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Homecoming, 1945 (Excerpt from the book 1945 and Other Stories), by Gábor T. Szántó

“Why help? The sender must arrange the unloading. He’s a conductor, not a porter! They can think what they want! They’re all the same. Suckers. All the more so, considering what’s happened. But they aren’t budging from inside until someone unrolls the red carpet. Maybe they’re praying in there where it’s one hundred degrees and counting. In black suits and hats. Who on earth understands them? Do they always wear their best or they’re all dressed up because they’re observing one of their holidays? But they wouldn’t be traveling today if that was the case. Even he knows that – no matter how mysterious they might be.

It seems odd that what happened to them didn’t seem to be quite enough. They’re coming back, back to where it happened. What an undeniably stubborn race, he concludes, and so pig-headed, too.

The conductor strolls towards the stationmaster‘s office to borrow a handcart. He imagines he’ll be free that much faster if he organizes the unloading of their cargo in advance and doesn’t let them mess about. How they fussed as they loaded in Budapest – as if every last thing they packed was glass. He asked if they were transporting crystal, because fragile goods require special shipping and handling, and an additional fee.

“Nothing fragile,” they said reassuringly, “But handle with care.”

If they want to scrimp and save, let it be, the conductor thought. If something happens to the cargo, then they’ll be responsible for the damage. That’s how they are, always insisting on saving money. That‘s why they play tricks rather than take risks. And, indeed, they didn‘t leave him alone until he slammed the door shut.

Ten heavy, nailed boxes, plus a lighter one, had to be loaded in the boxcar. They refused any other goods or packages to be transported together in the same carriage with their cargo. They insisted on paying the full fee.

The conductor acknowledged their special demands with a shrug. It was none of his business. The transport certificate was filled out and signed accurately, they’d paid the fee to the main office in advance, and from that point on they could transport anything they wanted the way they wanted. He’d labored on the railway more than thirty years, seen everything, and had endured plenty of objections from bosses and crazy passengers, but he did have an opinion about these people here. About a year ago, he saw how they had been herded into each carriage, eighty or ninety of them at a time. He saw the hands thrusting between the window’s barbwire and heard the shouts and pleas for water; he had posted letters tossed out before the border, for good money, and he was even compelled to feel sorry for the poor people who, in their despair, were trying to figure out where they were heading. He experienced a few sleepless nights after that. But after all that had happened, he now found it repugnant that, according to the newspapers (over-reporting a tad too much, as others also had suffered quite enough), they were trading with Germans – with Germans of all people. They come and go through half of Europe with boxes sealed by the German Reich, proving once again that they’ll overcome any challenge and they’ve no scruples when it comes to making profit. He had no doubt that the shipment must promise great stakes, considering all their special precautions.

These folks have learned nothing, he concludes. They’re only interested in business and that’s final.”

Translated from Hungarian by TLR Bass