October 1987 Print

In the Chains of the Hammer & Sickle

A Hungarian Priest's Personal Account

by Father A. Krupa, O.F.M.

(Translated by A. Igriczi Nagy)

Why am I describing my prison experiences? First, I'm keeping a promise to my mother—and also carrying out her wishes expressed in her last will and testament. Also, I'm responding to the 25 year-long urging of many others, especially Father Kiraly Kelemen. He has repeated numerous times that it's a sin against God and history not to write something like this down.

Why so late?

I wanted to avoid unwittingly harming others through these recollections. Also, the memories were deeply etched in my soul. I was frightened of their rebirth. Even after 25 years, they upset me so deeply during the preparation of this book that often the mornings still found me awake.

Are my prison experiences extraordinary?

I don't believe so. They are of the common or garden variety. However, I'm convinced that it spreads over various facets of prison life rather comprehensively; so that through its perusal, it is possible to know and comprehend the life of most political prisoners of that particular era and part of the world. It differs from similar accounts and gets its own unique shading that these events were lived through by a Hungarian Franciscan priest. There are not many detailed accounts of life in the Hungarian Communist prisons and so far, I've not found one written by a Hungarian priest. I want to fill this gap.

My book is a restrained warning trumpet in the night of the red menace.

This book was ready for the bookstalls for the Christmas of 1974—200 pages or so. My readers begged me to make it more detailed, not to omit anything significant. Although its present expanded form is a response to these pleas, I still would be loath to state that I've included everything in it.

In the meantime Cardinal Mindszenty's wonderful Memoirs and the shockingly frank Gulag Archipelago of Solzhenitsyn, which is like an encyclopedia of prison life, were also published.

Is it worthwhile to write about prison after two such books?

I think so. Besides considering prison life as a sea which can't be emptied by thimbles, the Primate's account is that of a solitary confinement, and doesn't deal with the prison community's life; and Solzhenitsyn is not talking about the prisons of Hungary—which albeit, are built on the Russian model but still are not in the Soviet Union. Cardinal Mindszenty's and Solzhenitsyn's books do validate the story of my experiences and make this story come more alive.

Fr. Krupa
Fr. Krupa, as he is to today.

It is hard to convey the exact feelings of these written experiences with those who never had to face the detectives, the softening-up process, the tribunal of judgment—that is, to those who have not lived in prison, were never "jailbirds". Naturally, I'm mainly thinking of the Communist prisons, especially in Hungary. It's not so much the big events which make prison life so horrible—it's the daily drabness, weakening body and soul.

How can we show a true picture to the reader?

It is assumed that the reader is somewhat familiar with the recent history of Hungary—but this assumption is loosely applied so that the absence of this background knowledge will not make the book incomprehensible.

Regimes behind the Iron Curtain, and any other barriers between the free world and a tyrannical system, try to prevent information about their penal systems seeping out—or even try to convince others that—in comparison with political systems derided by these regimes—the system of justice, detection, investigation, trial and prison organization are very humane, almost idealistic. And since information has seeped out and is still trickling to the outside, there is a strong propaganda effort to convince the world—even though there could have been mistakes earlier on—not unexpected since the system was born of a violent revolution these kinds of things are unheard of today. Even the very face of Communism has changed, becoming more humane in the process.

However, the truth is that nothing has changed. The Communist legal system and prison structure is built on the tenets of Communism and continues to grow from it. If Communism would change its essence and its power, its prison would fall apart within a short time. In order to survive, Communism has to follow its own basic tenets.

I've tried to recount this story from memory; however, 25 years is a long enough interval to blur the sharp edges of the contours. Still, I don't think I'm inaccurate in the essentials. If now and then you find these events hard to believe, don't be disturbed. I, myself, would be doubtful of the veracity of the story if I would come across it in a book. Our concepts of humanity rebel. But, believe it, this is the reality. This is why we must do our utmost to inform, to prevent the spread of Communism, and work towards the disappearance of Communism and similar systems from the face of the earth.

"And they consulted together that by subtlety they might apprehend Jesus and put Him to death" (Mt. 26:4).

We're all members of the mystical body of Christ. If we suffer, if something hurts, if others abuse us, then in truth it's Jesus who suffers, who bears the pain, the abuse.

Therefore, when they were scheming for our trial and they were discussing how to annihilate us, they were again—since we are the members of the body of Christ—really taking Jesus to the courts again, to destroy Jesus again.

Bloodhounds on the Trail

"Even if God, Himself, were sitting in this chair, we could even compel Him to say what we wanted Him to say." (Hungarian Communist Investigator)

"It is better for one man to die than…"

Lightning doesn't strike unexpectedly from a clear blue sky. Storm comes with a warning. It takes time for it to brew. The Communist Party is aware of this. This is why it is prepared to wait watchfully whilst its flunkies collect the incriminating material with the tirelessness of ants and waits, but with unsatiable passion, whilst the hounds are let loose on the trails of the appointed victim. The Party relaxes only if the victim is in front of it and the dismemberment can begin. It is tragic that the victim learns of the protracted chase after him only when his body is being mangled by the bloodhounds' teeth.

My case is no exception either. I've been followed for a long time—but I've learnt this only later, from the remarks and questions of the prosecutor, the investigators, detectives, and judges.

From the assembled material, I'm bringing forth only the most important and most characteristic—material which makes my "crime" clear, unshrouds the Communists' detestable views and makes it comprehensible why I wrote this book.

One of my investigators drew a triangle for me.

"What religious symbol is this?" he asked.

"The Holy Trinity," I replied.

"No," he answered. "This is the symbol of the Party, of the Communist Party. The Party sees all, hears all and knows everything!"

They really liked to boast of their omniscience. They were fishing with anxious care for intimate little events of little significance, and any characteristics, insignificant deeds, words dropped without thinking, paltry and sundry episodes. And they nibbed the victim's nose in these finds—and were happy to note the surprise of the selected victim. They regard their methods as a weapon possessing magical strength. Indeed, they do sway their unfortunate victim, like a skunk does the hens sitting on the tree. He, the victim, does not dare to hide from them anything, because he is sure that they know everything. Even his secret thoughts. Even things, which he didn't even think of in his dreams. Therefore, he confesses, confesses, confesses unstoppably.

Indeed, the party would know everything. Thousands of people stand at its disposal. Its spies and informants are present in the holiest places and communities. Besides this, there are thousands and thousands of tools at its disposal in its investigative work.

Rakosi and his Communist Party came into Hungary with the Red Army and with precise plans. The plan included the annihilation of priests, especially the monks, then trussing up of the Church and disappearance of the Christian faith. At the beginning, they stepped circumspectly, so "that there should not be disturbances among the people" (Matthew 26: 5). The people had to be dazzled with words and deeds! Communism is not an enemy of religion, they said; on the contrary, it's a friend! That's why in the beginning, they've reconstructed the ruined churches by the workers, renovated the Catholic schools at State expense—and asked boastingly—which Catholic State (or State with deep respect for religion) would have done this much? Thus, at the beginning the people did believe that Communism is no enemy of religion, and accepted what the Communists kept proclaiming—that one's religious faith is one's private business. But this was only a magician's trick—optical illusion, nothing more.

From the first moment, the Party kept all priests and monks under its eyes and, in secret, let its bloodhounds loose on their trail. Diligently, the Party collected compromising material against the religious, sniffed out their weaknesses, wishes, ambitions, listed the names of their friends and enemies. The material was assembled, without the designated victims being aware of it. And then, the hunt was on. They did not restrict themselves—they snared elephants, shot lions, fished for the big fish and the little ones. They even slapped the mosquitoes if these were buzzing near their ears. They held all in holy orders as mortal enemies; there were no exceptions. Let them all perish sooner or later—the sooner, the better! With unheard of cunning, cheating and viciousness, the indictments were pieced together, putting mortal fear into the credible and naive, who thought they could work together with the Communist Party.

I'd fallen into their claws quite soon, before Cardinal Mindszenty. Not as if I were such a desirable big game, but I was a known figure in my own small milieu, in the city of Debrecen. The Communists knew that I was not on their side, rather against them, since foremost and first of all, I was occupying myself with the youth; city-born children and children of the ranchers. And these were regarded as sensitive areas since the Party aimed to build its atheistic, Red future through and with the youth of the country. The Communists regarded as a question of life or death their ability to gain the peasants and farmers to their side, on ideological lines. This could not be done if the priests were there to lead the faithful children of believers. So for this, too, the priests had to perish.

The balance was further weighted against me in that I gave no sign of intending to abandon my work, rather they could see that I was continuing with increased momentum. So the Party pronounced the judgment of Caiphas over me—"It is better for one man to die for the people than for the whole nation to perish" (John 11:50).

This was the only reason for clapping me in chains. The rest was just to throw sand into the eyes of the people, the false games of Annas and Caiphas. They did not dare to write my true crime on my cross; they forged others more acceptable to the people. They had collected scattered banana peels to turn them into reasons, so they could engineer my slip visibly and publicly, put me in chains and make me step down from the arena as undesirable. The five-pronged red star was successful, too!

See-Saw Politics

The data against me were gathered, all reports about me and unfavorable to me were gladly accepted and were rewritten in the language of Communist legal thinking and in slang. Thus the good friend became enemy, love was changed to hate, small things grew into big issues, and truth became falsehood. The spear, the bitter bile, the sponge, nails—and the crown of thorns, too, were ready for use, it only remained to prepare the cross. The road to Calvary is covered with small and large stones alike.

My involvement with young people was the cardinal sin. In one word—the playground.

Our playground was on the grounds of our Catholic school. Since the Debrecen papers wrote about it on several occasions, its existence was widely known. But even without this, the old Hungarian saying applies—"Good wine doesn't need to be proclaimed from billboards." Thousands came to the playground, with or without newspaper advertisements. It was open to all, for little ones and teenagers, without any prerequisites for entry. Before and during the war it was open all days so that the workers from the railway-wagon factory could leave their children under safe supervision during the day; at other times it was used only on Sundays. The equipment was first class. Loud-speakers, audible for miles, entertained the public with radio shows: 150 different records, music, stories and sporting events. We had sporting equipment, sports teams, play groups, organizations for the more mature, in which—as in everything going on on the "playground"—Catholics and Calvinists could participate alike. The playground was overseen and directed by Catholic priests but we also had numerous helpers: parents, older teenagers. We had a beautiful lending library and, also, a dog, the universally beloved Macko.

Therefore, it was not really a miracle that not only the children and young people of our district came en masse; but even from the other end of the city and the distant outlying ranches, the youngsters and their parents came. The parents, whilst enjoying the play of their children, joined in the amusements, clapping for the actors on the stage, because we had a players' guild, too. And everything was free of charge. The playground served as an amusement park for all.

During summers we made trips to Nagyerdo, of Debrecen—the woods laying at the edge of the town, surrounded by the university's hospital buildings. This group of impressive number of children marched in pairs through the winding streets of Debrecen, singing merrily, humming noisily, laughing, bringing flags, and small carts. They were accompanied by the bigger youths and parents, with the horse cart at the end, which brought the big cooking pots and food supply since everybody received free lunch and afternoon snacks. Out in the woods the children played all day long, under the watchful eyes of the grown-ups.

Our program included trips to the nearest farming settlements. There, in the woods, we've raised up an altar and a stage, because we had Mass in the morning and gala theatrical productions or a May-Day type of entertainment in the afternoon. The guests came in droves from the nearby ranches or farming communities, gladdening their city folks with their gifts. Later, we'd organized theatrical productions within the farming communities, too! and city and village alternated in providing the entertainment.

Our playground had only one blemish—it was too small for that many children. The railway car factory already gave us a very nice and spacious area for a new playground and promised that they would fence it around, install running water and electricity and build a swimming pool, soccer field, theatre and toilets. The rest was left for us to do. We had the money but the war had made it difficult to proceed. We did not dare to start, but planned to get going with it as soon as the war was over. Who would have thought that the red domination on our necks would trample all dreams, those of children included?

Debrecen was "liberated" in early October—with gale-like destruction, robbery, pillage. Our city became like Jerusalem destroyed, about which Jesus prophesied, that no stone will remain intact in it. And in this city, before others would not even repair the windows, at Christmas we put on, on a stage illuminated with oil lamps, the well-known Christmas play, "The Watchman of Bethlehem." Since up to recently Russian soldiers were living in the auditorium, all our theatrical equipment was gone. In spite of this, the play was very beautiful because the parents, with unheard of efforts and sacrifices, were able to create the most beautiful sets and costumes from paper. Many grown-ups and children alike watched the play through their tears and were thinking that now, for the glory of liberation, we are all, also, living in a stable as the little Baby Jesus did. Besides admiring the play, they wondered at our courage, that already we dared to put on a production and that we believed life has not ended and there would be Spring yet on this Earth.

However, as soon as the holiday season was over, the new lords and masters from the tax bureau appeared. The man who came was stern looking, grumpy, uncombed and unshaved.

Do you have a permit to produce plays? Do you pay taxes after each play? No? What do you think you are doing? This could give rise to trouble, big trouble!

We have long-term permit for plays. Tax? Nobody asked us for taxes under the "bad" Horthy regime. No, Comrade, not once. After all, the play is put on free of charge for the audience and we are also entertaining the children of poor rail way-wagon factory workers.

Those who want cabarets should pay for it!

Just now should the proletariat start to pay when we have achieved "dictatorship of the proletariat?" Look, here is the triumphal arch through which our "liberators" came and the inscription is still legible.

"These are not working class children but children of the bourgeois. The children of workers go to the Communist Youth Organization or to the Communist Party functions. The money is needed to rebuild the factories, for agricultural implements for the peasants. Look, let's make a deal! Do not pay after each play but pay a yearly levy. But pay you must. The days when people could be exploited are over."

We've accepted the arrangement and paid the levy. What else could we have done? But the tax official did something else, he spread around at the party offices that I've lauded the "cursed" Horthy regime.

Even the schools have not reopened at other localities when our playground was already functional. Even the Russians came because they have not seen something like this elsewhere. One of their teenage soldiers, regardless of his concentrated efforts, could not soar high on the swing. At the same time an eight-year-old little girl beside him swung to the level of the roof of the school. The children came to stand around him and laughed. At the end, the young soldier had enough, jumped down from the swing, pulled out his revolver shot at the swing amid much swearing and left.

We went on with our excursions to the wooded area called "Nagyerdo" ("Big Woods") and to the ranches even after the "liberation." The long sinuous line of children sang favourite songs just as before; but whereas before nobody was surprised by the songs, now there was much amazement and some, who were uplifted before, were now strongly scandalized. The song called "From Young Hearts" was our most popular marching song. Zeltan Marosszeki, a young Franciscan brother marching with us, wrote the lyrics; the music was composed by a young member of the famous Forrai family. The song not only quickened our steps but also gave wings to our hearts. The grown-ups learnt it from the children and sung it together with them, since this song was for everyone with a young heart and strong faith. Below is a rough translation:

     From our young hearts,
a new song bursts forth.
Hundreds of birds sing on the green tree branches.
We're at one with mountains, vales, planes.
Wherever we go, the land becomes more beautiful.
We aim for peace and to do everything right.
How it is good to live in the palm of God!

     Blind hatred destroys and makes all desolate.
We don't want that—we want only love.
The spirit of Saint Francis urges to work.
We'll build a better, more beautiful world.
We aim for peace and to do everything right.
How it is good to live in the palm of God!

Later brother Alajes Aloysius, a well-known orchestra leader, composed music for it. He wrote many compositions including the Oratio Nandorfehervar.

This song became popular with the two high schools. Young people sang it as enthusiastically as it was sung on the playground before.

The police helped to make way for the line of singers; the singing attracted people out of their houses. They could not stop wondering at what they saw:

"Interesting, isn't it, that they don't have a red flag!" "The children have no red scarves (as the young pioneers did)." "Oh, dear Lord, I can't believe what I hear! When did we change back politically? I have not even noticed." "What are they singing?" "We'll build a better, more beautiful world."—not Communism." "Oh God! They want to live in God's hands"

Those who spoke like this, were also moaning with sparkling eyes and trying to sing along. However, there were other opinions as well:

"What are they saying? "Blind hatred destroys and makes all desolate." So what do they want? Syrupy love? Who pays then for our dead?"

"Does the Party know it? Why does it tolerate these fascist saplings?" "Look, barefooted religious are leading them! This is unheard of!"

A nearby baker does not hear any of this, but runs out from the bakery and piles freshly baked bread on the children's cart. The children sing their thanks. "It's good to live in the hands of God."

They're not interested in the Party, nor in the baker. Not yet.

Out in Nagyerdo spirits continue to be high, the food is cooking noisily in the pots and the children are playing, forgetting everything else. Only our dog, Macko, is barking and whining. A man is approaching—he wears a cloth cap and a long leather coat, in spite of the summer weather, since the leather coat signified the importance of his role in the present regime. He slides near us as if he just happened to come this way accidentally.

I ask him, "Is anything wrong?"

"Not with me, but maybe somebody else had better watch out," he answers.


"For making a fire in the forest and collecting so many children."

"We have permit for the fire—had it for a long time. As for gathering the children together, the Party is bound to be happy about it since their leaders teach us to get involved with young people. This is what we're doing."

"Yes, but you're not doing it in cooperation with the Party or with KISZ (Communist Youth League) but in opposition to them. Educating the young should not be left to priests. Your place is by the altar!"

"We're concerning ourselves with the children because the Party and KISZ are not doing anything with them."

"How many children are here?"

"About 300."

In the meantime, the children surrounded the interrogator, and started to beat their tin cans with their spoons on the big pot.

"We are hungry."

"Lunch please!"

"Are they giving the food out yet?"

And they created such a din that the voice of our "guest" could not be heard. It sounded as if he was mentioning the Party again, but then he just left. Macko, the dog, barked at him once more and tried to grab his trousers.

And so we had a bloodhound sniffing on our trail, a bloodhound gathering materials and taking it to his masters. Probably at this point, the Party advised him to hold his peace. Hold it yet! The time for all this will come. As yet the people are not mature enough for it.