Memoirs of an American Immigrant in the Soviet Union Excerpt*
Mary Halász (1921–2016) was born in Lelesz, a Hungarian village in Zemplén County, that became part of Slovakia, following the transfer of northern Hungary (i.e. Slovakia and Sub- Carpathian Ruthenia) to Czechoslovakia as a result of the 1920 Treaty of Trianon concluding the First World War. She arrived in the United States as a six-month-old and settled down with her parents in Roebling, New Jersey, where she grew up as a Hungarian-American. On a family visit back to Europe, she met her future husband, Sándor Laszota (Sanyi) in Ungvár, Czechoslovakia, at the age of 13, and following intensive correspondence they decided to get married in 1938 with Mary moving to Ungvár. The same year in November, Sub-Carpathia was returned to Hungary as a result of the First Vienna Award only to be occupied by the Soviet Union in 1944. In 1945 Sub-Carpathia became part of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic within the Soviet Union. The region was renamed Transcarpathia and its largest city, Ungvár, became Uzhhorod. Ukraine gained independence once the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991. Mary continued in Transcarpathia all this time with her husband and two children locked up partly by the Iron Curtain and partly by the American authorities failing to grant immigrant status to her husband. Her children moved to Hungary for marriage and work in 1964 and 1972. In 1998 Mary and Sándor finally joined their children and grandchildren in Hungary. It was only after her husband’s death in 2000 that she returned to the United States for a short two-week visit in 2001, following the publication of her memoirs.
UNGVÁR (UZHHOROD): MY HUSBAND IN THE PRISON OF BEZPEKA – “TRIAL” AND SENTENCE
Although my husband Sanyi never engaged in politics, never took part in any meetings, nor ever criticised the Soviet system in public, he did not have a quiet moment after the war. By 1948 it was already obvious to us that we were in danger. Our acquaintances began to disappear one after the other. First the priests were taken away, then the teachers and other intellectuals. We never knew what had happened to them; we only discovered that Gyurka Gyümölcs [a former fellow soldier of Sanyi’s] was nowhere to be found, neither was another friend, nor a third one!
The teachers who were Sanyi’s fellow soldiers in the deciphering battalion also began to disappear one by one – Ruthenians and Hungarians alike. Sanyi noticed the interdependence of incidents with alarm. What was more, his acquaintances and colleagues began mentioning that “official” people, that is secret agents, were collecting information about him.
We felt the noose tightening around our necks. We went to work in the morning wondering if we would see each other again. Sanyi did not mind his own lot so much; he would say that once we had been born, we had to end our lives sometime. What worried him very much was my fate and the fate of the children. It drove him to despair that I, a girl growing up in peace, calm and prosperity, had come here from America to live in constant terror and misery. He was also afraid that his children would have to grow up in destitution, without a father; what was more, at a disadvantage in a hostile world because of their father.
Sanyi worked hard at the commercial cooperative of the district. Owing to his honest work, he was promoted to technical manager, which was the second highest rank at the cooperative. In March he was ordered to give a “lecture of enlightenment” on atheism to the workers. My Sanyi, a devout, practicing Christian, leading an exemplary Christian life, was appointed to do that! Since our family belonged to more than one denomination, on Sundays we went to three churches, one after the other. First we took part in a Greek Catholic mass, then we went to a Roman Catholic mass, and eventually we attended a Lutheran service. We could get the children to enter the third church only by promising them extra portions of ice cream afterwards. Sanyi told the party committee that he could not give a lecture on atheism since the workers had known him for all their lives, and they would simply not believe him! He suggested that, if it was indeed necessary, the task should be given to a person from the East; he would certainly be given more credit. Soon afterwards he was dismissed from his position, without any explanation. It happened presumably because of the atheist lecture that he had not given; or maybe he just did not clap his hands enthusiastically enough at the meetings for the cooperative.
The borders had been closed for good; there was no escaping from behind the Iron Curtain. Fear came upon us. We expected to be taken away any day. One of the signals was that Sanyi was called upon by his cooperative to quit his job. He loved his work, and had been doing it in the most conscientious way possible. His bosses had always appreciated his work, and had always been entirely satisfied with him. He had also been popular among his colleagues. His unmotivated dismissal indicated that there was, nevertheless, a great problem with him, a problem of a different kind.
At that time the cooperative was no longer led by András, our brother-in-law. “Distribution”, which was to replace commerce, was performed by a pyramid of county cadres, district cadres and local cadres. Each cadre was a Russian or Ukrainian newcomer. Even though my brother-in-law was a Ukrainian and he himself had organised the whole commercial cooperative, he did not join the party, and without a party membership it was impossible to hold a high office. After the whole system of the cooperative had been built up and had started to operate smoothly, internal security officers began to visit András, interrogating him about his past, his contacts; then he was suddenly dismissed. It is possible that somebody else wanted his post. Fortunately, he found himself a lesser position in Munkács and later found a different job. An old friend of his, the manager of a little soft drink factory, gave him a job in the office.
As another signal of the approaching catastrophe, I was called upon – as a foreign citizen – to go to the police to have my passport changed. I did not have the slightest intention of going there; I did not want another passport. I was perfectly satisfied with the American passport I had. I did not react to the second notice, either; but the third time I had to obey. On the third occasion, the new document intended for me, the Soviet ID, was brought to our home. I was told emphatically that I had better take it in the interest of my family. Although I had never renounced my American citizenship, from that moment on the Soviets regarded me as a Soviet citizen. My nationality was given as “Slovak” because I was born in Slovakia – even though I had lived there only for a few months as a baby, and I did not speak a word of Slovakian. It was then that I realised how the Soviet Union was manipulating its ethnic composition.
One morning I looked out of the window and noticed that three passports (passport is the Russian word used for an ID) were thrown into the flower garden in front of our house. Sanyi went out to look at them. To our alarm, they were passports valid for the first zone. One needed permission even to enter the second zone, to which Ungvár belonged; the first zone along the border was totally inaccessible. The obvious provocation was a sign of imminent disaster. Sanyi put the documents on the top of the cupboard, and we waited to meet our fate. We did not have to wait long.
In vain did I accept the Soviet passport for my family’s sake; a week after I had been appointed a Soviet citizen Sanyi was arrested. It was 2 July 1949, the day of our 11th wedding anniversary. Sanyi naturally had a valid passport; he was called to the police on the pretext that certain data related to his military service still remained to be filled in. He was ordered to go to the “militsia” of the 2nd district. He hesitated about whether or not he should go there. Eventually he came to the conclusion that whatever he would do, there was no way to escape anyway.
I accompanied him to the door of the police station. I was not the only one to do so; we were followed by two men ever since we left our house. When Sanyi entered, I could not go with him any further. The guard told me nothing but sichas, sichas (“Just a minute!”).
Our neighbours knew what was going on with us. They knew that Sanyi was being kept in, and I was not told anything. Margit Teke came to me with the idea that a friend of hers had an apartment opposite the militsia, and from her window one could look right into the militsia offices. Perhaps we might be able to find out something. So we went up to her place, and we saw from her window that Sanyi was sitting at a table, engaged in a conversation. Afterwards I learned that the boss was not inside, and they were waiting for him at that table. In any case, they were talking so peacefully that we calmed down. We waited for the end of the conversation. We saw him stand up, and start going downstairs together with his escorts. Once downstairs, he was led to a large black car waiting there. Two huge men whisked him inside, and he was driven away. I became paralysed with panic. Everyone knew that the “black crow”, the infamous “chorny varo” was the car of the local unit of the NKVD, the Soviet secret police, called Bezpeka in Ukrainian. My Sanyi was taken to the tyurma (prison) of the Bezpeka!
Later it was confirmed that Sanyi had been detained at the Bezpeka. Every person carried away by the authorities ended up there. Besides, the family members of those affected shared with one another everything they could find out, and they informed me that Sanyi was there. Officially we were not informed of anything. They did not condescend to let the families know where their husband, father, mother or child was. My Sanyi enjoyed the “hospitality” of the Bezpeka for six weeks during the time of his interrogation.
On the second day of Sanyi’s arrest our home was raided by the police; they searched it very thoroughly. Fortunately, the children were at school, so they were spared those shocking and humiliating scenes. They found nothing that was politically incriminating except for the passports that they themselves had planted in our garden; in fact, they barely found anything at all, we were so poor. They did not like my book of prayers, and also treated my handwritten book of recipes with suspicion. They ordered me to hand over to them all the personal belongings of Sanyi, as well as his photos from the family album. I flatly refused, saying they had Sanyi in his entirety, while we only had these photos, so I would not give them up! I also refused to part with his belongings. “I will have to sell all his clothes to be able to feed my children!”, I said. “You cannot take anything away! It is because of you that I am left here with two children, and with no breadwinner!” I do not know what gave me so much pluck; somehow it came naturally. It must have been the audacity one feels at the end of the world, when nothing matters anymore. In any case, nothing was taken away from us – perhaps because of my astounding conduct – even though these people were prone to confiscate things in those years.
Poor Sanyi had received his salary just before his arrest. Amidst the great excitement it did not come to our mind that he should take the money out of his pocket. From the Bezpeka he could not send it to us any more. We were left with no father, no husband and no money.
As for Sanyi’s fate, I learned what he actually went through from him six years later. He was taken down to the cellar of the Bezpeka headquarters. His watch, his American Parker pen, his Parker pencil and his belt were taken away from him. He was lucky enough to have a guard who did not steal the 19 roubles he found in his pocket, but asked Sanyi what he should buy him for his money. My Sanyi was a heavy smoker; he was suffering from the lack of cigarettes. He asked the guard to spend all of the 19 roubles on cigarettes. The guard did so; the following day he brought Sanyi 19 roubles’ worth of Verhovina. As Sanyi told me later, his nervous tension disappeared as soon as he knew himself to be in possession of such a large stock of cigarettes.
His cell contained nothing but a bunk, without a blanket or anything. More precisely, there was also a 100 watt light bulb, which was constantly lit, day and night. My poor husband suffered most from the bedbugs – which was mysterious because there was absolutely no bedding, no furniture, nothing in there, and the light was also constantly on! Still, when he could not continue pacing back and forth any longer, and collapsed on his bunk, the Bezpeka’s bedbugs immediately came forth from somewhere and they would bite him and suck his blood. Sanyi was kept in this underground hole for three days, without anybody saying a word to him. He was given salted fish and water, and he was watched through the fortochka (the peep-hole), but nothing else happened.
On the fourth day, the door of his solitary cell opened up and the Bezpeka guard led Sanyi into cell 13. Cell 13 was already occupied by six prisoners: three Greek Catholic priests, two village notaries, and a former Hungarian gendarme. Sanyi found their company a relief; he had good conversations with them. It turned out though that it was advisable to be careful when conversing with others. After the fourth week, a man called Kotrozs was brought into their cell. Sanyi happened to know him because Kotrozs had been the head of a unit of their commercial cooperative. He had embezzled 260,000 roubles for which he was sentenced to ten years in prison. They found it strange that a non-political offender should be placed among them, because political and non-political offenders were not mixed together at the Bezpeka yet. For a whole day, Kotrozs tried to strike up a conversation with the priests, then with the others at least. He was thrown in there to gather information, but without any success; his provocations were so obvious that none of the captives was taken in.
In cell 13 the bunk also had a straw mattress, a straw pillow, and a blanket to go with it. Despite this fact, there were no bedbugs! On the other hand, there was a slop-pail in the corner. The captives were never allowed to leave their cell, unless they were taken to be interrogated. They received salted fish for meals; water, on the other hand, was often forgotten about. If they were taken to be interrogated before they finished their water, the water had disappeared by the time they were taken back. They were allowed to sit on their beds, but not to lie down. They were constantly checked through the fortochka. Whereas during the day it was forbidden to lie down, during the night they were dragged off to be interrogated. Perhaps the greatest strain for them was that they were not allowed to sleep. A victim worn out to the utmost was certainly easier to handle.
Sanyi related to me later how his nights were spent. At 6 p.m. a guard came for him and escorted him to his interrogator. He was made to sit on a stool and stay there motionless, with his hands behind his back. The interrogating officer would fiddle with things and read as if Sanyi was not there. Hours went by. When my husband started to stir because he could not stand it to be motionless any longer, the interrogator rang for the guard, who took him back to cell 13. At night prisoners were allowed to lie down, so Sanyi tumbled on his bed and immediately fell into deep sleep. Ten minutes later the guard shook him awake, and took him to the interrogator again. He was so exhausted that he did not even know where he was. He had to sit down again with his hands behind his back, and then the officer began to ask him questions. The officer also wrote down certain things, but clearly not what Sanyi said. Later he shoved the sheets of paper into Sanyi’s hand, and told him to read them and sign them. “I trust you”, Sanyi said, and signed every sheet without reading it. He knew that if he did not sign the “minutes”, the interrogator would sign them for him. If he did not protest but signed everything without any resistance, then he could go back to his cell and if there was something left of the night, then he could sleep at last. In those weeks, his only ambition was to be able to sleep. He was barely allowed to at all! And the interrogation went on like this every night for six weeks. Custody pending trial could only last for six weeks; by that time a sentence had to be produced. The interrogator reinterpreted what Sanyi said in a particular way. It was set down against him as one of his main crimes that he was an instructor in the Levente Movement, a paramilitary youth organisation. My poor Sanyi told his interrogator that he had been called up by the army, otherwise he would not have had anything to do with the Levente members; and he was appointed as an assistant to a main Levente instructor because he was a teacher by profession. He had to hold gymnastics classes for the Leventes; he practiced at most “right turn, left turn, about-turn” with them. The minutes of the interrogation naturally contained the officer’s version, according to which Sanyi as a Levente instructor educated the youth in the spirit of fascism, and incited them to fight against the Bolshevik power. Poor Sanyi said in vain that Bolshevism was never even touched on during the gymnastics classes.
The main charge against Sanyi was that in his capacity as a radio cipher officer of the former Hungarian Army, he was spying against the Soviet Union. Furthermore, he was a lieutenant, the commander of a whole unit. According to the minutes, by deciphering secret military telegrams he provided direct help to the German Chiefs of Staff. He said in vain that he was an officer of the Hungarian Army, not the German one, and he was not a volunteer but was called up. He had not wished for the war; he would not have left his beautiful, young wife and two young children alone if he had not had to. He joined the army because he was forced to. Besides, he did not really decipher secret telegrams; he translated Morse code signals into numbers. He had no idea what the telegrams meant. Whatever Sanyi said, the minutes were prepared according to the interrogator’s intentions.
At the Bezpeka, the prisoners were allowed to receive a food parcel (peredacha) once a week. It was simpler for the Bezpeka, too, if their captives were fed by their families. Meeting a captive was naturally out of the question. We merely gave the parcel to the guard and told him who it was for. It was hopeless to hide a message in the food, because they checked everything thoroughly; they cut up the dumplings, opened the stuffed cabbages, and even broke the cigarettes into two. When they saw that we did not attempt to smuggle anything in, they began to deliver my parcels to Sanyi in a better condition. I always prepared for him what I thought he lacked the most: some soup, cookies, and plenty of cigarettes. A captive could only get his peredacha if he “behaved well”, i.e. if he signed everything. Stout men, who stuck to the truth, did not get anything. Sanyi was not stout; he found there was no point in it. He found sleep and parcels more important. He shared the parcels he got with the others.
We women gathered in front of the Bezpeka around six in the morning, and waited for new developments until about nine at night. In the meantime we became acquainted with each other. I got to know the wives of several priests and teachers, some of whom became my friends. Manci, the wife of a teacher, and Bella, the wife of a lawyer, came to Ungvár every day from Antalóc and Beregszász, respectively, to stand out in front of the Bezpeka. We made life easier for each other: I put them up, and in return they brought chickens and other cooking materials from the country. In the evening, when we went home after having spent the day waiting and hoping, we cooked the meal, leaving some for the children. Then we slept for a few hours and set off for the Bezpeka again. They never told us anything. If someone had been transferred from the Bezpeka, we learned it from the fact that his parcel was not accepted.
Me and the two children were left with three roubles and 60 kopecks. It was then that I began to knit sweaters to sell so as to have some income. I used the time I spent standing in front of the Bezpeka to knit for money. The children knew where their daddy was, but they did not ask why. They only kept asking when he would come home.
It took six weeks to prepare the indictment, which made up a thick volume. After the day of the trial was set, I was allowed to hire a lawyer as counsel. The lawyer asked for 200 roubles for the defence. I sold my gold jewels, and all my other possessions that could be turned into cash. It was incredibly difficult to scrape together that huge amount. The lawyer assured me that he visited Sanyi regularly, and consulted with him often. I found it strange though that he did not tell us anything about the case. We had no idea what Sanyi was accused of, why he was in custody to begin with, and when the trial would take place. We only knew what we found out ourselves while standing out in front of the Bezpeka all day long, week after week. Having cheated us of all we possessed, the lawyer kept swearing that everything would be all right with Sanyi. Instead, Sanyi got the heaviest sentence possible. Six years later Sanyi and I pieced together what he went through and what I experienced. It was then that Sanyi learned from me that he had a hired counsel, and it was then that I learned from Sanyi that he had never even seen the lawyer. Although we paid the lawyer 200 roubles, he and his like counselled the authorities, not the defendants.
A series of trials took place every day. Even if the families were not notified, we knew when our people were to be tried and sentenced. Our trial took place early in the autumn, at the county court, behind closed doors. Besides the judge, the attorney, and the two lay judges (the so-called “people’s judges”), only the witnesses were allowed to enter the room. The “witnesses” brought against Sanyi included two peasants from Turjabisztra, who alleged that in 1944 Sanyi preached the victory of the Germans and the defeat of the Russians in front of the Turjabisztra church. It was obvious that they were false witnesses. Sanyi never discussed politics in public to begin with, and in 1944 he could not have said such things in private, either. The English had already bombed out the German industry, the Russians were already inside Hungary. No person in his right mind could have thought that Germany would win! Sanyi actually asked the attorney if he really thought him to be that stupid. Sanyi’s former fellow soldier, Gyurka Gyümölcs, arrested two months prior to him, was brought to bear witness against Sanyi after being sentenced to 25 years. He had to testify that Sanyi was a cipher officer in the 101st reconnaissance battalion of the Hungarian Army. However, Sanyi had never denied that!
At the trial, all the nonsense that Sanyi had already known from the interrogations was repeated to him. What he had to say did not matter in the least, just like during the interrogations. On the basis of his past as a Hungarian officer and a Levente instructor, he was declared to be an enemy of the Communist system, a spy and a criminal. When the judgement was read out at the end of the trial, Sanyi’s hair literally stood on end.
People of a similar background were convicted on the basis of two legal articles either for 10 years in prison, or 25 years. It was unpredictable which poor wretch would fall into the 10-year category, and which one into the other. Actually, one could receive a ten-year sentence just by refusing to spy on one’s neighbours. A colleague and good acquaintance of Sanyi’s, Laci Ivaskovics, a teacher from Antalóc, was ordered to keep an eye on the mail arriving in Antalóc. Laci refused to do so, and he got a ten-year sentence!
The teachers from Sanyi’s deciphering battalion who had been tried before him all got 25 years. Gyurka Gyümölcs was first sentenced to death; his sentence was changed to 25 years after the abolishment of the death penalty. My poor husband also expected that much. His prospects were also aggravated by having an American wife. For whatever reason, he received 25 years.
A 25-year sentence did not simply mean 25 long years; it meant that we would never see each other again; he would never again be able to hug his children! If Stalin had not died, the prisoners would have never returned! The huge Gulag archipelago needed an infinite number of people. Not even those who served their sentences were ever given permission to return. Sanyi met Ukrainians there who were taken to the Gulag in 1931 and who had completed their sentence a long time before, but they were still not allowed to go home; they had to settle down in the taiga. The authorities did not expect to be able to lure volunteers to work there as shopkeepers, stock keepers, etc. – so these jobs, which they did not entrust to prisoners, were given to ex-prisoners forced to stay.
I found out about Sanyi’s sentence when he was being led out of the courtroom; he showed 25 with his fingers. I could see him only as long as he was walking along the corridor, and I had to behave quietly, despite learning about the 25 years! The corridor of the county court was the only place where we could be in contact with our loved ones, during breaks in the trial. As the women who spent their days waiting around the Bezpeka, the court, and the municipal prison found out, if one lurked silently in the corridor leading to the courtroom, she would not be driven away. When the captive was led out to the toilet, his relative could even slip in with him. The success of these attempts depended on who was on guard – because there were milder and stricter guards. I managed to slip into the toilet twice. Once I could even replace my husband’s shoes with a pair of more convenient, heavy-duty ankle boots. It was when I learned about the 25-years sentence that I saw my dear Sanyi for the last time for six years!
After the sentence Sanyi was not taken back to the Bezpeka headquarters but was transferred to the regular prison of Ungvár. The municipal prison was different from the Bezpeka cellar. Those sentenced to ten years or fewer lived on the lower stories, behind doors that were closed but had no chains, and they had ordinary iron beds. The prisoners sentenced to more than ten years, staying on the upper stories, had doors that closed with two chains in addition to the lock. For a bed they had an unmovable “coffin” made out of thick, heavy oak, which also had a mattress, a pillow, and a blanket. The window below the ceiling was covered so that it let some light in from upside but it did not let the prisoner look out.
In the municipal prison inmates were allowed to get a parcel every day, and I tried to procure something delicious for each parcel. In our civil relations we were not ostracised; on the contrary, everybody tried to help us. The Demeter family (the parents of my friend Csöpike) still had a cow and sent along a litre of milk for the children every morning. Another friend of mine offered to put together Sanyi’s food parcel every Thursday. For our sake she prepared a particularly rich and nourishing meal each Thursday: fried chicken, chicken in breadcrumbs, stuffed chicken or something that could also be eaten cold.
We were not given any information by the municipal prison, either. There, too, the only indication of someone having been transferred was that his food parcel was not accepted. We women, however, were not put off so easily. We realised that the storm-window in the loft of a house looked right onto the yard of the prison. After that we climbed to that loft every day, and watched in silence to see who was there for his walk, and who was not to be seen any longer. The walk took place in several turns; however, there was room only for one person at the loft window. Fortunately, we already knew one another’s husbands by sight, so we could take turns at the window. I never managed to catch sight of Sanyi, but I let the others know if I saw their Gyurka or Iván walking. They also reported if Sanyi showed up. If someone disappeared, if he did not participate in the walks any longer, there was no knowing where he had been taken to. There were so many distribution centres that even the first station of a prisoner could be anywhere.
The Ungvár prison granted us visiting time once. I could only take my son, Öcsi, with me because my little daughter, Lia, was in a sanatorium. We just looked at each other and cried. Sanyi said only one thing to me. There was a general belief then that women who divorced their imprisoned husbands had a better chance to lead an undisturbed life. Sanyi urged me to divorce him. “No, never!”, I answered. That was all we said to each other. Actually many women got a divorce, but that did not make life easier for them. Although they did not bear a “compromised” name any longer, their dignity broke. They were not given strength by loyalty and perseverance.
* The present chapter as edited by Hungarian Review is Chapter 16 from Mary Halász’s original 114-page manuscript, From America with Love. Memoirs of an American Immigrant in the Soviet Union. Her memoirs were recorded, transcribed and edited by Piroska and Katalin É. Kiss in 1996–1997. The manuscript was ultimately published as Vol. 564 of the East European Monographs series by Columbia University Press in 2001. Mary Halász: From America with Love is also available as a Kindle e-book.