The Canceled Czech

Page 20

They gave me more cognac in the shed, and eventually I calmed down and was able to talk sensibly. I had come to Czechoslovakia to visit Uncle Lajos, I explained. He was a Hungarian but had been living here for many years. Now he was sick and was not expected to live very long, and I would visit him and together we would drive back to Budapest so that he could be reunited for a time with the rest of the family. And he had been driving perfectly well, except that he had complained of heartburn, saying it must be something he had eaten – here they nodded knowingly – and then he had slumped over the wheel, and the car went this way and that, and…

They were very sympathetic. All I had to do was call a member of my family in Budapest. Then, if someone would come for me, I could go home with him and take my uncle’s body with me. I would have to fill out several declarations regarding my lost passport, and they would require fingerprints and other documentation, but they did not want to delay me. They were, all things considered, quite decent about the whole thing.

The declarations were easy enough, and there was no customs examination to speak of, as the only thing I was smuggling into the country was a flashlight. Kotacek’s pockets were completely empty. They led me to a phone, provided me with a Budapest directory when I proved unable to remember my own phone number – shock, of course, the poor young fellow has had quite a shock – and permitted me to dial the number of Ferenc Mihalyi.

A woman answered. I said, “Mama? This is Sascha. Is Uncle Ferenc home? There has been a terrible accident…”

The woman, whoever she was, did not ask questions. A moment later a man took the phone.

“This is Sascha, Uncle Ferenc. I am at Parkan, at the border. There was an accident; Uncle Lajos had a heart attack and is dead. If you could come for me, you see the car was totally destroyed, they are holding us here until someone comes for us…”

I was a bit inarticulate, and the guard took the phone from me and went through the whole thing with Mihalyi. I waited nervously. I had never met Ferenc Mihalyi, and for all I knew he would not even know my name, let alone recognize me. I had no code word to throw at him and didn’t dare attempt to identify myself with a batch of Czech and Hungarian guards hovering around me. If he did the natural thing, if he told the guard that there was some mistake, that he had no nephew named Sascha, that he had no brother named Lajos, that everything was meaningless to him, then there was going to be trouble. Grave trouble.

But Ferenc Mihalyi was a conspirator, and conspirators constitute a marvelous breed of man. They do not need to have pictures drawn for them. They are able to read between lines even when nothing is written there. “Your uncle will come for you,” the guard said at last. “He says that you are not to worry, that everything will be all right. He will arrive within the hour.”

He arrived, as it happened, about forty minutes after the phone call. It was a rough forty minutes because there was simply nothing to do but wait, no way for me to do anything positive. All I could do was sit there and wait for something disastrous to occur. My mind supplied any number of possible disasters. Kotacek could suddenly sit up, open his eyes, and ask what was happening. Ferenc Mihalyi could turn out to be a fink, in which case the Hungarian Secret Police would have interesting questions to ask me. Someone could remember some unusual regulation which barred the entrance of corpses into Hungary, or the exit of same from Czechoslovakia. Any number of things could go wrong, and I think I anticipated just about every last one of them.

But at last a car drew up, and a tall man with a broad forehead and a neat gray moustache strode to the shed. I got to my feet. “Sascha,” he said, and we embraced.

“Poor Lajos,” he said. “His heart?”


“Well. We shall make arrangements for the funeral. Is everything set? You have your bags?”

“Destroyed in the car.”

“It is nothing to worry about. Are there any more formalities or can we go now?”

There was nothing else to sign. The guards helped us load Kotacek into the back seat, and Mihalyi and I got into the front seat and drove off. I didn’t know quite what to say to him, so I waited for him to get things started. He apparently had the same idea. We drove several miles in silence.

Finally I said, “My name is Evan Tanner, Mr. Mihalyi. I am of course a member of the Organization.”

“Ah. Must we continue to transport that man’s body, or can we dispose of him in a field?”

“We’d better keep him. He’s not dead.”

“Ah. I am not Ferenc.”

I gaped.

“No, it is no trick. Ferenc was going to come himself, but he thought there might be trouble, that they could not possibly imagine him to be your uncle. He is, you see, only twenty-eight years old himself. A few years younger than you, I would guess. My name is Lajos, like that of your dead uncle. Except that you assure me that he is not dead. May I assume also that he is not your uncle, and that his name is not Lajos?”

“You may.”

“Ah. You have business in Budapest? Or is this merely a way-station for you?”

“We are going to Yugoslavia.”

“I assume you have no papers?”

“None. They were… destroyed in the crash.”

“A most fortuitous crash. Yes. It should be simplicity to move you and your dead companion into Yugoslavia. We Hungarians are rather good at negotiating border crossings, you know. We had considerable practice ten years ago.”

“I imagine you did.”

“A great deal of practice. Some of us, however, did not leave then. Ferenc feels that those who left were cowards. Or felt that way in the past. He was only a boy then, but enough of a man to destroy two tanks. And to join in our vow not to leave the country. Were you here then?”


“Your name is not Hungarian. You are American?”


“For an American to escape into Hungary is rather the reverse of the usual course of events. It is more commonly the other way around. You do not happen to live in New Jersey, do you? I have a family there.”

“I’m from New York. It’s close to New Jersey, of course.”

“They send us packages. Food and clothing.” He smiled. “If I give you their names, could you speak with them when you return to America? There are things one does not put in a letter. You could tell them that we have no great need of food and clothing. You could tell them to send guns.”

Ferenc Mihalyi had an apartment in the old section of Budapest. He and his wife and two children lived in three rooms on the fourth floor of a drab red brick building nestled among several other buildings, also of red brick, also drab. Tanya Mihalyi was slender and birdlike, with light brown hair and constantly amused eyes. No one my age had ever called her Mama before, she told me. If she liked it, Ferenc assured her, he would call her nothing but Mama in the future.

We ate chicken paprikash on beds of light egg noodles. Kotacek was laid out neatly on the Mihalyis’ double bed. They found it difficult to believe he was really alive, but I belabored the point until they accepted it. I didn’t want him emerging magically from his trance and scaring my hosts into heart attacks of their own. Greta had only fainted, but the girl had an exceptional constitution.

After dinner we sat drinking Tokay. It was around midnight. Ferenc wanted to know if I felt up to traveling some more. “Lajos will provide his car, and I will take you to the Yugoslav border if you wish. Or if you are tired we can wait until morning. Perhaps it would be best to wait until your friend is awake.”

“It doesn’t matter. I’m not tired, and he can travel as is, if you prefer.”

“Perhaps it would be best to go now.”


“Because,” he explained, “it might not be safe for you to stay here for very long. And it is still much safer to travel by night than by day. I will drive you directly south along the banks of the Duna. It should not take us more than two hours. Lajos has a very fast car. It does not look so fast, but his son is a mechanic and has worked wonders with the engine. We shall leave” – he hefted his glass – “when we reach the end of the bottle.”

We killed the bottle. Ferenc left the apartment, walked the few blocks to Lajos’ house, and returned with the car that had brought us from the border. Together we carried Kotacek down three flights of stairs and loaded him into the back seat. The car was Russian-made and resembled the General Motors cars of around 1952. Lajos, I was told, had a good position in the Ministry of Transportation and Communication. His political sympathies and his activities in 1956 were not a matter of record.

The night was cool, the moon nearly full in the cloudless sky. Ferenc was an uneven driver, making up in sheer determination what he lacked in natural ability. He aimed the car instead of steering it, and he was more a tactician than a strategist; he would hurl us into hairpin curves with no prior planning, then figure out a way to keep us on the road. I was a while getting used to this, but eventually decided that there was nothing too precarious in what he was doing. It only seemed that way.

“The border will be nothing,” he said. “There is a place in eastern Serbia near the Rumanian border. The guards there are all friends. There is a break in the fence; you can walk directly through. Will he be awake by then?”


“An odd sickness. It is hard to believe that he is not really dead. Suppose, in one of these fits of his, that he really died. How would you know?”

“I wouldn’t.”

“Perhaps he is dead at this moment, and we neither of us know it. Perhaps you will carry him all the way back to – where is it that you are taking him?”

“ Greece.”

“Perhaps you will take him all the way to Greece only to find that he has been dead all along. A joke on you, eh?”

It was a horrible joke. I changed the subject and we talked about some mutual friends, members of some of the Hungarian refugee organizations I belonged to in New York. This one had married an American girl, that one had finally won the right to practice medicine, another was homesick and talked constantly of returning to Budapest. We talked, and I tried not to consider the possibility that I had managed to kill Kotacek somewhere along the line, and that I wouldn’t know for sure until his flesh started to putrefy. I could have done it in the car crash, of course. Perhaps the shock stopped his heart forever. Could a man have a coronary in the midst of a cataleptic fit? I had no idea.

But eventually, after about an hour in the car, Kotacek solved the problem for me. He woke up.

He was hungry and ill-tempered and had to relieve himself. Ferenc stopped the car and we let him out, and he staggered over to the side of the road and did what he had to do. Then he came back to the car and got into the back seat again. Everything ached, he told me. He was hungry, his head ached, his back was bothering him, and where on earth were we? I told him we were in Hungary, heading south.

Hungary! He was delighted. He had met Admiral Horthy and overflowed with admiration for the Hungarian fascist leader. The Hungarians had been staunch allies during the war, he told me. Good men and true. Of course there were strong partisan movements, vicious bands of Resistance fighters, but that was no doubt due to the long domination of Jews over the Hungarian peasants. Still, he remembered a time…

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