by Attila Gyenis
The spring was tucked away at the edge of village. In the old days, people from the village used to get their drinking water from that spring. It was called the Rose Spring because of the roses that used to grow around it. There are no roses there now. There is not even a spring, just overgrown shrubs and trees that have erased any sign of the old Rose Spring. The village is still reminiscent of how things were 50 years ago, with its whitewashed houses lining both sides of the main road, and vegetable gardens growing in the front yard tucked behind painted iron wrought fences.
My Uncle Stephen sits in his apartment, minus a kidney. The sounds of New York City float into the third floor apartment. The Millennium celebrations had come and gone. I am just stopping by for a short visit, talking with my aunt and Uncle. I speak mostly in English, my Uncle speaks only in Hungarian.
They live in one of those railroad apartments that have not been remodeled in 40 years. That means it has a 40 year old stove, a 40 year old toilet, and 40 layers of paint on the walls. They call it a railroad apartment because the rooms are lined up in a row, like railroad cars. There is no hallway. To get to the last room, you have to walk through all the other rooms.
I first learned of the Rose Spring from a poem that my Uncle wrote. I remember going to Hungary as a kid, in the late 1960s, to visit my grandmother who still lived in the same house in the same village where my father and Uncle grew up. We went to look for the spring and as famous as it was to me (as a result of my Uncle’s poem), we still had difficulty in finding the actual spring. Not only was it all overgrown, it was cemented shut so that no water was coming from the spring. I don’t know why someone would cement shut a spring.
I was only nine. Going to Hungary was like stepping back in time. There were chickens running around in my grandmother’s yard, outhouses, wells with pails that you had to let down 20 feet, no running water, and horse drawn wagons. I grew up on Long Island, not in luxury, but we had running water, a flush toilet, and no chickens in the yard (except for that one time when we had 4 chickens in the yard, and one day they all disappeared and my mom said she gave them all to a friend, but the freezer mysteriously had 4 frozen chickens in it).
My Uncle is not only a poet, he is poetic. Of course it is in Hungarian that he is poetic because even though he has lived in America for over 40 years, he still refuses to speak in English. But in Hungarian, the loud, multi-syllable, rhythmic words would pour off his tongue like golden nectar at get-togethers held in the small railroad apartment. He could make an eloquent toast to any event, from the most monumental to the least significant, declaring his total admiration and fondness equally to all.
We would all be crowded into the end room. The apartment door opened into the kitchen, then a small study, then a small bedroom with two single beds, and then the bedroom, which doubled as their formal parlor room. On late-night special occasions it would become the parlor room, with a table squeezed into the center and chairs and sofa crushing the room. Once you sat down, you couldn’t get up without everyone on that side having to get up and let you by. The get-togethers consisted of food, wine, and singing. And occasional political discussions. I call it a discussion, but to an outsider it might have sounded like an argument. These would last late into the night, either until the wine ran out, daylight came, or my Aunt had enough.
Budapest in 1952 was like the other communist countries. It was going through political upheavals-- it would swing back and forth from being a severe communist regime to a more moderate communist regime back to a severe communist regime. It reflected what was going on in Russia at the time. It was during one of these mood swings that my Uncle was arrested.
He was a poet. Poets like to express themselves. They often like to express thoughts of freedom. My Uncle’s poetry was not overtly political. When you write a poem about a spring, that is not especially political. But that was not his problem. His problem was that he was part of the underground. He lived in the southern part of Hungary, not far from the Yugoslavia border.
My Uncle was involved with the underground, helping people get out of Hungary by sneaking them through the Yugoslavia border. The border with Yugoslavia was not as heavily fortified as with Austria, and once into Yugoslavia, it was easier for the escapee to get to the West.
It is interesting-- the borders were fortified not to keep other people from getting into Hungary, but to keep Hungarians from being able to ‘escape.’ The government was more concerned with preventing their own people from escaping than a possible attack from an enemy from the West, such as the United States of America.
So my Uncle was in the underground helping other people get out of Hungary through Yugoslavia. I don’t even know who the people were, whether they were political activists, students, artists or just adventurists. After all, during this time everyone in Hungary believed that the streets in America were paved with gold (at least that is what the Voice of America hinted at on the radio). But more importantly, there were many people being put into jail never to be seen again. Criticism of the government was not tolerated very well by the regime.
Today as we speak [in 20001], there are U.S. troops massed in Hungary as part of the peace keeping forces overseeing the former Yugoslavia. Serbia and Croatia are not new words for Hungarians as they are for us here in the States.
I remember being told of a comedian who was performing in Budapest and it went something like this. He’s standing in the middle of the stage holding a big, red tomato. He’s saying, ‘This tomato is like the communist party. It is big, it is good for you. It provides everything you need in life.' Then he squashed it flat. That is humor in Hungary during the 1950s. It is also the reason the comedian went to jail.
Prisons in Hungary were similar to most other third world, repressive government prisons. You had no rights, were beaten on the whim of the guard, and you were never sure if you would ever get out.
I learned of this story over the years in small parts, starting when I was a child. And every few years, I would be told another part of the story. Some of it involves my father as well, since they were brothers.
My Uncle and parents all fled Hungary after the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. They first fled to Austria, and from there they came to New York by airplane, courtesy of the Red Cross. They may have fled for different reasons. Maybe it was for political reasons; maybe to avoid jail; maybe because the streets in America were paved with gold. Maybe it was just the thing for young people to do.
It is very hard to tell this story because I will be telling it to you all at once, and not over a 40 year period (which is the time frame that I heard it over). I have to decide whether to tell you in the fragmented way that I got to hear the whole story, or just tell you the whole story as I know it now, realizing, of course, that I will never be able to tell the story the way my Uncle and father told me. Oh, yes, my father does play a big part in this story.
Anyway, as a child, all I was told was that my Uncle had been in jail for a few years. That in itself was significant to me. I don’t think I knew why he was in jail, or under what conditions he was in jail. I didn’t even know that there were political prisoners or what that meant.
Political crime is different from criminal crime. When you do a criminal act, you are in jail for something that is almost universally considered wrong-- stealing, hitting people over the head. When you are accused of a political crime, you are in jail usually for something that most people would consider a good thing-- freedom of expression, human rights, social causes.
It would be years later before I understood that my Uncle was in jail for his political activities.
The big secret is that my Uncle is still drinking, against the doctor’s orders. And not just half as much (which would make sense since he only has one kidney now). He gets out every afternoon and still makes his rounds. I ran into him at the Hungarian Butcher Shop on Second Avenue. That section of New York City, around 86th Street, is called Yorkville and you can still hear people speaking in Hungarian on the street. Tony the Butcher told me, as an aside, that my Uncle may be sneaking a drink. I told him that my Uncle is probably sneaking more than just ‘a’ drink.
When the doctor told my Uncle not to drink any more, my Uncle followed his instructions to the letter. Unfortunately, he’s not drinking any less either. But that will just be our little secret.
My Uncle told me about how they treated him when he was first arrested. They beat him on his head with a rifle butt, asking him to reveal the other names in his underground cell. He described how his whole head was covered with gigantic lumps and welts. He was smiling when he told me this, laughing at the fact that even though they beat him so severely, he still didn’t give up the names of the underground.
For the first few days of interrogation, they beat him mercilessly. When they realized that it wasn’t working, they resorted to another method. They gave him wine and food. It was the old good cop, bad cop routine. They tried to buddy up with him, giving him wine to soften him up, and telling him how much better off he would be if he just gave them just a few names. When they found that he didn’t talk any better, they went back to the first method of beating him. Eventually they gave up and send him to work down in the coal mines. That was the usual punishment for malcontents. He didn’t tell me much of his life as a coal miner, but I can’t imagine it would be a much better life than the coal miners in the Appalachia.
To my father and the rest of his family, my Uncle had disappeared without a trace. My Uncle had been secretly arrested, and no one in his family knew what happened to him. It would be a couple of years before they would receive information that he was still alive. The police authorities originally had told the family that Uncle Stephen had fled the country. No one believed that, though there was a very small possibility that it was true.
But time waits for no one, and life goes on. My father was enjoying the good life during that time, having plenty to eat at a time when much of Hungary was going hungry (no, that is not a joke). My father was a sports jock, and a member on the prestigious National Guard Sports Club Athletic Team. He was a runner and a boxer. As a member of the sports team, my father was entitled to extra food rations, getting almost as much as some of the major sports or political figures.
Sports always seemed to be accompanied by a display of pageantry in communist countries. I don’t know why. Maybe because it got people’s mind off their political, economic and social shortcomings. As a member of the National Guard Sports Club, my father got to go around wearing the official National Guard sweat suit. Since it was for the National Guard, the sweat suit had a paramilitary look to it.
During this time, many people in Hungary were suffering from food shortages. This was shortly after World War II, and Hungary had been on the wrong side, which is one of the reasons why Russia got to keep Hungary. It was all part of the agreement between the superpowers. But times were difficult in my parent’s villages even before the war, especially during the great depression.
Uncle Stephen’s lifeline has been his wine. Good wine, bad wine, Hungarian wine... it was all good. Actually, there is no such thing as bad wine, especially if it is an unopened bottle waiting to be drunk. I remember a photo of him sitting in a lawn chair holding a bottle of wine and his glass. I wrote under it, “The Best Sport.” It made our whole family laugh.
Bad wine. You wouldn’t think that a person who loved wine would end up buying as many bad bottles of wine as my Uncle did. He would open a bottle up, and along with the rest of the Hungarians sitting around the table with him, would all agree on how fine the wine was. This included my father. The fact that the wine had turned to vinegar wouldn’t deter them from giving it the highest accolades, especially if it was Hungarian wine. And after that bottle was finished, it was on to the next.
Two years after my Uncle was secretly arrested in 1952, a fellow prisoner of his, also laboring in the coal mines, was released. One of the things you do as a released prisoner is that you go and tell as many of the families of the prisoners you can, that their father, uncle, son, brother, is alive in the prison. And that was the first that my father and his family knew that my Uncle Stephen was still alive. For two years, the government had denied that my Uncle was under arrest.
As a kid, my father would tell me how upon hearing the news, he stormed into the prison where his brother was being held, and demanded that they bring him to him. And they did.
In most communist countries, or under any other repressive dictatorial government, there were usually two ways that government officials respond to individuals. If they think that you are a lowly nobody, they will treat you accordingly. They will step on you, talk down to you, ignore you, and spit on you.
However, if they think that you are of a higher rank than them, they will suck up gloriously to you, taking the utmost care to provide you with any service or comfort that you desire. Why? Because they are afraid that you will step on them, talk down to them, ignore them and spit on them.
When the prison guards told my Uncle in 1956 that he was free to go, he didn’t believe them. He thought it was a trick. And even after they left the cell door open, he stayed in his cell. He thought that they were just waiting to shoot him, saying that he had attempted to escape. Eventually he did wander out, and came to realize that he was in fact released. They gave him just enough money to catch the train back to his hometown.
As he was waiting at the train station, he was nervous about being arrested again. He was expecting some policeman to jump out from behind a bush or corner of a room to take him back to prison. But he was happy because even one day of freedom was better than none.
He spent the night hiding at the station as his train didn’t leave until the next morning. Seeing the people, breathing the air, being in the open were all reasons for him to be grateful. He arrived back at his home the following day. II never did ask him how his homecoming was.
My Uncle’s apartment in New York City faced out onto First Avenue. It had a fire escape on the front of the apartment, and another fire escape on the back. We were not allowed out on the fire escape as children. Most of the time when we visited, we sat in the kitchen around a small table surrounded by the refrigerator and stove.
The parlor room, which was the last room on the opposite end of the kitchen, was reserved for special occasions, of which there were plenty. The whole apartment was maybe 12 feet wide. Special occasions were like this. A table crammed into the back room, people stuffed around the table, and the table covered with food and wine. Food consisted of an abundance of coldcuts, breads, pickles, hot peppers, and stuffed cabbage made by my aunt who was Irish, but who learned to speak Hungarian, no easy feat.
But on ordinary occasions, we would just be in the kitchen. I saw them mostly in the kitchen in the last 10 years. During my visits to New York City, I would run up to their third floor apartment, be offered a glass of wine, and then I would be off to indulge in other city activities.
This is how my father first told me the story. When he found out that his brother was still alive doing forced labor in a coal mine, he went down to the prison and told the guard on duty, “Bring me Stephen Gyenis.” Because the guard had no idea who my father was, and because no one had ever come and requested to see a prisoner before, the guard was flabbergasted and agreed to allow my father’s request. My father, through the use of his presence, was able to convey a sense of authority to the guard. He implied that he was a person to be reckoned with and that his wish was to see Stephen Gyenis immediately. As I mentioned earlier, the system there allowed for two choices. If you felt the person you were dealing with was lower than you, you stepped all over them. If you felt they were of a higher rank than you, you sucked up completely.
One of the ways my father was able to accomplish this is because he was wearing his National Guard Sports Club sweat suit. The guard assumed it was some type of covert military uniform since he didn’t recognize it, and rather than risk the wrath of a higher authority, he went and got my Uncle. My father met him in a small room and they were able to talk. My father asked him if he was interested in getting out of the prison. Not that he would have been able to do it at that point, but maybe at some point in the future. My Uncle said that he really did not want to get out because if he did, he knew the authorities would be after him and he didn’t want to live his life in fear of always having to look over his shoulder.
The father’s actions were truly daring, bordering on being foolish. It wasn’t much that separated him from being arrested and placed in a cell next to his brother, or worse. The authorities did not take too kindly about being duped.
The best definition of poetry that I ever heard is this. Any writing that does not go to the edge of the page on every line is poetry. They went on to explain, ‘anything that isn’t prose is poetry.’ I like that definition because then you don’t have to explain stanzas, rhyme, or iambic pentameter.
After my Uncle was arrested and interrogated, he was placed on a work detail in the coal mine. It was under extremely difficult conditions, but it was even worse knowing that something even more dreadful could happen. At any point in time, he could be dragged away and shot as some others had been.
But eventually he settled into a routine. Part of the routine was mining a certain quota of coal every month. Actually, that is not entirely correct. The person who had the quota was the prison guard in charge of his cell block. The guard had a quota of how much coal his prisoners were required to mine every month. This quota was given to the guard by his superiors.
If the prisoners failed to reach the quota, the prison guard would be in trouble. The guard resorted to every method possible to ensure the prisoners would reach the quota. He tried withholding food and water, beating them, and pleading with them. Finally he resorted to the only thing that worked. He bribed them. He snuck in food and liquor so the prisoners would work harder. So this became part of routine. It didn’t always work out that well for my Uncle, but at times it did. After all, you can’t get blood from a stone.
I don’t remember all the details of how my family got out of the country. It was shortly after the failed Hungarian Revolution, and the border to Austria was ‘open’ at times. This meant that the Hungarian soldiers were not able to completely close off the border to escapees. I know that my parents and Uncle all escaped Hungary separately. They all ended up in the same refugee camp in Austria.
My mom was arrested on her first escape attempt near the border. She was told the following morning to go back home and placed on a train. She jumped off the train as it left the station, and simply waited to cross the Austrian border again. My father attempted to cross the border at night when he, and the group of people he was with, heard distant voices. They had no idea which side of the border they were on. They had found an empty pack of foreign cigarettes and were hoping that the voices they heard were Austrian. They were. I don’t know how my Uncle escaped.
It was 1952, and there was political unrest. My Uncle got word that members of his underground cell were being arrested and he figured that it would only be a matter of time before the authorities would be looking for him. It was time for him to leave the country. He stopped at his home to pack up a few things and take care of a few things. He had a rifle, which was illegal to own, and disposed of it by throwing it into the small pond across from his house.
His plan was to flee Hungary through Yugoslavia and on to the West, just like the others whom he had helped escape. He was trying to sneak away without anybody from his family knowing what was going on. It would only be more trouble for his family if they had any knowledge of his whereabouts.
His mother happened to come home and asked him what was he doing. He answered as casually as he could that he wasn’t doing anything, just rearranging some of his things. He was trying to leave as quickly as he could but he didn’t want to upset his mother. She asked him if he was hungry for a bowl of soup. Even though my Uncle was in an extreme hurry to get out of the house, he was never one to pass up a meal. So he stopped to eat a bowl of soup.
If I know my grandmother, it was probably a little salty because that was how she cooked everything.
So a bowl of soup later (and whatever else he ate) he left the house. Somewhere between his home and the border of Yugoslavia, he was detained and arrested. Who knows what a few minutes difference could have made?
[ I have found out since that he was actually arrested at his house and that my father was also there. My uncle had gone to his house to find the rifle and throw it into the pond, and look for whatever other evidence might be around. And as he was eating his bowl of soup, a car pulls up in front of the house (not too many people in Hungary had cars at that point) and out steps a few people who claimed to be my Uncle's friends. In fact, one of them actually had a pistol under their jacket, and when they met my Uncle, the one with the pistol said to come along quietly unless he wants the rest of them to get hurt. My Uncle told everybody it was just some friends from school, which my father believed at the time.]
It is only recently that my father provided the full story about he first got to visit his brother. What he had told me over the years was part of the truth. He did go in to the prison, demand to see Stephen Gyenis, and the guard did bring him out.
This is what my father had left out. He didn’t just storm into the prison. It seems that he was dating a girl at the time (this was before my mother) whose father had some political or military standing. Her father had some blank official documents lying around the house that my father helped himself to. He then drew up some forged documents giving himself authorization to see the prisoner.
When my father arrived at the prison wearing his officious looking sweat suit, he spoke to the admitting guard and demanded to speak with the Prison Commandant. The admitting guard hemmed and hawed as my father waved the ‘official documents’ in front of his face.
It turned out that the commandant was AWOL with some local beauty down at the local bar. When word got to the commandant that there was an official waiting to see him, he jumped out of the local beauty and hurried back to the prison. My father now had a subtle advantage over the commandant. My father presented the papers to the commandant requesting that this particular prisoner be brought out to him. The commandant had never received a request before that a prisoner be allowed a visitor. But he was also flustered by being caught with his pants down while on duty. He had no idea who my father was or how well he was connected to the higher-ups. With my father’s confident (and brazen) manner, he assumed that he was dealing with a person of higher rank, and so as to not to take any chances, acted accordingly. He sucked up to my father. My Uncle appeared shortly.
There was one point, a few years into my Uncle’s imprisonment, that he had an opportunity to escape. A mine shaft that he was working in had broken through to the surface. A few of his fellow prisoners did make their way out. But at that point of his imprisonment, my Uncle felt that he would only be arrested again or even worse. He had his routine down, and that he felt he would eventually gain his release. I always wondered what I would have done. But then I realize that I probably wouldn’t have made it through the initial beatings. I am very grateful that I never had to experience anything like the imprisonment or have to worry about making those types of decisions.
My Uncle had gone back many times over the years to visit Hungary with no apparent animosity. The Hungarian government eventually gave him a monthly retirement check based on the years that he was in prison.
After my father’s initial visit, the guard was curious as to who exactly my Uncle was, and how it was possible that he was allowed a visitor. My Uncle advised him, “You better watch out how you treat me, because you don’t know who I knew on the outside before I was arrested.”
I have been back to Hungary several times since I was a kid. Whenever I went to visit my grandmother’s house, I would pass by the wooded area where the Rose Spring once flowed, and remember my Uncle’s poem. I still have a quiet laugh when I think about my grandmother’s soup.
Postscript: This story cannot, nor did it attempt to, capture the horror that accompanied the capture, and the beatings. Nor does it attempt to capture the feeling and trauma that the family went through. My Uncle can laugh about it now, but one would think that experience would dramatically effect who you become and your perspective on things. If you think back to some of the traumatic things that have happened to you, does it compare to this story? Maybe for some of you it will, but for most of us today, we have not had the experience of being arrested, dragged away, beaten, and not know if we would survive or not. Nor have we had a family member taken from us, not knowing if they were dead of alive.
Final Postscript: My Uncle passed away in 2001 and never got to read this. I started thinking about writing this story some 10 years ago when he first told me of the bowl of soup incident. For some reason I thought that it was significant (or maybe just funny). I actually started writing this only a year ago. I wish I would have finished it earlier because I needed him to correct any mistakes that I made, or memories that I may have embellished or forgotten. Since completing this, I talked to my father about the actual events, and also to my brother about how he remembers hearing about the events. It would seem that at times I invented this story. Not the important details, just some minor ones. Was my dad wearing a Russian military hat that he stole from some soldier when he stormed into the prison? How was my Uncle actually captured? Did my father receive any punishment for his unauthorized visit to his brother? Why did my dad think that wearing the National Guard sweat suit would make people think he was of some higher rank? I mean, it was only a sweat suit. But these questions are not important in the big picture of things.
So I leave you with this toast: May the wine that flows over your lips bring joy to your heart, happiness to your thoughts, and a smile to your face.
Peace and poetry
© 2003 Attila Gyenis