Hungary honors its 700,000 victims of Soviet labor camps

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Posted: May 13, 2015 9:45 AM
Hungary honors its 700,000 victims of Soviet labor camps

BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — Karoly Miklosi was heading to his job at a print shop in February 1945 when the Soviets nabbed him for slave labor.

They took the 18-year-old first to Romania, then to what is now central Ukraine for what Hungarians call "malenky robot," a distorted translation of the Russian words for "menial work." He spent the next nearly three years as a Soviet prisoner, digging ditches, harvesting crops and dismantling factories.

Hungary this year is commemorating the estimated 700,000 of its civilians and soldiers taken away 70 years ago to the Gulag, the forced-labor camps of the Soviet Union. It is sponsoring historical conferences, art exhibits, educational events, memorials to victims and trips to some of the places in Hungary where the prisoners were rounded up.

About 300,000 of the deported never returned and the topic was firmly taboo during the nation's communist era, which ended in 1990, said Maria Schmidt, a historian and director of the House of Terror Museum in the Hungarian capital of Budapest.

In all, historians say Soviet authorities sent about 15 million people to such camps between 1930s and the 1950s.

"People were not told they were being taken for slave labor to the Soviet Union, but that they were being drafted for small, local jobs like peeling potatoes," Schmidt explained to an Associated Press reporter. "They thought they would be able to go home in a few hours. They often spent three, four, or five years in the Soviet camps. Some never returned home."

Desperate to let his family know what had happened, Miklosi threw a letter out of the train that was taking him to the labor camp. A photo of that letter is part of an exhibit now at the House of Terror. Miklosi only returned home on Dec. 13, 1947, after his father's determined Soviet boss at a Budapest weapons factory had him tracked down through the International Red Cross.

"The aim of the memorial year is to call attention to the fact that the suffering of the Hungarian people did not end with the end World War II," Schmidt said. "When the Red Army crossed the Hungarian border, it immediately began gathering up those it thought could be politically dangerous. They included prisoners of war, those rounded up for political reasons, those of German descent or with German names and civilians captured at random."

After his capture, Miklosi told officials he was born in 1927, hoping to fool the Soviets into believing he was not yet 18, as some underage prisoners were being released. The scheme backfired, because the Soviets kept him anyway, and later the Red Cross spent many fruitless months looking for someone with the same name who was born in 1926. Finally, Miklosi's identity was confirmed and he was sent home.

"I'm not complaining, because I was young," said Miklosi, who still remembered being constantly hungry and homesick. "The ones in trouble were those who had children, a wife. By the third year ... they had lost their minds. I could stand the pace. I toughened up."

During his 34 months in captivity, Miklosi lived in different prison barracks and braved temperatures of minus 30 degrees Celsius (minus 22 degrees Fahrenheit). He was forced to do jobs like cleaning ditches in an apple orchard, dismantling a blown-up sugar factory and harvesting wheat with a scythe. Those who tried to escape were beaten, often killed.

"The Soviet Union lost 26 million people in World War II," said Schmidt. "It simply needed manpower to rebuild the country, so they took these many hundreds of thousands of people from Hungary for slave labor."

Now 88, Miklosi, who later became a photographer and a painter, spends his afternoons on a stool at a Budapest train station, selling his autobiography out of a briefcase.

"I've been selling the book for nearly 10 years. At least 3,000 teachers have bought it," said Miklosi, whose primary goal was for his five grandchildren to learn about his labor camp experiences. "I want today's youth to know about it."

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Jim Heintz contributed to this story from London.