SFA's Two Shakespearean Actors at the BU Theatre Mainstage, December 13 through 17

Vol. IV No. 16   ·   8 December 2000   

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Coming in from the Cold War
Authors recount toll of imprisonment, joy of reunion

By Brian Fitzgerald

"Am I a widow or not?" Kate Field asked herself in 1953. Her husband, Hermann, had disappeared in Warsaw four years earlier. Taken to a secret police prison and charged as a spy, he languished in a basement cell, slept on a straw bed, and endured physical and psychological abuse at the hands of his captors.

  On December 4, Hermann and Kate Field told an audience at Metcalf Hall how their family became entangled in Cold War hysteria in Eastern Europe after World War II. Hermann spent five years in a secret Polish prison. Photo by Allan E. Dines

Because the cell's window was painted over, there were times when Hermann didn't know whether it was day or night. Meanwhile, his wife didn't know whether he was dead or alive. Each wavered between despair and hope. Then, in 1954, he was finally released. "They said it was all a big mistake," Hermann told an audience at Metcalf Hall on November 29.

The Fields, who wrote a book last year entitled Trapped in the Cold War: The Ordeal of an American Family (Stanford University Press, 1999), spoke about their shattering experience at a Friends of the Libraries meeting. The Field family papers are in Boston University's Department of Special Collections.

"It was a summer vacation that went horribly wrong," said Kate. The audience chuckled at the understatement, but much of the Fields' story is filled with bizarre irony, Cold War paranoia, and Kafkaesque politics. Indeed, as a worker for the British sponsored Czech Refugee Trust Fund, Hermann had actually aided antifascist refugees from Eastern Europe during World War II, rescuing the German, Sudeten, Austrian, and Czech opponents of Hitler. It was those activities, however, that prompted the Polish Security Ministry to arrest Hermann at the Warsaw Airport.

The basis for Field's arrest actually began when Yugoslavia's Marshal Tito severed ties with the USSR after World War II and established his own brand of socialism, independent of the Soviet Union. After this 1948 event, Stalin and his secret police tried to suffocate every sign of independence in Eastern Europe. Some of the very people Hermann saved from concentration camps turned out to be high-level communist party functionaries in these nations -and a supposed threat to Stalin.

In August 1949, Hermann was in Poland to catch a plane to Prague. He was searching for his missing brother Noel, who had been working with Spanish refugees from World War II. It turned out that Noel had been arrested as an imperialist spy in May of that year. Around the same time Hermann was detained, Noel's wife, Herta, disappeared in Prague. The following year, Erica Wallach, Noel's foster daughter, disappeared in East Berlin while searching for Noel.

"According to Stalin, we were agents of the United States who had used the cover of saving refugees to recruit operatives among top communist officials," said Hermann. "He thought that our inside knowledge of their political history could be used to implicate those he targeted for liquidation."

Why was this well-intentioned family torn apart? "For propaganda purposes," said Hermann. In one of the infamous Eastern Bloc show trials, Lazlo Rajk, foreign minister of Hungary, and 10 others were sentenced to death as agents of Noel, who was labeled a U.S. intelligence operative. Over the next few years, the name Field appeared frequently in Soviet propaganda efforts. At the time, however, Hermann knew none of this. In fact, during five years of imprisonment, he barely saw the light of day. After months of solitary confinement in the cellar of a Polish farmhouse, he was joined in his cell by Stanislaw, a Polish intellectual. "When I first met him, he looked like a terrified animal," recalled Hermann. "Then it occurred to me that I must have looked the same way to him."

Without any reading material, Hermann and Stanislaw passed the time by delivering lectures to each other. "When we ran out of things to say, we revealed our life stories," said Hermann. "When we ran out of those stories, we made them up. We concocted serials, taking turns adding twists to the plots. We made up a novel that we called Angry Harvest. When we finished that, we made up a second novel, and then a third." After both went on a hunger strike, they were allowed concessions: paper and pencils, so they could preserve the novels. "We developed an existential existence," Hermann said.

The isolation was taking its toll on Hermann's morale, but he was determined not to crack. In 1952, when Czechoslovakia announced the treason trial of Rudolph Slansky, the former deputy premier and communist party secretary (he was charged with a Titoist/Zionist conspiracy organized by the Anglo-American network that was allegedly headed by the Field brothers), Hermann defied torture and sleep deprivation and refused to sign a confession.

In Trapped in the Cold War, Hermann eloquently describes the anguish he felt in a passage about his only glimpse of the outside world - through a small crack at the top of his cell window:

At night it revealed the bulb of a lamp post outside which sometimes acted as a backdrop to streaks of rain passing in front of it as a visual confirmation of the clattering of a nearby down spout. And one night - truly a wonder - the bright clear disk of a full moon with fluffs of clouds scudding across it, a special visitation for me in my tomb, with the world that I had once known and been a part of. Somewhere far off, this same moon hung over the night in which Kate and the boys were asleep. Perhaps she had noticed it too and had the same thought that it alone could be seen by the both of us, a bond beyond the reach of man's inhumanity. It happened just that one night. It was over a year before I caught a glimpse of the moon again.

Like the book, with Hermann and Kate writing alternate chapters, at Metcalf Hall the Fields took turns telling their story - an effective inside-outside counterpoint. Kate recalled her fruitless efforts to learn of her husband's whereabouts. But she was filled with hope when the show trials stopped with Stalin's death in 1953. "Then, in August 1954, I received an extraordinary call from the press," said Kate. "A Polish colonel, Joseph Swialto, who had defected to the United States, announced that he was responsible for Hermann's arrest. He also revealed that Noel and Herta Field were being detained in Budapest."

The U.S. State Department demanded the Fields' release. In October, Poland released Hermann, declaring him innocent of all charges. The following month, Hungary released Noel and Herta, exonerating them as well.

"When we met at the airport - well, I can't describe it," said Kate. They were packed into the consular car and driven away. Reporters followed them, so the driver sped up and took unexpected turns to shake them off. "I begged them to slow down," she wrote in the book. "I told them, 'After this, it's not worth getting killed just to escape the press.' "

An exhibition of Hermann and Kate Field's papers is on display on the first floor of Mugar Memorial Library.


8 December 2000
Boston University
Office of University Relations