WORLD FOCUS: Recalling, vividly, a spy story, part 2
(Editor’s note: This is the second part of a two-part story.)
I was recently recounting to the members of our Williamsburg Barnes & Noble bookstore salon the story of my father’s 1938 spy trial. It took place 80 years ago.
They had many questions to ask.
The story, as I had recounted it in the first part of this column last week began when the beautiful wife of the harness maker in our town, fall in love with a Hungarian Army officer.
They become lovers and she became a high-value spy for the Czechoslovak intelligence agency.
Subsequently, she was dispatched to Hungary on a dangerous clandestine mission.
All this was of great interest to members of the bookstore salon. Their curiosity was fueled by seeing the spy movie, “The Catcher Was a Spy” at the Williamsburg Library.
The story I was recalling had its origins in the determination of the Czechoslovak military intelligence service to obtain the blueprint of Hungary’s most treasured military secret, the Gama-Juhasz anti-aircraft- gun system, a precursor to the modern radar.
The wife of the harness maker fell in love with one of the Hungarian Army officers for whom her husband made one of his priced saddles and subsequently, he become the source of the much-sought secret.
The saddle maker’s wife and the Hungarian Army major become lovers. During her last trip to Budapest, the lover provided her with a copy of the blueprint of the anti-aircraft-gun system. She concealed it in her corset to smuggle it over the border while returning to Czechoslovakia. During a body search, the blueprint was discovered.
As I have described in my previous column (Sept. 10 issue), the woman was tried by a special court in Hungary and sentenced to life in prison. However, two years later, she was exchanged for two high-ranking Hungarian intelligence officials, imprisoned in Czechoslovakia.
Her return to her homeland triggered a series of investigations that culminated in the high-drama espionage trial of my father in Bratislava.
The star witness, a Hungarian Army soldier, who all-along was a paid agent of the Czechoslovak intelligence service, presented photographs of my father hugging and cheek kissing with high-ranking Hungarian Army officers on the streets of Esztergom. He was also photographed dining with them at fancy restaurants.
The explanation that they were his comrades-in-arms, while serving together in the Austro-Hungarian Army during the First World War did not convince the court.
But more damaging were documents attesting to it that my father had a long-term lease on a huge stone quarry. It was the source for the raw material needed to build the Czechoslovak “Maginot Line” along the border with Hungary.
Thousands of concrete bunkers were built, copying the French Maginot Line. My father, as contractor, had free access to the engineer’s offices. One more circumstantial evidence.
When people in my hometown, Parkan, in Czechoslovakia, needed help to deal with Hungarian bureaucrats on the other side of the Danube River, they turned to my father. He had friends everywhere. His contacts were used as evidence of his special status with Hungarian authorities.
As a result of the accumulated circumstantial evidence, my father was sentenced to 12 years of hard labor.
Our lawyers, promised to appeal the verdict.
In the meantime, the political situation in Europe arrived at a crisis point. Adolf Hitler, the dictator of Nazi Germany and Neville Chamberlain, the prime minister of Great Britain, met in Munich and signed the fateful Munich Agreement.
The agreement stipulated the dismembering of Democratic Czechoslovakia. The Sudetenland was incorporated into Nazi Germany, and Southern Slovakia, where my family lived, was incorporated into Hungary, an ally of Nazi Germany.
A corollary to the Munich Agreement was the understanding that Czechoslovakia must immediately release every political prisoner accused or sentenced for collaborating with Germany or Hungary.
Shortly after the signing of the Munich Agreement on Sept. 29, 1938, my father was released from the Bratislava prison and returned home.
He maintained during the rest of his life that he was never a spy for Hungary.
As paradoxical as it seems, Hitler saved my father from 12 years of hard labor, only to decimate our family during the Holocaust.
(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.)