One of the great strengths of a correspondence collection is the insight it can provide into personal experiences of historic events. Formal or informal, letters give a sense of the character of the writer, and a sense of connection with the key moments in history that they describe.
They also often include good stories. In this blog post, I have chosen a letter which led me to a story I hadn’t heard before. Paul Ignotus was a Hungarian journalist and press attaché, who had fled his native country at the beginning of the Second World War, and wrote a wide variety of articles for the Manchester Guardian on the political and economic issues facing Hungary.
In the letter reproduced below, written in 1944 to Kingsley Martin at the New Statesman and Nation, and passed on to C.P. Scott, Ignotus describes his desire to return to Hungary to try to provide assistance in a chaotic time. However, a month after this letter was written, Miklós Horthy, regent of Hungary, on the point of confirming an armistice with the Soviet Union, was deposed and replaced by the Nazis. This completed their occupation of Hungary, and presumably rendered Ignotus’ plan impossible.
Ignotus would not return to Hungary until 1949, and on his return, he was arrested by the communist government and charged with acting as a spy for the British. He was sentenced to 15 years hard labour, and vanished into the prison system, where no news of him could be gained, as no contact with the outside world was permitted for political prisoners.
Towards the end of his incarceration, Ignotus found himself in a cell next door to another political prisoner, Florence Matay. During their incarceration, Ignotus and Matay communicated by tapping out messages to one another on the walls of their cell. Despite their surroundings, they fell in love, not ever having seen one another in person. On their release from prison, they were married.
The Manchester Guardian speculated that Ignotus’ release from prison in 1956 was part of ‘…an attempt to improve relations between the East European Communist parties, and the Socialist parties of the West.’ Whatever the reason, on his release, Ignotus was elected as a member of the committee of the Hungarian Writers Council, and played an active part in the Hungarian revolution. He returned to Britain as a refugee, and published books and articles on the politics of Hungary, and also an account of his experiences in prison, Political Prisoner, which describes the conditions in the prisons, the torture of prisoners that he witnessed, and the brutality of the Hungarian Secret Police and the prison officials.
There was one more twist to the story. As I was researching Ignotus’ contributions to the Manchester Guardian, I discovered that, 10 years after escaping to Britain, Florence Ignotus was killed in a house fire. Paul Ignotus was taken to hospital suffering with burns, and their son was said to be suffering from ‘shock’.
Despite the melancholy end, and although Ignotus played a part in some truly significant events in Hungary’s modern history, for me, the image of this story which remains is of Paul and Florence, tapping out messages to each other through a prison wall.