by Scott R. Schoenfeld
Editor’s note: The author lived in Budapest in the immediate post-war period while his father, H.F. Arthur Schoenfeld, was U.S. Minister to Hungary 1945-47. As an eight-year-old, he experienced the pervasive Russian military presence in the heavily damaged city. The house the family lived in has been the residence of U.S. ambassadors ever since. These excerpts from his unpublished memoir of the early days of the U.S. Legation have been edited for length.
We arrived just days after hostilities ended in Hungary and less than three months after the Soviets’ long winter siege of Budapest, which damaged or destroyed almost every building in the city. Surprisingly, the house did not seem in bad condition when we moved in. In my bedroom, the occupying Russian troops had lit a fire in the washbasin to warm themselves. This had heavily scorched the wall and blackened the ceiling. Some of the large classical paintings that hung in the downstairs rooms had been bayoneted. The Russians had driven hooks in the dining room walls to tether their horses, but that was pretty much the worst of it.
Outside was a different story. The house was situated near the route of the main Soviet military thrust into the city in the last days of the siege. Two German soldiers were buried in shallow graves on the hillside just a few yards behind the house. In the garden field below and in front of the house were the graves of twelve Russian soldiers killed in the fight. We were told that the bodies had been wrapped in the house curtains and stacked for two or three days in the lower entry hall of the house awaiting burial. Above the driveway was a large cave hollowed out of the steep hillside where civilians had taken refuge.
The Danube bridges were down when we first got to Budapest and the sight of bodies floating down the river was not unusual. The city itself was heavily damaged; the terrible smell of death permeated parts of the downtown area where blocks of buildings had been turned into rubble. Destroyed German tanks blocked some streets and, along the route to the Legation downtown, the tail of a German aircraft stuck precariously into the air straight out over the street while its nose remained fixed in the second or third floor window into which it had plunged.
My father went to the chancery in Pest each day. In the first months there was no bridge to drive across. Until a bridge could be rebuilt, he was driven from the Residence to the riverbank, where he had to cross the river by foot over a narrow catwalk. He was then met by a Legation car on the other side and driven the rest of the way to the office.
Despite all I had seen, the reality of the war most struck home with me when we attended a Memorial Day commemoration at a cemetery that I believe was dedicated to American war dead. Here were the graves of a hundred or more American airmen I understood had been shot down in the famous low-level B-24 bombing raid on the Ploesti oil works in neighboring Romania, and perhaps other attacks as well.
One of the extraordinary events a few months after our arrival in Budapest was the return of Hungary’s revered religious and national relic dating from 1038 A.D., the holy right hand of St. Stephen, first apostolic king of Hungary. The hand in its bejeweled gold and crystal casket, which had been spirited away from the battle of Budapest, was recovered by the U.S. Army in Austria at the end of the war. On the occasion of the 907th anniversary of St. Stephen’s death in August 1945, my father had the special role handing the sacred hand back to the Hungarian authorities.
Another big event was the arrival of the gold train. At the end of the war U.S. troops captured a cache of millions of dollars worth of monetary gold coin and bullion, together with another of silver, that had been removed to Austria and Germany. Eventually the U.S. government determined to return this treasure to the Hungarian government. Special trains were dispatched escorted by U.S. and Soviet troops to carry the tons of gold and silver into Budapest for deposit in the treasury. My father met these shipments. In 1946 he and U.S. Brig. Gen. Weems symbolically handed over the first sack of gold to Hungarian officials.
I recall one story of a farewell dinner given for my parents by Deputy Prime Minister Matyas Rakosi before we departed our post at Budapest. Rakosi was also head of the Hungarian Communist Party which controlled the political police and so was perhaps the most powerful man in the Hungarian government. My mother was seated between Rakosi and another official. During the dinner Rakosi and the other man talked unguardedly across my mother in Hungarian, which they assumed she could not understand. Though she could communicate tolerably well in half a dozen languages, Hungarian was largely beyond her. Nevertheless, she understood enough to grasp that there was a plot afoot to arrest the Prime Minister, Ferenc Nagy, head of the Smallholders Party, who was about to return from an extended trip to Switzerland.
At the first chance my mother urgently passed this information to a member of the Legation staff who got the word to my father. The Legation was able to warn Nagy immediately through U.S. officials in Switzerland before he crossed the border, and so thwarted this plan. I understood that Nagy was then extorted by the threat that his family would not be released from Hungary and he would never see them again unless he resigned office, which he did.
A few months later, I since learned, Nagy’s son-in-law was hanged in the public square in Budapest. My mother always spoke of Rakosi as a ruthless revolutionary type who had spent years in prison and in the Soviet Union. He afterwards took over as prime minister himself and instituted a murderously brutal authoritarian communist regime in Hungary.
Editor’s note: The Smallholders Party, headed by Ferenc Nagy, won the November 1945 election with 57 percent of the vote. Although the Communist Party gained only 17 percent, the Soviet commander in Hungary forced the formation of a coalition government with communists in key posts. The gradual “salami slicing” takeover by the communists culminated in the establishment of the People’s Republic of Hungary in 1949, part of the Soviet bloc during the Cold War.
Scott R. Schoenfeld is a retired lawyer and former federal prosecutor who lives in Washington, D.C. His photo appears as a child in Budapest.