“I went to the West German Consulate to get a visa for West Germany. While waiting in a long queue I overheard one consular officer saying to another: “It’s that double-edged sword again.” He meant that as a holder of a Letter of Invitation from a university I could come up with an idea to stay in Germany as a refugee or in some other way. “
Hungarian editor, who worked for Szépirodalmi and Európa publishing houses. After signing Charter 77 he was sacked from his job. In 1981 he started to publish in an underground journal of the Democratic Opposition, “Beszélő”. In 1988 he became a founding member of the Alliance of Free Democrats and in 1989 he co-founded the Hungarian Chapter of the Helsinki Committee. From 1990 to 1994 he was the Editor-in-Chief of “Beszélő” and a Member of the Hungarian Parliament from 1990 to 1998.
When did you go to Western Europe for the first time?
I went there in the first half of the sixties, when an ordinary Hungarian citizen could finally get a passport. Passports were valid then only for Europe and only for a year. Later on, their validity was extended to two, and then, five years. These extensions were accompanied though by the introduction of a limit on the length of a single stay abroad – only 30 days. Furthermore, one could apply for permission to leave the country again only after two years had passed, and only if you could produce a Letter of Invitation. Otherwise one could only apply for it every three years.
I got my first passport in 1962, with some help from a wellplaced individual. My mother was a dentist and one of her patients was the child of a Party leader. This man helped me to get my passport. I was to go to England. I had applied for a visa to the UK earlier – in 1957. But the application was rejected because the British authorities were afraid that I was going to emigrate since my distant relatives from the UK had tried to arrange permission for me to settle permanently there. Finally, this time I got my visa for the UK but it was after a rather lengthy procedure. While waiting for this visa I was afraid that my passport would expire. Therefore I went to Austria where I spent almost a year studying and waiting. I couldn’t go home to Hungary even if I had wanted to because I would not be able to leave the country again as I had permission only for a single stay abroad. I had to visit the Austrian immigration office every other month to extend my permission to stay. I always managed to get it. Finally, I got my visa for England – in February of 1963. But first I had to sign a written declaration that I did not want to settle permanently in the UK. So I spent two months in England and a few weeks in Germany, and then I went back home, to Hungary in the autumn of 1963.
I went to Austria – Vienna – again in 1963, on a scholarship to the BRD. Once there, I went to the West German Consulate to get a visa for West Germany. While waiting in a long queue I overheard one consular officer saying to another: “It’s that double-edged sword again”. He meant that as a holder of a Letter of Invitation from a university I could come up with an idea to stay in Germany as a refugee or in some other way. This fear the West European officials had of us travellers from the Eastern Europe was quite common. Nevertheless, I was granted a visa.
Did it take a long time?
No, it did not. The whole procedure made one feel very awkward though. And one more thing: the rule of thumb in those days was that one could not apply for a visa abroad. I was living in the States between 1985 and 1986, on a one-year scholarship, as a guest researcher. Going there I had no problems with a visa for the US. When I was to return to Hungary though I wanted to visit West Germany on the way home. I went to the West German Consulate in New York to get a visa. I was told to apply for it in Hungary. I informed the Consular Officer that I was on a scholarship, and my mother was living in Germany so I wanted to visit her on my way home. I got the visa, finally, but not without some difficulties. The visa for France was yet more difficult to get. I could not rely on the fact that my mother was living in the West, nor could I present any papers from her that would help matters. So, the French Consular Officer asked me where I was intending to stay. I got annoyed with her and said: “Have you ever been to Paris?” “I am from Paris”, she replied with some resentfulness in her voice. So I said: “You must know then that there are many hotels there. When I arrive in Paris I will choose one that I like and can afford, and will stay there for a week. We are in New York now. How on Earth should I know which hotel I’m going to stay at?” In the end she started to laugh and said: “OK. I will grant you a visa”. The only time I experienced a long wait was when I wanted to visit England in 1962, and that was only a temporary problem. I think that it is more difficult for a non-EU citizen to enter the EU than it was for us, Eastern Europeans, to go to the West from behind the Iron Curtain.
By the end of September 1986, my passport had been withdrawn and I was banned from travelling abroad for five years. I was declared an “unworthy citizen” of the People’s Republic of Hungary. The meaning of this term was never explained to me. So I decided to publish an article about it in Beszélő. In it I appealed to all those who had found themselves in a similar situation to write to me. Thus, in the 21st issue of Beszélő that appeared in the autumn of 1987 I was able to present an article about similar cases. In it I reported on 28 Hungarian citizens who had also been stripped of their right to travel abroad without good reason. A citizen of a so-called ”Socialist state” needed a visa for each Western country he or she wanted to visit. I didn’t usually have problems getting a visa. But we all used to face many bureaucratic hurdles, not only from domestic authorities, but from foreign ones too.
Do you recall your experiences crossing the border to the West for the first time?
I don’t know whether Yugoslavia could be considered to be a Western country or not but this was the first country I had visited. It was in 1956. I was only 17 then. We were to visit my
mother’s cousin. I had relatives in many countries. This journey was fantastic. I saw the sea and Dubrovnik for the first time. I went across the real border into the West in 1962. I did not have any problems but nevertheless I was nervous. I was always nervous crossing the border when I was travelling as a tourist.
Were you ever ill treated, or discriminated against by the authorities of any Western European State?
No, I was not – really. I can tell you some interesting stories, though. For example, travellers from the Soviet Block were allowed to leave France only through the designated crossing points. We were travelling from France to Switzerland by car at night. Our three children were asleep. We were very tired so we decided to take the shortest route. The Swiss border guard didn’t let us through, though. I tried to make him change his mind, telling him that we were tired and that our children were asleep in the car. In the end I was not successful and thus we had to drive another 100 km to the appropriate crossing point. Of course, he couldn’t help it. He had to follow the rules.
Most of the Western European countries already had by then a mutual visa-free agreement. I was travelling from West Germany to Denmark by ferry. On the border, they just signalled everyone to pass through. But I needed an exit stamp in my passport. Eastern Europeans did not frequent that border crossing point that often though. Thus the officer couldn’t find the proper stamp. The others standing behind me were getting annoyed and the border guards were getting angry having to look for the stamp. They did find it in the end. Inconveniences of that kind were quite common in those days. And often, one felt strange being suspected of doing something wrong.
On another occasion I was to return to Hungary from West Germany. I wanted to take a train to Hungary from East Berlin because it would be much cheaper. I was travelling to West Berlin by train. I intended to stay there for two or three days. As I reached the border, the West German border guard wanted to place an exit stamp in my passport. I asked him pleadingly: “Don’t do this please. I would like to spend a few days in West Berlin”. He replied: “You are leaving West German territory now so I have to put a stamp in your passport. You will be able to enter West Berlin anyway, should you want to do so”. I then said: “With that exit stump in my passport I could stay in West Berlin for years. Who would know?” The guard smiled ironically and said: “Don’t worry. We have ways of checking”. So, after three days in West Berlin I promptly went to East Berlin. At the famous Wall, there were three lines: one for the West Germans, one for the West Berliners, and one for retired people. The latter could be used by the East Germans too but only if they were retired. They were allowed to pass through, as there was no risk that they would “chose freedom”. The authorities didn’t count on citizens of third countries showing up there. I produced my Hungarian passport, the guards mumbled something about football, and I was allowed to pass through. The only unpleasantness was that the West Berliners considered me a Communist and the East Berliners, their comrade.
Did you manage to establish any connections or friendships in the West that proved to be useful in your latter career and life?
As a matter of fact, yes I did. I managed to establish many such connections and friendships and I learned a lot thanks to all my studies and work there. For example, the Heidelberg Scholarship proved to be very useful. The courses were very interesting. We analysed literary works and held many interesting debates. The atmosphere was freer than at the University of Vienna.I also spent almost a year in the US, as a guest researcher. I also attended a class about the US Constitution. All these experiences and contacts proved to be very useful, both in my professional career and in my life. For example, when I was a member of the democratic opposition and worked as one of the editors of Beszélő I visited the US State Department and the White House as though I was a politician. I could talk about the political situation in Eastern and Central Europe, and especially in Hungary, knowing the mentality of the other side. I also benefited from my contacts among Hungarian émigrés. I used to give lectures at universities and for the Hungarians too. Travelling is really important for one’s development. It means a lot when one can spend time abroad, either as a student or as a worker. If you go abroad for only two weeks, you will only get superficial impressions.