Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Chapter 8, Refugee Life in Italy, waiting for a v isa

The advertised hunger strike had quickly faded due to the new group’s obstinacy, when the “Yugo” group appeared for every meal with great anticipation and appetite. Soon they were given their first Western identity document, issued by the Italian Red Cross, stating that bearer is a Hungarian refugee.

Life of the camp on the Adriatic had become routine, but the inhabitants’ thoughts were universally preoccupied with their future. They have already heard in Trieste, which was later confirmed in the Colony as well, that every refugee could settle in any country which would take him or her. All this was happening in the spring of 1957 when in Austria nearly 200,000 Hungarians have been arriving and gaining entry in dozens of Western nations. These countries established certain maximum quotas and these are quickly filled from the Austrian camps. In the meantime the camps in Italy and Yugoslavia were still full of refugees and there remained but two large countries that still had available quotas: Canada and Australia.
Finally, correspondence with the families at home began in earnest, but this proved expensive, as the Red Cross could not finance all the postage. Peter’s father tried desperately with all his friends abroad to help his son an entry into a European country or else get some money for correspondence. It proved to be difficult, except for one willing friend, Gyorgy Urban. He was only a namesake for father and an old friend from before WW2, who had settled in London, eventually finding a job with the BBC. He was answering Peter’s letters and when found out that Peter had expressed eagerness to get to England, perhaps via the BBC in some capacity, he was glad to help.
Gyorgy Urban had arranged for Peter to take an announcer’s voice test and a short entry exam at one of the radio stations in Bologna, possibly leading to a job with the BBC.
Peter was feverishly getting ready for the big day when he could board a train from Ravenna to Bologna, and face his short Western life’s biggest opportunity so far.
At the station in Bologna a very pleasant, young journalist was expecting Peter and drove him immediately to the Bologna radio station. There, after short instructions a Hungarian text was put in his hands and they would record his voice test-presentation that went rather well.
Since the entry exam also called for rudimentary English proficiency, a short English news item was given to Peter to translate into Hungarian, after all the interview and test was for a possible position with the BBC in England.
The sympathetic journalist sat next to Peter and had encouraged him to start the translation, he would help. The first two words to be translated from the English text will be remembered by Peter until his last day on earth. The text had begun: “The government…” But there, in the Italian radio-studio, the 19 year old Hungarian refugee did not know a single word of English! His Italian benefactor tried everything , in Italian, in French to explain, to make Peter understand the meaning of those two first words , perhaps Peter would suddenly understand and write down in Hungarian the meaning…all in vain! And these were only the first two words of the two page translation requirement!
Peter had finally made them understand that it is useless; he does not speak a single word of English. The entry test had to be stopped there.
The empathetic Italian journalist had taken Peter by the arm, sat him in his little Fiat Toppolino and took him home for dinner. There were a number of well dressed gentlemen sitting at the elegant dinner table, and a three course dinner was served by a pleasant woman, who was probably their landlady. The dinner companions were all very polite and have tried to make the guest welcome, but of course Peter’s Italian was only marginally better than his non-existent English, woefully insufficient for any conversation.
In the end, they parted at the railway station and Peter sat in the train with dark and somber thoughts. His mood now reminded him of another “entry test” that took place in Budapest less than year before. In May of 1956 he had tried to realize a long held dream when he had been up for a test at the Film and Theater Arts College. The famous film and theater star of the day, Maria Sulyok had the task of screening some of the hundreds of applicants for a few available places at the school. As with those two English words at the radio station, the minute details of the test in Budapest would never be forgotten:
They called him in from the corridor and Peter entered a simple, little room where sat the star on one chair and a secretary on the other.A small podium in front of them.
“You were supposed to be here yesterday, why didn’t you come then ?”- asked the film star.
“Yes, but I have sent a wire a week ago, that I was in my graduation ceremony yesterday …and I got permission to come today…”
“Graduation ceremony? In what?” –sounded the rather complex question.
Peter’s brain was lightening quick in assessing all the possible answers, including asking for clarification to the “In what”? question. But then he remembered the advice given by professional actors from Kecskemet, with whom he had shared the stage as an extra during their guest appearances in his hometown, that at the entry test one must exhibit spontaneity and quick humor that attests to great fantasy and wit, prerequisites for the performing arts! So, with a great deal of bravado and self confidence, he answered:
“In a dark-blue suit” and was anticipating a rewarding smile.
A numbing silence had fallen. The secretary looked up from her files, and then looked at the star with obvious fright, unable even to guess what the star’s response will be to this obviously impertinent answer!
“In what school you had the graduation ceremony, that is what I wanted…go on, recite something…” snarled the obviously upset prima donna at the scared candidate.
The yearlong preparation consisted of excerpts from the drama Bank Ban and a poem from Arpad Toth that he practiced with his literature teacher even recited to his father several times. There were occasions when he could recite the material to his classmates and on the day of the graduation ceremony, just before this entrance test the recital was done in front of all the graduating classes. All that work and preparation gave him self-confidence, as the delivery was being polished and refined while getting plenty of critical feedback and advice. However, on the critical day, the yearlong preparation was reduced to but a few lines from each work as the slighted diva interrupted him twice, rather abruptly, and said without even looking at Peter, coldly: “We’ll notify you…”
It was not necessary.
The same feelings came back to him in the train to Ravenna, as a year before when Maria Sulyok sent him on his way, and he walked out to the banks of the river Danube.
There, sitting on the stones, in the splendid May afternoon, he was waiting for his evening train back to Baja. All his dreams seemed to have been lost then, as now on the train for Ravenna, everything hopeless. Too many young people at the start of life, do not realize that every experience, every emotion, good or bad, joy, pain, achievement or failure, shame, success come and go on, because that is life. And real unhappiness is when one fights such unavoidable fluctuations in life…
Indeed, the disappointment about the BBC test in Bologna really lasted only a few days, as the young men of the Colony were now excited about new hopes. The news came that US Army recruiters would be passing through camp in a few days, and any young volunteer, by signing up for 5 years, would be immediately transported to the USA. There would be language school while getting the army training, then American citizenship, even opportunities for attending university afterward with generous bursaries.
Almost all young people, then, were dreaming of immigrating to America and this new chance to get there was hope for some. The recruiters arrived promptly in their enormous station wagon, a kind of vehicle not seen before by most refugees. Questionnaires had to be filled out, interviews started with the help of interpreters, followed by medical exams conducted by medical officers. These exams were not particularly detailed, they wanted to visibly check the applicants’ physical shape. When Peter’s turn came he had been casually asked about the long scar on his right side which was obviously the result of a surgical operation.
„I had an operation in March of 1955, when I was seventeen, they took my right kidney out. The kidney had tuberculosis, it had to be removed, but I have been healthy since!” translated the interpreter Peter’s explanation.
The army doctor waited until Peter had dressed and then sat down next to him on the bench. His expression seemed sincere and a bit sad, too, when he had told him that unfortunately Peter cannot join the US Army with one kidney.

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.”

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Chapter 6, 'To the West, Feb.4, 1957' for the first time


On that wintry day in February an open transport truck carried the 62 refugee-volunteers to the border of Italy and Yugoslavia. The mountain road with its frozen surface seemed treacherous enough, so that it took some time to get on to more stable terrain. Its passengers were still feeling the embraces and well wishes, and a few concerned looks, of their compatriots who remained behind the barbed wired camp in Gerovo.
Did they make the right decision?
By the time the truck had stopped just meters from the border, the guards had to help them off the high truck as most of them were stiff and frozen from the open journey.
After some formalities, at the guards’ encouragement, the group slowly walked towards, first the Yugoslavian barrier that was then raised for them, and then through no-man’s land to the Italian barrier which was raised, also, for them to pass through.
Those 25 meters of no man’s land between the two countries became the group’s most cherished distance ever traveled in their lives!
Every step they took brought them closer to a new life they were soon to begin. The stern warning of the Italian consulate officials that they will have to remain in Italy, the prospect of unemployment did no longer matter to them.
The short road they had to take without their armed guards was the first free steps of these Hungarians since they have arrived in Yugoslavia.
One could imagine the affect of this disheveled, unshaven, pale faced group on the Italian officials waiting for them on the other side! They could still smell the unpleasant fumes of the diesel truck behind them; they could still feel the somber and perhaps envious looks of their guards on their backs as they were crossing over.
But their determined steps attested to their will and desire to accept whatever was to follow, no matter what, there was no returning now.
The emerging light from the fog had shined on a site for the 62 Hungarians that they could not have imagined in the last several weeks. Behind them closely were their former guards and the stark border office that looked more like a fort than an office. But ahead, on the other side stood a long caravan of sedans and ambulances from which white coated doctors and nurses were rushing to meet them, grabbing them by the arms, helping them to the vehicles. Not much was said, but smiles and warmth in their eyes spoke all the more. Soldiers or police were hardly visible, and the few present were helping them to get in the cars, just like the medical people.
Hot chocolate, oranges and cigarettes were offered in the cars. There were Hungarian interpreters among the Italians, who were changing cars from time to time to benefit all the refugees with their translations.
The translators told them that, naturally, they are being transported to a temporary refugee depot and in a short time they will be going to whatever destination they desire and would be available to them, in the West. The warnings by the Italian consulate lasted only so far!
The shabby refugee group found itself within a short time on an entire floor of a luxury hotel in Trieste. Warm baths, barbers at the ready, used but clean clothing was waiting for them and haircuts and shaves later the group would have looked reasonably acceptable on the streets of Trieste.
But most importantly, paper and pens were available so that their families would finally get their quick and enthusiastic letters, postcards, that they were well, in the free West, in Italy. After so many weeks of incertitude this was the biggest gift they could imagine. These letters, postcards were immediately mailed by Italian Red Cross personnel. It was just early afternonoon by the time the group cleaned up and wrote their letters, then met in the lobby of the hotel. They were grateful for this change in their lives and a few had tears in their eyes. The group was escorted to nearby restaurant for their main meal of the day.
They walked to this luxury restaurant in the heart of Trieste, where a whole section was closed off to them. Since not one of them spoke a word of Italian they had let the restaurant serve them at will, and were patiently awaiting their first ever Italian meal, in the free world.
It was only natural that the first course was pasta or a spaghetti in this case. And it was also certain that none of them ever had real spaghetti before, but the exciting aroma and their hunger for tasty food after so many months overcame their suspicions and started as cultured men, with fork and knife to attack the unknown delicacy. Unfortunately, the tiny bits and pieces of spaghetti after their diligent use of the knives and forks had made their task quite difficult, so the first course lasted a very long time. The serving team of the restaurant had been very patient with them and were even attempting to teach a few of the Hungarians the intricate maneuver of eating long pasta with a fork and spoon, of all things, not with knives!
After this abundant meal they were taken by several cars to the Trieste railway station where they boarded a train for Ravenna.
The station was full with crowds of people, most of who came out specifically to greet and glimpse at the Hungarian refugees. They have heard that the group was arriving from Yugoslavia on their way to Ravenna. Trieste was so close to the once, and only, Hungarian seaport Fiume, that many had felt a special kinship with historical Hungary. Fruit baskets and small gifts were handed to all, whose faces were now smiling for the attention and love that surrounded them. Indeed many felt an overwhelming humility and respect for the Italians of Trieste for this manifestation of their care and concern.
Peter, like the others was in a heightened emotional state since their arrival in this wonderful Italian city. But after so many vicissitudes, the absence of his family, the fate of mother and his younger brother who were left in Baja without a man in the house, who now are facing the harsh winter in the poorly heated, old house, weighed on him still.
All this, in a totally new world. And Trieste, with the cavalcade of Vespas and sedans on the roads, the rich store windows, the elegant men and women with their obvious carefree attitude, how different all this was from the sad, and gray Hungarian small towns, with their somber moods. Especially, the openness and unabashed joy on peoples’ faces in Trieste, by contrast, was so striking.
The train was warm and comfortable. Peter leaned out the window and grasped a man’s hand as it was extended to him from below. The couple, speaking Hungarian, came out to the station to meet the group, like the others from Trieste.
“Welcome in Italy, God bless you all, we pray for you, all Hungarians…where are you from?”
“I am from the South, a small town…” said Peter
“Yes, but which one…?”
“I am from Baja…” and the man’s face lit up…
“My mother is from Baja…we are both from Baja…and mother still lives there , today, in that town…maybe you know her…she lives on Budapest Road….the widow of Poth Gotthard?”
“Mrs.Poth? My God, … dear sir, she is our landlady, we have been renting her house for years…every month I take the rent to her, Mrs.Poth…that cannot be true!”
The train was long into the night and Peter was still thinking about the incredible meeting of the Hungarian couple in the station, before departure for Ravenna. His first hours in the West, his first meeting anyone there with whom he can communicate and they turn out to be the son of Mrs.Poth and his wife, from Baja! As they recounted the story, the son was born in Baja and after the war, in 1946 he had gotten out and settled in Trieste, here he opened a pasticeria, a coffee and cake place.
They were on the train the whole night when finally they arrived early morning in Ravenna. The local Red Cross was waiting and had them transported to the nearby Marina di Ravenna, by the Adriatic Sea.