1949

1949

Chapter 13

In August 1949, my grandfather Pista was summoned to Marcali's police headquarters and commanded by the police chief to sign over 77% of his land to the communist government. In August 1949, my grandfather Pista was summoned to Marcali's police headquarters and commanded by the police chief to sign over 77% of his land to the communist government. In August 1949, my grandfather Pista was summoned to Marcali’s police headquarters and commanded by the police chief to sign over 77% of his land to the communist government.
Pista refused. Wouldn't you? Pista refused. Wouldn't you? Pista refused. Wouldn’t you?
Then Comrade Jenȍ Szirmai held a gun to his head. He signed. Then Comrade Jenȍ Szirmai held a gun to his head. He signed. Then Comrade Jenȍ Szirmai held a gun to his head. He signed.
Signed document transferring 77 percent of Fábos property to the state in 1949

1 hold = 5755 sq. meters (1.4 acres). 65 hold = 91 acres.

THEtranslation reads, "István Fábos of Marcali states that he owns 65 hold [approximately 91 acres] and pledges approximately 50 hold to the National Company. A detailed list of land registration numbers is attached. He will keep around 15 hold around his house."

Signed document transferring 77 percent of Fábos property to the state in 1949

"ISTVÁN FÁBOS

FROM MARCALI

JENÓ SZIRMAI

PRESIDENT OF

THE "PEOPLE’s COMMITTEE

FERENC CSERI

MEMBER OF THE

MUNICIPAL COMMITTEE

SÁNDOR DÓKA

NATIONAL STATE FARM

IMRE RAJÁHTI

CHIEF AGRONOMIST

JÓZSEF TÓTH

VICE-CHIEF

SECRETARY AND

HEAD OF

THE TOWN OFFICE

JÁNOS KISS

NOTARY

Jenő Szirmai was president of the People’s Committee, but his power really came from being head of Marcali’s secret police (ÁVH).

A list of real estate items transferred to the state

Here is the list of transferred real estate items and the rules of transfer; its language is in the style of a court order rather than a voluntary pledge.

Regina’s letter to communist authorities

When my great grandmother, Regina, discovered that her significant share of the property had been lumped together under her son Pista’s name, she demanded a share of the remaining 15 hold. Regina wrote a livid letter of protest to the Land Registry Office.

here is Regina's letter! here is Regina's letter! here is Regina’s letter!
In the end her letter was futile, but I'm proud that she wrote it. In the end her letter was futile, but I'm proud that she wrote it. In the end her letter was futile, but I’m proud that she wrote it.
Regina Regina Regina Regina
So much for women's rights under communism. She lost all land rights to her son. So much for women's rights under communism. She lost all land rights to her son. So much for women’s rights under communism. She lost all land rights to her son.

The Fábos family had somewhat prepared for this takeover. As wealthy, independent farmers (pejoratively called "kulaks"), they knew they were communist targets. They were seeing a non-stop string of anti-kulak cartoons in communist-controlled newspapers portraying landowners as greedy, fat, piggish men out to exploit the common farm workers—who were portrayed as gallant, honorable, hard-working (always male) heroes.

Anti-kulak cartoon from Hungary

KULÁK!

"THE KULAK’S HORRIBLE

DREAM: REALITY!"

Gallant Hungarian peasant cartoon

The Soviets used the same kind of propaganda to undermine successful farmers and ruin the integrity of family production in the Soviet drive for agricultural collectivization.

Anti-kulak cartoon from Hungary
Anti-kulak cartoon from Hungary

Indeed, these cartoons drew upon existing class stereotypes. As in all stereotypes, the distortions were based on partial truth: farmhands and kulaks often did dress this way.

Typical Hungarian peasant farmers Typical Hungarian kulak farmers

But the demonization of kulaks and the romantic portrayal of farmhands made it easier to justify dramatic social upheaval. Beginning with kulaks, the communist goal was to economically crush all independent farmers so they would willingly sign their land over to a collective farm where "life would be good," "democracy would flourish," and technological innovation would push Hungary into the modern era.

Hungarian farmer grain delivery to fulfill government quotas during Rákosi era
Hungarian police horse cart inspection during Rákosi era Grain delivery quota chart during Rákosi era
Weighing grain during the Rákosi era

The strategy was to force all independent farmers to pay such high taxes, meet so many unrealistic grain, hay, meat, and milk quotas, and be paid so low by the state, that it was impossible to survive.

The only way my family could feed their animals was to steal their own crops, hide the grain in their neighbors' barn, and secretly bring the grain back. The only way my family could feed their animals was to steal their own crops, hide the grain in their neighbors' barn, and secretly bring the grain back. The only way my family could feed their animals was to steal their own crops, hide the grain in the neighbors’ barn, and secretly bring the grain back.
They did not want to abandon their way of life or turn over their land and property to a collective farm. They did not want to abandon their way of life or turn over their land and property to a collective farm. They did not want to abandon their way of life or turn over their land and property to a collective farm.

A collective farm joined land, animals, and machinery from neighboring farms together into a large group farm where every farmer was expected to play a part.

Police inspecting farmers delivering grain during the Rákosi era
Bleak row of newly built houses on a state or collective farm Mass-produced chicken production on a state or collective farm Mass-produced hog production on a state or collective farm Peasants on a collective farm Peasants on a collective farm

A state farm consisted of confiscated land from large landowners (including the Catholic Church) and later from kulaks. Agricultural workers with no land to join a collective were assigned to work on a state farm.

If economic pressure didn't cause the kulaks and other farmers to fold, communist authorities used direct force. They accused resistant peasants of "individualistic tendencies," found evidence of "sabotage" against the State, took the farmers to jail, and designated their land to a state farm.

WEALTHY PEASANT

ACCUSED OF SABOTAGE

Police inspectors checking bags of grain during the Rákosi era Police inspectors checking bags of grain during the Rákosi era

CAUGHT IN THE ACT

OF HIDING GRAIN

Farm search during the Rákosi era

THEyear 1949 marked the full social transformation of Hungarian society into a fear-ridden, authoritarian state led by Communist Party leader Mátyás Rákosi, whose face was everywhere.

Policemen carrying large signs depicting Lenin, Rákosi, and Stalin during the Rákosi era
Tractor parade promoting collective farming and Mátyás Rákosi Hungarian policemen meeting under a large portrait of Rákosi
communist leadership watching football under a large portrait of Mátyás Rákosi
A football match at Ujpest stadium in during the Rákosi era

Even though Pista had signed over most of his land at gunpoint, he and my grandmother Gizi still tried to protect their assets. Who could guess how long the Rákosi regime would last? The previous summer, in preparation for the inevitable confiscation of everything they owned, Pista and Gizi converted their animals, farm equipment, and seeds into gold, German marks, and American dollars.

A tractor and a pig by Dana Potter
Confiscated dollars, marks, and jewelry resulting from a police search during the Rákosi era
Confiscated silverware resulting from a police search during the Rákosi era

They hid the money and all the family’s other valuables around the farm. Many farmer did this, and every communist police officer knew that if they found these valuables (which allegedly belonged to the state, not to private citizens), then there was immediate cause for imprisonment. There was lots of digging in Marcali: digging to hide and digging to uncover.

By the end of the 1949 summer, Pista already had a number of sabotage charges accumulating against him:

  • failure to produce sufficient grain (wheat, rye, oats, and barley) – his production was several tons below that expected by the government;
  • failure to surrender enough live animals for meat (mostly pigs and cows);
  • failure to produce sufficient milk.
  • cursing the government.
Two young pioneers in uniform during the Rákosi era

This last charge was recorded in a communist ledger in 1948: When two communist youth appeared on the Fábos family farm asking for donations to their youth league, Pista was probably not thinking, as he angrily sent them away, that his comments would be grounds for imprisonment.

"!$%&*$# COMMUNISTS!!"

In 1950, cursing the government could amount to 10 years in jail.

Gyula also learned that summer that he had been expelled from his fantastic agronomy school for being the son of an exploiting bourgeois farmer. For Gyula, the news was devastating.

Formal school portrait, Gyula Fábos
Group photo of Gyula Fábos and his classmates in front of Festetics Castle in 1949

ASMátyás Rákosi’s power expanded, Hungarians at the highest ranks were also under increasing pressure. Rákosi conducted arrests and show trials to firmly consolidate his regime.

László Rajk

László Rajk, who had organized the secret police (ÁVH), was Rákosi’s biggest rival in the Party, and was forced to submit to a dramatic show trial in September 1949.

ÁVH stands for Államvédelmi Hatóság, which means "State Protection Authority."

Rákosi’s team executed Rajk along with numerous associates, sending shockwaves through all levels of the Communist Party…

Csepel factory The Csepel Factory The Csepel Factory THE CSEPEL FACTORY

"IT DAWNED ON PEOPLE

WHAT A GREAT VILLAINY

HAD BEEN COMMITTED,

BUT EVERYONE REALIZED

THEY HAD TO KEEP THEIR

MOUTHS SHUT FOR THEIR

OWN SAKES...

PEOPLE WERE TERRIBLY

INTIMIDATED AFTER

RAJK’S EXECUTION.

JÓZSEF BÁCSI

LOW-RANK COMMUNIST

PARTY MEMBER AND

CSEPEL FACTORY WORKER,

BUDAPEST.

How many Hungarians believed in Rákosi's economic order, and how many faked support in order to avoid suspicion? How many Hungarians believed in Rákosi's economic order, and how many faked support in order to avoid suspicion? How many Hungarians believed in Rákosi’s economic order, and how many faked support in order to avoid suspicion?

Rákosi, "The Bald Murderer," was living up to his nickname, and the cult of Rákosi was now in full force. Hungarians who did not fully embrace their leader were immediately suspect.

Hungarian workers in the 1st of May parade during the Rákosi era

IN
Marcali, the communists forced changes in industrial ownership too. Master ironworker and business owner Béla Hikman had to sign his beloved ironworks and plumbing business over to the state because his successful enterprise hired employees. Like my family, Hikman had become an "enemy bourgeois."

Ironsmith master Béla Hikman

It was Marcali’s ÁVH chief, Comrade Jenő Szirmai, who escorted Hikman out of his shop at gunpoint. Hikman abruptly turned around.

"I FORGOT MY HAT,"

BÉLA HIKMAN

"IT’S NO LONGER

YOUR HAT,"

"IT BELONGS TO

THE STATE. MOVE,

YOU STUPID KONTÁR."

JENŐ SZIRMAI

A kontár is a an amateur or someone who botches a job.

Hikman was not allowed to retrieve his hat or practice his craft again. His house, workshop, and Balaton villa were turned over to public ownership and, by the Party’s orders, he became unhireable. The award-winning blacksmith eventually scraped a living by illegally repairing sewing machines in his kitchen.

On October 6, 1949, the same Marcali ÁVH Chief, Jenő Szirmai, arrived with other officers to the Fábos family farm with orders to arrest my grandfather. (Szirmai reportedly rose through the ranks soon afterwards to become the director of the National Bank).

When the ÁVH arrived, Ari was in Budapest. Gizi, Pista, and Gyula were home. When the ÁVH arrived, Ari was in Budapest. Gizi, Pista, and Gyula were home. When the ÁVH arrived, Ari was in Budapest. Gizi, Pista, and Gyula were home. Regina was home too, in a separate apartment adjoining the main house. Regina was home too, in a separate apartment adjoining the main house. Regina was home too, in a separate apartment adjoining the main house.
Outside Béla Hikman’s workshop
Respected Fábos family farm hand Józsi Bácsi with pig Józsi Bácsi, respected farmhand with Tamás the Pig Józsi Bácsi, respected farmhand with Tamás the Pig JÓZSI BÁCSI, RESPECTED FARMHAND with TAMÁS THE PIG
Five other full-time workers were also on the premises. Five other full-time workers were also on the premises. Five other full-time workers were also on the premises. The police assigned two or three officers to each family member and another three to accompany Józsi, the farm's most important worker. The police assigned two or three officers to each family member and another three to accompany Józsi, the farm's most important worker. The police assigned two or three officers to each family member and another three to accompany Józsi, the farm’s most important worker.
My family didn't take photos of the search (who would document such a thing?), but I do have these photographs from the Hungarian Policeman - which depict kulak searches around the country. My family didn't take photos of the search (who would document such a thing?), but I do have these photographs from the Hungarian Policeman - which depict kulak searches around the country. My family didn’t take photos of the search (who would document such a thing?), but I do have these photographs from the “Hungarian Policeman” - which depict kulak searches around the country.

Magyar Rendőr/The Hungarian Policeman: an internal magazine for the Department of Public Order that was first published in 1947. Its purpose was to illustrate best practices for finding contraband, arresting people, checking papers, and interrogating farmers.

Farm search during the Rákosi era
These photos document how thorough, disruptive, and frightening police searches were. These photos document how thorough, disruptive, and frightening police searches were. These photos document how thorough, disruptive, and frightening police searches were. Farm search of a kulak farmer during the Rákosi era Farm search of a kulak farmer during the Rákosi era Farm search of a kulak farmer during the Rákosi era
Arrest during the Rákosi era Woman in jail during the Rákosi era And my family went through this as well. And my family went through this as well. And my family went through this as well.

Gyula, who was 17, had to accompany two officers to the chicken shed where he knew his father’s guns were hidden. Guns throughout Hungary had been confiscated two years earlier, but Pista had handed over his lower-quality guns and hid his better hunting rifles so he could still hunt for food.

Many other farmers did the same. Wouldn't you have, too? Many other farmers did the same. Wouldn't you have, too? Many other farmers did the same. Would you have, too?

Gyula was in a cold sweat, trying very hard to not show any emotions. If the officers had poked the middle section of the chicken shed they would have found the hidden guns. They poked on either side. They didn’t find them…

Officials came up empty-handed with each family member, but they obviously had strict orders that day to make an arrest. So they identified pieces of Russian artillery equipment still left on the farm from WWII, labeled it "sabotage," and marched Pista three kilometers to the Marcali jail.

A ‘kulak’ farmer is arrested
This is not my grandfather, Pista, but it might as well have been... This is not my grandfather, Pista, but it might as well have been... This is not my grandfather, Pista, but it might as well have been...

Gyula was instructed to follow, pushing the contraband in a cart. It was a bizarre little parade. Neighbors lined the streets to watch the first kulak arrested in Marcali. Gyula remembers people crying as he pushed the cart past them.

In 1949, 104,000 Hungarian farms were classified as belonging to kulaks.

Were they crying for Pista? Or out of fear of what would happen next? Or did they fear the end of independent farming in Hungary? Were they crying for Pista? Or out of fear of what would happen next? Or did they fear the end of independent farming in Hungary? Were they crying for Pista? Or out of fear of what would happen next? Or did they fear the end of independent farming in Hungary?

After Pista’s arrest, many Marcali farmers were so intimidated that they surrendered their land to collective farms rather than have their land confiscated at gunpoint and face jail. This was the pattern across the country.

Being my father's daughter and hearing his story again and again, I had always absorbed the perspectie of the terrified kulak farmer. Being my father's daughter and hearing his story again and again, I had always absorbed the perspectie of the terrified kulak farmer. Being my father’s daughter and hearing his story again and again, I had always absorbed the perspective of the terrified kulak farmer.
Hungarian officer wearing leather trench coat in full salute
I am fascinated, nevertheless, by the policemen. I am fascinated, nevertheless, by the policemen. I am fascinated, nevertheless, by the policemen. Who were they? What was their motivation? What was it like to conduct these searches? Who were they? What was their motivation? What was it like to conduct these searches? Who were they? What was their motivation? What was it like to conduct these searches? Did they enjoy the work of intimidation? Or were they just following orders? Did they enjoy the work of intimidation? Or were they just following orders? Did they enjoy the work of intimidation? Or were they just following orders?
Hungarian policeman holding a truncheon Pista was taken to jail that day and tortured with rubber truncheons. Pista was taken to jail that day and tortured with rubber truncheons. Pista was taken to jail that day and tortured with rubber truncheons. He proudly withstood the torture, never revealing the hiding places of his gold. He proudly withstood the torture, never revealing the hiding places of his gold. He proudly withstood the torture, never revealing the hiding places of his gold.
Gyula in the family vineyard with friends

With the jailing of his father, Gyula had become the legal manager of his farm. He thus inherited all of Pista’s quota obligations and sabotage charges.

A few weeks later the authorities brought in my 17-year-old father, Gyula, and simultaneously tortured them both, hoping one of them would break. A few weeks later the authorities brought in my 17-year-old father, Gyula, and simultaneously tortured them both, hoping one of them would break. A few weeks later the authorities brought in my 17-year-old father, Gyula, and simultaneously tortured them both, hoping one of them would break.
Ari school portrait

Ari returned from Budapest to come to her family’s aid. She luckily gained access to the house next door to Gyula’s Marcali jail cell and talked to him from the pantry window, giving him confidence to withstand the hourly beatings in the interrogation room.

The family story is that neither father nor son broke, and Ari's support of her brother saved the day. The family story is that neither father nor son broke, and Ari's support of her brother saved the day. The family story is that neither father nor son broke, and Ari’s support of her brother saved the day.
This may have been the proudest moment of this generation of the Fábos family. This may have been the proudest moment of this generation of the Fábos family. This may have been the proudest moment of this generation of the Fábos family.

As I heard this story growing up, I was proud too. I used my father’s torture to make myself interesting. Who’s father gets tortured by his government at age 17? It was even the topic of my college application essay.

But the story of the family’s victory rings sadly familiar in Hungary, both proud and torn. Like so many other times in the long and exhausting history of the Carpathian Basin, a new regime imposed a divisive vision redefining the Hungarian nation, tearing families and communities apart.

The Fábos family weathered the interrogation, but soon both father and son would be sentenced to years of back-breaking forced labor. The Fábos land and livelihood continued to be stripped away, as it was for Hungarians across the countryside.