Obituary: Bela Szsz

THE BEST-KNOWN political prisoner of Communist regimes in our century was probably a fictitious character, Rubashov, the self-deprecating hero of Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon. Rubashov of course confessed unimaginable crimes "for the good of the Party"; his very opposite was a Hungarian who after his youthful engagement in the Communist cause became the would-be star of the most sensational show-trial of post-war Eastern Europe, but who - to the dismay of his interrogators and tormentors - never confessed to crimes which he had never committed. His name was Bela Szsz.

Born in 1910 in Szombathely (in Roman times known as "Savaria") near the Austrian border, Szsz came from a family of the Hungarian gentry. After attending a Catholic grammar school in his home town, in 1928 he continued his education in Budapest, where after a short spell as a student at the University of Economics he transferred to the Philology Faculty of Peter Pzmny University to study French and Hungarian. In 1930 he went to Paris and it was at the Sorbonne that he first became interested in politics - he decided to seek contacts with Communists once back in Hungary.

At the time, the Communist Party was illegal in Hungary, so in 1932 Szsz was arrested as a member of a Communist cell of students and sentenced to three months' imprisonment. He began publishing poems and articles soon after his return from Paris and edited a number of short-lived magazines with a radical left-wing bent such as Kortrs ("Contemporary"), Virradat ("Dawn") and Szabadon ("At Large").

In 1937 his interest in film-making took Szsz to Paris, where he completed a course as a cameraman and it was partly this interest which made him emigrate even farther away - to South America, where for some time he was distributor of the short films of the Gaumont Studio. The Second World War found Szsz in Buenos Aires, where he became active in local politics both as Secretary to the Movement of Free Hungarians (an anti-Fascist movement initiated by Count Mihaly Karolyi) and as editor to the Hungarian- language journal of the Movement.

In 1946 Szsz returned with his family to Hungary, full of expectations about the future of the new, democratic regime. After a short period in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs he was directed by the Communist Party to the Ministry of Agriculture where he became Head of the Press Department.

In May 1949, he was arrested by the secret police. As a Hungarian Communist with international contacts who had lived abroad, he seemed to be the ideal person "to connect" the freshly arrested Laszlo Rajk, a veteran of the Spanish Civil War, with American intelligence agencies. Szsz was tortured, endlessly interrogated, deprived of sleep, but he was determined not to give in. Apart from Hungarian security police he was on occasion interrogated by the Soviet KGB officers who were "running" all anti-Titoist show trials in Central East Europe. Because of his stubborn refusal to co-operate, he was dropped by the interrogators and in a side-trial of the Rajk case sentenced to 10 years' imprisonment.

It was only after Stalin's death in 1953 that victims of the show trials were rehabilitated - Szsz was released in 1954. He married again and for two years worked for Budapest publishing houses, both as editor and translator, rendering into Hungarian novels by Perez Galdos and Theodor Fontane: he was also responsible for a modernised translation of Cervantes' Don Quixote which was reissued after 1956 under someone else's name.

On 6 October 1956, when the remains of the rehabilitated Laszlo Rajk and his comrades were solemnly reburied in Budapest, it was Szsz who spoke at the funeral in the name of the victims. The gist of his speech could be summed up in the words: "Never again". So when a few weeks later the people's discontent boiled over into a revolution only to be suppressed by Soviet troops and Szsz was offered a leading position in the Kadar government, he asked for a passport instead. This was granted and in March 1957 he emigrated (via Vienna) to Britain, where he lived until his death.

Szsz's main reason for leaving Hungary was his determination to write his memoirs, the full account of the behind-the-scene-preparation of an infamous show trial. Minden kenyszer nelkul, first published in Brussels in 1963 under the pseudonym "Vincent Savarius", took him six years, but it is now recognised as a modern classic of the prison memoir. Apart from several later Hungarian editions (1979, 1989) it was translated into French (Volontaires pour l'echafaud, 1963), German (Freiwillige fur den Galgen, 1963) and finally English, under the title Volunteers for the Gallows (1971).

In this remarkable book Szsz managed to keep a certain detachment from his most horrifying experiences, describing the mechanism of Stalinist police terror in calm, measured tones and in a very readable style. Szsz's message could be expressed in the sentence: "There is no higher instance than one's own conscience, no higher value than one's integrity." While his book remained unpublishable in Hungary even after the full rehabilitation of Laszlo Rajk and others in 1962, various samizdat reprints circulated in the 1970s and 1980s, preparing generations of young Hungarians for a confrontation with the "crimes of Communism".

While living in England Szsz took part in Hungarian literary life. Between 1957 and 1961 he was on the editorial board of the London-based journal Irodalmi ujsg ("Literary Gazette"): he was also in charge from 1961 to 1963 of the Hungarian edition of the Imre Nagy Institute's periodical The Review, published under the title Szemle. He was a contributor to the collection of essays Ten Years After (1966), edited by Tamas Aczel.

Between 1965 and 1980 he worked for the Hungarian Section of the BBC and also wrote television documentaries (on the Hungarian revolution of 1956 and on the Spanish Civil War) for the German broadcasting company Westdeutsche Rundfunk. In 1963 he translated Milovan Djilas's book Conversations with Stalin into Hungarian (as Beszelgetesek Sztalinnal).

In 1980 he retired with his third wife, Joy, to Halesworth, Suffolk, and although in 1988 he published a short novel in Hungarian entitled Penelope es a lovag ("Penelope and the Knight") in Cologne, some of his later writing remains unpublished.

Szsz was a charming, warm person, with a good sense of humour, always ready to help anybody who asked him for help and trying to be fair even to those who did not deserve his trust and friendship. This is remarkable, if we consider the harrowing experiences to which he was subjected by a vicious totalitarian regime. In 1991 he received the Ius Humana Award and in 1998 he was decorated with the Officers Cross of the Hungarian Republic. Apart from its considerable literary values, Minden kenyszer nelkul is the best documentary account of an age of lawlessness that ruled over one-sixth of the world for a large part of the 20th century.

Bela Szsz, writer: born Szombathely, Hungary 8 July 1910; married 1939 Elspeth Meyer (one son; marriage dissolved 1951), 1955 Katalin Villnyi (marriage dissolved 1962), 1965 Joy Taylor; died Diss, Norfolk 25 June 1999.

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