Fortepan is Hungarian online photo archive site. It contains over four thousand photos that remain uncollected from the the Hungarian photo processing factory called Fortepan located in Vác, Hungary. These images represent 20th century Hungarian life in a way that, if any, formal collections can. Each week I will feature one image and describe what I see
The first one shows a man looking towards the camera, smiling. Nothing odd about that at all. But there is a clear story here beyond the picture itself. The key is date, 1944. Not only the date, but the time of year. It is clearly early spring. The trees in the background are not yet in bud and the man is dressed for the cold. The sky has that deep, clear blue of early spring too. 1944 was one of the most tumultuous years in 20th Century Hungarian history. In short order, the Germans, Hungary’s ally, took over the country in March of that year and within six months some 600,000 Hungarian Jews were murdered in the Holocaust. In October the Fascist Arrow Cross seized power and for a few short months wrecked further havoc and destruction on Budapest, especially its Jewish citizens. Towards the end of that fateful year the Battle of Budapest had begun when Soviet troops met fierce German and Hungarian resistance. By February 1945 when the battle was won, Budapest had been laid waste and was utterly destroyed.
All this was yet to happen when this photo was taken. What became of this man we will never know. You can see three men in black uniforms in the right-hand background. Are they Police or military? There is a poster on the left-hand side advertising a dance event. These good times would shortly end.
In 2014 I spent a month in the apartment at No 17 Belgrád rakpárt on the third floor overlooking the Danube. The distinctive iron gates on the left-hand side of the photo remain and there is still an advertising stand too advertising music events. Some things never change. As I left the apartment each day in the hot July sun I would think of this man in his thick, black winter coat and the tragedy that was about to unfold on his beautiful city.