Mining 50-year-old memories

SUN JOURNAL

Progress: The man known as Andras Tamas is slowly recovering his native language and memories.

September 09, 2000|By CHICAGO TRIBUNE

BUDAPEST, Hungary - For hours, the old man studies the face in the mirror. The deep-set eyes. The gray stubble on the chin. The furrows of the brow.

It is his face, but to him it is a startling revelation. He has not seen it in 53 years. He no longer remembers the name that goes with the face.

He calls himself Andras Tamas because that is the name on the records from the Russian psychiatric hospital where he spent a half-century until his release last month.

But a few days ago, when Dr. Andras Veer, the Hungarian psychiatrist who is treating him now at a hospital in Budapest, handed him a pen, Tamas wrote another name. Since then, he has mentioned several more names.

For now, he remains Tamas. He is rational and alert, and, Veer says, he is slowly recovering his past.

A month ago, a bewildered Tamas returned to a hero's welcome at the Budapest airport.

The local press dubbed him "the last prisoner of World War II." Journalists told the incredible story of a young Hungarian conscript wrongly committed to a Russian mental institution and kept there because Russian authorities, failing to recognize his words as Hungarian, thought he was speaking gibberish.

It seemed yet another example of the Soviet Union's crushing incompetence.

But it turns out that Tamas' story, while heartbreaking, is not quite that simple and perhaps not unique. There might be others still left behind.

What can be said with reasonable certainty is that Tamas, who is about 75 years old, was a conscript in the Hungarian 2nd Army, that he served in an artillery unit that fought under Nazi command on the Russian front, and that he was taken prisoner by the Soviet Army, probably during fighting along the Don River in 1944.

In February 1947, according to Soviet hospital records, the man they called Tamas was being transferred with other POWs to a camp in Siberia when he began exhibiting signs of severe psychosis.

Guards left him at a psychiatric hospital in Kotelnich, about 500 miles east of Moscow.

The records indicate the Russian doctors knew he was a Hungarian-speaking POW and diagnosed him as a schizophrenic.

"The Russian documentation is very exact," said Veer, who has traveled to Kotelnich and examined the hand-written records. "It appears he was well-diagnosed and that he received valid psychiatric treatment.

"You have to remember that this was the late 1940s. This illness could not have been treated more successfully someplace else, not in Paris, not in Vienna, not in the United States."

The problem was the system of Soviet psychiatric hospitals, which also served as a dumping ground for political dissidents, social misfits and criminals. When a person was committed to this vast and terrifying system, his history was either wiped out or classified as a state secret, said Veer.

At Kotelnich, the Hungarian prisoner gained a reputation as a loner who spoke only a few words of Russian.

"He isolated himself. He ate alone. He had no friends," said Veer. "As the years passed, they forgot who he was."

His plight was not discovered until the late 1990s when he was taken to a general hospital to be treated for high blood pressure and circulatory problems.

There he had a chance encounter with a Russian doctor of Slovak origin who recognized Tamas' words as Hungarian.

The doctor did a little investigating. The Russian media picked up the story, and after about two years of bureaucratic fussing, Tamas was issued a Hungarian passport and discharged from the hospital.

It is easy to castigate the Soviet system for wasting a life in such an absurd and careless manner, but Veer, who is director of the National Institute of Psychiatry and Neurology in Budapest, draws a different conclusion.

The Russians, he said, are not the only ones guilty of allowing people to fall through the cracks.

"This is the second case of this kind that I have had the privilege of treating," he said during an interview in his office.

The first case involved a Hungarian woman who was found in a distraught and confused state in a British railway station in 1939. She was taken to a psychiatric facility outside London, where doctors pronounced her insane and then forgot about her.

Unable to communicate in her own language, the woman fell silent. It was not until 1989, when the facility was being torn down, that hospital authorities took a close look at her records.

They discovered she was Hungarian and sent her home.

"We found her relatives. She regained her Hungarian. We treated her at this institution, and after a month she was back home. A happy ending," said Veer.

Tamas, too, appears to be making rapid progress since being returned to Hungary. His command of the language is increasing and memories of his earlier life are gradually coming back. He easily recognized a number of landmarks in Budapest.

Veer said that Tomas would probably be released in about a month, either to live in a veterans home or with relatives, if any can be found.

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