Tales of a Teenage Spy - The Life and Times of Gábor Rimner
Chapter 31: BM – Letters of Fear and Dread
It's difficult to describe to readers today the effect the two, simple letters 'BM' had on Hungarians back in communist times. I shall give illustrations of this on folks – both ordinary and even in significant positions – in later chapters myself, so this is just an introductory summary.
BM – pronounced by Hungarians as “Bey-Em” - stood and still stands for Belügyminisztérium, that is the Interior Ministry – or what Brits so quaintly call the “Home Office”. Of course, being in control of the police, it matters not so much what you call them, more the way they act.
In truth, the BM of 1974 was far less pervasive and no longer the organ of terror that it had been in the years of Stalinist rule in Hungary, meaning from 1948 – 1954, and for a year or two after 1956.
Nonetheless, the perception of an institution employing unbridled, ruthless power lingered on in the public mind. (This was not helped by the fact that up to 1989-90 it was still under the control of the governing party.) All this meant that still in the 70s the mere mention of the letters “BM” filled most people with fear and apprehension.
Well, one day at work, around March 1974, I suddenly got the message to go to the head of personnel. I didn't really know what the hell it was all about, but I suspect that wherever you are employed, an unexpected summons from the human resources chief gives any employee somewhat queasy feelings.
And when I reported in, it didn't exactly calm my nerves to learn that the office had just got a phone call from the Interior Ministry. I had to go immediately to an address in Rudas László utca.
There was no information as to who or why they wanted me: just drop everything and go. Hmmm. This was the BM. I wouldn't say I was scared, but, well, almost.
(Thinking about it: even this initial incident reveals the power of this ministry. A phone call out of the blue to a state company not linked to that ministry – and immediately the company complies with the request, no questions asked.)
As I walked over towards the address – today is in the renamed Podmaniczky utca, not
far from Nyugati station - I realised it was the passport department, and I relaxed a little, remembering that Mrs Szöllősi had said she might want to use me some day.
Sure enough, I was directed to the very same lady.
The office, she said after friendly greetings, was in a spot of bother.
For some years, Colonel Gadhaffi, then president of Libya, insisted all passport details had to be translated into Arabic in order to enter the country. At that time, there were considerable commercial links between Hungary and Libya, and much to-and-froing of professional workers, such as engineers and medical doctors.
Since the regular translator had just gone off to Damascus on some scholarship – would I step in to fill the breach?
Sure, I'd help out, I said. It was my natural response, especially to someone like Mrs Szöllősi, who came over as a nice person. Strangely, I confess that at the time I didn't really think about any implications, even though it was obvious she was not talking about using me on just this one occasion.
I was given about a dozen passports to work on. The task was straightforward: to translate the holder's particulars – name, date and place of birth and so on – into Arabic and onto a page at the back of the passport.
It was no big job for someone competent in the languages, and it usually took five-six minutes per passport.
When finished, Mrs Szöllősi said she'd like to pay for the job, and since I didn't know how much to ask, she said she would consult her boss.
A month later or so, the mailman brought a payment, a so-called honorarium, though I forget for how much.
But before I knew it, they were asking me to come in every Friday afternoon, usually for a couple of hours, sometimes more, sometimes less. Amazingly, the income from the work on four or five afternoons each month matched and later exceeded my 'day job' monthly salary from Elektroimpex.
It was a useful source of money – and without even trying, I found myself working in one of the very ministries specically targeted by the Americans, even if only one afternoon per week.
The job was to have advantages other than just money, as I will reveal anon.