I’ve always had a love of espionage, ever since I read La Carre’s brilliant novel, The Spy who Came in from the Cold. Perhaps it is genetic. After all, back in Hungary, my Uncle Gábor assisted Raoul Wallenberg in helping thousands of Jews escape during the Nazi occupation. For his troubles, he was captured, tortured, and sent to Auschwitz and branded, somehow surviving until the death camp was liberated by the Americans.
For his services, he was made an honorary Israeli citizen and granted the honorific of Righteous Among Nations (often referred to as Righteous Gentile). This honor was short lived when he went once again into the Dark Underground.
Perhaps he should have listened to Dylan Thomas: “Do not go, gentile, into that Good Night.”
After, he worked as an agent for British Intelligence during the Russian occupation of Hungary and was once again captured and taken to the AVO (Hungarian secret police) prison where he was tortured, hung by his thumbs, and interrogated for months on end until he was released when the 1956 Revolt began.
Next came my brother, Gáspár, 18 years my senior. He was sentenced to 14 years in prison for purportedly selling secrets to the British, also freed at this time.
My cousin, Emöke (not her real name), spent several months working for Radio Free Europe (run by the CIA) broadcasting in Hungarian behind the Iron Curtain. She told me that she was actually often speaking in code: for example, when she would read out on her newsfeed that paprika exports to the U.S. were up, this actually meant that a voluptuous, red-haired Communist spy had arrived to set a honey trap for a U.S. senator (presumably a Democrat).
Then there was my sister, Judit (not her real name), who worked as a part-time translator for the CIA (Hungarian to English). They liked her work so much that they wanted her to come and work for them full-time at the Balkan desk. She had a grueling interview, the final part of which consisted of rather bizarre and random questions, one of them being: “Did you ever have sex with an animal?” My sister, who has a sharp wit, quipped: “Yes, my husband.” She was immediately rejected; the CIA laughs at nothing.
It eventually came to be my turn. I was 19, a student in my sophomore year of university in Western New York. I had just finished an Advanced Hungarian Conversation course and had to take a final test to receive my credits. My tutor introduced me to a well-dressed gentleman from Washington, D.C. who told me (in English…in fact, he only spoke that language to me) that he would listen in on our conversation to assess my proficiency. After about 20 minutes, he administered a grammar test which I found difficult since I had only attended two months of Grade 1 in Hungary before we emigrated to the West. Still, I aced the test, and he gave me his business card and asked if I would meet him for supper the next day.
We met and he outlined a plan, telling me that a “certain Government agency” was interested in employing me. I would be attending university in Hungary for several years at their expense and then asked to do “certain chores” for them, including translation, recon, and other covert stuff. He never spelled this out but told me that I could have a lucrative, high paying job if I went along with everything they mandated.
I politely declined, never telling him about my sister’s faux pas, though I suspect he knew.
My last foray into the secret world took place during my year of living and studying in Innsbruck, Austria. There, I became acquainted with some prominent exiled Hungarian Jesuits who taught at the University and lived in the Collegium. Since none of them knew English, they hired me to translate documents from Magyar into English for a newsletter that was circulated world-wide. This then escalated to me travelling to Hungary and bringing out several of these documents secretly. At first, most were from priests who had been forbidden to minister to their flock due to the Russian ban on religious gatherings, but then it escalated into something more dangerous and serious.
It started with my orders to go to the Basilic of St. Stephen, Budapest’s largest Catholic church, for Sunday mass. Due to the Russian ban, there were few who dared to venture into church, much less celebrate the Eucharist and take communion, though I had been directed to do so. When I went back to my pew, I heard a hushed whisper behind me, asking me to meet him at the Café Gerbaud about a ten-minute walk from there. A smallish, ferret-faced individual sidled over to my table, introducing himself as Mátyás (Matyi) Hári (not his real name). He told me that he had some highly secret documents from the Primate of Hungary himself.
Nervous at first, I wanted to ask him if the Primate liked bananas, but then I deduced he meant Cardinal Mindszenti, who was sequestered in the American Embassy, a thorn in the side of the Soviet Regime. Anyway, I packed them in my rucksack and went to take the next boat to Vienna. At the ship terminus, the customs official took an inordinately long time examining my American passport, as sweat poured down my collar. Finally, he asked me if I was related somehow to a Gábor Alapi, followed by him asking me for my last known address in Budapest.
Panicking, I blurted out: “Andrássi út 60,” the only address I could remember. It happened that this was the address for the AVO headquarters where the secret police did their dirty work and incarcerated the undesirables, including my uncle and brother.
Somehow, he let me get on the boat, smiling maliciously. So, now when anyone who knows my dubious past asks me what I did in Europe to make extra money, I always answer: “I worked with and researched primates.”
And that I like my pálinka shaken, not stirred.
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