Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Chapter 7, Arriving in Italian Red Cross Camp

Of the Hungarian refugees staying at the Colonia, Peter’s group was not the first, as more than a hundred were brought here from the overcrowded refugee camps in Austria. The Colonia, built under the Mussolini regime, was a simple, gray, stone based building on the brilliant, sandy beach of the Adriatic Sea. Green, so called Italian maritime, Cyprus was all around the building, criss-crossed by walk and bicycle paths.
The winter of February was mild and pleasant due to the warm currents from the sea, so much so that on Sunday afternoons groups of people from nearby Ravenna waded in knee-deep, rather cool water looking for exotic crustaceans of the sea, which they consumed, with the help of a few drops of lemon, on the spot, much to the total amazement of the formerly landlocked Hungarian onlookers.
The rather forlorn and bewildered group, still carrying the horrors of the Gerovo camp got out of the bus and was touched by the small group of Hungarians welcoming them to their new home at the Adriatic Sea resort. They were moved and grateful for the turn in their fortunes.
The Red Cross nurses on duty were also on hand in their starched uniforms and with their warm smiles, and, it seemed the only policeman of the Colony, Cesare, also.

The nurses of the Red Cross, and their interpreters at the Colony, Feb.1957.

There was the Camp Leadership Committee, a camp physician and a priest, Hungarian cooks and helpers, house-rules. After a short greeting, the new arrivals were informed that while lunch is served at twelve noon, the Leadership Committee had recommended they stay away from meals until the Red Cross Camp Supervisors met certain “demands”. In other words there was a “hunger strike” going on.
The new group who had survived the harsh conditions of the Yugoslavian refugees camp, emaciated and practically deprived of even basic sanitation so far, was asked, on their first day at this seaside resort for Italian orphans to forsake their first meal and join the group in a protest strike! The newcomers were incredulous when they have heard the “demands” which were for more free movie tickets at the local cinema, more than the daily 10 free cigarettes, more fresh fruit on the dining tables and some other “urgent” needs.
It seemed, that some of the propaganda humbug of the “class-conscious workers” who always fought for their “rights” was brought with the escapees to the West. Not only have they brought the right to strike with them, a right that no one was ever able to put into practice at home, but they had the chance, in free Italy, to try out.
There were no acceptable reasons to join the strikers, specially for the group just arriving from the Yugoslavian prisoner of war camp. Nobody should have compelled them, on their day of arrival, to behave like sulky children and support the frivolous demands of the other group.
They did not take long to decide. Even if they could not prevent the strike, not one would take part in this ungrateful behavior towards their Italian hosts.
Soon after getting to their dormitories and getting organized, enjoying the luxury of hot showers, they were dressed in their newly acquired Red Cross donated garments and sat with great anticipation in the long dining hall, half empty due to the strike. Like in Gerovo, the cooks were also Hungarian, as well as the serving staff. Not one took part in the strike, as they were getting small rewards for their work which they did not want to lose. These house-chores were always well appreciated as they took care of the daily idleness on the one hand, but also provided a chance to go out to the markets, meeting and befriending Italians.
Peter’s thoughts were back in his hometown, where his mother must have been just getting ready to serve the fish soups she had prepared each day in the tavern where she worked, his younger brother would come by later and have some of the leftover if there were any. By the time the two-course lunch was served, Peter had also recalled those abundant and special meals he was invited to by his richer friends’ parents in the early fifties, during the greatest trials his family endured. He must write about this in his diary!
This wonderful day, from the arrival in the morning at the Colony, to the walk on the beach in the afternoon did not seem real at all. Why, the day before they were half frozen as they tried to wash up at the cold, outside tap in Gerovo, and were waiting with canteen in hand for the cabbage soup and now they were sitting at the long, white clothed table and enjoyed the two course meal, accompanied with a glass of wine!
Not even the other group’s tasteless invitation for a „hunger strike” could dampen their high spirits. They had gone through too much to worry about whether more than 10 cigarettes were “due” or not for refugees.
After his first ever, unforgettable walk on the seashore Peter had found a quiet corner in the main hall, asked and happily received a splendid notebook and pen, originally deemed for kids in elementary classes. It said on the cover: Bella Copia.

Peter’s diary. On the cover, barely legible, some lines from Petofi Sandor, Hungary’s patriotic poet:

„The school of life is the world
Where much of my sweat is lost,
Bumpy and oh, so hard your road,
Where man oft on the desert trod.
(Translated by PU)

He felt the compulsion, that then, in this splendid environment and mood he continue the diary he had started on Christmas Eve in Gerovo. Then, only bits and pieces of paper were available.
Already at lunch earlier the memories of the immediate past have rushed him and he felt the weight of the distant past that seemed rapidly disappearing amidst ever newer life experiences. Here, in Italy, he had realized once and for all that he had left his birthplace, there is no more turning back.
The Yugoslavs have kept their promise , they were free to go on to the West. He had finally arrived in a free land!
He thought of his dad, forbidden to write, to practice his profession for years, because there was no freedom of the press, who had rushed up to Budapest just 2 days before the Soviet invasion had started. He was ecstatic to restart writing and publishing the small town paper he had been denied since 1948, and now with the revolution being victorious he could write again! He was going to bring the newspaper stock to Baja, but the 4th of November brought the Soviet tanks back to Budapest and dad never made it back to Baja with the paper, hopefully, Peter was praying! For days they could not communicate with the family, and Peter had escaped without ever saying farewell to him.
How bitter his father must be now! He cannot possibly hope that he will ever write again, as a free man, without becoming an agent for the secret police.
Perhaps it was this helplessness of his father not being able to write that pushed Peter to write, to fix his thoughts, to do something, anything , without skill and experience , with a teenager’s undisciplined mind, but he had to – write! Maybe in years, these notes will serve some purpose, so he started to write about his father, the gagged journalist.
Based on the notes from the Diary,Feb.5,1957, at Marina di Ravenna:
„My father had moved to Baja, with my mother and older brother, two years before my birth, in 1936. Then 34 years old, this journalist left the Zalai Kozlony in Nagykanizsa and moved to the provincial town of Baja, to try his luck. It was an open secret in the family that he had personal reasons for this sudden move. My birth took place in a rented house and the next 18 years, until I have left the country I would be passing my life in this rented house.
Father had managed first one and then two weekly papers’ publication, where he had done most of the writing, all of the editing and looking after the circulation as well. In spite of the ’owner’ and ’publisher’ titles he could never make any fortunes with the papers, never owned a home, but secured a reasonably decent existence for his family, at least until 1948.
Father’s days were consumed by running after advertisers and the printing process, his only „means” of production was an ancient typewriter and a bicycle that substituted the telephone in those days. The bicycle served as transportation and provided, as well, for his only hobby which was fishing on the Danube.
The nights from my childhood are still vivid in my memory, when dad wrote his articles amid umpteenth cigarettes and several strong espressos, late into the night. This was a family business. Mother prepared and maintained the subscribers’ list and the two boys were sent to the railway station twice a week to post the bundled and addressed copies of papers to the neighboring villages.
After the Russian army had occupied the country towards the end of WW2, a fairly democratic system of government was established, with multiparty participation and free elections, for awhile. However, the communist party had difficulty asserting itself as the main party by legitimate means, they have resorted to subvert democracy with ever increasing rough, and later deadly tactics. All this of course with the support, if not the instigation, of the Soviet Union. By using the so called „sliced salami” tactics, the multiparty system slowly became a one party system, where any opposition was simply jailed, or worse.
By 1948 there was only one legitimate and substantial force to stand in the way of the communists: the Roman catholic church, representing more than 85 % of society, led by the staunch defender of his church and flock , Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty, Primate of Hungary, the Vatican’s representative.
This was the only rival to the slowly developing, ruthless dictatorship of Matyas Rakosi and his conspirators.
One outstanding , single event and the last one from this era that had signaled the beginning of the darkest period in Hungary’s sad history was the Days of the Virgin Mary, held in my birthplace, Baja, in June of 1948. When the communists’ and socialists’ most famous and drummed up day, the first day of May, celebrated around the world by their ilk, had attracted a couple hundred sympathizers to the main square of Baja, the Days of Virgin Mary , led by Cardinal Mindszenty had hundreds of thousands in days of prayer and devotion in the same small town!
This is what irritated most the only political party in power and government then, this is what initiated the most brutal oppression of church and anyone not bowing to the Soviet puppets in Hungary!
The two weekly journals of Baja in June of 1948, Bajai Hirek and Delvideki Kis Ujsag, which were written and published by my father, had two special editions, in tens of thousands of copies, for these unprecedented celebrations in our hometown. The pilgrims came from every part of Hungary, including sections that were chopped off Hungary, as a result of the infamous Trianon „peace” accord, so that they all could pray together with the Primate Mindszenty against the ever increasing menace of Red dominance!
Father was there, in every ceremony, reception, religious procession so that he could record these historical events for his two journals. He was able to write up and send to the press his latest notes of the key events, so that the thousands of participants could take home their festive journals of those days in Baja.
I still see him on the main square, on the side of the ceremonial platform taking notes while the solemn ceremonies were taking place, led by Cardinal Mindszenty. By evening a huge crowed filled all the main streets of town, thousands of candles lit the happy and devout faces. That same night dad wrote and sent to press the special edition that could be on the newsstands next morning.
The day after the special edition was on the newsstands; my father never made it home that evening. As we found out it later, the State Secret Police had arrested him and locked him up in the local headquarters on Toth Kalman street. He was never formally charged with any crime, indeed what could have been the charge? That he had reported the events of those days in his legally published newspapers?

“IMPOSING WERE THE DAYS OF MARY IN BAJA” said the headline in the Délvidéki Kis Újság.
What was certain, that his bi-weekly, provincial newspapers would never again appear in any news stand. His journalist permit was taken away, his rented printing shop was closed forthwith, and never again could he publish a word until his death in 1989.
In the following weeks he suddenly became an aged and tormented man, disappearing for 24-48 hours from time to time. His children, my brothers and I, knew nothing of these days and nights not spent at home. Only much later mother had told us that dad was on frequent “questioning” sessions at the station of the secret police and was being “persuaded”, often with night sticks, too, to accept the “offer” , that of becoming a reporter at one of the national, daily newspapers in Budapest, the Magyar Nemzet. In exchange they only wanted “information” about the other employees’ possible “anti-state” behavior.
It is not known when, how soon would have Gyula Urban be broken during or after these “persuasion” sessions, his family being starved and emotionally tortured daily, and accepted like many others in those days, the vileness into which they were forced.
Within a few weeks five prominent physicians of the small town had certified and declared that Gyula Urban, former journalist, is suffering from a serious mental condition and was immediately locked up in the hospital’s most secure mental ward. This is how my father escaped from the hands of the State Secret Police in late 1948, just before the most shameful court proceedings started against Cardinal Mindszenty, subsequently sentencing the Cardinal to prison for life on totally false charges of espionage!
It was those five courageous physicians who collaborated and saved my father from the vileness that he, like many others, most probably, eventually would have succumbed to, but it meant 18 months of total isolation from the outside world, even shut up from his family, until the Secret Police had given him up. After his mental ward imprisonment he could no longer find a job in Baja, so the inevitable breakup of our family started then, in 1951, when he had to travel to the newly built “socialist” cities, where practically anyone could find employment. He lived in workers’ hostels; saw his family infrequently, for days only, while our family had gone through hardships and worry. For awhile even our house was being watched, especially in the evenings until one day my mother could not stand it any longer and verbally attacked the surprised character lurking in the shadow. He disappeared in minutes and from then on we were of no interest to them.
My mother who had raised three children had to find employment for the first time since married my dad, first was a cleaning woman then a cook in a local tavern.
These were my family’s difficult years, which for many other families could be many times more dramatic and serious between 1948 and 1956. Those preoccupied with the search for the triggers of the 1956 Hungarian Freedom Fight and Revolution should only examine the lives of these families in the last 8-10 years.”
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