by Ferenc Laszlo
from Reader's Digest, April 1956
I was trying hard to suppress my anxiety that September morning in 1946, as I stood in the dismal Keleti railway station in Budapest, Hungary. Panic, I knew, could wreck my hopes. I was waiting prayerfully for the name of Oscar Zinner to be called – even though I knew that it might mean my doom.
Until ten days before, I had never heard of Oscar Zinner. Then an old friend, who had information about the evacuation of Austrians living in Budapest, had come to see me, in secret.
‘One man on the list for resettlement,’ he said, ‘has not replied to letters informing him about the last train taking Austrian refugees home to Vienna. He may even be dead. This man is a portrait painter named Oscar Zinner. Would you care to risk attempting the trip to freedom under his name?’
Would I? It was imperative that I flee my country as soon as possible. During the Nazi occupation, and later on as an unwilling subject of Hungary’s Communist regime, I had been an Allied intelligence agent in Budapest. But recently the Soviet trap had snapped shut on several of my close colleagues, and I had gone into hiding.
In changing my identity from Ferenc Laszlo to Oscar Zinner, no passports would be involved because the Russians had looted and burned all documents in virtually every Budapest home.
My friend spread typewritten pages of Zinner’s biographical data before me. ‘You are now the painter, Oscar Zinner,’ he said. ‘Sit down and learn. You must become Zinner: in every thought, in every action.’
He tapped the papers. ‘The Communist frontier guards will have a copy of this. I needn’t tell you how closely they check. Another copy will be held by the supervisor of your group. He’s not acquainted with Zinner. But when the name is called out at the station, wait before replying.’
‘Wait?’ I asked.
‘There’s a chance that Zinner might show up at the last minute,’ he explained. ‘If two of you were to answer, it would be a disaster for the one who isn’t Zinner.’
For the next few days I studied Oscar Zinner’s life story. I could describe the house where he was born in Graz, Austria. I knew his educational background, his habits, his likes and dislikes, even his style of painting. I could recall what critics had said of his pictures, the prices his paintings had fetched, and who had purchased them.
Finally, late on the night before my scheduled departure, I crossed the Franz Josef Bridge, and let the incriminating biographical notes, torn into tiny shreds, flutter into the Danube.
A sudden, sharp crackle – from the railway station loudspeaker – snapped me back to the present. A rasping voice began to call out a list of names, alphabetically.
My stomach was knotted. Why did my new name have to begin with the last letter of the alphabet?
Finally, the voice barked: ‘Zinner – Oscar Zinner!’
I wanted to shout. But instead I waited, my heart pounding, my ears straining, my mind praying that there would be no answer.
‘Zinner!’ the voice called again, this time with annoyance.
I stepped forward. “Here,’ I said timidly. There was no challenge from the real Zinner.
We were separated into groups of ten, and herded into compartments on the train. Over and over, I unravelled the story in my head. ‘I am a portrait painter. I was born in Graz. My father was an architect …’
A shrill whistle from the station platform signalled the train to start. It did not move. Suddenly, loud Russian-speaking voices could be heard at the end of our carriage. Four Soviet officers marched past our compartment door. They stopped at the next compartment, and I heard them order the occupants out, into the corridor. They then took occupation themselves, and soon I heard much laughter and clinking of glasses. The whistle blew again, and this time the train jerked into motion.
As we picked up speed, I wondered when I would see my country again. I also recognised, however, that sadness was inappropriate right now: I was Oscar Zinner, going home to Vienna.
The train groaned to a halt at Kelenföld. This was checkpoint number one. We did not have to wait long for the Soviet inspecting officer and his interpreter to arrive. In the corridor heavily armed Russian soldiers, accompanying them, stood stolidly watching the proceedings.
The Soviet officer, a rock-faced little man, started with the woman across the way. Shuffling the flimsy biographical sheets, he barked questions in Russian, which the interpreter translated into German. He came to the man sitting next to the window, on my side of the compartment. I began rehearsing, once more, what I should say: ‘I am a painter. I was born in Graz, Austria. My name is … My name is …’
Sweat broke out on my forehead and my heart slid into my throat. A strange mental block, caused no doubt by nervous tension and suppressed panic, allowed me to remember everything else about the man I was pretending to be – except his name.
As though through a distant mist, I heard the sharp voices of the inspector and his interpreter as they moved to the woman beside me.
‘Please, God,’ I prayed, ‘what is my name? I’m a portrait painter. My name is …’ It was no use. The name would not come.
Just then I heard the door of the next compartment slide open. There was a brief flurry of conversation in the passageway, then a Red Army colonel poked his head into our compartment.
‘Wer spielt Schach?’ (‘Who plays chess?’) he asked.
Our inspecting officer turned and glared at the interruption, then stepped back respectfully under the gaze of his military superior. As I was closest to the door, the colonel’s next question seemed to be directed at me.
‘Spielen Sie Schach?’ he asked.
I hadn’t played chess in ten years, but it didn’t matter. This could be just the breathing space I needed. No one else in the compartment spoke.
‘Ja. Ich spiele Schach,’ I said.
The colonel gestured for me to follow him.
In the Russians’ compartment were two other colonels and one much-bemedalled general, a fattening but still-powerful giant in his early fifties. Evidently it was he who wanted a game of chess, for he gestured me to a seat opposite him.
Beside me were dozens of sandwiches and a box of sweets. On the small table under the window were glasses, vodka, Hungarian brandy, and wine. The general gave me an appraising look, then pointed to the food and vodka. ‘Davai,’ (‘Go on,’) he growled in Russian.
I ate in tortured suspense. At any moment one of the Russians might ask me my name or – worse – the inspector might intrude.
As the train started, the general produced a chessboard and began arranging the pieces.
‘God help me,’ I thought. ‘This is the game of my life. I must make it good, and yet I can’t afford to win.’ I had never known a Russian who didn’t hate to lose, or a chess player who liked to play for long, unless his opponent could make it interesting.
As we played, some of the tricks of the game slowly returned to me. The other officers watched the game in silence, apparently believing that the general was a wizard at it. As a matter of fact he was quite a good player, but I was able to make him work for every advantage he obtained.
Time flew by, as it does on every tense battlefield of chess, and with a start I realised that the train was slowing down at Györ, our checkpoint number two. My mind began to race. Now the door of the compartment slid open and the supervisor of the Austrian group stepped in. ‘This man has not yet been questioned,’ he said firmly.
I needn’t have worried. The general rose, spread his huge bear’s paw of a hand against the man’s chest, and expelled him into the corridor. Then he slammed the door, and pointed to the chessboard.
‘Davai Magyar,’ (‘It’s your move, Hungarian,’) he roared.
Hungarian? I was coming from Hungary, of course, but his slip of the tongue – if that’s what it was – caused my scalp to tingle.
When we finished the first game, from which the general emerged the victor, he said something to the officer who spoke German. ‘The general enjoys your style,’ the latter interpreted. ‘He will play you another game.’
Before we began again, however, the general insisted that we drink.
Reckless with the warm flood of confidence that came from the vodka, I lost myself in this game; and suddenly found myself on the brink of winning. We were in the last crucial moves as the train slowed for Hegyeshalom, our final checkpoint. Here I would win or lose – not merely a game, but everything I lived for.
This time dozens of Red soldiers, rifles slung over their shoulders and grenades hanging from their belts, led the procession of interpreters and security guards. They merely glanced into our compartment and then went on to the next. There the angry little group leader must have told them of the ‘Austrian’ who was sitting with the officers, for one of the guards came back to investigate. He stepped smartly in at the door, saluted, and spoke rapidly in Russian – at the same time pointing at me.
Once again, my brain froze in fear. Surely the general would let them question me this time, if only to forestall any further interruptions. ‘I am a portrait painter, and my name is …,’ I began saying to myself, desperately. Still I could not remember the name.
As the guard spoke, the general’s face slowly grew purple. I had no idea what the guard was telling him, but it made him as angry as any man I’d ever seen. He looked at me, his eyes blazing. Then he carefully placed the chessboard on the table under the window, and stood up.
‘This is the end for me,’ I thought. ‘To come so close …’
The general crossed his arm in front of his body, as a man would to draw a sword. He then brought it up in a sweeping arc, and the back of his hand smashed across the guard’s mouth. The man reeled backwards and struck the corridor wall.
The general slammed the door shut so hard that it shook our window. Then he returned to his seat, muttering something under his breath. He picked up the chessboard and studied the pieces.
‘Davai, Magyar,’ he said.
My heart was bursting with relief. No one would dare come in again – of that I was sure. As the train gathered speed, release from the awful tension flooded over me, so that, for the first time, I smiled. The general looked up from the board and smiled in return. He spoke to the young officer, who said to me: ‘The general wonders if you would enjoy playing him sometime in Vienna. Where can he reach you?’
Without blinking, I mentioned a well-known Vienna hotel.
‘And your name?’ prodded the young officer.
Now, without the awful, clutching terror, I hesitated, but only for a brief moment. How could I ever have forgotten those two simple words?
‘My name,’ I said, ‘is Oscar Zinner.’