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.