Zoltán Nyeste, 1. 9. 1988, Budapest, Hungary

Questions to the narrator


Location Budapest, Hungary
Date 1. 9. 1988
Length 25:57

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In 1945, how widespread was support for communism in Hungary?

Support for communism in Hungary, how widespread? Very little in fact. The communist movement was, in terms of numbers, insignificant in Hungary before and during the war. It’s a different question of course that people were fed up with the war and basically everybody was happy to get over it, but it was a mixture of hope and fear, fear from the Red Army.

Did the presence of the Red Army make people want to become communists?

No. If the presence of the Red Army made people to become communists. Well, just about the opposite, because even, even those people of goodwill who became communists because they read something, some theory, when they have seen what it really means in practice, not always, but sometimes what it means in practice, they changed their mind. It’s interesting to see that – maybe we will talk about this later – that the number of real, good, honest communists, declined since 1945, didn’t increase. But this is another question, I guess.

Did people think, in the period ’45, ’46, that the communists wouldn’t seize power, would take part in the democratic process?

The question what kind of government we are going to have in ’45, ’46, it was of course a very important question that time, very much discussed. There was again a fear that communist government is coming, the so-called dictatorship of the proletariat, and all those things. Now the fact is, the fact is that Hungary started in 1945 with a coalition government, which was a coalition of four political parties, only one of them was the Communist Party. If somebody now asks the other question, namely what was, what was the goal of the communist leadership, that’s a different question and I will be glad to talk about a little bit later.

What was the goal of the communist leadership, was it to take part in democracy?

I am, I am, I am sure that the communist movement, the international communist movement’s goal really never changed. But the tactics, yes. And I am sure that not even Stalin and not even the Hungarian Stalin, namely Mátyás Rákosi, I am sure they did not want to impose communist rule in Hungary in 1945.

Why not?

The reasons are many, one reason is simply that it would have been very, very difficult. It was also not in accordance with international agreements, remember the agreements between the Allied forces and Stalin, Allied countries and Stalin, it was simply not in the cards to do it right away. Now, I was hoping that even though we had that fear, it will come, I was hoping it will take time. Everybody can say today you have been naive. But I can only remember that I did talk to several communist leaders that time, to be sure, I was 22, 23 years old, I never had any high position in Hungarian politics but I was a leader of youth organizations and student organizations, including the resistance against the Nazis.

Did the communists intend to take over Hungary more slowly than actually happened?

The question whether the communists wanted to take over Hungary, and for that matter the other countries around us, more slowly or more rapidly, it’s a very interesting question. I can only say what I believe and what, what experience I have. I’ve already mentioned that most of the communist leaders in ’45 did talk about democracy, not about communism. Of course, you can say that this is just talk and they wanted to conceal what their real goal was. It’s interesting, however, that when the Hungarian government, which has been established in the eastern part the country, in a city called Debrecen, because the Red Army came from the east, and the Hungarian government started to work in Debrecen in the fall of ’44 and then in the spring of ’45, perhaps in March or April, I don’t remember exactly, the government came to Budapest. By that time, we were ready with certain…with our youth organization, which we wanted to present to the leaders. This is how I got as a member of a delegation of three, I got to, to Mátyás Rákosi, who was the General Secretary of the Communist Party. Now, we presented our plans and listened to what he was saying but this is not the reason I am mentioning this little episode. The reason I am mentioning it because he, Mátyás Rákosi, the number one in the Communist Party, the Hungarian Stalin, he told me during that conversation, that gentlemen you better be careful, watch it, this youth organization must not become a communist organization. Now of course, of course, anybody can have his opinion about his real feelings. However, what I am trying to point out, recently I did talk to some Hungarian historians who claim that they have found new research material supporting the idea that originally, even Stalin, consequently the Hungarian Stalin and the Czechoslovakian and the Romanian Stalin, they planned a takeover for say 6 to 8 years rather than 2 or 3 years.

Describe how you were arrested in 1948.

How I was arrested in 1948? That was the so-called year of the takeover, and after the Communist Party ruined the opposition on the higher level, namely the Smallholders’ Party was already completely defeated. Then, and there have been some show trials also, then they came to the youth organizations and started to pick the leaders of the student and other youth organizations. I was one of them and it is…, we knew that this is coming.

What did they charge you with?

What did they charge me with? That’s interesting because usually they don’t charge you with what you really did. There is, there is a very interesting point here, but again maybe we have to break up, it takes a little bit more time.

The difference between Nazi and the communist secret police, I am one of the lucky people who tried both, I have been a prisoner of the Gestapo and the Hungarian Nazis, as well as the Hungarian communists, later. Now, to be sure, in terms of a brutality, cruelty, there is no difference. A torture chamber in a Nazi jail is the same as in a communist jail, there is no difference. The difference is somewhere else. The Nazis, if they catch you, as a political dissident, they usually want to know what you did, who are your friends, what are your plans, and so on. The communists not necessarily. The communists already know when they catch you what you are going to sign, you don’t. I didn’t know that I am going to become a helper of American spies, because I know exactly why they picked me. I was one of the leaders of several youth organizations, and I didn’t want to join them, and I didn’t have a chance to flee to the West.

Why did they want to get this confession from you? Why did they want a real confession from you, why didn’t they just forge one?

Why did they want to get these kind of confessions? Of course, I do not know all of their real intentions. I know one thing. I know that a regime like the Rákosi regime or the Stalin regime for that matter, they can simply decide in advance that all right, there are ten spies here today and three wanted to leave the country illegally and so on. And you are going to be tortured until you sign it.

What did they actually do to you? Could you describe what actually happened to you at the secret police station in Budapest?

It is not… Even after 30 or 40 years, nobody likes to talk about the torture chambers. I can tell you that I was one of the lucky ones, I did not suffer as much as some of my friends. But, for example, they had, they had electric machinery, to give you high voltage shocks. They had, of course, anything to hit you with, they had a sword; I don’t know they get that old sword from the old Hungarian army, and it was always in the oven, and it was hot, and they handled your back with that hot sword, and things like this. But, let me tell you that some people suffered hundred times more than I did, and some people died, clearly as a consequence of torture.

You went to the labour camp Recsk where you were for five years. Can you describe that? Who was there? What sort of treatment the other prisoners have got in that period that you were there?

We, after my arrest, I started in a concentration camp, then another concentration camp, it was, looking from America or Great Britain, it was of course terrible. But really, knowing what I know today, it wasn’t too bad. Until they organized a real death camp, the only one in Hungary; there have been many forced labour camps in Hungary but thank God, the Hungarian Stalin had only five years. The real Stalin had ten times as much, roughly. So, only one real death camp has been organized and that was Recsk where I spent the last two and a half years or so of my prison life.

What sort of people were there? What other prisoners where there with you? Where did they come from?

What sort of people were there? Interesting question. Again, I do not know. Of course, I do not know how they selected from maybe 30–40,000 prisoners, how they selected those 1,300 people who went to this terrible camp, I don’t know. I do know that the majority were people like myself who did have some role in the society; of course there have been older people than myself and they had high positions, too. So, the majority of the people, those who were according to them, dangerous.

For example, what sort of people?

For example, officers of the old regime, both military and civilian, and also of the new regime. I mean, if somebody has been a high-ranking politician in ’45 or ’46, he could well be in Recsk in 1950. On the other hand, they also put people there who were almost common criminals.

Conditions in Recsk.

How was our life in Recsk, what were the conditions in Recsk. Briefly imagine working about 12 hours in wintertime, 16 to 17 hours in summertime, because prisoners do not work in dark, and getting very, very little to eat. The guards beat you up every day, let’s say out of a brigade of hundred and fifty people, 20, 25 are beaten every day. There is a hole in the centre of the camp, which has about one foot or more water, and that’s the place they put you if they think you did anything wrong. And they keep you there, and it may be winter, and they keep you there. Now beatings, always. Work, very hard work, breaking stones is very hard work, but all this is nothing compared to the terrible hunger. When you are hungry for a day or two, I tried it, nothing. If you don’t eat for five days, nothing. If you are hungry for a year, if you are hungry for two years, that is something I cannot describe. The most terrible thing in Recsk was this terrible hunger, of course many people simply died because of pure starvation.

Were you ever tried? Did you have a defense lawyer when you were arrested? Were you formally charged?

We have never seen a court of law or any judge, we were simply given a piece of paper which was for six months. Now after six months, according to their own rules, they either had to let you go, or give another paper. Indeed, I did get one or two such papers, and then I didn’t even get papers, we just stayed there.

Why did you confess to being an American spy?

If you ask me why did I finally confess being an American spy or a helper of them, my answer is, you would confess it too. If not, after one or two days, one or two weeks, after enough torture, everybody will sooner or later confess or almost everybody. I’ve mentioned only I did not suffer as much physical torture as many other people, but just let me tell you one example. I am in a cell, the number is 39, the guard is walking around and it takes him, I don’t know, 10, 15, 20 minutes to get back to the same cell. Then he opens the little window, then the prisoner, I or you, I have to stand and report: Mr. So and So, the number is 39, the cell number, and the number of prisoners 1. Now if you do this for 5 days, day and night, every 15 minutes, it’s enough, you are going to confess.

When you came out of the labour camp, how had Hungarian society and relations between people changed since the communist control?

When I came out from the camp, and it is noteworthy to know that after Stalin died, these camps were then slowly dissolved. When I came out, the most interesting experience of mine was that where are my good old communist friends? Nobody believes anymore. In fact, I met one friend of mine who was really communist, and about the same age, student organizations, he was one of the more important leaders than I was, and he starts to tell me that well, this is not socialism, what we have here. I only reminded him that that’s what we were trying to tell you six years ago.

Had relations between people been poisoned by the atmosphere of the Stalinist period?

The relations have been poisoned between people in many, many ways, now let me say something that I am very happy. I spent the entire Rákosi era behind bars.

I must say that I, I think I am a very lucky man because I spent the entire Rákosi era behind bars, and after everything I said about Recsk, it is hard to believe that for the people the free, so-called free people it was just as hard and bad. What my wife and my friends told me when I got out, when I got out from the forced labour camp, as I already mentioned, the big surprise was that where are the communists, where are those good, honest communists, nobody believes anymore. Now what my wife and my friends told me, what they went through, they were very, very poor. But you can take that. They didn’t have this to eat, they didn’t have clothing, you can live like that. What you cannot digest is that you have to stand up and you have to applaud and you have to say “Long live Stalin!”. And you have to do this every week, and sometimes every day in the office. I am very thankful that I never had to do that.

Did you believe communists wanted a quick takeover in ’45?

I personally did, I don’t know what they, if the communists wanted a quick takeover in ’45, I don’t know what they wanted. I do know what I believed. I did believe that even though this is their final goal, it will take time, for example, I was hoping more from the west, the western powers, than what we got. It will take time, and if you have time, some miracle may happen. Yes, I was hopeful in ’45, I did not know that this is coming in two or three years.

How did the communists conceal their intention to take political power?

They tried to conceal their true intention every imaginable way, I did talk about already, that the communist politicians, all of them, they always talked about democracy. This word, socialism or communism, was not used. And if sometimes it was used, not by them. They were always brainwashing us that we are building democracy. And of course, it’s not important here, but there are theoretical grounds for this in the communist literature.

Zoltán Nyeste (1922–2001)

Zoltán Nyeste

Zoltán Nyeste, engineer, writer and political prisoner, was born in Mezőtelki (today Telechiu), Bihor County, Romania, on 23 August 1922 and died in Nadap, near Lake Velence, on 2 October 2001. He came from a family of Protestant pastors, his father was a Protestant pastor, his mother a teacher, and he had two siblings. He married Magdolna Bolyky, and they had three children, their first daughter was born in Hungary, their second daughter and son was born in the former West Germany.

He graduated from the Protestant Secondary School of Kisújszállás in 1941, then he was admitted to the Technical University, where he obtained a degree in engineering. As a student, he was involved in the students’ resistance movement and was an organizer of the Soli Deo Gloria Protestant student association. In July 1944, they founded the Free Life Student Movement, and they had an illegal publication called Szabad Élet [Free Life], which played an important role in linking several small groups of the Hungarian armed resistance. Zoltán Nyeste was one of its members, for which he and his fellows were arrested by the Arrow Cross and taken to the National Court of Inquiry, the Arrow Cross Court, and tortured. Few of the arrested fellow students survived the Arrow Cross terror.

After the World War he was again involved in the students’ movement, in almost all the major organisations, not on the front line but witnessing and participating in events. In November 1948, he was arrested and interned. He was sent to Kistarcsa and then to Recsk in the autumn of 1950, from where he was released in the autumn of 1953. He was employed by the Industrial Buildings Consulting Co. and became an active participant in the Revolution of 1956. He left the country in November 1956, after the suppression of the revolution, followed by his family after a few weeks. First they went to Vienna, where Nyeste was one of the signatories of the protocol establishing the Hungarian Revolutionary Council. In early January 1957 he participated in the conference of the Hungarian Revolutionary Council in Strasbourg. After that, he wrote about the revolution with total dedication, giving lectures all over the world. They moved from Vienna to West Germany, settling in Ebenhausen, south of Munich. He was an associate editor of the periodical Review published in Brussels, worked with Tibor Méray, Zoltán Sztáray and Anna Kéthly, and was a freelance contributor to Radio Free Europe.

In 1963, he moved to the United States with his family and took a job as an engineer for a large company. He made contact with Hungarian groups living abroad who had left in 1956. One of the most prestigious of these was the Hungarian Alumni Association of New Brunswick – György Bessenyei’s Circle, founded at Rutgers University, whose spiritual leader was sociologist Károly Nagy. It was this association that published his 1982 account of the horrors of Recsk entitled Recsk – emberek az embertelenségben [Recsk – People in Inhumanity].

After the regime change, he was involved in the founding of the Recsk Association.