Hungary: 30 postwar years

IN the often unhappy postwar history of Eastern Europe, no date stirs sadder memories than Oct. 23, the anniversary of the brutal suppression of Hungary's briefly victorious battle for freedom. But today, 30 years after Soviet troops put down the revolt, forcing 200,000 Hungarians to flee to the West, the signs of melancholy are few. Hungary today seems as distant from the chilly Iron Curtain gloom as bubbling Budapest is from somber Bucharest and Prague. Indeed, no casual tourist in Hungary would find anything vaguely revolutionary in the country today.

Superficially, at least, Hungary displays the effects of slow privatization of the economy, and the evidence is not strictly for tourist consumption. Although Budapest has several luxury hotels built with Western capital and filled with business travelers and tourists from all over the world, the hotel caf'es and the promenade alongside the Danube are crowded with Hungarians, too, all very well dressed and apparently well fed. Everyone seems to be relaxed and enjoying drinks and elaborate ice cream confections.

Away from the river, in the traffic-free squares dotting the shopping areas, there are band concerts of high quality and street entertainment of all kinds. Playing at a local theater: a Hungarian version of ``Fiddler on the Roof.''

Perhaps the greatest affront to socialism, along with the nightclubs, are the gambling casinos.

On any Sunday morning (can this be a socialist regime?) the Matthias Church, a richly decorated baroque building refurbished many times since the 13th century, features a high mass with full orchestra and choir. The incredible sound wafts out to the adjoining square, where peasants have set up dozens of stalls to sell their produce and handicrafts.

Unlike other countries in the East bloc, Hungary has food stores that are well stocked, and there are no lines. Even out in the country in a small arts center, a little market does a thriving business providing the fixings for picnic lunches.

One afternoon we visited a synagogue-cum-museum where elderly Hungarian Jews acted as resident shmoozers (if one could find a common language).

There are several functioning synagogues in Budapest and a renewed interest in Hebrew and Jewish culture. At Lake Balaton, a resort a few hours away, vacationing Jews have organized a synagogue and Hebrew school.

A Jewish college student in Hungary to visit relatives, the daughter of a couple who had fled in 1956, years before her birth, told us that her family was doing much better than on her previous visit four years before. One of her uncles, for instance, was a small merchant selling blue jeans in the private economy.

In comparison with Czechoslovakia, there seems to be a lack of official zealotry. It is relatively easy to get a visa, and leaving the country by hydrofoil to Vienna presented no problems, either.

Official ceremonies are regarded as a break in routine. When public transportation came to a halt the morning of Zimbabwean President Canaan Banana's visit, people cheerfully clambered off the streetcars to watch the military band assemble outside Parliament (a dead ringer for Whitehall) and gawk at the small motorcade flying the flags of Hungary and Zimbabwe.

People on buses and trains are helpful and interested in Americans, even if lack of a common language makes communication hard. In front of a museum featuring an exhibit of poster art stands a large Donald Duck poster.

As in most communist countries, there is a selective use of history. Our aristocratic tour guide had nothing to say about 1956, but then she also avoided mention of a huge World War II memorial inscribed with Russian names. She did, however, describe in detail the architecture in the restored area on the Buda side of the Danube.

Italians favor a spa on Margaret Island, where dental work is one-third of the cost they would pay in Italy and where they enjoy taking the thermal cures. Austrian women routinely cross the border to have their hair done a lot more cheaply than at home. And instead of the quiet of most East-bloc cities, Budapest swings at night with piano bars featuring American jazz and wine cellars complete with strolling gypsy violinists.

One can still see in some sections the damage to buildings from the street fighting that went on in 1944 and '56. Heroes' Square, with an imposing monument, leads into the city park. Which heroes does it commemorate? Clearly it is not a monument to socialism.

In the city park there are food stands and caf'es selling as much junk food as one would find in the United States. And Budapest has numerous public swimming pools and more theaters, recalling the glory days between the wars.

The grandeur of the boulevards, the picturesque character of the smaller squares, and the atmosphere of joie de vivre are reminiscent of a lost Paris.

The differences with its neighbor, Czechoslovakia, are overwhelming and poignant. What lies beneath the surface? Are the differences more apparent than real?

For now one can say only that revolution is not on the agenda for Hungary and that if its economic progress continues, it will be an increasingly popular tourist attraction for Westerners.

Margery Elfin is associate professor of political science at Hood College, Frederick, Md.

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