It’s 1997. A Slovak doctor visits a psychiatric hospital in the Russian town of Kotelnich, some 440 miles north-east of Moscow. There he meets an old man, a hospital inmate for the past 50 years. The man mumbles something to him. The doctor knows a little Hungarian and realizes that’s the language the old man is speaking. He’s the first person to notice this in five decades, however. And when the truth about the man – András Toma – emerges, it’s both astounding and horrifying.
In the following days and weeks, staff at the Kotelnich hospital learn that Andras Tamas, as they’ve called him for 50 years, is in fact András Toma. He’s a Hungarian national taken prisoner by Red Army troops in 1945 near the end of World War Two. Somehow, his identity became lost. As no one at the hospital spoke Hungarian, they thought his speech was the raving gobbledygook of a madman.
Before we hear more about Toma’s extraordinary history, let’s examine why Soviet forces would take a Hungarian soldier prisoner in the first place. Hungary had actually been a dictatorship since Miklos Horthy had come to power in 1920, declaring himself “His Serene Highness the Regent of the Kingdom of Hungary.” Clearly not a man given to false modesty.
Horthy signed an alliance with Hitler’s Nazi regime in 1938, and Hungary become part of the Axis powers led by Germany in WWII two years later. But by 1944, Horthy could see which way the wind was blowing, realizing that Germany would ultimately lose the war, and so he entered into secret negotiations with the Allies.
With the Soviets poised to enter Hungary, Horthy even pledged to make an unconditional surrender to the Allies. As a result, Hitler decided to act. The German Army invaded Hungary in March 1944, and Horthy was only allowed to retain his position as long as a he followed Hitler’s instructions.
Then, in September 1944 the inevitable happened. The Red Army entered Hungary and after fierce fighting with both German and Hungarian forces, the Soviets had surrounded the Hungarian capital Budapest by the end of the year. The city was surrendered to the Russians in February 1945, and the fighting in Hungary finished two months later with the Soviets victorious.
The details are murky, but somehow our man András Toma had ended up in Poland somewhere near then Auschwitz concentration camp. He might have been with an artillery unit. Suffering from severe shellshock and with wounds that resulted in the loss of a leg, Toma was taken prisoner by the Soviets in the fall of 1944. As far as they were concerned, he was a Hungarian fighting for the Nazis.
In the chaos across Europe at the end of WWII, millions of refugees and former soldiers were displaced and countless families lost contact with one and other. Conditions in Eastern Europe where Toma was apprehended were especially confused, and the Hungarian was now transported to the Soviet Union. Around 600,000 Hungarians were taken to Russia during this period. A third of them perished due to starvation and disease.
In Russia, Toma was shifted between various POW camps. Conditions there were appalling. On one three-week journey from one camp to another, Toma was locked in a box car with a large contingent of other prisoners. A number of them perished on the grueling journey, but Toma had no choice but to sleep atop his dead comrades.
In 2001 Colonel Laszlo Erdei, one of the people who later worked with Toma to help him rediscover his past and regain his identity, talked to the Los Angeles Times. “It appears that this experience contributed to his mental breakdown,” Colonel Erdei said. And that’s all too easy to believe.
Toma’s mental state had led to his admission to the psychiatric hospital in Kotelnich back in 1947. And the staff there were convinced that he was suffering from a severe mental illness, partly because he spoke only Hungarian. To these Russian speakers, Toma’s words seemed like those of a blathering lunatic.
It might seem unbelievable that Toma should be in the hospital for five decades before anyone realized he was speaking Hungarian. But the fact is that the Hungarian language is part of a rather small linguistic family, Finno-Ugric. So Russian speakers, and indeed speakers of most other languages, were likely to fail to decipher Toma’s words.
And then Toma at last had a stroke of luck after so many years of isolation and misery – decades in which he barely communicated with other human beings. That Slovak doctor walked into his ward in 1997 and realized that Toma was speaking Hungarian. Now a search was launched for any possible surviving family members that Tomas might still have in Hungary.
Hungarian National Psychiatry And Neurology Institute director Andras Veer explained to The Guardian in 2000 how Toma’s past had slowly been uncovered. “He told us in which village he worked as a blacksmith’s apprentice, where he was born and where he went to school, even the name of his teacher,” Veer said.
This allowed researchers to narrow down the hunt for Toma’s origins to some small farming hamlets around a Hungarian town named Nyiregyhaza. It subsequently became clear that Toma’s home village was a tiny place with around 40 farmhouses called Sulyanbokor. What’s more, two of Toma’s siblings were still living there – and they were more than keen to be reunited with their long-lost brother.
So after 55 years in POW camps and mental hospital, András Toma was finally able to go home – albeit with the unwanted title of WWII’s longest-serving prisoner. “He remembered lots of things, including names,” Janos Toma, András’ half-brother, told The Guardian. “And we also have the documents proving when he disappeared – everything.” Janos was aged seven and András’ half-sister Anna Gabulya was just one when András was arrested at the age of 19.
In fact, Janos and Anna began speaking in September 2000 before DNA test results were available to prove András’ identity. When the results arrived not long after, though, their belief that András was their long-lost half-brother was confirmed beyond doubt. That was a joy for them, but a sadness for the 82 Hungarian families who had come forward as possible relatives of András Toma, a reminder that so many Hungarians lost loved ones during WWII.
The Independent reported in October 2000 that Andras Veer had announced the results of Toma’s DNA testing. “The war has ended for András Toma, and now he can start a quiet life with his family,” Veer said. And in November 2000 András settled in with his half-sister in Nyiregyhaza.
It wasn’t easy going at the start, however. “The first evening, we bathed him and put him to bed,” Anna told the Los Angeles Times. “Then my husband and I looked at each other, each thinking, ‘How are we going to survive this?’” Toma was withdrawn and seemed deeply unhappy.
But one day Toma found a piece of juniper wood and carved a handle from it. Anna recalled this special moment, “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.” It seems he’d found peace at last. András Toma died in 2004 and was buried with full military honors at a funeral attended by almost 2,000 people.