously wonderful city in Europe, all light and shadow, Gothic and baroque. It is far more beautiful than either Vienna or Budapest, and I can’t think why it was never considered so fascinating. Perhaps it was the Czechs themselves. They always seemed a tough, stolid, unimaginative people, very diferent from their city. This time they looked ready for anything to me. I still think they would have put up a very stiff fight indeed if they’d had the chance. There was no atmosphere in Prague of the hysteria that evidently prevailed in the rest of Europe. They were hard to scare.

We stayed at the Ambassador Hotel, on the Vaclavske Namesti. But Runciman was at the other good hotel, so we didn’t even see him, except for a glimpse one day when we went there for a drink on purpose to get a look at him. We couldn’t read the papers, so we decided to look up some people. The Twins knew a young man in the British Legation, so we called him up. He was vague and insouciant to the last degree. He had a Rat in the Schwarzenberg Palace up on the Hradčany hill, where he gave us Martinis, made without ice. Questioned about the war, he just sat there in his exquisite clothes, smoothing his too-long hair, and assured us the Germans would not fight the English. The reasons were not quite clear. One gathered that the sort of people one knew in Germany were not bad after all, and would not allow it to happen. As for the others, well, they would know their place better than to try to fight the British. Unity Freeman-Mitford had just come through. “Fancy her running after that dreadful little fellow,” he said. But on the whole he had no real answers to the questions we asked.

So I called my friend in our Embassy. And he was just the same breed of cat. He didn’t know anything either. So as we had exhausted our acquaintance in Prague, the Twins decided to go on home. They sailed coolly off into Germany the next day, and I went back to Zsiga.

At home I found that an unpleasant fact had come to Zsiga’s attention. If the Czechs went to war, he was very likely, if not certain, to be interned as a foreign subject, especially as his country was unfriendly and might even actually go to war it self. We hadn’t thought of this possibility before. We had more or less intended that he should become a Czech citizen but for one reason or another had done nothing about it. And now things were moving fast. We couldn’t decide what to do about it. In the meantime I was writing reassuring letters to my family in faraway California. Like this:

Darling Mamma and Daddy:

Our news is all political of course, and local. Eichler the chief of the electric works, who had dinner with us last week, has been arrested as a spy. A spy ring was uncovered at Muncacevo, and his name came to light. The gendarmes came yesterday to get him, searched his house, and carried him off to Ungvár. Police are stationed in his vineyard, because they think he may have had a concealed radio there. He was absurd, of course, but evidently not as absurd as we thought. It isn’t clear who he was spying for. We suppose it was for Hungary, but it may have been something else. Well, you see how our simple country life has changed.

In spite of all the trouble, however, we went out Sunday in the car, drove toward the frontier (Polish), made a fire by the river, in a lovely wooded gorge, the other side of which is Rumania, and cooked bacon in the Hungarian style, with the drippings on corn bread. Zsiga went swimming, but I couldn’t face the icy mountain water.

I must tell you I have practically taken over the management of the orchard. Zsiga has to be out all day on the farm, and really hasn’t time for it. It’s the most lovely place. One thing that makes it more suitable for me to handle is the bees. My English bee book says, “It is an ideal occupation for ladies.” I have really studied them. The gardener who helps me looks indescribably peaceful and agricultural as he transfers bees from the old-fashioned mud and straw hives to the new ones we are using now.

I don’t get letters from abroad, and it seems no one does. All the newspapers have great blanks in them. So we have nothing to live on but rumors. I must tell you about an old man who comes to our place regularly every year, and shouts, “Long live Communism, down with the Church, and long live the Perenyi family.” These mixed feelings are pretty typical of the state of mind here, as the tension grows.

Our great worry is that Zsiga will be interned as a foreign subject, or worse, an enemy alien, if there is a war. So we are wondering if that, combined with the fact that we soon shall be able to get no news out to you or Papa, is reason for us to leave. But don’t worry. It will all work out. . . .

However, it didn’t work out. What I know of what happened in the next week of the world crisis I learned later from old copies of Time. Our only source of news, the radio, was taken away from us. All radio sets in the town were ordered turned in. We were presumably going to get our news from a loud-speaker in the town hall. They never set this up. It just meant we had no news of any kind. Then came the order for the farm horses and carriages to be turned in to the army. This was a pretty clear indication that the Czechs were getting ready for a mobilization, and were expecting to Fight. And sure enough, a day later, the mobilization came. All Czech citizens up to forty-five were ordered to go to the army. A general mobilization in Europe is very complete. They take everything, in Central Europe, including your car. All communication is cut, even within the country. Any with the outside world is out of the question. No letters, telegrams or phone calls, except for the military. There was a curfew. So there we were. The order for the internment of foreign subjects had not come yet. But Zsiga met Hlavacek in the street. “I would do what I could for you,” he told Zsiga, “but if there is a war, it will not be good for you here, as a Hungarian subject. We believe Hungary would enter a war against us.” Well, that was that. Stay or go?

Zsiga wanted to stay. I thought we ought to go. I am sorry to say that Zsiga allowed himself to be persuaded by me. It was the only time I interfered with a decision of his, and I lived to regret it heartily. We left. All the frontiers were closed, except for one spot about a hundred miles away. We had managed to keep the car, and we drove it to this place. Our exit was very melodramatic, considering that Chamberlain was already on his way to Munich. We didn’t know this, however, and neither apparently did the Czechs. The roads were clogged with military vehicles, and with soldiers. They were mostly from the Hungarian-populated districts, or at least Hungarian-speaking. And here unquestionably lay Czechoslovakia’s weakness. For at this end of the country, she was defended by troops from her various minorities. And these would have proved untrustworthy to say the least. Already they were getting over the frontier into Hungary, or simply deserting. These same troops allowed us to drive unmolested through the front-line defenses that were being put up on the Hungarian border, long-range Skoda guns, pillboxes, road blocks, and so on. They let us through the last barrier, and into Hungary.

Once in Hungary, reaction set in. Going back was like returning to a sloppy family you couldn’t approve of, but still your family. We borrowed sixty pengo from the guard at the customhouse to pay our expenses to Budapest. We hadn’t been allowed to take any money out of Czechoslovakia. The guard lent it to us without question. We were back in a country where privilege was everything. We couldn’t approve his action, but we needed the money. We cheered up slightly in Budapest, at Papa’s evident relief at seeing us, and the fact that I could now send a cable to my frantic parents in California.

 

 

From MORE WAS LOST. Used with permission of NYRB Classics. Copyright © 2016 by NYRB.




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