A Priest Behind the Iron Curtain

My mother’s father had a younger brother who went on to become a Catholic priest prior to the outbreak of World War II. Part of his seminary training took place at the University in Heidelberg, Germany, as a result of which he spoke excellent German. This skill became very useful to him during the period of German occupation. He helped a number of young Jewish girls hide from the Gestapo and their Hungarian counterparts, some by having them placed in Catholic convents posing as novitiates studying to be nuns, while others with more prominent Jewish physical characteristics he hid away with families in the manner Anne Frank was hidden. My mother and her sister were among those he employed in this ruse, with consequences described in my post yesterday titled Ladybug.

After Hungary was officially taken over by the Communists, Catholic priests were given two options. They could be supported financially by the State and perform their priestly duties, but they had to be “cooperative” with the authorities, report those who might say or do things to suggest they were enemies of the State, and subject their sermons to government oversight.  If they refused, they received no financial support from anyone, and while they could still hold services, the police kept obvious watch of any in attendance, reporting them as being “subversive elements.” Such a report could get you anything from a beating during the night by members of the AVO, the thugs who served as the secret police, to demotion or loss of your job. As a result, only very old ladies without living relatives (against whom punitive action could be taken) attended services. They were also prohibited from “poisoning the minds” of young children with religious beliefs.

When I was born, my mother gave me his name as my own, and had him perform my baptism. Under the Communist regime, he spent a number of years in prison for various infractions of State policy regarding religious practices and teachings. The official Party line was that all religions were tolerated and could be practiced freely. The reality was far from this lie. It was during this time that Cardinal Mindszenty, the highest ranking prelate of the Catholic Church in Hungary, took refuge in the American Embassy, where he remained the rest of his life. His presence there was a clear embarrassment to the Communist government in power, who were willing to allow him to leave the country and go to Rome. He refused, staying in the embassy, a symbol to all the believers in Hungary, regardless how underground they needed to remain for their own survival.

I would see my uncle occasionally when he was freed from prison, when he would provide secret classes in our religion, or perform an underground mass for the family. It’s hard for anyone who did not live under this system of repression to understand or appreciate the fear with which people existed. Police informants were everywhere, and you couldn’t trust other family members or friends with anything that could be used to betray you and your family to the AVO. Part of my religious education was the absolute need for secrecy. I couldn’t talk about anything regarding my uncle or what I was learning to any of my friends or teachers at school. We all knew entire families that disappeared during the night, never to be heard from again. No one asked, because that alone could bring dire consequences. While it was not difficult to identify members of the AVO, with their long brown leather coats (similar to the black ones worn by the Gestapo), not being able to trust family and friends was one of the most corrosive aspects of life behind the Iron Curtain.

Somehow, almost miraculously, my uncle survived all his travails, serving as a parish priest in a small town an hour’s distance from Budapest. After our escape from Hungary and subsequent move to the United States, the government relaxed some of the tighter restrictions of the Stalinist era, and we would receive occasional letters from him. He was delighted to learn that I was attending a Catholic high school (paid for by the generosity of our parish priest, as tuition at the time was beyond our means.) My mother would send him CARE packages, for which he was always grateful. I only saw him once before he died, on my first trip back to Hungary after the government granted amnesty to all those who left illegally in 1956. (The need for hard currency outweighed political principles.) He still had a twinkle in his eyes, a ready smile, and only the scars and badly healed breaks of his fingers bore testimony to his prior suffering. He was writing a book about the plight of the Jews during the War, though as far as I know, he never finished it. After that time, we drifted apart, and I didn’t hear from him or about him until after his death. He left his meager possessions to my mother. By then, she had already died, the Wall came down, and the country was free, so I donated his estate to the diocese where he lived and worked. We all make mistakes in our lives. One of mine was my failure to keep closer contact with him, allowing his lessons to end too soon.

This entry was posted in Communism, Family, Hungary, Religion, Thoughts & Musings, Uncategorized, World War II and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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