The Professor Who Came in from the Cold

The Professor Who Came in from the Cold

George Heltai

Battlefronts. Political chess matches. Secret prisons. Escape from behind the Iron Curtain. George Heltai was not just a history professor whose tenure spanned three decades at the College – he was an extraordinary campus intellectual who lived through some of the most dramatic and dangerous times of the 20th century.

by Jason Ryan

When George Heltai spoke, his audience listened, and listened well. Their keen interest was mostly out of respect for the weight his words carried, but certain practical considerations accounted for their attention, too. For one thing, the history professor was soft-spoken, prompting his students to sit close to the front of class. For another, a cigar or cigarette was often perched on his lip, wiggling about, dodging left and right, up and down – whatever direction was needed to allow words to squeeze out his mouth. Then there was the thick Hungarian accent, which, even as it interfered with his speech, created an intoxicating, cosmopolitan aura about the man.

Even if one never took a class with Professor Heltai, it was hard not to know him, or at least not know of him. He could be seen daily sitting on a bench in the Cistern Yard, ambling across campus back to his home on Wentworth Street or chatting with a colleague in the faculty lounge in the basement of Randolph Hall. He was the unassuming man with the shock of somewhat unruly gray-and-white hair and a bushy mustache, who always dressed in coat and tie, whose words were carefully measured.

Get the Flash Player to see this player.

For two decades, Heltai was a veritable campus icon with a spirited fan club among the student body, if not an outright cult following. Many of his students signed up for every course he taught, willing to decipher the man’s accented English and slog through dense texts on the history of Europe and that continent’s last few centuries of political and intellectual leaders in exchange for being audience to the thoughts of a battered survivor who came to Charleston and the College after a series of unhappy incidents, yet who never stopped seeking the answers to fundamental questions concerning human rights, governance, societal order and freedom.

The smokes Heltai enjoyed were easily tolerated if you knew the hardships he endured. One could argue he was making up for lost time, indulging in mild pleasures and vices that for long spells he had been deprived of. He smoked through class, during office hours and at his home when he invited students over for visits. No one complained. The College was more relaxed, more intimate, and it wasn’t uncommon for Heltai to hold class in the Three Nags bar at the corner of George and St. Philip streets – again, no one complained. There were fewer rules in the 1970s, and far fewer students at the College than the 10,000+ that roam campus today.

It was another era, when secondhand smoke didn’t prompt raised eyebrows, finger wags and restaurant smoking bans; when Americans raged instead against the shootings at Kent State University, the war in Vietnam and Watergate. Those subjects were among the issues that riled many of Heltai’s students and inspired political thought that bordered on the radical. Heltai encouraged his students’ independent thinking, even if he did not always agree with particular ideas. His own beliefs had morphed over time, too, as he lived, and sometimes suffered, under a host of governments run by monarchs, fascists, Nazis, communists, socialists and capitalists. As Heltai became an old man at the College, he was happy to impart some of these experiences to others in the hope that their still-budding brains might benefit. Students soaked up his lessons, realizing they were in the presence of a legend, and somehow knowing they would carry his teachings with them through their lives, no matter if the European events they discussed were half a world away and centuries old.

“I think he helped students understand that history doesn’t always provide answers to life’s most serious questions,” says former colleague Malcolm Clark, professor emeritus of American history, “but what it does do is help refine the skills of good judgment.”

Life of Resistance

When George Heltai came to America in 1964, he was a 50-year-old refugee with a wife and three kids who had floated though Western Europe for the previous nine years after narrowly slipping out from behind the quickly closing Iron Curtain. When he arrived at the College in 1967, he was not secretive about his life in Hungary, but he wasn’t always forthcoming either, perhaps considering it inappropriate, or immodest, for him to attach significance to certain life-changing events. On campus, his murky biography only added to his allure.

“We had many conversations about George Heltai,” says former student Sue Bowler ’76. “We all found him very exotic and very mysterious.”

Heltai's fake identification during World War II, declaring him a Catholic, made by his wife, Agnes.

Heltai’s fake identification during World War II, declaring him a Catholic, made by his wife, Agnes.

For students who asked enough questions, they would have known that before coming to Charleston, Heltai had taught at Columbia University in New York for three years, alongside the former Polish statesman, and future National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski at the Research Institute for Communist Affairs. Before then, Heltai and his family lived in Brussels, where he was director of a political research institute. These were impressive credentials, especially in Charleston, but those jobs were not among the most fascinating parts of Heltai’s life. To learn about those events, one would have to ask Heltai what happened in Hungary, and cross your fingers that he would tell you.

He was born in Budapest on September 22, 1914, a few years before World War I would shake Hungary from the rule of the Hapsburgs and drastically shrink its geographic boundaries. After the Austro-Hungarian Empire was defeated in the war, the 1920 Treaty of Trianon gave more than two thirds of Hungary’s land to neighboring countries and forfeited more than half the country’s population, along with its coastline on the Adriatic Sea. As Hungary grappled with this tumult, Heltai came of age. His schoolmates in Budapest included Paul Erdös, who went on to become a world-class mathematician, and the Gabor sisters – Zsa Zsa, Eva and Magda, who later became famous as Hollywood actresses and socialites. Heltai’s younger brother, Tibor, would briefly be married to Magda from 1972 to 1973.

At the University of Hungary, Heltai earned doctoral degrees in law and political science and studied under Laszlo Gajzago, Hungary’s representative to the League of Nations. Gajzago was critical of the rise of Nazi power in Europe, and Heltai was influenced by these views, himself becoming an outspoken critic of Nazism and the fascism that was taking hold in Hungary during World War II. When the Hungarian government committed troops to fight alongside Germany against Russia, Heltai was punished for his political beliefs and Jewish heritage by being assigned to a labor camp on the front lines. His comrades included other dissidents, Jews and undesirables.

“We were sent to the Russian front as shock troops, and few of us came back,” Heltai told the Charleston News and Courier in 1982. “My regiment was at the River Don when the Russians broke through.”

In subzero weather, Heltai and other survivors retreated 600 miles on foot through Ukraine, back toward Hungary. When they were 100 miles away from the border, they bribed a train engineer to drive them home, but were thwarted when a German general commandeered the train for purposes of transporting Russian booty. Heltai and his compatriots marched the rest of the way home to the Hungarian border. Upon reaching Budapest, Heltai joined an underground resistance organized by communists. Some nights were bad, such as those he spent sleeping on tramways. Others were better, such as when he met his wife, Agnes, who was also in the resistance and excelled at cryptology and forgery. She made a fake identification for her boyfriend, and, in time, forged a marriage certificate for the couple. The newlyweds honeymooned by trying to topple the Hungarian government and end the country’s cooperation with the Nazis.

Like other communists, George and Agnes Heltai were eager to restore Hungary’s glory through a government that promised efficiency and equality. For Agnes, a talented pianist and daughter of famed Hungarian composer Victor Lanyi, World War II had eclipsed an idyllic childhood spent between bourgeois Budapest apartments, concert halls and summer cottages on lakes. In 1938, at age 18, she took what her son Blaise calls “her last real vacation,” touring Rome with a friend. A year later, war broke out, and Agnes and millions of other Europeans became consumed not with enjoying their days, but surviving them. Toward the end of World War II, Budapest was the site of a bloody three-month siege, and the Heltais lived among the fighting, with the Germans occupying Buda on the west side of the Danube, and the Russians occupying Pest, on the east bank.

At the end of World War II, Hungary was rid of the Nazis, though Russian troops lingered in their place. Communists took power, and Heltai became the foreign ministry’s deputy chief for policy planning in the new government. In this role he met a variety of world leaders, including Joseph Stalin, Winston Churchill, Josip Broz Tito and Ho Chi Minh. At home in Budapest, he started a family, with the births of a daughter, Sophie, and a son, Martin. For a few years, Heltai experienced a semblance of peace, though he and Agnes noticed with some alarm that Russian influence was increasing in the country and the Hungarian government was nationalizing industries and seizing land. Heltai himself aroused suspicion within his party by virtue of his frequent interactions with Western leaders and diplomats.

Early one morning in 1949, policemen raided the Heltai home in Budapest, arresting Heltai on fabricated charges of espionage and treason. He was among a number of intellectuals arrested by fellow communists and placed in secret prisons as part of a political purge intended to tighten ranks and impress Russia. Though Agnes Heltai knew her husband was innocent, she was unable to appeal to anyone for help. Her husband was not charged in open court, and she didn’t know where he was being held.

Neighbors began to shun her, either convinced her husband was a traitor or fearful of what harm might come to their own family should they continue their association with the Heltais. As the weeks went by, she received no word from her husband, and she was left alone to care for their 2-year-old daughter and 8-month-old son. On account of his alleged crimes, she had trouble finding work. Weeks turned into months, and months turned into years, yet she did not receive word of her husband’s fate, not from him nor from the authorities that made the arrest.

“I didn’t hear from him for four years,” Agnes said. “I was sure he was dead.”

Secret Torment

Heltai endured five years in prison. Eighteen months of that time was spent in solitary confinement, locked in a cramped, underground cell with a wall-mounted plank for a bed. A light bulb hung overhead in a cage, illuminated at all hours, making sleep difficult and the differentiation of night and day impossible. Physical abuse was frequent, and the prisoners’ captors seemed uninterested in hearing anything but confessions from the prisoners, even if they were forced and false.

Oftentimes, beatings followed a prisoner’s refusal to confess to their alleged crimes, or a refusal to implicate associates and guarantee them a similar fate. In the prison account Volunteers for the Gallows, Heltai’s onetime cellmate and lifelong friend, Béla Szász, writes of the frequent beatings he suffered at the hands of fellow communists, including being rolled up in a carpet and having the soles of his feet – one of the most sensitive areas of the body – beaten with batons until they were gruesomely bruised and swollen. Men also beat Szász’s kidneys with batons, kicked him silly and shoved salt into his mouth after prying his clenched teeth open with a knife.

Beyond this abuse, prisoners were rarely allowed to wash. The little food they were given consisted of slop. Guards sometimes showed mercy on the prisoners by allowing eyeholes in their cell doors to be left open, letting in the smallest amounts of sound and light. Other times, writes Szász, the guards left the eyeholes open so they could spit through them, onto prisoners’ faces. Heltai tried to stay active to ward off madness.

“I knew I must exercise, so I walked up and down hours at a time. To do otherwise would have been to give up. I lived off memories. Many went crazy. Later, I got a Russian dictionary, which I memorized,” Heltai told The Meteor campus newspaper in 1981. “I was glad when they took me out to beat me, just so that I could have contact with other human beings.”

At a show trial, Heltai was convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison. Others were sentenced to death. Prison life did not get easier for Heltai, now certified as a traitor. He and other political prisoners continued to be treated harshly, though a few of their keepers acknowledged their imprisonment was a sham, as evinced by a debriefing Heltai once underwent with a male investigator and a female trainee. As Szász recounts,

On this occasion, the pupil, a young woman, was sitting beside the experienced interrogator. The girl performed the administrative tasks, she recorded the prisoner’s personal details and asked him how many years he had been sentenced to and why.

“To ten years, on the pretext that I was a spy,” Heltai told the female interrogator.

“What to do you mean by ‘on the pretext?’ Are you suggesting that you were not a spy?” she replied.

Heltai shrugged his shoulders and replied in an indifferent voice: “I was never a spy.”

Whereupon the young woman jumped up from her chair beside herself with fury, gave the prisoner a good dressing-down, and finally announced loudly and with great dignity: “The court of the people’s democracy would never sentence an innocent man to 10 years.”

Soon afterwards the experienced interrogator sent the girl from the room on some errand and turned to the prisoner with an explanatory, almost apologetic murmur: “The comrade doesn’t understand yet. The comrade hasn’t been with the organization very long.”

Analyzing such behavior, Heltai later ascribed such denial to the fact that his countrymen found it easier to believe in the treacherous misdeeds of a handful of intellectual traitors than to admit the entire government was headed by murderous men and staffed by complicit subordinates.

“Ours was a Western country, not Russia,” Heltai told The Meteor. “They did not want to hear, did not believe such things could happen in Hungary.”

After more than four years in secret prisons, Heltai and other prisoners were permitted to write a short note to their families and tell them they were alive. A week later, wives were allowed to visit, though they stood behind fences with a field between them.

Professor Heltai, fumbling for his signature smokes, enjoys a light moment in Charleston.

“There were about 300 persons on each side of a fence,” Heltai told the News and Courier. “Conversation was not possible. But we were able to see one another.”

Three months later, following the death of Joseph Stalin, Heltai was released from prison and made to sign a paper promising he wouldn’t discuss his imprisonment. The Communist Party in Hungary invited him back, but he declined the offer due to distrust and disillusionment. He instead found work at an academy researching Hungarian poets and their connections to Utopian socialists. Settling back home with his family, he became aware of how much they suffered in his absence, even if they weren’t behind bars.

“Sometimes I think it was better for me in prison than for my wife outside. Friends she would meet in the street dared not speak to her,” Heltai told The Meteor. “After I was out, people came by and apologized. Some we forgave, others we did not.”

Hungarian Rhapsody

Decades later at the College, Heltai hardly ever spoke of his time in prison, not with colleagues, not with students. With his children, too, he was quiet about this time, offering up relatively few details beyond a couple of anecdotes that, in retrospect, could be found humorous or portrayed his old friends in positive ways. When Heltai drew from his past, he overwhelmingly preferred speaking of his interactions with foreign leaders and the principles on which their governments stood.

Sue Bowler recalls taking one of Heltai’s courses that began at the unfortunate hour of 8 a.m. As she and her classmates sleepily staggered in and sipped coffee, Heltai took mercy on the students and regaled them with stories for a few minutes, detailing his meetings with Stalin, for example, and the Soviet leader’s unusually strong passion for cinema, including American Westerns.

Heltai (left) during his days, as a Hungarian dignitary.

Heltai (left) during his days, as a Hungarian dignitary.

“Tell him not to worry,” he told his son, Blaise. “Whatever forgiveness he needs from me, he has it. He is my friend.”

That Heltai chose not to seethe over past injustices or fume at continued human rights abuses in Eastern Europe was a conscious choice, says former colleague Clark. He did not forget his and others’ suffering, he just didn’t want to spend the second half of his life dwelling on those sorrows. “To react with anger would have disrupted his energies,” says Clark, “and, in the end, would destroy his life. He’d be unable to enjoy anything. In that sense, he was a highly disciplined man.”

Agnes, who died in August at age 90, a few weeks after being interviewed for this article, said her husband was an innocent man, capable of seeing good in almost anything, despite being forced into war, imprisoned and forced to flee his homeland. In the end, none of those experiences defeated or defined him.

Though he discussed politics, history and government daily, many found it difficult to discern Heltai’s own opinions and how he came to feel about his participation in communist governments, especially when the United States squared off against the Soviet Union and began the Cold War. In 1982, Heltai answered a reporter’s question about his political beliefs, saying that “the only ideology we should accept is the ideology of the humanists of the 16th century, such as Machiavelli, Pico and Guicciardini. They invented the free life and explained the beauty of freedom. They held the view that the only time a prince should use force is when somebody threatens the freedom and welfare of his people.”

In 1986, Heltai retired from the College. He died in Charleston in 1994, two years after suffering a major stroke. His three children all graduated from the College (Sophie ’70, Martin ’71 and Blaise ’76) and many of their fellow students came to regard George and Agnes Heltai as family, embracing them the best they could in Charleston, even if the world the Heltais came from – a place of grand culture, war-torn capitals, secret prisons and oppressive regimes – was exceedingly foreign. The lessons Heltai learned in Hungary, however, were transferable, and he shared them with eager students in an attempt to better their futures. The lessons were appreciated, as evidenced by the fond memories evoked among so many College alumni with just the mention of his name.

Even more than three decades later, many can still remember George Heltai’s lessons, can hear the distinct accent of his voice and even smell the soft, mysterious smoke enveloping his every word.