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By Jay Levinson
Book Review: "Pursuit of Freedom" by Susanne Reyto.
The author is absolutely correct. Although many of us are somewhat familiar with the persecution of Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust, we tend to know much less about the oppressive conditions of life under the country's Communist régime. If there is a fallacy in her thinking, it is only that knowledge of Nazi tyranny tends to be generalized and not country-specific. Reyto's retelling of her mother's stories, supplemented by her own experiences, goes a long way in filling in knowledge gaps.
Suffering during World War II greatly intensified with the Nazi invasion of Hungary in March, 1944. Anti-Jewish laws had been promulgated in 1939, and in the following year Hungary formally joined the Axis alliance, but only under German rule did the Reyto family's litany of agony in Budapest commence.
The thrust of this book begins with liberation by Soviet forces in January, 1945. There was an illusion of freedom. Families were reunited. As days and weeks passed, it became clear that the nucleus of the Reyto family remained intact. Family members had survived random inspections, deportation, and concentration camps. A new life was starting. Susanne Reyto's father again went into business. But, soon, freedom began to crumble, as Russian Communism took a strong grasp on Hungary. Businesses were nationalized, property was confiscated, and speaking out became a crime against the State. In December, 1949 the Reyto's put into action thoughts, then plans, which they had held in secret for several months. They tried to leave Hungary.
Caught at the border! They were summarily denounced as enemies of the State for the crime of wanting to leave. Susanne Reyto was sent to a nursery, separated from her parents, who were sentenced to prison terms. Eventually reunited, the family was deported to a small village with primitive conditions, then again sent to an isolated farm for the audacious crime of filing a complaint of malfeasance by government workers.
It is hard for Westerners to identify with a life style tormented by police inspection and a ubiquitous "Big Brother," whose agents reported every infraction of government-approved norms. Yet, that is the picture that Susanne Reyto very emotionally depicts.
With the death of Stalin in 1953, the Soviet infighting, and the rise of Nikita Khrushchev, there was an easing of restriction throughout the Communist Bloc. That was felt in Hungary as well, where an amnesty was declared for political undesirables. The Reyto's were allowed to relocate to a suburb of Budapest.
At this time a wave of anti-Soviet feeling hit the Russian-occupied countries. In Hungary this resulted in the Revolution of 1956, but freedom was short-lived. After some two weeks tanks rolled down the streets of Budapest, and the Revolution and the freedom that it had brought were a matter of history. The Reyto's again decided to leave, first illegally, then with official permission. They packed the few possessions they were allowed to take, including a stamp collection sealed in an envelope marked, "Not to be opened until after crossing the border." On 19 March 1957 the Reyto's arrived in Austria by train and were met by representatives of HIAS. They opened the envelope, which was supposed to contain the stamp collection. It had been stolen; there were only newspapers. But, the ordeal of life in Communist Hungary was over.
Running through this book is the issue of Jewish identification. Ironically, it was under Nazi rule that there was no question; the Reyto's were Jewish --- plain, simple, and no arguments. That identification was not part of life in immediate post-War Hungary, but it resurfaced after deportation to the rural village, then to the farm, where any kind of Jewish life in atheist Hungary was to dream of the impossible. Reyto found a deep Hungarian resentment of Jews and a basic security in the company of other Jews. Yet, after arrival in the West, Susanne was sent to a Christian high school.
This book is fascinating and enlightening about life in Communist Hungary, even though it suffers from poor copy-editing and several mistakes in grammar that should have been corrected. It is certainly recommended for the insight into a chapter in history about which very few of us know much.
"Pursuit of Freedom," by Susanne Reyto is available from: Jet Publishing, Los Angeles, (2004) $21.95.
from the February 2008 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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