A placid Hungarian country garden and a desolate Russian mental ward: Two disparate worlds struggle for dominance in the mind of the world’s longest-serving prisoner of war.
Andras Toma seems a changed man a year after leaving behind more than 55 years of Russian detention and returning to his native Hungary. Frail then, his frame is fleshed out, and formerly haunted eyes meet a visitor’s gaze without flinching.
But although he is physically anchored in the present of his half-sister’s sun-drenched peasant house, Toma’s mind roams darker corridors inhabited by memories of war, of sleeping atop dead comrades, of abuse and neglect during decades of Soviet detention.
His muttered comments frequently reflect this mental battle.
Gazing from his wheelchair over a burgeoning garden of gladioli and trumpet creepers, he proclaims contempt for Hitler and Miklos Horthy, the Nazi dictator’s Hungarian ally, in one breath--and his hunger in the next.
“Not worth a pipeful of tobacco,” he says of the two wartime leaders, expelling a disdainful gob of spit toward the courtyard flower patch. “Bring on the pancakes! It’s 12 noon already!”
Toma’s preoccupation with the past comes as no surprise. His sufferings were lengthy.
Now 76, he was captured by Soviet soldiers in 1944 near the former Nazi death camp of Auschwitz in Poland as German and Hungarian troops retreated toward Germany.
Toma was transported to a Soviet POW camp--and then to another, a horrifying 21-day odyssey in a boxcar stuffed with human cargo. Many of his comrades died in transit. Toma slept on their bodies.
“It appears that this experience contributed to his mental breakdown,” says Col. Laszlo Erdei, who helped piece together Toma’s past and reestablish his identity.
Toma ended up at Kotenich, more than 600 miles east of Moscow, in 1947. No information came with him on where and when he was born. One of the few pieces of documentation from that time diagnosed him as suffering from “psycho-neurosis.”
His mumbled Hungarian was mistaken for gibberish, and Toma was left to vegetate in a spartan mental clinic, forgotten until 1997, when he was discovered by a Hungarian-speaking Soviet citizen. He was flown home on Aug. 11, 2000, frail, frightened, a leg amputated.
Anna Gabulya remembers the newscast showing her half-brother’s arrival at Budapest airport, his terrified eyes blinking in the glare of TV lights.
“It was like a bolt of lightning coursing through me,” she said. “His ears, the back of his neck--exactly like my [late] father.”
Weeks went by, and she agonized. Should she list herself as a potential relative? Her husband, also named Andras, said no.
“Do you want to end up making a fool of yourself?” she recalls him saying. “Six hundred families are claiming him as their own, and he’s going to end up being your brother?”
But Gabulya’s instincts were right. Weeks of piecing together Toma’s mumbled responses coupled with other research traced him to the village of Sulyanbokor, just west of her home in Nyiregyhaza. DNA tests confirmed her link to Toma. She and her husband took him in.
“The first evening we bathed him and put him to bed,” Gabulya says, recounting the November day when Toma was brought to them, a scared, pathetic figure who didn’t want to stay. “Then my husband and I looked at each other, each thinking, ‘How are we going to survive this?’ ”
Difficult days followed. Each morning, Toma would sit on his bed, his old army cap crammed on his head, his coat drawn tight around his pajamas, refusing conversation--and affection.
“When I wanted to stroke his arm, he’d say, ‘Don’t touch me!’ ” recalls Gabulya, 59.
“He’d eat breakfast silently and then say, ‘Let’s go.’ I said: ‘Go? There is nowhere to go. This is your home.’ I cried and cried and said, ‘My God, what’s going to be the end of this?’ ”
Then, a few weeks later, a breakthrough.
Gabulya says Toma fashioned a new handle out of a juniper branch. “Then he broke his near silence. He said, ‘Give me your bad tools and I will fix them.’ We’ve had no problems since. He’ll work as long as three days on an individual tool, getting it just right.”
Other tasks followed. Toma now is responsible for watering the flowers and for cleaning and peeling vegetables for the Gabulya family of five--himself included.
Conversations are now long and easy with friends, relatives and even strangers he accepts as trustworthy. Gabulya says he recently wrote his full name, the first time he ever acknowledged being Andras Toma.
Still, traces of his ordeal linger. When asked for his name he’ll reply “Irsai"--a name apparently adopted from a Russian river he crossed to conceal his true identity from his captors.
Asked who shaved him while in Soviet detention, his smile fades.
“The witch with the steel teeth,” he replies, alluding to a female attendant. “She kicked me around in the toilet.”