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WORLD FOCUS: Recalling, vividly, a spy story, part 1

(Editor’s note: This is the first part of a two-part story.)

Recently, some members of our Barnes & Noble bookstore coffee salon went to see the spy movie, “The Catcher Was a Spy,” at the Williamsburg Library.

They were thrilled by the movie and told me the story.

I asked them whether they know that my father had been sentenced by a Czechoslovak High Court, in early 1938, before the onset of the Second World War, to 12 years of hard labor, for being a master spy for the Hungarian Army.

But Hitler saved him from spending even a day of his sentence at hard labor.

Naturally, the members of the salon wanted to hear the whole story. I thought, it would make an interesting column.

In my hometown, Parkan, on the banks of the Danube River, separating Czechoslovakia from Hungary, was a harness maker specializing in high-quality saddles. Among his customers were Hungarian Army officers from across the river.

What also distinguished the harness maker was his stunningly beautiful wife. She was known to travel, frequently, to Budapest, Hungary’s capital city, to attend opera and concert performances.

During her last trip to Hungary, she was arrested and accused to being a high-value spy for the Czechoslovak intelligence services. She was tried by a special court and sentenced to life in prison.

The news reverberated all over our town. However. two years into her life sentence, she was exchanged for two high-ranking Hungarian intelligence officers imprisoned, in Czechoslovakia.

After her return to her home country, she was debriefed by counter-intelligence officials.

“I was betrayed by Mr. Klain, the owner of a grocery wholesale business in my hometown, Parkan,” she told them. “Mr. Klain was sitting on a chair in the hallway next to the room where I was interrogated, in Esztergom, Hungary. One of the officers pointed him out to me. “You know this man, he told us everything about you. So just confess. And I confessed.”

When taken in for interrogation, Mr. Klain readily admitted that on that stated date he was in the building that housed the offices of the regional, Hungarian Counter-Intelligence agency. The same building, however, also housed the offices of the Hungarian Custom service.

Mr. Klain explained that he had inherited valuable antique furniture in Hungary and engaged Mr. Edmund Shatz, the owner of the International Mover’s Company, in Parkan, to transport the furniture to Czechoslovakia. However, Mr. Klain needed, a special export permit from Hungarian authorities.

My father advised Mr. Klain to visit the office of the head of the Custom Service in Eszetgom, the town across the Danube River. The head of customs was an old friend of his; thus, he would be helpful.

“I waited in the hallway to see him” Mr. Klain told his Czechoslovak interrogators.

It did not take long before the Czechoslovak counter-intelligence officers appeared at our house. Furnished with court issued search warrant, they scrutinized every piece of paper, they looked into every nook and cranny. They took away even my kid chemistry kit, to test whether it contained chemicals for invisible writing.

My father was detained and taken away to Bratislava, the capital city of Slovakia, the autonomous region of the country. He was held in a prison reserved for political prisoners.

(Interestingly, it was the same prison from where 15 years later I rescued my two nieces who were apprehended while attempting to escape from Communist Hungary, through Communist Czechoslovakia, to Austria.)

My mother hired the best defense lawyer’s money could buy, and we were assured, all the Czechoslovak authorities have is flimsy, circumstantial evidence and my father will be found innocent.

Alas, the trial at the Czechoslovak High Court, turned out to be high drama, dotted with unexpected revelations. A Hungarian soldier, a paid agent of the Czechoslovak spy agency, deserted his post just before the trial began and became the star witness.

As a result, my father was sentenced to 12 years of hard labor.

Our lawyers, promised to appeal the verdict.

Before they had a chance to do so, my father was released from prison, without spending a day at hard labor.

Who rescued him was Adolf Hitler, the dictator of Nazi-Germany.

This is the first part of a two- parts column.

(Shatz is a former resident of Lake Placid and a current resident of Williamsburg, Virginia. He is the author of “Reports from a Distant Place,” a compilation of his columns.)