Autobiography Index

My Institute ÉTI, together with OKI (the National Institute of Public Health) and the State Nurse Training Institute (ÁVI), belonged to the same communist party cell, and they had joint meetings for members. This is how I came to know the Director of ÁVI, Renáta Bazsik.

There were about 300 girls studying in the ÁVI, all 20-25 years old. I and others were enthusiastic visitors of Renáta - in fact, of course, we went to see the girls. After a while Renáta asked me: "In all honesty, whom are you interested in, Márta Bohus or Erzsi (Elizabeth) Erdész"? I indicated my preference for the latter, and Renáta suggested I tell this to Erzsi myself. I did. Erzsi was a well-read girl, and read the same kinds of books as I, and we had many common tastes. I knew that she had recently graduated from the Nursing School, after which she was not sent out to the countryside to be a public health nurse, to visit families and to give lectures - instead, she was retained as a teacher at the School. For a while I was convinced that, like most nurses, she was from a peasant family - even though I was surprised by the breadth of her reading and her knowledge of a foreign language (French). When things started getting serious, I discovered that her father, Ernő Erdész, was a teacher of Latin and Greek in the Jewish High School in Budapest, while her mother, Jelka (Helena) Fürst was from the Fürst family, a family originally from Prague, but more recently from the southern provinces (known in Hungarian as Délvidék (southern region) or Bácska, it was Hungarian until the end of World War I, then it became Vojvodina, part of Yugoslavia, and now it is part of Serbia).

The father of Ernő Erdész had been a teacher with a large family but little money. When Ernő was a university student, he earned his living as secretary to a wealthy aristocrat. In addition to the classical languages, he also learned Modern Greek, although he never had the occasion or the money to actually visit Greece. After he graduated, his first posting was to the high school of a small town called Újverbász (now Vrbas in Vojvodina, Serbia) in what was then southern Hungary. A friend who knew the town said to him: "If you go to Újverbász, Ernő, you will get to know the Fürst family, with many pretty girls. You will surely marry one of them." And this is exactly what happened. After World War I, Újverbász was taken from Hungary and attached to the newly created Serb, Croat and Slovene State (later to be called Yugoslavia). In order to keep his job as a high-school teacher, Ernő Erdész would have had to swear allegiance to the new state, which he, as a patriotic Hungarian, refused to do. As a result, he had to leave the country and he moved to Budapest with his family, where for a long time they lived, as refugees, in a railway carriage on the Buda side of the Danube. Only much later did they move to No.30, Damjanich Street in Pest, close to the Jewish High School, where they still lived when I came to know them. Erzsi was born in 1923. While still living in Buda, Ernő spent a lot of his time playing chess in the famous Hadik Café, with people like the famous writer Frigyes Karinthy (whose son Ferenc, also a well-known writer, married my cousin Ági after World War II). In primary school, one of Erzsi's classmates was Márta Kaiser, whose father owned the Hadik Café, and who later on was a good friend of mine, as described in Part 3.

After a short courtship I asked Erzsi to marry me. At first she said that she did not want to start a family, "I don't want to reproduce myself", as she put it. After a while I came to discover that she had had a rather dismal childhood and had little self-confidence. She had a brother, László Erdész, who was trained as a lawyer, and worked as a military judge, and later as a judge in Juvenile Court. She also had a sister, Judit Erdész, who by this time was married to András Vidor. Both her brother and her sister were quite a bit older than herself - they had been born before World War I, while she was born after it, in 1923. Erzsi's father was absorbed by his philological studies - I still have one of his thick notebooks, full of Greek writing, I have no idea what it is about. Erzsi's mother was always very busy, looking for various ways of earning some extra money, as a teacher's salary was not very large. So she sewed, she bought and resold things, and had little time for her younger daughter. Because of the anti-Jewish laws then in effect, Erzsi in any case could not hope to go to university or college or get a reasonable job, so that she dropped out of high school at the age of 16. Since she had a talent for drawing, she started to attend the private art school run on Damjanich Street, near the Erdész apartment, by the well-known graphic artist Álmos Jaschik (1885-1950). There she studied drawing, painting and the graphic arts. Later on she was able to make illustrated lampshades to order, and earned some money this way. After the war, however, she wanted to move away from home, and enrolled in the residential nursing school from where she graduated as a nurse after 3 or 4 years of study.

I continued to pursue her, and asked her again to marry me, which she again refused. I then decided to go on vacation to Lake Balaton, to the resort called Fonyód. After a few days Erzsi followed me, and finally we did decide to get married - we set the date at about a week away, to June 15th, 1949. We returned to Budapest, I introduced Erzsi to my parents, she introduced me to hers, we introduced the two sets of parents to each other, and everything was proceeding smoothly.

Meanwhile I received an invitation from the friends I had made in Switzerland to accompany them on a weekend boat trip of the Danube, upriver to Visegrád. Had I gone, my fate might have been quite different...

On June 15th the Director of OKI (my institute) assigned one of his official cars to us to use as we liked during the day. On the way to Budafok I realized that we had no wedding ring, so we stopped at a jeweller's and bought two fitted rings. Then on to Budafok City Hall, where both sets of parents were already waiting for us. So was Comrade Polacsek, our old friend, who was both Mayor and Notary Public for the town, and he married us in 5 minutes. There was no real ceremony, we put the rings on our fingers, kissed each other and that was it. All of us then went to my parents' house for lunch. There was good food, wine and conversation, the two old couples came to know and like each other. Then we went back to Pest to have an afternoon snack at Erzsi's parents' place, then back to ÁVI, where to our surprise there was a big dinner laid on in our honour. I was the only man there, having dinner with about 350 student nurses. There was singing, short speeches, good wishes, joking references to the coming hours and days - but no-one could have predicted what was to happen next day.

Because of its name, I had reserved a room at the Hotel Erzsébet on Szabadság (Liberty) Hill in the Buda mountains. This was a bearable mistake - the hotel was full of elderly residents and guests, we were quite out of place as honeymooners. Still, we had the room and finally we were alone.

We had our cold shower next day. We stepped out into a beautiful sunny day, in order to walk in the nicely restored park of the hotel, and we bought a copy of the newspaper Szabad Nép ("Free People" - this was the communist daily). We were shocked to read the headlines: this was the first announcement of the indictment of the Hungarian Foreign Minister, László Rajk for treason - the full accusation was not published until September. But already on that day, June 16th, the names of many of my acquaintences from my days in Switzerland were among the accused. Among them was Tibor Szőnyi (an official of the Central Committee of the Communist Party), András Kálmán (section head in the Ministry of Health), György and Róza (Ri) Demeter (both factory directors), György Hódos (Budapest correspondent of the Swiss daily Neue Zürcher Zeitung) and György Somló (director of the explosives manufacturer Nitrokémia). They had all been my friends or acquaintances in Switzerland, and I could not imagine that any of them could be a traitor - they were all much more committed communists than I was. My main reason for joining the Party in 1945 was that I had seen during the war in Italy that the most effective opposition to the Nazis and their Italian henchmen was mounted by the Italian communist guerrillas.

In any case, these news made us very anxious. For many weeks and months I expected the authorities to knock on our door and take me away as well. Later on I came to know that Ri Demeter was indeed interrogated in detail about what she knew about me: it seems that I could have been picked up, but in the end they had enough victims already to submit to physical and mental torture in order to force them to make false confessions. Another reason why they may not have been too interested in me was that I did not have a high position, and did not look for one either - I preferred to remain a research chemist.

Of the persons I mentioned, Rajk and Szőnyi were executed, and András Kálmán committed suicide in 1952 while in jail, when he thought he may also be accused of having participated in a Zionist conspiracy. The others all spent time in jail, and were released in 1954 after Stalin's death in 1953. They were rehabilitated, and as compensation for their suffering most of them were given passports and allowed to leave the country. Only György Somló stayed on, indeed he rejoined the Communist Party.

This was therefore our wedding gift: the Rajk trial, and the months of constant fear that followed it. In addition, starting just one week after our wedding Erzsi had to attend two weeks of Party School at Gödöllő (a town just east of Budapest). Most of the time there was spent on "explaining" the details of the Rajk trial. Few people believed the accusations, but no-one dared to question them.

So this is what happened on June 16th. Next day, the 17th, was my mother's birthday. Given our mental state, we really did not feel like travelling out to Budafok, so I phoned a friend of mine and asked him to buy her some flowers and send them to her in my name. Then I phoned to wish her a happy birthday.