Stephen T. Thuransky was arrested for calling the president of Hungary an obscene name. Communist Hungary in 1947 was a dangerous place to talk candidly, especially about politics. As a naturalized U.S. citizen, Thuransky and his family sought help from Harrison Lewis, the temporary head of the American Legation. Lewis confronted the Communist authorities and demanded Thuransky’s swift release. Injured and still handcuffed, Thuransky daringly escaped from jail in the back of Lewis’s car. He made it to safety and ultimately returned to the United States with his family.
In the aftermath of World War II, the Soviet Union sought to spread its influence over Eastern Europe and establish control over Hungary. The Thuransky incident was just the start of a crackdown against free speech and anti-Communist sentiments. In the following years, the Security Police began purging political officials and arresting, torturing, and executing thousands of citizens. Angry Hungarian citizens rebelled against the Soviet Union’s communist satellite government in October 1956. This spontaneous national uprising was quickly and brutally crushed by Soviet forces. Over 2,500 Hungarians and 700 Soviet troops were killed.
Harrison Lewis and the staff of the Legation were extraordinarily persistent—at one point even defying the Communist authorities—in their attempts to recover Thuransky and ensure his rights within the dangerous Hungarian legal system. Although briefly left in charge during the Thuransky events, Lewis was chief economic officer for the rest of his post in Hungary. He went on to serve in Austria, Japan, and West Germany. From 1963 to 1965 Lewis was the chargé d’affaires of the U.S. Embassy in Malta.
Harrison Lewis completed his memoir in 1994.
Read Harrison Lewis’s full memoir HERE.
Drafted by Wendy Erickson.
“On the surface, the situation was quiet and orderly, but the secret police were at work everywhere, and the nights were continually pierced with screams.”
Communist Hungary: That was on August 2, 1947. The Communists in Hungary had suddenly come into power in May by the maneuvers of the Soviets, and when I arrived in Budapest at the end of June, they were rapidly consolidating their hold on every segment of the country. The peace treaty had been signed but not yet ratified, so, nominally, Hungary was still occupied by the four powers. In actuality, the Soviets were occupying the country, and it was through the presence of their forces that the Communists had gained control.
On the surface, the situation was quiet and orderly, but the secret police were at work everywhere, and the nights were continually pierced with screams. For foreign diplomats like myself, living in Communist Hungary was not without danger, and we all felt the tension. We and our families were immune from arrest, and seldom molested, but our every movement was watched, our telephones tapped, and records were maintained of all Hungarians who had the temerity to be seen with us. Such was the situation when on that Saturday I was left in charge of the American Legation for the day.
. . . I was truly on my own. I entered the Legation, located at that time on the third floor of a modern office building in the center of town, and found two . . . teenage girls waiting for me. Their father, they said, had been arrested the night before by the Communists. He was, I learned, a naturalized American citizen named Stephen T. Thuransky, and had returned to Hungary a few months before to represent International Harvester Company in the small town of Balassagyarmat. I checked on his citizenship and set off immediately with a Legation driver for Balassagyarmat, some eighty miles from Budapest.
“. . . he had been overheard calling the president of the country an obscene name. That was all.”
Thuransky in Jail: We found the jail in Balassagyarmat without difficulty, and were taken to the Chief of Police. In accordance with consular practice, I asked to see the prisoner. While waiting for Thuransky to appear, I inquired of the Chief of Police, a young, serious man, of the reasons for Thuransky’s arrest. I was told that in a street corner conversation with friends, he had been overheard calling the president of the country an obscene name. That was all.
Such an offense, I argued, would go without punishment in our country, but the Chief of Police pointed to a new law making such offenses subject to imprisonment for years, and stated that such a lack of respect for the government could not be tolerated. In the United States, he explained, democracy is well established, but in Hungary, Communism had just come into its own, and to be maintained, it had to be nurtured like a baby. Nine-tenths of the country, he explained, was still fascist!
When the prisoner was brought in, I continued to argue for his release but without avail, and was only able to obtain assurance that he would be transported to Budapest and would arrive there that night. I promised Thuransky I would see him there that evening and took off.
“While we were waiting in the anteroom we watched one poor wretch after another come in with meager bits of food and clothing for members of their families imprisoned there.”
Law and Order: When I returned to the Legation late that afternoon, I endeavored to communicate with the Minister at his hotel in Debrecen, but he was not in and I left word for him to call. . . . I wanted the Minister to advise me whether we might demand that the prisoner be handed over to the Legation in view of the fact that the peace treaty had not yet been ratified, and that Hungary accordingly had no right to arrest a citizen of an “occupying” power.
It was already dark when I arrived at the Nehézség jail, a large, forbidding building, a few blocks away from the Legation. Lotsy, the Legation driver, had driven me over and though he would thenceforth be a marked man, he agreed to come with me as an interpreter. We entered through large doors and proceeded down a dark entranceway until we came to a faintly lighted room and knocked. A guard peered through a half-opened doorway and upon hearing of our intention to see Thuransky, informed me that the Captain of the Guard was not there and that we would have to wait for his return. With that he closed the door firmly in our faces. We knocked again, and this time I got my foot firmly in the doorway. Finding he couldn’t close the door, the guard finally allowed us to come in.
While we were waiting in the anteroom we watched one poor wretch after another come in with meager bits of food and clothing for members of their families imprisoned there. We wondered how deplorable conditions must be in that vast, silent darkness surrounding us. It was, however, a police jail with civil rights, and prisoners could receive visitors and, as we saw, supplemental food and clothing. Compared with the dreaded Andrássy út prison for political offenders where all who entered were sealed off entirely from the outside world, Nehézség still represented the traditional system of law and order. We felt, therefore, that as long as Thuransky was in this jail, there would be some chance of seeing him and possibly obtaining his release.
“. . .I stormed around the big room demanding in loud-voiced German that they communicate by telephone immediately with a proper authority, no matter how high. . . . .”
Demanding an Audience: . . . At this point, I telephoned the Legation to see whether they had been able to reach the Minister at Debrecen. Fortunately, they had, and he agreed with our proposal to demand that Thuransky be delivered to the Legation because it had the right, in view of the fact that the peace treaty had not been ratified, to take custody of an American citizen who had committed a political offense.
Taking this new-tactic, I stormed around the big room demanding in loud-voiced German that they communicate by telephone immediately with a proper authority, no matter how high, so we could demand Thuransky’s delivery into the custody of the American Legation. They were unable, they said, to reach any of the authorities by telephone, but after considerable argument, they agreed that I could see Thuransky, provided that I did not speak to him. That, at least, was something, so I agreed. After a quarter of an hour, however, Thuransky had not appeared, and I pressed my demands. They assured me he would be brought down in a few minutes and I paced the open center of the room, waiting impatiently.
“I crawled in the car and found Thuransky lying with his back flat on the floor. He was apparently injured and unconscious.”
The Escape: Suddenly, I heard a small voice in the distance, outside the jail. I listened and heard a woman crying, “Mr. Loowiss, Mr. Loowiss.” “That’s Mrs. Thuransky calling your name,” Lotsy volunteered from across the room. With that, I ran from the room, down the long hall, taking off my glasses as I went, and out through the dark entranceway. Running between the big doors, out onto the sidewalk, I saw from the sides of my eyes, a number of motionless figures lined up a few paces back on either side, and in front of me at the curb was the Legation car with the back door open. Mrs. Thuransky was standing at one side, and a pair of feet were hanging out of the open door. I crawled in the car and found Thuransky lying with his back flat on the floor. He was apparently injured and unconscious.
Without hesitation, I folded in his legs and closed the door. None of the onlookers approached me or attempted to speak to any of us. In that fraction of a second, I thought perhaps this was the Communist way of handing over the prisoner without having to surrender him to the Legation officially, but I dismissed that thought and for one short moment, I stopped to ask myself if I was doing the right thing. With the man apparently injured and in immediate danger, I decided to go ahead, and seeing that Lotsy and Mrs. Thuransky were already in the front seat, said “Let’s go, Lotsy,” and the car lunged forward.
“Taking a mental deep breath, I told him to go ahead, realizing for the first time that I had taken justice into my own hands, and defied the Communist authorities.”
Through the Dark Streets of Budapest: Lotsy asked if we were going to the hospital, but I directed him to go instead to the Legation and we tore through the dark streets of Budapest. Thuransky sat up and I found he was bound by handcuffs. I took hold of the handcuffs between his hands and told him to be ready to run with me up the stairs to the Legation as soon as our car drew up to the outer door of the building. Arriving, I flung open the car door and with one movement we were through the outer door and on our way up the stairs. When we reached the door to the Legation, Lotsy was already there and had summoned those inside. The door was opened and I pulled in Thuransky, saying somewhat out of breath, “Well, here’s our man.”
After we were safely inside, I was asked what we should do about the handcuffs. I suggested that Lotsy might try and find a hacksaw. Apparently he found one in the building for he was back in no time and asked me if he should saw the handcuffs off. Taking a mental deep breath, I told him to go ahead, realizing for the first time that I had taken justice into my own hands, and defied the Communist authorities.
“It was at that precise moment that I arrived, running upon the scene, to find both participants and onlookers transfixed as in a photograph.”
Safety at the Legation: The police, I learned afterwards, had thought to slip Thuransky by me, and take him off to Andrássy út. Their intent was frustrated only by the fortunate presence of Mrs. Thuransky, who seeing her husband being brought out of the jail by a group of guards, jumped out of the car and attacked them viciously, while Thuransky flailed about him with his handcuffed fists. In the melee, he landed on his back on the floor of the Legation car. It was at that precise moment that I arrived, running upon the scene, to find both participants and onlookers transfixed as in a photograph.
We put Thuransky and his wife in the large office of the Counselor, which contained a big round table suitable for eating meals. We obtained cots and blankets from our small military establishment, and arranged for their meals to be served. Later in the night, after reporting by telephone to the Minister, we sent another Legation car down to Balassagyarmat to bring the two daughters to the Legation with such effects of the family as they could gather quickly. By early morning, the whole Thuransky family had been brought to safety in the Legation. I chuckled with the thought of the Counselor coming into his office Monday morning to find the four Thuranskys around his big table feasting on ham and eggs.
A few days later we flew the Thuranskys out in the Legation plane to Paris and from there to be taken back to the United States. A hot exchange of notes ensued between the Hungarian Foreign Office and the Legation, with each protesting vigorously against the other. For ten wonderful months I enjoyed the dirty looks of the Communists, and the knowing smiles of the Hungarians, who refused to believe the rescue had taken place without resistance.
TABLE OF CONTENTS HIGHLIGHTS
BA, University of California, Berkeley and Harvard
MA in Economics, University of Chicago
Entered the Foreign Service 1930
Nogales, Mexico—Vice Consul 1930
Leipzig, Germany—Consular Officer 1935–1937
Budapest Hungary—Chief Economic Officer 1946-1948
Bremen, West Germany—Consul General 1958-1962
Valletta, Malta—Principal Officer/Chargé d’Affaires 1963-1965