Forgotten prisoner returns to Hungary after five decades in Russia

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After five decades in a Russian mental hospital, an elderly Hungarian has returned to his homeland, which he had not seen since he was shipped off to the Russian front in World War II.

After five decades in a Russian mental hospital, an elderly Hungarian has returned to his homeland, which he had not seen since he was shipped off to the Russian front in World War II.

Andras Tamas, 75, showed no emotion as the Hungarian airliner that brought him from Moscow landed Friday evening at Budapest, which he had not seen since the 1940s.

Instead, all he wanted to know was when he would get a new leg to replace one amputated three years ago, according to Dr. Akos Barth, a Hungarian psychiatrist who accompanied him from Moscow.

"When we landed, I told him, 'Look, we are back in Hungary,"' Barth said. "But there was no emotion."

Tamas' arrival in Budapest marked the end of a strange and tragic saga that spans more than a half century, most of it spent in virtual isolation among people with whom he could not even communicate.

Until he was taken Friday by bus to Moscow's airport, Tamas had not set foot outside the hospital in the Russian town of Kotelnich since Soviet secret police brought him there as a young man in 1947.

He is believed to have been among the 150,000 Hungarian troops who fought under Nazi command at the Don River in 1944. According to Russian records, Tamas was among prisoners of war sent by train from western Russia to a prison camp in Siberia.

He seemed to be suffering from psychological problems, so guards took him off the train when it passed near Kotelnich and left him at the hospital, where he was forgotten. For years, no one knew who he was, and hospital staff mistook his Hungarian for gibberish.

An encounter with a Hungarian-speaking Russian unlocked the mystery. A Hungarian psychiatrist, Dr. Andras Veer, visited him in the hospital and came away convinced that Tamas was Hungarian although his origins and identity remain a mystery.

Hungarian authorities decided to issue him a Hungarian passport and bring him home even though no record of his birth has been found. Isolated from fellow Hungarians for a half century, Tamas has forgotten most details of his early life, including the name of his mother, Hungarian authorities say.

Now that he is among fellow Hungarians, doctors hope that he will slowly regain his memory.

Hundreds of people - including a few elderly Hungarians who suspected Tamas might be a missing relative - jammed the arrival hall at Budapest airport late Friday to catch a glimpse of the man Hungarian media have called "the last prisoner of World War II."

Tamas was whisked through the hall in a wheelchair and taken to the National Psychological and Neurological Institute, where he is expected to remain for at least two months.

Doctors said he would be placed in a semi-private room with other patients in hopes the contact with other Hungarians would help restore his memory.

"We have to be very careful to make sure he becomes accustomed to modern life gradually," said Veer, director of the psychiatric institute. He said several families said Tamas might be a relative "but all of this will have to be checked out."

If he is not settled with family members, he will be sent to a state-run home for the elderly, officials said.

Many ethnic Hungarians live in neighboring countries such as Slovakia, Romania and Yugoslavia, and hundreds of thousands fled the country during the 1956 Hungarian uprising against Soviet domination. Therefore, it is uncertain whether Tamas' relatives still live in Hungary even if any are still alive.

Earlier Friday, a privately chartered double-decker bus rolled out of the hospital yard in Russia for the daylong journey to Moscow. Doctors thought a bus trip to Moscow would be less stressful than a flight.

Seated by a window on the bus, Tamas stared nervously ahead, occasionally glancing around anxiously. He grew teary-eyed at times, and doctors said he felt ill.

Wearing a light blue button-down shirt, a sweater vest and a small hat, Tamas was guided into a wheelchair and pushed through the maze of passengers at Moscow's airport. He looked dazed.

"He has lived here for a long time, but all his impressions, all his knowledge have remained at the level of 1940s," the chief doctor of the Kotelnich hospital, Yuri Petukhov, said last week. Doctors at Kotelnich had tried to figure out Tamas' past, but all documents seemed to have been lost in the tumultuous years after the war.

Then a Russian police major of Hungarian descent, Karl Maravchuk, came to live in the town in 1991. Invited to the hospital, he recognized Tamas' speech as Hungarian. That got the ball rolling: Hungarian doctors were sent in and identified Tamas as a countryman.

The extent of Tamas' mental problems is unclear, but after years of isolation, he was spending most of his time sitting on a bench in the hospital yard, occasionally carving wood in the hospital workshop. He had a leg amputated above the knee about three years ago because of circulatory problems.