It has been said that childhood is a foreign land. This is especially so if the child is uprooted early from that small universe where all is familiar, and transplanted to a country where no one knows how to pronounce her name. After my parents both died -- my mother in 2004 and my father the following year -- I became obsessed with learning everything I could about what precisely had happened to them and to my sister and me in the land where everything began. No subsequent chapter in my life had matched those Budapest years for intensity and the power of family love. My parents and sister and I formed a tight unit partly because the world outside was hostile. Once safe in America, each of us would pursue our own lives, and our family ties inevitably loosened. We had successfully made the crossing. Strangely, I still longed for a time that had been dangerous and painful for all of us -- yet had bound us together. I missed the closeness of our lives in Budapest.
A child growing up in a State built on terror learns early that she, and even her parents, is nothing compared to the power of that State. However accomplished or witty or glamorous the parents -- and mine were all of those things -- they were playthings in the hands of the State. In such a place a child has no rights, not even the right to her parents. So when they were taken from me -- and this is how it seemed to a child, they were taken from me -- a separation marked me, not just them, and forever. I wanted to open the files in order to put that trauma to rest.
There was something else that puzzled me as the files disgorged secrets. Why did my parents take such risks? During the Cold War, most Hungarians would cross a street rather than risk being seen greeting an American. But my parents' best friends were American diplomats and journalists. What every grown-up I knew whispered, my parents spoke out loud. At a time when there were roughly two thousand private cars in all of Hungary, our family drove a white Studebaker convertible! We might as well have ridden a rocket.
So, when some years later I, too, received the same award from the Hungarian government as my father, I returned to Budapest, to this stately house of horrors, and filled out all the requisite forms. For several months I waited in New York to be summoned by the head of these archives, Katalin Kutrucz.