It was the summer of 1939. Some people feared war was inevitable. Others could never have imagined how their lives and the world would change over the years to come.
Nicholas Rety was a school boy in Budapest, Hungary. His thoughts were on studies, sports and the pleasures of summer camp at Lake Balaton. He writes about his experiences and those of other civilians who endured the German, then the Russian occupations of their city and Communist government when the war ended, in his newly published book, No Return Ticket.
“The 1930s Depression hit Hungary as hard as it hit Canada but our family got by,” said Rety, who was born in 1930. His father worked for the telephone system and his mother was a Morse code transcriber for telegrams. They heard by radio and people talking about what was happening in Germany.
Rety remembers hearing Hitler’s speeches on the radio and sensing the anger and hatred although he did not understand German and was too young at the time to understand politics.
“People knew that Hitler was intent on war because he was trying out new weapons in the Spanish Civil War. That caused a lot of anxiety in Europe,” he said.
Hungary, which was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, had been on the German side in the First World War. The Paris peace treaties of 1919 left Hungary an independent country but took away 60 per cent of its former territory and access to the Adriatic Sea. In 1939, Hungary took the German side because of the promise of restoration of the lost territory and Hungarians served with the German army.
For the first years of the war, things went on more or less as normal in Hungary. Rety remembers when he first became aware of the reality of war, although he knew that Hungarian soldiers had been annihilated in the Russian campaign.
“I was 13. It was 1943 and the Allies were advancing up Italy. They bombed Monte Casino Abbey, which was Benedictine, and our school was run by Benedictine monks. It brought home to us that there were bad things coming. I heard that at camp at Lake Balaton. Every Hungarian has a soft spot for the lake as a place of warm beaches and endless joy,” he said. “We lived in an apartment building with a number of Jews and they were our friends. Then in March of 1944, they were gone overnight. We were told the Jews were being resettled. There was no way to find out what was happening. Radio and newspapers were censored. Jews and anyone against the regime were being deported. Many Hungarian Jews did not believe it when they first heard about the Holocaust until survivors came back and told what happened.”
By this time, the Germans knew that many Hungarians did not want to fight their war anymore but there was still an element in Hungary which sympathized with the Nazis.
Rety will never forget March 19, 1944.
“I woke up that morning. Our apartment faced west and I could see and hear the Junker 52 planes coming. Within a few hours, there were Germans everywhere in the city. The Germans had bombed the city before but blamed it on the Allies. After the German occupation, the city was bombed by the Allies constantly, the U.S. by day and the Russians by night. Our apartment building was hit, leaving us with no windows. By Dec. 24, 1944, the city was ringed by Russians shelling us constantly.”
People sought safety in air raid shelters which were really only old cellars, and offered no protection from direct hits. Martial law and a curfew meant that anyone on the streets after 5 p.m. was shot with no questions asked.
“I saw my first Russian Jan. 14, 1945. Until the Russians came, the city was functioning minimally. People attempted to carry on until it became impossible. School stopped then. Much of the city was destroyed and the bridges across the Danube between Buda and Pest were blown up. People became isolated because it was dangerous to be on the street at any time of day. The Russians were fighting the Germans street by street, house by house. I had a mortar explode 20 feet from me one day when I went out to get water.
“In a way, to a young person, it was quite exciting. It was adventure. We had little entertainment and we became used to it. You sat under a few air raids and died inwardly a few times and you were still there. It’s not that you become brave but you become fatalistic. The bullet that you hear will not hit you. It has gone past you.”
There were food shortages, with people hoarding what they had and those who had more selling it at high prices. Many people traded priceless family jewelry for a few beans.
“The law was that of the man with the gun but you have only so much to part with. I somehow found a book and learned some Russian so I could speak with them and after that they treated me a little better,” said Rety.
One experience Rety will never forget: one day, when he feared that his mother was about to become a victim of violence, he stood between her and the Russian attacker, who was ready to kill him.
“The metallic sound of a bullet being put in a chamber to finish you off has a particular impact on your memory,” he recalled. He managed to create a diversion and he and his mother escaped into the night.
By this time, there were about 40,000 German soldiers holed up in the castle on the hill and they were running out of food. On Feb. 14, 1945, they made a break, coming down the hill to be killed or captured by the Russians. A few escaped to the surrounding countryside.
The siege ended but the Russians stayed on. When the war in Europe ended May 8, 1945, the Russians stayed on as the occupying force and started to enforce a Communist regime.
Rety went back to school: “I guess they thought Benedictines are not going to educate good Communists.”
The Benedictine monks somehow arranged for Rety to get a scholarship to finish his studies at a school in England and in 1947 he left hurriedly, not seeing his family again for 31 years.
“It was a difficult thing but I won the lottery of life with that move.”
He learned English quickly and did well in his studies, then moved to London to work at a variety of jobs. When he decided that he wanted to become a doctor, he had to pick up his science courses at night school to qualify for university entrance. After he completed his medical studies, he felt there was little chance for advancement in England as he was not allowed to choose where to live and practise.
The Canadian Army had a shortage of doctors and Rety joined as a Captain, medical officer, Lord Strathcona’s Horse. A long and interesting life followed and he tells about it in his book.
The book, with its vivid and highly readable style, owes its beginning to the stories he told his family. They urged him to write them down and he did. No Return Ticket is told as a series of stories that can be read individually in any order or chronologically to make up a whole.
No Return Ticket is available at Cole’s.