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Chapter 7 - Summer 1945 to October 1951

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I.                 1945, the summer after the war

A.                Jozsa and Debrecen

When I finally arrived home to my grandfather’s place in Jozsa, I spent the first week just relaxing. The following week I started to help with installing and repairing electrical lines at the neighborhood homes. I would also travel into Debrecen, where I was shocked to see what the war had done to the city. But every night before dark I returned home to Jozsa.

 

During the second week, the property manager asked if I’d be interested in working with him at the University of Debrecen, where they were looking for day laborers to work on a great many things. Rubble had to be hauled off, pipes laid in the ground, many things to repair, and similar work. I figured it would be good to start doing something in my civilian life, so the next morning I woke at 5:00 a.m. and walked into the city to work. The university was about 8 km from Jozsa, and I had to walk because there was no other transportation.


 

I was given food, which each day consisted of a slice of bread, a piece of bacon and a small bottle of goat's milk. At noon, we cooked the bacon over an open fire with skewers, drizzled the grease onto the bread, and topped it with a slice of onion. We finished it off with the goat’s milk. This sustained us working all day.

 

The work was heavy manual labor. We had to shovel rubble onto a horse-drawn cart, haul it away from the University, and then shovel it off the cart. A nearby peasant owned the cart and two horses. After working 8 hours per day, we had to walk home 8 km.  Usually there was some simple supper waiting for me at home. From my earnings, I paid for my room and food.

 

One Saturday, visitors came to the Jozsa home. A car pulled up with two men and a young woman, and they explained to me that a year earlier my parents had been allowed to live in their Jewish home, and that they were there to gather the belongings my parents had taken from their home. The two men grabbed everything from my home that could be moved, placed it on the truck, and took it away.

 

They spoke to me as if I were a child. When I tried to protest, they immediately yelled at me, saying I should be grateful they did not report me to the police for theft. I knew they were taking was my parents’ furniture, bedding, sewing machine, and kitchenware, but there was nothing I could do to protect myself against this bald-faced theft.

 

At that time, all Jewish people who had returned home could take whatever they wanted, from whomever they wanted. All that was required to prove ownership was the word of two witnesses, and with that they could simply take whatever they wanted. If anyone opposed them, they got labelled as an anti-Semite, were reported to police, and could be jailed. About 90% of the judges and police officers were Jewish, and they beat and tortured anyone they wanted.  Many people were being hanged based on false accusations, and many others were tortured based on sworn statements.

All hell had broken loose against innocent Hungarians who had played no role in in the deportation of Jews that happened following the German invasion. Many Germans and Hungarians were robbed, carried away, or killed without reason. The Jews behaved throughout the world as if they had been the only victims of the war’s horrors, and that therefore the entire world had to pay for it.

 

Because the Jews had taken away the beds and the bedding, I could longer live in Jozsa. I moved into Debrecen, and found work as an electrician’s apprentice. During the first weeks, we went throughout the city repairing ruined or burned out electrical lines. Soon after, my boss contracted to service the homes of an entire village. In exchange, he would not get paid in money, but instead with food; bacon, sausages, ducks, geese, poultry, eggs, milk, and whatever else people had available to pay to have electricity connected.

 

At first, we worked together to install electrical lines in homes.  Later, I could do the same job without him, as long as I had help from the village child my boss hired to help me.  It got to the point where my boss did little more than deliver supplies, gather the food that was given as payment, and then take that into Debrecen, where he traded much of it for the supplies we needed, and the rest he sold for good money. Of course, he took out what he needed for his family.

 

The arrangement was that we slept at the house where we would work the next morning. The homeowner gave us breakfast and lunch. In the evening, we moved on to the next home where we would work the following day, and there we were given dinner and a place to sleep.

 

We worked six days per week, and on Sunday we returned home to Debrecen. I did this work for three months during the summer of 1945, and the time flew by. I gained strength from the many delicious first-class meals, and because I did not need to spend any money on food, I was able to save all of the 100 Pengo that I earned each week. 


Figure 1 – One Hundred Pengo Bill

Unfortunately, inflation soon made my saved money worthless. In mid-September, by the time I stopped working in the villages, my wages were not enough to even buy food.

 

[VAS: From 1945-46, Hungary experienced the highest rate of hyper-inflation recorded in human history.  Based on a Wikipedia article for the Pengo, in June 1944, $1 U.S. dollar could be exchanged for 33 Pengo.  By August 1945, the exchange rate had increased to 1,320 Pengo; and then 8,200 Pengo by October. By December 1945, it was 128,000 Pengo.  If Elek was earning about 100 Pengo per week, he could have saved about 1,200 Pengo by September, which based on inflation had become worth about 24 cents in U.S. currency, and that became worth less than a penny by December.  But it did not stop there.  By January it increased to 795,000 Pengo; in March it was 795,000 Pengo, and a month later it was 59 billion Pengo. Just one month after that, it was 42 quadrillion, and by July 1946 it had risen to 460 octillion Pengo per dollar (meaning, 460 followed by 27 zeroes).  Hungarian money was literally worth less than the paper it was printed on.]

 

Figure 2- One Hundred Million Billion Pengo Note (100 Quintillion)

II.             Fall of 1945, Bagamѐr

My aunt Zsuzsika (my father’s sister) lived with her family in Bagamѐr, about 35 km east south east of Debrecen. Her husband died in the war, leaving Zsuzsika to raise four children on her own.  Her fifth and oldest child had taken a husband and lived separate from her mom. Both my uncle and aunt had been day laborers, which means that from spring to autumn they were hired out for daily wages to work the land, doing whatever tasks the landowners needed.  They were paid in wheat and cash for their day laboring work.  They also had their own small plot of land where they grew some food for their own family, vegetables, potatoes, corn, sunflowers, and similar items. They were not rich, but they also did not starve. My uncle’s death was a huge loss for the family. The surviving children left with Zsuzsika were 12, 15, 21, and 23 years old, and there was a one-year old grandchild.


  

It was difficult to get to Bagamѐr because the nearest train passed 12-km away, and the station was 13-km away [probably in Vamospercs]. After getting off the train, I had to walk through an enormous forest to get to Bagamer. The train left Debrecen in the early morning and returned late at night. Therefore, travel required passing through this forest either early in the morning or late at night.


  

After the war, when there was no order, respect for others, or any sense of civil safety, it was literally life-threatening to walk through this forest, if for no other reason, because the village with the train station was filled with gypsies who were dangerous robbers and murderous thieves. We lived through horrible times and it was critical for us to be very cautious.

 

My aunt called me to be with them, mostly because the only male in the house was a 12-year old boy; the other four children were girls and the winter was coming with its long, cold nights. Her house was very close to the Romanian border. The smugglers and Romanian gypsies often organized break-ins and robberies on civilian homes if they knew there was no man around. The homes were pretty far from the village, and the nearest police were 12 km away in Vámospércs. Therefore, it was a great comfort for them that I went to live with them at the end of September.

 

Their house was a simple family house. The door into a great room, with a fireplace on the opposite wall. It provided heat, which was necessary because we slept on the clay floor in front of the fireplace, with an old blanket under us, and an old overcoat that we used as a blanket. We slept fully clothed, including with our shoes to keep our feet warm, only loosening our shoe laces. We used our arms for a pillow.

 

We fed the open fireplace with corn stalks,  and with twigs and branches that we gathered from the forest. Throughout the night, someone would wake up and throw more fuel in the fire. A small room opened into the great room, and that’s where Aunt Zsuzsi slept with her 15 year old daughter. That room also got a bit of heat from the fireplace.

 

The house had no electricity, running water, or bathroom. There was a latrine about 20 meters away which had three sides and a roof made from tree branches. In our poverty, we ate so little that we didn’t really need to use the bathroom much.

 

Our diet was right out of the Middle Ages. Every Monday morning, we walked 12 km to the mill in Vámospércs. There, we stood in line until about noon, until it became our turn. We took with us about 15-20 kg (30-45 pounds) of corn and 1-2 kg (2-5 pounds) of sunflower seeds. From the corn they milled corn flour, and from the seeds they pressed oil. The mill took its percentage, and the rest of it we carried home. The women baked bread from the corn flour, into which they also mixed boiled potatoes so that it wouldn’t dry out, but mostly so that there would be more bread. We spread oil onto the sliced bread, and that’s how we ate it.

 

There was always a 5-liter pot on the fireplace in which we boiled grains of corn. A spoon was always in the pot, and during the day when someone got very hungry, they would eat one or two spoonsful of corn. Apart from this, they sometimes cooked one or another kind of soup.

 

By about Friday, the bread and oil would be gone, and we had nothing to eat but boiled corn kernels until the next Monday.

 

But the worst was the water we had to drink. In the yard was a hand-dug pit about five meters (15 feet) deep. It contained yellow water that looked more like mud than drinking water. We dipped the water out with buckets and let the clay and sediment settle to the bottom, leaving water on top. The surface of the water was covered with all kinds of dirt, leaves, and little bugs, and who knows what else that the eye cannot see.

 

By that time of year, there wasn’t much work to do in the fields, so we mostly just hung around the house all day.

 

A.              Return visits to Debrecen and Jozsa

Every other week I travelled to Debrecen to visit my grandfather.  I also went out to Jozsa because I figured that if my parents came home, that would be the first place they would visit.  And indeed, during one of my visits, I was told that my parents had come home and that they left a home address in Debrecen.

 

I immediately returned to Debrecen, and at 58 Piac Utca, I rang the bell on the second floor. It must have been about 10 pm, which in November is very late because the sun sets at 4:00 pm and it gets dark by 5:00 pm.

 

I cannot describe the joy I felt went we met. Throughout that night, we hardly slept. We could not stop telling stories about all that had happened during the prior year. In the morning, my mother made a big, delicious breakfast, and we ate and continued to talk for many more hours. After the Bagamér starvation, I could not keep myself from eating the delicious food.

 

Since my parents had been taken captive in Germany, they were permitted to work and earn money, and therefore they were in a pretty good financial condition when they returned home. They bought a home, including the furniture, for a handful of gold. It was at a great location, right on the main street, close to the County headquarters, in the oldest apartment complex in Debrecen.

 

At least two of the bedroom windows looked out onto Market Street (Piac Utca). The larger bedroom had a large walk-out balcony from which the streetcar could be seen, and in the other direction the Calvinist great temple (Nagy Templom). Altogether,  there were three bedrooms, a kitchen, bathroom, water closet, a small pantry to store food, and a small servant’s room with a door that opened to the kitchen.

 

I learned that after I had visited them in Szombathely during the Christmas of 1944, and after I had returned to the Tapolca Air Base, the MAV evacuated the children’s institute in Kaposvar, and for that they had requested and received from Szombathely an engine and personnel. Because my brother-in-law and father were both train engineers, they entrusted them with driving the evacuation trains. Naturally, they were permitted to take family members with them, which in their case included my mother and my sister Rozsi. The train carried the institute leaders, teachers and various other individuals who were employees of the 600-person institute. Because my mother was a nurse, she was particularly helpful for the nearly thousand-person group. The train consisted mostly of passenger cars, but it also had some box cars stuffed with food, clothing and other supplies.

 

The train went to Pocking, Germany, where it arrived a few days late due to the endless bombing. Meanwhile, Pocking filled up with refugees and all they could accept from the train where the 600 orphan children. They directed the rest of the people toward Ering, a city on the banks of the Inn River (which separates Austria from Germany). There, they pulled the train onto a spur track and that’s where it rested until it was allowed to return to Hungary in the autumn of 1945.

 

[VAS: As mentioned in Chapter 1, this likely refers to a sickening episode of the Holocaust.  Almost certainly, these 600 children were taken for extermination.  It is curious that even 50 years later when Elek wrote this, and with the hindsight of history, he somehow believed that this had been a humanitarian mission. Maybe that’s what his parents said, although that is nearly impossible to believe they believe that themselves based on how these poor victims were transported.]

 

B.                Shorthand School

It was already November, and school had started in September, so I could no longer register to attend any school, but I did not even know what I wanted to do with myself. But one thing was certain, I could not attend school until the following autumn, and until then I had to do something. The neighboring building had a Dr. Namenyi type machine[1] and shorthand school that I enrolled in and finished the program in four months.

 

[VAS: I’m not sure what a Dr. Namenyi type machine is, but it appears to refer to some kind of typewriter.]

 

The school was interesting, and the owner invited me to be an instructor, which I accepted so that I could earn a little money, but mostly because I could continue to develop my shorthand skills, at which I had gotten really good. The average secretary could speed write about 120 words per minute, which is the average rate in an office where letters are dictated. The next level is known as parliamentary shorthand, where they can write about 400 WPM. I was somewhere between those when I stopped teaching, at about 250 to 280 WPM, or about as good as the average professional secretary.

 

Meanwhile during the autumn, I became very sick for a few weeks due to vitamin deficiency. The skin on both of my legs were covered with sores, and it was very painful and scary. I could not even pull pants onto my legs and I was confined to bed which resulted in an inflammation of my chest cavity. My young system finally overcame this, and I was healed.

 

C.    Debrecen Technical High School

 

During the spring of 1946, I was accepted to the Debrecen technical high school. Many hundred had applied, but only fifty were admitted. Admission required either one year of practical experience or one year in a technical school. The 18 months I spent in flight school, and the three months I had spent as electrician, were more than enough to satisfy the requirement for one year of practical experience.

 

In September 1946, I started the technical high school which I finished with all excellent grades. The school had no textbooks; instead all students had to carefully listen to the professors’ presentations and write down what the teachers wrote on the chalkboard. Needless to say, my shorthand skills became the foundation of my future exceptional educational accomplishments. I not only wrote down what the professors wrote on the chalkboard, I also wrote down every accompanying word they said. At night after I went home, I rewrote the subject matter into a notebook. Nobody in the school had notes nearly as precise or complete as mine.

 

A country boy lived with us whose parents were very rich and they gladly paid for his room and board. This child was also an exceptional student thanks to my shorthand ability.

 

Because of our one-year practical experience, this school lasted three years, but counted as four years. While the high schools went from 8:00 am to noon, or sometimes 1:00 pm, Monday through Friday, we attended school from 8:00 AM to 3:00 PM, Monday through Saturday. Saturday was our practical experience day.

 

Apart from the technical high school diploma, the school also awarded eight master degrees, and apprentice certificates for six trades. Every month we had to make a size D drawing of some machine. [A normal sheet of paper is size A; size B is twice the size of A; size C is twice the size of B, and size D is twice the size of C. In other words, it was 56 cm by 86 cm (24x36 inches). A whole lot can be drawn on a paper that size. The drawings were of motors, pumps, gearboxes, truck chassis, and similar things, with two or three sections and the complete parts written out. A month was required to make a drawing like this. The paper was transparent and could hold ink. It had to be drawn in black ink from which blue photocopies could be made.

 

Three children in my class were from the countryside, and they were paid good money to play soccer for their villages’ teams on the weekends. I do not even know why they needed the technical training they received at this school. Because they knew I was an outstanding student, and an even more outstanding draftsman, they asked me to also draw diagrams for them. Each of the three paid me 20 Forint for their monthly drawings. This way I prepared 4 drawings each month, one for myself and three for my classmates, for which I earned 60 Forint. That was a lot of money which allowed me to pay for all of my school supplies, pens, ink, notebooks, and drawing materials. It is true that I did not have time to chase after girls, but I never had to ask my parents for money to buy school supplies. And besides, I learned how to draw very well. Every night I worked past midnight on the drawings and I was never late with one. After three years and 120 drawings, my drafting professor openly congratulated me on my drawing skills and told me that from my very first drawing, he knew that I had been preparing all of the drafts, but he also knew that I was a poor child and that I really needed the money that I earned from the drawings. I graduated with an excellent grade point average and received the honors award.

 

Aside from school, I also achieved exceptional results with sports. At flight school I started fencing, which at the time was very a popular sport among young people. I continued it after I returned to Debrecen after the war, and I went to the national championships in this sport. I did not win the championship, but that did not bother me in the least bit. I knew how to fence well and I trained with the future the Olympic champion, Torma Ilve (sp?). I stopped playing this sport after a finger on my left hand was injured. I started wrestling and in short time I won the national championship. During this time, I also practiced yoga for two years which gave me exceptional energy. With difficult work and even more difficult sports training, I reached my 20th year. When I finished technical high school in the summer of 1949, I felt like the world lay before my feet.

The Eastern Hungarian Public Warehouses was the administrative headquarters for all kinds of mills and warehouses serving Eastern Hungary. They advertised a position to manage their technical department, and the person had to have graduated from technical school and also had to know how to write shorthand. The advertisement seemed incomprehensible, because what purpose could there be for both a technical education and shorthand skills? If someone has a technical job, they would not need to do secretary work. And if someone is in a management position, then they would have a secretary to prepare their letters and other writings. 

 

As far as I know, I was the only person in the whole country with both of these skills. I responded to the advertisement, and they told me that I was the only one who had applied for the job. They immediately hired me and I took over leadership of the technical department.

 

I worked there for three months, and I never once needed to use a typewriter or write in shorthand because I had a secretary who handled all of this work for me. I believe that if I had stayed there instead of going off to the university, I could have spent my entire life in that position. I was paid 900 Forint per month which was twice the salary of a typical mechanical technician (a person who maintains and repairs industrial machines). This pay was so good that after I finished Technical University of Budapest and started to work as a mechanical engineer in Budapest, the pay was 1100 Forint. But at the time, I did not know that I would end up attending university, and so this position was truly an exceptional and well-paying job.

 

III.         Technical University of Budapest

A.                Desire to attend University

For three reasons, I wanted to continue my education at the university level

 

The first reason was to improve my chances of attracting a girl whom I’d first met in the winder of 1946. She was Vigh Adrienne, the younger sister of Vigh Barna, my technical high school classmate. Barna and I became close friends because we were the only ex-military boys in the school. He had trained for naval artillery at Nagyvarad, and I had trained for flight school in 1943.

 

In the winter of 1946, Barna suggested we go skiing. I didn’t have any skis, but Barna said he had two pairs. So on a Saturday afternoon I went to his home, and there I met his younger sister Adi. I did not enjoy skiing, and so I did not visit his home again. But in the spring of 1947, Barna’s mother died, and a few of us from the school went to her burial, where I saw his little sister a second time. At the time, Adika (little Adi) was 16-years old and exceptionally pretty. I could never forget that beautiful little girl as she cried during the funeral.

 

In the fall of 1947, Barna was not admitted for the second year of school because he had a very sharp, hostile attitude towards the Communists and the entire socialist system. By that time, the Communists had taken political power into their hands, and they had power to deny admittance to anyone who opposed them and to exclude them from institutions. At the time, we did not know that the Communists would soon exercise complete power throughout Hungary. Barna moved in with his father in Budapest and continued technical school there.

 

I did not meet Adi again until two years later. Her school and mine were sister institutions that organized joint activities for sports or other things. Sometimes we saw one another at these events, but we did not talk. Meanwhile, I became somewhat well-known at wrestling tournaments and many girls talked about me. I think this is how Adrienne became aware of me.

 

On May 1, 1949, the two schools combined for the customary May Day political parade. Before it started, I went to Adi, who at the time was an incredibly beautiful 18 years old girl, and I spoke with her for a few minutes. We agreed to meet on Sunday at the Nagy Templom. After that, we met every Sunday at the Nagy Templom, and afterward we went to her grandmother’s house, who lived nearby. This was the same home where I had visited Barna for ski lessons in 1946.

 

Adi lived at her older brother’s house, which was 1 ½ km away. He was a lieutenant colonel and a very strict man. He had imposed a 9 pm curfew for her. Adi lived with him until she finished middle school, after which she moved to Budapest to live with her father, who was legal counsel for the Ministry of Agriculture. After Adi’s mother died, her father married his secretary from work.

 

Among other things during our Sunday visits at the Nagy Templom and her grandmother’s house, I learned that Adi’s father had big plans for his very beautiful daughter. He had shown her picture around the office, and many young attorneys could barely wait until Adi completed school and moved to Budapest, so they could start to court her. Considering her brother was a lieutenant colonel, and her father a juris doctorate counselor for a ministerium, her head was in the clouds and she declared she would only marry a diplomat. As a general matter this all sounded believable, and I simply couldn’t imagine that I had any chance to win Adi if I had nothing more than a technical school degree. So no matter how comfortable I felt with my monthly 900 Forint job as the head of the technical department, my relationship with Adi had become very serious, and neither one of us wanted to end it.  So I knew I needed a University degree to become an acceptable prospect for her.

 

My second reason was that as the society developed after World War II, there was an enormous shortage of engineers. There was a lot of propaganda describing the need for engineers, and the government offered great assistance to train engineers.

 

My third reason was the never-ending encouragement from my father to continue learning. He said I had a good head, and that he was very proud of me.

 

B.    University Entrance Exams

 

For these reasons, I showed up at the Technical University of Budapest to take the entrance exam. My exceptional academic record and scholarly recognitions were enough to get me an invitation to attend a 10-day entrance exam, paid for by the University. I believed it would be a pretty easy test.

 


 

I was surprised to learn that aside from myself, there were about 900 other students who also had excellent grades and academic recognitions. In total, more than 2,500 candidates vied for only 250 openings available to technical school graduates.  

 

Another 400 openings were given without any entrance exam requirement to so-called “vocational graduates,” which meant nothing more than the children of Communist party gang members who had worked in some trade, or had attended elementary school, or in the best case had finished some form of high school. But all that really mattered was that they were children of Communist Party members.  These admittees were given a year of training to familiarize them with technical school materials, and then they were admitted to the university without any entrance exam.

 

These vocational students were the Party’s trustworthy members. It was understood that if they could even barely stumble through four years of university, they would get the jobs as directors or chief engineers.  But no matter how often school administrators were ordered to not fail these students, still only about 20% of the vocational students could complete the university courses, or about 80 of the 400 who started. It did not bother the Party that these students took away openings from hundreds of others who had graduated from a proper technical school, and who could have become engineers. After all, the Communist party members who graduated did not really need to have technical knowledge, it was mostly important that they could be trusted politically and that they could show they had graduated.

 

The entrance exams were very difficult. Students like me from the countryside were put up in dorms next to the University, four to a room. We walked to the University for testing. The testing material was organized such that it required 10 days to complete. We were tested 8 hours per day, from 8:00 am to noon, and from 1:00 pm to 5:00 pm. We had breakfast at 7:00 am, lunch from noon to 1:00 pm, and dinner from 6 to 7 pm.

 

The accommodations were excellent, they had delicious food and plenty of it. We had free time at night and everyone could do what they wanted. Because we had no idea what the following day’s test would cover, there was no reason to worry about what tomorrow might bring. We would typically go as a group to walk next to the Danube, up Gellert Hill, or to Margaret Island, which during the summer was an enormous and very lovely park. We just had to be home before the gates closed at 11 pm. The dorms housed several hundred students on Bartok Bela street in the Gellert hill neighborhood.

 


In 1948 there was a World Youth Fair, when young people from the whole world gathered in Budapest. For that occasion they had completely repainted the dorm building inside and out and exterminated the pests. When we arrived about a year later, it was still almost entirely new. The building reminded me of an enormous castle, having a huge garden with trees that were hundreds of years old, walking paths, benches to rest on, tennis and badminton courts, grassy meadows where hundreds of people sunbathed and students studied. It was all majestic and overwhelming. At that time, there was hardly any vehicle traffic and the entire neighborhood was blessed with peace and fresh air.

 

The 10 days of testing flew by and then everyone returned home to wherever they had come from. I knew I had done well on the technical parts of the test, but there were literary and political questions that I was not very good at. I returned home to Debrecen with the feeling that they would not accept me because of the literary subjects.

 

After some nerve-wracking weeks I received a letter from the Univeristy’s admittance department. At the time, they did not have modern computers and it took them a long time to slowly grade the 2,500 exams. The letter informed me that I scored in 243rd place, and therefore I made the 250 student cutoff  and was admitted to the Technical University of Budapest. Also, due to my excellent qualifications, the government offered me a scholarship. And because I lived outside Budapest, I was also offered a place in the dorms along plus 100 Forint per month for spending money. The letter told me that I could return my acceptance by mail to the University.

 

For days I could not control my excitement. Only two people in Debrecen had earned admittance to a mechanical engineering university, and I was the only one admitted to the Technical University of Budapest. The other went to the Miskolc Heavy Industry University, which at the time was a newly formed school. This other student was Ferenc Ury, who had graduated from the Calvinist high school and was the son of a Calvanist priest. Our lives intersected in interesting ways multiple times, both in Hungary and in America, which I’ll explain later.

 

I realized my situation was very favorable. I had been presented with the opportunity to obtain a university degree, which was a very important development for me. I could have stayed in my well-paying director’s position, and who knows how much easier and calmer my life would have been. But for me, it was an enormous calling to break out of my status as the son of two parents who had spent their lives laboring.

 

I could see in Adi’s face how happy she was to hear this news. She could gladly accept marriage to a mechanical engineer. My father was beside himself with joy and pride. For years, he had been telling the entire railway community about my accomplishments, and that community held me out as an example for their children to follow; they considered my acceptance to the Technical University of Budapest as an enormous accomplishment. I hadn’t even know that the MÁV Board of Directors in Debrecen regarded me as an exceptionally-talented young man based on my success in both academics and in sports, but they congratulated me and wished me success in my university studies.

 

At this point, there was no turning back. But I didn’t want to anyway. I figured that if I could not become a fighter pilot, then I’d become a mechanical engineer. And that’s what I did.

 

C.                University

 

In the autumn of 1949, I moved to Budapest. The dorms were right next to the Technical University of Budapest. Three students lived in one room, and we ate at the restaurant located at the University. We could enter and exit the University with a photo ID. The food was exceptional quality and quantity. The tables had white tablecloths, where soup and bread was already laid out on the tables and we could start with that when we arrived. Waiters brought out the main course and desserts. After dinner, we left everything on the table and the waiters cleaned up. This restaurant was known for its large size and excellent service, and that a meal never required more than half an hour, regardless of whether it was for breakfast, lunch or dinner. The University ID included the notation that the bearer was authorized restaurant services.

 

Of the many thousands of students, not everyone could use the restaurant, only those with scholarships and those who lived in the dorms.

 

During the first year, we spent 70 hours per week in classroom lectures and practical workshops. Sunday was our free time. But there was so much to learn, that for all practical purposes, everyone spent it studying. Every one or two weeks we had to write essays on a topic that had not been pre-announced; they just dropped it on us like lightning.

 

Each year consisted of 10 months of study, and we had finals after every 5 months. In certain topics we had an annual comprehensive competency exam which tested us on everything in the subject matter. Courses for the main subjects lasted two years, with finals every five months, and then the comprehensive competency exam at the end of second year, where everything from the prior two years was tested.

 

It was not an accident that the Communist vocational students who had entered without graduation from a technical school dropped like flies. Eighty percent of them were weeded out during the four years, and even the Communist Party couldn’t help them. Graduating from high school was necessary to understand university courses, and without which it would have been nearly impossible to understand the math, physics, mechanics, kinetics, kinematics, aerodynamics, chemistry, integral and differential calculus, just to mention a few.

 

The coursework was exactly the same each year for all students. It was not like American universities where students can choose which courses they take to earn a diploma.

 

The studying was difficult, but the tests were strictly disciplined and fairly administered. We were divided into groups of 18-20 students to be tested by a professor or a docent. Everyone who tested on a given day was present in the testing center. Students waiting to be tested were called in alphabetical order. When it was our turn, we’d walk to the desk by the chalkboard and pick up a paper with three questions, each of which was written such that it could only be answered correctly if the student understand all of the material. Answering often required use of the chalkboard to draw diagrams or to write out equations. If someone got stuck, the professor would try to help them out, often by asking them relevant questions.

 

If it appeared the student was completely lost and likely to fail, the test administrator would ask more general questions so that the student could at least pass with a low grade and thereby avoid having to retake the course altogether. But if even this did not help, then the student was required to take a makeup exam, which could happen any time before the following academic year started. And if they failed that, they could take yet another makeup exam. But if they failed that, they would have to repeat the year. It was a great tragedy for students who had to repeat a year; they lost all privileges, scholarships, free housing, and free food.

 

The final grade was a combination of the assignments that had been given throughout the year and the final exam. Grades were outstanding, exceptional, good, medium, satisfactory, and unsatisfactory. Students with a scholarship had to maintain “good” grades or they would lose the scholarship.

 

D.                Christmas Break

During the Christmas break I returned home to Debrecen to see my parents and to see Adrienne. By then, we had grown very close to one another. It was fantastic to have a break and to unwind a bit, but mostly it was amazing to completely intertwine with Adi. So much so, that six weeks later Adi told me in great distress that she was pregnant, and asked, what would we do?

 

At that time, incredibly strict laws prevented abortions. If any doctor was caught performing the procedure, all of their property would be taken away, they would lose their medical license, and they could also get 10-15 years in prison. Fortunately, my nurse mother knew a doctor who performed abortions for a steep price, and fortunately, Adi got past this first pregnancy. But this incident only strengthened our love for one another, and made it more permanent.


 

E.                Second Semester

The second semester started after Christmas break. There was an enormous amount to learn. The 70 hours per week spent in lectures somehow increased to 75-80 hours. Almost without noticing it, the summer arrived and with that the first year was completed. The big exams followed, and we had to take a competency exam in those subjects where the course was only one year long.

 

[VAS: Although this gets little mention, those months must have been filled with a good bit of anxiety.  If Adi approached him six weeks after Christmas with the news of her pregnancy, it would have been about mid-February. And the process of arranging and worrying about the abortion likely consumed another month or so, into March or April.]

 

F.                 University Roommates

Two other students lived with me in the dorm room, and both of them were vocational students.  Istvan was a few years old than I was, and Laszlo a few years younger.

 

Istvan was a resident of Budapest. In the autumn of 1945 his father had sent him to the store to buy a pack of cigarettes. He went to Nyugati Train Station to buy the cigarettes, but it just bad luck that just at that time, Russians soldiers were rounding up civilian prisoners and placing them onto trains for deportation. But the soldiers were short a few people from what was on their list. When this happened, it was the Russian practice to just abduct any nearby civilian to satisfying the original number they needed. The Russians nabbed Istvan and forced him onto the train.  He was thus disappeared to the Soviet Union, where he worked for five years in a coal mine. The slow-moving Soviet court system finally allowed him to leave because it had no paper trail for why he had been taken five years earlier. After returning home, he became a machine locksmith and joined the Communist Youth Association, or KISZ for short, which was the youth organization of the Communist party.

 

It was a curious situation that many who returned home from Siberian prisons later joined the Communist Party. It appears that during their long years of captivity they saw the benefit Communist Party membership, and believed it was needed if they wanted to make something of themselves. If they were young, they would join KISZ, and get the various political benefits it offered for their advancement. That’s what Istvan’s experience showed; he was admitted to the Technical University of Budapest without graduating high school or taking an entrance exam, something that would have been impossible had he not joined KISZ.

 

Laszlo was extremely serious about his education. He was among the few vocational students who graduated from the University based on his diligent and thorough studying habits.

 

Laszlo, my other roommate, was an entirely different matter. He came from a poor peasant family that had moved to Budapest to work in a locksmith factory, where after three years he could expect to become an apprentice, and after another 3-4 years might have become a master locksmith. But with him, his Communist relatives stepped in with pretty remarkable results. His mother’s older sister became the speaker of the Hungarian Parlaiment due to her Communist Party membership, for which the American equivalent is the Speaker of the House of Representatives. Her husband, who had been a shoemaker before the war, became the head of the Hungarian Army’s political department. The leader of the Hungarian Communist Party, Comrade Rakosi (the Hungarian Prime Minister), promoted this uncle from being a shoemaker straight to the rank of Colonel-in-Chief. It did not matter what education or intelligence someone had, all that mattered was devotion to the party.

 

Even Laszlo had no idea what he had gotten into with the help of this relatives. He barely finished the first year with enormous difficulty. During that following summer, his Colonel-in-Chief uncle wanted to send him to a Russian military academy for officer training school. The son of one of my father’s train-engineer colleagues joined a group tat went to this academy, and four years later returned as a Russian military academy graduate and a staff captain. And just a few years later was promoted to a general in the Hungarian Army and helped to reorganize it in the Russian model. These KISZ youth were admitted in the same manner to the Russian military academy in the same manner they were admitted to the Technical University, without graduating any school. The only training they received was in the two summer months before they left, mostly in the Russian language and in political subjects. After a successful test they were made lieutenants and sent to Russia. But Laszlo mental abilities were lacking, and he was not even deemed good enough to satisfy these basic requirements.

 

So, as a consolation, the Colonel-in-Chief promoted him to the position of First Lieutenant and he continued at the University in a military engineering group.

 

When we returned in the autumn, our eyes could not believe what we saw standing in the room with us. This guy who was widely known to have the intellectual ability of dirty dishrag was now an Air Force lieutenant and the senior officer of the military engineering group. We had known nothing of his aunt’s and uncle’s dizzying careers or their influence, we only learned that later from reading newspapers that they were Laszlo’s relatives. As expected, they graduated Laszlo as a major, and you can be sure that soon enough he was promoted to a colonel. When he received those dizzying promotions, I was working in a coal mine as a political prisoner.

 

I do not know what became of my roommates, or where the 1956 revolution scattered them. In the interest of saving my own life, destiny led me here to the United States.

 

G.               Bedbugs, Internship, and Express Train

 

Around the end of the first year, bedbugs appeared in the dorms. There had also been bedbugs in my Debrecen apartment, and I absolutely hated them. Because of this I knew I could not live in the dorms during my second year.

 


During the summer of 1950, all who had just finished their first-year had to complete a month-long internship. In Debrecen, the MAV train wagon and locomotive factories were the best opportunities for me. That month quickly passed, and the second month was free.  It was during this internship that I met Ury Ferenc, both of us having gone to technical university, he to Miskolc University and I to Budapest.

 

After the internship, MAV management rewarded me by giving me permission to drive the locomotive pulling the Budapest-Debrecen express train, and to study its operation in practice. MAV believed that as a child of a railway working, I would work for them as a mechanical engineer after I graduated, and so my locomotive driving “practice” was approved.

 

The express train left at 6 am. On the morning of my trip, my father accompanied me to the station.  The locomotive engineer for the day knew in advance that I would be traveling with him, and my name had already been entered into the official travel schedule.  By chance, my father had personally trained this engineer, and I knew him personally. He knew that I had been driving all kinds of locomotivies since I was a child, and he also knew that I had spent two years in flight school, four years in a technical high school, and one year at the Technical University, and he was happy that he would not need to spend his time with a total beginner. This was the express train my father had driven every day for 10 years, and that’s another reason this trip was very exciting for me. Of course, I could not have performed the job of stoker (shoveling coal into the engine) because I lacked both the skill and the strength, but I was both physically and emotionally mature enough to drive the locomotive.

 

 

The engineer handled our departure from the Debrecen station while I just watched. The first stop was at Hajdúszoboszló. By then, he had turned control over to me. I slowed the train to a stop without any jerking. I received the travel order from the traffic officer, and signed my name to it. The train was mine through the next eight stations. When we arrived to the outskirts of Budapest, I gladly returned control to the real train engineer because I was not familiar with the crowded railways and switching labyrinth.

 

When we arrived at Nyugati train station, Adi was waiting for me. By then, she had moved in with her father in Budapest; she had graduated from school and wanted to attend college in Budapest. We barely had a few hours to spend together because the train departed for the return trip at 2 pm. Fortunately, the train engineer did not need me to be present, or require me to stay with the train. I had told him in advance that a girl would be waiting for me and that I’d like to spend time with her. He understood this, he just cautioned me that I had better be there before the train departed because he could not wait for me.

 

Adi and I had lunch and then we sat in the sun next to the Danube. We returned to the station half an hour before the train left. I drove the train all the way home until we reached the borders of Debrecen, where I returned control to the engineer due to the many switches and signs. No matter how interesting and enjoyable the trip was, I realized that the job comes with enormous responsibility and required great attention, even in nice and clear weather. I could imagine how nerve-wracking it must be during the winter months, in snow storms or fog. I could much better understand and feel the difficult service my father performed as a stoker for 10 years on that same express train, except  while I had been sitting and looking around on the entire trip, he had been shoveling 280 bushels of coal, and had to remove the slag three times from the furnace, an assignment that would have been impossible for a normal person.

 

IV.          Second Year of University.

A.                Apartment Rental

 

Because Adi was in Budapest and I had a free month during the summer, I spent half of it with her.

 

Before returning to school, I rented a room near the University from a retired ministerium counselor. His home had a small servant’s room that I entered through the kitchen, and it therefore had a totally separate entrance. The room had a bed, couch, desk, chair and a cabinet for clothing.

 

The problem was that it did not have a heater. During the winter, I could warm it a little by boiling some water in the kitchen, and then pouring that into a bucket in the room.  That did not make the room warm, but the heat took the edge off the freezing cold a little bit. There as a large window in the room that opened into the hallway, and that became the secret entrance when Adi came to visit and wanted to enter without the landlord knowing. This was especially helpful when she slept over and could exit through the window early in the morning without the need to open doors and walk through the main room.

 

The home was nice and clean. Every week the landlord cleaned the bedsheets and the rent was very reasonable. The University was a 15-minute walk away, and that level of activity in the morning was good to have. But most importantly, there were none of the hated bugs that I had at the dorms.

 

Those from the countryside who did not live in the dorms received an academic stipend. I received the largest possible amount because I was a good student. The amount was about half of an engineer’s wages. After rent and food, I still had about half for spending money.

 

B.                Asking Permission for Courtship

 

After I moved into the small room, I considered it proper to ask for permission from Adi’s father to visit her at his home, and to court her. 

 

Adi’s father was a very strict, conceited, and loud man. He considered himself a very important person.  Over the course of an hour told me in a very condescending tone that he not only forbade me from ever coming to his house, but he also forbade me from meeting with his daughter outside the house, or even from writing her a letter, or daring to disturb her in any way whatsoever. He demanded that I forget about Adi, because he had big plans for her with the young lawyers at the ministerium who were waiting for the opportunity to meet her and to marry her. He told me that as a second-year University student I was a big nothing, and I would be that for many years, but that after I graduated I could then go introduce myself at some other girl’s home with a desire for courtship.

 

Never in my life had anyone hurt me as badly as this law school graduate, who considered himself a god. He embodied the common saying about lawyers, “If a lawyer had horns, he’d be a bull, but because he doesn’t have horns, he’s just a common cow.” Of all the degrees taught in the university, a legal degree was considered the dumbest and easiest to obtain. This man was a heartless tyrant, and as it later turned out he was a cowardly, spineless character who not only failed to meaningfully help others’ lives, he could not even organize his own life in a reasonable and lawful manner. He imagined himself the lord of life and death, and that with he could issue orders that everyone was required to obey, as if her were some king. It was utterly beyond him to ask about our relationship, or the love we shared, or to show concern about our future opportunities. He rejected me, banned me, forbade me from Adi without knowing even the tiniest thing about our romantic relationship. He simply gave the order: Sipos Elek no longer existed and his daughter Adi was unapproachable.

 

What this tyrannical father did not know was that Adi and I were already past the dating and courtship stage, and we were already “irredeemably” in love with one another, and by this point, nobody could give us orders for the future steps. But especially not someone like him, who had left his heartsick wife and two grown children in his mother-in-law’s house and in her care, while he went off to Budapest and finagled his way through the new Communist government until he landed a legal job with the Ministry of Agriculture. [Skipping a few sentences where he speculates about how Adi’s father might have gotten this job based on family connections.]

 

Because I did not visit her at her home, we always had to meet elsewhere. Typically we ate dinner near the University, walked in the evening, and at night my apartment became a brilliant hiding place. Adi often slept there, and in the quite dawn hours she stepped out the window and went home.

 

Occasionally, we went to Debrecen to her grandmother’s place, who was quite rich and happily saw us. My parents also lived in Debrecen, but I always slept with Adi at her grandmother’s house. The grandmother did not like Adi’s father because he had abandoned his sick wife and two children when he went to Budapest, and so she felt satisfaction when we embraced her. When we went to Debrecen, Adi spent a few days before and after the trip living with me, and she told her father that she had also spent those days in Debrecen.

 

Adi did not like living with her father because her step-mother, and mostly the step-mother’s mother, did not treat her well. The step-mother was jealous of Adi who resembled her dead mother. Adi’s father loved Adi and always saw in her his dead wife whom he had left in Debrecen, and was not with her when she needed him the most. His job and his young secretary was more important to him than his sick wife. As soon as Adi’s mother died, he immediately took to wife his young secretary, who was only 11 years older than Adi.

 

But mostly it was that step-mother’s mother who could not tolerate Adi. The quarrels become ever louder, and then turned into physical abuse where both women would attack and slap Adi, they even beat her with a broomstick. Adi came to me more than once with blue-green bruises on her face and arms, and the situation became intolerable.

 

Despite all the prohibitions the father had laid down, I visited these women and told them they had better stop abusing Adi, or it would not end well for them.

 

C.                Proposal

 

During one of the Debrecen visits, I told Adi’s grandmother that we were determined to get married as soon as possible, and I asked the grandmother if I could take Adi’s hand. I explained I would not allow those two witches to continue to beat Adi.

 

In that time, it was a truly difficult problem to find a home. But we found a newspaper advertisement for a sublease, and after looking at it, we decided it would suit our purposes just fine. By this time, Adi was working in Buda for the Central Statistical Office, which by chance was very close to this apartment.

 

By September 1951, I was in my third year of the Technical University. My monthly stipend was 420 Forint.  I also earned 600 Foring per month because I worked 20 hours per week as an intern in the most prestigious automobile research institute in the country, where I prepared to be a future vehicle engineer.  Adi earned 1100 Forint.  In his way, our combined salary greatly exceeded a typical engineer’s salary of about 1600 Forint. With this, we could easily envision that in two years, when I graduated and had a secure job, we could easily get by. At the time, we didn’t even know that I would soon be asked to teach in the institute’s technical school, where I could earn yet another 680 Forint per month. This way, we earned about 3,000 Forint per month, and from this we could live in luxury.

 

One evening before the wedding, we invited Adi’s father to dinner at a restaurant. I told the old man that we would get married on Saturday of the following week, and if he had the time and wanted to attend, then we would happily see him. I also told him that if those two female personages dared to lay even a finger on my fiancé, I would personally tear down the door and beat them so badly that they would not forget it for the rest of their lives. I told my future father-in-law that he should be ashamed that those two fiery female specimens had punched his daughter, and had beaten her with a broomstick, and that Adi had not retaliated against them. I asked what kind of house he ran where they dared do this to his 20-year old daughter? I informed him that I would no longer tolerate this situation, and whether he liked it or not, I would save Adi from such an impossible situation, and that I would take her as wife regardless of whether he consented or forbade it.

 

That spineless, peevish man couldn't find any words to say. He knew I was a national wrestling champion, and that I could spread out three doodles like him on the street if he wanted to fight about it. But he did not want that. He burst into tears, crying that this was not the life he envisioned for his daughter, but that even he could no longer stand to live with those two females who had also poured boiling water onto him during one of their fights. He said he knew that we were correct, and that he would support our marriage. He was also surprised to hear about our financial situation, because he had not considered that as a University student I could already earn an engineer’s wage, and that I already had two jobs beside my schooling.

 

D.                Marriage

 

The following weekend, on October 6, 1951, Adi and I married in Debrecen. After the wedding, we had lunch in the Aranybika (Golden Bull) and then visited further with Adi’s grandmother. We then traveled by express train to Budapest, where our home awaited us.

 

 

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