10 March 2016

Ödön Pásint: A Prisoner of His Conscience – Part II



A Voice for Minorities in Dangerous Times


P
art II

 

1949–50: HOPELESSNESS

 

[...] Ödön Pásint retired [...] at 48, but possibly not quite on his own initiative. As the “bourgeois” traditions of publishing the personal news of public administration (appointments, promotions, awards, retirements, etc.) in the Official Gazette had been laid aside, such events were no longer announced. However, [his widow] Mária Bartha is probably right in remembering that “[i] n 1948 he requested to be retired on grounds of ill health, and with his request approved by Prime Minister Lajos Dinnyés his retirement took effect at the end of the same year”. This is borne out by Pásint’s trade-union membership card surviving in the family archives (issued by the National Trade Union of Hungarian Public Administration Employees) on which his last payment of membership fee is registered as of December 1948. Meanwhile, in the investigative dossier kept on him by the ÁVH security police he is listed as category “B”,1 i.e. as politically unreliable, which suggests an episode of political purges much rather than voluntary retirement.

Which scenario then is the real one? Strangely enough, both: Ödön Pásint was “forced voluntarily” to retire. His position became untenable, and his conscience as a public servant did not allow him to work for dictatorial regimes raging throughout his country. As he did not collaborate with Ferenc Szálasi and his Arrow Cross men helped into a position of power by the Gestapo, neither would he serve under the Communist leadership whose totalitarian rule was prepared in less than three years by the NKVD.

His daughter Eszter had this to record decades later:

In a private interview in 1948, Rákosi floated the possibility of his continuing in service, but Ödön Pásint requested his retirement on grounds of ill health. He was provided with certificates by the renowned medical professors [of Hungarian Jewish background], in whose rescue he had played an active part [in 1944].2

 

Ödön Pásint on the Danube embankment in Budapest, during the war years

All that can be known of his state of health is that more than a year before his death he had been to the medicinal baths of Hévíz. Here he shared a room in the local sanatorium with the poet Lőrinc Szabó, who had the following to say about him in a letter written to his wife on 16 February 1949: “Dr Pásint, with whom we once visited Dr Molnár, has now gone home, after his arthritis got much better.” The same could hardly be said of his state of mind… A good example of his bitter humour, the bite of which he would not spare even himself, is that in his last years he would open the door of his friend the radio journalist György Csanády with these words: “Let me have some good news, Gyurka. Never mind if it’s a lie.”3

And that takes us to the last of our enigmas: the immediate antecedents of his suicide.

Let us see what part could have played in it personal factors such as a crisis in his private life, ill health or the like, and what part may have had political ones such as harassment by the ÁVH, his friends defecting to the West, or their imprisonment in large numbers.

According to the family lore – preserved by his widow, his daughter and her husband, the architect László Huszár – the latter is the likelier cause. As his widow Mária Bartha records in her biographical draft, “[i]n 1949, he was exposed to unfounded accusations and to harassment of such a nature and intensity by the interior authorities who wanted to obtain enforced testimony from him to prove trumped-up charges against others that he was forced to escape into suicide”.

András Csanády suggests an even simpler version: “Uncle Ödön escaped from the threat of an undignified role [of police informer] into death.”4

Csanády’s detailed recollections run like this:

Uncle Ödön killed himself because the ÁVO or some branch of the interior ministry began to deal with him. I cannot, unfortunately, recall it, but Aunt Mari [Pásint’s widow] must have told my mother about it, or Eszter [his daughter], who was my mother’s goddaughter. And they were close to each other, too. Their relationship was more than formal, as my mother kept an eye on her, and devoted time to her (as a teacher of religion, too, who took such matters more seriously than others would). Aunt Mari would often come over to our house after the death of Uncle Ödön, and would sit with my mother for a long time. I heard it from my mother, and it has stayed with me too, that they wanted to make Uncle Ödön report to them or tell on others and that was what drove him into suicide. That became fairly common knowledge in our circles. […] It seems that Péter Gegesi Kis [Pál Teleki’s secretary], with whom Uncle Ödön was on good terms, came to the same end.5

András Csanády’s sister must have witnessed a strange scene shortly after Pásint’s suicide:

My sister Kati would sometimes call on Aunt Mari as a maternal friend. She had not heard the news of Uncle Ödön’s death when she just dropped by Aunt Mari’s without warning on one of those days, and that was where she learnt of the tragic event. It is a vivid memory of hers that Aunt Mária Bethlen [István Bethlen’s younger sister] was there holding the fifteen- year-old Eszter [Pásint] on her lap, embracing her as the visibly devastated girl sat on her knees. This degree of tender confidence was a surprise, and that’s probably why it stuck in my memory.6

As one looks for reasons, one finds the words, recorded decades later, of the former friend and colleague Mihály Szabados also ring with a sombre echo: “Ödön Pásint drew the one logical conclusion and in 1950 chose suicide as a way out […].”

The question still to be answered is the extent to which the extant documents support the foregoing. Evidence should be found to support three working hypotheses: 1) Is it possible that the threats and the blackmailing by the ÁVH was part of yet another trumped-up charge? 2) Can it be verified that there was some initiative taken by the Romanian secret service, for example the showcase trial of Transylvanian Catholic Bishop Áron Márton and his associates, or some other case “on the political agenda”? Could it be then that Pásint was given to understand that the Hungarian ÁVH was prepared to hand him over to the Romanian Securitatea (as they would in fact do with Béla Demeter in less than a year’s time), something he could not expect anything good from, given his earlier activities in Transylvania? 3) And, finally, could Ödön Pásint have known of the tragic fate that had caught up with his number one patron, of the fact that István Bethlen had died in a Moscow prison hospital in the autumn of 1946?

The latter [...] can by no means be ruled out. This is what Ignác Romsics’s monograph on István Bethlen has to say on the matter:

On 7 March 1946, Margit Bethlen turned to Stalin himself for information on the fate and whereabouts of her husband, although she never received an answer to her letter. […] István Bethlen died in the Butyrskaya prison in Moscow on 5 October 1946, but news of his death was not made public. Only Ambassador Pushkin, the head of Russia’s Budapest mission, was notified, who confidentially passed the information on to some members of the Hungarian government and possibly to Margit Bethlen more than a year later, at the turn of 1947–48.7

If that is what happened, then the disheartening news undoubtedly reached Ödön Pásint too. [...]

In 1949–1950, portentous news was arriving from Romania about people disappearing, about serial arrests, and about preparations for an anti-Hungarian trial. Pásint was intimately familiar with most of the victims, some of whom were in fact old friends of his. Bishop of Gyulafehérvár Áron Márton8 had been abducted together with his secretary Benjámin Ferenczi back in late June 1949 by the Romanian political police that carried the two of them off to Bucharest. On 3 November, Pál Szász, Ede Koparich and Gyárfás Kurkó were arrested with several other Transylvanian-Hungarian leaders. In another round of arrests on 17 February 1950, József Venczel, Count Ádám Teleki, bank manager Bertalan Bodor, lawyer Dr Géza Pásztai and István Lakatos, the leader of the Hungarian Social Democrats, were also imprisoned. Lakatos gives the following retrospective account of the preparations for Bishop Áron Márton’s trial:

The interrogations started in the basement of the ministry of the interior. It was obvious that they wanted to stage a large showcase trial to intimidate the Hungarian population of Romania, but it could not yet be known who the principal actors would be and what charges would be brought up. Only the broad outlines could be made out. There would be a Roman Catholic bishop in it, a count from the famous Teleki family, a bank manager, a landowner (Pál Szász), the president of the Social Democratic Party’s Hungarian chapter (myself), and a Communist who had failed to stay the course (Gyárfás Kurkó), the former president of the MNSZ (the Hungarian People’s Union of Romania).9

Several cases and documents that came to light later corroborate the existence of a very real cooperation, a veritable “policemen’s Communist International” uniting the secret services of the Communist world. Thus the state security services of Romania and Hungary had been working in close collusion ever since the spring of 1945 and continued to do so – with the interruption of a short chilly period after 1964 and a few lapses in mutual confidence – until as late as 1982, when Ceauşescu’s “maverick politics eventually terminated the relationship. A familiar example of this collaboration between the secret police forces is when on 15 March 1951 the ÁVH arrested journalist Béla Demeter (a good friend and, as it appears from the documents, close associate of Pásint’s in several Transylvania-related cases) and handed him over to the Securitatea. Demeter, who had played an important part for a while in Hungary’s preparations for the Paris Peace Treaty of 1947, was beaten to death in a Romanian prison around Christmas in 1952.

Cases like that are very likely to have been known to Ödön Pásint, as he must have heard of the sad end to which István Bethlen had come, through his close connection with the Bethlen family and, particularly, with Mária Bethlen. And although there is currently no trace of it in the Securitatea’s archives (the CNSAS) in Bucharest, it cannot be ruled out that Pásint, too, was blackmailed by his interrogators with being handed over to the Romanian “comrades” if he refused to cooperate with the Hungarian state security, and he escaped from these dismal perspectives into suicide. (That he had reasons to be afraid is shown by his role at the head of the CASBI committee in the post-1945 cases of Romania–Hungary property disputes, which cut the new ruling elites of Romania to the quick, as leading Romanian politicians, police and army officers had taken possession of a large number of valuable Hungarian properties, refugee assets and belongings all over Transylvania. Based on his data-collection on the spot in 1944–45, Béla Demeter drew up several inventories and prepared itemised reports of all that; that may be why the Securitatea requested his extradition from the ÁVH later, and that may be the reason why, being privy to all sorts of dark secrets, he had to perish in a Romanian prison.)

The immediate reason, the proverbial straw breaking the camel’s back, is probably elsewhere, though. It lurks in the preparations for the showcase trial of a spy-case whose investigative dossier prepared by the ÁVH10 (opened on 25 September 1945 and closed on 6 October 1956) surfaced from the basement storerooms of the Budapest state security archives (the ÁBTL) shortly before the closing of this book’s manuscript, after three years of futile search – a delay caused by a banal typing error altering the name Pásint to Pázsit! The file contains the nine-page typescript of Béla Padányi Gulyás’s statement made on 14 October 1949,11 and dictated into the record by the ÁVH’s interrogators who are likely to have beaten it all out of their victim, condemning himself and about two dozen Smallholders’ Party politicians and ministerial employees. This is what the statement says about Ödön Pásint:

Until put on the B-list, Head of Ministerial Department Pázsit [sic] provided data about the minorities department of the Prime Minister’s Office. He was in close contact with the English embassy.12

Based on that, there is no doubt that Pásint, too, was sought out and summoned by the ÁVH to appear either as a witness or as a suspect, and this may well have been one reason, if not the reason, for his suicide committed in early May 1950. It is also likely that in the weeks or months preceding his death he sought refuge from the ÁVH’s harassment with his brother-in-law, the ex-officer Ákos Burza in Kóny, a village in Győr–Sopron County in the West of Hungary. It is another matter that he may have been tracked down to his hideout there, too – maybe that is the story told by the written summons to the Győr Court found among his belongings after his death.

A biographical episode Béla Padányi Gulyás shared with Pásint was the fact that the former, too, had an active part to play in the Hungarian preparations for the Paris Peace Treaty as the number one opponent of the Communists, the head of the foreign affairs department of the Smallholders’ Party. [Below follows] a relevant and characteristic section of his statement, tendentiously distorted by the ÁVH:

The English Major Poole [supposedly the resident officer of the Intelligence Service, according to the indictment – B. N.] had a keen interest in the confidential documents of Hungary’s preparations for the peace treaty. For that reason I talked with János Gyöngyösi, the Foreign Minister at the time, and let him know that I wanted to obtain the confidential documents in connection with the peace treaty. Gyöngyösi let me have these documents, and I passed the procured data on to Poole. Thus I gave him an account of the plans made for the normalisation of Hungary’s relations with Czechoslovakia as well as the draft proposals for the adjustment of the Romanian–Hungarian frontier.

As head of a ministerial department, Ödön Pásint himself must frequently have sent documents ex officio concerning the current situation or future fate of the Hungarian minorities living across the borders to the British and American members of the Allied Control Commission. He had maintained connections with these officials right from the beginning in the spring of 1947, although certainly not with the “treasonous” intentions of selling “government secrets” to a British or American spy. As it happens such – in part merely formal – liaising was among his official duties.13

This is confirmed by the above-cited biographical note by his daughter Eszter Pásint more than four decades after the event. The document contains the following:

For as yet unclarified reasons, he was looked up on several occasions in the spring of 1950 and once he was even submitted to night-long interrogations. After that he sank into himself, for days on he burnt letters and documents, and then he took his own life. He was fifty years old.14

He cannot possibly have had any illusions left about his plight, about his prospects for the future. He saw his elders and the best of his own generation die or disappear one after the other, and if he called up that vision on a lonely hour, he would see a tragic repertoire of human fates pass before him.

The fates of the older men who were closest to him, whom he thought most highly of, had been sealed: Pál Teleki had shot himself in the head back in 1941 in the Sándor Palace, Endre Bajcsy-Zsilinszky had been murdered by Arrow Cross thugs in the prison of Sopronkőhida at the Christmas of 1944, and István Bethlen had died in a Moscow prison hospital less than two years after the two of them had seen each other hiding from the Gestapo. Áron Márton, the Transylvanian bishop with the spirit of a hero, who had once raised his voice against the persecution and deportation of Jews, was now being kept in the prisons of the Securitatea (in the summer of 1951 he would be sentenced to life). Count Miklós Bánffy, the once so generous Maecenas of Transylvanian culture, had less than a month to live before, robbed of all he had had, he met his miserable end in Budapest; the prematurely widowed Undersecretary Pataky died a few years later in internment leaving two orphans behind, teenage boys who would escape to the West in 1956.

But fate did not have anything happier to offer Pásint’s own generation either.

As the chief defendant of the showcase trials of the “Hungarian Brotherhood”, Domokos Szent-Iványi had been in prison for four years and had another six to go before his release in 1956. Tibor Mikó and Mihály Szabados had been let go shortly before – one from the Gulags, the other from the toughest gaol in Hungary, the fortress-like building formerly overcrowded with political prisoners: Márianosztra. Miklós Mester was deported in 1951 to Felsővadász, in Borsod County, where he scraped together a living as a lumberjack in the woods around the village, from where he was only allowed to return home after 1956. Béla Demeter lived a hermit’s life in Boglár, a village by Lake Balaton; it was from there that he was carried away by the ÁVH on 15 March 1951 to be handed over to the Romanian secret police that beat him to death in less than a year’s time.

Added to that was a legion of emigrants who had escaped to the West, or stayed there as diplomats, in the preceding three years: Béla Teleki, Endre Hlatky, Béla Kovrig, Géza Teleki, István Kertész, Pál Sebestyén, Aladár Szegedy-Maszák, and who knows how many more.15

On 29 April, four days before his death, Ödön Pásint still writes a letter to his son Domokos, who is a graduating student at the Sárospatak Calvinist Grammar School. He sends it from Kóny, a village in the Kisalföld region of Western Hungary, where the Pásint couple have often enjoyed the hospitality of his in- laws: Ákos Burza and Teréz Bartha in these hard times.16 The letter is full of family news, the detailed description of small, everyday events with nothing as yet to suggest the impending tragedy.

And then, on 3 May, he puts an end to his life.

He leaves behind no suicide note, and there is no surviving police or medical report of the reasons or circumstances of his death either.

The fact of his deed is commemorated by a single official entry in the death registry of the Budapest Unitarian Parish of the Duna–Tisza–Side Ecclesiastic Community:

Date of death/of burial: 3/9 May 1950.
Ödön Pásint ret. min. dept. head, age: 50 yrs, domicile: 28 Baross St., Distr. VIII, disease or nature of death: hanging by own hand, minister at burial: Dr Gábor Csibi, registered: Farkasrét Cemetery – of Torockószentgyörgy birth.

The death notice says only this much: “on 3 of the present month, at the age of 50, in the 21st year of his happy marriage, after a protracted illness, Ö. P. ret. min. dept. head, suddenly departed.”17 His epitaph “Thy will be done” sounds ambivalent in the shadow of the tragedy, as it can suggest the painful acceptance of a desperate escape by a man caught in the trap of life as well as a final acquiescence in God’s will.

An edited version of the translation by Ákos Farkas



1 See the investigative dossier of Béla Padányi Gulyás, charged with treason – ÁBTL 2.1. IV/31.

2 Eszter Pásint’s biographical notes on her father recorded in the summer of 1993. The original is kept by Dr Péter Magyar Pásint (London).

3 Personal communication by András Csanády, May 2010.

4 Interview made by the author with András Csanády, May 2010.

5 Ibid.

6 Supplement added by András Csanády in a letter of May 2010.

7 Romsics, op. cit., pp. 442–443.

8 Áron Márton (1896–1980), Roman Catholic bishop during World War II and the Communist era in Romania.

9 Social Democratic politician István Lakatos’s recollections of the Áron Márton trial. István Lakatos, “Lakatos István kolozsvári szocdem politikus visszaemlékezése a Márton Áron-per lefolyására” [Recollections of Social Democratic Politician István Lakatos of Kolozsvár of the Áron Márton Trial], in Történeti kényszerpályák – kisebbségi reálpolitikák II [Forced Historical Paths – Minority Realpolitics], ed. by Vincze Gábor (Csíkszereda: Pro-Print Kiadó, 2003), pp. 141–146.

10 The investigative dossier of Béla Padányi Gulyás, charged with treason – ÁBTL 2.1. IV/31.

11 Béla Padányi Gulyás (Técső, Subcarpathia, 1903 – Geneva, Switzerland, 1988), landowner, Smallholders’ Party politician (1931–1949). From February 1948, he served as acting president of the World Federation of Hungarians. In October 1949 he was arrested by the ÁVH, and on 23 November 1950, he was sentenced to fifteen years of imprisonment on trumped-up charges of espionage. In the summer of 1956 he was released, but remained under police surveillance. In 1956, he emigrated to Switzerland. For his recollections see Vallomás egy elsüllyedt világról [Narrative of a Sunken World] (München: Auróra, 1975) and A magyar parlamentarizmus végnapjai, 1945–49 [The Final Days of Hungarian Parlamentarism, 1945–49] (München: Auróra, 1985).

12 The investigative dossier of Béla Padányi Gulyás, charged with treason – ÁBTL 2.1. IV/31.

13 He was, among other things, invited with his wife to a dinner given by Ferenc Nagy at the prime ministerial office in honour of American Ambassador Arthur Shoenfeld – as reported by the Hungarian News Agency on 20 April 1946.

14 The last paragraph of Eszter Pásint’s biographical notes made about his father in the summer of 1993. The original is kept by Dr Péter Magyar Pásint (London).

15 The heavy secret of Béla Kovrig, former rector of the University of Kolozsvár smuggled to Vienna in the trunk of an American Embassy vehicle and a close friend, coeval, and Transylvanian compatriot of Ödön Pásint’s, could fortunately not be known to the hero of this study. As it has emerged from Éva Petrás’s recent research, the leading social scientist and social welfare politician was recruited by the ÁVH as early as the autumn of 1946. Even during Kovrig’s years in emigration, the secret police made serious efforts to reactivate him in America as its intelligence agent. See Éva Petrás’s case study, “Escape into Emigration: Christian Democrat and Social Welfare Politician Béla Kovrig and the Hungarian State Security”, in Big Brother’s Miserable Little Grocery Store: Studies on the History of the Hungarian Secret Services after World War II, ed. by György Gyarmati and Mária Palasik (Budapest: ÁBTL–L’Harmattan, 2012), pp. 251–269.

16 A registration form recording temporary residence dated 13 February 1950 bears witness to this.

17 Unitárius Élet, 5 (1950), 4, p. 4.




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