Twelve years have passed since my escapes from the Communists in Rumania and Hungary. For a long time I refrained from writing of these experiences for fear of reprisal on those who risked themselves to help me. But now that danger is largely past, and I would like to share this story with those who may be reminded through it of the providences of God in the lives of us all. And more than this, I share it in the hope of providing one more bit of evidence that no middle ground exists between freedom and slavery, and hence no place in these decisive days for cowardice, complacency, or compromise.
In late 1944 when Russian armies drove into the Balkans to defeat the Nazis, I was a history professor in northern Transylvania, which then belonged to Hungary. The state university where I taught was in Kolozsvar, the capital of Transylvania, a beautiful city of 100,000 inhabitants. Today the Rumanians, to whom Transylvania was given, call the city Cluj.
Since I had worked in the anti-Nazi underground, I received identification with Marshal Malinovsky’s signature on it to show that I was acceptable to the Russians. But the Russians were far from acceptable to us. Their atrocities and intrigues confirmed our fears that they would place a permanent stranglehold upon us. After a conversation with Ferenc Nagy, who was then Hungarian prime minister, I began to gather evidence of Russian activities in Transylvania. With such material we hoped to prove to the western world what Russia really was doing. Soon the files became sizeable. Names, dates, photos of unbelievable killings and riots incited—we had them all.
In April, 1946, the Russians allowed an American newspaperman to visit various Balkan cities. Each of the persons he contacted disappeared mysteriously in the months that followed. In Kolozsvar he talked with me. A few weeks later I received a written invitation to meet an American colonel in a secret rendezvous. The meeting turned out to be a Communist trap, the colonel a fake. To make sure that I would not be seized on my way home, I offered to bring five friends to a meeting the following evening. I needed time to hide the files.
Early the next morning I packed the files in a large homespun knapsack and boarded a bus going south to a small college town where I had friends. Here I left the files and careful instructions with one of the professors. Two days later, as I was returning to Kolozsvar, soldiers stopped the bus on a winding mountain road and arrested me. In a pig sty, stripped naked, I waited until the chief of the secret police arrived to take charge.
Sixty Fantastic Charges
After 17 days of torture and interrogation in the secret police headquarters in Kolozsvar, I was moved to the army prison to await trial. Sixty fantastic charges were listed against me, but the basic one was that I had worked as a spy with the American underground to overthrow the people’s democracy. Meanwhile, ironically, Russia and the United States were officially allies, and the council of their foreign ministers was meeting in Paris.
Mine was the first spy trial in the Balkans after the war, and the Communists made front-page propaganda of it. The trial lasted a month, and was recessed three times to allow time for more torture and questioning. Death was the sentence, but two new lawyers volunteered to barter for my life if I would sign over to the Communists all my properties and goods. And so the sentence was commuted to eight years’ imprisonment. In the fall of 1947, after 14 months in Kolozsvar army prison, I was led in chains through three miles of city streets to the railroad station. People, many of them my friends, gathered to watch. Their faces were full of sympathy. The “iron train” took me to the fortress prison at Gherla to serve my sentence.
A sentence to Gherla was as good as death. Each day the living dug graves for the dead. There was hopelessness in every heart and a longing to be done with the cold, the hunger, the lice, the loneliness. No one lasted long at Gherla. I struggled to stay alert and hopeful. And I prayed.
It was a pickpocket named Paul Kokas who was my deliverer. Paulie himself had only a six months’ sentence, but he said to me one day, “Professor, sometime I will help you escape.” At the moment I did not believe him. No one escaped from Gherla.
In Search Of Liberty
One December morning, two months after I had come to Gherla, a guard took me from my cell. Without explanation he brought me out through the three gates, across the open street, and into the home of the Rumanian prison director. Here I found Paulie scrubbing floors for the director’s wife, the domnisoara. Paulie had asked the domnisoara to send for me to help him. The Russians had used the house and left it in filthy conditon. The next day again we were scrubbing dirt from the parquet floors when the director came home and found me there. He was enraged that a famous prisoner was so poorly guarded. Paulie overheard the man berating his wife in the kitchen and heard the domnisoara promise not to use me again.
Quickly the plan was devised. At noon, while our guard crossed the street to get his lunch, only the domnisoara would be watching us. If she left us alone, I would slip downstairs and out the door. Paulie put my cap, coat, and shoes in the vestibule, and we waited. When the guard left, the domnisoara appeared. “Carasho, carasho,” (very good) she said in Russian and disappeared into her kitchen. In seconds I was downstairs and out of the door, the coat over my shoulders, the shoes untied on my feet. At the prison gate our guard was talking with his back to me. I turned right, toward the village. As I passed along the prison walls, a guard above called, “Psst!” The third time he called I looked up, lest the man shoot me. Instead, amazingly, he pointed to my shoes. I knelt in the shadow of the wall and tied them.
When I gained the woods beyond the town, I remembered that Gherla is on an island in the River Szamos. Avoiding the two bridges at opposite ends of the island, I tied my clothes into a bundle around my neck and plunged into the water. The Szamos River is wide and swift, and that time of year it had ice in it. I thought I would never reach the other side. Struggling, panting, clawing, I inched my way up from the river to the top of the steep wooded ridge. As I lay exhausted at the top, I heard the great siren of the prison, and looking down, I saw two lines of armed guards bicycling furiously from the prison gates toward the bridges.
What Freedom Is
High in the woods I found a shepherd’s summer but where I spent the night. There was straw in the hut, and I covered myself gratefully. For a long time I lay thinking. Certainly this night on the mountain was a turning point in my life. I saw so clearly there in the but that freedom was more than being out of prison, and that I could never be a free man unless I was free also in my soul. Free to speak the truth and free to live by it in honesty and integrity. I thanked God for saving me not only from the fortress prison of Gherla, but also from a life of compromise, of teaching history for history’s sake. God had saved me for a purpose. Of that I was sure, even though I could not yet see what His plans for me included. But this I knew—that a man doubly saved from death had a message to bring and a work to do for the God who had saved him.
Before I fell asleep in the hut, I thought again of Paulie Kokas. In the split second when I had taken my things from the domnisoara’s vestibule, I had noticed that my fur cap and the detachable lining of my coat were missing. I chuckled to myself. Paulie, my deliverer, had been a pickpocket to the end.
It took me three months to work my way northwest to the Hungarian border. Everywhere placards offered a large reward for my recapture. I went from village to village where there were Reformed pastors who would hide me. In the first village, the pastor and his people bought me a horse and peasant’s cart. Without my prison beard and in my peasant’s clothes, I did not so much resemble the picture on the placards. But the Russians required passes for entering and leaving towns. I began to use the ruse of offering Rumanian soldiers a ride in my cart. The guards would then let me enter a town as the soldier’s driver. Sometimes I had to wait a day or two in the open country until a Rumanian soldier came that way.
When I came to Satu-Mare, the city nearest the Hungarian border, I had no idea how to evade the border guards. A Satu-Mare pastor provided the man to accompany me out of the city so that near the border area I could leave the cart and proceed on foot. That afternoon the sky became black with storm. Soon the rain fell in torrents and the wind blew fiercely. The poor horse plodded on; the man and I were drenched. But the storm had been sent to protect me. When I came on foot to the border guardposts in early evening, no one was there. Even the bloodhounds had been taken in. Covered by the storm, I passed the empty guardposts and crossed the border into my native Hungary.
It was in Mateszalka the next day that I ate the torte. Through the delicatessen window I saw it—the dobos tone, the Hungarian favorite, eleven thin layers put together with chocolate. After the first piece, I asked timidly for a second. The waitress set the whole torte before me. Suddenly there flooded over me a realization of my freedom. “I am a free man … eating dobos torte … in my own country … God be praised … it is a miracle.”
A Look Of Terror
But the Communists had headlined my escape in Hungary, too. They were watching to see where I would appear. For a few weeks I hid myself in the bigness of Budapest where I had many friends. One of them, Dr. Simon, arranged for me to have lunch at the home of another friend. As I approached the friend’s home in the suburbs, I saw his small boy kneeling behind the iron railing that fenced the yard. The boy’s hands were clasped tightly and on his face was a look of such terror when he saw me that I knew instinctively that something was wrong. Walking on, I turned a corner and disappeared.
The next day I learned that at the moment I passed the house, secret police were hiding inside to arrest me. The boy, hearing the police speak harshly to his parents, had gone outside to watch for me. And through the look on the face of a child I had been warned. But who had informed the police? This I had to know for my own satisfaction before leaving Budapest. There was one suspect. Dr. Simon, who had made the plan, had a sister-in-law, Agnes, living in his house. She was an ugly unloved woman who worked in the Communist-controlled Ministry of Culture. Could she have overheard and betrayed me?
I telephoned Agnes at her office to say that I was nearby and to invite her to coffee. After a long pause which heightened my suspicions, she replied that she could meet me in an hour. I realized that this gave her time to arrange to have me followed, but I decided to risk the meeting anyway. As I suspected, two men appeared and trailed us, following even when I doubled back under pretense of finding a better coffee shop. Having proved beyond doubt my suspicion about Agnes, I had next to escape the trap. I knew that in the next block the tram slowed to turn a corner. Walking slowly, I timed our walking to arrive at the corner just as a tram did. Shaking Agnes from my arm so that she lost her balance, I leaped for the rear platform of the tram and rode it triumphantly around the corner while Agnes picked herself up and the two pursuers stopped openmouthed to watch the tram sweep me out of sight. That night I left Budapest on my way to Vienna.
Again it was the pastors who befriended me from town to town. They all helped except the last one, a pastor in Sopron, the old city at the Austrian border. I could not blame this man. He was not Hungarian and he did not know of me, but his refusal left me standing helpless in the street. It occurred to me that in this area where many Germans lived, someone might help because of his dislike for the Communists. I had to do something. In a restaurant I found two men speaking German. When I cautiously told them my predicament, Fritz, the blonde one, agreed to help. I offered him the 2,000 forints my Budapest friends had collected for me. They were worth about $500, but no price was too great for freedom. Fritz Friedl left to make arrangements and returned an hour before midnight. As we went out into the street together, I saw two policemen standing at the corner. When we came to them, Fritz stopped and said, “Here he is.” This time I had been betrayed by a stranger and I had paid him well for his double dealing.
The Sopron prison was full of anti-Communist demonstrators, so the police put me into the basement of their headquarters where 40 other people already were crowded into a room. We stood up all night, listening in stunned silence to the cries from another room where drunken gypsies had shut themselves in with nuns who had been among those arrested. The sounds of that night still haunt me.
The next morning, when it was my turn to be interrogated, I had my story ready. During the night I had dropped beneath 40 pair of feet in the basement the papers I was carrying in my briefcase. The local police chief looked up as I was brought into his office. His eyes widened in surprise, and he asked the attending officers to leave the room. “Sandor Ungvary, what are you doing here?” he said softly. It was my turn to be surprised. The man was the brother of an underground comrade of mine in Transylvania.
“If you are not carrying money,” he said after we had talked, “I can give you a pass to cross the border. But we have strict orders to detain anyone with money.” “I have no money at all,” I replied honestly. Fritz Friedl had done me some good after all.
Late that evening in August, 1949, I stood at the electrified barricade which separates Hungary from the free world. Two policemen opened the gate and locked it behind me. I stood there in the warm night air. All I possessed in the world was in my briefcase—one Hungarian sausage, an ounce of famous Hungarian paprika, and three books: the Bible, the book I had published against Hitler in 1939, and a book by my favorite professor. Nothing more.
It was not an auspicious beginning. But a beginning it was, the beginning of a new life in the free world. Part of me reached eagerly toward that new life. And part of me stood still, while in my ears the cries of the nuns in the night became the cries of all the captive people I was leaving behind.
Somewhere, faintly, a bell tolled midnight. I began walking toward Vienna.
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