VHS 416: Open Society Archives, Central European University.
… Szálasi taking of the oath, ’44 nov. Győr transportation of the Jews, ’45 newsreel (no sound), war-criminals arriving with aeroplane, hearing, execution, Bp. in ruins, collapsed bridges, reconstruction, digging out the corpses in the garden of Maros street 16 & on the fields, war-criminals in prison, questioning in the court-room, 1956 Bp. in ruins, peoples, tanks on the streets, relief arriving, standing in line for bread, the base of the knocked out Stalin-statue, ’42 my godson and his mother, my sharer of a flat, my cleaning woman, ’43 Christmas, ’44 summer at the river-side…
(silent); 1944, 52 min
The VHS clunks into place, breaking the archival quiet of whispered greetings and rubber gloves on paper. I am at the Open Society Archives (OSA) in Budapest, using some of their 11,000 hours of audio-visual recordings as part of a month’s research for my novel. The OSA is open to all, but I have registered as an academic, two years into my critical and creative writing PhD at the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom. I’ve come to the OSA to watch the twentieth century unfold in home videos, in ‘ordinary’ lives, but also with the idea of finding the characters for my novel here – something that sounds as mad on paper as it does in my head.
I requested VHS 416 because my novel follows a Jewish-Hungarian man on a death march in the 1940s, and his granddaughter in the present. The death march I am writing about also passed through Győr, Hungary, in November 1944. The Nazis invaded in March that year, putting Ferenc Szálasi and his Hungarian fascist party Arrow Cross into power seven months later. This cemented the anti-Semitism that had manifested in Hungarian politics since 1920.
I press play and Szálasi takes his oath. Across the country, the deportation of 437,000 Hungarian Jews was supported by an infrastructure of 200,000 fellow citizens. Parliament fades, and a street with a pillared fence protecting an anonymous building appears. Women walk into the frame, followed by a few men. They wear civilian layers with yellow stars and headscarves. One woman opens her arms wide and beams into the camera. The younger girls behind her smile furtively. A man grips his hat as if in salute. They carry bundles, bags, blankets, which I know will be confiscated later, sold on and stolen, perhaps ending in a museum. Some seem like they might faint. Some avoid the lens, gazes fixed on the ground.
The cameraman follows the column. Trees splice a strip of silver water in the background: the river Rába, or the Danube, meeting each other. A man fills the screen, wearing what looks like a military coat and a fur hat. The yellow star on his chest is rumpled. If it were possible to be illiterate in the signs of this time, it could be an autumn leaf. He stares at the camera and I think ratchet-faced, not knowing if the term really applies but thinking it anyway because of the strength of his nose, the knife points of his cheekbones, the black moustache roofing his closed mouth.
An old woman balancing a sack over her arms follows, glancing at the camera contemptuously, daringly, but with humour. Behind them, apartment buildings with blown-out windows stand empty, the Allied shelling of Hungary gaining in strength. The screen cuts to black.
The camera opens its eye again on a field where a man and two women are playing: the woman bent over, the other two pretending to spank her, before she reels off laughing. Next, the news, and a man strings up a rope. I look away.
That week I watched a propagandist short on labour service, footage of Budapest in ruins and interviews with survivors. I watched Christmases, boat trips, a wife undressing for her husband in the dark. As the footage built, so did its effect on my writing and self-perception.
It can be argued that young western writers have grown up in a postmodern age that dictates all historical writing be self-aware, with one eye on historiographic metafiction; similar, perhaps, to authors in the 1920s who found it impossible to unthink Freud. This self-awareness is reinforced when working with archives, which remind us how history and fiction are narrativised. The catalogue alone is testament to how we wrangle this depository of “public records or other important historic documents” (OED), and once the archivist delivers the box of folders to your desk your own catalogue comes into play. Archives invite us to be more than passive observers: they invite us to tinker, manipulate, prioritise, plot. In other words, to be storytellers.
This emphasis on how truths are constructed is also a major part of Holocaust studies. In the Theresienstadt concentration camp near Prague, for example, inmates were ordered to catalogue Jewish books as part of the future ‘Central Museum of the Extinguished Jewish Race’. After the camp’s liberation, some of these books were returned to Prague with the stamp ‘Ghettobücherei’ (Ghetto Library), marking them as a scattered archive for something very different, yet alarmingly similar. These are the signs of a race almost extinguished. After World War II, another archive spread across the world, taking shape in not just records and documents, but in book stamps, buildings, memorials and memories.
Working in the OSA is a constant reminder of this. Goldberger House, home of the OSA, was once the office of the Goldberger textile factory. Doctor Leó Buday-Goldberger was director of the National Association of Industrialists, president of the National Association of Hungarian Textile Manufacturers, a member of the Upper House of Parliament in 1935, and one of the first to be deported to Mauthausen concentration camp. He died of starvation on May 5, 1945: the day the camp was liberated. The new Communist Bloc nationalised the Goldberger factory in 1948, and the company lasted until 1997, making it two hundred years old.
Goldberger House today is palimpsestic, with armchairs and lamps resembling a Soviet yard sale, art grafting books into concrete and documents testifying to one hundred years of successive global human rights violations. The place is fractious, and invites you to consider the parts of your own sum. Jacques Derrida writes of the archive as exteriorised in his paper ‘Archive Fever’: “[t]here is no archive without a place of consignation, without a technique of repetition, and without a certain exteriority. No archive without outside”. Derrida presents the “domiciliation” and “house arrest” of the archive and the exterior.
“Exterior to what?” he asks. “What does ‘exterior’ mean? Is a circumcision, for example, an exterior mark? Is it an archive?”
If the archive can be exteriorised onto the body, it can also be interiorised. The footage of Győr was not what I expected in content, or result. I told myself I would not let it under my skin, but that night black-and-white boots marched beneath my eyelids. Skin, eyelids: the passage from exterior to interior was complete, and I lay awake wondering if this was the last time those people had been seen, documented, alive.
The SS and Hungarian gendarmes ‘controlled’ such marches with cruelty and terror. Torture, starvation and murder were common. Who survived the march? Who survived the destination? I have been researching the Hungarian Holocaust for two years now, and thought I had erected an effective hurricane room. But this three-minute film picked the lock.
I bought a train ticket to Győr with the idea of finding the street where those men and women marched. In A Short History of Photography, Walter Benjamin wrote how the beholder of a photo “feels an irresistible urge to search such a picture for the tiny spark of contingency, of the Here and Now, with which reality has so to speak seared the subject”. I find that urge all the more irresistible, and all the more painful, when it comes to video footage. It is the animation of loss.
In On Photography, Susan Sontag argues that to “take a photograph is to participate in another person’s … mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt”.
Sontag also writes how “photographs may be more memorable than moving images because they are a neat slice of time, not a flow”. I have worked with images in archives and found them both moving and memorable, but would maintain that VHS 416, jumping from 1944 to 1956 to 1944, achieves Sontag’s relentless melt through movement rather than freezing.
Archives invite us to be more than passive observers: they invite us to tinker, manipulate, prioritise, plot. In other words, to be storytellers.
These men and women are being marched through the streets of Győr, were marched through the streets of Győr and will be again. More than just that loop, it is the column crossing from the right-hand side of the screen to the left; a sentence read in reverse, as the left-hand frame shifts further out of reach, because the march cannot terminate here. We know where it terminates.
I went to Győr looking for that tiny spark of here and now, for that moment in which the future subsisted. Walking the medieval quarter of this industrial town, it quickly became apparent there was no immediate way to tell which streets the march followed. I climbed the tower of Bishop’s Castle, failing to ignore my phobia of stairs that lack risers.
I could see all of Győr from the top – the Little Hungarian Plain hemming in blocks of flats and factories, the Rába rushing brown into the blue Danube – but was no closer to identifying the route of the march. The basilica, with its giant clock, rose up behind me. It was such a clear day I felt I could reach out and change the time. Across the Rába below, a gold Star of David glinted in the treetops. The old synagogue – now music academy, community centre and art gallery – looked over the water at the Castle.
I crossed the river to get there, finding in the white-domed synagogue a grandeur that implied confidence in longevity. The windows were open and brass instruments blew into the hot street, which seemed reminiscent of the OSA video, but I still wasn’t sure. In the synagogue square I found a memorial to the victims of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. Between 1941 and 1945 two thirds of Hungarian Jews were murdered, over half a million people. One in three victims of Auschwitz-Birkenau were Hungarian.
I stood reading the names of those victims for a long time, explaining perhaps why the woman inside said “no” when I asked for a student ticket.
She passed me a printed sign: “This synagogue is no longer functioning as a synagogue”.
“It’s an art gallery?” I asked.
“Can I see the art?”
The room I walked into was a work of art in itself: red marble, walls painted with flowers and tessellations, Adonis blue ceiling bright with stars. After years of ruin, the Győr synagogue was restored with European Union and government funding. The synagogue is the second largest in Hungary, after Budapest’s Great Synagogue.
I sat down on the wooden pews, looking around. I am not religious, but there was something about those starry skies. Plaques on the walls listed Gentiles who helped the Jewish community. Under the Arrow Cross, rescue attempts of Jewish friends and strangers increased at great personal risk. The synagogue information sheet told me how “during the World War II the jewish [sic] population grew smaller”, and “from the beginning of 1940s the place was empty, or, at least it was used as a furniture and grain yard”. The “new church” was handed over to the public in 2006.
I climbed the stairs, walking each ring of the ‘church’, where abstract paintings were nailed to wooden panels and white boards. This repurposing was another kind of archive, a layering of time, from memorialisation to what seemed like obfuscation. Was the information sheet simply badly translated and hastily written, or deliberately coy? I didn’t have the chutzpah to ask.
Anti-Semitism is on the rise in Hungary (as well as homophobia, sexism and overall xenophobia, especially towards the Roma), and the government is telling a new story: that Hungary was an innocent victim of Germany, rather than a complicit ally. More frightening even than this whitewashing is prime minister Orbán’s recent call for “illiberal democracy”. There is a bad moon rising in Eastern Europe.
We can take the measure of a democracy to be in part the accessibility of its archives. Just as important is removing the archive from its hermetic seal or ‘house arrest’. Last year, the OSA hosted events across Budapest to mark seventy years since Jews were forced into yellow-star houses. The OSA also permits copying, and I took that footage on my iPad to Győr and Sopron, where my grandmother’s uncle was murdered in 1944.
The basilica, with its giant clock, rose up behind me. It was such a clear day I felt I could reach out and change the time. Across the Rába below, a gold Star of David glinted in the treetops.
Artist Carlos Motta, who works with archives, said in a 2013 interview with Arara that “representation and fiction look each other in the eyes and test each other’s limits”. The representation of these people on film, caught now in my storage settings, made me think differently about the dynamics operating in my work. My identity as the grandchild of a Jewish-Hungarian survivor and my fiction stared each other in the eyes, and now, one of them blinked. My characters emerged from the archive, but not in the ways I expected.
In the days that followed my novel took a sharp turn, shifting part of the present-day action to Hungary, suffusing the granddaughter with the quest narrative of a detective, navigating and negotiating archives in search of her grandfather as I had in search of my characters and echoes of my own family. In Sopron, where I walked ground that might contain remains of a family member, I knew there is no escaping the archive of yourself today: the archive that supports, consciously and unconsciously, your fictional world.
In the preface to his memoir of World War I, Undertones of War, Edmund Blunden wrote: “Why should I not write it?”
Why should I write it? Because the local is also the universal, because then is now, because those women and men in Győr could have been my great-great aunts and uncles, and might have been yours.
Because I am here, walking the hills of Sopron.
Kim Sherwood tours with literary salons Elbow Room and The Book Club Boutique, and is an associate tutor and fellowship student on the University of East Anglia’s Critical and Creative Writing PhD. She was recently shortlisted for the Words and Women Fiction Prize, and longlisted for the Mslexia short story prize.
Stories from the Ivory Tower is an online series of creative non-fiction essays that draw their inspiration from academia. These commissions are made possible through the University of Melbourne’s Cultural and Community Relations Advisory Group (CCRAG).