Autobiography Index

After more than a month of travel, in June 1945, we arrived at the southern Hungarian city of Pécs. Trains were running from there. My first walk was to the railway station, where I asked the station master to phone his colleague in Budafok (my home town) and ask him whether my parents had survived the war. Immediately I had the answer that indeed they had, and they were back at home. With my companion Ri we got into a crowded railway carriage (through the window), and within a few hours I said goodbye to her and got off the train in Budafok. I found my parents at home, the house was already in reasonable shape, and within a week we also learned that my brother Ottó was also alive. "Little Béla Boros had made it back to Budapest, and he told us that Ottó was in hospital, having survived a bout of typhus. But he was fine, and would soon be able to come home, having been liberated by the Americans in Austria where the Germans had taken him. So the family was together again, although - as I already mentioned - its Budapest branch had been much reduced in numbers.

When Ottó returned, the two of us decided to join the Communist Party. We went to put in our application at the Budafok branch of the Party, where the local Secretary was Gusztáv Sebes, a well-known footballer who had been part of the Hungarian National Team, and who at this time was the coach of the National Team, and later became captain of the famous Hungarian Golden Team.

Everything went smoothly by this time in Budafok. The town was past the deportation to Germany of those Schwaben (members of the ethnic German community in Hungary) who had been members of the Volksbund, the ethnic movement organized by the Nazis. Most of the local Schwaben were, however, not deported because the Budafok Germans were mostly factory workers and members of the Social Democratic Party. The people who were moved into the houses of the deportees were for the most part Hungarians from Czechoslovakia, who had been deported from that country simply because of their ethnicity and not their political affiliation.

My father restarted his practice, while I looked for a job. There were not many possibilities. Most factories lay in ruins - they needed construction workers, not chemists. Finally I did find a position in a small, newly-established pharmaceutical factory called Szervita. Among other tasks, I was engaged in the synthesis of sulfonamid preparations and the manufacturing of chloroethane, the latter sometimes in night shift. The owner and manager of the firm was István Ráth (Róth), an entrepreneur (or rather, crook) from Transylvania. I suspect that the main income of his company was from the monopoly he had (thanks to his connections) of the exportation of opium derivatives from Hungary. I do not know whether these derivatives always arrived at their official destination or not. In any case, a sign of his good connections was that his daughter was able to go to Switzerland on a scholarship, together with the daughter of Ferenc Nagy, the Hungarian Prime Minister of the time. Later on, in 1947, while Ferenc Nagy was actually visiting Switzerland, the communists, led by Mátyás Rákosi, overthrew him and sent him a message that should he quietly accept the situation, members of his family would be allowed to join him, and some of his money would also be sent to him. Ferenc Nagy accepted the offer, and spent the rest of his life in exile.

Ráth also had contacts with Nobel-prize winner Albert Szent-Györgyi (1893-1986), Professor at the Universities of Szeged and Budapest, discoverer of vitamin C. Szent-Györgyi was doing research into the role of adenosine-triphosphatase (ATP) in muscle activity, a substance the Szervita plant was able to supply. Once, in the presence of Szent-Györgyi and myself, a horse was brought into the laboratory. The animal was stunned and killed by slaughterhouse workers, whose skilled work enabled the placement of the quickly ground muscles of the horse in an alcohol-filled basin. Somewhat later, Ráth and Szent-Györgyi left the country, but by that time I did not work at Szervita.

In any case, I was interested in research work, even if it meant that my income would be lower. Therefore one day my father took me along to introduce me to Dr György Gortvay, Director of the National Institute of Public Health (Hungarian acronym OKI, today the Fodor József National Centre for Public Health). Dr Gortvay had been in the same medical school class as my father, and also a member of the Galilei Circle. He asked my father if I was a militant communist. On hearing a negative answer, he hired me and assigned me to the Department of Nutritional Health, headed by Dr József Sós. When I told István Ráth that I would leave his company because I accepted a position with OKI, he said that he was so happy with my work that he would pay me my regular salary for another six months, even though I was to work elsewhere. This was very convenient for me, because at the Szervita company I was paid 400 Forints per month, while OKI could pay me only 270. Ráth of course was this generous because he thought I would work in the pharmaceutical control department, thus making me into a very good contact.

Under Dr Sós my main job was to look for toxic metals (lead, mercury, arsenic) or other contaminants (e.g. pesticides) in suspicious food samples sent to us for analysis. I also participated in inspections of factories and agricultural processing plants. Soon however, Dr Sós was appointed Professor at the University, and my department was joined up with some sections of the Budapest Chemical Inspection Service to form the new National Institute of Nutrition Science (acronym OÉTTI, or - in short - ÉTI). Dr Róbert Tarján (1913-1979) became the director of this new institute, and my immediate boss in the Department of Nutritional Toxicology was Dr Vilmos Cieleszky.

One of my colleagues in the Department was Anna Dénes (Mrs Székács), also a chemist, I worked a lot with her.  Some time before Stalin's death in 1953 she was arrested together with her husband, probably in preparation of a Hungarian Doctors' Trial in imitation of the Soviet model. They were released after Stalin's death, with not a word of apology. Annie immediately received her back pay, while her husband István, who worked at OKI, received nothing. Another of my colleagues for a while was György (Gyuri) Angyal, who was a good friend of mine. He had come from Debrecen (a city in eastern Hungary), just like my boss Cieleszky, and the two were on very bad terms, it was not clear to me why. Conceivably, Cieleszky may have made some anti-semitic comments in Debrecen, something he would not have done openly in Budapest. He was an extremely cautious, shall I say cowardly, man, someone who never joined any political party, but at times one could tell his inner thoughts from his behaviour. My friend Gyuri was later transferred to another Department, but he kept me up-to-date on his research, and I may have been helpful to him on occasion. There was also a Margit Molnár in our Department, but I cannot remember any work she may have done.

Mostly, we did analytical work in our Department, but by chance we became the first place in Hungary to use polarography, an electrochemical method invented by the Czech Jaroslav Heyrovský (1890-1967), who later received the Nobel Prize for his invention, in 1959. Polarography is based on electrolysis using a dropping mercury electrode (Heyrovský's Nobel Lecture on the subject is available here). Its methodology is quite labour intensive and needs a good background in both physics and chemistry. Originally I was supposed to go to Prague to study polarography with Heyrovský, but in the last moment my passport was withdrawn and Cieleszky was sent instead of me. Although he was not a member of the communist party, he was judged to be more reliable than I, perhaps because he spoke no language but Hungarian.

My first publication in Hungary was on the determination of ascorbic acid by polarography, which was particularly interesting because the method depended on oxidation, and not reduction, at the electrode - thus this was a case of reverse-phase polarography, which counted as an innovation at that time. To tell the truth, this was somewhat similar to what I had done with my Italian publication, and I tried to do this later on as well: do something new with relatively little work, rather than work hard, compile a lot of data, and base my publications on that.  However, I also did quite a bit of routine work as well. In Switzerland I had done many hundreds of picnometric, and thus very labour-intensive, alcohol determinations, while in Hungary, in the toxicological department, I was called upon to perform very many quantitative analytical determinations, e.g. arsenic determination in food and sprayed fruit.

I do not, however, wish to get into the detail of my professional work - the list of my publications will be appended.

Copyright Gabor Sandi 1998-2018

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