Hungary, 1949. The boy's father, former editor-in-chief of Hungary's largest morning daily is convicted of treason for passing state secrets to the Americans. Yellow, tattered newspaper clippings show an old men sitting in a Budapest courtroom, one of seven political prisoners. The sentence: 10 years in prison.
The boy's family is deported to the countryside along with other supporters of the previous regime. They move in with a peasant farmer; the boy, two sisters, his mother and grandmother make an accomodation with one room, dirt floors. Sometimes, the rats steal his grandmother's false teeth and they boy chases them.
The boy's father dies in prison. A year later, the peasants in the village hear the news on a Voice of America broadcast and tell the boy. He never finds his father's grave .
Washington, D.C., 1978. The boy is 42 now, and stands up to throw another poplar log on the fire in his imitation Tudor house in Cabin John, Md. His blue eyes shine as he lights up a Winston and pats a large, white dog brought from Hungary. Stories of his childhood tumble out.
The stories of Csanad Toth, one of thousands of Hungarian refugees who came to America in the late '50s, are shared by others who joined the melting pot of U.S. citizens. What is notable in Toth's case, though, is that he rose to become a State Department official. And, today, he is expected to mount the steps of Budapest's beautiful, neo-gothis parliament on the banks of the Danube River, as the interpreter for U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance.
"The last week has been horrible," he smiles. "Everyone has been calling up to say, 'Don't be another Steven Seymour.'"
Vance's mission is to return the controversial Crown of St. Stephen, the ancient relic of gold, emeralds and rubies used at the coronation of every Hungarian monarch through King Karl in 1916. At the end of World War II, as the Soviets edged toward Budapest and the Nazis pulled out, the Crown was turned over to U.S. troops in an Austrian village for safekeeping, and wound up in Ft. Knox.
Some Hungarian-Americans have protested Vance's mission. Returning the rown to a Communist government in their original homeland, they insist, is to tactily legitimize the Communist regime. Others, including Toth, argue that the Crown belongs to the people of Hungary and can never legitimize repression, that is symbolizes a people's free, glorious past, as well as hope for the future.
And, as Csanad (pronounced Shanad) Toth translates the words of Secretary Vance, state television will beam the ceremony across the countryside, even to peasants in the village where the boy once lived. Toth believes his presence there as an interpreter for the world's leading democracy can hardly go unnoticed. And, says Toth, like the Crown, he will be a symbolic of freedom, even if Hungarians do not openly talk of such things.
"I don't consider myself going home," says Toth. "The U.S. is my home now. I'm going to do a job. But I cannot escape my story. Hungary is like a small town of 10 million people, and I will be a symbol that won't be escape anyone." He has returned to Hungary four times, but this is his first visit in 17 years.
1953, Hungary. Stalin dies and repression in Communist bloc countries relaxes briefly. The boy's family and others like them, receive amnesty and return to Budapest. He attends a high school run by Benedictine monks, works at odd jobs, and, in 1956, joins in the "freedom fighters" uprising - quickly snuffed out with the help of Soviet tanks and troops.
The boy is young, impetuous and learns about fear.
Hungarians go on a general strike to protest Russian occupation. The boy is jailed for a month and decides to leave the country.
He hops a train bound for Austria. To elude the Russian border patrols on board, he bids into a card game with several Hungarian soldiers. A border guard grows suspicious and tries to arrest the boy.
"He's one of us," says a Hungarian soldier. The Russian nods. The train rolls on, passes into Austria. The boy stands up from the card table and moves towards the door.
"Good luck," grins the Hungarian soldier. "Tell Eisenhower, 'Hello.'"
Csanad Toth made his way to the United States via refugee camps in Vienna, where he worked briefly as a reporter for a Hungarian-language edition of a Viennese newspaper. His arrival in America was aided by family friends in Greenwich, Conn. Members of their family, which was Jewish, had been helped by Toth's mother during the Nazi regime.
Toth took a summer job teaching riding at a camp in North Carolina, before accepting a scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania. His mother, who had arrived earlier, became a legal assistant in New York and the family began to rebuild their lives.
Since Toth had been "an authentic freedom fighter" and a Hungarian student movement leader, he was invited all over the U.S. to speak, polished his English and became head of the Hungarian Student Association in Exile.
"My vocabulary is better than my accent," he says.
During doctoral studies in international relations at Georgetown, he met his wife, Judy, Montgomery County delegate to Maryland's General Assembly. They have two teen-age daughters and rock music fills the house.
Toth calls himself a house husbabd, a "liberated" man who tends toward domesticity when his wife lives in Annapolis during the three-month legislative session.Her first year in office she tried negotiating the two-round-trip each day, but after she had a wreck on an icy road, Toth says it made more sense for her to take an apartment in Annapolis and commute only on weekends.
Judy Toth, who has the easy warm, smile of a politician, sets out tea and cookies for the visitor. Her husband, a stocky man in brown corduroy slacks and a cardigan sweater, sips a beer. It takes a little prodding for him to rehash his revolutionary days - days running a student newspaper called The Truth - "What else could you call it" - and trying to disable Soviet tanks with homemade Molotov cocktails.
Over the years, he was worked his way into an immigrant's success story, teaching, working at AID, and at a "think tank," campaigning for the presidential nomination of Robert Kennedy. He became vice president of the Inter-American Foundation, a U.S. government foundation that funels $20-$30 million a year in direct aid grants to developing nations. Upon his return from Budapest, he will step into a new job at the State Department, as the director of policy planning for the Bureau of International Organizational Affairs, a liaison section that deals with agencies like the World Bank.
The voice of America's Hungarian language service chief recommended Toth accompany Vance as an interpreter. And, before he left for Budapest this week, Toth said he felt comfortable with the assignment. After all, his cultural roots include a great-grandfather who founded Hungarian language theaters as part of the nationalistic revolution of 1848. And Toth is as familiar a name in Hungary, as Jones Smith are in America. The uprising of 1956 is also broadly familiar in Hungary - "but there is a collective amnesia about the events of 1956," he says. "YOu cannot talk about it without risking your neck."
Even though Hungary is considered more accomodating of human rights than some other Communist bloc nations, it does not enjoy all the freedoms of the West. Csanad Toth says he will be a silent reminder of this.