By Catherine Hedge
If I could twist time, I would love to spend an afternoon with Kati Tarnay. I really like her, although we’ve never met. I can imagine her dark eyes flashing in her heart-shaped pixie face. Katie would be wearing a smart suit, matching shoes, and her peacock blue hat. When she spoke, whether in Hungarian, French, German, or English, she’d punctuate the air with a long cigarette. Full of spunk, brave, intelligent, this amazing woman might tell me how she survived the ravages of World War II and life as a refugee. I already know that she could bear anything, as long as her husband and sons were well. And she suffered when they were not. She told me so in the many letters her son translated from her tiny Hungarian script crammed onto fragile onionskin papers.
This spring and summer, I had the great privilege to be a friend and editor for Steve Tarnay and his brothers, Matt, and Fred Tarnay. They had a treasure, the letters and documents of their parents, Frederick and Katie Tarnay. Aware that they were part of history, both Fred and Katie were passionate writers, photographers, and observers. They documented their role in protecting tons of gold and the entire Hungarian national treasury from the Nazis and advancing Soviet troops at the end of World War II. It is a breathtaking story as is their poignant journey to the United States when they could not return home to Hungary.
Last Sunday, I was in Los Angeles at the home of Matt and Madeleine Tarnay. The whole family gathered to celebrate the release of the book, A Carpathian Folk Song: Freedom, Love, Gold. I watched the three brothers, Matt, Steve, and Fred, the ones Katie shielded with her body when the German fighter planes flew overhead. Surrounded by daughters, sons, grandchildren, babies, husbands, and wives, the three raised glasses of champagne. With smiles and tears, we all toasted the fulfillment of a dream, bringing their parents’ story to the New Hungarian Generation and the world.
It was a beautiful afternoon. Small boys chased lizards while a curious two-year-old great-granddaughter tried to leap off the balcony to join them. The cousins twisted their long dark hair into knots at the nape of their necks. Just like their great-grandmother. I watched the sons. One, with his mother’s lively face, waved his hands when he talked and leaned in to catch every word spoken. The other, pensive, looked so like his father with his profile, but had his mother’s dark eyes and intensity. Steve laughed softly at the curly-haired toddler in his father’s arms and sat back smiling, his lips pressed together just like his mom’s in her picture with the peacock hat.
So, My Dear Kati, as your husband Frici called you, through your family, it seems we’ve finally met…and I can call you Friend.
A Carpathian Folk Song: Freedom, Love, Gold is the true story of the Tarnay family and the struggle to save the Hungarian Treasury in the chaotic last days of World War II. Helped by a sympathetic German commissioner, Hungarian National Bank personnel and their families, including Kati Tarnay and three young sons, form a human shield for the train carrying 32 tons of gold away from the Nazis and encroaching Soviets. Acting for the bank, Fred Tarnay braves 70 miles through enemy lines to deliver a secret letter requesting help from the Allies in securing the gold. He reaches Patton’s Army and the treasury is saved. Following the war, the Soviet Communists in Hungary label the bank personnel and the Tarnays as “gold robbers.” They become refugees. War and the turmoil that follows separate Fred and Kati. Through their intimate letters, diaries, photographs, and official documents, they record these events, their personal trials, and their short-lived life together in a new land. Their untold story of love of country and of each other is dedicated to the new Hungarian generations.
©2013 Catherine Hedge