Page last updated at 12:35 GMT, Saturday, 7 November 2009

Hungary's 'forgotten' war victims

The deportation in 1944 of thousands of Hungary's civilians to the Soviet Union, although on a similar scale to the deportation of its Jewish people to the death camps, receives little official attention in Hungary, as Nick Thorpe reports.

Mourners at Nyiregyhaza
Under communism, people were not able to talk about the missing

Arpad Kovari stands at the top of the steps at Nyiregyhaza railway station, nearly two metres tall, scanning the faces of the new arrivals from Budapest. He hides his disappointment well as I shake his hand.

He was hoping for a whole television crew, not a lone reporter, to listen to his tale of what he dares to call the Hungarian Holocaust: the deportation of some 600,000 Hungarians to Soviet labour camps after the Second World War and the death of at least 200,000 in captivity.

His father was one of them.

"My dad was a ticket collector," Arpad begins, as we drive through the traffic-lit streets of this autumnal city. He worked on the same railway on which I have just slid comfortably into Nyiregyhaza, washing a paprika omelette down with coffee and fresh orange juice.

On 1 November 1944, the Soviet army captured the town. The next day, all able-bodied men were ordered to their workplaces, to start clearing the ruins.

Arpad was three months old, the youngest of four sons. His father was 45. Arpad never felt his father's arms around him again.

Many graveyards

The workers were rounded up and marched to the next city, Debrecen. Between 2,000 and 3,000 of them - 4% of the population.

Arpad Kovari
For 20 years, Arpad Kovari has been trying to persuade the Hungarian state to create a day of remembrance for the Hungarian Holocaust

There they were loaded into cattle wagons, which rolled into Romania in the bitter cold of the last winter of the war. The good boots and warm winter muffler worn by Janos Kovari, Arpad's father, were taken away.

According to fellow prisoners, he died of pneumonia in a transit camp in Focsani, in eastern Romania, three or four months later. There are no written records of his death, nor of his final resting place.

Nyiregyhaza is as rich in tombs as it is in apples. There are nine graveyards.

A small ceremony takes place each year on 2 November in the North Cemetery. Thanks largely to Arpad's efforts, "an unknown Hungarian civilian" was exhumed three years ago in the city of Baltsi in Moldova, and reburied here with honour.

Most of the Hungarians from Nyiregyhaza ended up in a work camp in Baltsi, those who survived the journey. And there most of them died - of malnutrition, over-work or disease.

Their remains lie scattered at the far end of a cemetery, and on open ground elsewhere in the city.

As the Eastern Front moved west, the Russians rounded up civilians in each town and village in Hungary. Budapest fell on 13 February 1945.

One hundred thousand men and women were taken to the Soviet Union from there alone.

Suppressed pain

During the ceremony in Nyiregyhaza, an elderly lady in a purple coat cannot stem her tears.

Railway carriage wheels by the grave of an unknown civiliam
Railway carriage wheels form a memorial to lost railwaymen

She was 15 when they took her father away. She remembers her mother pleading with him not to go, remembers him turning down sandwiches saying he would not be gone for long.

And how for three years she went with her mother to the railway station, always expecting that he would step down off a train and raise his hand.

And how eventually her uncle came back. He escaped one camp, walked barefoot for months, was caught, put in another camp, and was finally granted an amnesty in 1948.

"Don't wait for your husband any more," her uncle told her mother, bluntly. "I buried him with my own hands."

For 40 years, Hungarians could not speak about the missing; Soviet domination ruled out any discussion, so the pain incubated.

With the fall of communism, it burst out. It is still trying to find forms of expression.

'Hill of human bones'

For 20 years, Arpad Kovari has been trying to persuade the Hungarian state to create a day of remembrance for the Hungarian Holocaust, not in competition with the Jewish Hungarian Holocaust, he explains, but alongside it.

Map of Hungary and Romania

In the last letter of rejection from the president's office, he was told that civilians are all lumped together as "victims of communism" and remembered each year on 25 February.

Hungary also has days of remembrance for the Jewish and Gypsy victims of the Holocaust. The calendar is sinking under the weight of remembrance, one can almost hear the officials say. Let us keep a few days in the year when our memories are blank.

Crows flock over the North Cemetery, a flypast of birds, not military jets, joining their rough voices to the national anthem, above a planet littered with flowers and candles.

Three upright rails and the wheels of a railway carriage are mounted beside the grave of the unknown civilian, in honour of the railwaymen who never returned.

Back in his living-room, Arpad's three-year-old granddaughter, Jofie, brings me wooden elephants and antelopes to admire and stands quietly listening to our conversation.

On the table, Arpad has arranged photographs that he took on his trips east in search of the lost Hungarians.

"Maybe that one is your dad," Jofie tells him, wanting so much to be helpful and pointing to a group of men who are holding a cross on a small hill in the city of Baltsi.

"That hill," says Arpad, "is made of human bones."

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