György Kárpáti (1935-2020) – Holocaust survivor, Communist informer, Olympic champion

György Kárpáti the legendary water polo player was buried in Budapest at the Farkasréti Cemetery.  The elaborate ceremony was led by a prominent Catholic priest, Father Imre Kozma.  Leaders of the Orbán government lined up to pay their respects.   No doubt, he was an extraordinary man with an extraordinary life.

Kárpáti (left) on Viktor Orbán’s tweet – The Pelé of water polo has left us.

He died at the age of 88 and his life story gives a glimpse of Hungary’s tumultuous history.  It almost reads like a film script.  Maybe someday someone makes a feature film about it.

Kárpáti was born in 1935 in Budapest.  He was not even 10 years old when the young Jewish boy was herded with his mother in the Budapest ghetto.  They had the luck to survive the senseless killing of Jews in the winter of 1944-45.

After WWII he started as a swimmer at the Ferencváros Club and won junior championships. Soon he switched to water polo and again got lucky.  At 17 he was the youngest member of the Hungarian National Water Polo team.  The team won a gold at the Helsinki Olympics in 1952.

The Olympic champion teenager became the instant darling of Stalinist Hungary.  Despite his relatively small size he was the engine of team and his ability to score was remarkable. Altogether he won 3 Olympic gold medals and 1 bronze between 1952 and 1964.  An amazing achievement.  (Kárpáti is far right on this 1956 team photo)

The privileged star of the Rákosi regime did not join the 1956 Hungarian Revolution.  He represented Hungary at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne just weeks after the crushing of the Revolution and scored a goal in the famous 4-0 victory against the Soviet Union.  The match is known as the “Blood in the Water” match because of the extremely rough play.  News agencies distributed a famous photo of Ervin Zádor emerging from the pool with blood pouring down his face after he was smacked by one of the Soviet players.  Zádor defected and lived in California, making a living as a swim coach. One of his students was the legendary Mark Spitz who also has Hungarian ancestry.  The young Kárpáti returned to Budapest.

He became a decorated sport hero of the Communist Kádár regime and later he earned a law degree.  As a coach and official for the Hungarian Water Polo Federation he played a prominent role.

After the collapse of the Communist regime it was revealed that Kárpáti was also an informer with the Communist secret police. Between 1962 and 1987 he reported on his teammates and other water polo officials.

In 2002 Kárpáti returned to politics in support his new anti-Communist friends.  He became an enthusiastic supporter of the Fidesz party and Viktor Orbán.  He appeared on Fidesz events and advised the party in sport matters.  He declined to discuss his Communist informer activities and his new friends never asked him about it.

György Kárpáti

Kárpáti was truly a great sportsman, and also the ultimate survivor.

György Lázár

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