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András Toma: The Forgotten Prisoner July 28, 2011

Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary , trackback

The Second World War was a time of almost universal suffering. But, at least, when Hitler popped a bullet into his head and the Japanese Emperor retired his divinity it all ended? Well, for most of humanity yes. But there were those unlucky souls who ended up far from home with no hope of a fast return. Beachcombing has previously looked at inmates of the German murder system who found themselves put on trains for Russian gulags. There were the Japanese soldiers on jungle islands who kept fighting the good fight and shooting at over-flying Boeing 747s into the 1970s. Then there were the Axis prisoners of war in the Soviet Union, many of whom remained as guests of Stalin and his successors. András Toma, a Hungarian, was almost certainly the last of these: incredibly he was not repatriated until 2000…

The suffering of the Axis prisoners in the Soviet Union was appalling and it was based on two fuguing facts. First, Axis soldiers had murdered millions of Soviet citizens and this was payback; and, second, even with the best will in the world, the Soviet Union barely had the resources to take care of its own, never mind look after invaders from overseas. The result was a tragedy within a tragedy. If you were a German or Italian or Hungarian or Romanian or Finnish or Spanish soldier who managed to successfully surrender, not always an easy task, then your chances of survival were often obscenely low. Of the 91,000 Germans taken at Stalingrad only 6,000 made it back to Germany. Of the half a million Hungarians brought into captivity, 40% died in the camps. Nor was the Soviet Union in any hurry to give up its prey. For example, the 6000 German survivors from Stalingrad only got home in 1955; Spanish prisoners from the Blue Division, meanwhile, made it back in 1954!

András Toma was in one of these late groups and then compounded his problems by slipping down through the cracks of the Soviet bureaucratic state. He had surrendered in 1944 then in 1947 he was taken to a psychiatric hospital allegedly suffering from schizophrenia, which, in the Soviet Union, might have meant that he trod on a guard’s toes.

Three factors seem to have militated against AT’s return. First, his mental state was possibly not good and very likely got a lot worse so he could not explain himself. Then, second, he seems to have lacked the ability to pick up even rudimentary Russian. And, third, he spoke Hungarian. Hungarian is with Estonian the only East European language that has a non-Indo-European origin.  A Slovene or a Czech or a Pole can make themselves understood to a Russian speaker as fellow Slavs. Even if AT had spoken a Romance language – say French or Romanian – things would have gone so much better: sooner or later a hospital orderly would have turned up who would have picked up something.

It was only in 2000 that a visiting Slovak doctor understood that the strange patient who ate all his meals facing the wall was not chattering to himself in an invented language but in Hungarian. To the credit of the Hungarian authorities no expense was spared. AT was given a hearing aid, dentures and a new artificial leg. He was brought home, DNA testing established his relatives – a ghastly detail is that 100 families came forward hoping or believing that he was a missing father or brother. He was then pensioned out of the Hungarian army being given his missing pay (ahem!) and passed into the hands of a sister who took care of him: they are pictured above together. Then, when he died, in 2004, the Hungarian state arranged his funeral.

Was he happy in those last four years? Beachcombing has found no reference and fears the worst. There are few fates more corroding of human dignity than to become a symbol.

While Beach was reading up on AT he stumbled on the following French language site about French citizens who ended up, for a whole host of reasons, lost in the Soviet Union in its worst years. So much useless, stupid suffering. There follows a random sentence concerning one Maurice Hamburger who was ‘liberated’ by the Soviets and was last properly documented on a train heading for Estonia in 1945. In ‘1961 : il aurait été vu, soignant des tuberculeux… dans un dispensaire d’une île de l’archipel François Joseph (océan glacial arctique)’, in ’1961 he was taking care of tb patients… in a ward on the Isle of the François Joseph Archipelago in the Arctic Ocean.’ After that there is a letter that may have been written in 1983, then silence.

Any other overdue prisoners?: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

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29 July 2011: The legendary Mike Dash writes in with another nightmare story from the SU: ‘You might be interested in the case of John William Adkins, an American from Maryland who crossed from Alaska to Siberia, apparently in search of work and/or passage on to the mines of Chile (? – I know) in the early 1920s. Adkins bounced around the Soviet system for some time in the early Communist period. At one point he was deported to Estonia but re-entered the USSR. he was last heard of in a prison camp in the White Sea the best part of a decade later.A relative of his has done a large amount of genealogical research into his case and I was interested enough to get hold of a copy of his self-published book on Adkins, much of which has since become available on Google. The evidence the author has dug up is quite fascinating.’ Thanks Mike!
4 August 2011:Mad Monk Andy has sent this sad story in about a Japanese family trapped on a Soviet occupied Japanese island. Thanks Andy!