Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Chapter 5 of Without Illusions


After several hours they got off the train and were put on trucks covered with crude tarpaulins. Within an hour up ever steeper, serpentine mountain roads the trucks stopped: they were at their destination, near the village of Gerovo. It was already dark when they were ushered in the poorly lit, bleak buildings, surrounded by barbed wire, armed guards and their dogs. Only later they have found out that that their new home was this former prisoner of -the second world - war camp. The barbed wire and the guards made sure that there would be no contact between those that were fleeing the communist dictatorship in Hungary and the local population. Theirs was not the first group to arrive in Gerovo and soon the camp had swelled to more than 500. The men got separate dormitories from the women and small children, on simple hay and blanket surfaces, some 50 to a room. While the corridors contained simple latrines, only a few cold running water taps were available inside and others only outside the buildings. Since these were the first days of December in the high mountains of what is known as Slovenia today, the cold water wash ups in the outside always took place in a hurry. They were still lacking a change of clothing, shaving and haircuts were only available on a barter basis with those who had brought some of these items with them as they were fleeing. The common “currency” in camp became the daily portions of cigarettes that each adult received. As Christmas was approaching most people tried to achieve some semblance of cleanliness and hygiene, the clever ones were “operating” their makeshift barbershops.
Groups of Hungarians were arriving daily from other parts of Yugoslavia, too. Since the Western radio broadcasts into Hungary, in Hungarian, were giving an account of the fate of all refuges, both in Austria and Yugoslavia, more or more Hungarians living in nearby border towns tried to flee before the iron curtain would be reinstalled again. The UN had taken an active role for, at least, drumming up interest in the plight of these political refugees and the compensation, for example, to Yugoslavia started to pour in.
There were rumors that so many dollars per day were advanced to the Yugos for their expenses, but none knew for certain. Suffice it to say, that there was a huge difference in terms of the living conditions between Melence and Gerovo.
Meals were just above subsistence, produced in a kitchen staffed by Hungarians, so Hungarian bakers did bake bread on the premises. The refugees under the watchful eyes of Yugoslavian soldiers ran all services. Provisions were guarded and doled out each morning. Kitchen and cleaning help came from the dormitories and were provided extra portions in meals and in the most coveted form of currency of the day: cigarettes. The daily rations were 7 cigarettes per head but those on service duty got 20! Non-smokers had commanded the market, as heavy smokers would swap anything for extra smokes. For most camp inmates the days were spent idling around thus the inevitable card games have sprung up, the currency to win or lose was, of course, cigarettes.
The camp had one common, large meeting hall, where occasionally the refugees could watch some old film. They also held meetings here to discuss camp related issues, whether these originated from the refugees or from the camp command.
On everyone's mind there was but one principal preoccupation, when and where will they eventually end up? By late December of 1956 most everybody had believed that they would be allowed to leave Yugoslavia to the West. But where?And when? For the time being, they could not even leave the machine-gun and barbed wire fortified compound. They had no channels for the news from or about Hungary. Then, sporadically a letter or telegram would arrive and actually be delivered to the addressee from Hungary. Apparently, the Red Cross had managed to facilitate some communications between the refugees and their families back in Hungary. There were also a couple of dozen of Hungarians who could not stand the cold and the unsanitary conditions and asked to be returned to Hungary. They carried messages and news to the families left behind, most of whom had news of their family members who had escaped from Hungary. The news that the escapees were doing relatively well, at least they were alive and hoping to immigrate to the West, were gratefully acknowledged.
Christmas of 1956 found some Hungarian refugees in the former prisoner of war camp, their first Christmas a foreign land, behind barbed wire. Everyone in the camp dreaded the thought of finding themselves in this circumstance and the mood was somber, anxious. A brave young man risked being caught and ventured up the hillside during the night, within the walls of the camp, to cut down a small pine tree. The tree was going to be the only Christmas tree in the compound, but the guards caught the man and locked him up in a cell for several days.
The refugees were left to their own devices to celebrate the holy days.
A group of men, who came from a small village and have been performing the scene of Bethlehem on the eve of Jesus ' birth, knew their lines and roles by heart. They got together, made makeshift costumes and decorations, then went from dormitory to dormitory and performed to a teary and grateful audience. The performance was based on folklore taught and maintained song and text, giving an account of that Holy night in the town of Bethlehem.
That Christmas may have been the poorest and darkest for some in their lives, but it was also the most sincere and heartfelt spiritual experience, especially under the circumstances, for many others.
Peter, eighteen years old, continued to keep a diary during those days, too, which was fabricated from bits and pieces of paper and here is an excerpt about Gerovo, around Christmas of 1956:
" ... Barbed wire, guard towers, guards with machine guns and a really antagonistic attitude, we call them the darkness of the Balkan . There are a few decent men among them, like Misha, the captain. But the others are the embodiment of hate and distrust; I don't know why they do not like us? Maybe because there are some among us who behave rather badly? That may be an explanation, but why do they hate all of us? The most hostile is Pero. Soon after our arrival we became enemies. He kept on shouting and threatening and we were silent at first, then we started to talk back and give him a hard time every chance we had. He behaved really badly, he deserved it. He carried on to such an extent that eventually his own commander got rid of him, which we were happy to see! The other unsavory character is the one responsible for the firewood Nicola. He is a miser, a soulless character. We have to deal with him only at the time we have to go for firewood by the side of the building, fortunately, but then it is after long sessions of bargaining and begging when he finally consents to a few pieces of wood. Apparently, the wood belongs to him and is paid for his wood. So, in a nutshell this is our relationship with the Yugoslavs in camp ... and now when I look back on 1956, when I make my yearly evaluation ... it is certain that this year has been the most eventful of my life! After the terrible ice-flood in the spring, I matriculated, attempted two university entrance exams, my first full summer vacation of being home and not working as before, and of course the revolution which was more than all the other events together and resulted in my escape ... and now at Christmas I realize that I have never spent more than 2 months away from home, and never spent Christmas without my family.... I wonder how difficult is the English language going to be? Provided that I ever get to the United States! I am afraid it's going to take a long time ... since I am planning to earn my money speaking and writing.... I have no big demands, dreams -only to live normally, study and help the family I left behind. That is my only wish! That will all depend on me, people would say. I certainly will try my best. Only would I just be able to begin... My God, how many times will I be disappointed in life, in people until then? I will try to use my life experience, because I have some. In spite of my young age I have gone through much… here in camp people are so diverse. Have to say without exaggeration that a large part came here without clear regard to their action, seeking adventure, excitement, nevertheless I am hoping.... they will prevail and work hard, where work will be appreciated and compensated and will be really free .... I remember when years ago I was looking at a map and, always looking for America, finding the cities and tried to imagine the “land of opportunities!" Half believed these stories ... and now I will, perhaps, be convinced myself.”

The refugees kept on arriving steadily, many from Baja and vicinity, among them students and teachers also, from Peter’s secondary school, acquaintances from all generations. Among the teachers his most recent high school teacher, also his swim and water polo coach, Pigele. These home-towners have helped to ease their homesickness and brought some recent news from some families.
He was happy to recognize a few classmates from his older brothers’ class of 1950, who were imprisoned under a “political conspiracy “charge in the early fifties. These were freed in the first, victorious days of the revolution. Meeting these young men brought back the memory of his very first fencing master, the saber fencer and coach, Jozsef Kosztolanyi, who was the chief defendant in that political trial, subsequently hanged by the ruthless Rakosi regime. The character, humanism and professional skills of Kosztolanyi forever set an example to emulate throughout his disciples’ life.
Life in Gerovo was becoming full of anxiety, waiting for a bite of nourishment and a chance for some personal hygiene. They left their homes with the clothes on their back. Now, several weeks away from the last bath or haircut time was becoming a cruel toll for existence on the most primitive level. Eventually, around the middle of January of 1957 some warm water showers were installed in one of the buildings, which helped conditions somewhat.
One of the first opportunities presenting for leaving the camp was the visit by the Italian consulate officials who, while inviting refugees, had set a quota for taking a group of Hungarian refugees to Italy. They have emphatically stressed that since Italy is under dire economic conditions due to losses in the war, job opportunities would be few and that once in Italy, the refugees must then stay, traveling to other countries will not be possible. In other words, anyone dreaming of Switzerland, America or Australia should not bother to sign up for Italy, they should keep on waiting in Gerovo.
Peter and some others decided to accept the chance, in spite of the stern warning by the Italians that the refugees will not be able to leave Italy, and that life in Italy was difficult with unemployment being high. All this seemed so unlike the dreams the refugees were nurturing that very few volunteered to accept the "offer" by the Italians. Most would rather stay and bear the hardships than go to a poor country like Italy, with no chance of getting to a richer country later.
Peter and some other “veterans” of Melence and Gerovo had a different opinion. He had been an influence on the group, voicing his conviction that the West is the West, where freedom must prevail, where man’s free will cannot be denied, there cannot exist iron curtains and minefields. They must not miss this opportunity, the only one at the time. While they were dreaming of other opportunities, expecting better offers from the West, only 62 inmates of the camp in Gerovo of now nearly one thousand accepted the Italian invitation.
This is how Peter recorded the day for his second trip to a foreign land:
"We have left the "island of our dreams", Gerovo, at 4 A.M. The month and a half I have spent here will not be among my best memories. I cannot say that I have starved here, that I have suffered physically. But it wasn't good. Uncertainty, anxiety, animosity! One does not talk about it anymore, trying to forget - but I cannot bring myself to this. I need time, time spent in civility and normalcy…after all this was my first real test after the “socialist summers” of Sztalinvaros and Kazincbarcika…”
blog comments powered by Disqus