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Chapter 10A - June 1953 to September 30, 1953

Updated: 2 days ago

I.      Political Labor Camp

A.                 Driving to Marko Prison

 

During the half-hour drive, I tried to organize my thoughts about the events of the past three months. I reflected back to the events that happened from the day of Stalin’s death, and I tried to figure out who had turned me in; who could I thank for all that I had suffered.

 

The only person I could think of was Botka Gyözö, another student in my auto engineering group. He had become very jealous of the four students who had been accepted at ATUKI (Auto Transport Research Institute) based on our good grades.  With this position, we were given a 20-hour per week job, along with an offer of employment after graduation. It was an excellent way to start a career.  And aside from the well-paying part-time job, it gave us an excellent opportunity to put the theoretical knowledge we had gained at the university to practical use.

 

This Botka had been just an average student, but he had exploited any opportunity he could to improve his future prospects.  After I was released from interrogation, I was not surprised to learn that he had taken my place at ATUKI. I believe the Communist Party rewarded him with that job for turning me in, and who knows who else he turned in.

 

It’s true that there was already a thick dossier filled with all my anti-communist activities, and during political lectures I often called out many of the lies they tried to teach about the socialist lifestyle and communist theory.  When I was in the Hungarian Royal Air Force (HRAF) Academy from 1943-45, I had been thoroughly brainwashed against communism; it had been like a vaccine protecting me against all the communist lies. 

 

Also, as a battle-hardened war veteran, I was more serious and mature than most others my age. This was an attractive trait to other young people around me, and that posed a serious danger to the communist weed men,  about whom I did not hide my hatred. Whenever I could, I wanted to make them drown in their own lies. 

 

[VAS: This last paragraph uses the term “weed men,” for which the Hungarian term roughly translates to scoundrel. But I love the literal translation of the term “weed men,” or “human weed.”]

 

The judgment against me was that I was a product of the HRAF Academy, I had fought against the Russian army, I regularly listened to Voice of America radio (which was banned) and told others what I heard, I constantly argued against and criticized the communist system, and after Stalin’s death I made improper statements about him (I called him a mass murderer and executioner of the Soviet people). And all of these things were true.  And as a result, I was sentenced to 30 months of “re-education forced labor.” 

 

B.                 Arrival at Marko Prison

 

Just as I organized all of these thoughts in my head, we arrived at the Marko Street prison.  This was Hungary’s largest prison, and the entire second floor was reserved for political convicts. 

 

There were different kinds of political convicts.  Minor political crimes included political instigation (stirring up political discord), trying to “jump bush” which means attempting to escape across the Western border, listening to Western radio and discussing it with others, criticizing the government or the communist party, reading and distributing anti-communist books or news, going to church and other religious behavior, criticizing or making fun of communist-themed lectures, films, syndromes, and the like. For things like this, someone could get a 4-5 year prison sentence. 

 

For other crimes, like espionage, they imposed the death sentence. Or if someone damaged or sabotaged a factory that produced military items, then they might investigate and resolve the whole matter in as little as two hours, and then immediately hang anyone involved, even the entire management of the factory.

 

Murderers, thieves, bank robbers, burglars, sexual criminals and so on were on separate floors of the prison.

 

C.                 Conditions in the jail cell

They crowded 32 prisoners into a cell that was originally designed for four people. The cell had two iron beds and an English toilet in one corner next to the cell door.

 

Only four people could sleep on the two steel beds.  The other 28 were given “straw mattresses,” on which two people could sleep.  But unfortunately these mattresses were so old that the straw was nothing but powder, and moving it created a cloud of dust so think that it obscured our ability to see.

 

When we woke up in the morning, we had to stack the 14 “straw mattresses” in a corner of the cell.  We then unstacked them at night.  For about two hours after stacking and unstacking them, it was difficult to see anything through the cloud of dust created by the mattresses. 

 

On one of the cell walls, near the ceiling, there was a 30 x 50 cm window that could be opened. The hinges were at the bottom, so the window opened into the room, but only at a 45-degree angle. This made it impossible to see out, even if one prisoner got on the shoulders of another.  In June, the inner city got very hot.  Thirty-two people stuffed into a 3 meter x 3 meter room (10 feet x 10 feet) generated a hellish amount of heat.

 

[VAS: The room had to be significantly bigger than 10x10 feet, which is only 100 sq ft.  If the cell could fit 2 steel beds and another 14 mattresses, each designed to sleep two people, then even if the mattresses were only twin size, the cell would have to be at least 320 sq ft., or about 20 x 16 feet]

 

But this was the least of our suffering.  The worst was the bedbug infestation.  The prison was full of these bugs that in normal conditions only came out at night and usually cannot be seen during the day. But in this prison, there were so many that even during the daytime we saw them swarming on the walls, mattresses, floors, ceiling, and ourselves.  The straw mattresses were filled with them, and at night they emerged like ants from an anthill.

 

At night, when we put the mattresses on the ground, one right next to another, we could only fit if 14 of us laid down in a line with all of us laying on our side.  If we tried to lay on our backs to stomachs, there was not enough space.  

 

When people had to use the WC at night, they unintentionally splashed urine on those sleeping near the toilet.  It was horrifying to pee in front of 31 other people, not to mention going poo.  For those who went at night, they were forced to walk over sleeping men, which sometimes resulted in loud and painful yells.

 

D.                Medical visit

On the first day, the prison doctor came and “examined” the new residents. This consisted of talking with the prisoner through the open cell door; the doctor would not have entered the cell for all the treasure in the world, nor would he touch any prisoner. 

 

All he did was ask, “Does anything hurt?”  If a prisoner answered something like, “Yes, my head hurts,” the doctor would ask, “How many years is your prison sentence?”  No matter what the prisoner responded, the doctor said, “If I was sentenced to that many years, my head would hurt too.”  This was the extent of his medical treatment. 

 

He also asked everyone, “Did they beat you?”  Meaning did the AVH beat them in captivity.  If the prisoner said yes, the doctor responded, “They did the right thing,”  If the prisoner said no, the doctor said, “That’s too bad, you surely deserved it.”  And that was the end of the “medical examination.” Nobody ever got as much as an aspirin, no matter the pain they suffered.

 

E.                  A visitor

 

To my great surprise, on the first day around noon, they opened the cell door and called my name.  It was not only a surprise that used my real name instead of my mother’s name, but even more because an armed guard took me away and told me I had a visitor. 

 

I could not utter a work when I stepped into the visitation room and saw my wife Adrienn.  We could not touch one another across the glass, but even the ability to just see her was wonderful.  Adi immediately told me that we could only speak for five minutes, but they had allowed it because our little girl had died.

 

She quickly explained that after the ÁVH had taken me away, the baby had gotten sick.  Four days later, she got diarrhea and a fever.  Adi ran her to Janos Hospital, which was not far from our place and where the baby had been born, but she was dead before dawn.  The doctor believed that the child drank nervous milk, which is what caused her death.

 

Everyone in the family was beside themselves that the AVH had taken me away, and that nobody knew anything about what was happening with me until after the AVH pronounced judgment and transferred me to the Marko Street prison. 

 

And with this, the five minutes were over and they returned me to the cell. In many ways this news had been shocking to me, including because Adi had been left alone with her fear and despair worrying about me.

 

F.                  The food

The food in this prison was inedible. It was unbelievably poor in both quality and quantity, only about 800-900 calories a day.

 

Each day for breakfast we got a mug of black coffee without sugar or milk, and 20 decagrams (7 ounces) of bread. At noon they gave us a completely watered-down soup with nothing in it, along with some kind of boiled vegetable dish, but that also lacked any substance.  At 5 pm we had dinner, which was again some kind of empty boiled vegetable stew.  Nothing had any taste, and its only purpose was to prevent us from starving to death.

 

G.                Daily activity

 

We had nothing to do all day. After breakfast we were taken out in a single file line to the courtyard where they allowed us to walk around for 20 minutes.

 

Otherwise, from 5:00 AM to 6:00 PM we just stood around in the concrete cell and brushed bugs off of ourselves.

 

I don't know if America knows about bedbugs, they are a red-colored flat insect about 4x8 mm, and they live exclusively by sucking blood out of their victims. Their bites were painful, and for days they left small, inflamed sores. The bug is capable of living for months, or maybe even years, without any blood and then it can become activated again. They look disgusting and if they are killed with a slap or by stepping on them, they have a terrible smell. They do not exist in villages, only in city homes where they become the terror of apartment dwellers. 

 

There was a well-known saying in Budapest, jokingly used by simple and barely-educated people who wanted to sound like they knew something; they would say, "You’re telling me, someone from Pest, that bedbugs bite?" [VAS, I don’t get it.  It’s not funny in Hungarian either.]

 

This annoying, blood-sucking plague provided the heaviest punishment in that prison. 

 

We washed ourselves by taking a handful of water out of the WC.  We also got drinking water by flushing the toilet. 

 

We were allowed to shower once every two weeks, but fortunately I was not there long enough to experience that.

 

H.                Opportunity to leave

 

After five days, they said we could volunteer to work in a coal mine. Because I was young, this was an option for me.  I could not tolerate those bedbugs another days. 

 

With our hands and feet shackled, they chained four men together and transported us to the Deli (Southern) Railway Station, where we were placed on a train to Várpalota, and from there by truck to a political prison camp called the Cseri Mine.

 

II.                Cseri Mine

A.                 About the mine

Várpalota is an enormous, sprawling coal mining region.  The coal there is the youngest 8 million-year-old lignite coal, and due to its young age, is only no harder than wood and can be broken by hand. 

 

The mine shafts were 600-800 meters deep below the surface, and this mine was more prone to flooding than to explosions, which is a more typical hazard in coal mines that are 2-3000 meters deep where the coal is 12-14 million years old.

They had officially shut down the Cseri mine ten years earlier because the coal seam had become so dangerous due to crumbling that miners had refused to work there.  The mine had then been left to rot and crumble for ten years.

 

That was all fine until some overzealous, murderous communist animal came up with the idea to reopen the mine and then have political prisoners mine it.  They figured that if parts of the mine occasionally crumble, the worst thing that could happens is that a few political prisoners would die, but the mining work could go on. This is how the coalmine for political prisoners came to exist at Várpalota.  And indeed, not a day passed without part of the mine collapsing and causing some misery, and sometimes even death, all for the glory of communism.

 

A political prisoner was less than a human. We were just numbers, and we were easy to replace because the entire country was nothing more than a huge prison. This was a modern-day form of slavery in the 20th century, and it was not much different from the methods that had been used 2,000 years earlier.

 

This was communist theory in practice. It is my personal belief that a newly developing New World Order will be similar, if not worse.  My dear children and other readers, that is what you will enjoy or curse for the rest of your lives. [VAS: The New World Order was a popular conspiracy theory in the 1990s.]

 

I knew nothing about coal mining. I had never even stepped close to one. Everything I was about to experience was new to me.

 

The prison yard was surrounded by a double layer of razorwire fences.  There were guard towers in each of the four corners, outfitted with machine guns and floodlights. Signs with red letters informed prisoners that guards would shoot without notice at anyone trying to do anything near the fence.


 

B.                 Working conditions

 

The mine operated on three 8-hour shifts.  The day shift was from 6am to 2pm, the afternoon shift was 2pm to 10pm, and overnight shift from 10pm to 6am.  Each week we were placed on the next shift.  This way, everyone worked every shift. 

 

We lived in wooden barracks. Each barracks had 25 bunkbeds for 50 prisoners.  Everyone assigned to a barracks worked on the same shift.   

 

We worked in rubber boots that reached our knees, and we wore heavy denim pants and jackets.  The main shaft was very windy.  Mostly the mine was cool, windy and damp, but in places it got very hot. One minute we were freezing, the next we were sweating from heat.  Water dripped on us from the ceiling.

 

The mine had a main shaft with a railway built onto it.  Two-men teams would dig new shafts extending out sideways from the main shaft. We had to build extra railway tracks down these side shafts.  We used these tracks to push small cars filled with ore back to the main track.  Once these small cars reached the main track, we tied them onto the “train” that was being pulled with a thick steel cable up a 60 degree incline. The entire track was built in a meandering way through the 800 meter depth of the main.  Two tracks were built parallel to one another, one to take up the full cars, the other to send them down empty.  Each car carried a ton (1000 kg) of coal. The entire train consisted of many hundred ore cars, and they were constantly being used by the work crews.

 

200 prisoners worked underground at one time. Of those, 150 mined coal and the other 50 provided auxiliary services.  The 150 who mined coal were split into 50 teams of two, and one large team of 50.  The 50 prisoners who provided auxiliary services worked in various jobs, such as water pump operators, electricians, a blasting group (the master of this group was not a prisoner but he was helped by 8-10 prisoners), old men who could not shovel coal were assigned to bring barrels with drinking water. Four men (two teams of two) transported latrines to the surface, cleaned them out, and returned them.  We called them the “Honeys.”

 

This is how the mining work went.  The blasting group drilled several holes about 1 to 1.5 meters deep into the walls of coal. The holes were barely large enough to fit 1 or 2 sticks of dynamite. They drained water from the holes, inserted the dynamite, and blew them up all at once.  The end of the shaft was about 3x2 meters (9x6 feet) and the explosion made it about 1-2 meter (3-6 feet) longer. 

 

After the dynamite, a two-man team shoveled the coal into ore cars and then pushed the cars to the main shaft.

 

At the main shaft, some people had the job of taking the cars from the side shafts and tying them onto the train that would drag them to the surface. 

 

As the side shafts got longer, additional rail tracks had to be built and the ceiling had to be supported to prevent it from collapsing. 

 

During each shift, each two-man team had to fill at least 10 ore cars with coal and push those to the main shaft.  Filling 10 ore cars was the absolute minimum. If we did not accomplish that, they would take away postage and visitation rights. 

 

Those who did produce at least 10 cars per day could receive and write one letter per month, and on one Sunday per month they could have a visitor.  For every extra ore car that we produced, we were rewarded with the right to receive and write one extra letter per month, and to receive one extra visitor per month. 

 

I was very fortunate to be placed with another young guy similar to myself. We regularly filled 12 ore cars per shift, and this meant we could receive three letters per month, write three letters per month, and we could have a visitor on three Sundays.  Adi came to see me three times, and during these visits we could sit for hours and hold hands.

 

The large group of miners that had 50 prisoners worked with the same expectations, but they were lucky if they could fill 250 ore cars. 

 

Every once in a while, a filled ore car would fall off the tracks while we were pushing it to the main shaft.  It is difficult to express in words the struggle and effort required to get the car back on the tracks. When this happened, it would have been much easier to place an empty car back on the track, but we had no time to remove the 1000 kg of coal from cars and to then put it back. Instead, we struggled to put the fully loaded car on the tracks, and fully loaded they weighed about 1,500 kg. (3,300 pounds).

 

The mine was filled with rats, and they scurried around our feet without any concern in the world. If we took off our coats, they searched our pockets and ate our slice of bread from it, or anything else they found that was edible.

 

We didn’t even try to fight them because they were the “alarm bells” in the mine. They felt any breakage, explosion, fire, or ceiling rupture before we did, and when they noticed something wrong, they ran away from our neighborhood with an awful screaming sound that indicated that something bad was about to happen, and it always did. Even though they were not pretty, the rats were life-saving alarm bells. 

 

Not a single day passed without an accident. Sometimes these accidents were fatal, but more often they resulted in broken bones or injuries to hands or feet. 

 

The ceiling collapsed often because the support beams could not bear the weight of the ceiling, and at times they collapsed like a toothpick.

 

The support beams were made of pine wood.  This wood doesn’t snap all at one time, but instead splinters.  When we heard the sound of wood splintering, we knew the whole thing would break in two across the full thickness of the beam. This gave us a few valuable minutes, or half an hour, to replace the beams before that happened.  If we did not finish in time, it was much better to not be close when the ceiling collapsed.

 

We also had to keep a close eye on the side walls.  Sometimes the in the walls would shoot a piece of coal the size of a walnut or apple, and these could hit miners in their heads or faces. 

 

I remember seeing people whose faces were full of small black dots. I had never known that they were coal miners and the dots were caused by coal smashing into faces and causing little spots.

 

The hardest work was getting out of the mine at the end of the shift.  The eight-hour shift was actually only 7 hours of mining.  It took half an hour at the beginning to get down, and another half hour at the end to get back up.

 

At each shift change, they stopped the ore train for an hour.  Right next to the railway tracks there was a stairway cut into the coal that we used to walk in and out of the mine.  Each step was about 30 cm (1 foot) tall, and about 60-80 cm (2-3 feet) wide.  It was easy going down at the beginning of the shift because we were well-rested.  But after 7 hours of strenuous labor, it was very difficult to climb the 30 cm (1 foot) tall stairs.  There were more than 2,000 steps, during which time we had be on the watch for coal dust to avoid slipping and falling down 1 or 2 meters. 

More than once, the one-hour break between shifts ended while we were still on the stairs.  They did not give us any warning that trains would be starting again.  When this happened, it was very dangerous being on the stairs.

 

Some underground shafts required 2-3 km of extra travel, and the mine was not always tall enough to allow us to walk effortlessly. At time we had to walk bent over for distances of up to 100 meters (100 yards).  At one section, an earthquake closed up a passage so it was barely even half a meter (18 inches), forcing us to slide on our bellies for 8-10 meters (24-30 feet) to get through. 

 

By the time we got to the surface, we were completely exhausted.

 

There was a good hot shower where we could wash to our liking.  Our feet sweated profusely in the thick, warm rubber boots, so they smelled awful.  We would wash out our boot sand take them back to the barracks.  It is impossible to describe the extreme stench caused by 100 pair of wet, heavy, sweaty, rubber boots.

 

But we were so deathly tired, no amount of stench could prevent our sleep.  Never in my life, before or since, have I experienced such utter and complete exhaustion. 

 

The food for such hard labor was good. From Budapest they brought down meat and sausages that were starting to rot.  They cut these up and cooked them up as stew, with plenty of black pepper, salt, and tarhona (pearl couscous). Everyone could eat as much as they wanted.

 

All the rotting meat caused diarrhea. But in the mine we ate coal, which caused constipation. 

 

Because it was summer, we often went to sunbathe on the green grass after we woke up.  At these times, all anyone had to do was mention the hordes of bedbugs at the Marko Street prison, and that was enough to make us feel content with our situation.

 

C.                 Adi’s updates

Adi’s visits were wonderful, and she relayed the political news.  After Stalin’s death, there was an enormous power struggle for the leadership in the USSR. In the end, Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev prevailed.  He was a cruel and merciless murderer like all other Communist leaders, but he also hated Statlin, and one of his first goals was to end Stalin worship, tear down his statues, and have his pictures removed from walls. 

 

Khrushchev issued an order that anyone convicted of a Stalin-related offense who had been sentenced to less than two years should have their judgment commuted (reduced).  Most of the charges against me had been for insulting Stalin.

 

My father-in-law (Adi’s father) was an attorney, and he took my case to court and had my sentence reduced to only two years. With this, they could classify me among those entitled to amnesty and to have me released.

 

All of this came as electrifying news and I waited with great excitement and anxiety to learn my fate.  Meanwhile, I had to continue going underground to mine coal every day. 

 

D.                A new mine job

One of the water pump handlers fell ill and the prison urgently needed to find someone to take his place to handle the pump.

 

With my knowledge of mechanical engineering, I was considered sufficiently capable for this task and I was immediately assigned to this duty.  At the time, I did not know I would be released only three weeks later.  But I spent those last few weeks as a prisoner in a relatively comfortable position.

 

But with this job, I was in a state of perpetual anxiety wondering what would happen.  The mine had a rule that if something didn’t work properly, it had to be repaired and made operational within 60 minutes. After 60 minutes, the ÁVH appeared and began an investigation. Any person found responsible for stopping production would be severely punished. In severe cases, they would impose the death penalty for those who sabotaged anything.

 

The water pumps were critical because without them, the mines would get flooded with water.  I was anxious to ensure they never stopped, because I knew they would hold me accountable if they did. Sometimes I even worried that the prior pump operator had suspected something was about to go wrong with the pumps, and to save his own skin, he had pretended to have some sickness to make sure he was away before anything happened.

 

E.                  Dental work

Fortunately, nothing went wrong in the three weeks while I handled the equipment. 

 

But unfortunately, one of my molars started to hurt and I was tormented by a toothache every day. There was no pain reliever, let alone a dentist.

 

One of the older prisoners  was a doctor, but he didn’t have any dental equipment. All he had was an old rusty pair of tooth extraction pliers designed to pull who-knows-what tooth.  He told me that if I couldn’t handle the pain anymore, he would pull my tooth out with those old, rusty pliers.

 

Two weeks later, I couldn’t take the pain anymore. I went to the old man, and he yanked my tooth out without any anesthetics or painkillers, because of course we didn’t have any of either.

 

F.                  Release

The very next day, I was told I had been given amnesty and that the next day I would be taken back to the ÁVH prison in Kistarcsa, from where I would be released.

 

On September 30th, Adi brought me some civilian clothes to change into.  I was then taken to a briefing, where they warned me emphatically that I had better not speak a word to anyone about what I had seen or experienced, because if they found out, they would arrest me again and return me for extreme punishment. 

 

After this briefing, I was released.  I knew that everything they threatened was true. I knew they had methods to keep people locked away in a prison for years without ever receiving any judgment.   

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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