Dr. Sándor Kopácsi–An unorthodox hero, who wouldn’t fit the mould

The Second World War ended in Hungary in April 1945. The old regime was gone, to be replaced by a new one based on idealism, lies, hypocrisy and lust for total control and cruelty. The new regime, called Communism, had a new ideal for its citizens. The new man would be of the working class background, intelligent, dedicated, courageous and willing to blindly follow orders. My father, Sándor Kopácsi then only 23 years old, fit the mould perfectly, except for the last part.

His father and grandfather had been members of the Steel Union, my father grew up in the workers movement. He was shot at the age of fifteen while distributing leaflets against the Arrow Cross, the nascent Hungarian fascist party. He also joined an anti-Nazi resistance movement the MOKAN Committee, where along with his parents provided safe heaven to thirteen people, among them several Jews, army deserters and an injured Russian soldier. So it was not a total surprise that in January 1945, as a member of the only resistance group that was allowed to keep their weapons after the war to become part of the local law enforcement, my father became a police officer.

I will now highlight incidents in my father’s life and career that illustrate his difficulties in fitting into the expected mould.

1948 – The Flood

Completing the police academy, in 1948 he was given the task of nationalizing all religious schools in Northern Hungary. With this, he was given effective command of both the local police force and the army. However, as soon as he arrived from the academy, he was faced with a devastating flood, and using his authority he organized a rescue mission, to save numerous lives and property. After the event he was called in to headquarters and severely reprimanded for wasting valuable resources for the rescue mission, instead of carrying out his original order to nationalise the religious schools.

1949 – Director of Internment

In 1949 my father was transferred to Budapest, and became a Director of Internment Affairs. The post-World War II government was busy exiling people it deemed as their enemies to the middle of nowhere, often into life threatening situations. His job was to sign off on all the decisions that a committee of three made about people to be interned, who were never convicted, but whom the authorities didn’t want walking about. The troika’s job was simple: to prolong, usually by six months, the internment of those detained. After a three-day visit to one of the camps, my father reviewed the files of 150 detainees. The majority of the cases dealt

with minor theft, predominantly rural pilfering of poultry and crops. Something wasn’t right. In a state, where the power was supposed to belong to the workers and peasants most of the detainees were workers and peasants. My father believed that his job was to remedy the mistakes and out of the 150 he ordered the release of ninety-five detainees. Deemed to be “too naïve and too damn stupid” he was immediately relieved of his position. His major sin was that besides venturing into “humanitarianism”, he dared to make an independent decision without consulting with his superiors.

October 1949 – Communist Party School

In October 1949 my father was sent to attend for the next two years a Communist Party school, that he nicknamed, “the school for zombies”. When he asked why he received such an honour, he was told, “You made mistakes, but you have a good background and are capable of being reformed.” At the school much of the instruction was military. But the emphasis was on “criticism and self-criticism” that lasted throughout the course. This fearsome procedure involved creating among the students an atmosphere of suspicion, in which moral judgment was encouraged. During this course my father also learnt that the Communist Party is infallible. As a “collective conscience” it never makes mistakes, and on a very rare occasion, when it does, one better keep quiet about it.

1952 – Police chief of Budapest

Because the Communist Party needed a working-class chief, my father became police-chief of Budapest in April 1952. Moravetz, his immediate predecessor, another former metal worker had been the appointee of the director of the AVO, the Hungarian Secret Police. He went from corporal to colonel, then to major-general, and finally police chief of Budapest. Under my father’s predecessor, the police were an arm of the AVO and under the direct order of the AVO chief. The watchwords were vigilance and internal purification. Budapest’s criminals breathed a sigh of relief because there was no more surveillance, no more tailing, no more raids, and no more arrests. And there was no room for crooks in the police cells because they were filled with cops. At police headquarters, everyone spied on his neighbor and kept a little overnight case ready because nobody knew which policeman would be arrested next.

Moravetz fell flat on his face on the occasion of the annual April 4 military parade celebrating Hungary’s liberation by the Soviet Army at the end of the war. Instead of deploying enough police to keep order along the parade route, he used several armed battalions to surround the Yugoslav Embassy, which stood directly across from the stand on which Hungarian and Soviet dignitaries would review the parade. According to Moravetz, this step was necessary because Yugoslav “enemies” might attack our leaders.

Unfortunately for Moravetz, the crowd spilled through the police lines, causing a series of rear-end collisions in a parade of tanks. That same day, Moravetz was fired and installed in a new job as party secretary in a third-rate factory. Since the former chief had made a mess of

April 4, my father’s first job was to ensure the success of the May 1st celebrations.

When my father took over the police force he immediately let the officers know that under his leadership he will guarantee that the experienced officers will be able to do their jobs without undue intrusion and that he will ensure the cells were for criminals and not for police officers. Within a short period of time, he managed to establish an atmosphere of trust within the Police Headquarters.

He also introduced other changes; one of them was that he forbade the police to abuse prisoners during questioning. Those officers caught in the act were severely reprimanded. Often times my father was present during interrogations to ensure fair treatment of the accused. Much later it was acknowledged that my father was instrumental making the police force into a civilian force, separating it from the Secret Service.

1953 – Member of Parliament

In July of 1953 my father was elected Member of Parliament for the 10th district of Budapest. In Hungary of that time, this was a part-time job, as Parliament only met twice a year for two, two-week sessions, and he kept his job as Police Chief. In his capacity as the representative of the 10th district, he had regular meetings with the residents of his district. Ninety-five percent of the requests were for proper housing, and pensioners trying to get enough to cover food and clothing as well. He tried to help them all.

In one case he helped a seventy-five year old woman who came to his office in the middle of the winter wearing summer clothes and a pair of sandals. She was at the end of her rope, ready to commit suicide. She presented her case calmly – she was a war widow from the First World War. Between the wars, she had made her living from one of the small tobacco shops war widows had been allowed to operate. But this type of petty commerce had now been nationalized, and her income consisted of a pension of 100 forints a month. This was a pathetic sum equal to 10% of a worker’s salary. Some friends allowed her to live in a coal cellar, and for several days she couldn’t even afford to buy bread. My father called the porter and gave him money to buy a meal in the restaurant across the street. While the old lady ate, a policeman went to her home to verify the situation. It was as she had said. My father collected 500 forints which he gave to the old lady and sent her to police headquarters, where she was outfitted from head to toe – she even put on a policeman’s cape – and was given some wool blankets. My father’s deputy phoned everywhere to get her pension raised. The old lady returned to her cellar with the promise that she could always count on the police.

The epilogue to this story is instructive. The supply chief of the Ministry of the Interior, instituted disciplinary proceedings against my father for having delivered police property to a civilian. Luckily his superior put a stop to this laughable procedure on the grounds that what my father gave away was already surplus.

1956 – Khrushchev’s “Secret Speech”

On February 25, 1956, at the Twentieth Party Congress of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev, the First Secretary of the Communist Party delivered a secret speech, denouncing Stalin’s purges, responsibility for the gulags, the massacres of innocent people and the liquidation of millions of peasants. The Communist Party in Hungary, under the leadership of its secretary, Matthias Rakosi, also had been busy incarcerating, torturing and executing thousands of innocents. From that point on the events even in Hungary began to escalate. People, everywhere began to demand clearing the names of the innocent victims of false trials and the re-burial of Laszlo Rajk the former Minister of the Interior and his colleagues, executed in 1949 and later.

On March 27, 1956 my father made a speech in front of 1200 members of the Communist Party belonging to the Budapest Police Force. He criticized the leaders of the Hungarian Communist party for following the Soviet model of the Stalinist tyranny.

1956 – The Hungarian Revolution

On October 23, 1956, the University students planned a demonstration. They had a series of demands that mainly concerned student issues but also touched on wider political ones. The demonstration for the afternoon of October 23, 1956 was mainly to show solidarity with Poland and Gomulka, the reform leader whom the Soviets opposed. My father was called in to the Ministry of the Interior to discuss how to deal with this crisis. There he met the new Soviet advisor who insisted that the students who wanted to demonstrate were no more than fascists and imperialists and that the demonstration be prevented at all cost, including shooting into the crowd.

My father was of the opinion that it would be a serious mistake to reduce a political problem to the dimensions of a police matter. He argued that the students planning the demonstrations were not fascists or other imperialists, but sons and daughters of peasants and workers, and furthermore the police were simply not equipped to deal with mass demonstrations. Other than their guns they had no other tools to control the crowds. After a lengthy and vigorous debate the ban was removed and the demonstration was allowed to proceed.

On October 24th

When the Police headquarter came under attack the insurgents convinced my father they would stop the attack on the building if he is willing to display in the window the Hungarian flag with the Communist emblem in the center cut out with scissors. As soon as the flags were displayed the shooting stopped and the kids disappeared.

The next day my father was approached by the leaders of the various groups of insurgents’ who showed interest to negotiate with him. My father was given a direct order by the government to meet with the rebels and find out their intentions and persuade them, if possible, to surrender, by assuring them of a total amnesty. The rebels outlined their requests. Their position was that Hungary was in the middle of a war with the Soviet Union and they will not lay down their arms until the Russian Army gets out of the country. They also wanted free elections, democratic reforms and a declaration at the United Nations of Hungary’s neutrality. The meeting lasted two hours and all concerned thought it had been useful.

October 25.

Following the massacre of demonstrators in front of the Parliament by the AVO, ten thousand people surrounded the Headquarters of the Budapest Police, demanding weapons and the release of prisoners. They were angry and many sported guns under their coats.

My father took stock of the situation. He could have responded by using tear-gas grenades, or resort to the heavy stuff, machine guns and fragmentation grenades. But at what cost? Three hundred dead, followed by certain lynching of the police, the perpetrators? He took matters in his hands and with two policemen walked out onto the square unarmed and into the crowd. He stood on an ordinary plywood chair and offered to have a delegation of five people from the crowd to inspect the conditions under which he held prisoners and choose among them those who qualify as ‘freedom fighters ‘ or political prisoners, separating them from the common criminals. And after choosing fifty people they left the building. The crowd, after ensuring that the prisoners had not been mistreated, the injured had been take care of and everybody had enough to eat, they left the square jubilant.

But there were still people exerting Stalinists influence in the government and they reacted to the episode at police headquarters by having all the direct lines to the Police Headquarters, including the “red phone”, disconnected. Having negotiated with the crowd made my father an outlaw.

October 29, 1956

My father was summoned to the Parliament, where he was given the task of organizing the National Guard. This was to be an armed force combining the regular police with the armed rebel forces. My father was elected second in command. Its job was to restore order and guard the borders of the country.

November 1, 1956

While the occupation of the Suez Canal zone by British, French, and Israeli forces was the major story that day, the Soviet government declared itself ready to engage in negotiations with the new government of Hungary concerning the presence of Soviet troops on Hungarian territory.

The sad reality was that the Soviet military occupation of Hungary had already been in progress for the past three days. Patrols at Soviet border reported the entry of new troops and material into Hungarian territory. Since October 30th, all the provincial army headquarters in Hungary were reporting heavily equipped Soviet troops on the roads, enroute to Budapest. Soviet troops and equipment were also flowing in from Romania.

The Hungarian Prime Minister’s reaction was the renunciation of the Warsaw Pact and the declaration of neutrality. The declaration of neutrality was handed over at 5:00 pm to Yuri Andropov, the ambassador of the Soviet Union. Andropov assured Nagy that the Soviet troops would leave the country and asked the Hungarian government to withdraw its complaint to the United Nations. Nagy agreed on condition that the troops be withdrawn.

November 3, 1956

The Hungarian Government worked out the details with the Soviet government regarding the Soviets’ troop’s withdrawal. The remaining technicalities such as – what to do with burnt-out tanks, whether departed soldiers should be presented with bouquets by schoolchildren – were to be completed at the Soviet headquarters. By then Soviet troops were everywhere. But Imre Nagy still believed in the miracle of the negotiations. At midnight the Hungarian delegation at the Soviet Military base was arrested by the officers of the Soviet army. A full force attack was launched by the Soviet army at 4:00 am on November 4th.

My father was called by a former AVO officer who demanded that as the head of the Revolutionary Guard he give orders to the “counter-revolutionary scum” to lay down their arms. He refused. He also received a phone call from the Yugoslav ambassador, informing him that his daughter, that would be me, along with the rest of the Imre Nagy government had found haven at the Yugoslav Embassy in Budapest.

November 5, 1956

My father, dressed in civilian clothing, accompanied by my mother and a police major who spoke perfect Russian set out towards the Yugoslav Embassy to meet me. However, when they were going past the Soviet embassy they came face to face with a small detachment of Soviet Officers. One of them, a Soviet advisor of the Ministry of Interior recognized my father. My parents were ordered to get on a truck and go with them to the Soviet Army operations base,

to meet with Janos Kadar, the Hungarian turncoat whom the Soviet’s named the new leader. The truck stopped in front of the Yugoslav Embassy, where they expected my mother to disembark, but, smelling a rat, she refused to leave my father behind.

At the Soviet Army headquarters, instead of János Kadar, a dozen Soviet Generals waited, amongst them Serov, member of the Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party, president of the state security committee attached to the council of ministers of the U.S.S.R., in other words, the boss of the KGB. It was he, who was the new Soviet advisor who wanted my father to shoot into the crowd. Now, he told my father that he was going to have him hanged from the tallest tree in Budapest.

1956-1963 – The Prison Years

For the following two years my father’s life hung by a thread. Both the Soviet army generals and the leaders of the newly formed Hungarian Government were eager to get rid of the troublesome, and very popular former police chief. In the end, my father received a life sentence in a secret trial on June 16th, 1958. This “lenient sentence” was due to my mother’s heroic intervention and the tireless work of a lot of other people. He spent the following six and a half years in prison to be released as part of a general amnesty in the spring of 1963, a day after his father’s death.

But even in prison former AVO officers tried every means to drive him to suicide or create a situation where he could be claimed to have been a victim of an accident. Under normal circumstances the political prisoners were kept separated from the common criminals. It was evident, that mixing political prisoners with common criminals would be a source of bloody conflict. This was a rather familiar problem even within the Gulag. But that was exactly what the AVO was counting on, when they placed him into the same cell with Laci Sziklai, a former bank robber, whom my father arrested along with his brother in the fall of 1952 but fought to keep him from the rope. Sziklai remembered the favour and greeted him warmly, and thus placed him under the protection of the “Tough Boys.”

He also gained the respect of the prison guards, when he refused to give up the name of the one who regularly took him food, and provided him with information sent by my mother.

1963 Amnesty

My father was released on March 25, 1963, but he never regained his civil rights. On his release from prison, friends got him a job as a metal worker in a Budapest factory. Prior to his imprisonment he was working on a law degree as a part-time student. The only thing left was to submit his thesis. His former professor arranged for the thesis to be received and snuck him into the examination committee. The thesis received first-class honors and, after he completed some additional courses, he received a degree in industrial law. But his right to practice was denied.

I left Hungary in 1965 with the intention that I would get my parents out of Hungary to safety in the West. The final stroke was my visit to see my parents in 1973, when I found out that his parole application had been turned down even though he had been granted amnesty in 1963. The official ruling was: “‘Since the subject received a life term imprisonment, he cannot be granted any reduction in the penalty, nor can he ever regain his civil rights.’” Then he found out that his files had disappeared and that most likely ended up in with the KGB. This idea scared the wits out of my father. According to him there were only two possibilities: (1) because the Russians hadn’t pardoned him and he was headed for the firing squad or the gulag, (2) or the KGB was keeping him in reserve.

Apparently the role he played in the uprising of 1956 could be significant in more ways than one. As a former member of the Hungarian Communist Party Politburo and a companion of Imre Nagy, he had a background that could prove useful to Moscow in a moment of crisis. It would not be the first time Moscow has made use of a formerly disgraced politician to put a new face on the government of one of its troublesome satellites. Which meant that if the need arose, he could be catapulted into one of the highest offices in the country. And that would be the worst possible fate for him, because knowing the regime, a man in that position would be nothing more than a puppet. If the Russians desired it, he would be forced to sign even the death sentences of his best friends. He said that he would rather commit suicide than do any such thing.

1973-75 -The rescue mission

So I came back to Canada with the firm conviction that I must try the impossible, get my parents released from Hungary. It took two long years to have our rescue mission succeed, but finally my parents arrived in Canada on June 20th, 1975.

1978 – His Book is published

My father worked for Ontario Hydro as a janitor, and he boasted about his luck, that while other people had to pay a membership fee to belong to a health club, he got paid for the daily exercises. This job also gave him the brain space to write his memoir, the first one to describe the Secret Trial of the leaders of the Hungarian Uprising. Of course the Hungarian leadership was not happy about it, and even sent his brother-in-law to talk him out of publishing it. The book since then appeared in eight languages. To quote Graham Greene, the famous British Author, “A remarkable account of the Russian invasion of Hungary. It gives a totally new picture of the circumstances of the invasion and the events which followed and the characters who played their part.”

Interviewed by international TV, suddenly my father also became the most famous janitor of Ontario Hydro. When my father retired in 1987, he was known as “the happiest janitor of

Ontario Hydro’, who would not have changed places with any cabinet minister in Hungary, where a scapegoat had to be found for the regime’s every failure.”

Sándor Kopácsi in 1989, at Imre Nagy's reburial.  Photo: László Varga.

Sándor Kopácsi in 1989, at Imre Nagy’s reburial. Photo: László Varga.

1989 From Janitor to General

The year 1989 was a turning point for many millions all over the world. Mr. Gorbachev, with his reforms, managed to shake the Soviet Union to its foundations, and fourteen years after my parents stepped on Canadian soil, the world changed beyond recognition. Even we, who had always been aware that politics and fate can be unpredictable, were surprised when, on June 16, 1989, my father was back in Budapest, standing in Heroes’ Square by the coffins of his martyred comrades. He was one of the speakers to greet the new democracy, and he warned against taking revenge for the ugly and bloody past. And a short year later my father, the retired janitor of Ontario Hydro, became the highest ranking retired general of the Hungarian police. In the late spring in 1989 my father also flew to Israel with my mother, where the Yad Vashem awarded him and his parents the title of Righteous Among the Nations and he took part in the ceremony of planting a tree on his and on his parents behalf on the Avenue of the Righteous Among the Nations.

1992 — My father’s 70th Birthday

In the spring of 1992 I returned to Hungary to celebrate my father’s 70th birthday. Close to 50 people attended the event, friends, relatives, former colleagues and jail mates, cracking jokes, and sharing precious memories. We celebrated the fact that my father turned two times thirty five years old, a remarkable deed, when considering that at the age of thirty five, his execution was looming over him. My father’s 70th birthday was also a special moment of history, when a whole generation of political immigrants had not only a chance to return after so many years of living in exile to their country of origin, but actively participate in building the new democracy that they had fought for.

My father, although declining to become involved with politics, accepted the challenge to fight the alarmingly growing crime in Hungary and became the volunteer head of an organization called Civilian Guard, similar to the Guardian Angels, a volunteer organization dedicated to crime prevention, which worked side by side with the police. He also started the movement, based on the idea of the Canadian Neighbourhood Watch program, where neighbours became friends and protectors of each other. In Hungary this was an exceptional movement, given recent history where the norm was neighbours spying on one another. He also helped his former prison buddies to get compensation for the years they suffered in prison. And although as part of the Imre Nagy group, he was entitled to receive a large sum of additional compensation, he refused to take it.

2000 — Return to Canada, His Final Year

By the spring of 2000 my father decided to return to Canada. In the summer of 2000 we spent a lovely week together on Manitoulin Island with my parents. We saw the Pow-wow at Wikwemikong, an un-ceded reservation. We hiked the Cup and Saucer trail a spectacularly beautiful vista of the Niagara Escarpment. We also spent Christmas together, and my 55th birthday on February 22, 2001.

A week later the three of us, Peter, my husband and Leslie, my son and I flew to Costa Rica to visit Eva, our daughter, who was doing the field work for her Master’s Degree in Environmental Studies. We phoned my parents in the evening of our arrival and parted company with an early birthday wish for my father. He was also seriously contemplating visiting Eva in a few weeks’ time. Instead, the following morning on March 2, 2001 the news of his untimely death woke us up. Three days before his 79th birthday my father died of a sudden heart attack. We arranged to return with the earliest plane possible. But before that we had to drive a long way up to the mountains to get Eva’s belongings, as she also wanted to come home with us in order to attend her grandfather’s funeral. On our way there, by the roadside, on top of a large cliff a hawk was observing us. “There is Papa’s spirit” Eva whispered, remembering one of my father’s nicknames, Hawkeye. We stopped the car and for, what seemed like eternity we just looked at one another. Then with a sudden motion the hawk flew upward and gracefully circled around three times before saying farewell to us.

We went to see my father at the funeral home. His body lay in the coffin, his face smooth, as if he were just in a deep sleep. One by one we said our farewells. I went back to spend another, very private moment with him. I hugged and kissed him and like a soldier, I stood at attention and saluted. “Papa,” I finally said, “I’m honoured to have known you, as my father, my friend and my comrade. Thank you for the journey. ”

Judith Kopácsi Gelberger

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