Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Without Illusions, Chapter 3, The Escape

November 15, 1956
They met at the Calvary cemetery.

It has been a gray and mournful day and not only because fall was slowly accepting the inevitable approach of winter, but even the most optimistic among them was giving up hope for the miracle. It was becoming evident that no one was coming to help preserve the exuberance born on October 23; no one could stop the retribution and repression that was soon to follow.
Fall had come and the three inseparable friends were still in their hometown as neither was admitted to university. As planned earlier that day, they met on the outskirts of the town by the ancient cemetery on this dark and sad November day.
Their daily lives were already so tied to each other that it was only natural that all three would escape together and stay together, forever. It would have been unthinkable otherwise. These youthful bonds are often stronger than allegiance to family; a few years spent together seem like a lifetime.

The three friends in the spring of 1956, III.Bela Gymnasium, Baja, Hungary

Laszlo was waiting for the other two, his face reflecting the weight of the worry he had spent the day with. He could not forsake his parents, leaving them alone to care for an older brother, paralyzed and impaired since birth. He had his first test of adulthood that day. The other two, now sullen and worried lest they, too, will change their own minds, have hurriedly said farewell and took off into the night.
They walked in silence on the dark and wet country road. Were they aware of their decision to leave the country that night, maybe captured and interned, maybe succeeding to cross the border and never to return again? Almost certainly neither did feel the enormity of their decision. Their wet faces, the silence that surrounded them in the countryside and the steady rain that was falling only underscored their plight. However, their faces would have suggested that they knew that with each step they were changing their lives forever.
They only had an idea how far the Yugoslavian border might be from their home town of Baja, but these eighteen year olds did not consider that 5 or 6 extra kilometers should be a problem if their assumptions were maybe too optimistic. So they walked out of the town onto the old provincial road leading south. Within minutes they were soaked from the rain when out of the wet darkness an old milk truck appeared to slow down for them and come to a screeching stop. They were permitted to jump on the back, next to the empty milk containers and although the rain now seemed fortified by the speed of the camion, their progress towards the border had improved.
An old villager in the last village where they got off the camion showed them the approximate direction toward the border, wished them luck and hurried back into his old farmhouse. They were in the middle of huge cornfields and found the walk now excruciatingly slow due to the huge and heavy mud-boots that quickly formed on their shoes. The wet ground was almost knee deep in black mud. They have lost any sign of direction and had the feeling after a couple of hours of struggling on that they were walking in circles. There was no sign of anything resembling the border. Only little piles of what looked like tents made of corn stalks, every 100 meters or so. It must have passed midnight, when in the distance ahead they have spotted what looked like faint light and contours of a low farmhouse. They have decided to knock on the door, as their sense of direction for the border was totally lost.
The man who appeared at the door was wearing long underpants and shirt covered by a roughly made fur vest, which he was clutching with one hand. He appeared calm and friendly in spite of the late hour and the sight of the soaked and mud covered young men. They have greeted him in the only language they knew and were rewarded by a response in the same language. Did this mean that after all these hours of walking in the muddy cornfields they were still in Hungary?
"Welcome and step inside from the rain" - said the man. Inside was just one rather small, wooden beams covered space. An oil lamp was the only light that revealed what they could smell immediately entering, the presence of animals. The sight and smell of a peacefully ruminating cow, two goats and several chickens, ducks and geese. As their eyes were now getting accustomed to the light they spotted the huge earth and bricks made oven, with a large extended shelf on which various forms of humanity was spread out. Several children with curious glances, some asleep undisturbed, and their mother were examining the strangers. This sudden change from the miserable November night out there was welcome indeed and only in later years thought Peter that at that moment, if the information they were seeking from the farmer had confirmed that they were still on the Hungarian side of the border, they may have stayed with this decent farmer and his family until daybreak and then perhaps turned back and give up their objective of leaving the country. Perhaps.
As it turned out, the good man had assured them, they have been for some one kilometer inside the territory of Tito's Yugoslavia. While neither of these young adventurers had even imagined a trip to a foreign land some weeks before November 15, but if they had, this imaginary trip would have been, most certainly to some exotic European capital, certainly arriving by an international express train to an exciting railway station, perhaps arriving by taxi at a famous hotel and greeted by a polite and smiling doorman, offering help with their sizeable luggage. Instead, their first contact ever with a foreign land was a farmer in his underclothes, greeting them in Hungarian and inviting them in to his stable and home in a one-room house, encouraging them to sit on a wooden bench next to his warm oven and cow. Still, it could not have been more pleasant and encouraging.
There was no need for any explanation. By their question the farmer seemed to have understood immediately their situation and was already pulling on his rubber boots saying that he would be gone awhile and fetch the Yugoslavian border guards. If there was any concern in what would follow next it was not felt at that time since the warmth of the oven and curious looks from above the oven shelf took all their attention. The kind farmer was gone in no time at all.
And so their introduction to a foreign land was now a historical fact. Some thirty minutes later they heard the sound of a car and within a minute the farmer and two soldiers, with machine guns and shinny battle helmets appeared in the doorway. They were ushered outside with obvious gestures so quickly that they had no chance to say a word of thanks to the farmer or say farewell to the spectators on top of the oven. The rain was still falling and the dark seemed even more impenetrable than before. The boys were made to stand about ten meters from each other, hands in the air, and one of the soldiers had quickly searched them, top to bottom while the other had watched with his machine gun in the ready.
Their identity booklets were taken away.

They did not speak too much; a Serbian word here and there was all they could hear. When the frisking was over they just stood for what seemed like eternity. As their arms were getting tired they slowly let them fall down but the soldiers did not object so they just stood in the rain and waited. This was the most frightful time of their entire border crossing, since they could not imagine what would transpire next. Why are they standing like this, apart and with their backs to each other? What will they do with them? Why are they not trying to communicate with them? What will happen? During this long wait, their thoughts were focusing on every possible outcome that could come before dawn would break. They were hoping that no harm would come to them most of all since in the days leading to crossing the border Radio Free Europe was continually broadcasting about many Hungarians escaping, including to the South, Yugoslavia.
Anxious minutes followed in the dark night. Peter thought of his family, then suddenly recalled his first encounter with gun-toting soldiers. Much later he wrote down the incident with the Red Army in the diary that he continued even in the refugee camps:

“The Red Army had occupied Baja in March of 1945 without any resistance, since the only southern bridge over the Danube had been bombed by the allies some 2 years prior to that, so the town had served no strategic importance to the retreating Germans. A 7 year old kid probably could not understand the nuances of whispering and worried adults’ conversations while they were huddling around their radios, listening to broadcasts about the ongoing war. However, I still remember the striking contrasts between what my father believed about the approaching Red Army and what our neighbors did.
The prevailing opinion was that these soldiers were an uncultured, pillaging and unmerciful bunch of thugs, better to be afraid of and avoid them, if possible.
The only exception voiced, characterizing the “liberators” so was my dad’s. He had advanced to the Red Army, too, his basic humanistic belief of decency and honor in everyone, particularly since our town prior to the Russians’ advance had been full of the soldiers of the Werhmacht who had set up camp in the town’s marketplace and had been peaceful with the civilian population.
So optimist that he was, my father could hardly wait, so that after months of waiting and uncertainty he could finally take a long walk in the center of town, albeit now under the “protection “of a different occupying army.
He had shaved off with great care his beard of many months that made him look much older and respected, and in his freshly ironed suit and trademark, colorful bowtie he would have made a dashing and impressive figure on the soldiers of the Red Army.
So that any soviet troops , even from a distance would judge dad to be a peacefully walking , unthreatening gentleman , he got me scrubbed and dressed with similar care, much to the vehement protestations of my mother, that “ for God’s sake don’t take the kid to those wicked Muscovites!”
Using the logic that during the previous night, as the Russians were moving into town, we had not heard even a single gunshot, father remained undeterred that Baja was “visited “by well meaning and peaceful soldiers. What’s more, any journalist worth his salt should feel his duty to rush to the scene and record events with the reliability of the eyewitness.
My father desperately tried to sell all this logic and reasoning to my mother, even though just weeks before that he was contemplating of fleeing Baja for the West, as did some of the families in the neighborhood , expecting the worst from the soviet “liberators”.
So, as a final act of insurance for good will, father decorated his cigar pocket with a silky handkerchief. Always a careful dresser in those days, but even more of a zealot for personal hygiene! The rigors of cleanliness he made sure were adhered to by his children come war or hell. Just as an example, my older brother and I became acquainted with the taste of ordinary house soap during the war, as neither bath soap nor toothpaste was available , so the morning and evening wash-ups were followed by vigorous tooth brushing with horrible tasting, homemade soap rubbed on our toothbrushes!
So the impeccably dressed gentleman took the hand of his clean scrubbed son , carefully threading the chain of his cherished pocket watch into the left pocket of his vest and with determined steps took off on our street in the direction of the center of town. The sleepy looking soldiers lying about on top of the armored car right on the first corner of our street were, a bit reluctantly, returning my father’s enthusiastic waving of hand. Most probably they were so surprised by the sudden appearance of this representative of the decadent West with his child that their sleepy gawking did not result in any action, but kept silently witnessing the parade.
Little further up the street two foot soldiers appeared, dirty and dusty with the famous Russian “guitars” on their shoulders. Dad cheerfully repeated the now well rehearsed greeting with the waving arm, to which he has added a striking “Welcome to our hometown” on his clean baritone voice. – He sang well, particularly after a glass or two.-
The stocky one of the two, with a somewhat oriental face approached my father, his eyes riveted to the shiny pocket watch; he then grabbed the chain and said in Russian: davai chas! While my dad did not understand the words , there was no mistaking of the intention because the soldier now decidedly pulled on the chain to which my father responded by taking several steps back onto the middle of the street, not ever letting my hand go with his left hand, and holding on to the chain of his watch with the other.
The uneven struggle could not have been going on more than a few seconds, but it seemed like eternity. I wonder whether it had occurred to my father, then, even for a second that the machinegun against his chest could have gone off, or in a lesser event its gunstock lands on his head, I don’t know.
The fact remains, that this self conscious and open-armed country writer had forsaken any common sensibility and reason, almost heroically defended his personal possession, against very poor odds while holding on tightly to my hand!
It remains a mystery at that moment that the arrival of a high ranking officer in an open jeep was God’s will or just a flick of fate.
The car came to a screeching halt in the middle of the street, to the point where the struggling soldier and civilian with kid in tow found themselves. In response to the officer’s loud cry the soldier let go of the watch’s chain and the sudden change in the relative opposing forces resulted in father’s falling to the middle of the street, still with kid in tow.
Terrible shouting had followed, but only from the lips of the officer as the soldier being reprimanded could only stay in stiff attention. We could not understand the officer’s apparent dressing down, but it was evident that father had escaped with watch and kid for the time being.
My dad had to realize that the neighbors’ doubts and anxiety about the approaching Red Army proved to be correct. With quick steps, still holding on to me with force, we returned to our house, where father had collapsed on the stool in the kitchen, both hands holding his face. He sat there, trembling, for the longest time, and even as a kid I understood that a whole world had collapsed in him that day.”

Soon the boys’ worries were somewhat relieved when in an hour of waiting, a much bigger military car approached and what looked like an officer of some rank approached and motioned them to get into the car.
For the next hour or so they were driving across farm roads, then onto a highway and by the time dawn was breaking, the car was approaching the town of Subotica. Just before the WW2 broke out in this part of the world the town was called Szabadka and belonged to Hungary, Peter was taken by his father there on an exciting motor train from Baja when we was little. He remembered the lunch they ate at the Szabadka railway station and that his dad ordered a dessert that they both liked so much they asked the chef for the recipe and taken it home. The dessert was called Aranygaluska and became a favorite in their household from that time on.
How long ago was it, when the whole family, the three boys and the parents sat at the Sunday meal, 8 or 9 years? And when again, if ever, will they sit at that table, all five of them?

The car came to a stop at what looked like the local police station and they were taken to an office where they could take some of their wet clothing off and spread them out on chairs in front of the stove. They had been offered hot tea and cigarettes. Shortly a man appeared to take notes of their impromptu visit to the Republic of Yugoslavia, speaking fluent Hungarian he told them they are not the first Hungarian “refugees”, as he called them, to seek asylum in Yugoslavia, some six hundred have crossed over in the last 10 days or so.
More are expected, so much so that there is no more room in this small town for them and they will be transported shortly to another place designated as a refugee camp.
How I became a “refugee”, Peter had asked himself. The revolution that exploded just three weeks before was centered in Budapest and the bigger cities. The smaller towns and villages witnessed mostly sympathetic demonstrations and sent food and medicines and other immediate aids, as best as they could to the capitol. The local high school students that graduated in the spring of 1956 and were rejected by the strictly controlled universities and colleges were still in Baja that fall and enthusiastically joined the local factory workers and students. They marched together to the nearby army barracks and begged the conscripted young soldiers to join the revolution and discard the hated red stars on their caps and uniforms. When they had successfully persuaded the reluctant and frightened conscripts to join, they then marched with them to the next army barrack, where some professional soldiers were stationed. Soon the weapon magazines were opened and anyone who wanted, found some weapon and ammunition, so now the small town had its instant revolutionary army, and named themselves National Guard.
Peter, now in possession of a Russian made machine gun, had reported to the Mayor’s office, in the center of the town Revolutionary Committee and received his only official assignment. Somebody instructed him to go to the main square and supervise that all the students who regularly commuted from the nearby villages by bus are to be properly returned to these villages, as there was tremendous confusion, everyday life became chaotic.
Schools soon closed and the students were all on the streets. One evening Peter joined a group that went to the town’s main park, where Stalin’s much hated statute was erected right in the middle of it. The enthusiastic group had uprooted the statute following the example of the destruction of the immense Stalin statute in Budapest, carried it to the nearby canal and had tossed it in from the bridge.
It was difficult in the calm of a small town to follow the bloody fight that was ongoing in Budapest. Many had wanted to get to the capitol 16O kilometers to the North, but there was no transportation, no trains running.
Following the fourth of November attack on Budapest by some 3000 Russian tanks, Soviet armored vehicles and tanks had arrived in Baja as well. Senior high school students and some others just out of the local high school had planned an attack on the few tanks and armored vehicles that were stationed on the strategic squares in town. Some had hid in the square of Toth Kalman, in the attics of apartment houses with their light weapons, mostly machine guns and rifles. The attack was to begin precisely at 6 PM one evening, somebody was to start firing and then all would join in. It must have been divine intervention, as was acknowledged by all later, that no one had started firing, no one dared to begin the shooting. The armored units would have caused a blood bath against the totally inexperienced students, probably killing many innocents in the apartments below, too.
The news of the fighting youth in Budapest, then, became even more heroic and tragic to the population of these small towns.
In the subsequent days amidst the news of the evolving tragedy of the revolution, only the disappointment and the anger remained with the people. Small groups of agitated people filled the little town’s main walking street, mainly to exchange any news that may have come from the capitol. One such evening in the early days of November and after the Soviet invasion of Budapest, Peter was suddenly accosted by one of the well known communist sympathizers in Baja. He had cynically asked Peter where he had hid his recently brandished machine gun.
While this incident did not leave his thoughts, the decision to leave the country was not due to this. But all of this seemed very far and quite meaningless in the light of his present situation in Yugoslavia.
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