A post-communist Greek village in Hungary

Copyright 1993 The Times Mirror Company

Los Angeles Times

November 23, 1993, Tuesday, Home Edition

SECTION: World Report; Page 5; Column 1; World Report

LENGTH: 1801 words




Concrete bungalows set amid drainage ditches and listing utility poles give this remote settlement on the table-flat Pannonian plain more the look of a labor camp than the oasis it was once considered by victims of a Balkan fratricide.

When Beloiannisz was first built in 1952, it was celebrated as a generous gesture of internationalist solidarity as it provided refuge for lost children and political exiles from the Greek civil war.

Banished Communist guerrillas and hapless villagers who were swept out of Greece in the chaotic last days of the conflict migrated to this community to take the jobs and ideological comfort that Soviet-dominated Hungary had to offer.

Of the thousands of Greek children wrested from their families and sent abroad for wartime safekeeping, a handful of those lucky enough to have made their way to Hungary were eventually found by their parents and settled into new lives in Beloiannisz.

But changing political tides in Greece and the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe have combined to strip this austere enclave of its reason for existing, even its pride.

When Hungary and the rest of the region broke loose from Moscow, the Greek colony 40 miles south of Budapest was cut loose from its ideological tether and left adrift in a new world that is increasingly unfriendly toward all vestiges of the Communist past.

Today, the aging Greek exiles are seen by their Hungarian neighbors as two-time losers in the fight for a proletarian state. And they tend to see themselves as casualties of a half century of history that molded them for a Marxist society that will never come to pass.

Kondos Panajotis was only 12 in 1948 when Communist guerrillas pried him from his tearful mother after the family fled their village near Kastoria into Albania, where even in peacetime the poverty was so grinding that the refugees were left hungry and living outdoors.

"She must have believed she was saving my life," says Panajotis, who concedes he was quickly wooed by the Communist strategy of easing his grief over the separation by keeping his stomach full.

By the time his mother found her way to him six years later, he had become a teacher of math and Russian and was involved in youth movements that led to membership in the Communist Party.

His father had died in Albania under circumstances never made clear, but over the years what was left of the family came together at Beloiannisz from the far-flung outposts to which they had been dispersed by the vanquished guerrillas.

The irony in Panajotis' case is that his family never supported the Communists. Like many villagers in guerrilla-occupied northern Greece, they were driven out by Communist insurgents making a last-ditch effort to resist the government onslaught.

Panajotis said he has come to reject the Communist ideals infused in him in his youth. And like most other Greeks left in Beloiannisz -- and legions of Hungarians from his generation -- he approaches the end of his working years in a state of confusion, unsure what his lifelong struggle for a worker's state was good for.

"I know the Communist movement made a lot of mistakes," he said sadly. "The biggest mistake was trying to educate the people to all think alike."

The stout, curly-haired teacher takes some solace in having stuck by his early inclination to keep the Greek language alive among fellow refugees and exiles.

But the political sea changes here, as well as in Greece, have transformed Beloiannisz from an exotic and unique colony to just another poor and emptying East Bloc village.

The settlement of 480 single-story cottages, strung together in rigid rows like barracks, was named in the memory of Nikos Belloyiannis, a civil war insurgent and Greek Communist Party leader who was executed for his role in the 1946-49 revolt the same year this village was built. (His name is transliterated in Hungarian without the "y".)

There were originally 1,600 Greek settlers here, and the village remained exclusively Greek for most of its first three decades. But the population dropped sharply after 1982, when Greek Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou issued a general amnesty for those who had fled the country during the civil war years.

Nearly 700 of Beloiannisz's residents took advantage of the chance to go home, said Alexandros Rallis, consul-general at the Greek Embassy in Budapest. Another 500 had moved to other areas of Eastern Europe over previous years, leaving fewer than 400 Greeks in Beloiannisz. In the meantime, about 600 Hungarians moved into the abandoned, ramshackle houses.

The last repatriation the embassy assisted was in 1988.

"Those who wanted to leave did so between 1982 and 1988," Rallis said. "Even after the change in Greek government in 1990, there was no change in policy toward Greeks who wanted to return. People stayed in Beloiannisz because of their own priorities."

Mayor Zygys Vlahopoulos, who was brought by the Communist network to Hungary in 1948 at the age of 4, is typical of the few Greeks remaining in Beloiannisz -- a middle-aged man with fading memories and few ties to his homeland, yet mistrusted by many Hungarians because of his association with this colony built for true believers.

"Not all of the refugees were Communists," he said. "It was a war situation, and many people were simply fleeing for their lives. Not everyone emigrated with the idea that they were leaving Greece forever."

Vlahopoulos was one of thousands of Greek children collected by guerrillas and sent abroad to escape the war's hazards and to be provided an ideologically suitable education in a Communist country.

"I'm sure some excesses occurred, but I don't think the political objectives were paramount. It was done primarily to save the children," he said of the evacuation that was known in Greek as the pedomasoma -- "the gathering of children."

He complains that Western propaganda cast the relocations as a plot to indoctrinate a generation of young Communists, which he contends is an unjust distortion.

"The general impression in Greece has been that we were like janissaries," the mayor said, referring to Balkan children taken captive by Ottoman Turks in past centuries and raised to be warrior slaves.

His memories of the last days with his parents in Stalinist Albania are vivid, although he has never been sure how long the family stayed there together.

"We lived outside, on the open ground, and I remember an endless heavy rain," Vlahopoulos recalls of his stay in Elbasan. "We had only one blanket for me, my parents and my sister and a single bucket that we took turns holding over our heads. It was a horrible situation, and I'm sure that is why most parents let their children be collected and sent someplace else."

His parents, who eventually found him in an orphanage at Lake Balaton in 1950, settled the family here because, as supporters of the defeated guerrillas, they feared reprisals if they returned to Greece.

He said Greeks who left before the 1982 amnesty found a frosty reception upon return, often being blamed for the hardships inflicted by the civil war on rural Greeks who had already suffered through Fascist occupation in World War II.

"It was the Cold War, and that was felt both here and there," Vlahopoulos said of the first three decades in Beloiannisz, when the stateless political exiles could not go home.

When Hungarians rose up against the Communist system in 1956, the Greeks of Beloiannisz remained loyal to the regime. That intensified the colony's image among Hungarians as a bastion of Stalinism, deterring substantial integration of Beloiannisz during the next 15 years.

Vlahopoulos concedes that most Hungarians consider Beloiannisz an unreconstructed Communist stronghold but argues that the label is unfair.

"Nothing happened here in 1956 because people were confused. They felt as if they had fled one war only to get caught up in another," the mayor explained.

Vlahopoulos said he knew of no campaign to rename Beloiannisz, although a central street in the capital and a Budapest telephone factory that had been dedicated to the memory of the Communist-era martyr have already been renamed.

Vlahopoulos noted that some residents still yearn for repatriation but fear they would find no work in their homeland and might be unable to recover homes and property abandoned so long ago.

"Forty years is a long time. We have our own system here now, our own security. We have thoroughly integrated into this society," said the mayor, who married a Hungarian. "Not everyone has the energy to start life all over again."

While Beloiannisz is now largely Hungarian, one effort is under way to resurrect the village's Greek identity. The Vienna-based Greek Orthodox Society agreed after a visit by Metropolitan Mihail last year that a church should be built for the Greeks. Money has been collected from Orthodox believers throughout Central Europe, and the church should be completed within three years, Father Timofios at the Vienna office said.

"For 43 years we had no religious education here, yet we managed to keep our Greek identity," said Vlahopoulos, with an apparent mistrust of religion that is the result of a lifetime behind the Iron Curtain.

Identity was expressed through cultural activities, like the Greek folk dance troupe formed in 1958 that remains popular in Hungary even in the post-Communist age.

Vangelia Dizojannisz, a 23-year-old nurse, has been a part of the dance troupe for 13 years. Like other young Greeks in Beloiannisz, she is bilingual but considers herself more comfortable in the company of Hungarians than among Greeks.

Nothing aside from a padlocked library and a neglected memorial to Belloyiannis distinguishes this village from any other impoverished rural hamlet in Hungary.

The local shops sell no Greek products, and the few culinary outlets, like a small bakery, offer only Hungarian specialties.

Even the sole cafe alluding to the village's ethnic origin, the Magyar-Goros Tavern, gave up offering souvlaki sandwiches because customers seldom bought them, said bartender Andreas Sinatkas.

The slow erosion of the village's Greek identity is so painful for some of its residents that they say they would belatedly repatriate, except that they would have no financial security in their homeland.

"The majority here, if they had the chance, would go back to Greece now," said Panajotis, whose daughters married Hungarians and moved from the village.

But without the promise of jobs or pensions, and the risk of still being considered suspect by neighbors long ago left behind, the Greeks of Beloiannisz say they will probably live out the rest of their days in this vanishing footprint from one of 20th-Century Europe's most wide-ranging migrations.

GRAPHIC: Photo, Pupils pass beneath a Greek school sign in Beloiannisz, Hungary, where many of their parents settled.; Photo, A library vase reminds them of their heritage.; Photo, Fewer than 400 Greeks remain in town. MARIANNA CSUKA / For The Times; Map, Hungary, Los Angeles Times

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