T E X T
Flight, Displacement and the Body
In the Fabled City
got a message from a distant star
don’t confuse your goal with gold
get back to who you are.
‘Come Here to go Home’ (D+H ‘17)
In 1980’s New York, Geoffrey Datson met Hungarian ex-Olympic water polo champion Oscar Charles, who was visiting friends in Princeton. Oscar described the beautiful pools of Budapest that drew him into the water as a child. He also told a dark story from his youth when, as strong swimmer he struck out to rescue survivors in the freezing waters of the river Danube, red with the blood of jewish victims of the Arrow Cross Terror where today, bronze shoes now line the riverbank to commemorate their massacre in 1945.
The following story appears in a post on the European Holocaust Research Infrastructure project (EHRI) blog:
Lajos Sebestyén, his wife, their daughter and infant grandson, fled from their hometown of Debrecen to Budapest to avoid the mass deportations then in full force in eastern Hungary. They found refuge in Budapest, but were discovered there by a roving band of Nyilas roughs who dragged the group down the Danube embankment, shot them and threw them into the water. Only Mrs. Sebestyén, having been pulled from the water by a kindly bystander, survived the war in a hospital.
Could that kindly bystander have been Oszkar?
Only 3 years later, Oscar was a member of the silver medal-winning Hungarian team at the 1948 London Olympics and became one of the first Hungarian athletes to defect from Soviet occupied Hungary. He later emigrated to Australia where he played for Sydney University and became an Olympic coach and a highly regarded expert in the sport. In 1956 he was engaged to commentate on-air the infamous ‘Blood in the water’ match between Hungary and Russia, one of the hardest-fought contests in Olympic history, which came to symbolise the Hungarian struggle against Soviet rule.
During the 90’s, Oscar became a mentor to Geoffrey's younger self who would visit Oscar in the afternoons to talk, fascinated that he was both an accomplished sportsman and keen amateur scientist. Over the years we witnessed the gradual mutilation of his once perfect body by the surgeon’s knife. When he died he left Geoffrey his library on mathematics and theoretical physics. Oscar warned about the dangers of totalitarianism.
Art Quarter Budapest (AQB) accepted our project application to research, write and compose a work about Oscar. Back in Australia at our studio in the country, twenty years of work stretch out in every direction - at AQB we would come to feel an abundance of time. We had no idea what might emerge from immersion in this foreign place for 3 months in residence in Budafok, but we knew we had to experience our research through our own bodies, by following Oscar’s footsteps through the city, stand on the bridges and feel the current of history flowing through the place.
This work intends to both to honour Oskar's experience and further explore what he was trying to tell us about the depth of ‘dark matter’ - the spirit - we all swim in. For 50 years, despite his perfect English, Oscar was a fish out of water in Australia. In Budapest, gasping for lack of language, we can only say köszönöm.
OSCAR CHARLES 2008 - 1950
We visited Oscar for the last time in his Sydney living-room. His once perfect body, now destroyed by age and illness, was confined to a chair, but he was radiant, delighted by company, loquacious and charming. Divorced and living alone, he depended heavily on visiting nurses and his daughters, Sally and Tabitha. He had lost his foot, caused by thrombosis in his leg and the stump never healed properly, making walking painful. That day, his dressing had just been changed. A basin lay beside his chair. There was blood in the water.
Sally puts Oscar’s ill health down to heavy smoking and drinking. For years his alcohol abuse increased to the point where although still working, he would spend much of his weekend oblivious, sleeping off the booze. What began as a convivial European love of café-life, tennis and lunch with his Hungarian buddies and partying like there was no tomorrow during the 60s, turned into a hard core problem. But it did have a silver lining.
In an effort to clean up his act, Oscar submitted to Alcoholics Anonymous - possibly the most difficult challenge of his life. There in the embrace of group therapy he met scientists, philosophers and academics and began his intellectual life of the mind. Although only an average mathematics student in youth, he was deeply impressed by their ideas on particle physics, the nature of matter and cosmology. Their company gave him the strength to stop drinking and take up meditation and contemplation of life and the relationship between the breath, body and soul.
What drove Oscar’s desire for oblivion? Flipping though his photo album, full of sunlit virility, ravishing women and extraordinary places, it is difficult to equate his glamorous former life with the reality of his ravaged body - wildly over weight, lungs labouring under the heavy smoking habit and out of sight under his skin, his cardiac system turning on him, and beneath that, in every molecule of his DNA, a swirling tide of traumatic memory.
Medically, alcoholism is considered both a physical and mental illness. Environmental factors and genetics are two components associated with alcoholism, with about half the risk attributed to each. Someone with a parent or sibling with alcoholism is three to four times more likely to become an alcoholic. Environmental factors include social, cultural and behavioural influences, and high stress levels increase the risk. Perhaps his disease was hereditary - his father died alcoholic. Environment certainly contributed much to his need for drink, but one’s environment is not a place, rather, it is a continuum of accumulated experience that leads you the point at which all you want to do is stop the world and get off.
His silver medal achievement had become a symbol of failure, especially since he retrieved it from a pile of rubbish outside his house, thoughtlessly or accidentally tossed out in a council clean-up. Perhaps his drinking diluted resentment that his life had not gone to plan; that for every choice, he’d made the wrong decision, each one compounded by the one before. Like his decision to migrate to Australia.
Being a migrant in post war Australia was no picnic. Despite speaking English well, he arrived in the country under his own name - Csuvik - which marked him as ‘reffo’. Regardless of it being considered a ‘term of endearment’ by anglo-Australians, it is keenly felt as a barrier to belonging by the outsider. 10 year old Sally, mercilessly teased at school - about her name, about her nose - was delighted when Oscar officially changed their name to Charles in 1964.
While his is drinking no doubt contributed to the deterioration of his marriage, his wife Pamela had her own issues with Oscar’s sexist ‘boys-club’. She was a veterinary surgeon and went on to become the host of a popular TV vet show and her independence, given the general sexist attitudes at the time, must have added to Oscar’s own faltering self-confidence among his peers. But that was minor compared to his mother arriving into the midst of their household.
In 1957 Oscar brought his mother Emilia to Australia. She was there for the birth of her new grand daughter and when after two months Pam returned to work, Emelia cared for baby Sally. But Emelia never assimilated and never spoke English. Despite Pam’s best efforts, they just could not form a bond. Partly because no one could ever be good enough for Emilia’s ‘golden boy’, but Pam, pampered and middle-class, had nothing in common with Emelia who had done life hard during the war. Neither did she leave Budapest willingly, even though her once comfortable family was now dispossessed by the Soviets of ownership of their land holding which forced her to live in difficult circumstances. At least she had her friends and community - social being-ness.
Ilona, Oscar’s older sister told him their mother would be better off in Budapest but Emelia was getting old and her support network was shrinking. Oscar insisted. He looked after her and visited her every weekend, dragging Sally along to lunch on Sundays, where he proceeded to get drunk and fall asleep on the couch while Sally, whose rudimentary Hungarian language skills evaporated as soon as she went to school, was left to make faltering small talk with licensed.
In the few pages of transcript of Oszkar’s only memoir - a tape outlining his childhood years - Oscar voices his compunction about bringing his mother out. He’d convinced himself he was being the good son, but instead had made the end of her life miserable. He wondered if his marriage might have worked if not for Emelia.
While Oscar’s skills as a coach were in demand, there was little or no funding structure to pay him a living wage. TV was brand new and sports broadcast rights and licensing issues were still being negotiated. The commercial networks wanted sport to be treated as news (free), not entertainment (licenced). Even though he was largely responsible for development of the style of Australian water polo, Oscar finally had to admit to himself that water polo could only be a side project to the responsibility of raising a family and looking out for his mother. Oscar had to get a day job. With Pam’s support, he studied to become an accountant and found work in the car trade, a job he hated but stuck at for many years, while all around him his charismatic Hungarian friends became successful businessmen.
The Mexico Olympics hammered the final nail into the coffin of Oscar’s coaching ambitions and must have severely affected his sense of self-worth. He was manager of the Australian team which had been accepted to play in Group A, but the Australian Olympic Committee considered it a waste of money to send a team, and did not endorse them. The players paid their own way to go to Mexico City, but were excluded from competition because their international ranking was not considered adequate. Oscar found it difficult to conceal his frustration and disappointment.
But in 1956, the year he and his beautiful veterinary surgeon Dr. Pamela Tinslay married, the future still looked bright to Oscar. He was hanging with a flash crowd of optimistic Hungarian emigres, moving in athletic management circles and with that mellifluous BBC voice of his, landed a job as a radio commentator of the water polo competition at the Melbourne Olympics. He was poolside to call the infamous ‘blood in the water’ final between Hungary and Soviet Russia. With the outraged Hungarian crowd roaring in his ears, the physical battle in the pool and a young player pulled bleeding from the water, and with his own experience of Soviet occupation so close to the bone, it is not surprising Oscar had to be restrained from leaping into the fray. That game opened old wounds of his own.
His previous Olympic campaign didn’t go as well as he’d hoped either. Aged 27, only two years since arriving in Sydney, Oscar coached the 1952 Australian Olympic team to Helsinki. The Australians performed (and behaved) badly and to add insult to injury, Oscar watched on bitterly as four of his 1948 Olympic team-mates won gold for Hungary. Had he not defected, he would have been in on that podium.
OSCAR FLEMMING 1950 - 48
Oscar Flemming watches the smoking wreck of Europe sink beneath the horizon. Australia lies six weeks away on the other side of the world. There, he would be free of always looking over his shoulder for secret police. Australia promised opportunity and hope for a white European with excellent English language skills.
For two years he’d melted into London, found work in a fish and chip shop, kept his head down, and assumed the name Oscar Flemming. A wealthy philanthropist by the name of Kaldor offered to fund Oscar to complete his stalled law degree at Cambridge but Oscar declined.
Perhaps the emotional fallout of his doomed love affair with Eva Ratz had some bearing on his decision. When his relationship with the young woman resulted in pregnancy, 24 year old Oscar, a good catholic boy, suggested abortion. Eva did not want to terminate and they spit before she bore his son and married her gynaecologist who forbade Oscar to see her or the child again. Professionally, the offer presented an agonising choice - study in London and continue to play with the London Kingsbury club in the hope of making the ’52 Olympics team, or get the hell out of Europe altogether and follow his Hungarian athlete friends. Oskar opted to emigrate with his mates.
He had no choice really, given the result of the 1948 Olympic water polo final between Hungary and Italy. This match was the culmination of ten years of training. Ten years of mental and physical energy bent towards this moment - his chance to earn fame and admiration and his own key to the doors a gold medal could open.
The packed Wembly swimming stadium in mid-August 1948 was like a turkish bath - the atmosphere steamy and difficult for people with spectacles. De Vries, the referee wore glasses. Oscar described the match as the most decisive minutes of his life. Fully aware that his memory of the event sounds like an ‘alibi’ - a story of sour grapes, he wrote:
'At the last one and a half minutes of the game, the score was even... The Hungarians had a four metre penalty shot for an Italian foul. The noise was deafening... the crowd realising this shot could seal the fate of gold for Hungary. In the noisy turmoil, one of the defenders floated to within an arms length of the shooter which is against the rules. The referee disregarded (or couldn’t see) this infringement and whistled for the the shot to be taken. At that moment the Italian kicked the shooter under the water and the ball rolled out of his hand to be scooped up by the Italian goal keeper who flicked it to his centre and without any Hungarian defence, scored a goal.'
The stadium erupted, outraged by the controversial decision. About 45 seconds remained. Oscar managed to get the ball and after a couple of passes, his team mate Szivos took a failed shot at goal from 10 meters that ended the game.
Only 90 minutes before the final result, lined up on the edge of the pool, Oscar focused on breathing to calm his excitement. He had no doubt about his team's ability to win gold. It never occurred to him that fate would only deal silver that day or that for the next sixty years he would continually replay that moment when his dream condensed like the steam on the referee’s glasses.
CSUVIK OSZKAR 1948 - 1936
Czuvik made the 1948 London Olympic team just as the the last of Budapest’s 26,000 damaged roofs was repaired. Against extreme odds odds, he did all the hard yards necessary to achieve elite fitness and skill development at the age of 23 - just at the right moment - despite all the blood, shit and tears seared into his cell memory over the past four years. Oszkar emerged from the chaos as from a chrysalis - perfect - to walk among gods. Dedication, sacrifice and sheer force of will bought Oszkar his ticket out of the slaughterhouse.
Oszkar told only three stories about his experience of the war in Budapest: that throughout the war, his mother hid Bennie, a jewish friend of Oskar’s age; that he and Bennie were captured by Soviets to perform forced labor; and that Oszkar pulled bodies from the Danube. Either he gave only the sketchiest of details, or his children were not interested in knowing the full story. Perhaps he hated to discuss his memories because they triggered painful emotions, but no matter how hard you try to forget such formative fear and loathing as Oszkar experienced during WW2, it’s always there, twisted tightly into your DNA. He did tell her that he hated both the German and Soviet occupiers in equal measure.
Life was grim under Soviet occupation after the war, but Oszkar must have been able to train, because in 1946, his team won the European water polo championships, assuring him of Olympic selection. All around him, the city lay in festering ruins. The team must have been back into the pool as soon as the water supply was restored. Or perhaps they were moved to somewhere safe, to a training camp in the mountains, as was the case with ’56 Hungarian team, to shield them from the uprising.
In the city, communal kitchens were feeding 50,000 people. If three hundred selected artists and scholars received special rations, nicknamed ‘Vas parcels’, it is reasonable to suspect that extra rations might have been found for elite athletes. Hungarian Water polo was an invaluable ‘spoil of war’ to the Soviets. Knowledge of Hungarian training regimes and tactics would guarantee them future gold medals and all that ‘intellectual property’ was vested in the bodies of the current crop of players. They would have been as valuable as prize bulls.
Oszkar and his friend Bennie could now walk the streets of Budapest without fear. During German occupation, any Hungarian male over 18 seen in public was regarded by the Nazis as conscripts dodging service. During the siege, they risked death or forced labour at the hands of Hungary’s homegrown ruling Nazi Arrow-cross militia, but they still had to be wary of their ‘liberators’.
The pair were picked up together by soviets for ‘a little light work’. They were released after 3 days of ferrying goods and munitions across the Danube. The river was partly frozen and traversing the moving pack-ice across a trail of planks made the task hazardous. Bennie who was half starved and weak from hiding indoors for the duration of occupation, found the work impossible. Oscar did his share. They were lucky. Others were driven towards the Soviet Union from whence many would never return. But many died closer to home in forced labor, some possibly on this kind of dangerous milenkirobot on the Danube ice where Oszkar and Bennie were detained.
The Soviet capture of Pest was welcomed by at least one large element of its population: the tens of thousands of Jews, among them young Bennie, who had evaded the forced marches and mass deportation to Auschwicz thanks to Oszkar’s mother. They had dodged constant shelling and bombing and daily ravages by the depredations of Arrow-cross thugs in a city shivering against the exceptionally cold winter. Most battled just to to survive day to day - to fetch water from the river risked death.
Oszkar was not yet 20 when the Soviets pushed into Pest, setting in motion a flight of thousands of refugees. Perhaps he witnessed the exodus of these suddenly homeless people driven by fear of the advancing soviet army:
The bridges stood constantly under the heaviest fire, and despite this, they flowed confused and unthinkingly over the Danube from Pest to Buda — all who could run, roll or hobble, vehicles of all kinds and civilian wagons covered in canvas with shying horses, wretched mothers, crying wives and children, and many, many wounded soldiers. When the mortar rounds fell in the moving mass of humanity, men and material were thrown from both sides of the bridge into the Danube.’
Where these the bodies he dragged to shore?
When German and Hungarian troops finally gave up the battle and fled the city, they blew up the remaining Danube bridges linking Buda and Pest - the two sides of the city - Pest being a flat plain on the Eastern bank where Oszkar lived, and Buda where the castle crowns the high ground of the Western shore.
As the circle tightened around the capital, besieged Budapest was described as a ‘second Stalingrad’, both in Hungarian military reports and in Soviet propaganda leaflets dropped from the air. The streets were deserted, shops closed. Oszkar’s family huddled along side the rest of the trapped population in filthy, overcrowded, unheated cellars for 50 days. Corpses lay in the streets, frozen in empty rooms in deserted buildings, piled up in the gardens beside the Szechenyi Baths.
There is no electricity, water or gas. We bring water from the cellar and cook in the yard. In the streets, corpses lie naked because the clothes are removed from them... Money is worth nothing. In mid-December people were receiving 150 grams of bread a day and at Christmas, 120 grammes of meat.
Only a year earlier, Oszkar would have been training on Margit Island. By this stage of his competitive career, training would consume much of Oszkar’s time. It was more than sport - for him, it was a way out of poverty, out of the war. Here, as the city of his birth crumbled from Allied bombing, Oszkar swam, the only sound in his ears his own breath into the water. In training he could completely escape into his body, ploughing his own zen path up and down the black line of the lane. Hours streamed by while in a parallel universe, just above the surface of the water, Hungary prepared to repel the advancing Soviet army.
On a Saturday in November 1944, as people were out shopping, gathering supplies for what now seemed inevitable, they didn’t know, as they headed towards Margit bridge, that it was being laced with explosive charges by German ‘pioneers’. But something went wrong.
... we were shaken by a tremendous explosion...I ran back to the Danube Embankment, where a huge crowd had gathered. It was a terrible sight. On the Pest side two arches of the bridge had collapsed. Trams, cars and hundreds of people had fallen into the river. Two shattered carriages of the number 6 tram jutted out of the water and the moans of the injured could be heard. Bodies were hanging from the railings, and in the swirling water there were dead and wounded.
Were these the bodies Oszkar retrieved from the Danube? He would certainly have heard the explosion. Oszkar lived within a 30 minute walk from his club's training pool on the Buda side of Margit bridge, which means he lived within a fifteen minute walk from the Pest bridgehead. It must have occurred to him it could have been him on that bridge at that moment, in the full flower of his youth, plunging into the water.
Sally says, it was Arrow-cross Terror victims he rescued. But the Terror began long before the final killing frenzy in the months before the winter siege. With the instalment of the violently anti-semitic Nazi Arrow-cross party in the summer of 1944, the city had become a slaughterhouse. 80,000 Jews were killed in Budapest itself, shot on the banks of the Danube and then thrown into the river. Thousands of others were forced on death marches to the Austrian border. In December, during the Soviet siege of the city, 70,000 Jews were forced into a ghetto. Thousands died of cold, disease, and starvation.
It is no small thing to dive into the broad, fast flowing Danube. Once you are swept into its main current fully clothed, you will be along way down stream before you tire and drown. In winter, unless rescued quickly, death is much faster. When you hit the freezing water you experience panic and shock. If your heart has not gone into cardiac arrest, you will feel the breath driven out of your lungs, followed by an involuntary gasp reflex. If your face is underwater, you will drown. If you are lucky to gasp in air, you will be disoriented and thrash around for some seconds, losing valuable body heat. Your hands and feet will soon be numb to the point of uselessness - you will not be able to grasp a rope. Within minutes, severe pain clouds rational thought. Even if you do make it to shore, then hypothermia sets in - unless you can get warm and raise your body temperature immediately. Amnesia will set in at approximately 94, unconsciousness at 86 and death at approximately 79 degrees.
The other consideration is that you do not want to be within range of the murderer’s bullets, for risk of being shot yourself.
Oszkar says he ‘pulled bodies out of the Danube’, but was it multiple rescues during one incident, or one or two rescues over multiple incidents? What makes a young man risk his life under such circumstances? The vast majority of Hungarians had turned their backs on the plight of their jewish neighbours with cold indifference. Did he know the victims? Perhaps they were Bennie’s friends and family? Or, was there some other compulsion?
Tarics and Ilona who had been in America where Tarics was studying, returned to Hungary in 1939 ‘to fight the Nazis’. Tarics represented a father figure to young Oszkar since the death of his father the previous year. Ilona’s obituary states that she and Tarics were involved with the Hungarian resistance, another source suggests it was his mother Emilia who enlisted ‘the kids to help’ and that Oszkar was smuggling documents around the city. If so, Oszkar was old enough to be well aware of the danger of such activity. But Tarics and Ilona (a swimmer who would have competed in cancelled 1944 Olympic team) were both elite champions who, like Oszkar, could move more freely round the city. No one would suspect people such as them could have been passing communications between resistance groups, and using Oscar as a runner. Could this be what sent him into those mirky waters - to impress Tarics? to compete with his sister? To make his mother proud? Or to appease his own guilt having evaded military service and spent all his time swimming while his cohort were marching off to their death.
Earlier that year, on his 19th birthday in March, when German troops occupied Budapest, the atmosphere was grim in the capital. There was still order, but now everyone was fully aware that Germany’s final goal was the destruction of European Jewry. Budapest’s jewish population already knew what horrors were to come, having woven together the strands of story that arrived with surviving Hungarian jews who fled the countryside to the city where there was some measure of protection.
Between May 15th and July 9th, about 430,000 Hungarian Jews were deported, mainly to Auschwitz, where most were gassed on arrival. By that time, all of Hungary was "Jew-free," except for the capital, Budapest. It took only 56 days for Hungarian troops and regional militias, with organisational assistance from Eichman’s Sonderkommando officers to round up and deport women and children to the death-camps of Auschwicz and Birkenow.
Oszkar's mother Emilia must have been some piece of work. Fully cognisant of the consequences of sheltering a jew, she managed to get both Bennie and Oszkar through the war and ensuing siege intact. Only in her fifties then, and recently widowed, she must have been an extremely capable, possibly even formidable woman. When the yellow star decree isolated jews, deprived them of the right to travel, to own transportation and communication and robbed them of their property, she took Bennie into her home.
What makes a woman risk her own child’s life to shelter another’s? Were Bennie’s parents among those rounded up and placed in ghettos to worry at the fate that awaited them? Such a woman as Emilia might be perfectly capable of running a resistance cell - she certainly enacted her own personal resistance against the inhumanity she saw rising up around her that threatened her Christian faith and her beloved city. Oszkar will have observed and absorbed her morality, as children do.
In this memoir Oszkar talks of putting himself between jewish children and their tormenting bullies at school. Anti-semitism must have been simmering for some time in Hungary for it to be so clearly entrenched in the minds of its children, or perhaps it is always there, waiting to be stirred. Oszkar’s father had just died, and life became hard for Emilia with no breadwinner. Oscar recalls that the jewish mothers put extra food in their children’s lunch boxes to encourage his further efforts on their behalf.
War stories are like garments that that people wear to clothe their survivor personae. They shift over time, according the teller's audience - the stitching is still the same, the lining retains the same bloodstains, but the way the garment is worn varies according to how the story might be perceived. Ilona and Oszkar share a story about their father's death in 1937, but each held different versions. Oszkar, who was there, but only a young teen at the time, claims his father Ferenc was killed by a drunken fall from a roof. Ilona, who was in the US at the time with her new husband Tarics, believes her father was hit by a Nazi truck. Perhaps both are true - perhaps he fell into the path of the truck. If two siblings cannot agree on the circumstances of an event so close to home, what hope is there for history?
An 11 year old boy listens with all his concentration to the radio tuned into the Munich Olympics. He can't see the swastica’d banners fluttering like bunting around the stadium, nor what they will come to mean. All he cares about is that his brother in law, Sandor (Alex) Tarics, is about to win a water polo gold medal for Hungary, and that one day, he will do the same.
Young Oszkar was yet imagine anything beyond that light-bulb moment when he heard a voice inside him ringing in his ears - Play for Hungary! Only a few years before, he had been a quiet bookish boy until Ilona stepped in. She decided he needed to be built up, and enrolled him in a sports camp.
At that moment, poised at the edge of ambition to become an Olympic champion, the boy could not imagine the obstacles that would pile up in his path. For Oszkar, in the embrace of his mother’s undivided attention on her ‘golden boy’, anything is possible.
OBITUARY SMH https://www.smh.com.au/national/olympian-aimed-for-freedom-20081121-gdt3ng.html
OLYMPIC STATS http://www.waterpololegends.com/2008/11/1948-extraordinary-oszkar-csuvik.html
SEIGE OF BUDAPEST http://www.hungarianreview.com/print/20150114_during_and_after_the_siege_of_budapest_1944_1945_
RECONSTRUCTION OF BUDAPEST
BOOK - Ungvary, Krisztian. Battle for Budapest (Kindle Locations 7435-7437). I.B.Tauris. Kindle Edition.