Klara Hartmann was born in May 1930 in Miskolc in northern Hungary. Her parents were peasants who died young and she does not remember them. She was brought up by an uncle, a gendarmerie sergeant at Gönc. As the Red Army advanced in January 1945, her uncle and aunt fled, leaving her alone.She was arrested, interrogated and tortured for almost a year in prison in Kiev, then sentenced to ten years’ hard labour for spying for the Germans. At Vorkuta, she worked on building sites. Bullied by the Soviet women imprisoned for criminal offences, she was totally isolated, with no other Hungarian in the camp.
In 1949, she was transferred to the Steplag in Kazakhstan, for political prisoners only, where she benefited from the mutual help and solidarity of a mainly Ukrainian brigade. In summer 1953, after the death of Stalin, in Kiev on her way back to Hungary, she met her first husband, a young Hungarian peasant, recently released like her. She had no family of her own any more and started a new life in his village in north-eastern Hungary. After her divorce, she worked on various building sites, since the stigma of the Gulag prevented her from continuing her education. Thanks to an occupational health officer she trained to be a nurse and worked in a clinic for patients with dementia.
She married again but could not have children, brought up her husband’s orphan son and became a grandmother. “It was like a school. But a very bitter school,” she said in June 2009 of her years in the gulag.
The interview with Klara Hartmann was conducted in 2009 by Anne-Marie Losonczy.
Childhood, war and arrest
“I don’t remember exactly because I was very small: my parents died. And my uncle and his family brought me up. He was a police officer in Gönc. That’s where I lived until I was 14 or so. I went to school. The family got used, or rather, I got used to the family and became fond of them.
The war arrived. And they fled abroad. They fled the war. And they left me in their big flat. So it would not be left empty, they brought a maid in so she would be there and we would stay in the flat.
But the fighting went on a very long time: the Russians withdrew and the Germans came back. It kept changing. My street was lived in by policemen, so to speak, and their barracks was there too. There were many of them who were already retired. The rumour went that the fighting only lasted so long because the police defended the village. But there was surely no one there: everyone was trying to leave. But that’s what people said. And that is why they took me away.
In the end, it was the Romanians who entered the village, not the Germans or the Russians. The Romanians threw their weight around and took away all the people they could.
And then the Romanians, when we were staying in Rakamaz, I think it was… that’s where the train left from. But where they were taking me and why, I didn’t know. I was so young, I was so afraid, I had so many problems that I couldn’t concentrate on anything other than my fear.
How did the arrest go?
There was no arrest! Some soldiers came into the house with someone from the town hall. They took hold of me and took me away.
And they took the maid too?
Her as well.
Yes, but I didn’t see her again. I never saw anyone again that I knew from before.”
Interrogation and torture
“I was in prison, locked up with Russians. So I couldn’t really talk either. Basically, I didn’t realise what was happening to me, where I was, what I was doing there, what they were going to do with me. After two or three months, they transferred me to a single cell. And then the interrogations started, to get me to admit that I was a spy and who I was working for. There was an interpreter, a soldier from Transcarpathia who spoke Hungarian fluently. He said I should confess, because if I stretched it out I would die in prison. But I told him, “I haven’t been a spy. I don’t know what it means.” He insisted I should say I had and this nagging and pressure went on a long time. Because the interrogations were at night, in the daytime, they wouldn’t let me sleep. I had to stay upright in the cell all day. And a soldier would look through the spyhole to see I didn’t lie down but kept walking. Altogether, they were torturing me that way to get me to quickly say what they wanted to hear. In the end I couldn’t do anything. I was completely exhausted: they wouldn’t let me sleep or eat. So I said that indeed I was a spy, but I also had to sign a paper saying so. I also had to say where I’d been trained, in which school, who my teachers were, etc. And I couldn’t give any answers to that because I wasn’t a spy and I had no idea. And with the advice of the interpreter they wrote down what they could. Then some months passed. And just before Christmas I was called into the office and I had to sign that I had got ten years. The interpreter told me that I was being sent for ten years’ forced labour, but I shouldn’t be afraid because it would be all right and I could even survive perhaps, and after ten years I would be released and would live in Russia with a job and a flat and things would pass. I was almost glad.
I can’t tell you or, what shall I say, I can’t describe the things that happened to me in that prison because there were all sorts: sometimes I was put under a tap with drops of water falling on my head all the time. They would torture me that way with cold water. They called in the “box”. I nearly froze to death. Then they would take me out to go for interrogation.”
Violences in the camp
«The aggressiveness there was between us there! The camp was mixed. So the Russian women felt they were in a strong position, they could do anything… they showed that they came first. If they wanted my bread, they didn’t say anything, they took it, just like that.
And I couldn’t say anything because they would have hit me, and it all went on like that.
And the women who weren’t Russian, what nationality were they?
From all over. Every Baltic country, Lithuanians, Estonians, Finns too… and then masses of Ukrainians. They were friendlier and more tolerant, they liked contact with people but they had nothing either.
They were like all the others… But the Russian women got what they wanted. They’d go to the kitchen with containers and fill them to the brim. If the cook gave them nothing, they hit her. Everyone was afraid of them. They’d get the food in their big containers, take it back to their huts, and they were the ones who had enough to eat.Or they would go to where the bread was being cut up and bring back all the bread they needed.
There was a big difference between us.»
Life in the camp
“Then a factory was built in Balkhash. In fact, we built the whole town, bit by bit. There were no houses, there was nothing there, it was the desert. First the blocks of flats were built, family flats, proper ones but in the Russian style.
You built them?
Yes, yes. The jobs for each brigade were laid down. One looked after the foundations, others the basic structure, or the walls or beams, and so on, floors, everything. There were so many workers that each one had their own job. And when the flats were finished, we also built a factory where they smelted uranium ore from Hungary.
Some 30-40 kilometres from the camp there was a mine where they also extracted uranium and the uranium also went to the factory. There was ore from Hungary; I know because there were Hungarian goods wagons on which it said “Hungaria”, “Pécs” and “Budapest”, and when the uranium was extracted from the earth we loaded it on these wagons with wheelbarrows, the same wagons that brought uranium from further away. That’s how I know.
It was strange, because they were Hungarian trains. These trains meant Hungary for me. It was hard though, and sometimes it was horrible, but in a way I felt... or rather I feel now, looking back, that in that camp I went through a lot of things that have been important in my life, that were perhaps necessary for my life, my experience... I don’t really know... It was like a school... but a very bitter school.
In the political camp there was mutual respect, solidarity, helping each other. The Ukrainian women got parcels from home and shared them even if it wasn’t very much, sometimes just a little. The brigade chief was Ukrainian too. She got parcels all the time and shared them with everyone. That was a fine thing, a feeling of dignity. We helped each other, never mind whether we were Lithuanian or Latvian or anything else. We made friends and were together.”
The journey back
“The problem was that we were 30 women surrounded by 2,500 men. Just think: walking alone through all those men. We didn’t really dare go out because it was terrible all the same. Not all the women were young, there were about twenty my age and the others were older. But when I walked out through the door, the men were there outside in a line: they all wanted to get to know me. They weren’t brutal but we were afraid anyway, because... and from there we were taken, we the women, to Kiev to a big empty building belonging to a hospital. Some days later, sick soldiers were put in the other empty building opposite ours. Most of them had lung diseases. But it was better that way: we were separated, each group had its own yard marked off with barbed wire that we could talk across. That was a bit more interesting: ‘Where have you come from? Where’s your home? What are you going to do?’”
Under a stigma on her return
"I felt better, too. But I was still home-sick. It was awful: being far away in the middle of nowhere. You could see the air quiver in the heat, like an oven heating up. And you look and you think to yourself, ‘My homeland is over there somewhere’. I wanted so much to go home even though I knew that I had no one there, because my family had left. If I went back, what would I find, since I had no one?
Had you no brothers or sisters?
No. I had no… I don’t know. My family life is like that: I know nothing of who, what, how. I was just told that they were dead and… later, I found a cousin who is still alive. They live in Kál.
He was really, as I remember, the only person I felt belonged to my family… but nothing more. He was alone too. Really, I didn’t find anyone I felt closer to. My adoptive parents did go home. But he was imprisoned and died there, and she went mad. Altogether, the whole family broke up entirely.
I went back. I did not dare get myself noticed because when we returned we were all considered to be enemies of the fatherland, traitors. Even those who knew did not talk much to us, for fear of asking a question or hearing something they weren’t supposed to know. Then gradually all that faded away. Those nine years wiped a lot away, all the same…
So it lasted nine years…
Yes… Those nine years wiped a lot away in me too. I ended up feeling I belonged nowhere. To be honest, I was even afraid when they put us on the train back home. I was afraid: ‘Where am I going? What will happen to me?’ Because I knew nothing about Hungary, what was going on there, what the situation was. We knew nothing. At any rate, I didn’t"