Monday, March 18, 2013

Stars Too Far: A revealing true-life history of U.S. power

Stars Too Far: A Memoir of Diplomatic 
Confrontation in Yugoslavia

by Laszlo Toth
publisher: East European Monographs, 2002
kindle version: March 2013

We've all had those dreams, nightmares really, where we're in a familiar place, doing familiar things, and suddenly, the rules have changed, and nothing follows logic anymore. We're waiting for the bus, and when it comes, it's full of gang members, or circus clowns, or all the kids from our 3rdgrade class. Or, we're at the airport and somehow, not only did our luggage change color, but the flight was yesterday and we don't know how we missed it. This is the stuff of “Twilight Zone” episodes, or a horror movie, where the protagonist is suddenly in a situation where nothing makes sense, and life has become surreal.There are times, however, when, as Laszlo Toth knows only too well, when real life can suddenly feel like the Twilight Zone, and those times are documented in this book“Stars Too Far.”
Laszlo was a child of World War II. He lived in the portion of (former) Yugoslavia that had once been part of Hungary. He was a bright child and studied hard, earning a degree in Chemical Engineering from the University of Belgrade, and went on to post-graduate study in France, becoming a specialist in sugar processing. A glider pilot, and a Yugoslavian ROTC Flight Lieutenant First Class, he became fascinated with the advanced technology the Americans brought to help the country after WWII. and after his marriage, emigrated to the US. After nine years in the US, now working for the Great Western Sugar Company in Denver, he decided to bring his small family, himself, his wife Zora and their daughter Vera, back to visit the family in Yugoslavia, and to explore business opportunities for cooperation between the factory where he'd once worked and his new employer. There was nothing unusual about the trip. Such business discussions were routine among sugar producers the world over, comparing notes on what new technologies worked, talking shop about the production process, etc. And it was just a trip home to visit the folks. Or so Laszlo, Zora and Vera thought. They had unwittingly stepped into a real life Twilight Zone, Yugoslavia under the tightfisted rule of Josip Broz Tito.

The unreality began when people started following Laszlo. He went to visit an old friend, far from the city, in an area where every car that went by was someone known to the locals, only to be followed at night by a car with it's lights turned off that haunted the area while he was visiting. That car turned out to belong to the SDB, Sluzba Drzavne Bezbednosti -- State Security. Thinking surely that they thought he was someone else, or there was some mixup, he was tempted to laugh it off, but thought he'd better tell Zora (who was visiting with his parents). He was on “home turf” after all – how much could have changed? Little did he know that this“mixup” was soon to take a year of his life. Zora, perhaps in a fit of “feminine intuition” decided to mention this to the folks at the US Embassy, against Laszlo's wishes (he thought sure it was a minor thing and didn't want to anger anyone), which turned out to be a very prescient action.

An ominous request to visit the offices of the SDB (where he was propositioned to act as a spy for Yugoslavia when he returned to the US, which he did not take seriously, but graciously declined the offer), was followed by an arrest: Laszlo was accused of being a CIA Operative. Then there was the appearance of security police at the airport (where Zora was supposed to depart with Laszlo back to the USA) followed by a sudden announcement that the flight was not going to be taking off on time. The State Security agents were approaching Zora when they noticed someone sitting not too far away (who later turned out to be someone the SDB knew to be affiliated with the U.S. Embassy), and left, and the flight delay was rescinded.

At this point, Zora left the country, headed back to the US. The Embassy had been quite concerned, almost alarmed, that the dreaded SDB was involved. So Zora went home, with no idea of what would happen to Laszlo, now held incommunicado in Yugoslavia.

This is only the introduction. The real heart of “Stars Too Far” deals not with the “how he got there” portion of Laszlo's tale, but with the “how he survived, body and soul” in conditions that were filthy, full of dangers, both from the prison itself and other inmates, when there was no indication at all that anyone knew he'd been taken. How would he find help? Who would care that he was missing outside of his small family? After all, he'd only been a US Citizen for three years.

What follows is a roller coaster ride, full of twists and turns, hope and despair, and the constant struggle to keep sanity in a situation so out of touch with the realities he knew, that Laszlo feared that he'd share the same fate as prisoners who'd become ghosts, talking to themselves in the dark.

Unknown to Laszlo, there were forces moving to save him. Zora, (also a chemist) who'd taken a second job to keep them afloat financially, spent the time when she couldn't sleep writing letters asking for help. Letters to the Great Western Sugar Company, to the legislators in Colorado, to the legislators in Washington, to the Embassy in Yugoslavia, and eventually even to the State Department and President Gerald Ford. Letters she wrote while she wondered if she'd ever see Laszlo again.

This true story is a testament to the power of persistence, to the America that once had the diplomatic clout to protect its citizens abroad, no matter how recently naturalized, and to the legislators and public servants who ignored the party line and worked together to push for Laszlo's release. The book was written as a “Thank You!” to those who saved his life, confronting the incarceration diplomatically and pulling out all the stops to make it clear they would not tolerate this treatment of an American.

Stars Too Far” also tells the stories of those who were imprisoned with Laszlo, some for very innocuous acts which happened to annoy some party member. People from all walks of life and many different countries (notably, none appeared to have help from their home countries in any way) were jailed under Tito's regime. Few survived more than a handful of years in the inhumane jail system, especially those facilities for political prisoners.

In a culture where everything was done“in the name of the People” a carefully choreographed show trial was held at the Palace of Justice, with testimony from those clearly frightened out of their minds, intimidated by the security forces. In his presentation of the trial (there were transcripts) Laszlo, unconsciously perhaps, asks the reader to look at what happens when government rules every aspect of life. The degree of power to“persuade” even long-time, close friends to turn against the accused (as several of Laszlo's friends did) to protect themselves from government retribution was formidable, and a betrayal that cannot be forgotten or forgiven. Those who have unlimited power can (and as humans, often do, unable to resist the temptation) make life miserable for those they don't like. Nearly any human activity can become “crimes against the state.”

For many years after his release, Laszlo told and re-told the story to everyone he knew (sometimes, for years to come, he would wake up in the morning believing he was still in prison), and finally Zora suggested that he should be writing it. Starting out much as a journal, to exorcise the demons in some ways, it grew (as details got clarified and new memories, names, etc. came to mind) into a book, where it sat for some time until those who heard the stories told him (as I did, when I met him in 2012) "You ought to write a book!"

I've talked to the author at some length about this book. It was not published until 2001-2002 (sadly in the wake of 9/11 it received little attention), and only 600 copies were made, most went to universities.

The recent Bengazi incident was something that clearly highlighted for Laszlo the differences between the America of 1975-76 and the America of today. In light of the grim disappointment that the American people seem to have today for their elected officials, this book is a look back at what a real government looks like, one that cares for every citizen, one that fights for the rights of every citizen (the Embassy Chief in Yugoslavia had to fight his own State Department to help Laszlo, and many of the legislators involved in helping ignored party politics to fight on his behalf), and for that reason, the book is being re-published in Kindle format to get as wide an audience as possible. We can only hope that as it is read, we will see more clearly the America we want to return to, and will fight for that as Zora fought for Laszlo.