Judith Kopacsi Gelberger was born in February 1946, in Miskolc, Hungary, an industrial town located in the hilly North-East of the country. The family moved to Budapest in 1949 when her father, a police officer, was relocated to the country’s capital. For the first ten years of her life she was surrounded by people her parents and grandparents fought with in the anti-Nazi underground before and during World War II. She grew up on those stories, and it made her very proud to be a child of heroes. In 1952 her father became the Police Chief of Budapest, and she enjoyed all the privileges that came with his title. All this changed suddenly when on October 23rd, 1956 the university students took to the streets, supposedly to sympathize with the Polish workers. The peaceful demonstration soon turned into a bloody one. By then her father, totally disillusioned by the Soviet regime, sided with the revolution, and became one of its military leaders. The Soviet army crushed the revolution, and her father was arrested. He was sentenced to life imprisonment in a secret trial in 1958. His fate affected Judith drastically. Even getting a high school education proved to be a challenge. In 1965 she had a chance to leave Hungary and she came to Canada. It took her another ten years to get her parents to Canada. Judith is married and has had two wonderful children. Unfortunately their son, Leslie was killed in a boating accident in April 2017, leaving a wife and two small boys behind.
Judith, thanks for taking the time to do this interview for the followers of my Blog. I’d like to talk about your writing, especially your book Heroes Don’t Cry, released 2009.
Q. When did the idea of writing this book first come to you?
A. I got the idea after my father finished his autobiography in 1978, telling the world about the secret trial in 1958 in which he was one of the subjects. I realised that until now, none of the children of those directly involved ever shared their experiences, and I believed it was important to finally open the doors to those neglected voices.
Q. How long did it take for you to complete the book?
A. After many trials and errors I first wrote it in Hungarian. That version was published in Hungary in 1992. The English version is a much more detailed one and it took almost thirty years to complete.
Q. Was the most difficult part of writing this book?
A. It was like an operation, I had to dig deep into my heart and memories, knowing I must paint a true picture of those times to an audience who most likely knew nothing about it.
Q. Considering the political implications, did you ever consider writing this book under a pseudonym, if so, why, if not, why not?
A. The English version started out as fiction under a pseudonym. When a friend of mine asked me for an explanation, I admitted, writing under my own name and the non-fiction was still too close and frightening, causing me vivid nightmares. But somehow the fictional version didn’t happen. It was like an invisible hand stopped my writing it.
Q. Was the writing of Heroes Don’t Cry cathartic in any way for you? If so, please share it with us.
A. When I finally gathered enough courage to put the story down on paper I felt such a strong sense of relief as if I had dropped at least fifty pounds off my soul. It was as if I finally managed to separate myself from the past. It gave me a chance to look into the future. I didn’t even realise how the untold past dragged me down till then.
Q. What brought you to write this book?
A. For many years I was forced to keep many secrets. A wrongly worded phrase could have harmed my father and family. When my paternal grandfather died a day before my father’s release from prison in the early spring of 1963, I was standing by his coffin and I was so very angry that I could have killed somebody there and then.
Following my father’s release none of my dreams and expectation came to be, the nightmares continued, the family was still ostracized, and I was still just another silent soul expected to play a very small supporting role. I was supposed to pretend and preserve a sense of normalcy for my parents’ sake by putting on a cheerful face while I was bleeding inside. I couldn’t even blame them for our situation as I knew they could do nothing to change the circumstances. So, the book was my triumph to shake off my shackles of forced silence and announce to the world that I too existed, with the hope that announcing my silent suffering would be understood and maybe appreciated. I tried to give a voice to the child.
Q. What kind of research did you do for this book and how much time did it take? What were your sources?
A. As the book covers a large part of twentieth century Hungarian history that my family endured I had to dig into the past. As both of my grandfathers met during the 1919 commune, fighting against the invading ANTANT army, I had to find the relevant documentation.
The same thing happened when I described events during World War II, and my parents and grandparents role in it. I had to rely on historical documentation, books, articles etc. In addition I was lucky to have my father’s detailed notes about the underground movement. They were part of in the town of Miskolc, a truly unique organization of no more than five hundred people but they were so well organized that the German army believed them to be more that 10 thousand people, and as a result gave up the town to the Russian forces. I was also lucky to remember many large gatherings in our home by close friends and relatives, recalling those times.
Q. Your earliest memory, as written in your book, appears to be at the age of four, when you looked into the mirror and saw your reflection that did not seem to correspond with your own impression of what you should be. Can you explain what you mean by that?
A. From the earliest of times I totally identified with my father. First of all we connected in a spiritual level, and secondly I grew up on stories about his childhood and youth, told to me by my paternal grandmother. So, looking into the mirror as a four year old cute little girl didn’t come close to the image of the brave partisan I pictured myself being.
Q. In 1956, you started a diary. Have you kept a diary over the years since then? Did it form the basis for a lot of the research for the book?
A. The diary was mostly good for recording feelings, and some of the happenings. Not all of it, as I had to be sure that it would not fall into wrong hands and cause any grief for the family. Quite a lot of times I had to rely on my memories. Much later I managed to get many thousands of pages from the archive of the Hungarian Secret Service, who had been busy gathering information about the family. This reaffirmed my recollections of those times. I’m grateful to them for documenting our lives so closely, not to mention knowing how many people were employed with the task for so many decades.
Q. When you were ten, during the October revolution, you took all the books on Communism—works by Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, and placed them in the basement of your house, afraid of a fascist revolution that would place your parents in jeopardy if it were discovered that they had these books in their library. What eventually happened to those books? Were they replaced in the library later or disposed of?
A. The books that I managed to hide on the day of the revolution eventually found their way back to the shelves, but not for too long, as we were afraid that part of my father’s sentencing would involve the confiscation of our belongings, including the books. We had a rather large library, so my grandfather came by regularly, packed the books into his backpack and took them home in the outskirts of Budapest. Come to think of it, I can’t exactly remember whether Stalin ever found his way back to our shelves or not. I wouldn’t be surprised if he had been abolished from there forever.
Q. Your father was an MP in 1953, his nomination confirmed by the Communist party. He was a follower of Imre Nagy who was ousted by Rákosi in 1955. You said it opened your father’s eyes to some of the injustices of the regime. Did you father move away from Communism because of this and his subsequent imprisonment?
A. Definitely. He became a strong critic of Rákosi and after the 1968 Czechoslovak invasion he realized that the Soviet Union would never allow a Socialist system with a human face. It will always be a ruthless dictatorship, and he wanted no part in it.
Q. The theme of Heroes Don’t Cry resonates through the book. After being denied a visit to your father in prison, your grandfather tells you “We Kopacsis are heroes and heroes don’t cry.” Then at the age of four, you witnessed a little girl who falls and almost ruins her dress while chasing after a kitten. She erupted in tears. Her parents scolded her and her mother spanked her. You thought that her father should have consoled her and told her: “heroes don’t cry.” Was the idea of strength and resolve important to you even at such an early age, and where did it stem from?
A. As I mentioned, I grew up on stories of my parents and grandparents heroism during WW II, and that I totally identified myself with my father. Even as a four year old, when my father took me to the doctor he kept telling me, “Be a brave girl, partisans don’t cry.” Well, later on, the partisan was replaced by a Kopácsi, and it indeed gave me strength to face the difficult times.
Q. On March 5th, 1953, Stalin died. You wrote that you were crushed, and your father was deeply mourning the Great Leader. Your father even swore that he would never celebrate his birthday again since it fell on the same date that Stalin died. Stalin’s reign of terror was obviously not known at that time in the Communist world. When did you and your father become aware of the excesses during Stalin’s regime and what impact did it have on both of you?
A. In February 1956 during the twentieth Communist party conference Khrushchev himself unveiled Stalin for the monster he was. Although it was supposed to be a secret meeting, within a few days the whole world became aware of it. It was dramatic information and it shook the people’s faith believing in the Soviet Union and the communist party. And of course some of the people coming back from the gulag, or released from prisons, began talking about their experiences as well.
Q. What did you edit out of your current book Heroes Don’t Cry? Why?
A. If anything I was afraid I put too much in to it and some people might feel overwhelmed by it.
Q. The dialogue in the book is quite relevant and expressive of the events depicted. To what extent did this come from notes and diaries? Was some of it from memory? To what extent was it fashioned to suit the occasion?
A. As far as I can remember the dialogue came mostly from memories, but some came from directly from my father’s notes, and the many hours long audio tapes that formed the basis of his book as well. And as I mentioned earlier, many years later I was reassured about my good recollection, when I read the reports from the Secret Service archive. For instance there was a whole year worth of recording of our telephone conversations.
Q. Did you hide any secrets from the book that only a few people would know of?
A. If I did, it was not intentional. It was very important for me to put everything down on paper. It was in a way a form of purging.
Q. When you were travelling to Canada, your father selected a book for you—Colas Breugnon by Roman Rolland. It’s a story set in Burgundy three centuries ago, about a man who reviews his lusty life of fifty years with all its joys and sorrows. Your father said: “Having this book will help you to face just about anything with the right spirit.” Did this book in any way represent your father’s life and his philosophy, and did it help you, as he thought it would? If so, how?
A. This book had been and even now is a great comfort for me. It mirrors my father’s philosophy to face the world with good humour, and pick up the pieces after the walls crumble around you. I’m lucky to have a life partner who shares this idea with me. As you know, we recently lost our son to an accident. Before this I had no idea how a parent can survive such a tragedy. This book helped me again, and I could still hear my father’s voice in my head, saying. “Child, keep your chin up, while you can.” It is as if he were still reaching out to me, holding my hands and leading me forward.
Q. The Soviets hailed your father as a traitor—one of the leaders of the counter-revolution against a socialist state. The Western world and exiled Hungarians labelled him as the former Police Chief responsible for atrocities that a large segment of the Hungarian population suffered through. But, the book points out, painfully at times, that your father was one of the architects of the resistance to the Soviet invasion of Hungary. Has this ever been accepted by the exiles?
A. Some did, some not. He is still a controversial “hero”, who never fit the mold. Interesting enough, while the current Hungarian Government refuses to even mention him, the Minister of Interior and the Hungarian Police Force considers him to be their hero and each year place a reed on the wall of the memorial placket placed on the wall of the Police Headquarters, in Budpaest.
Q. With your father in prison, your family decided that if he were not released by April 4th, 1962, you would all commit suicide, in order to bring international pressure on the regime. Obviously, it didn’t happen. Was it really something that was seriously considered? And what caused the change of mind?
A. It wasn’t the first time that the idea of a communal suicide was entertained by my mother and then the whole family. After my mother’s release from prison on Dec.3, 1956, when she was told by the Russian officer to prepare ourselves for the fact that he will see my father hang from the tallest tree of Budapest, my mother informed Kádár, that in that case we will publicly commit suicide. By 1962 the idea resurfaced, and my mother was very convincing, when we shared our plans with everyone about the upcoming event. But when she was reassured at a high level that within the next year my father would be released in a general amnesty, and furthermore, when she was informed by “other sources” that my father’s name was on the list of political prisoners that the UN demanded to be freed, she graciously promised to postpone the act till further notice. However, this promise influenced my life to such a degree, that when we heard about my father’s death, later, I fainted and for a couple of hours my family was not sure how many people will be buried, one or three.
Q. In 1989, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, your father returned to Hungary. What were his impressions of the country? How was he received by the government of the day?
A. My father was much more optimistic about the possibility of creating a true democracy in Hungary after the fall of communism, than I. He returned after the new government invited him back, and made sure he was compensated both financially and morally for the past decades. He got his status and became the highest ranking officer in the Hungarian Police Force. At that time both the Prime Minister Josephy Antal, and the president, Árpád Göncz had been my father’s prison buddies as well, so it pretty much guaranteed that he was welcomed with open arms.
Q. Being on a visitor’s visa to Canada in 1965, working part time under the table so to speak, yearning for Bela, the love of you life back in Hungary, you must have faced the same emotions every illegal in Canada feels. Has this influenced your approach to asylum seekers today? If so, how?
A. The problem was that I wasn’t really aware of my status in Canada, and my relatives used my ignorance to keep me under their thumb. In reality, even though I was here on a visitors, non-renewable visa, a close friend, whose boss had close connection with the Immigration Department, arranged for my visa to be extended and even got me a working permit, and a part time job, and ensured that I could attend ESL classes as well. But none the less, I experienced first-hand what it means to live in limbo, to be a puppet in the hands of ruthless manipulators. So, yes, I do have very strong feelings about recent asylum seekers, who come here, with the hope to escape war, torture and find acceptance and a peaceful future for their loved ones.
Q. You led a ferocious fight, both here in Canada and Hungary, even internationally, to gain exit for your parents from Hungary and visas to come to Canada. What would you have done if you hadn’t succeeded?
A. I mentioned earlier, about the promise I made as a ten year old, that in case my father is executed the whole family will commit suicide. It was done voluntary from my part, as by then I had an experience to spend close to a month with strangers, thus I knew what it felt to be an orphan. Our good neighbour and my father’s close friend, Josepf Szilágyi, took me with them on November 5th to the Yugoslav Embassy with the rest of the Imre Nagy Government, who thought they found a safe haven there. But this promise went very deep in my soul. I became convinced that if anything happened to my family I would be effected. So as far as I was concerned, fighting for my parents’ freedom was equal to fighting for my own life as well. Quite frankly, many people around me were concerned about my fate, in case I didn’t succeed.
Q. What are your impressions of Hungary today? Do you think there might be a return to the old days or will democracy finally take hold?
A. I’m not happy with the current situation in Hungary. Sure it has free elections, many political parties, and “free press”. But the current leadership is openly advocating the return of the ideals of the pre-World War, a semi feudalist/capitalist regime, open anti-semitism, and hatred of foreigners as well. Both the political, and the emotional atmosphere is responsible for the very large portion of Hungarian elites, mostly young professionals leaving the country, trying their luck on the other European countries. My opinion: it is difficult to build a democracy in a country that never had a real taste of it, yet.
Q. What’s your next project / What are you working on now?
A. I have many projects lining up. Currently I’m in the midst of translating to English a book written by a close friend, Robert Schulz, a former Canadian Movie producer, who was one of the biggest Canadian Advertising Agency during the last part of the twentieth century.
After that I would like to complete two semi-autobiographical novels. In addition I still have one unfinished crime novel placed in Toronto. Then, if I have the energy and the courage, I would like to finish my book about my experiences in the Canadian Refuge Board, where I served for two years between 1988-1990. The working title, SEND THE BASTARD HOME is probably very revealing what the book is all about.
If you were to pass on one particular piece of advice to an upcoming writer of biographies, what would it be?
A. Be honest, and don’t be afraid to reveal the inner you. People, who are writing autobiographies are mostly driven by trying to send out a message, and for that you need to find your voice and paint a picture that will ring a bell with the audience.
What is your preferred method to have readers get in touch with or follow you (i.e., website, personal blog, Facebook page, Goodreads, etc.) and link(s)?
A. Followers could find me on my
Facebook page: under the name of Judith Kopácsi Gelberger
Judith, thank you for taking the time to do this interview. Here’s wishing you all the best in your future writing and other endeavours.
The link to Heroes Don’t Cry