by Mark Stoddard
This is the true life of a real face of a Hungarian teacher educated in Russia coming to grips with the past and a brave new world. Her story is one of millions everywhere in the former countries of the Warsaw Pact.
Klara Szita could not understand her father. For that matter understanding other Hungarian fathers was as difficult. They always seemed sullen and distracted. Life was miserable to them. It showed in their countenance. Whenever her own father looked at her he would seem to become more sullen and removed. She always felt she was disappointing her father, causing him his sadness.
For more than 15 years the USSR had been more dominant than their own unique and colorful Hungarian culture. Sure, they had heard rumors about Soviet military people doing something wrong in the mid 50's, but didn't soldiers everywhere cause a few problems?
Russian was now their second language. Never did one study any other foreign language. To speak the language of the proletariat was an honor. Klara quickly found she enjoyed studying language although she didn't want to study Russian.
Her mother told her that learning Russian would give her the key to travel and economic opportunity. Her father said little and in fact shrunk back when the conversation turned to Russia. He said he had nothing to say.
When she mastered Russian, she looked for another linguistic challenge. Her mother decided English would serve her well. For the first time, Klara's father's eyes lit up and he quietly, but with a smile, agreed.
The light quickly dimmed, however, when word came back that her application to learn English in high school had been turned down flat. The word never came in a letter, but by verbal innuendo. Came the word that neither she nor her family were Communist Party members and should not expect privileges. Besides, there was still information that revolution had been part of her heritage. She could not be trusted.
At age 21, because of her great abilities with language, she was part of a select group that got to travel to Leningrad, Russia where they could study under Russian professors. What a chance to not only study the lexicon of Russia, but the literature as well in its original language. The literature of Tolstoy, Dostoevski, Pushkin, Chekhov, and others. Klara could barely contain her enthusiasm. Her father said nothing. In the winter of 1982 she boarded a plane for her first trip to the Soviet Union. Her first trip anywhere.
They were often told that the USSR was the epitome of civilization and it was the sworn aim of all nations, particularly the crumbling USA to emulate that great giant of culture, progress, humanity and enlightenment. They were told by their teachers that the USSR was the most beautiful country on earth and by far the richest. How her friends envied her!
For four hours after arriving at her dormitory in Leningrad, neither Klara nor her fellow Hungarians spoke. They could not. They were in shock.
Leningrad was dilapidated, dirty, and sullen. All around were lines of people waiting in the cold to enter shops. Not just a few people, but lines that stretched around the block. Lines everywhere.
The snow outside seemed warmer than their dorms, and cleaner too. Finally, the cold made them stir to get things in order. When they asked about hot water, heat, brooms and such, they were quickly told that Hungarians were always the biggest complainers. They had no socialist loyalty. Hungarians could not see the good in something if it was not Hungarian.
The next day matters definitely improved. She met their teacher. From the moment they met, the Hungarians fell in love with her warmth and humanity. She was like so many Russians. From a distance they are cold and aloof, but when met face to face are warm and giving.
Olga welcomed them and listened to their stories of back home in Hungary and why they had come. Olga made them nearly forget the dismal lot of Leningrad; until the next day when they received their course outlines. The history of the Communist Party. The history of Lenin, Khrushchev and Brezhnev. The history of Soviet literature; Gorki and the lot. Pasternak and Solzenitzan were not included.
But what about Tolstoy, Pushkin and Chekhov?The teacher avoided the questions until she could resist their pleadings no longer. Without answering a single question she dismissed the class and told them to prepare their lessons for the next day.
Later that night Olga came to their dormitory. As she spoke, she choked up a little and tears came to her eyes.
"You are young. You see no boundaries and no dangers. That is good. So I must say something that you must never repeat. Will you promise me?" They did.
"I have been told if I cannot take care of you and teach you what I have been told, then I will be released and sent north. "
One brave student ventured the obvious question, "Siberia?"
"Yes. It is serious. Will you please go against your good desires and bear with me?" They nodded sadly.
For one year they studied in Russian, but never read a word of Pushkin. Or Tolstoy. No Chekhov. Not officially.
Her new Russian friends snuck in books of Pushkin, the writer all Russians adore. Under blankets they read the tales late at night.
After one year of being in Leningrad, Klara Szita returned home to her father and mother in Budapest, Hungary. She was now year older and a decade wiser. She had learned one of the prime arts of communism. "I learned how to lie to stay alive. "
But lying to stay alive would mean a change of life. She could lie on some things, but lie to children? In a classroom?!She could not. Upon her return, she told the authorities she no longer wanted to teach children. She lied about the reasons. Instead, she became a guide to the many Russian tourists for three years.
At age 25, in 1985, life had become settled and peaceful. No turmoil and strife. She guided, she got paid, she lived. She took up studying German and English on her own. Occasionally she met an Englishman or a German, and practiced on them.
Then came the chance to go to the backward nation of Austria, to study some German and perhaps some English. She and other guides were to be translators for some Russians who were cooperating with the Hungarians on a project. The project called for some work in Austria and they needed translators.
Klara was pleased to do some different work, but not terribly pleased to be going to her first capitalist country. She had been told they were rude, had a bad economy and it was a bad place. But, it was a change. And she was requested. So she went.
A few hours drive from Budapest was the border. The translators, all in their late 20s or early 30s, laughed and joked, even at the serious border crossing. Guards with machine guns and dour expressions were routine to them.
After the usual questions, grilling, passport controls, visa authentications, and making sure all papers were in order, they decided to walk into Austria to wait for the bus. Patrol dogs sniffed the luggage area for stowaways and soldiers inspected the underneath portion of the bus.
Klara was glad to leave the scene, even if it were to cross into the dismal country of Austria. "Just three feet into Austria, we stopped. We collapsed to the ground. We saw paradise.
"They had to be helped up. On the bus they cried. None of them spoke to each other the rest of the trip. They could not find the words.
"In a matter of a few seconds we realized how completely our lives were based on lies. We wanted to return to Hungary immediately and do suicide. Our lives were over. "
But they could not return. They had learned to be tough in Russia, and now they counted on that toughness and coat of lies to get them through.
For three days they worked harder than ever, anything to rid their minds of the plaguing conundrum. But they had to work harder still when returning home not to openly criticize their communist government. For four years their silence prevailed. In those years the despair took over. They could see no end to communism's ruinous appetite for control.
Life did go on. But not with joy.
One day her parents asked her when she would have children. She turned to her father sternly and told him, "Never. I have always been a disappointment to you. I don't want to have a relationship with a child. You have always been so cold to me that I know you've never liked me. I could not do that to my child. "
Her father started to speak, then bitterly reconsidered and said nothing. He went to his easy chair, turned on the television and began smoking; something he had always done whenever such a subject was brought up.
And so it went until 1989. In an explosion of freedom that the world has never seen, Hungary declared their era of communism dead. Suddenly Klara and her friends found out they were not the only ones hiding their thoughts. One would mention something small that had bothered them, testing the waters. Then others chipped in a little, emboldening each of them to say more. Soon they talked about all the forbidden things.
"In that moment I felt freedom for the first time. I freely spoke of my experiences in Russia and Austria. About the lies, the criminal acts, the suppression. To my surprise others spoke equally free about similar thoughts. Together, we had a new beginning. "
She returned home rejoicing. She then went to her parents' home to hug them both. But her father hugged her first. He wept openly. For the first time in her recollection, he was alive and animated. She was taken aback.
"Oh my darling Klara. Forgive me. Forgive. I could say nothing until now."
"Why not?" was all Klara could manage. Such emotional whiplash left her dazed.
"I was there in Heros Square in 1956. I was young like you. Full of dreams. We had a
whole new world of glorious promise. All the students gathered and talked and planned for a better life with freedom. In Heros Square we cheered the future.
"Within an hour the Soviet tanks came. They killed my friends. I escaped at first only to be captured and tortured. After that, they knew me. If I said a word, you would have died, too. I could say nothing. Forgive me. "
Klara Szita received many freedoms that day. Today she will tell you, "Now we have freedom, but some confusion of the mind on what to do. But, we see you Americans with your smiles and eyes of freedom. We see strong people with freedom AND independence of mind and it gives us hope. We will succeed like you. "
Our best to you, Klara.