The communists deployed a variety of mechanisms to ensure no one strayed. Barb wire, bunkers and armed guards lined the borders creating a physical manifestation of the “Iron Curtain”. However, they didn’t rely on physical barriers alone. They also leveraged the strength of family ties. In the red and blue Hungarian passport system, the blue passport holders, the “good” communists, could travel outside the Soviet bloc once every three years. But at any given time, only one family member was permitted to leave. Good communists would return. Retaining the spouse and children in Hungary guaranteed the return of marginal communists – a safety net under a flawed system.
Perhaps the most pragmatic constraint was the control of hard currency. US dollars or Deutschmarks had value ubiquitously. The forint retained little value in Hungary and none outside of the border. The traveling family member, generally the patriarch, received fifty US dollars to spend during their vacation abroad. Fifty dollars, even in the late 60s, was woefully inadequate to support the most modest of trips. Fleeing and starting anew was impossible.
Our Slovak friend, Igor, recounted a story of his communist period travels. I had mentioned a border guard who questioned me a bit more than usual upon a recent return. “Julie, you don’t know what border interrogation looks like.” He went on to recount a story of stripping naked as the guard searched his possessions and person for money. The search extended to the soles of his feet, a common place to affix bills.
My Hungarian friend dismissed the challenges of traveling with adequate funds. “You know, we always had extra money, we brought it along hidden in our canned tomatoes.” As fate would have it, each Warsaw Pact country received their share of strategic missions to support the communist whole. One of Hungary’s missions was to can foods. As a consequence, most cities of any size contained a canning factory producing canned vegetables for the entire eastern bloc of countries. Most Hungarians knew a close friend or family member who worked in a cannery.
At Keleti train station in Budapest, Hungarians could buy hard currency. Generally, the currency traders haled from the exotic countries of the Middle East: Turkey, Iran, Iraq or Syria. They were easily recognized. Currency exchanges exist in Keleti today preying on timid foreigners too fearful to enter a city without forints in their pockets. Their exchange rates are ridiculous.
Trusted friends, who worked in a cannery, stashed money wrapped safely in plastic inside a can. Driving to the Austrian border, travelers might be stopped and interrogated ten times, perhaps 20 times. “Where are you going? Why? Do you have approvals? How much cash do you have?” Guards might disassemble the vehicle – and money was top on the list of searched contraband. Canned goods raised no question. Of course everyone took a few provisions given their meager travel allowance.
Surreptitiously buying hard currency at Keleti; smuggling it into canned good via friends; smiling innocently at the border guard: I lack the wits or the mettle to have survived communism. One look at my “deer in the headlights” eyes and knocking knees and any border guard worth his salt would have ripped apart my car ultimately confiscating my canned tomatoes. Then again, I have witnessed how people adapt to survive. Perhaps I just didn’t grow up in a world where survival stood on the shoulders of ingenuity.
Categories: Insiders Budapest