Reflections on Budapest.

  Thanks for reading this short blog and for visiting my site.

I know many readers are very interested in my connection with Sándor Görög who lives in Budapest. In fact I can say with clarity that my experience of visiting Sándor this Autumn was a highlight for me and it marked the end of a remarkable journey. I hope Sándor feels the same way. We both agreed that we would meet up again this time with my family in tow, so that he can get to meet my wife, my teenage son and my daughter. We will go there one day.

After returning to the Uk after my whistle stop visit to Hungary, I then ended up on UK national radio as a studio guest on a very popular Saturday morning programme on Radio 4 called ‘Saturday Live’. It was a special moment and I relished the opportunity to talk about my journey, which started in Auschwitz and ended in early November meeting Sándor in Budapest. I am so proud of my connection to Sándor and I feel privileged to have become his friend. He is a special man.

So I will sign off by wishing you a Happy Christmas and prosperous New Year. I am looking forward to 2016 more than I have ever anticipated the coming of a new year before. Much has happened in the last 12 months, which has included losing a job, finding another, starting to write my book on my experiences in Kosovo in 2008, and of course meeting Sándor. I never seem to have a dull and uneventful life!

All best and take care.

Getting Away From It All

Sunset over the Atlantic

Its not often that we are able to escape from the rat race. This week I flew out to stay in a family house in a small, near deserted seaside village in northern Portugal called Moledo.

I have only ever been here in the summer and the difference is stark. The streets are empty with dried leaves swirling around the windy streets, devoid of cars and holiday makers. Instead there are stray cats darting between hiding places with a few locals, either retired or working locally, going about their daily routines. No queues, no noisy kids, only the regular train service shaking the house to its foundations every time it passes the rear of the property!

Will I be an author one day?

I am here to write my long awaited book on my experiences from Kosovo. I am, as they say, fully immersed in something that happened 7 years ago. In fact, 3 days into this trip and on advice from a successful author who I met the night before flying out here, I’m now concentrating on writing enough for a submission to an agent. There’s a lot to write; I have underestimated the time I will need to complete this project.

I have to say that getting away for ten days has done me the world of good already. I’m still looking for a permanent role and have arranged several meetings on my return, but for now it’s ‘me time’!

Christmas lights and decorations in Caminha.

A post-Paris UK

Update: I first wrote this blog in the summer, long before the Paris attacks. I didn’t publish it at the time because it really did sound too extreme. But on reflection, I think that the events of the last 7 days have more than justified publishing the post now.
In my earlier post I suggested that the Government’s proposals to conduct mass surveillance across social media – along with other means of communication – should be supported. I argued that when a country is facing an existential threat, as we are now from violent Islamic extremism, Government policy must reflect the reality facing the country as it did in the Cold War and at other periods when the country’s freedoms were under threat.

I wasn’t arguing for gun turrets on village halls, but I was arguing for the ability to prevent massacres on our own soil at the heart of our society (thereby having to use village halls as temporary morgues). Is this too sensationalist? Time will tell, especially if the likes of David Davis and his civil libertarian cohort manage to prevent the much needed legislation from being passed into law.

But I think we should be doing more. Thankfully the vast majority of Muslim families in this country are vehemently opposed to violence and travelling to Syria would be unthinkable. I welcome that, as most normal people would. So what should we do when the very few do up sticks and travel abroad to join the Islamic State?

Well, anyone who travels to live in the ‘Islamic State’ – essentially condoning a murderous and barbaric sect – or who fights for ISIS should forfeit their right to be British. Their passports should be deleted from the mainframe computer and all records removed. They should cease to exist in this country.  

So what about their property and their assets? 

There is a simple answer. Their houses should be requisitioned by the Government and sold. The proceeds from the sale, together with their other possessions, should then be paid into a fund to support the families of those people who have died at the hands of ISIS, whether in this country or abroad. Those who wish to do us harm, or support a regime that is intent on doing us harm, should be given no quarter in the UK.

We have to be more intolerant of intolerance. 

And that should start now.

BBC Radio 4 – the Saturday Live experience!

As many of the visitors to this site will know, I was fortunate to have been one of the guests on the very popular Saturday Live programme this weekend. 

It was great to meet Richard Coles and Asmaa Mir, both of whom were really welcoming and interested in everyone’s stories. Even the production team afterwards congratulated us on the quality of the show, mainly because we all interacted so easily which made for a very relaxed environment.

So what could be better than meeting some interesting new people and talking to hundreds and thousands of people about Olivia Newton John, a hedgehog called Harrold (that I thought I had squashed) and of course my friend Sándor in Budapest? Whether that type of experience ever happens to me again I really don’t know, but it was so much fun (and kind of addictive too..).

So thanks for coming to this site and reading the stories about Sándor and my other musings. Ros Hubbard, who was also on the show, did her best to encourage me to do something with the story. So I am now thinking what that may be. 

Watch this space!!

Meeting Sandor

Contemplating the interior of a little known Synagogue in Budapest with Sandor.

Contemplating the interior of a little known Synagogue in Budapest with Sandor.

I have deliberately waited a few days before concluding this short series of posts about my meeting with Sandor. I think in part to allow the event to really sink in, rather than allowing it to be something that needed to be reported instantly. The current trend to photograph or video everything in real time, watching life through a small screen, or blogging ‘live’ prevents people from thinking about events in a more reflective way.

Seeing Sandor walk into the hotel lobby was like watching an old friend arrive for a coffee meeting. Shaking hands with him was a great relief and we soon fell into an easy conversation, discussing what I wanted to do for the day. I soon learned that Sandor does a lot of walking and he was concerned that I would not be able to keep up with him throughout the day; he is 82. I tried to reassure him that I was pretty fit and liked walking but I don’t think I convinced him at all!

The famous Budapest 'paprika' - or chillies to me.

The famous Budapest ‘paprika’ – or chillies to me.

We walked all day, with little let up save a break for coffee and lunch. I must confess that I was quite tired by the end of the day although Sandor appeared to be ready for more. In so many ways he is an extraordinary man. When we broke for a coffee in a traditional cafe in a central square, we talked about some sensitive memories from his childhood. He talked about how his Aunt returned to the Monastery in 1945 to find him and eventually to tell him of his family’s fate (later confirmed by other letters). He talked about how he stayed in the Monastery, principally because he wanted to be a priest but he realised over the next few years that this was not in fact his destiny. When he explained his decision to the Priest in 1948, he was asked to leave.

He described how he and his Aunt struggled in post war Hungary, living together with other families in the same room, sharing communal facilities after he left the monastery. How Sandor went to university where he studied for a degree, a masters and finally a PhD. I learned how Sandor joined the resistance just as the uprising against the communist regime reached its peak; how he was ‘arrested’ by the university and charged with membership of a proscribed group. Newly married and with a new born baby, how he was ejected from the one place that he felt most at home – the university environment. He realised that his academic career was at an end so he stepped into the pharmaceutical industry and forged a distinguished career (he is still working). He admitted that the period around 1956-58 was the hardest in his life; I bet.

The irony is that he returned to academia later in life where his contribution to science through his love of chemistry led to international recognition and presidential awards.

Making his first visit to a controversial new statue that has become a living shrine to the victims of Nazi Germany and the Hungarian Government's complicity in the death of Hungarian Jews in 1944/45.

Making his first visit to a controversial new statue that has become a living shrine to the victims of Nazi Germany and the Hungarian Government’s complicity in the death of Hungarian Jews in 1944/45.

Sandor’s encyclopaedic knowledge of Hungarian history gave me a unique insight into Budapest and the beautiful monuments throughout the city. Sandor said to his wife later that we had covered about 80% of the main tourist sites (I can believe that!). The day also gave me a renewed respect for a man who has been through so much in his life. From such a difficult childhood after the age of ten, he had faced many challenges in his adult life that lesser men who have failed to overcome. He was a true intellectual and I knew I was in the company of a very special son of Hungary.

Finally, with the sun setting in a clear sky, we climbed up to Buda Castle to look across the Danube at the old city of Pest and the impressive Parliament building. We also managed to enter the beautiful Matthias Church just as it was closing and even though it was a short visit, it was a perfect way to end our day. By 5pm we were in a taxi heading to his home (I suspect he chose a cab to save me having to walk). At his apartment I met his wife and daughter; we had dinner together and talked a lot more. I could not have been happier.

Standing with Sandor after walking up to Buda Castle at the end of the day.

Standing with Sandor after walking up to Buda Castle at the end of the day.

He also translated the page in his autobiography where he described my initial email back in 2007 that I sent to him asking if he was the boy in the book. To have been included in his autobiography was a great privilege. After travelling to Auschwitz and reading a book about its horrors and reading about Sandor, as a young boy hidden in a Monastery to save his life, I feel like my initial curiosity has been repaid in a way I could never have imagined; becoming friends with Sandor means a great deal to me.

I am now content and also inspired to make as much of my life as I can.

From Auschwitz to Budapest: an extraordinary journey

Taking the train: final destination Budapest.

Tuesday 3rd November 2015

It’s been very last minute but I am on my way to a country I have never been to, to meet a man I have never met.

I am finally fulfilling a personal journey that started in the bitter cold of Auschwitz in 2007 and will end tomorrow in the Autumn sunshine of Budapest, on the banks of the River Danube. So why am I making this journey?

As part of my military career I attended a course which included a study of genocide. What better place to see its grim reality than at Auschwitz. So on a bitterly cold day, trudging through the snow covered ground, I found myself at the heart of the Nazi’s most notorious extermination camp. During the visit I was advised to buy a book called “I Was Dr Mengele’s Assistant”, written by Doctor Nyiszli who was recruited to perform the post mortems for the infamous Nazi torturer. On my way home from Poland I read the book in one sitting; it was so compelling.

Towards the end of the book, I read about a boy who had been hidden by his Father in a monastery in Hungary, to avoid being rounded up by the Nazis in 1944. The boy was the son of Doctor Görög who had been sent to Auschwitz with his wife and daughter (who were both killed on their first day at the camp). Dr Görög was recruited by Dr Nyiszli to ease his workload, such was the volume of post mortems.

Auschwitz, a place without birdsong.

At the end of the book, when Doctor  Görög was close to death, he pleaded with the author of the book to adopt his son after the war. Whilst Dr Nyiszli agreed to this request and wrote this in the book, he never did fulfil Dr Görög’s final wish.

The boy was called Sándor Görög and he was 12 years old.

With no further mention of Sándor, I was intrigued to know what had happened to him after the war. I searched for him online when I got home to the UK and I found a Sándor Görög, who was around the right age, and like his Father, he had become a successful scientist.

Next to this information there was also an email address. So I wrote to Sándor Görög to ask if he was the boy in the book.

One hour later I received a reply and he confirmed that it was him.
He then wrote to me at length about his family’s story and Hungarian Jews in general. Over the years we have exchanged many pictures of our family, especially at Christmas time.

And today I am flying to Budapest to meet him for the first time.

Where next after Tunisia?

We always knew that a threat existed against all things Western, but the massacre on the beach in Sousse was still a shock. So should we be surprised? 

Growing up in the Cold War era, our lives were dominated by the existential threat of communism and images of the Red Army’s tanks rolling towards the ‘west’ across the plains of Northern Germany. The Cold War was not only a highly defined threat that infiltrated everyone’s consciousness, it also shaped Government policy of the day. 

Now that threat has been resurrected for the current generation by ISIS; and it is a more tangible threat to our way of life than anything this country has experienced since the Roman invasion over 1000 years ago. So what has to happen for the population of Britain to accept that Government policy needs be developed to reflect this evolving situation?

When was the last time your business practiced its emergency lock down procedure? When did your children’s school rehearse its reaction to a mass shooting event. If this sounds far-fetched, or overly dramatic, then the growing trend (and success) of lone wolf attacks, aided by unregulated border controls in Europe and the availability of assault weapons flooding into the EU from North Africa and through its eastern borders, suggests that the UK will soon have to face a similar incident. 

The PM talks about being intolerant of intolerance; for a famously tolerant society this concept is difficult to accept for some. But accept it we must, because the next attack will not be in a London railway station, or at a popular beach resort, it will be at a village fete in Hertfordshire or Derbyshire. It will involve mass casualties, and it will strike at the heart of our culture and profoundly harm our sense of security.

So let’s not wait for that day. Let’s give the security services and other Government Agencies the tools to keep us safe. Let’s not pander to the liberals and professional campaigners who have never experienced the harsh world of 21st century terrorism. Let’s not bolt the stable door with the horse cantering into the distance. 

It is time to take the initiative in our fight against Islamic Extremism.