October 17, 1956
When she woke, she woke in pieces.
This happened often.
She had to pull herself together. In her sleep, Csilla Tisza’s body drifted apart. Her hands were always farthest, reaching for the window that was bolted shut. The window that faced the Danube River.
She was invariably returning to the river.
She assembled herself, letting the skin knit edge to edge, seamless except to those looking for the seams of her. Her shoulder touched and bonded again to her upper arm, her upper arm to her elbow, her elbow to her forearm, her forearm to her wristbones, her wristbones to her hands. Only then could she curl her fingers against her palm, the fist sending a pulse of pain to her mind. That was how she knew she was connected again. The pain.
Her eyes never left her skull.
It was as if they knew better. They’d seen things out there, in the world, that they didn’t want to see again. They’d rather stay here, beneath the quilt her mother had made, in the bed where her parents made her, in an apartment one-fourth the size it was when she was a child, when she was one-fourth the size she was now.
Csilla’s hair stayed attached to her head too, moon-colored as it’d been since the day she was born. It was luminous, catching and throwing the light like a prism, every strand reflecting and deflecting light so it was impossible not to stare at the threaded lines on the walls that moved when she moved.
She wore the river on her head.
There had been little color left in Budapest since the end of the war. The Soviets marched in, and color marched out. (In truth, by the time the Soviets arrived, the only color left in Budapest was blue--the color of the sky, the color of babies’ eyes, the color of the thread in her father’s tallit, the color of her mother’s favorite dress.)
Next to her, in the only bed they had, her aunt slept, mostly in one piece, as one body. Her aunt never drifted too far from herself.
Csilla took a deep breath, pressing her hand flat against her chest, just above her left breast. Her heart beat against her palm. She was alive. Somewhere beyond this bed, somewhere beyond this window, the river whispered to her.
She could feel the whispers in her chest, could hear them in her mind. When she was a child, before the war, before the river, her parents spoke to each other in Yiddish, a language they didn’t share with her. This was how the river felt to her--a language that soothed her, a constant presence, but one she barely understood.
When she was a child and her parents spoke Yiddish, she wanted to understand. By the time she was old enough to understand that they’d use Yiddish to speak about her, or about things they didn’t want her to hear, or to fight, they’d stopped speaking Yiddish. Her mother had continued to speak Yiddish with her sister, Csilla’s aunt Ilona, but that was the entirety of the Yiddish left after the war, after the Shoah: soft words between sisters in the early mornings, over cups of coffee and in the bathroom, where one brushed the other’s hair.
When her parents died, so did the Yiddish in their home.
Csilla had only the river left and its quiet, ceaseless murmurings.
Still, as every morning, Csilla waited, listening to the apartment as if she could hear it speak, as if something might have shifted overnight while the earth turned slowly. As if time would rewind.
She wanted time to rewind, but she didn’t know where she’d stop it if she could. She’d go back to four years ago, before Stalin died, before her parents were detained and murdered by the Hungarian secret police, the ÁVH, for a crime she was sure they hadn’t committed--the crime of dual loyalty, of Zionism. She’d go back ten years, to her father’s joining the Hungarian Workers’ Party and the security services, working alongside the people who’d murder him six years later. She’d go back to a time when she did not know her father’s crimes, revealed to her only after his death. She had not understood what an architect he had been of other families’ destruction until the place he built destroyed her own.
She’d go back fourteen years, to a time when they might have been able to flee Hungary, escape to Israel or Yugoslavia or somewhere less terrible, less painful, where they wouldn’t have had to endure the things they endured in the war, where they would have been free to come and go as they wished. As she was not here.
Now, when she and her aunt escaped in two weeks, she’d be leaving the bodies of her parents behind, in a gentile graveyard, where she could not leave stones on their markers. She would say Kaddish for them in a different time zone, on soil they’d never know.
She would live somewhere else, and her parents would rest forever here in Hungary, a Communist country ruled by the strict and unwavering hand of the Russians.
You cannot change the world, she reminded herself. You can only survive the one you’re in.
But sometimes the world around her changed, and survival in it felt different. Yesterday, this world, the one she was in, had teetered. This morning, she wanted to know what side it’d fallen on.
Yesterday, her parents, along with the others executed in the same purge four years earlier, had been reburied in a state funeral, exonerated of the charges against them, rehabilitated in the eyes of the State. She and her aunt had stood, blank-faced, as they’d practiced for the four years since Simon and Éva Tisza were killed, all in black, in a gray city, and watched bodies they’d never seen lowered into graves they had not chosen in a funeral that was not in any way Jewish.
Four years ago, her father had been declared an enemy of the People. What they could hurl at him, they did. And Csilla had grown up in the shadow of her father’s crimes, both real and imaginary. A Jew. A Titoist. A Zionist.
He was reburied yesterday, and so the Party admitted that they’d arrested, tried, convicted and executed him on false pretenses.
A mistake, they said.
It wasn’t a mistake. Mistakes could be rectified. Death could not be undone.
Only last night, when they were home, safe inside their own apartment, did Csilla and her aunt whisper the Mourner’s Kaddish, just as they did every year on the yahrzeit of her parents’ deaths. When her aunt went to sleep, tears still sliding down her cheeks like rain on windowpanes, Csilla had gone to their bureau and fished around in the top drawer. In the back corner, in one of her father’s old gloves, were rolls of forint notes.
It hadn’t been just one thing that made Csilla and Ilona think they needed to leave Hungary. It’d been, like most things were, the slow and gradual accumulation of hurts and wants and needs that couldn’t be fulfilled by anything found here. And now that Csilla had graduated five months ago, it was easier to purport to travel--and to leave instead.
It stung to consider leaving Budapest, where her family had lived for hundreds of years.
It burned to consider staying in Budapest, where her family had died for hundreds of years.
But some time after they received notice that her parents would be reburied, Csilla realized that she couldn’t put up with the charade any longer. She couldn’t stay here pretending that everyone around her was not at fault, and she couldn’t stay here pretending that she herself was not also at fault. Ilona had only nodded, a stubborn glint in her eyes, and together they saved their wages, Csilla from the newspaper and Ilona from cleaning the apartment building, the best they could
She knew others who’d done it. There were agencies set up to help the Jews on this side of the postwar divide between East and West.
She thought no one would notice, or care, now that her parents’ records had been expunged. It was good timing.
They had nearly enough, and they had train tickets to Belgrade, ostensibly to visit relatives, for November 1.
But Csilla had felt it in the crowd yesterday, the knife’s edge of tension. She hadn’t expected that. It terrified her. It could ruin everything. And at the same time, she wanted to slide her finger down the blade and see how it cut.
Csilla had heard everyone murmuring behind her yesterday, and when they’d walked back through the crowd, quiet and dark and appropriately mournful, a man had shouted, “What else was a mistake? What else was a lie?”
She could hear his words as clear as if he was shouting them in her apartment now.
What else was a lie?
He hadn’t fired shots.
But a gun had been loaded.
Csilla wanted to be out of Hungary before that gun went off. They could be in Israel if everything went according to their plans.
If nothing happened. If her father didn’t start fires from beyond the grave.
Careful not to wake her aunt, Csilla slipped from beneath the quilts and put her feet on the cold floor. When she stood, her nightgown, bunched around her waist, fell to her knees. She went to the window and pulled back the sheer curtain to stare out at the river. It was moonlight silver, pocked with dark waves. From here, it looked like fabric, bolts of silver velvet draped for miles between two old cities turned one: Buda and Pest.
She would miss the river.
But there would be other rivers.
(They would not be the same as the Danube. No river could be like the Danube. Not to Csilla.)
The river’s whispers picked up in urgency.
Her gaze flicked down to the streets, where almost everyone was moving. Two children kicked a ball back and forth on one of the little side streets, and others walked in a stream toward the main avenues and the tram lines. Only one person was standing still. On the corner across from her apartment, a casually dressed man read a folded copy of Szabad Nép, the newspaper for which she worked. From where he was standing, he’d be able to see her.
And then he looked up, as if he could hear her thoughts.
She dropped the curtain and stepped back.
“Fool,” she whispered to herself.
She’d thought that her parents’ cases being cleared meant she could relax, that she didn’t have anything to fear from the secret police. But here they were, right outside her apartment, watching her for the first time since her parents had been disappeared.
What had she done to catch their attention? Had they found out about her and Ilona’s plans to escape? Csilla had made arrangements by letter with a Jewish man, a friend of a friend of a friend, who lived in Belgrade, who knew people at the Jewish Agency who could get them to Israel. She’d hoped that the letters wouldn’t be intercepted, but they might have been. There must be a thousand secret police between here and Belgrade, on both sides of the border.
She turned her back on the river, trying to resist the urge to peer through the curtains. He’d still be there. The ÁVH didn’t give up that easily. She forced herself to go through her normal routine. Her heartbeat pounded in her fingertips.
In the bathroom, Csilla ran her fingers through her wild moon curls and braided them quickly. She tied her hair off swiftly, tightly, so it would not come apart unexpectedly. Though there was no color in Budapest, Hungarians tended toward dark hair and dark brows, and so even in the city’s seemingly permanent grayscale, her hair made her recognizable.
Across the hall, a door slammed. It jolted Csilla, making her drop a bobby pin into the sink. A shiver of panic ran up her spine. István, who lived across the hall, was better than any alarm clock. When she was a child, this entire floor had been her family’s apartment. But when Communism came, they’d nationalized the building and chopped up the apartments into smaller ones. István had the real kitchen and the real dining room, with the bay window she had loved more than anything. Across the hall, Rosza had the east-facing bedroom that had belonged to Csilla’s grandparents (z”l). István rose every morning at dawn and left his apartment every morning at a quarter to seven, slamming the door behind him. And if she heard the door slam while she was still in her nightgown, Csilla was late.
There could be no such thing as lateness. Not here. Not for Csilla.
The man across the street would know if she was late.
He could arrest her for--truly--anything he wanted. He didn’t need a specific cause. But lateness could be one. They’d make up whatever charges they wanted, once they had her.
She couldn’t give them an excuse.
She spent her entire life, every waking moment of every day, every step she took outside the apartment, being careful to not attract attention, to not make anyone look up her file with the police, to not make anyone question her loyalty and devotion to the Party or to Hungary.
In two weeks, she wouldn’t need to worry about this.
But today, today, she still had to worry. There was still so much, so much, she could lose.
What else was a lie?
She pressed a quick kiss to Ilona’s cheek, and her aunt’s eyes fluttered open. She reached up and clenched her fingers around Csilla’s hand.
“I’m late,” Csilla whispered, her voice shaking. “And there are eyes outside.”
Ilona’s eyes widened, and Csilla saw her come fully awake and into herself. “Be safe,” she whispered back. “We’re so close--”
“I know,” interrupted Csilla. “I have to go.”
And then she slipped out of the apartment, locked the door, tucked the keys into her purse and trotted down the stairs.
Her hand touched the doorknob to the outside world. She took a deep breath to steady herself, but her fingers trembled anyway.
The river whispered to her.
She tried not to listen to it.
Outside, she tried not to look at the man on the opposite street corner. He followed her. Of course he did. She walked quicker, her footsteps as fast as the beat of her heart.
Around her, the buildings blurred against each other and the sky. It was misty in the mornings, which only made the gray of the city more disorienting.
Csilla was young--but she remembered some of the Before. Not just before the secret police, but Before. What stunned Csilla the most--in the rare moments when she slowed down to think about it--was how everyone had accepted the changes without much fuss.
Copyright © 2022 by Katherine Locke. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.