Family History, Communist Show Trials, and How I Almost Didn’t Exist

As some of you know, I’ve been in the process of researching the life of my grandfather, John Santo, whom I’ve written about before on the blog.  As I engage in this process I’m getting a unique opportunity to experience history in an a new and somewhat more personal lens, and recently had the opportunity to reflect on how personally impactful events that happened years ago can be when taken in the small context of a small family’s history.

In short, my grandfather was an Hungarian American Communist who was one of the founders of the Transport Workers Union, became a high level official in the Hungarian Communist Government, and eventually defected from said government for a host of reasons not least of which was total disillusionment with Communism as it manifested in its brutal and paranoid form in cold war Hungary.

As I conducted initial research about his life, one of the key books that I found was called In Transit, a great read that documents the history of the TWU.  It’s by a labor historian, Josh Freeman, who teaches here in New York at the City University of New York Graduate Center.  I figured that since he was so close, literally blocks from my office, I’d try to contact him and see if we could meet to chat and possibly fill in some blanks I had in the story of my grandfather’s life.  Luckily, Josh is a really wonderful man and sat down with me for a long conversation where he was able to give me some historical context within which I could better understand what I’m coming to realize is an even more fascinating and complex political and personal history than I imagined.

While I won’t go over everything that I discovered in that meeting, one of the most interesting points, regarding my grandfather’s move to Hungary and joining the government there, does merit mention.  My understanding of his move from my research up to that point was that he found himself on trial and about to be deported from the States in 1947 (apparently along with many other major labor leaders) and that the International Communist Party reached out and offered him a position in the Hungarian government, which he took for obvious reasons of both avoiding deportation and joining what was possibly one of the top 500 or 1,000 highest posts in the entire country of Hungary .  While this view of events was not quite inaccurate, Josh was able to offer some context around what was going on at the time in Eastern Europe that led him to believe that the Hungarian government wasn’t being entirely generous in the case of my grandfather.

He shared that at the same time that McCarthyism and the Red Scare was burgeoning in the United States, there was a parallel xenophobic climate coming to a head in Eastern Europe.  In the US, the government persecuted suspected Communists. In Eastern Europe, many governments, including the Hungarian Government, persecuted suspected Western spies, or anyone inconvenient that could be portrayed as such. This was a period during which homegrown Communists in Eastern European satellite countries were being ousted by the USSR in favor of politicians whose loyalties lied more deeply with the central authorities in the East.  The use of Show Trials, elaborate constructed and highly public hoaxes, was quite a popular method of doing so.

This persecution in Eastern Europe, as compared to the States, was far more sinister. People targeted at best disappeared to concentration camps, and at worst, just disappeared, likely hung or otherwise killed by secret police forces.  These show trials often targeted people that could easily be suspected of having ties to Western governments and those that had cosmopolitan backgrounds for the purposes of showing the general population the need to be ever vigilant against insidious Western spies.  In addition, there was a strong antisemitic bent to the persecution.  My grandfather fit all of the characteristics of someone that would be a target of these show trials.  He had spent most of his adult life in the United States, and spent most of that time in New York City, one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world.  He was, of course, also Jewish.  Nevermind, of course, that he was a card carrying Communist and successfully organized not an insignificant portion of “the proletariat” in New York City, this could easily be written off as a front.  Joshua believed that rather than being brought to Hungary due to a need on the part of the government for effective institutional leaders, though this may have been a pretense, the real reason for his journey there, from the perspective of the government, was to be the subject of or play a role in one of these show trials.

In the end my grandfather was not part of these trials in any way, though when their invalidity was made public in the mid 1950’s, it had a significant impact on my grandfather and greatly increased his disillusionment with the Communist regime.  Why he wasn’t involved though is a bit of a mystery if we take this premise to be accurate.  Josh believed that it might have been some sort of bureaucratic snafu, though this wasn’t totally working for me as an explanation.

Reflecting on my grandfather’s testimony before the House Committee on Un-American Affairs, though, I remembered a meeting that he had shortly after his arrival there with a very high level government official.  In the meeting, he was questioned heavily about the loyalties of various prominent American Communists, which he strongly vouched for in the face of accusations against them.  (see pages 1820 of the testimony if you’re interested in reading about this meeting).  My thought was that there was a possibility that this meeting had some sort of effect on the official that caused him to decide not to involve my grandfather in the trials.

This further context put an entirely new spin on the story I’d constructed about my grandfather, and when I was in the meeting with Josh reflecting on what the implications of this would have been for my life had things turned out differently, I voiced that it was a bit surreal that but for a bureaucratic snafu or a chance meeting my grandfather avoided untimely death and I was able to sit there in an office on 35th street.  Sometimes, life just does that I guess.

Curious about this point of the trials, I went home after the meeting and decided to see if I could find anything in my grandfather’s testimony that might have pointed to this morbid premise.  Upon a closer examination of it, I found one reference that I had glossed over when I first read the document.  In one series of questions, my grandfather stated that in his later years in Hungary he believed that he might have been brought to Hungary to be a confessor in the show trial of László Rajk, perhaps the best known of the Hungarian show trials.  He mentions it just in passing in the testimony, but nothing more is said about why he believed this, so for the most part this aspect of the story remains a mystery.  I did find it significant though that there was some evidence other than Josh’s intuition that pointed to this possibility.

Needless to say, while I might never discover the full context behind the conditions that brought my grandfather to Hungary, I am finding the uncovering of various parts of both his history and the larger Cold War context in which it was situated quite fascinating.  The next stop on my search is the Tamiment Library & Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, located at New York University.  Josh informed me that I’ll be able to find there personal correspondence between my grandfather and other TWU leaders, photographs from his time as a labor leader in New York, and even some film footage of him in action.  I have a date set with an archivist there in October, and I look forward to sharing what I find.

5 Responses to “Family History, Communist Show Trials, and How I Almost Didn’t Exist”

  1. 1 Nicholas July 26, 2011 at 11:46 am

    Hi, I chanced upon your page looking for something about my grandfather (I have a boring job on at the moment).

    My grandad was a judge in the Hungarian showtrials. He was also Jewish. He also left the country when he had a clear idea of how the trials were run, and left to live in France where he denounced that system in a book he wrote.

    (Volontaires pour la potence; technique des procès Soviétiques by Sandor Garay, Editions Berger-Levrault)

    I can unproudly announce I haven’t yet read his book! I know roughly, and from a newspaper interview that he described among those selected for trial as people who were particularly close to the pro-Soviet government party, and who would go as far as sacrificing themselves to contribute to the propaganda.(whence the title of his book: “Volunteers to the scaffold”). Which differs a little from your description. Perhaps there was some of both.

    I am terribly ignorant about this, but I am even more ignorant about other things.

    Best of luck,


  2. 2 Rafi Santo July 31, 2011 at 4:14 pm

    Very fascinating about your grandfather – truly he was on the other side of this terrible system, also seeing its horror and extricating himself from it.

    Interesting that he reported die hard party loyalists sacrificing them for the party. I imagine, as you said, that the trials were both a way to get rid of inconvenient people as well as a place where loyalists showed their dedication (in a most extreme way…). If you read my grandfather’s testimony, it mentions the trial of László Rajk which I link to above as well, which I’m pretty sure was about getting rid of someone inconvenient.

    My own take away from reading about all this is that despite the failings of American Democracy, we truly have a better system that what existed, and I’m very thankful for that.

  3. 3 Nicholas July 31, 2011 at 5:28 pm

    My grandad was in a French concentration camp with Rajk around 1941 and he begins the newspaper article about his book by relating a conversation with Rajk, who defended the showtrials and called my grandad a “renegade” against the Soviet Communist Party for questioning the unjust turn the revolution was taking.

    I might try and scan it and maybe later translate parts (it is yellowing and close to falling apart…I’d need a way to preserve it better).

    Democracy in our granfathers’ time as now needs to be constantly built and defended or it will only fall to those who don’t want to share power with everyone else.

    I’ll let you know if I get more of the conversation with Rajk digitalised.

    I’ll try and read your grandad’s testimony too. Right now, I’m off to bed.


  4. 4 Nicholas August 1, 2011 at 7:31 am

    I’m reading some now (I still have this job to finish).

    Here is the concentration camp I just mentioned, discussed by your grandfather:

    “At this point when the International Brigade was dissolved and
    all its members had to flee through France, the Americans came back
    to America, the others who could not go back to their homelands, like
    the Hungarians, were placed in detention camps.

    Mr. McNamara. In France.

    Mr. Santo. In France. It was testified that agents of the
    Deuxieme Bureau came into the camp to talk to Rajk, and Rajk alone.
    There were witnesses who testified that Rajk was the only one who had
    permission to leave the camp anytime he wanted to, to go into the city
    from this particular detention camp.”

    My grandad has plenty of notes, letters, -writings from the period, including some about the camp. I am stimulated to want to read them and connect some dots.

  5. 5 Nicholas August 1, 2011 at 7:45 am

    …OK. it appears Rajk was in several French camps…so I don’t know it he refers to the one Rajk was in with my grandad (Le Vernet d’Ariege).

    My grandad was a part of this government though! :
    (from the same testimony)

    “Then a young man, he returned to Hungary and was one of the
    assistant peoples commissars under the Communist regime of Bela
    Kun, which lasted but for a short period of time.”

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Hi there.

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If you're reading this, then you've reached the web log of Rafi Santo. This is my little slice of the internet where I can share my passion (or whatever) with the world.

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