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Gulag Survivor George Z. Bien Dies at 76

By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 20, 2005

George Zoltan Bien, 76, an Arlington resident who survived imprisonment in the Soviet gulag after World War II and was forced to flee his native Hungary after the uprising against Soviet occupation in 1956, died of pancreatic cancer June 16 at the Halquist Memorial Inpatient Center in Arlington. He was a Fairfax resident.

Mr. Bien was born in Budapest in 1928 to a venerable Hungarian family. His parents were ethnic Jews who converted to Christianity in 1919, and Mr. Bien was unaware of his Jewish heritage until years later.

In January 1945, Soviet forces were in Budapest as the brutal Nazi occupation was ending. When Soviet soldiers arrived at the Bien family door asking to talk to Mr. Bien's father, a prominent cardiologist, the elder Bien felt he had nothing to fear. He was wrong.

Dr. Bien was acquainted with Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who saved thousands of Hungarian Jews from the Nazis. Nevertheless, the cardiologist occasionally had been called upon to treat German soldiers and embassy officials in Budapest. Soviet authorities took him into custody and charged him with espionage.

When 16-year-old George proudly laid claim to a short-wave radio in the house, he, too, was arrested. He assumed he would be in custody briefly before returning home to his mother and 12-year-old sister. He said he could not have imagined that he had plunged into a 10-year nightmare.

In "Lost Years," a memoir published in English in 2000, Mr. Bien wrote: "What an ironic fate: We survived the war under the Nazis, but not the 'peace' under the Soviets."

Mr. Bien's father died of typhoid within six months at a labor camp in the Ukraine. His last words, Mr. Bien learned years later, were: "My son! My daughter!"

"The Gulag was like a giant Auschwitz without gas chambers," Mr. Bien wrote in his memoir. Like the victims of the Holocaust, young Mr. Bien was loaded onto a cattle car and transported eastward -- from Budapest to Austria, then to a prison near Odessa, Ukraine, and labor camps on the Black Sea.

In September 1946, "slave merchants" herded him onto a crowded prison train for a 30-day journey on the Trans-Siberian Railway to the prison port of Nahodka on Russia's Pacific coast. He was then put on a "death ship," the Felix Dzerzhinsky, for a six-day journey to Magadan and the infamous gold mining camps of Kolyma, the far eastern section of Siberia. More than 600 fellow prisoners died aboard the crowded, squalid vessel.

Mr. Bien weighed 83 pounds when he arrived at the camp, just below the Arctic Circle and more than 7,000 miles from his home. Temperatures in the region sometimes plunged to minus-76 degrees.

He had been swallowed up by "the Gulag," the acronym for the Soviet Union's system of about 40,000 forced labor camps that held between 10 million and 15 million people during and after Joseph Stalin's regime. In the Kolyma region alone, an estimated 3 million people died in camps.

Mr. Bien somehow survived, working in a prison hospital and a hospital pharmacy, and later in gold-mining and timber camps. Stalin's death in 1953 led to the release of foreign prisoners from the labor camps, and Mr. Bien, now 27, made his way home in 1955, reuniting with his mother and his sister.

He arrived in Budapest during the uprising against the Soviet occupiers. When Soviet troops invaded in 1956 to quell the revolt, he saw tanks run down civilians.

"I could speak Russian well," he wrote in his memoir, "and during pauses in the fighting, I climbed up onto the Soviet tanks and tried to talk to the soldiers and explain the true situation of our oppression. Most of them were young fellows, 18 or 19 years old, and they didn't even know where they were. You could see the fear in their eyes when crowds surrounded the tanks."

Working as a truck driver, he barely escaped capture by acquiring a forged bill of lading and driving his truck across the border into Austria; hiding in the back were more than two dozen Hungarians.

He made his way to the United States in December 1956, living in New Jersey briefly before moving to Arlington. He became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1962.

Fluent in German, Russian and Hungarian, he drove a diaper truck and an oil truck and worked in a pet store. In 1958, he began working for the Capitol Printing Ink Co., later the Flint Ink Corp. He became a nationally known authority on the manufacture of printing ink. He taught summer courses at Lehigh University for the Washington Lithographic Union and also taught printing fundamentals at Montgomery College. He retired as Flint Ink's technical director in 1992.

He spoke frequently to high school and college students about his gulag experiences and was interviewed numerous times for film and TV documentaries. As a hobby, he obtained a private pilot's license.

Survivors include his wife of 35 years, Eleanor Bien of Fairfax; two stepchildren, Diane Geib and Robert Michaelson, both of Fairfax; and one grandson.

"Never in his life did he dislike the Russian people," his wife said. "He loved the Russian people. He hated the Soviet system."

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