KOTELNICH, Russia — A Hungarian prisoner of war kept in a Russian psychiatric hospital since the 1940s set out for home Friday, anxiously glancing out of a bus window at a world he hasn't seen in more than five decades.
Andras Tamas had not set foot outside the confines of the small hospital in the provincial town of Kotelnich, in central Russia, since Soviet secret police brought him there in 1947.
For years, nobody knew who he was. But Hungarian authorities recently said they had uncovered enough about Tamas' background to issue him a Hungarian passport and bring him home.
A double-decker bus rolled out of the hospital yard Friday, embarking on a nearly daylong trip to carry Tamas and accompanying medical staff to Moscow. From there, he was to take a flight to Budapest. Doctors thought a bus trip to Moscow would be less stressful for the 75-year-old Tamas.
Seated by a window on the bus, Tamas stared nervously ahead of him, occasionally casting anxious glances around. He grew teary-eyed at times, and doctors said he was feeling ill — stoking concerns about whether Tamas would be able to take a plane to Budapest.
A diplomat at the Hungarian Embassy in Moscow, Ferenc Puskas, said the flight may be postponed until Saturday if Tamas feels unwell. He said the bus trip from Kotelnich could also take longer than planned, but that Hungary's Malev air carrier has agreed to delay its regular flight to Budapest for an hour or two if Tamas is late.
A Hungarian doctor who examined Tamas last month wants to get him to his homeland for treatment as quickly as possible, where, surrounded by people speaking his mother tongue, the doctor believes he will recover his memory.
Some 150,000 troops fought in the Hungarian army under Nazi command at the Don River in 1944. Red Army soldiers killed about 90,000 Hungarians, and thousands more died in freezing temperatures trying to walk back to Hungary.
Tamas was one of those who survived. But he never learned to speak Russian, and for decades hospital staff had mistaken his Hungarian for gibberish.
His identity began to be revealed when a Russian police officer of Hungarian descent, Karl Maravchuk, moved to Kotelnich in 1991 and recognized Tamas' speech as Hungarian.
Tamas' documents — handed over to the hospital by the Soviet secret police — only listed his name. Attempts to shed light on his past ran into a dead end, as the Soviet documents on the prisoner seemed to have been lost in the years following the end of World War II.
His identity began to be revealed when a Russian police officer of Hungarian descent, Karl Maravchuk, came to live in Kotelnich in 1991, and recognized Tamas' speech as Hungarian.
"I think everything will be fine," said Maravchuk, who helped translate for Tamas during his past few months at the hospital.
Tamas' hair has largely turned gray, and he has to use crutches to get around since his leg had to be amputated about three years ago because of circulatory problems. But he still seems strong and vigorous, and moves around with relative ease.
The chief doctor of the Kotelnich hospital, Yuri Petukhov, said other patients and hospital staff "were maybe a bit sad" over Tamas leaving.
"But on the other hand, we are happy that a person is getting discharged from the hospital and is leaving," he said. "It means he is leaving for a better life."