Sunday, July 4, 2010

Why The Raj Quartet Resonates

Herewith the beginning of a chapter from a family memoir I wrote in 2003. The chapter is entitled “Bordertown — 1942-1943” and talks about a brief period in our life in what was then a temporary Hungarian possession of a piece of Serbia. The city I call Szabadka here is now called Subotica.

* * *

One summer evening towards sunset, the sharp cracks of a whip brought us all running out to the front of the house in Szabadka. Our house faced a wide avenue the name of which time and historical change have overlaid. Szabadka was a city of 103,000 people then, but we saw a timeless and rural scene. Moving toward us from the left at a slow, measured pace came a herd of big-horned cattle. To adult and child alike these magnificent creatures were like something from a fairy tale—awesome, massive animals of a light-dun coloration, their horns a kind of dirty white. Just now the setting sun bathed them in bright light and, as they moved, huge shadows moved on the avenue with them. Innocent creatures! They were on their way to slaughter or to trains that would transport them far away. A single man guided this extended herd from the rear using only his voice and the crack of his whip. The handle of the whip was short, stout. Its lash, woven of leather, had an enormous length. Each time the herder used it, he first swung the lash a small eternity behind him, then a small eternity ahead. The lash reached from the tail to the tip of his sizeable herd. Then, at just the right moment, the herdsman jerked his whip and thus produced an ear-splitting crack.

This was evidently not a frequent event. Up and down the avenue, formed of large houses, people had come out to watch the spectacle. Slowly the procession passed, slowly it disappeared down the avenue. People still stood outside, Bea with her arms crossed over her breasts, her gaze following the herd. At last everybody turned and began retreating into the mansions until the avenue again stood empty.

Sometimes when I walk along Telegraph road near Detroit at sunrise, from Tamaroff Motors to my office building, my car left behind for service, and Telegraph roars past me like a venal, voracious all-devouring dragon, eight lanes of traffic at rush hour, four in each direction, not counting turning lanes and median, I am reminded of Szabadka at sunset and the long-horned cattle.

In the 1940s most transportation in a city of Szabadka’s size was still by wagons drawn by horses, by horse and carriage. The railroad line bisected the city north-south into two uneven halves. That was modernity. Outside the rail station horse-cabs waited for passengers, but there were also one or two motorized taxis. Policemen rode bicycles. In those days it was still possible to drive a herd of cattle down one of the more fashionable avenues to wherever they had to go—and men still lived in such intimate contact with animals that they could direct a massive force of bone and muscle with the crack of the lash.

No one then knew scientifically why whips of that length could make such noises, or even stopped to wonder. Today we know that the tip of the whip travels at such a high speed that it breaks the sound barrier—and it’s the breaching of that barrier we hear as a crack.

Hungary then was on the border of modernity—but on the other side of it. Zéno, promoted major, served in the 2nd Horse Division and commanded a battalion of horse artillery. Divisions of cavalry still exist today, but now that term connotes armor. Back then horse meant horse—and also symbolized higher achievements. The word “chivalrous” (lovagias) was in common use to mean both courteous and honorable. Both in Hungarian and French, the roots contain “horse.” A “chivalrous spirit,” as Zéno used the term, meant a certain way of being, a way of being disciplined, a certain force and application to the task at hand, a certain dedication, tenacity, and honor. A complex world of values rose from the concept. The symbols of this order were real, physical beasts that had to be groomed, fed oats, and watered daily.

The land was also nearer at hand. Szabadka marks a border between a vast sandy region to the north, in Hungary, and a rich, fertile, alluvial region to the south, in Serbia. The earth is black and rich in humus. The area south of Szabadka is the northern Serbian province of Vojvodina bounded to the west by the Danube. The Tisza runs on a parallel course north to south two thirds of the way in from Vojvodina’s eastern border. The region is Serbia’s bread-basket—the kind of place capable of producing the magnificent cattle we saw move past that evening.

The man on horseback was also still the ruler. The men of the Hungarian border guard, mounted, of course, the csendörség (“Guardians of Silence”) were chosen for their height. They were splendid specimens. Just the fact that you could do that—select military formations by body size—tells you something about the spirit of animal husbandry that seemed perfectly acceptable then. In addition to their height, these men were artificially heightened by wearing tall, furry hats six inches tall. And if that was not enough to impress you, each wore stuck into his hat an eagle feather in addition which reached another four five inches above the hat.

* * *

World War II produced one of the greatest mass migrations in the history of the world. Those who took part in this migration often had no idea where exactly they had been, myself included. We had lived in Vojvodina for a while, which means that we lived in a land that just 23 years earlier had still been part of the Ottoman Empire—one of the longest-lasting and most successful enterprises ever. It began in 1299 and lasted until 1919. Peace always reigned under the Ottomans, warfare at their borders. But the price for peace was an almost hopeless mingling of tribal units, languages, and ethnicities. Vojvodina had (still has) Serbs, Hungarians, Slovaks, Croats, Montenegrins, Romanians, Romanies, Bunjevacs, Ruthenes, Macedonians, Ukrainians, and lesser groups. The Ottoman landscape was not compatible with modern nationalism. How do you sort out ten, twelve varieties of grass in a meadow—each of which ferociously, tenaciously hangs on to the soil? The notion that each variety should have its own plot was foreign to the Ottomans. For them it was all grass. They just harvested the grass without much discrimination. All kinds served well as fodder for the empire.

Szabadka was the second largest city of Vojvodina (Novi Sad being the biggest). It was almost on top of the Hungarian border, had long been under Hungarian rule, and its population was 60 percent of Magyar stock. Today [2003] the city is once more called Subotica. It has a 40 percent Hungarian population but is smaller (100,000 people). Still, 40 percent! In the absence of the Ottoman might, or any other superpower interest, agitation is once again afoot for an “independent Hungarian Vojvodina.” It is supported by, among others, the Hungarian American Coalition, the Government of Hungary, and, internally in that region, by the Alliance of Vojvodina Hungarians. But such agitation was then, in 1942, still in the far future.

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