George Paloczi-Horvath was born in 1908, the only child of an arranged marriage between two ancient Hungarian families from the northern landowning nobility who became Calvinists in the 16th century by way of disdain for the Catholic Austrian court. His mother was cast out when she divorced and re-married very happily into the educated, liberal, Europeanised middle class. George loved her world and unwillingly spent the summers with his father on the family estates.
It is mind-boggling to realise that in the Twenties and Thirties of this century people like his relatives still lived in feudal authority over millions. They no longer had the right to behead their peasants but could have them beaten, 'use' (the girls' own word) the young women, overwork men and women alike, crowd them into abject hovels, deny them education, medical care and adequate food. At the age of 15, George saw these conditions on his uncle's vast estate and was shocked into moral indignation. He spoke out at the dinner table where 30 'big red-faced men' ate gargantuan meals. He was ordered to leave the table, then the house; like his mother, banished forever. The boy's outrage against social injustice formed the man and his politics.
George became a journalist and reported throughout Europe on the rise and triumphs of Fascism. During these dread years, only the Communist Party organised steady opposition to the European dictators. The Communist Party in the Soviet Union was unknown. George knew and respected the small clandestine CP in Hungary.
In 1941, as the German army marched through Budapest en route to invade Yugoslavia, George escaped with false papers in the name of George Peter Howard, a French Canadian. His description of that frenzied flight, people desperate to leave Europe and the oncoming Nazis, is a brilliant reminder of a time now forgotten. He ended up in Cairo and joined the Hungarian section of the SOE. After the war he was in London: 'London was home.' His 'private self' wanted to stay, and he could have become a British subject; his 'public self' felt duty-bound to return to Hungary: 'I had thought of myself as a revolutionary for many years but did not enjoy the thought of a revolution imposed from above by foreign bayonets.'
For two years, the Hungarian government refused permission for him to return, but in February 1947 he was back in Budapest as editor of a left-liberal weekly similar to the New Statesman. Six months later he became a Party member. He says he brainwashed himself. He needed to believe that Communism was serving the people. 'My mood was that of a man who wanted to fall in love.' Less than two years later, he was arrested as a spy.
The prison saga reads like Kafka, but real; Kafka in action; Kafka cruelly mad. George makes it plain that he was not a special case; the jails were crammed with political prisoners. He was put into a cellar room, three yards by four, five paces in any direction. There was a high barred slit window into an airshaft, a plank bed, a light that burned night and day; a spy hole banged open and shut every five minutes. He was starved and cold. He was alone. Taken out only for interrogations, he answered unsatisfactorily, was beaten, deprived of sleep, ordered to stand without moving in front of a wall until he hallucinated and fainted. He refused to sign a confession that began by declaring his lifelong enmity for the working classes and went on into Kafka rubbish about spying. This solitary life lasted for 396 days. He kept his sanity by unbelievably brave, determined use of his memory, exact memory, for he feared madness if he lapsed into daydreaming.
For a week he was fiercely beaten because he gave the same answer to one question. Where did he meet the Hungarian Nobel Prize Winner in Science during the war? Istanbul, George said, and went on saying it because it was true. Each reply provided days and nights of torture. Finally
the exasperated interrogator shouted: 'You liar,
we have it here in writing that you met him
When he forced his tormentors to remove the sentence about being a lifelong enemy of the working class, he signed the rubbish. He was accused of serving the 'imperialist spy ring', the United Nations Association, an amalgam of groups of ordinary private citizens in the US and Britain who supported the work of the UN mainly by arranging lectures.
The judge came to rehearse him in his answers for the trial. He was tried with five others. The prosecutor asked for the death penalty but they had been hanging enough innocent people after propaganda trials and grown lenient. He received a sentence of 15 years. The five years that George Paloczi-Horvath spent in various Hungarian prisons are described calmly, factually. They make fascinating reading and are a wonder: because he came out intact. One day a guard led him to the prison door, opened it and waved him off. That was all. Later in Budapest the CP called him in and said sorry, it was a mistake, you can have your party card again. George said thank you, no; 'from now on I will be guided only by my own conscience'.
The lead-up to the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, the days of the Revolution and the final escape are a participant's view of a heroic historical event. History is a killer, but George Paloczi-Horvath, helplessly embroiled in its violence, survived to write a great adventure story.Reuse content