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Hungarians Eager to Learn of Relatives' Wartime Fate

WWII: Freed from Soviet-era strictures, Budapest's Institute of Military History provides answers to thousands who waited more than 50 years.


BUDAPEST, Hungary — Deep in the Hungarian army's dusty archives, Ferenc Szottfried is finally coming to terms with the loss of two grandfathers he never knew.

Both were killed on the Russian front in World War II, but the circumstances of their deaths and the location of their bodies were kept secret by Hungary's postwar communist regime. The communists, who were installed with the backing of the Red Army, wanted to hide the unpleasant fact that Hungary fought with Nazi Germany against the Soviet Union.

Now, 12 years after the fall of communism, Szottfried has managed to track the few remnants of his grandfathers' short and fatal service in the poorly armed and severely outnumbered Hungarian army.

A fragile, yellowing sketch of a body is the crude autopsy report on the grandfather for whom he was named, 24-year-old Ferenc Szottfried. Crosses drawn on the sketch by fellow soldiers show where bullets ended his life on April 30, 1944.

Tears spring to Szottfried's eyes as he thinks about his grandfather's death, on the day before he was due to head home on leave.

"It's so strange after so many years to hold these objects, like his bloodstained pay book and his dog tag, which were with him when he died," said Szottfried, 30, an electrician who has a daughter, Greta, 6.

"My grandmother is 81 now, and it will mean a lot to her to see these papers before she dies," he said in an interview at the archive. "It is just so sad that she had to wait so long."

A single index card recording the death is all Szottfried has on his maternal grandfather, Istvan Vajdics, who was killed by shrapnel at 43, on the northern part of the same front -- six months after Pvt. Ferenc Szottfried died.

Vajdics' widow, Ana, died in 1993 without ever finding out what had become of him.

For some of the thousands of Hungarians who have waited more than half a century to learn of lost loved ones, the mystery is finally being cleared up thanks to the work of Lt. Col. Janos Bus and his colleagues at Budapest's Institute of Military History.

Szottfried said his family managed to track down his grandfathers' graves in Ukraine after neighbors spotted their names in one of the colonel's books.

Both men were from Puspokszilagy, a small village 30 miles north of Budapest.

Using unmarked archive materials buried in the institute's vaults, Bus has collected the names of more than 60,000 of the 200,000-plus Hungarian soldiers who died in the war or in Soviet captivity, and has painstakingly researched where they are buried. The results fill two hefty volumes packed with photographs and information.

"We don't have much time left because of the age of the close relatives who are still alive," Bus said.

"These books are in a way the cemeteries for these soldiers, because many of the real cemeteries were destroyed on Stalin's orders as the Soviets advanced," he said.

The communists who took power in Hungary regarded the war veterans as ideological enemies, even though the country tried unsuccessfully to switch to the Allied side in late 1944.

"After the war, the dead soldiers were a taboo subject," said Bus. "You were not allowed to talk about their role in the war in public because they fought against the Russians, who now controlled the country and were officially allies."

Also problematic for the Kremlin was the fact that about twice as many Hungarian soldiers died in Soviet prisoner-of-war camps as in battle.

When he took over as head of the institute's archive in 1998, Bus decided it was time to fill in the blanks for the bereaved so they could grieve properly.

"Sometimes when they come here looking for information, the children of these dead soldiers pour out the pain of half a century of growing up without a father," he said. "When they see the belongings, the letters and the photos, they finally feel that he was a real person."

Bus and his team have spent the last four years visiting the sites where Hungarian soldiers are buried and recording what they find. Szottfried's grandfather, Ferenc, lies in the village cemetery of Otinja in southwestern Ukraine. The records show he was probably shot by a sniper as he ran messages between different units along the front line. He struggled for a few hours, but slowly suffocated as blood filled his lungs.

Istvan Vajdics is buried 120 miles away in Volosjanka.

Szottfried plans to visit the graves this summer and put flowers on them.

"I know it will mean a lot to my remaining grandmother if I bring her photos of the grave," he said. "She'll know that her husband really is resting in peace."

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