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.

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