Chapter 37a – The Secrets of Hotel Budapest, Floor Eight
Tales of a Teenage Spy - The Life and Times of Gábor Rimner It must have been in the winter of 1974-75 when, for various reasons I began to get frustrated with working at Elektroimpex. One problem was the pay. I got a monthly salary of Ft 1,800, and a similar sum, sometimes a bit more from my passport translation work.
Even at the much lower prices of those days, Ft 3,600 a month didn't leave much over for discretionary spending.
I wanted to get new furniture in our home - it was officially my sister's, as she'd inherited it - and it was difficult to save anything on that money to buy anything of good quality.
Photo: Hotel Budapest today - no need to
worry about getting a room on floor eight.
Then there were my studies. Andrea began nagging me about the long hours I spent at the foreign trade college. I went there two afternoons and evenings during the week, and got home about 10.00 at night. It was like the KISZ camp, but with serious exams instead of the fun. After all those lessons, listening to lecturers drone on about nonsense subjects like political economy, and in stifling hot classrooms, I got home and fell into bed like a log of wood. And I had to attend every Saturday morning, when Andrea definitely wanted me to be with her. On top of this, was the travel – or lack of it. One of the reasons for joining a foreign trade company was the hope, even if only down the line, of going to the west, and the chance to meet an American handler safely, away from prying eyes in Hungary. I was given a rude awakening on that score. Sometime in 1974 I was part of a team that won a prize at a KISZ sporting event. I forget what the competition was, but the first prize was a three-day trip by boat to Vienna. The boat was the property of the union, and the union offered this prize to the winners. I was very happy! Of course I tried to arrange my papers, only to quickly realise I had been very, very stupid, not to say naive, because, unless you had completed military service you simply didn't get a passport. Well, not unless you have some Godfather in high places. And I didn't have any Godfathers in any place, high or low
My boss, Rózsika, tried. She even wrote to the Army, recommending me and giving the company's guarantee that I would reliably return. They didn't even bother to answer her letter.
So it was brought home to me that, for at least some years, there was no chance of going anywhere abroad, at least not in the west.
For all these reasons, I was getting restless at Elektroimpex, and since Andrea was working in the hotel business, partly through her, partly through other channels, I got a job at the Hotel Budapest, by Városmajor Park, in Buda. In those days, this was a fairly new establishment and one of the best in the city, with a lot of foreign businessmen and many Austrian, German and Italian hunters stopping there, some of whom were close to or in government.
Naturally, the Hungarian intelligence services wanted to keep their tabs on these visitors, so they had their man there. All the staff knew him. Well, he didn't write it on his forehead, but everyone in the hotel knew who he was, and when he came asking about a guest, you knew the reason.
His office was, from memory, on floor 8. Nobody could go in there, not even the cleaners, so it was never cleaned, unless he did it. I saw inside once. I had to go there, and he just opened the door, but I could glimpse in and I saw there was lots of radio equipment. It was obvious that this was the centre where the whole eavesdropping thing was controlled from. He never let me inside.
Officially he was the Főrendész - 'Chief of Order' – that's what he had on his door. I suppose today you might call him Security Chief. So, he was supposed to be responsible for the safety and security of hotel guests. Except he showed no interest whatsoever to guests - except the chosen few.
When I reported in to my control, the Americans were very interested in him. They wanted to know where he came from and what his job was before he came to the hotel, stuff like that.
After a couple of months, from colleagues I discovered that he had been transferred from the steel plant on Csepel Island. He had been working there as some sort of party executive. My guess was he must have been giving reports on the workers or the top management to whoever.
In the hotel, the rooms around his were bugged. I worked on the front desk, the reception, and the instruction would come through: Mr so-and-so has to go to room 805, and that was it. There was no questioning these orders.
Those rooms were always kept at the order of the ministry of the interior, the general manager and this guy from the ministry. Only those three could place guests in those rooms.
But it produced some oddities. We could understand they would be interested in, say West German politicians, who would come for hunting trips. But sometimes they were interested in ridiculous people. There was, for example, an Italian juggler, who worked in the Italian circus that was doing a show in Hungary. Why was he being watched? It was nonsense. What state secrets would he know?
Oh, I should mention the money. That was pretty good. I made five or six times, even more, what I made at Elektroimpex. Not officially, of course. Exactly how, I'll reveal next time. .