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by Arpad Szilagyi
Translated by Lynn Toth
Published by arrangement with Simon Publications.
CHAPTER 1 Wind of the Revolution
The news of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 swept through the halls and classrooms of the, then still Hungarian, Bolyai University of Science in Kolozsvar like the wind that gushes through the snowy mountains of Bedello, hitting the nearby gardens and bending the trunks of the old walnut and pale-colored sycamore maple trees. Even though the news had great historic importance, it came as no surprise to any of us. Through the Hungarian and foreign radio reports and press releases, one was well aware of the serious political and social changes that were in the making.
Bolyai University, the largest Hungarian university in Transylvania, or more specifically Romania, had about two thousand students at the time. I was in my last year, majoring in Geography. Once the news of the revolution began spreading through the corridors, the students gathered in small groups to theorize and discuss the situation.
The revolution, in which students, laborers and intellectuals all took part together, began on the 23rd day of October in Budapest. I will not get into all the events in detail, since that is a part of history. It was a revolution in the true sense of the word: A fight of the whole nation against repression and tyranny in the name of creating a better and more just society.
The events took place very rapidly: Gero, the last little king, resigns from the head of the Communist Party, making way for Imre Nagy to head the government. lmre Nagy was celebrated by both party members and non-members alike and seen as the savior of the nation. Talks began of the Russian troops withdrawing, while Imre Nagy declared that Hungary would resign from the Warsaw Pact. The historic parties would likely be reformed and the right to vote reinstated.
The revolution was victorious! The Hungarian students were rejoicing on the streets of Kolozsvar. Acquaintances smiled at one another. Everyone who believed in true democracy and freedom was ecstatic. In the meantime, Cardinal Midszenty, having just been freed from prison, announced that he would be making a speech to the nation on the radio. During the speech I had a class with Professor Zoltan Torok, and all I could think about was how to get out of it. The professor was very much involved in pointing at things on the board with his long stick, showing us different lines and folds, none of which I could care less about at the time. Waiting for the golden opportunity, I held out until my teacher was totally engulfed in drawing something of great importance on the black board. Within seconds, I was sitting on the windowsill from which I jumped and landed with a subtle thump on the cushiony grass just below. A few more seconds and I was in the library of the Faculty of Law where a small group had already gathered around the radio. Both students and teachers sat quietly, totally moved by Midszenty's speech.
On October 26th, when Imre Nagy came into power, I prepared myself for an unusual event. I was filled with enthusiasm from all the positive democratic events taking place. Seeing all those things that I believed in come to light made me feel like I had to do something tangible to show my sympathy towards my victorious nation. I marched back to my classroom which was, by this time, understandably empty, sat down, and wrote a detailed letter, in which I saluted the revolution that had led my tiny nation to victory. In my letter, I bitterly complained about the situation in Romania where such democratic changes would never be possible. Here, the Communist Party and its secret police destroyed any kind of reforming attempts, before they even had a chance to flourish. I also mentioned the fact that the Romanians did not look kindly on us Hungarians; in fact they barely tolerated us in our own home. They would have preferred if we had packed up our stuff and just left the country for them. Then I wrote about Transylvania and about which country it really belonged to. I mentioned the peace agreements of Trianon and the ones following World War II, and how Hungary was unfairly divided up, to the point where two thirds of the country was given to foreign nations. I sent this letter to the Hungarian Literary Newspaper. I was so enthusiastic about the revolution and so eager to express it in words that I totally forgot about the possible dangers this envelope contained. Only after I had dropped it in the mailbox did the whole thing flash through my mind, with the possibility that my letter might not even make it to its place of destination.
In the meantime, two other significant events took place. The first was that on the first day of November, on All Souls' Day; we would have one minute of silence in honor of the university students that had died during the revolution. Our first class was with our Russian professor, Valentina Karceva. Due to my great knowledge of the Russian language, we got along famously. This is probably why the whole class decided that I should be the one to share our intentions with her. Since the revolution was proving to be such a success, we were thrilled to be able to show our compassion for our brave nation before our Russian representative, Valentina Karceva. Once our teacher arrived accompanied by the dean, Miklos Meszaros, who was translating Karceva's lectures, I stood up tall and proud and announced what the class and I had decided to do. Everyone followed my lead and we stood there in silence for a whole minute. Karceva did not object, in fact she remained standing along with the dean.
The rest of the period spent in class was quite awkward. I was smiling at Valentina in such a malicious way that I was sure she could read my unconfined enthusiasm through my radiant eyes.
The events of the revolution, as well as watching our ideas come to life, had prepared us for some new actions: We decided that, that afternoon, we would go to the cemetery. We would take flowers to the graves of some Hungarian authors, poets, scientists, and other famous people, to honor them for fighting for our country. We purchased some flowers at the gates, and then our entire class entered the grounds that had already been packed with people. There were some state police swarming around, some dressed in civilian clothes. Many of the people tried to warn us that these shifty men were following us around. We didn't pay much attention to them, but we did notice that every time we'd approached a grave, one or two strangers would just happen to stop with us. We stood by the gravesides in silence, as we had previously agreed. We went by an unknown soldier's grave that was already surrounded by these strange people. Without a word, we placed our flowers and wreaths on the tombstone and said a silent prayer in our heads, honoring those that had given their lives for the revolution.
We came out of the trance of the revolution on November 4, 1956, when the foreign radio stations began announcing that hundreds of Russian tanks and thousands of armed Russian soldiers had started entering Hungary. The smiles quickly disappeared from our faces along with the hope from our hearts¾the hope that after such a long and dark era of repression, the light of freedom had finally shone upon us. I could not comprehend how they could destroy a nation that had lost so many victims to the revolution and during its entire history. How could they tyrannize and diminish all our victory, dreams, and hopes?
Imre Nagy, during his last radio announcement, officially declared that the Russians had attacked Hungary and asked the "Great Powers" for help. But the free countries just stood by and watched our tiny nation bleed to death under the fire of the Russian tanks and become a victim of tyranny once again. The Western powers had nothing to gain by helping Hungary. They were too involved with the Suez Crisis that affected them directly. Even though the UN had placed the problem in Hungary on its agenda, the Russian member of the Security Council vetoed it.
The battles still continued here and there, but even the Hungarian youths' self-sacrificing nature could not compete with the overpowering Russians. Hundreds of thousands fled the country, trying to escape the terror that awaited everyone.
A new Communist Party, led by Janos Kadar, came into power in Hungary, which the Romanian authorities ordered us to welcome by telegram. In another telegram, the Hungarian university of Kolozsvar condemned the revolutionary event that took place in Hungary in October. The event that we were now required to refer to as a counter-revolution. The university also agreed on total solidarity with the new "worker-peasant government."
Each faculty at the university had to vote separately on this telegram, and even though the directors tried to push it through as quickly and quietly as possible, the news of it still spread rapidly throughout the school. We held a quick "council of war" and all decided to vote against it. When they finally arrived at our classroom with the telegram and read it aloud for us, I stood up and declared that we would not be sending such a message!
"And why not?" asked the prodekan (Assistant Dean) who was leading the poll.
"Because we believe that what took place in Hungary was a true revolution which was destroyed by the Russians," I answered unhesitatingly.
"But this telegram came from the higher authorities and everybody will have to vote in favor of it," pushed the prodekan.
"Despite that we are not going to vote for it. Perhaps, if you really insist, we'll send our own telegram that we have written ourselves."
"But the content of the telegram is unified, it cannot be changed," argued the dean.
"Then we are sorry we'll not be voting."
"You are going to vote once and for all!" he screamed. "So, who's with me here?"
There was total silence. The prodekan was practically begging us to vote for the telegram. He also threatened us that if we didn't vote, that would anger the authorities and we would have no one but ourselves to blame for the consequences. These were the tactics he used in trying to persuade us. He even promised that he would attempt to change the contents. Following this, a couple of the students raised their hands, and the dean happily declared that the telegram had been voted for. I protested in vain against the arbitrary methods of the prodekan, as he hastily ran out the door, waving the telegram in his hand. The next day, I was ordered to the Marxist chair. One of the Marxist professors greeted me amiably. He offered me a seat and locked the door behind me. He said he was very interested in my opinions that I could freely express in front of him; he promised that there would be no consequences. Our conversation went something like this:
"Dear Mr. Szilagyi!" (Yes, he called me "mister", instead of "comrade", which I found quite surprising. I knew that for many years he ate and slept Marxism, proletarian-dictatorship and similar demagogy, but I thought that maybe the reformation of communism had captured his heart and brought some national sympathy to the surface.) "I know," he continued "that you had a lot to do with directing the moods of the students at this establishment. That is why I'd be interested in hearing what your thoughts are on the events in Hungary and the Russian interference."
"There was a revolution in Hungary, " I answered the teacher, "a true national uprising, where intellectuals, laborers, farmers and students fought along with the army, in the name of a better social system and national independence."
"And how would you judge the Russian interference?"
"Unlawful and unjust! What are the Russians doing in Hungary? What is the Soviet Union? An international prison guard? And what about that famous saying by Lenin: 'A nation can not be free when it represses other nations?'"
"The Russians entered Hungary on the request of the Hungarian government," replied the teacher.
"The legitimate government was in the hands of Imre Nagy. Kadar was brought to power by the Russians."
"Look Mr. Szilagyi, I'm glad that I had the opportunity to get to know you better. But I ask you not to voice your opinion to other people. This could be very dangerous. In fact, I must advise you against having this type of a conversation again with anyone."
After this, he shook my hand and again assured me that this conversation will remain our secret. He unlocked the door and I said goodbye to my teacher. My colleagues were anxiously awaiting me. They knew that something unusual was in the making.
Two days later the faculty's K1SZ (Communist Youth Association) secretary contacted me and told me to be careful because the secret police had been inquiring about me. Now I was getting afraid. Somebody must have betrayed and reported me. Following this, I was scared to show my face in public. I even took back roads to the university. In the meantime, we started our winter exam sessions. I never left the dorm, except to write the exams. Again I only went there on hidden roads. I did well on all the exams with the exception of Russian geology which was held by Valentina Karceva. She gave me a satisfactory mark, but I knew that I had done better than that. This is how she got her revenge with me, because I represented the nation that was fighting against the Russians and she stood by her own country that suppressed our revolution.
After the exams, I went home to my parents in Gyergyoszarhegy. I didn't wander around too much there either, except to see my fiancée, Jolanka and tell her about my adventures in Kolozsvar. She got very scared as well. She knew of the events in Hungary and also how the Securitate (the Romanian secret police) dealt with people who tried to "disturb the peace". We were both hoping that my actions at the university would be forgotten and that there wouldn't be any further consequences. This was the first time in my life that I wasn't anxiously waiting for classes to start. I was still afraid.
Time was going by very slowly, but somehow spring had arrived. By now, I was roaming the streets freely. I figured that if they had wanted to arrest me, they would have had plenty of opportunity to do so. It looked as if they had forgotten about me. I always sent reassuring replies to my dear little Jolanka's concerned letters. There was less than a month left before I began my new life as a person with a university degree. This had been my dream since elementary school, and I had paid a high price to get there.
The final examinations had finally begun, and I breezed through them all like a good runner around the track. I was starting to see my dreams come alive. I was finally going to escape my poor, wretched past, then help my dear parents, and marry my little Jolanka and begin our new life together. I was preparing myself for the last exam which was to take place on May 21. I studied very hard. I would sit down in the study hail in the early hours of the morning and not move from there until lunchtime. One day after lunch, I went upstairs to the rooms to meet with my colleagues. I hardly exchanged a few words with them when the gate attendant informed me that there were some people looking for me. I hurried to the gate where people were coming in and out, but I did not see any familiar faces. Then a man spoke to me:
"Yes, that's me," I answered him.
He extended his hand to me without introducing himself and asked if I had eaten lunch.
"Of course," I replied.
"Because if you haven't, then I can come back after lunch, because what I have to speak to you about is neither important, nor urgent."
"But for me it's important that you say what you have come for, because later I will not have any time at all. I'll have exams tomorrow, so I have no time for anything else."
"Very well then," he said nonchalantly, grabbed my arm and started down the stairs. He inquired about my exam the following day and about the results of my other exams. Then he suddenly stopped and said:
"Look Comrade Szilagyi, the deal here is that you will come with me to the office of the secret police where you will write a report on someone, and then we will bring you back in an hour and you can continue studying for tomorrow."
Suddenly, two other strangers showed up. One opened up the door of a car, and they practically shoved me inside. The talkative man apologized for the aggressiveness but said that it was for my own good. One of my escorts started reading my personal data from a notebook, which rather surprised me. The car was traveling at a high speed until we got to a big iron gate which opened automatically. There were several buildings inside, but they transported me to a shack at the back of the courtyard. We all got out of the car. There was a set of stairs leading to an iron door that had iron bars and a huge iron lock on it. At this time, my escorts got back into the car and left me standing there with my bewildering thoughts.
"I'm sure that they are not taking me into this building," I was brooding to myself. "Someone will come and lead me to that office where I will write my report and that's that!"
From the other buildings a uniformed character started to approach me. He was dangling some keys in his hands. Without a word he walked down the stairs, opened the lock on the iron bars, walked back up the stairs, and put these strange kind of glasses over my eyes, which I could not see through. I listened as the door opened with a big rattle, and then I heard the keys in the lock again. Suddenly I got such a kick from behind that I went flying down the stairs. Somebody grabbed my arms and somehow I stood up on my feet. Again I heard the sound of a door opening, got another kick from behind, and fell blindly forward until I hit a wall. The invisible hands removed the glasses from my eyes, but I was still left in total darkness.
CHAPTER 2 The Mock Trial
"I've been arrested!" the thought flashed through my mind like a bolt of lightning. These crooks had tricked me. I stood up against the wall and felt my way around the cell that could not have been any bigger than one-and-a-half square meters. Despite the not so hospitable welcome I had received, I felt relatively calm and tried to collect my thoughts. It looked like I got dragged in. The report was just an excuse for them to get their hands on me.
Sitting in my cold dark cell, I started thinking of my colleagues, who had no idea where I was. Then my thoughts drifted to my dear parents and my little Jolanka. In my mind's eye I could see the faces of all my dear relatives and friends. This daydream did not last very long however, because the door screeched and rattled open, and I saw the outline of a uniformed man standing there. He put the blind glasses back over my eyes and led me out of the cell. All of a sudden my escort yelled at me to stop. I did. A door opened and he led me through it. The glasses were removed, and I started examining the room which had to be much bigger than where I was before. The same man that threw me in the other cell was there to greet me. He asked me for my personal information, then instructed me to remove my belt and shoelaces. Next he frisked me and took all of my possessions away: a small 1957 Hungarian pocket calendar, a propelling pencil, and 100 Leis (Romanian currency). The only thing that I was allowed to keep was my handkerchief. He removed the steel toecaps from my shoes and the metal buckles from my pants. After they returned my clothing to me, I got dressed. They put the glasses back on me and led me away. Again I heard the rattling of the keys; they took off my glasses, and kicked me real hard from behind as I went falling down on the cement floor. As I stumbled to get up, the door slammed behind me. I quickly looked around the room and saw two iron beds on top of each other and a bearded man dressed in prison clothes sitting on the bottom bunk. I got scared and instinctively ran towards the door.
"Don't be afraid!" said the prisoner, "You have nothing to fear, I will not hurt you."
He got up from his bed and walked over to me to help me to my feet. After he introduced himself, he explained that he was a Romanian Greek Catholic priest who got arrested because he had been holding secret masses. Furthermore, he felt he had been brought over from the prison in Szamosujvar as a way for the secret police to try to get some new information out of him.
The cell was very tight. The two beds on top of each other took up almost all of the floor space. The rest of the furniture consisted of a small cement table across the room from the door, a very dirty and rusty chamber pot in the corner, and a light bulb hanging from the ceiling.
The priest informed me that he slept on the bottom bunk and the top one would be mine. He also said that we were only allowed to sleep at night. During the day we had to sit on the corner of our beds. He spoke Hungarian fluently and told me he had held his secret masses at a residence in Kolozsvar. Since the Greek Catholic religion was banned in 1948, his services were considered illegal. He knew many Latin proverbs and later we entertained ourselves by him teaching me a few of them. In exchange I would tell him about Hungarian history. I found his interest in our history quite peculiar, and almost felt I should not be discussing it with him.
The next day, they took me before the chief of the secret police. I tried to explain to him that there must have been some kind of mistake, since I was brought here to write a report, which I would like to do as quickly as possible, and get back to my school where I would have to write my final exam that day.
"Shut your mouth you stinking bandit!" screamed Gruia, the chief. He continued cursing me, mentioning all my ancestors until I was taken back to my cell.
At this point, all the hopes and illusions I had of going home soon went up in smoke. Today I should have written my last exam, but instead I was locked in a tiny little cell, not knowing if I'd ever see the light of day again. I had lost everything. Since I was a young elementary school student, the only dream that kept me going was that with some hard work I'd eventually escape my suffocating penurious life. Everything I had done seemed to be in vain: How I struggled with the capricious weather in Gyergyo as I walked towards high school on those cold winter mornings with snow up to my waist; how I battled each day with those imaginary and real ghosts. And, just when I had almost reached my goal, I got maliciously arrested. They had cut the cord that fed me life. They had destroyed all my hopes and dreams.
"Oh, dear God! What will happen to my dear, blessed Mother, who at this moment is probably praying for her son to succeed on his exams? And what about my dear Father? Who will take care of them? What will happen to my little Jolanka?" These thoughts were running through my mind, though eventually I managed to calm down. I finally realized that no man on this earth could save me, and I could only look to God for help. But I wondered if even God wanted to help me. Did I deserve for God to care for me? I desperately wanted answers to these questions, so I started soul searching through my presumably innocent life.
Unfortunately, I did not come up with anything and I finally gave up the struggle. I finally agreed with myself as well as with God, I think, that I would put my fate in his hands. After this, I prayed a great deal, and with each prayer I relaxed a little more.
The next day, I was fetched and taken to a Romanian interrogation officer:
"Why are you here?" he asked.
"When they took me from the dormitory, they told me I just had to write a report, but no one has spoken to me since."
"Oh, that's not it! You are here because you have committed an illegal act against the system, that is why you were brought here, So tell me, what have you done?"
"I have done nothing wrong. I have nothing to confess."
"No problem," he said patiently, "you will now go back to your cell so that you can think about it. I'm sure something will come to mind."
The officer rang a bell, after which someone came for me, put the glasses on my eyes and led me back to my cell. My fellow prison mate was inquiring about what they had asked me and how I had answered. His increased interest in my past kept making the warning bells go off in my head. What if he was an informer? I did not let him see my suspicion; I was instead very vague with my replies.
Some time later, I received a small package that contained some undergarments, a towel, a toothbrush and toothpaste. There was a list made of the contents, which was written by my good friend and colleague, Emo Vass. It was reassuring to see these words, since as a prisoner it was my only link to the outside world. I often picked up that piece of paper and read it repeatedly countless times. Each time I would picture my friend's familiar face, along with my other buddies' who had become so important to me through those four years of university: Istvan Szakacs, a tall, lanky boy with whom I often walked the streets of Kolozsvar, Zoli Makfalvi, Zoli Kisgyorgyi, Lori Fazekas, the Szaday siblings. Some of the girls were Marta Lichtblau, Jutka Kudor, Bozso Jeromos, Piri Tan, Ilona Nagy, Gizi Ambrus, and many others whom I have very fond memories of.
The interrogations continued, but this time with a Hungarian officer, Pal Harasztosi. It went rather smoothly, because I acknowledged everything that I had publicly done at university.
"Which foreign editorial office do you correspond with?" asked the officer.
"I have not corresponded with any foreign newspaper with the exception of Elet es Tudomany (Life and Science)," I replied.
"Not even with the Literary Newspaper?"
"No," I answered.
Next the officer tried to convince me that he had solid evidence that I've been corresponding with the Literary Newspaper. I denied it. 1 figured that he was just trying to trick me into confessing. Then he placed an envelope in front of me that was addressed to the above-mentioned newspaper.
"Does this look familiar?"
"Yes, I have written that," I admitted to him.
"Why did you put the name Arpad Rab (Arpad Prisoner) as the sender?"
I did not answer. He was trying to convince me that nobody was being held prisoner in Romania, everyone had total freedom to do as they wished.
"Then why am I here?" I interrupted.
"That is totally different! You have endangered the existing social System and the geographical borders of Romania. You are nothing but a habitual reactionary and a traitor."
I knew that there was no use arguing with him, so I just listened silently to his accusations. He then placed a piece of paper in front of me and told me to copy the letter word for word. When I was finished, he placed another letter in front of me which was addressed to the police department of Kolozsvar. This is what the letter contained:
The enclosed letter was written by a university student and sent to the Literary Newspaper from where it was forwarded to us. Since the letter expresses hostile feelings toward our socialist society, we felt it was our duty to pass it on to you.
Budapest Police Department
Once I read the letter, the officer said: "See, there are still some honest people in this world!"
I did not answer him. I knew that there was no way that my letter could have made it to Hungary since the borders were totally closed down during those days. So the letter from the police department was a forgery. My letter must have fallen into the hands of the secret police here in Romania.
The interrogating officer now wanted to find out if anyone else knew about the letter. I had never mentioned the letter to anybody, except to my very good friend and colleague, Pista Szakacs, and that was only after I heard the secret police were looking for me. Of course, I told the officer that I hadn't spoken to anyone about the letter. He was not totally convinced by this; that is why he stuck me with the priest as my cellmate, who by this time, was constantly pumping me for information about my friends and their names. But neither the secret police, nor the priest's persistence could shine a light on this question. This is why they removed him from my cell and replaced him with a new one that very same day. After my new cellmate introduced himself he told me that he had been working for the Securitate, and gotten arrested because during his shift a non-commissioned officer had raped a Hungarian girl who was being held prisoner.
My days were going by very slowly. Once a week, I would be let out to a yard that was only eight square meters. The whole area was surrounded by barbed-wire fences. I would walk around for about 10-15 minutes, exercising my legs that were no longer accustomed to moving. It was very difficult for me to walk, but I still enjoyed getting out and listening to the noises coming from the surrounding area. I would listen to the cars puffing and children laughing and playing. Their careless screams rang through my ears.
My interrogation continued for an entire month, at the end of which my officer informed me that I would very shortly be moved to the prison in Szamosujvar where my trial would take place. He put the indictment in front of me and told me to read it. I read through it, but it was all in Romanian and back then my Romanian was still somewhat hazy, so I did not understand much.
"It doesn't contain anything special," said the officer, "only the facts that you had confessed to. It's all just formality anyway because you will get acquitted and in the fall you can rewrite your exam with Makfalvi."
This totally swept me off my feet, because I knew that Makfalvi had been sick and was planning to write his examinations in the fall. I figured that this man must be telling me the truth and I signed the indictment.
The next day, in the company of another prisoner, I got transported to Szamosujvar. We arrived around noon. The sun was shining bright in the clear blue sky. Its warmth made the air quite comfortable despite the stale odor of food that the wind was carrying.
After we got out of the locked car where the armed guard was supervising us, the other prisoner, dressed in prisoners' clothes with his arms and legs in shackles, made his way over to me and introduced himself:
"My name is Jozsef Vencel," he said with a smile and extended his hand to me.
"And I am Arpad Szilagyi," I returned the smile.
While they were removing the chains from Mr. Vencel's hands and feet, I browsed around the jail that consisted of three large buildings. The largest building had a date on it: 1859. We were taken to an old one-level building and placed in a large cell. Once the door was closed behind us, the residents of the cell surrounded us. We made our introductions and then Mr. Vencel picked two empty beds in the corner and told me to occupy one of them. After we carefully unpacked our few belongings, we started talking. Mr. Vencel told me that he was once a teacher at the University of Kolozsvar until he got arrested 8 years ago and he still had 12 years to serve.
"My dear God!" I screamed in dismay and fear. "How can you stand it?"
"One can withstand many things," he said, "but you must have willpower and a strong faith in God."
"And why were you convicted if I may ask?"
"It's a long story, but I can tell you that I was arrested with Bishop Aron Marton, who has been let out since, but I still have twelve years left."
"Jesus Christ, that's too many years to even mention."
"Not to worry," he continued cheerfully, "once the Bishop was released they reduced my life term to twenty years."
I could not get over my shock, nor the sympathy and the respect that I felt for Mr. Vencel.
In our cell there were about ten others waiting for their trials. Among them was a Romanian priest from Des, who was also Greek Catholic and got arrested for holding secret masses. He seemed like a man with good intentions, and we started a friendly conversation. During our talk we found out that we bad the same interrogation officer, which meant that Harasztosi probably dealt with the less complicated cases. The priest told me that he would be getting about three years. I was ashamed to tell him that I was getting acquitted.
"May God grant it," he said sincerely.
"In the meantime we can start getting ready for lunch," said Mr. Vencel.
"What makes you think so?" I asked surprised.
"Well didn't you see the food out in the yard by the stairs?"
"The food in the pail."
"Don't be pulling my leg now! That was kitchen swill for the pigs."
"Relax Mr. Szilagyi, that is our lunch and from what I saw it's going to be delicious and we'll be the pigs if we don't eat it."
"That is impossible! That food is not fit for human consumption."
Moments later the door opened and the guard asked how many of us there were. Fifteen, we answered, and sure enough we got fifteen mess tins filled with that disgusting, stinky thing that I saw outside in the bucket which was kept uncovered and the rim was infested with gross black flies. I didn't even touch it and was surprised how my cellmates gobbled it all down, including my portion. Mr. Vencel tried to convince me that this was the best food that we could expect in prison and this facility had the best food in the country. He said this with determination, and rightfully so, since he had spent some time in every jail. In spite of this, I didn't eat anything at that night nor the following morning. I said if they didn't bring me anything else, I would not be eating, I'd rather starve. It's not that I was a fussy eater, I never had much opportunity to be picky, but that food should not have been fed to humans. There were many times in my life when I had gone hungry, living on just potatoes and cabbage for days. At least I knew what I was sinking my teeth into. But this was so disgusting that the smell of it made my stomach turn.
By noon the next day, I was getting really hungry and they would not bring me anything else. I had no other choice: I tried the food. It was horrible! But despite how awful it was, I had to eat¾my hunger was forcing me to. A few days later I was eating almost all of my portions, and had acquired a taste for it. I found the hoecake they served instead of bread particularly "tasty".
Two weeks later the day of the hearing had arrived. I had been dressed in striped prison clothes and escorted by two armed guards to the Kolozsvar Court of Justice. In the hallway we were met by a young man who was carrying some documents in his hands and informed me that he had been appointed as my attorney. His only question was whether I pled guilty to the charges against me. I answered yes. When I asked what kind of sentence I was looking at, he said anywhere from 10 years to the death penalty. He couldn't say much more to me because the armed guards had dragged me away from him.
A short time later they led me into the courtroom that was jammed packed, mostly by young people. When the jury made up of colonels arrived, I was to be tried by the laws of the military court of justice. Everybody in the room stood up. The judge officially began the trial. After the district attorney read the charges, the witnesses were brought in, one at a time. The first witness was my best friend, Erno Vass whom they questioned about my actions at the university. Next came Istvan Szakacs, Ferenc Kocsis and Jutka Kudor, and they all mentioned the same things that I had already admitted during the questioning.
Next my lawyer took the floor. The whole hearing was held in Romanian, so I did not understand very much. Then the judge asked if I had any closing remarks to make.
"I do!" I replied, and was just about to begin my speech I had thought up days before when I heard a woman crying hysterically behind me, I turned around and saw that it was my Mother. Her face looked so pale, sunken in, and full of wrinkles as the tears were rolling down her checks. When our eyes met, she started crying even harder, and with a faltering voice she said: "Arpad, my dear little boy!" With that she collapsed on the floor and she was quickly removed from the premises.
The judge instructed me to continue my speech which had been interrupted. Broken down, with no strength left in me, without a word I sank down on the bench. I felt a sharp, stabbing pain in my head, and saw blinding lights through my shut eyes. Everything was spinning around me. I could hear the voice of the district attorney, a lot more intensified, as he requested 20 years of hard, slave labor as my punishment on behalf of the public. The judge declared that my sentence will be announced two weeks from that day. I looked back one more time in the hopes of getting another glimpse of my dear parents. I could not see them, but at the back of the courtroom I noticed a familiar face: It was Eva Huszar, an old friend of mine from high school. She was looking at me with those sad, piteous eyes.
The two armed guards led me out of the room. There were groups of people huddled together in the hallway, and that's where I spotted my dear, dear Mother with my kindhearted brother. They saw me as well and hurried towards me, but the guards would not allow them anywhere near me. They started cursing at my family and aggressively pushed them away. From my dear, loving Mother's screams, I had managed to catch:
"May God be with you my dear son!" These were my endlessly caring Mother's last words to me.
"God be with you all!" I yelled towards them. The guards swore at me and started pushing me along with their weapons.
CHAPTER 3 In The Clutches of Evil
The enclosed transport car was heading back towards Szamosujvar at an even speed. I was alone in the back of the vehicle. Slowly I began regaining my composure and said a short prayer for my dear parents, my brother and my little Jolanka.
Back in jail, I had to change out of my striped "Sunday clothes." In exchange I got a thin dock shorts and a blazer.
According to Mr. Vencel, they were going to move me into the other building very shortly, so I was best to gather my belongings and say good bye to my cellmates. We hugged each other silently for a long time, as if we were brothers. Shared misery really brings people together.
Sure enough, a few minutes later the guard came for me and escorted me away from my teary-eyed friends. They threw a rag over my face so that I could not see where we were going, but I had an idea that we were heading towards the large building. We went up several sets of stairs and then down a long hallway. Then we finally stopped and the guard opened the door to a large cell. The room was totally empty with the exception of an iron bed with a worn-out straw mattress, a straw pillow and an old coarse blanket on it. The windows overlooked the cemetery, in front of which the Szamosujvar-Des highway was running.
I was all alone in this big cell, but for some reason I was enjoying my solitude. In my head, I often replayed the events that had occurred since I was arrested. I was trying to find some logical connection between all that had happened. I wasn't too worried about my own fate. I was much more concerned for my parents. Dear God, so many beautiful dreams had gone down the drain. I was the hope and pride of my parents, my family, our street, and even of the whole town.
"My parish priest awaits me," I thought to myself, "along with the bellringer whom I'd helped many times. My church awaits me, where I have had numerous conversations with God. The cemetery awaits me where my deceased relatives are laid to eternal rest. I wonder where I will be buried? Right now, I am a little too close for comfort to the Szamosujvar Cemetery, it is right in front of my window."
Window? I guess from outside it resembled a window, and perhaps from the inside too, with the exception of the iron bars and the wooden shutters on it. I could hardly see through the cracks of the shutters to the outside world. After some struggle, I managed to remove a couple of the panels so that I could actually peak out without straining my eyes.
A few weeks had passed and I was starting to dread being alone. My mixed-up thoughts settled down a bit, and I was yearning for someone to share the very minute problems of my simplified life. I was not even sure if I would rather discuss the present or instead talk about the past few Years, the more memorable days of my childhood, my kind teachers, my straight "A" report cards, the great teachers I had at the Gyergyoszentmiklos High School, the years spent at university. Maybe I'd talk mostly of my dear, precious Mother, who had sacrificed her whole life for me, or of my Father who whistled through even the hardest Workday. I would have gladly conversed with someone about the sun, the moon, and the rest of the planets, or talked about the rocks, the trees, the grass, about all of nature or just life in general.
It was a beautiful day outside when a guard came to my cell and ordered me to gather my belongings. I was escorted to the other side of the courtyard, to a smaller cell being occupied by other prisoners. It felt good to see other people. There were five Hungarians and one Romanian among my new cellmates. They all introduced themselves: Geza Pap, Jozsef Szanto, Jozsef Nagy, Jozsef Visky, Pop Leontin the Romanian guy, and one other whose name I have forgotten. Pap and Szanto had served in the Romanian military in Kolozsvar as colonels or rather as majors. They were arrested because they commented in favor of the Hungarian Revolution in front of their Romanian colleagues.
A few days later they brought a new prisoner to our cell. He was a tall, lean man, who seemed very familiar to me. I soon found out why.
"I'm Geza Paskandi," he said with a smile as he approached me, "and you are Szilagyi junior."
"That is correct, but how do you know me?"
"When you got arrested, you were all they talked about at the university. Even though I did not know you personally, I have seen you around and knew who they were talking about."
After this day, my life in the cell changed completely. Paskandi really enjoyed writing poetry, which is why he got arrested. He completely changed the mood with his witty sense of humor, his sarcastic remarks and especially his beautiful poems, which he would gladly share with our tight-knit group of Hungarians.
One day a clerk from the court of justice came looking for me to read me my sentence, which went something like this:
"According to the city of Kolozsvar's 3rd edition of the criminal code of Military Laws, paragraphs 184 and 157, Arpad Szilagyi shall be sentenced to 20 years of forced labor for treason, and other related offenses. The sentence shall begin on the day after the arrest, on the 20th day of May, 1957."
The clerk asked me to sign some documents to acknowledge that I had received the judgment of the court and then bawled me out for my felony. My cellmates tried to comfort me by saying that we wouldn't have to serve all of our sentence because we would be free very shortly. I was not so much upset about the sentence, but about the methods used to get me to sign the papers, saying that it was just a formality because I would be acquitted anyway. The only truth in this was that it was just formality. The sentence was made a long time before by the secret police, the whole hearing was just to give it an official flare.
With time, I tried to come to terms with my very serious sentence and convince myself that I wouldn't be required to serve too many of the twenty years.
Our lives were peaceful and quiet in our little cell until one day a guard came in and told me to pack. My heart was breaking because I had to leave my dear friends behind but I had no other choice; I said good bye to them. The guard covered my eyes once again and led me to the other side of the complex to the area near the cemetery. After the usual introductions, I set up home on the top bunk of an empty bed. The prisoners here kept assailing me to give them some good news. The only thing that kept the hope alive in all of us was little bits and pieces of news filtering in about some political changes taking place throughout Europe. We believed that this would eventually lead to us being freed.
The most important factor in surviving prison life was to have a healthy and stable mental attitude, which could only be achieved through the hope for freedom. This is why my new cellmates swarmed around me and flooded me with questions in hopes of getting some good news. But I knew nothing. Since the defeat of the revolution of 1956, I had not read any newspapers, nor had listened to the radio, so my news of prior to October of 1956 was rather outdated.
In this cell most of my mates were arrested for crossing the border illegally. The rest were Hungarians. The biggest sin that they had committed was that they were born Hungarian. After the revolution was defeated they started arresting innocent Hungarians who lived near the border and were just walking the streets or on their way to work. The secret police would beat them half to death, then place the indictment in front of them, and charge them with condoning the revolution and spreading its beliefs. Totally innocent people ended up here becoming victims of a dark terror, whose only purpose was to scare the life out of Hungarians living near the border, and to give them a taste of the events that were happening on the other side. So these were the "hardcore" criminals who shared my cell. Four of them were little old men from the Szekely district, near the city of Szekelyudvarhely, a small town called Kapolnasfalu.
A few days later they brought some new prisoners, members of the Dobai group; Laszlo Varga, a Presbyterian pastor, and Gabor Kertesz, an economist. Varga was only three years my senior, a very friendly and direct person, whom I made friends with very quickly. Throughout my life in prison, he was the best and most faithful friend that I had made. He was the only one that I had remained friends with after we were released.
The Dobai group was also accused of treason. Their sentences were very severe. The group leader, Istvan Dobai, was sentenced to death. Laszlo Varga received a life sentence, while Kertesz and Jozsef Komaromi, a mathematician, got twenty-five years each. Laszlo Gazda, a Hungarian teacher was sentenced to fifteen years, and Jozsef Nagy, landowner, got five years.
In the cell we also had a group of Romanian telephone repairmen from the Nagybanya area. Life in cell #101 proved to be quite peaceful as well, Father Varga held masses for the Hungarians every day¾in secret of course. These were very dear moments: it mattered not what religion you were, only your common belief in God and justice. The prisons were filled with political convicts and the country was filled with prisons. Who could you expect to save you, if there was no one left to help? If you had no God, you had no hope or moral strength. If you had lost moral strength, your physical strength would soon follow under these circumstances. One thing is for sure: Those who weren't convinced that the prison gates would one day open up and the prisoners would be set free, were lost without mercy.
In the mean time, a new prisoner had arrived, Mr. Grama, a Romanian engineer. At the time we had no idea how much this man would change our peaceful atmosphere. Mr. Grama thought that he was the founder and of course the president of a new political party. He gathered the Romanian cellmates around him and fed these poor lost souls with his chauvinistic ideals and beliefs. He lectured them, first individually then publicly as a group. His whole theory was based on the fact that everything that was wrong in this country, including our prison terms, was solely due to the Hungarians living in Romania. Since he couldn't even sell this vulgar, unbelievable idiocy to the Romanians, he tried a new approach. As the president of his party, he named the members of his cabinet and declared himself president. He made the telephone repairmen his ministers, and his party was up and running. The most active member proved to be Dunitru Toroioga, Secretary of Interior, who informed us that according to the new ministry's article #1, it is forbidden for Hungarian prisoners to walk around between the beds in the cell. According to this article's 2nd paragraph, we were not allowed to speak Hungarian and were to ask for permission before any kind of activity.
According to Mr. Grama's theory, the Hungarians residing in Romania had caused many hardships to his fellow countrymen, which gave them the right to¾by his own words¾"wipe out this Asian barbaric nation!" He apologized for not having the means to execute his plan because of the circumstances of prison life, but he ensured us that once he would be released, he would make it his first priority as president to solve this minor problem.
Mr. Urania is the perfect example how one person can influence a whole nation to become as prejudiced and hateful as he is. How easy it is to poison people's minds with nonsense.
Among the Romanian occupants of the cell, there were two young men who came from the Nagyvarad area, loan Pop and Ion Farcas, who did not get too excited about Mr. Grama's patriotic speeches. They had lived among Hungarians all of their lives and did not experience any kind of abuse toward Romanians. Other than that, both boys spoke perfect Hungarian.
After a certain amount of time, the situation changed completely:
Mr. Urania was abandoned by his new recruits. We never quite found out what the cause of it was, maybe they could not agree on the distribution of the keys. Or perhaps, Farcas and Pop had managed to convince their partners of Mr. Grama's true adventurer politics. This put Mr. Grama in a situation even more severe than ours was. His own kind had exposed him, made fun of him and controlled his every move. Only one person held out beside him, Ion Nicoare a telephone repairman who was appointed as the Mail and Communications Minister by the president. This stupid fool totally believed that he would hold this honorable title when Mr. Grama claimed his kingdom. His mates made fun of him as well, but did not rob him of his rights.
One time, when Mr. Grama was still "in power," he instructed his "party members" to attack us and beat us all to death. At this time I could not take any more of him, so I stood before him, looked him straight in the eyes, and said:
"Now listen here Mr. Grama! If you so wish, you can beat me to death, but I just want you to know that in my eyes you are nothing but a vile crook."
Mr. Grama however, was not man enough to touch me, but instead he looked to his associates for help. They looked at me a bit crooked, but knew that I was right and did not harm me.
The above mentioned events helped to restore some temporary tranquillity in the cell. Later they brought some Jehovah Witnesses who filled the room to almost full capacity. There were very few empty beds left. It seemed the "white terror" continued to collect the victims.
There was a man by the name of Octavian Szijgyarto among the newly arrived prisoners. He introduced himself as a student of the Babes University which was a Romanian university in Kolozsvar. His Father was Szekely (a Hungarian of Eastern Transylvania), his Mother Russian, and he considered himself Romanian, one that only knows one enemy in his Romanian country, and that was the Hungarian nation. He was a carbon copy of Mr. Grama's ideals and they found true comrades in each other. Together they tried to revive the almost forgotten chauvinism. Even though they worked very hard for this common goal, they did not prove to be very successful. The Jehovah Witnesses did not show too much interest in their overheated nationalist attitudes.
The year 1957 was slowly creeping upon us. In the beginning of November we got our first snow fall which did not last very long, but by the middle of December we were having some major snow storms and the temperature became very cold. That brutal winter not only settled on the cemetery outside, but also made its way inside the walls of the prison. Most of the prisoners were dressed in striped winter clothes, while my attire still consisted of a thin pair of shorts and a blazer. It must have been due to the cold and damp temperatures in the cell, along with my lack of clothing, that my kidneys started hurting. Once I could not bare the pain any longer, I reported to the prison's physician who determined that I had a kidney infection after examining me. He recommended a treatment of injections, which were administered by some prisoners who turned doctors. After the first couple of needles, I became very nauseous and was experiencing a lot of pain in the abdomen area, and within a few days, I started seeing the unmistakable signs of jaundice. What happened was that these novices injected me with the disease by not cleaning the needle from the last person who happened to have jaundice. Because this was an infectious disease, I had to be isolated in a cell full of people who were also contaminated. When I said goodbye to my Hungarian friends in our cell, the two Romanian boys from the Nagyvarad area came over to me and said that they would keep their distance from Mr. Grama and Szijgyarto's instigation and they wished me a quick recovery.
The prisoners in the quarantine were all Romanians whom had been injected with the disease. Most of the prisoners were young men and gave me a very friendly welcome. Among them was a boy from the Nagykaroly region, Gheorghe Bonta who spoke perfect Hungarian and we became fast friends. Gheorghe, who I simply called Gyuri, ended up in jail with his Father and uncle because of their loyalty towards the revolution of 1956.
Among the sick was a middle-aged man from the Galac area, Gheorghe Papadopulos, a very kind and honest man. He was of Greek descent whose ancestors came to Romania during the Fanariota domain. He also became a dear friend of mine, Often times, we'd spend hours and hours conversing.
There were a couple of other people in the cell that I must mention; Dumitrescu, a young man who also introduced himself as a student from the Romanian university in Kolozsvar. His theory was very similar to Mr. Grama's and Szijgyarto's. He believed that his only enemies were the Hungarians of Transylvania who must all be wiped out. It was interesting that these people were not arrested for chauvinism. The situation in Romania was quite backwards; if a Hungarian wanted to maintain his nationality, language and traditions, he was a chauvinist in the eyes of the law. On the other hand, if a Romanian insulted and disgraced Hungarians, that was considered patriotism.
Once I reasonably recovered from the jaundice, I was put in a new smaller cell, instead of my old one. This is where I met Istvan Dobai, Laszlo Varga's brother-in-law, who was a serious, thoughtful and extremely honest man. He was a man of incredible knowledge. But he never flaunted it, instead he would gladly indulge in an intelligent conversation with anyone that was willing to listen.
This was where I met Nicolae Pop, a middle aged Romanian man from Arad, who was a very descent, honest man. He was fluent in Romanian, Hungarian, German and Russian. He was sentenced in 1951, with his friend Hans Falk of Segesvar, for anti-Russian defamation. They were in a Russian labor camp until 1955, after which they were given to the Romanian authorities and were now continuing their sentence here.
Hans Falk was a bit of a distant man and quite conceded. He had a very restricted knowledge base, yet considered himself to know it all; he would get greatly offended if anyone questioned his sometimes hair-raising remarks. Other than this, he was a decent man.
In this new cell I met another Jozsef Nagy, who was suffering from serious epilepsy. I can't remember everyone's name, but there must have been about ten of us.
Time was passing by very slowly, but we came to a date that would be very significant in the history of the prison of Szamosujvar: July 4, 1958. It was a beautiful, sunny morning. On the shingled rooftop of the prison building, the pigeons cooed and did their mating dance as usual. Life inside began that day no different from the day before, with the exception of the unusually increased number of Morse signals sent by the prisoners through the heating pipes.
Around 10:00 a.m. a peculiar rumbling roared through the whole prison. It started off very quietly, and gradually got louder and louder, until we could distinctively make out that it was a huge crowd screaming and yelling. An uprising had broken out in the jail. It was very shocking and frightening to listen to approximately ten thousand prisoners' wild cries. The reason for the uprising was the brutal methods used in dealing with the prisoners as well as the unbearable living conditions, which were getting worse by the day. The straw that finally broke the camel's back was when they closed off the washrooms in one of the largest cells that held over 100 people and gave them a few buckets to use for their elimination needs. The prisoners started showing their disapproval and one of them got beaten to a pulp by a guard. The members of the four cells, stood up for their unjustly beaten friend one at a time. News of the protest spread through the prison via Morse signals and ABCs like wild fire. The prisoners by this time were expressing affronts of other natures, screaming and yelling.
Around 11:00 in the morning they sounded the sirens which quickly overpowered the prisoners' angry cries. The protesters started throwing down the wooden shutters that were mounted to the windows. The sirens continued to sound while ten thousand wild men were becoming increasingly frightful, sometimes even drowning the sirens out with their screams.
Then one moment, Goiciu the prison director appeared in the yard and they all started cursing him. "Down with Goiciu! Down with the murderer!" yelled the irritated prisoners. They all remained in their cells, since they had no means of escaping, but their protest was getting louder and stronger, and all that more frightening.
At the sound of the sirens, everyone in our cell threw themselves down on the floor, with the exception of Joska Nagy, who was playing hero, as he ran towards the window to throw the shutters down. Nicolae Pop and Hans Falk had a hard time removing the determined young man from the window. Munteanu, a fortyish cellmate of ours, was also convinced that we must fight for solidarity with the other prisoners and throw our shutters down. Since the opinions on this subject were somewhat mixed, we decided to hold a vote. The majority voted against removing them. Pop and Falk informed us that, based on their experiences in the Russian prison system, these prisoners would not achieve anything with their actions. In the meantime we could hear the rumbling and the sirens of vehicles approaching. It was getting louder, coming from the Kolozsvar area. Soon soldiers, armed from head to toe, jumped out of the cars and surrounded the whole prison.
A dreadful roar rang through the cells, like the waves of the ocean in a heavy windstorm. Everyone was lying face down on the floor. Not even the cold cement floor could diminish the fear in my heart and in my mind. I tried to comfort myself by thinking that our cell did not take part in the uprising, but instead, good reason had prevailed and had kept the order in our humble little cell.
By this point the sirens had quieted down. We heard some words of command, then hurrying footsteps from the corridor. The newly arrived military had occupied the whole prison. A little later a high-ranking officer stood in the courtyard and tried to quiet down the crowd. This just angered them even more as they shouted their demands louder than ever:
"Down with Goiciu! Give us more bread! Give us better living conditions and more humane treatment!"
We heard another command and the sound of a machine gun rang through the prison air. The sirens were sounded once again, mixed in with the panicking screams of the prisoners. After a short while, the sirens and the gunfire both quieted down. All we could hear was wailing and cries for help. They fired shots among the defenseless prisoners, killing many of them and injuring many more. It was the calm after the storm. The silence was only broken by the casualties screaming for help. Once there was total silence, we all gathered around the window.
"See, there's the machine gun!" they said in fear. After everyone had witnessed the deadly weapon and returned to the floor, I also went to the window to sneak a peak. I was just about to crawl back to my spot on the floor when the door suddenly flew open, and the guard started screaming at me:
"What's wrong with you, you stupid university student? Have you had enough of your life already?"
I got a little scared, but was also hoping that I would get away with just the scolding. In the meantime, all we could hear was doors opening and guards yelling on top of their lungs. Pop, with his experience, was able to determine from the noise that the guards were going from cell to cell removing certain prisoners.
"Thank God that we didn't throw our shutters down," said one of our guys. The savage opening of the doors, as well as the screaming of the guards mixed with the moaning of the prisoners was getting closer and closer to our cell. All of a sudden, with a loud bang, our door was kicked open, as six armed soldiers forced their way in with Tudoran, the vice-commander of the prison, leading them. Tudoran was holding the leg of a broken table in his hand, which was dripping with blood.
"Who among you threw down the shutters?" asked Tudoran in anger.
"With all do respect, I would like to report that we had not thrown down our window shutters," said Pop, the cell supervisor.
"Which one of you is the university student?" screamed Tudoran as his eyes went fiery mad with hatred.
"1 am!" I said as I stood up.
"Out of the cell you stinking bandit before I bash your brains out!" screamed the vice-commander, as he smashed me with the bloody piece of wood in his hand. Then one of the armed soldiers grabbed me by the arm and literally whipped me out into the hallway.
"Down you go!" Tudoran screamed after me.
I tried to reach the stairs as fast as I could, among the soldiers and guards who kept hitting me left, right and center with their weapons. I received so many blows, that my head and both arms were pouring blood. A husky sergeant finally grabbed my arm and led me down the stairs¾perhaps to save me from any further abuse. We got down to the first floor, where the assistant doctor was skillfully mincing and chopping up all the prisoners that got near him. When he saw me, he was throwing daggers at me with his murderous eyes, as he spoke to the sergeant:
"Just leave me that stinking bandit!"
He then practically yanked me out of the sergeant's grip and started beating the hell out of me with an iron bar. I had blood pouring out of every inch of my body. My clothes were hanging in pieces. Yet this "brave" heroic savior of communism kept laying it on me until he got completely bored. Even then he kicked me so hard with his bloody boots that I collapsed on the floor on the verge of losing consciousness. After this, one of the guards grabbed both of my feet and started dragging me down the stairs. I was so lacking in strength that I couldn't even bear to hold my head up to save it from smashing on each step. I felt as if I was going to faint, but somehow I remained conscious. This enabled me to see what was happening on the main floor, where approximately 250-300 prisoners, beaten to a pulp, were lying on the cement floor with blood flowing from every part of their bodies. Many lay there with their teeth knocked out, some with their eyes punctured, and others with their ears torn off. Never in my life had I seen so much blood. I worked at the slaughterhouse in Kolozsvar for a while, but that place was like Disney Land compared to this. The sight of these tormented men beaten to death, the huge puddles of blood everywhere, the blood splashed all over the walls, the rattle in the throat of those on the verge of death along with the merciless cursing and screaming of the guards, was something that I could never forget.
At the same time, they started taking inventory of the prisoners. They wrote down everyone's vital information. We all lay close together, face down on the floor and, as the guards spoke to each of us, they would walk on our backs and kick us in the head while we answered. After the inventory, they placed everyone in the main-floor cells, and to cover up their bloody tracks, they gave first aid to those seriously injured. Unfortunately, many of them no longer had a need for this¾they died from their horrible wounds.
They took me to a totally empty cell that didn't even have a bed. We spent the night walking up and down, taking turns sitting on the toilet, or just leaning up against the wall. We were not allowed to sit or lie on the cement floors. After suffering through the night, we "awoke" to the clear skies of Sunday. There was dead silence throughout the prison buildings¾just as if nothing had happened the day before. The prisoners were all licking their wounds and wondering what the secret police would do next. Some believed that we would have to stand trial, others figured that we would be deported to some Russian prison, while other optimists believed that all those on the list would be executed. So, needless to say, we fearfully waited for the next day to find out our fate. We figured that not much was going to happen that day since the "heroes" of the day before probably needed some rest and recovery from the crushing of the uprising. The whole day was spent uneventfully, with the exception of some of the prisoners screaming out in pain from all their bloody beatings. Again, we spent the night walking around, squatting or leaning up against the wall.
It wasn't quite dawn yet when the quiet of the prison was broken by some painful cries for help. Among the painful screams, we'd hear doors opening and closing, footsteps, and plenty of foul cursing. We fearfully jumped at every sound. The cries were very powerful at first and then seemed to diminish altogether. It was now light outside. The time had come for some further beatings and the true showdown. We were all overcome by deadly fear. The noises were getting closer to our cell. Our nerves were completely shot¾we knew that our turn was coming.
The blue sky was covered only by a paper-thin cottony cloud that graciously allowed the morning rays to peak through. In the cemetery's silence, we'd hear the songs of the early birds, as the ones below the tombs peacefully enjoyed their eternal rest. The Sandor Rozsas resting there would roll in their graves if they could see this widespread terror and brutality.
In the meantime we heard more doors opening, footsteps, and new desperate cries for help. My heart was pumping so fast, I could hardly breathe. My wounds from Saturday were far from healed, my stomach was still cramping from all the kicks it endured, and there I stood anticipating further torture. The feelings of helplessness and knowing that they could beat me to death if they wished, just intensified my fear. Finally our cell door opened. The enraged guards pushed their way in and grabbed the person nearest to the door and dragged him away. Despite covering our ears, the sound of the screams tore at our hearts, minds and souls. The tortured prisoner was never to return. In order to face the music sooner rather than later, I stood close to the door, which flung open again shortly thereafter. The swearing guards grabbed me and dragged me away so quickly that my feet didn't even touch the ground. They took me to the public bath, which had a bloody bench set up in the middle with three guards on each side of it holding long sticks.
"Lie face down, you stinking bandit!" sounded their rough command. I lay down. The guards attacked me as they beat me with all their strength from head to toe. It felt like a bulldozer had run over me. I could not stand it without yammering. When I felt I could not take it any longer, I finally jumped off the bench.
"Get back, you stinking bandit!" they screamed in stereo, as I crawled back on the "carving board". I was again showered with merciless blows to my aching body which by now was jerking with convulsions. I made an attempt to jump off a second time. They didn't mind; instead they just continued pounding me on the floor. I tried to protect my head with my arms, but I had very little strength left. One of them continued beating the soles of my shoes until they fell right off, after which he proceeded to strike my bare feet, I couldn't even cry out anymore, My whole body was shaking, my arms and legs cramping intensively. Feelings of nausea were tormenting me. It seemed as if the whole room was spinning along with me, when all of a sudden I felt like I got sucked into a dark funnel. The faces of the guards were getting blurrier, until I managed to sink into total darkness. They splashed a bucket of water on me which brought me back to the cruel reality. I began noticing the wet, bloody walls surrounding me, and soon after the guards' faces came back into focus.
At this point my torturers had decided that they had had enough and ordered me to my feet. I tried to get up, but couldn't, because my whole body was shaking, especially my legs. When the guards realized I was not capable of making it on my own, they handed me what was left of my shoes and dragged me all the way to the stairs. Here they put me down and ordered me to go to my cell, which was on the fourth floor. I tried to stand up, but was not successful. My feet were bleeding and extremely swollen from all the beatings. My raggedy clothes were hanging off me in pieces. There was some dirty gray liquid dripping off me, mixed with my blood and sweat. I swear that my heart was pounding through my brain, and I was so cold that I was shivering. I clenched my bloody lips together, gathered all my strength and began crawling up the stairs on all fours.
"Help me dear God!" I prayed to myself. Each step I climbed took such an enormous effort, yet somehow I made it to the first floor. Here I ran into a sympathetic guard, which was a real rarity. Whenever I had the pleasure of crossing paths with him, he'd always ask me how I was doing. I felt that if he had the means to help me, he would have. I saw the shock on his face when he first saw me in all of my glory. He didn't ask me any questions. He knew exactly what had taken place. He looked around the hallway, then up and down the stairs. He closed his mouth tightly, as if cursing someone under his breath. He wrapped one hand around my waist and held my hand in his as he helped me up to the second floor.
"Nice and easy!" he whispered and gave my hand a little squeeze. I smiled at him gratefully. Ninety-nine per cent of the prison guards were ready to beat any of us to death at any time, but this man was different.
He was a man in the most noble sense of the word.
I'd almost dragged my bleeding body to the third floor when I spotted another guard, leaning on the guardrails. He stood there, looking down on me like a dirty stable boy.
"Come on, let's go you stinking bandit! Yesterday you had no problems screaming for more bread! Well, now you got what you'd asked for, and you're going to get more!" with this he began kicking me.
"Please, no!" I pleaded with him with my faltering voice. "I have not done anything wrong!"
"Shut your trap before I squash you like the parasite that you are!" he hissed at me, and kicked me so hard, I fell back a few steps.
"Dear God, please don't leave me now!" I prayed to myself, as I collected all my strength and crawled back up the stairs. My throat was dry and I was on the verge of vomiting. Somehow, I finally managed to make it to the fourth floor. I crawled right to the railing, grabbed a hold of it, and continued to drag my body with its help. There was absolutely no way that I could stand up on my feet. I wasn't very far from my cell when another guard got a glimpse of me.
"What's up? Did you get your share?" he asked mockingly. He was the one that noticed me by the window and the one I had to thank for this brutal torture. I didn't respond to his sarcasm, instead, I just quietly continued to drag myself along the railing. When I reached my cell, he opened the door and I stumbled through it.
"My dear God!" screamed a few of them. That was the last thing that I heard before the warm air of the room hit me and I lost consciousness. When I came to, Nicolae Pop and Munteanu were Standing by my side, wiping my sweat and rubbing my barely beating heart.
"Don't be afraid!" they said kindly, "You are among us now, we'll look after you." I tried so hard to thank them for their kindness, but Mr. Pop would not let me speak.
"Don't even mention it. What those criminals did to you is absolutely horrible, but don't worry, everything will be all right."
It was six o'clock in the morning and almost time for the inventory. We all stood in a line. It took two people to hold me up. When the guard arrived knocking on the iron bars with his hammer, Mr. Pop, as the cell supervisor, requested that due to the circumstances, I'd be allowed to stay in bed.
"I won't even hear of it!" answered the guard abruptly.
"But can't you see how badly they had beaten this innocent man?" said Mr. Munteanu.
"Who the hell asked you, you crook? What is your nam?" Munteanu told him what his name was as the guard left the cell cursing as usual.
A half-an-hour later, two guards showed up and took Munteanu away. When they returned him, he was as white as a ghost.
"Please excuse me but I have to remove my underwear. I had a bit of an accident," he said a little ashamed.
Pop and Falk had proved to be right, because after the uprising, things were worse than ever before: the food became worse, they boarded up all the windows, which locked out all the air and blotted out all the view, and without any reasons they habitually beat all the prisoners. This is how we survived the summer and the fall.
One morning we awoke to some strange sounds. There were swift footsteps and doors opening and shutting. We quickly got the news through the pipes that they were grouping prisoners according to their sentences. Then the door flew open and they yelled in: "Dobai and Szilagyi, gather your things!" I said good bye to my friends and thanked Munteanu for standing up for me and Mr. Pop for nursing me back to health and for helping me with the daily chores. The uncertainty of the future made this parting even more difficult.
They covered our eyes and led us away. When we arrived in the new cell, the prisoners surrounded us with curiosity. To my big surprise, Laci Varga hurried towards me from the large group. We fell into each other's arms and he told me how sorry he was about my beatings, which he found out about through the pipes. This was the same cell that I was originally brought to, except its residency had completely changed. Mr. Grama, his ministers, Szijgyarto, the four old men from Szekely, and the Jehovah Witnesses were all gone. This cell was exclusively made up of "traitors and spies". There were others brought in after our arrival, right until the room was completely full. The "grouping" of the prisoners continued the whole night, and in order to gather information, there were many volunteer groups formed. We felt that something strange was about to happen as we waited for the outcome.
The next day, immediately after breakfast they served us a cold lunch, consisting of some bread and a tiny piece of bacon. Next they took us all out into the yard where they put shackles on our feet. The shackling was done by common prisoners, except these men were referred to as "Domnule detinut", which really meant "Sir Prisoner". This makes a lot of sense, doesn't it? The ones that were there for murdering their fathers, wives and children, were not seen as a threat to the system, so they were given the title of "Sir". They were trusted fully, because they were not "bandits" like myself, in the eyes of the Securitate.
The shackling consisted of two half-circle iron rings attached to our ankles by some thick nails. Of course, the Sir Prisoners were taught that this method need not be done carefully, so they would strike our ankles a couple of times with their heavy hammers by "accident", The inner links of the shackles were attached to a chain, which the prisoner would hold in his hands. They then put handcuffs on our wrists, and shoved us into a stuffed transport car and shipped us off to the train station, There we were thrown into a wagon, which was converted for prison transportation. They had set up little mini cells, which contained two tiny benches facing each other. There was such little space between the benches, that you could only get between them sideways. They forced 8 to 10 of us in each cell, where we were so crowded that we could not even move. The windows were painted with oil colors and covered with locked iron shutters that were impossible to see through. There was hardly any air in this small, closed-in space. We were all gasping for air and, to top it all off, we had Mr. Smartz, a 75-year-old Jew, in our company, who was beaten so severely during the riot that he was unable to hold his bladder. Needless to say, everything was soaked around him, as he stood there in a puddle of his own urine.
So there was no air, just the strong smell of urine and sweat. We were squashed together like sardines, with absolutely no room to move. Our special wagon was connected to a passenger train that was traveling through some unknown stations, so we had no clue as to where we were heading. As we stopped at one of the stations, we heard some Hungarian words coming from the platform. All of a sudden I got an idea to talk to them, so I yelled: "Hey, we're political prisoners. Could you please tell us what station this is?" There was no reply, but a few moments later a guard came in and asked everyone where we were from. I caught on very quickly, and realized that the guard was looking for people from Transylvania, so he could find out who yelled out to the platform. When it was my turn to answer, I kept my cool and told him that I was from Ploiest, which was a city situated deep in Romania. Next the guard inquired if any of us spoke Hungarian. Nobody responded, so he stormed out fuming mad.
It began dawning outside, and we could see a little glimmer of light peaking through the windows. The train stopped at another station, then we heard a whistle and it continued on, except for our wagon which stood still. A few minutes later the guard called us by our names and ordered us out of the cell. They shoved us into a closed transport car that took off right away. We had no idea where we were, until we arrived at the jail courtyard, where the commander greeted us in he following manner:
"Pay attention you rotten bandits! This here is the Pitest prison and you were brought here to C R 0 A K." He really placed the emphasis on this last word, pausing after each syllable. "We believe in a slow but sure process of execution. I want everyone to be clear on one thing: No one is leaving here alive! You are all familiar with the theory of the proletarian dictatorship: The liquidation of the class enemy. So, you are the class enemy and you will be liquidated."
After this heart warming speech, the commander instructed the Sir Prisoners (there were more than enough of them here as well), to remove the shackles and chains from our ankles. These Sir Prisoners must have enrolled in the same training course as the ones from Szamosujvar because they used the same "gentle" techniques to remove them as those did to put them on. It was a hard and tiring job for these poor Sir Prisoners. They were totally exhausted at the end, since there were about 350 of us arriving from Szamosujvar. After they completed their dreaded jobs, it was time to divide up the prisoners.
I was placed in an enormous cell called the cellar line. There were bunk beds all along the walls, leaving just a tiny little empty space in front of the door. There was no running water, so after meals, we used this small space to wash our mess tins in a pail of water. Since there were no toilets either, they provided five buckets for our physiological needs. These buckets had to be taken to the washrooms to be emptied and washed twice a day. Not only did they give us no toilet paper, but we weren't given any paper at all. We had to do something to clean our dirty behinds after defecating. This is when our guard proved his wholeheartedness. He gave us one of the water filled mess tins from the hallway, and the opportunity to splash some water on our dirty butts. In order to make the person going to the bathroom feel more comfortable, one of us would stand in front of him, giving him some privacy. Once we finished our business, we returned the mess tin to the hallway. It was nearly lunchtime and they needed all of them to serve our food. This was a very inventive and especially hygienic solution. But who really cared about hygiene when one was sentenced to death?
Slowly we adjusted to life in this prison as well, even though our sole purpose here, as the commander had said, was to die.
There must have been about 100 of us in this huge cell, representing every nationality that existed in Romania at the time. There were ex-ministers, officers with very high ranks, church leaders, engineers, teachers, lawyers, doctors, laborers, and farmers. The majority of the prisoners were still Romanians, followed by Hungarians, Germans, Jews, Turkish, Serbs, and Greeks.
The prisoners didn't just differ in social and national standings, but also¾and especially¾in their ideologies and beliefs, which created some serious difference of opinions. While I'm on this topic, I would like to mention the events that took place on May 10, 1959. Following the cleanup of breakfast, some of the prisoners announced that since that day was a Romanian national holiday, Bishop Rusu would be holding a secret mass with the help of five priests. The prisoners quietly began gathering around the Romanian prelate's bedside, while our little Hungarian group sat around the bishop. The mass was conducted according to a Greek Catholic ritual. The priests sang beautiful psalms and everything was so uplifting and ceremonial. Father Rusu's speech was so paralyzing that I totally forgot that I was in prison. The prelate spoke about how our worldly suffering, including our prison life, could ensure us a ticket to heaven, provided that we sacrifice our pain and trials in the name of a good cause. If we die for the reformation of sinners, for the sick or for our loved ones, then we will be allowed into God's kingdom. The prelate's beautiful words literally carried me to the heavens, only to be brought back to cold reality with Major Amadiade screaming at old General Rozin, that according to his transcript "Long live the King", it was now time for his sermon. Bishop Rusu quickly said "Amen" to his religious service and along with the other priests gave the stage over to the soldiers.
The General began his speech, and after placing deep emphasis on the historical importance of that day, he reviewed the history of the Romanian nations and the role of the King in some major events. (This day was the celebration of the crowning of the Romanian King Karoly.) As Mr. Rozin spoke about the triumph and suffering of the Romanian nation, he seemed to have relived those dramatic events right before our eyes. His voice would often falter and his eyes were filled with tears.
"My dear Romanian brothers," continued the General, totally electrified by this point, "has anyone asked the question of who is responsible for our nation's misfortunes? Well, then let me tell you. It is all the fault of the Hungarians. This barbaric, Asian mob is the garbage of the Romanian and the whole world's history. They are the ones that brought all this trouble and danger to our country. They are the reason why we are sifting in this cell today. They have forced their way into the Department of the Interior and arc determined to ruin us and our nation. The Romanian people is generally good (this was the only truth in his whole speech) and is willing to forgive the Hungarians for their evil deeds. But let it be known, you Hungarians," he shook his trembling finger towards our little group, "that it will never be forgotten."
"Long live the King!" screamed Major Amdamiade on top of his lungs, and with that Mr. Rozin ended his historical speech.
The air suddenly became very heavy in our cell. Rozin and Adamiade continued to bash the Hungarians with their prejudiced remarks. There were some, however, who were disgusted by Rozin's degrading words and declared that he did not represent the opinion of all Romanians. Among them were Mr. Muha and Mr. Teodorescu who apologized in the name of the Romanian intelligentsia, for Mr. Rozin's nationalism and prejudice. We Hungarians who listened to Bishop Rusu's heartwarming speech followed by the Major's anti-Hungarian words realized that the Romanian-Hungarian hostility was not in our blood, but in our heads and minds.
This is how our days passed. Our general destitution was often intensified by our fellow cell mates' senseless, rude and offending remarks. These were the kind of people that I lived with for years, but in every place and every time, I also came across people with good intentions, who were not afraid to stand up in the name of fairness.
To make our life between these bare prison walls a little easier, we tried to find different activities to keep ourselves busy. Some people started studying new languages. I took up studying English. My first teacher was the ever-so-helpful Mr. Dan Bratianu who spoke perfect English, French, German and of course Romanian. Mr. Augustin, a young Romanian man who was very good at grammar, also became one of my teachers. I learned so much from him.
How was learning possible when all the essential elements like books, papers and pens were missing, you ask? The easiest way to write was on a bar of soap with a sharp stick. There were times when we'd soap the soles of our shoes, threw some lice powder on it (which we, luck would have it, had more than enough of), and wrote on that with a thin stick. Other times we'd write on a white piece of cloth with iodine. Writing, however, was a dangerous game. If we were caught, we'd get thrown in isolation in a dark whole for 3-5 days, where we were only fed once a day. In spite of this, anyone who was a little daring and determined had the opportunity to learn several different languages. I was very dedicated to my studies. My mind was clear, It had lost a lot of useless information, so it was easy to absorb new material. I was able to memorize words after reading them only once.
There was only one very serious thing slowing down my studies. I had a tumor growing in my intestines where I was kicked in Szamosujvar. This growth was starting to hurt more and more each day. As of the Spring of 1959, I never had a moment when I did not feel pain. I was getting convulsions every minute of the day that were so painful, I was always hunched over, and it took all of my self-control to keep myself from screaming. There was no medicine available at all. True, the prison did have a doctor, but the medical care was a joke. It consisted of the following: About once every two weeks, the guard instructed the cell supervisor to make a list of all who were sick. There were about 20 people on the list from our big cell of almost 100 people.
"No way!" said the guard. "From those 20 you must choose only three."
How could anyone determine fairly which was more severe: someone's pneumonia, the other person's liver disease, or the third person's heart trouble? After some huge arguments and almost stabbing each other, they somehow narrowed the sick down to three. Then the guard came back to take them to the doctor. The doctor asked the first patient: "What's your problem, you bandit?" To this the patient answered that he's been coughing and spitting up blood for months, and is totally weak.
"Okay then," said the doctor and shoved a charcoal tablet in his hands.
The next patient was suffering from bladder cancer. He was also given a charcoal tablet, as well as the third who had advanced osteoporosis where the bones in his chest and back were severely deformed. That was all the medical attention anyone was given for the next two weeks. In the meantime the person with pneumonia died, the pulmonic'=s cavity got bigger, and the one with osteoporosis was barely hanging on. Some of us told the guards that he was dying, but they didn't even care enough to look his way.
Two weeks later the whole selection procedure was repeated, but this time everyone was just given laxative tablets. The sole purpose for bringing certain political prisoners to Pitest was to get rid of them. There were two methods of doing this. One was a lack of medical attention; the other was making the prisoners sick. To ensure the latter they used the bible as an example, specifically the seven years of plenty followed by seven years of lean. To mimic the lean years, the first three months they gave us hardly any food, which left most of us as skinny as skin and bones. The following three months they fed us greasy, high-calorie foods, which made many of us very sick.
Before I continue, let me tell you what the "lean" period's menu consisted of. Breakfast: 30-50 grams of bread, a tiny piece of jam, a quarter liter of something that was supposed to resemble coffee but was actually a black liquid made from roasted barley. Lunch: 200 ml of corn maize, approximately 30 ml of muddy liquid at the bottom of the mess tin, in which one might find a piece of green tomato or a tiny piece of cabbage leaf if he was lucky. Dinner: 30 ml of cooked crushed barley, in which one might find 15-20 pieces of barley on a good day, but most of the time we had no such luck. The whole thing was just a tensile, gelatin-like mixture.
This garbage was fed to us for three months straight. Needless to say all the prisoners were nothing but skin and bones. Their skin was covered with rashes and ulcers. Their bones started deteriorating, their bodies deformed. Many became hunchbacks and had curved spines. The hunger was so overwhelming that when someone died, we would not report it for 2-3 days so that we could get his portion as well.
When they switched us over to a greasy and high caloric diet, many prisoners literally ate themselves to death. Those that had no self-control and chose to eat until they were completely full died a merciless death. Endless cases of diarrhea, dysentery, contagious liver diseases, and other illnesses were taking hundreds of casualties. The first victims were older prisoners, around Mr. Rozin's age, but many of the young quickly followed. Especially the ones who did not recognize this evil method of execution and could not stop themselves from fulfilling their aching hunger.
These were the horrendous circumstances of our prison days. The trick to survival was to slowly allow your body to adjust to the greasy foods. If you succeeded in switching from the "lean years" to the "grease years" without any turbulence, you could be sure that you'd be able to survive this very difficult period. Survival was only possible with a lot of willpower and a little luck.
Despite the harsh and strict conditions of life in prison, most of us had managed to find something to make the long days go by faster, leaving less time for brooding and self-pity. The main thing was to always find something new to occupy your endless free time. Since most of the men in our cell were intellectuals, they held different classes and presentations. During the morning hours, we had most of the language classes, while in the afternoon and evening hours we enjoyed literary and army stories.
Mr. Balota's literary presentations were especially colorful and interesting. He was very familiar with both foreign and domestic literature. After dinner, Mr. Pascu, the engineer held some very exciting presentations as well. His favorite topic was Alexandre Dumas's novels, while Mr. Ticu, also an engineer, spoke of Stendhal's works with a picturesque style. General Rosin's favorite topics were Napoleon war stories, and General Marmnescu preferred to speak of the wars in Stalingrad to his listeners. We definitely didn't lack in military experts, since there were six generals in our cell, along with many other high-ranking officers.
Colonel Dunitrescu for example, was the commander-in-chief for the King's security, who was directly involved in the Romanian withdrawal from World War II. He spoke in great detail about the talks that were taking place with the Western powers, and how they wanted to include the Soviet Union in the talks. The Soviet Union was only willing to participate if the representatives of the Communist Party were also invited. So they started searching through the prisons and released Gheoghe Gheorghiu Dejt, who later became the leader of the communist party.
There were four young men in our cell, who had served in the French Foreign Legion, and were held in captivity in Northern Vietnam during the Vietnam war. After three years in captivity, Northern Vietnam handed them over to the Romanian authorities who in turn prosecuted them for treason. These boys also had numerous stories to tell. One of them, Vintila, was a very witty, intelligent young man with a good sense of humor, who also played a great game of chess. Playing chess in jail, you ask? Well, we weren't allowed to play chess or any other board games, for that matter. But our misery forced us to come up with all kinds of innovative things, so we "manufactured" chess figures from bread and lice powder. Once they were dry, they proved to be perfect tools for the game. We made the chess board by drawing squares on a blanket with a bar of soap. I played quite a bit in my "free time", especially with Sandor Mogyorosi, one of the boys from the legion. He was originally from Kolozsvar and after each game, we'd talk in great lengths about mutually familiar places.
Since I've been introducing my fellow cellmates, I must mention Uncle Erno Szamado, the author of "Ermellek". He was the most devout man in our cell and probably in the whole entire prison. His oversensitive nature caused him a lot of bitterness and suffering. All you had to do was look at him sideways and he'd start bawling his eyes out. Unfortunately there were people who made a hobby out of making poor Uncle Erno cry. He was sentenced to 20 years by the military court for treason, but his true crime was writing poetry and doing so in Hungarian.
In this cell I was reunited with university professor Jozsef Vencel, and we became very close again. It wasn't just our history together, but the love that we felt for our common homeland, that formed such a strong link between us.
I also ran into Bonta Jr., his father, and uncle in our cell. I also met a lawyer by the name of Mr. Banciu who was an extremely honest man with good values and a good heart. He was part of our little close-knit group that gathered every evening and said the rosary with Bishop Rusu. During these nightly get-togethers, while the other prisoners were listening to interesting presentations, our little group prayed with great devotion, making spiritual contact with our only hope for freedom. After having to stand all day¾we weren't even allowed to sit at the edge of our beds¾we were so tired by nightfall, that while saying the rosary, we had to struggle to stay awake.
Faith was my only strength that helped me through some serious crisis, and with the help of which I eventually reclaimed my freedom. I was fortunate to inherit strong faith from my parents, which grew even deeper in prison. Faith was my only hope and the only thing that kept me alive from day to day.
I also made another really good friend at the cellar line cell, named Jozsef Komaronii, a very likable math teacher from Kolozsvar. He was a sober-minded, carefully thought-out and intelligent man, with whom I spent hours conversing. Every night we would evaluate the events that took place that day, along with the pieces of news that would simmer in from the outside.
The reason I'd like to mention Mr. Braun, is to show how low a human being can sink. He was totally uninhibited and without character and always looking for an opportunity to pick a quarrel with someone. He must have been a heavy smoker during his civilian life because he was always picking butts up from the floor that the guards have tossed away. He even picked them out of the toilet, dried them and smoked them with great enjoyment. The only problem was that the prisoners were not given any matches either. This is where I first witnessed how you can strike a fire with a porcelain button and a metal buckle. They threaded the button on a long piece of thread, pulling and releasing the ends over and over again until the button started spinning. Next, they touched the button with a piece of steel until it started causing friction. Once the sparks began to fly, they held a previously burnt piece of cloth near it, which quickly caught on fire again. The compulsive smokers carried this device with them in he same manner that they once carried a lighter or matches.
This, like every other invention, was also a dangerous thing to have around. If the guards found it during their searches, the owner was severely punished. The prisoners tried to hide these kind of things in their straw mattresses, but there were no foolproof hiding spots. Once a month the guards turned everything upside down, and even dumped the contents of the straw bags in the middle of the floor. These searches always came unexpectedly, so we wouldn't have a chance to hide things. Before the search, they would unlock the cell door and then "forget" to lock it up again. For example the guard would enter for whatever reason and neglect to lock the door on the way out. These clever prisoners however, would notice every little detail and get ready for the possible surprise. The guards would storm in through the unlocked door and quickly order everyone out of the cell. We all had to strip naked, as they inspected every piece of our clothing. They looked in our mouths, ears and even our behinds. We were ordered to pull our butt-cheeks apart with our hands as the guard peaked in, looking for anything out of the ordinary. Once they were convinced that there were no strange objects in there, we were given permission to release our cheeks.
There were guards that went out of their way to humiliate you as much as possible. One of these degrading methods was called "telephoning." This consisted of the naked prisoners being forced to telephone through each other's behinds. The guards competed with one another for the cruelest and roughest ways of offending us. The prison guards were paid to torture and humiliate, and they certainly earned their money. As their methods of cruelty got worse and worse, they continued to receive more and more medals of honor.
Prisoners were not considered people. They were rotten bandits that needed to be beaten, kicked and tortured to death. The proletarian-dictatorship had evolved quite a bit compared to the slave society, especially when it came to torture and inhumane treatments. Back then the slaveowner did not dirty his hands with the slaves' blood. Instead they threw them to the animals or tossed them in an arena and forced them into a life and death fight with each other. The spectators even had the opportunity to grant mercy to the slaves. During the fifties, sixties, seventies and eighties, however, the guards beat the prisoners to death with their bare hands.
Even though the prison guards and Securitate persons were very carefully selected to make sure that they were capable of torturing anyone to death at a moment's notice, there were always exceptions. I found this one guard who was different from the rest, or more specifically he found me, during a routine search. One morning the guards burst into our cell right after breakfast and ordered everyone out to the hall and to strip naked. I was tossed to a different guard this time, one that I had not encountered before. He searched through all my articles of clothing, the same way the others did. I was very nervous because I had a piece of cloth in my fur hat, that was considered "hard currency" among the prisoners. Since we had no real money, we used bits of cloth as a substitute. So this 8x8 inches of material cut from my bed sheet had serious monetary value. Aside from this piece of cloth, I also had a small hoop made out of a plastic plug, hidden inside my hat. This hoop had ten little spikes, which represented the ten beads of the rosary. When the guard finished checking my clothes and started reaching for my hat, I began to pray: "Just help me now, dear Virgin Mary!" I was so afraid that I started to perspire, imagining myself shackled and tortured, locked up in a dark whole, The guard looked at me, then started feeling his way through the inside of my hat until he found the secret compartment where I had my little treasures hidden. He didn't pay any attention to my "money", just tossed it on top of my clothes, but he was very concerned about the little hoop.
"What is this?" he asked in curiosity.
"A hoop" I replied fearfully.
"Okay, okay, but what are these little spikes for?" he inquired further. Suddenly I thought about telling him that I had no idea how those things ended up in my hat, but something told me to tell him the truth.
"I pray with the help of this," I answered, still very scared.
"And who do you pray to?" asked the guard.
"To God, and to the blessed Virgin Mary."
"And who are you praying for?"
"I pray for my Mother, my Father, my brothers, the other prisoners, and for myself."
"So you believe in God?"
"I do!" I replied more firmly.
"Have faith, pray, and God will help you," he whispered and dropped the little hoop back in my hat. He gave me a reassuring smile and signaled with his eye to be careful that the other guards don't take notice. I gave him a faint smile to say that I understood. I was so happy. Not only because I escaped several days of solitude and hell, but also because I believed that this event was a sign from God, that He was with us and that He would not forget about those who have faith in Him.
My joy was so overwhelming that I felt the urge to share it with others. So I told the story to Father Gutiu and to my good friend who said he would not believe it if it weren't me that told him. He was sure that it was God's power shining down on us. He was also overjoyed. He hugged me close to him and assured me that we would be going home soon.
Next I shared my story with Uncle Erno, Komaromi, Bonta Jr., and Mr. Banciu. Father Gutiu told Bishop Rusu of the events, who also saw it as a sign from God. I was so ecstatic that I took aside all my cellmates one at a time and told them not to get discouraged because we'd all be going home very shortly.
That night I said my nightly prayer and went to bed peacefully. I could not fall asleep for a very long time but I did not mind at all. I finally had a chance to quietly recapture the events of the day, which I truly believed were a miracle from God. His message was as clear as day: we should not despair, because He will not let those who love and believe in Him down. With tears of joy in my eyes, and my soul filled with love, I gave thanks to our generous God for His great providence.
Up to this point I only hoped that one day I might escape from this wretched prison, but now I knew for sure that God would not desert me and He would help me find my way home. I joyfully stared at the dark sky through the barred windows where the full moon was shining at me with reassurance. While scanning the sky, I started wondering whether my dear Mother was also looking at the same sky and wishing on the same bright star. Maybe she was trying to send her tearful message to me through a drifting cloud traveling East, telling me not to worry because she would never stop praying for me and asking God to bring her beloved son home to her. In my soul and in my mind I picked up her signals through an imaginary antenna. I pictured myself reaching for my Mother's hard working, wrinkled hand and kissing it ever so gently. In her ear I quietly whispered: "Thank you!"
We did not have access to any calendars but we kept track of the days, holidays and important anniversaries. One day, I was barely finished with my breakfast when a guard yelled at me to collect my belongings. All I knew was that I was going somewhere. I said farewell to my dear friends and left the cell with an aching heart and teary eyes. I had spent three long years of my life here. True, life was very difficult at the Pitest prison, but I had gotten used to it. My body grew accustomed to the harsh atmosphere and the cruel treatment. I was familiar with all the tricky rules of this place, and the uncertainty of having to adjust to new circumstances had me very worried.
They took me out to the street and gave me my civilian clothes. Somehow I felt freer now than I did in my prison clothes, and for a moment I even thought about what would happen if I was actually allowed to go home. I couldn't ponder too long on this thought because before I knew what was happening they were putting shackles on my feet and handcuffs on my wrists. AThis doesn't seem like freedom!" I thought to myself bitterly. They shoved me in a closed-in police van and drove me to the train station where they put me in a private cabin of a passenger wagon.
It was obvious that they were transporting me out of Pitest. But the question was: Where were they taking me? I couldn't find any connection between the news that we had received lately and my journey. A few hours later, the guard entered my cabin, removed my handcuffs and gave me a paper bag containing some food. It was salty bacon and bread, but my stomach was so upset that I barely took a couple of bites out of it. A short time later the guard returned and replaced the cuffs on my wrists. This was followed by many long and boring hours.
At one of the stops, the guard came in again, inspected the locks on my hands and feet, and ordered me off the train. At the station they placed me in a closed-in police car and drove me to a new destination. Upon arrival they placed the blind glasses over my eyes and led me into a cell. The furniture in the tiny room consisted of a cement table and a cement bed. There was a straw bag mattress on the bed with only straw powder in it from all the use. I wondered where I was but could not figure it out. I only found out the following day when I was blindfolded and taken to an office-like room where a middle-aged man was sitting behind a desk.
"Any idea where you are?" he asked arrogantly in Hungarian.
"I don't know," I answered.
"You are in the office of the Securitate=s vice-commanding officer in Marosvasarhely. And I will have you know that we will bash your face in if you don=t tell us everything that you know. We already know everything, but we want to hear it from your mouth to see how honest you are. That is, if you happen to have an honest bone in your body.
Tomorrow we will begin the official questionings. Don=t try to deny anything because we will skin you alive. Understand?"
"I understand completely, but I have told them everything in Kolozsvar."
"Shut your trap, you scoundrel! You have until tomorrow to start thinking. I'm sure that you will think of something."
He pushed a button, and the guard came to escort me back to my cell. I wondered what they wanted from me. I thought about this for a long time but I really couldn't come up with anything. I truly did tell everything that I knew in Kolozsvar. The events of 1956 were still fresh in my memory, but I could not think of any tiny thing that they might be interested in.
The next day they came for me right after breakfast, and led me into an office where an anything-but-friendly or reassuring, middle-sized man greeted me. After a few routine questions concerning my personal data, the interrogating officer directed a question right at me:
"What do you know about a secret organization called the >Black Hand'?
"Nothing," I replied bravely.
"What did you say?"
"I have never heard of such an organization," I barely finished the sentence when I received a huge punch in the face.
"Okay, now repeat what you said again."
"I have never heard of such an organization." Hearing this, the Securitate officer began striking both sides of my neck with the edge of his hands. The blows sent me tumbling into the wall.
"Stand up straight and don't lean against the wall!" he screamed. My head was spinning and my legs shaking, as I tried to stand up straight.
"Well, let me hear the answer!"
"Please forgive me, but I have not heard of such an organization."
"Are you denying it, you stinking impudent?" He went at me again, hitting me with the edge of his hand. I was incredibly dizzy by this point and my head was buzzing terribly. The interrogator kept repeating the question and I continued to answer "no". With each "no," he kept pounding on me, right until he got bored. I could barely stand on my feet and my whole body was trembling. He rang, and I was taken back to my cell. I collapsed on my bed totally exhausted. My heart was pounding so hard that it was echoing in my brain and I developed a torturing headache.
The next day I was dragged out of the cell again. I went through the same questions, the same answers and the same beatings. One of the blows got me right in the corner of my mouth and blood started pouring from it.
"Do you see what will happen to you if you don=t confess, you crook? Don=t worry, I will teach you honor. I will beat the hell out of you until you confess." He meant his threats literally, because by this time there was blood gushing out of my nose and mouth, and he just kept laying it on me. I was starting to panic, as I fell against the wall and collapsed on the verge of unconsciousness.
They took me back to my cell. At noon they brought me some lunch but I didn't even touch it. I returned my dinner untouched as well. This went on for several days, beatings and all. My neck was swollen on both sides and in an awful lot of pain. My head was constantly buzzing and I could not hear anything through my left ear.
On the fifth or sixth day, the interrogator placed a poster in front of me and asked if I had seen it before. It did look kind of familiar. I started searching through my memory bank, until I slowly realized that it was a poster that I had made and posted in grade 10, in protest of collectivization. "So this is what it=s all about," I thought to myself I also remembered that I had used printed letters and wrote it with my left hand.
"Yes, I made this poster," I said to the interrogator.
"See, you crook, isn't it much better if you admit to everything?"
"I forgot all about it," I told him in all honesty.
"You forgot? You tried to deny it! I suppose you=re going to deny having seen this as well?" he asked and placed a rusty, old pistol in front of me.
"That is correct," I said firmly. "I have never see...." I could not finish my sentence because the Securitate man started beating me wildly, alternating the blows with his left and right hand. I fell to my knees from all the strikes, but he didn't stop there. He kept pounding me until he got tired of it.
"Not a problem. Tomorrow you will confess," he said with a distorted face. They took me back to my cell where I didn't even have enough strength to crawl to my bed. I collapsed dead tired on the cold cement floor.
The next day, as I heard the footsteps of the guard approaching my cell, I began shaking with fear. I felt totally weak, my stomach was aching, I couldn=t move my head, my neck was all stiff and I knew that I would be tortured to death again today. But what was I to do? Should I say that the gun was mine so that they would not hurt me any more? No, I could not say that because it would be a lie, and beyond that lie they would make me admit to a thousand other things that I had nothing to do with, So I did not lie and the Securitate officer did not give up on his torture sessions with me. I felt like I could not take much more, I was losing all of my strength. I was afraid that I might die any minute. I could hardly move, but somehow I pulled myself together and ever so slowly walked across my cell, from the door to the opposite wall, praying each step of the way. I was saying the rosary, offering each tenth for my parents, my brothers and the other prisoners. I was extremely worried about my Mother, because the interrogation officer said that she was arrested and in the hands of the Securitate.
I gave up praying for myself. I was ready for just about anything, and offered all my suffering in the name of my dear, blessed Mother. I was totally engulfed in prayer and preparing for my death when I heard a strange noise coming from the door. I got shivers all through my body. I knew that there wasn=t even a mouse in the cell with me. I stopped, and turned towards the door, praying semi-aloud.
"Oh, dear God!" I screamed. I saw a very familiar looking woman standing in my cell, and I quickly realized that it was no other than the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God. She stood there in silence, smiling at me. I rubbed my eyes to make sure that I was seeing clearly, and by the time I looked up again there was no one there. I went to the door, and felt around where she stood, but there was only empty space left.
"My dear Blessed Virgin Mary! Was that really you? Did you come to hearten your lost child?" I whispered these words and started crying. As I cried those happy tears, an overwhelming, warm feeling went through my whole body, which gave me not only mental but physical strength.
Far be it for me to say that it was actually the Virgin Mary that visited my cell, all I can say, is that to me, it seemed to be real. To have the privilege of seeing the Blessed Virgin Mary in person is a gift that someone like me could never be worthy of. The Mother of God was only present in my twisted imagination, not in my cold cell, but it still gave some glimpse of hope to my tortured soul, and put some strength back into my battered body. Until then, even footsteps would frighten me, but after, I waited patiently for them to drag me before the cruel interrogator. At the first negative reply he began beating me more fiercely than ever before. For some reason, I felt no pain while he was striking me, even though I wanted to. Especially now that I was sacrificing all my suffering for my dear Mother. The Securitate bully kept pounding on me obstinately, and I just smiled and felt nothing.
"What's wrong? Why aren't you wailing? Or are you trying to deny that this hurts as well?' he asked in anger and started hitting me even harder.
I didn't answer him and once he got bored with me he sent me back to my cell. It is possible that my body had become numb from all the beatings and that is why I didn't feel anything. My appetite was slowly starting to return and my stomach wasn=t aching quite as bad. My head was buzzing however, and I became totally deaf in my left ear.
The interrogations lasted exactly one month. The day before the trial they took me to see the Securitate's vice-commander. He offered me a cigarette, but I refused. He tried very hard to be friendly and even forced a fake smile from the corner of his mouth. He then placed an indictment before me and told me to sign it.
"May I read it?" I asked.
"Yes, but there's nothing important in here. It's the same things that you had admitted to during your questioning."
"Fine, but I'd like to read it anyway."
"So read it, but it's a waste of time."
After he read me the almost two page indictment, I became indignant, and said that I have not admitted to any such things.
"Are you trying to say that you have not signed the interrogation report either?"
"Yes, that's exactly what I'm saying. I have not signed anything."
"Yes, you have signed those reports, just like you are going to sign this indictment."
"I will not sign it because not one word of it is true!" The Securitate officer tried at first nicely and then with threats to make me sign the papers, but I stubbornly stood my ground. Swearing and cursing they took me back to my cell. The indictment contained some very serious and made-up accusations. The whole thing was a fabrication. They even stated that I was involved in various secret meetings in Marosvasarhely between 1957 and 1960, which would have been physically impossible. So what they were saying, was that even though I was incarcerated since 1957, I would occasionally skip out of jail, and up to Marosvasarhely, to take part in some secret gatherings. Well, this had to be a miracle. But apparently the Securitate was capable of performing even more outrageous miracles than this.
On the day of the trial they cut my beard off and dressed me in "Sunday clothes". It was a closed trial, so there were hardly any people in the courtroom. I was their number one accused. According to the indictment I was the founder of the "Black Hand" organization. I also came up with the plan to rob the Nyir armory located near Gyergyoszentmiklos, in order to arm all the locals in the area and start a revolt against the system.
To my biggest surprise, my brother was also sitting among the accused. There were 21 other people as well, one of them a very young girl.
The judge finally made his judgment: I received the longest sentence of 22 years, for planning an armed revolt against the country=s socialist social system.
So what really happened? How did the Securitate succeed in setting it all up in such a clever way? Well, since the Securitate had successfully investigated every case since the Revolution of 1956, they now found themselves with nothing to do. So, if there was nothing to do, you still had to do something to keep busy. The flames of the class war must never burn out. This is why Jozsef Nagy came into action in Marosvasarhely, as an official spy for the Securitate, and pretended to be a true Hungarian with the naive youth, He frequented coffee shops and bars to find young Hungarians, and then convinced them to go to his apartment to discuss some danger that was threatening the Transylvanian Hungarians. Unfortunately there were a few people that fell for this traitor=s tale, as he showed them some pistols and encouraged them to recruit other Hungarians to join in the protection of their nation. Among these youth was a young man from Gyergyoszarhegy, who went back to Marosvasarhely and told all his friends about his talks with Jozsef Nagy. His name was Karoly Cimbalmos, and he could not stop raving about the great work that Jozsef Nagy was doing. This ended the first part of the plan. Jozsef Nagy gave a list of the boys' names to the Securitate which declared them to be a part of a secret association. They were just young kids, mostly 16 and 17 years of age. I still remember a few of them:
Karoly Cimbalmos, Balazs Cimbalmos, Pal Kovacs, Gem Kulcsar, Ferenc Fulop, Laszlo Pal, Andras Palotas, Lajos Bara, Andras Kertesz, Alajos Ilyes, and Lajos Szilagyi. The only female in the group was Hedvig Ambrus.
During the trial they weren't even allowed to mention Jozsef Nagy. After the hearing, we were taken straight back to jail where we had to say goodbye to our "Sunday clothes". We lined up in a long hallway and changed back into our civilian outfits. I was trying to seek out my brother from all the unfamiliar young faces. Since I first saw him in the courtroom, I was trying to situate myself closer to him. We were forbidden to talk, so I just inconspicuously squeezed his hand. He looked at me in surprise. It was the first time we saw each other in over four years. He looked at me up and down with tears in his eyes, and when the guard glanced the other way, he quietly asked how I was doing.
"Fine," I answered with a smile.
"What do we do now? Should we appeal the sentence?" my brother asked whispering.
"It won't be necessary to appeal, because next year we're going home," I told him reassuringly.
"How do you know?" my brother questioned me.
"Right now it is not possible for me to tell you how I know, but the important thing is that it's true. So hold your head up high and don't despair." My brother smiled and nodded that he understood. In the meantime the guard started towards us, so I quickly squeezed my brother=s hand one more time and he returned the gesture just before we parted.
They called my name first and took me away. From the end of the hallway I peaked back at the newest victims of the debauched work of the Securitate. They looked like the surviving soldiers of a defeated army.
My dear Mother, Father along with some friends and neighbors were all present at the trial. My Mother was really broken down. You could hardly see her wrinkled little face from the black scarf wrapped around her head. As downhearted as she looked, it was really nice to see her. At least I knew that she was alive, and she also had a chance to see me. Not only was I forbidden to talk to them, I wasn=t even allowed to look their way. Two thousand years ago the law said that prisoners must be visited, and now in this socialist-communist society, the same was strictly forbidden.
The prison guard led me to a cell, where a fiftyish man greeted me with a gentle smile:
"I'm Tibor Balint, a Szekely reeve and a parish priest from Csikmadaras."
Once I introduced myself, he was very surprised and lovingly caressed me.
"So you are Szilagyi?"
"That would be me, but where do you know me from?@
"I was held captive by the Securitate with a few boys from your group, and they told me all about you," he said.
"I only know a few of them, They are very young."
"Yes, I know. Some of them were actually your students."
"Yes yours. Like little Pali Kovacs."
"Pali Kovacs .,. Kovacs ... Oh yes, little Pali. He is here as well?" I asked in disbelief.
The parish priest was a very righteous man, and I felt very fortunate to share a cell with him. Sadly I couldn't enjoy his company for very long because a few days later they moved me to another cell. Our goodbye cut deep in my heart once again, as we both started weeping.
"We'll meet again my dear sir," I said to him reassuringly.
"May God grant it be so!" answered the parish priest.
In my new cell I met Andras Palotas, who was also recruited by the informer, Jozsef Nagy. I found out from him that Jozsef Nagy had a radio repair shop in Marosvasarheiy. This served as his cover, since his real income came from the Securitate.
Beside Palotas, there was a young Jehovah Witness in the cell, and through our mutual misery we became very close. The boys idolized me so much, not only because I completed university, but also because of the four hard years I=d spent in prison. These two combined gave me some sort of prestige in their eyes. Needless to say we spent some interesting days together. We argued quite a bit, usually over religion. These disagreements always ended just where they began, with each of us sticking to our own beliefs.
A few days later they brought a new prisoner to our cell. He was a very large man, probably taller than 2 meters. It was obvious that he must have been a very heavy person at one time, because the skin was sagging on his face and other parts of his body, where the fat deposits once were. He was a Romanian priest from the community of Batos, near Szaszregen, who was also convicted for holding Greek Catholic masses.
One morning when we returned from the washroom, the priest was holding his stomach in panic.
"What is the matter Holy Father?" I asked curiously.
"I think that I lost something, or more specifically, that something fell out of me on the toilet."
"Well, of course something fell out. That=s why we go to the bathroom to have something fall out of us."
"No, that's not what I mean. Something from inside, I think that one of my inner organs fell out," said the priest all pale and scared.
"How could one of your organs end up in your bowels, dear Holy Father?"
"I don't know how, but as I was squatting over the toilet something plopped out of me into the toilet, yet I did not feel an urge to move my bowels. Do you understand what I'm trying to say?"
"Yes, I understand, and I can tell you exactly what it was."
"What? Tell me!"
"Your pocket watch!" I answered jokingly.
"No way, you know that they took all those kinds of things away from us."
"Yes, of course I know. But you should be happy that something came out of you so smoothly. I struggle for days to squeeze something out of me."
The frightened priest finally managed to calm down a little bit, but you could see that my explanation did not totally convince him, and he kept holding his belly.
After some time, they placed Palotas and myself into another cell that was filled with young Hungarian boys and an older Romanian man from Bucharest. There was a boy from Kezdivasarhely, who literally chewed the cud like a cow. I=m not sure how he did it, but occasionally he=d eruct his food, rechew it and swallow it again. I found this behavior very strange so I asked him if he did this on purpose or if it just came naturally to him.
"Yes, I do it deliberately. You see this way I digest my food completely," answered the young man. I didn't press the issue any further. I realized that prison had a strange effect on certain people. At the Pitest prison, I met a man who picked his daily hoecake all day long. Eating it one tiny crumb at a time like a little bird. He was convinced that our stomach is like a mill that is constantly grinding and if there is nothing to grind then it will start milling itself I don't know how much his obsession helped or inhibited his survival in prison, just like I don't know the fate of the ruminating young man. What I do know is that even though the >grinding" Gyarfas Kurko made it out alive, his obsessions got so out of control, that he ended up in a mental institution.
There was a young man from Csikszenttamas by the name of Lajos Bara in our cell, and he seemed to be a very odd character. He was barely 17, yet totally convinced that he knew everything there was to life. He just lacked a total sense of morality. He was an atheist, but not because he chose to be, but because he hadn=t received adequate information about God and religion. He wasn't a bad person, just very ignorant. Later, Tivadar Balint, the parish priest from Csikmadaras, got tossed among us and he tried to get to the boy's soul, but he stubbornly refused any act of kindness and unmannerly made fun of the priest. Once I saw that Father Balint had failed at his attempts, I decided that I would try to reform this prodigal child. The fact that I had studied psychology and pedagogy at university, as well as my various experiences in prison, gave me the confidence to fulfill my goal. Even after he laughed at my first efforts I did not give up. What I did was create exciting tales that involved morals and religion. This helped the boy become more receptive to listening to me. Once I saw that I had captured his interest, I began telling more stories based on religion. Slowly we got to the stage where we were praying together, and a short while later we were saying the rosary together every night. The priest was very surprised and I was ecstatically happy that our boy was totally reformed.
As I started thinking more about this whole thing, I wondered if maybe the purpose of all my years in prison was to lead this child home to God. In conclusion I must mention that after I was freed from jail and was working as a geologist in Balanbanya, the boy looked me up, married with a family by this time, and thanked me for all my efforts behind bars.
So I had the great fortune of having such wonderful experiences in prison, but unfortunately there were still a lot of horrible things that embittered my life.
In jail, just like in any other community, the initial harmony and unity does not last forever. With time, people start to withdraw, and the signs of incompatibility begin to surface. Finally the differences manifest themselves into quarrels and disagreements caused by imaginary and sometimes very real grievances.
Our cell was no exception for this kind of conflict. There were two main characters in the quarrel, the Romanian man from Bucharest and Andras Palotas. I=m not sure what set them off exactly, but from one moment to the next they were pounding on each other. The ruminating boy ran right to the door for help, but I held him back. You should not interfere with such an activity. If the guards would get wind of the fight, then both parties would be severely punished. The scuffle finally ended when I pried the two men apart.
During the Fall and Winter of 1961, I "visited" many different cells at the Marosvasarhely prison. Most of the time I was grouped with Jehovah Witnesses, who were always trying to sell me on their religion. These poor souls had no idea that I inhaled the Catholic religion with my Mother's breast milk. They didn't know that religion was pounded into my head since elementary school and that it was engraved in me like the raw wind of Gyergyo is in the Szekelys' face. I had some really heated arguments with them, and even though I didn't know nearly as many passages from the bible as they did, I used their quotes to defended myself and my religion. Other than that, the Jehovah Witnesses were gentle souls, they just really wanted me to join them.
The prison's unknown executive committee decided that the Vasarhely prison was much too comfortable for me, so in December of 1961 they told me to pack my things. Of course they put me in chains as they transported me to Szamosujvar. This was an all too familiar place, since this is where I began doing my jail time. I even recognized some of the prison guards.
I quickly sized up the furniture in my cell, which consisted of an iron bed. I barely had a chance to unpack my belongings; two handkerchiefs, a toothbrush and a piece of laundry soap (since bandits weren't worthy of real soap), when I heard a knock coming from the adjacent cell. Life in prison had taught me to be cautious, so I didn't answer right away, in case the guards were trying to trick me. A short time later there was knocking again, and the first question came via Morse signal: "Who are you?"
Now I finally knew that this wasn't a trap, since the guards did not know the Morse signals, most of them didn't even know the alphabet. I signaled back that I had just arrived from Marosvasarhely. When I asked his name he spelled: Juga Dan.
"Greetings Mr. Juga, it's me, Szilagyi." I knew Mr. Juga from Pitest, and I was quite happy that I had a familiar face for a neighbor. When Mr. Juga informed me that he was sharing a cell with Laci Varga, I nearly jumped out of my skin, and asked him to put my good friend on the "line".
"Hello Arpad! How are you? Why did they take you out of Pitest?" my dearest prison buddy was showering me with questions. After I told him what had happened, he filled me in on the more significant events that took place since we parted. He was the first to give me the heartening news that within the scope of the nation-wide political amnesty, all political prisoners will be released. The fact that they moved the traitors from Szamosujvar to Des, gave validity to what my dear friend was saying. Here I was, reunited with Jozsef Vencel, Dr. Antal Jakab, Istvan Dobai, and my precious friend, Laci Varga.
The rules in Szamosujvar were very different from Pitest. The clean plates and the good quality of food was princely compared to the horrible meals in Pitest. We also looked at this as a sign of our upcoming freedom.
Unfortunately, we also got daily beatings along with our tasty meals, most of the time totally unprovoked. A guard would enter our cell and write some names down on a list. Later, they would round up those people and take them to a separate area. There, they made them lie on a table, and they'd beat their backs and behinds with a rubber hose. Each blow sent the prisoners screaming in pain, not to mention the scars that it left on their aching bodies. Somehow this cruel treatment did not fit in with our approaching release, but some of the more optimistic people found an explanation for it. They believed that the purpose of the beatings was to avoid another uprising like they had in 1958 in Szamosujvar, and to scare the soon-to-be-free prisoners from discussing politics.
The prison had a very conscientious female Romanian doctor, about 30 years of age. When she first saw me she was shocked to see the serious shape that I was in. I told her about the beatings and kicks that I had received in 1958. She sent me to the hospital right after examining me. According to her diagnosis I had tuberculosis, peritonitis, and tuberculosis of the intestine. Poor lady tried everything that she could to keep my illness from progressing, but the circumstances were so primitive that she could not succeed. My health was rapidly deteriorating with each passing day until it finally reached its most severe phase. The cramps in my stomach were becoming a lot more frequent, and it spread through my whole abdominal area. I had a hard time breathing and was often on the verge of suffocating. My lady doctor's shift was over hours ago, but she would not leave my bedside. I felt like I could lose consciousness at any moment. I was prepared to die. There was a Romanian Roman Catholic priest in the sick room with me, with whom I had done my final confession.
It was getting fairly late in the night. My doctor was holding my wrist in her hand, measuring my pulse and watching as my breathing continued to get heavier and heavier. I heard this dear woman whisper to the others that it was only a matter of minutes now. One of my sick friends wiped the sweat off my forehead.
The rest of the sick people in the room all gathered around my bed, and in their eyes I could see their compassion, sympathy and tears of sadness. I took a couple more deep breaths, and the faces of the people around me slowly started fading away. Then all of a sudden, I got a very strong urge to vomit, and this green foul liquid, that smelled like petroleum started pouring out of my mouth.
"He's made it!" screamed the doctor. "Thank God!"
My breathing started returning to normal, and I felt an overall feeling of relief. The doctor and the others were all thrilled that I sort of "came back from having one foot in the grave," and I gave thanks to God for giving me one more chance at life. The lady doctor stayed with me for a little while longer until I settled down, and then she left with some words of encouragement. I thanked her for her patience and kind efforts; she replied that she was just doing her job. Through all my years in prison, she was the only person that I met who believed that taking care of sick prisoners was actually her duty.
The next day my doctor told me that she=d be sending me to a prison hospital in Vacarasti, near Bucharest. She believed that my illness had reached its peak, but she could not guarantee that I would make it through the next attack. She said that I would not get any better until the tumor from my colon was removed, and this could only be done in a hospital.
My doctor saw that I wasn't too enthusiastic about my upcoming operation, so she tried to comfort me.
"The only thing that can help your situation is surgery. You see, there's nothing more that I can do for you. Don't be afraid. They have great doctors there and you'll be just fine. I will send a note with your file and tell them to take good care of you," my well-wisher soothed me with her kind words.
A few days later the time had come to make my journey to Vacarasti. Needless to say, they had me all chained up. My poor doctor would be so upset if she saw me with these cuffs and shackles.
One early morning in the Spring of 1962, after a long and trying journey, I arrived to Vacarasti. I was half frozen, broken down and exhausted. After the chains from my arms and legs had been removed, I was taken into a hospital room that contained ten beds that were painted white. There were prisoners lying there suffering from different conditions. Among them was an older Hungarian gentleman from Bihar megye, called Uncle Sandor. He didn't speak any Romanian, therefore he was very happy to have some company he could actually communicate with.
The next day, I was taken to see the head doctor, Dr. Popescu. He "examined" me and then smacked me in the gut and said:
"You can go! There's nothing wrong with you!"
This ended my examination and they took me back to my room, which was under the care of a lady doctor. She didn't pay much attention to the other patients and treated me with total indifference as well. Not only did she not examine me, but never even bothered asking how I was doing. I finally asked nurse Bobo if there were any treatments scheduled for me.
"Unfortunately not," answered the nurse with empathy.
I spent a week-and-a-half in this hospital room without anyone inquiring about my well-being. One evening I started getting some torturing cramps through my whole body. My roommates got concerned watching me suffer and knocked on the door to alert the guard to get a doctor. The guard came back a few minutes later and informed me that the doctor on duty would not be coming because he couldn=t do anything to help me. This attack was much like the one I suffered in Des, except now my hands and feet were getting progressively colder and were starting to turn blue. I was becoming very worried because I had never experienced these symptoms before. My mouth and tongue were going numb, and 1 felt this piercing pain in my heart. I asked my prisonmates to rub my extremities for me. They were happy to oblige, and with Uncle Sandor's leadership they carefully proceeded with their life-saving work. The crisis lasted less than half-an-hour, during which time my friends asked the guard once again to call a doctor, but no one came.
After what seemed like an eternity, my cramps finally began easing up, and the circulation returned to my hands and feet. The attack was over. I felt extremely drained and exhausted. I thanked my sick friends for their kind and valuable assistance. Without them rubbing my extremities and cramped-up heart, I probably wouldn=t have made it.
The next day, I was moved to a smaller room, with my friend who was suffering from bladder cancer. It was just the two of us there. We thought we were going to receive some special treatments since we were the ones with the most serious conditions. We were greatly disappointed when nobody even looked our way. A few days later my poor friend passed away. They carried his bed with his lifeless body on it out of the room. After this, I was left totally alone. Not even nurse Bobo would visit me. The guard was the only one opening my door occasionally to give me some food, and to remark sarcastically about me not being dead yet. I finally realized that this is where terminally ill patients were taken to die.
I spent my days totally abandoned, with everyone anticipating my death. I was suffering alone in this strange land, far away from my home and the people I loved. This is where I learned the meaning of true isolation. I wasn=t even allowed to interact with my sick mates. I wished so much that my doctor from Des could be with me, or even just one of my sick friends. I felt completely defenseless against my cruel fate, and I was terribly afraid.
I spent all my days in bed. My body was too weak to even walk anymore. I placed my pillow as high as I could under my head, to the point where I was half sitting and half lying down. I theorized, pondered and prayed an awful lot. It was very obvious to me that my only chance for survival was to receive mercy from God, The longer I was in my "death-row" room, the more frequently I prayed to my compassionate God. "My dear Father! I know that I am not worthy of you mercy. But look, I am still your child so you can't abandon me completely. You have forgiven so many other sinners. Why are you not willing to help me? And you my dear Blessed Mother of God, you gave me so much strength at the Securitate in Marosvasarhely. How can you stand by and watch your earnestly praying child waste away?"
Just when I thought that all was lost, my door opened, they helped me out of my bed and into a wheelchair, because I was unable to walk by this time. Before I knew it, I was chained up and on a train to somewhere. I was thrilled beyond words when I saw the Des prison standing before me. I knew, or at least hoped, that the kind-hearted woman that wanted to help me was still there.
"What is that blue thing around your ankle?" inquired the lady doctor.
"Scars from the shackles and chains," I answered.
"What? They actually shackled you?"
"Yes, both coming and going."
"Oh, those stupid animals! Why would they put chains on someone so critically ill? You couldn't escape even if you wanted to."
When she found out that I came back from Vacarest without any surgery or treatment, she became irate, but still tried to comfort me:
"Lasa, ca te pun eu pe picioare! (Don=t worry, I will make you all better!)" she said sweetly, and you could hear the good intent in her voice. She started giving me streptomycin injections, and because of her conscientious and tiring work, my condition started improving with each passing day. By the middle of July, I was strong enough to walk around in the courtyard with the help of my friends. I leaned on the board fence of my walker, and enjoyed the rays of the sun dancing on my haggard, pale face. After spending so much time in those dark and damp cells in the cellar, I could not get enough of the wonderful warmth of the sun.
I still had frequent aches and pains, but I knew that I was on the road to recovery. I pondered quite a bit about my fate, and tried to find some kind of an explanation for the events that influenced my prison life. No matter how hard I thought about it, I could not come up with a logical reason for my captivity. I finally came to the conclusion that God had some special mission in mind for me, and that is why he helped me survive through so many obstacles. Through the years that I spent in jail, I had seen evidence of God looking out for me, and now I was convinced not only that I would heal from my serious illnesses, but also that I would be set free.
My appetite was starting to return, and my general state of health was improving greatly. The intensity of my physical pain was slowly diminishing. I spent the rest of that year as well as the following year in the sickroom of the hospital, under the care of my kind lady doctor. This way I escaped the daily beatings that all my other fellow prisoners had to encounter.
In the Spring on 1964, all the prisoners were transported from Des to Szamosujvar. Talk of our upcoming release was no longer just gossip and hearsay, but a realistic fact. This was backed up by the treatment that we received in our new "home". While the bloody beatings were a part of our daily regiment in Des, in Szamosujvar they used peaceful methods to deal with the prisoners, and slowly started preparing us for freedom. This was the first time through all the years I had spent in jail that I got my hands on a book. I was so happy with the improved living conditions, but I still missed the lady doctor from Des terribly.
I was placed in a huge cell in Szamosujvar. I did not know most of my cellmates, but I had heard of many of them. Mr. Gutiu, a Roman Catholic Priest who was part of our group in Pitest was also here. I was overjoyed to be reunited with this exceptional man, and from there on, the two of us said the rosary together every night.
This is where I met a Romanian man around my age. He was very honest and righteous, and we formed a very strong friendship. As a token of his friendship, he=d do my share of the chores, like washing the cement floor, which I was unable to do because of my physical condition. My friend and I volunteered to take care of Mr. Leca, one of our older cellmates. Mr. Leca was Romanian but also spoke Hungarian very fluently. He was paralyzed to the point where he had lost all use of his legs and hands. He couldn't even go to the bathroom on his own. Somebody had to pick him up and carry him. Since we had no access to toilet paper, I had to wash the old man's behind with my own two hands. Mr. Leca would always graciously thank me for my assistance. I was happy beyond belief to be able to help someone for a change.
CHAPTER 4 The Breeze of Freedom
Prison life had become much more bearable. Twice a week we were taken to a large auditorium to watch a film, and they didn't even cover our eyes anymore as we walked through the hallway.
There were two Tartars from Dobrodgea in our cell. One was a Muslim priest who we called "effendi", and the other one was a simple man who practiced masturbation every day. I tried in vain to educate him about the dangers of onanism, and he just continued to go about his daily "business". One Saturday, as we were coming back from our bath, the Tartar started "doing his thing" once again, but he couldn=t finish it because he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and his whole body was paralyzed. His tragic agony lasted for at least four hours. We kept knocking on the door and alerting the guard, but there wasn=t a doctor to be found. The Tartar died right before our eyes. What a way to go, after seven years in captivity and just two months before his release. Here was another example that proved that only those who could withstand temptation and maintain their self-control and self-discipline could survive the trials of prison.
As time was passing by and summer approaching, the how of our liberation was drawing near.
One day Pastor Gutiu and I were transferred to a much smaller cell on the cemetery side of the building. This is where I had the pleasure of reuniting with my best friend, Laszlo Varga, a Presbyterian clergyman, and his brother-in-law, Istvan Dobai. Laci Varga, my dear friend, improvised and gave thanks to our blessed God for his loving providence and our approaching release.
Sure enough a few days later they released the first group of prisoners. There wasn't a great number of them, but this was a definite ice-breaker. The remaining prisoners were overwhelmed with hope, faith and doubts at the same time. After living through so much disappointment, they had a hard time believing in reality. The prisoners continued to get released in small groups, because our captors were afraid that a larger bunch would be more susceptible to unlawful behavior. I don't think that any of my jail-mates had unruly behavior on their minds. They were all just thrilled to be going home after enduring so much torture. But a system built mostly on terror would never trust anyone.
In the meantime, a few people got released from our cell as well. A few days later they called Varga and Dobai. We had a long and warm parting, and promised each other that we would write as soon as we got home. I was happy and sad at the same time. I was happy to see them going home and had faith my turn was coming soon. At the same time I had some doubts: What if the Hungarians were not getting released just transferred to another jail?
They took another person out of our cell. By this time most of the prisoners were set free. The days seemed hard and long. Each passing day seemed like a whole, entire year to me. There was only Pastor Gutiu and myself left in the cell, and still no one came to call our name. My heart was suffocating with fear of not getting released.
Finally on August 4, 1964, the long awaited day arrived. They called both of our names. They led us into the other building to a huge room and handed us our civilian clothes.
"So I've managed to live to see this, my blessed God! I will always be grateful for your kindness. I have always known that you loved me. But this much, my dear Father?"
I barely got around to checking my clothes when I noticed an older gentleman struggling with his large baggage.
"Could I be of assistance with anything?@ I asked the old man.
"Oh, yes please! I'm Baron Urai," he introduced himself I also told him who I was, and began helping the old man put his clothes on. The dressing of the baron was a very slow process, because he was always complaining about something: Either the pants didn't match his shirt or the shoes didn't match his socks, or the jacket did not go well with his vest. This is what happens when someone has too many things to choose from. My wardrobe was quite simple. It consisted of an originally blue-colored pair of pants that was covered with stains from every color of the rainbow, a checkered suit, a sweater that was knitted in prison, a mended pair of socks, a ragged and badly stained shirt, and a pair of shoes. The good thing was that they all matched well with each other. The truth is that I would have gone home in a pair of drawers if I had to. But the baron was so particular about choosing the right outfit from his huge pile of clothes, that I was still standing there wearing stripes. I told the old man that he better get moving because I needed to get dressed as well, since they wouldn't release me this way. Luckily we managed to pick an outfit that the baron was finally satisfied with, and I quickly changed also.
Once we received our release papers and some food for the road (bread and salty bacon), we were transported to the Des train station in a closed transport car. After seven years in prison, this was the first time that I was allowed to come and go freely among the other passengers, who were looking at my Amulti-colored" clothes with great interest. I traveled with Pastor Gutiu until Szekelykocsard, where we had to say goodbye to each other. I thanked him for his selfless help and friendship. He just smiled and simply said:
"May God be with you my friend!"
The train was rattling into the dark of night. You could hear its shrilly whistle as it echoed through the steep, snowy, rocky cliffs of the Gorgenyi Mountains. Most of the passengers were snoozing in their seats, but I wasn=t tired at all. The excitement of the day and the anticipation of seeing my loved ones again would not let me sleep. As the train was approaching the basin of Gyergyo, my heart started beating faster. Almost as if it was racing against the train which was winding at full speed through the narrow valley of the Maros River. Then finally we made it out of the steep mountain range, and headed boldly through the plains of the basin of Gyergyo. I started recognizing some familiar territories. First I noticed our neighboring community of Ditro, and finally spotted the lights of my hometown, Gyergyoszarhegy. But what kind of lights were these? Seven years ago, the only source of light in this small town was petroleum lamps peaking through the windows of the houses.
"Electric power has been brought into the area," I noted approvingly. As the train rolled through the Szarhegy station, I glanced in the direction of our house, and tried to imagine my family circle gathered there. It was well past midnight, and chances were that all the members of my family were fast asleep. With the exception of my dear Mother, who was possibly still up and praying for her beloved son. These were the thoughts racing through my mind as we arrived at the Gyergyoszentmiklos station. I got off the train and went into the waiting area, which was packed with young students. Since the next train to Szarhegy was not leaving until eight o'clock in the morning, I figured that I'd go into the city and maybe catch a ride home.
As the morning star appeared in the East, and the dawn above the valley of Belkeny, I began walking towards downtown. I was very fortunate, because a young man picked me up with his car, and saved me the three kilometer walk. He dropped me off at the main square, which was very still and empty.
I started walking down the road toward Szarhegy. I stopped at the corner of my old high school and admired the precious building for a long time. However, it just gave me a cold, blank stare back.
"What's wrong? Don't you know who I am? I had spent so many years being your humble student. But don't worry,! recognize you. And it's so nice to set my eyes on you again."
Then! prayed: "My blessed Father! Thank you for helping me and sheltering me through so much misery, and for leading me home. But! ask you kindly dear God, to grant me the joy of finding all my loved ones healthy and in peace. My freedom would mean nothing if! could not see my sweet Mother, my Father and beloved brother in one piece. Oh, my Creator, my Father, please tell me that they are all alive and well! My heavenly Father please grant me this wish!"
I pleaded continuously for such things, as I was slowly making my way home. Then a milk car pulled up beside me.
"Good morning young man! Where are you headed?" asked the driver of the car.
"I'm going to Szarhegy."
"You're coming from prison, right?" he asked curiously, as he examined my stained pants with his eyes.
"That's correct. But how did you know?"
"This week I drove some newly released prisoners almost every day, either to Ditro or to Remete."
The driver continued to ask me questions, and I gave him some very brief replies. In my thoughts I was at home already, with my beloved relatives running into my arms.
When we got near the market, I asked the driver to stop the car. I thanked the stranger for his kindness and headed north on Nemesek (Noble) Street by foot. It was simple farmers living on this street, who were truly noble in their souls and emotions.
It was still very early in the morning. You=d only see the occasional movement in a garden here and there. When I got to the Miklos Nemeti residence, I finally saw our little house. My heart was pounding so fast, and I was on the verge of happy tears.
"My dear, blessed God! Thank you, thank you, thank you, heavenly Father! Just please let me find everybody safe and sound. You have always stood by me and always listened to the prayers of your loving child. Please have mercy on me now, and let me find my family in one piece. Dear Blessed Virgin. Please tell me that I will find them all alive and well."
When I got to the stone bridge near our house, I spotted a young woman who was driving a pack of cows along the creek.
"Good morning Arpi!" the woman greeted me.
"Good morning!" I returned the greeting.
"Don't you know me?" the woman asked surprised.
"I'm sorry, but I don't."
"It's me, Marika. The wife of Misi Sajgo. I'm down here by the water."
"I'm sorry." I repeated my apology.
Then I spotted Alajos Ilyes, as he stood in the doorway of the house across from me, waving for me to come over. He was one of the members of the "Black Hand" group. I hurried over to him, and, we joyfully embraced.
"I called you over because I don=t want you to just barge in on your Mother unexpectedly. The poor woman might lose her disposition in all the excitement if she saw you. Let me go in first, and prepare her for your return."
"Okay. So my Mother is alive."
"Of course she's alive. Everyone's just fine, don=t worry!"
Alajos went over to my home, and a few moments later my brother came to greet me:
"Welcome home, little brother!"
"God bless you, big bro!"
We fell into each other's arms, with tears rolling down our faces. A short while later my brother went back into the house and told our Mother that somebody had seen me at Gyergyoszentmiklos that day.
"Oh, stop that son. Who knows where that poor child is pining away. He might never come home," my mother said.
"But even Alozsi said that somebody had actually seen Arpi."
"Yes, Aunt Katica, I have spoken to people that have seen him."
"Those are just rumors, my son. I don=t think it's true."
"Okay Mother, then I shall find him and tell him to come home."
My brother came back for me, and told me that he thought it was okay for me to go inside now. In the meantime, the young woman I ran into earlier told everyone who crossed her path that I was back, and there were a few people gathered around our gate.
My heart was filled with love and joy, as I headed toward our house. As I peaked in through the gate, I finally set eyes on my dear Mother. She was doing something on the porch and didn't even look my way.
"My God! I wonder what she will say to me? And what will I say to her?" I pondered, and ran through a final rehearsal in my head of the words that I have composed countless times. I opened the gate. My Mother heard the creaking and turned towards me. She straightened up from her hunched-over position and fixed her gentle eyes on me. They Were sparkling with both dismay and surprise. She was so touched that she could barely utter:
"My dear son!"
All the rehearsed words flew right out of my head, and as my Mother was hurrying towards me I simply said:
"My dear Mother!"
We fell into each other's arms and cried uncontrollably. These tears contained seven years of pain, suffering, hopes and expectations. There were streams of tears flowing down my Mother's once velvety face. The many years of worry, sorrow, and grief, sure left their wrinkling marks on this gentle face. Her sunken-in chest was quivering from all the weeping, and once in a while she'd utter: "My sweet little boy." I just silently stroked her gray hair and kissed her wrinkled little face and hands. Many minutes passed until we both calmed down.
"My sweet boy, you've come home to me?"
"Yes, my dear Mother. I'm home.@
"Only God knows how much we've worried about you."
She started crying again.
"But I'm home now. Our good God has led me home. Don't worry any more my dear Mother."
I only saw my Father later on that night, because he was out working in the fields since very early that morning. Towards dusk! sat by the window, so that 1 could see him coming home. But the poor man didn't get back until well after dark. Originally I planned to just sit at the table in silence to see if he would recognize me, but my plan backfired because on his way home he already heard the good news. He walked into the house and right over to embrace me.
"Welcome home my dear son!" he said with tears of joy in his eyes.
"God bless you my dear Father!" and! started kissing his scruffy, unshaved face and his callous, hard-working hands.
My Father turned toward the cross hanging on the wall and gave thanks to God:
"My Blessed Heavenly Father! Thank you for bringing both of my sons home from prison. May Your name be blessed now and forever!"