Last Monday, October 23, was the fiftieth anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution. Fifty years ago, 20,000 students marched peacefully on Hungary’s parliament buildings. They carried a list of demands they wanted to read on government radio. Poland had made similar demands and had them granted, so why not follow a proven course of action?
It worked in Poland, but it did not work in Hungary. A group of protestors entered the radio station and were detained. The group outside, now numbering 200,000, demanded their release and were shot at by the secret police. From there, the things just spiralled out of control with fighting in the streets until the old government was deposed.
They were certain they’d won when a new government was established promising multiparty democratic elections. It proclaimed Hungary neutral and no longer a part of the Warsaw Pact. The communist party headquarters were sacked. Members of the secret police were killed and their bodies hung from lamp posts.
Moscow wouldn’t go along so easily, however. The Soviet Army came in on November 6 with artillery, 17 armour divisions (totalling 2000 tanks), and air support. Despite resistance, the Soviets wrested control of the country from its populace in a matter of days. It was over on November 10.
You might claim this was a civil war, but it changed once the government was toppled. The people fought against the Soviets. The UN reported no known instances of the Hungarian military fighting alongside the Soviets. Rather, the Soviets entered a sovereign country, and simply took over by force of arms.
In the meantime, 200,000 Hungarians decided to leave, my parents among them. What I didn’t realize until recently was they didn’t leave during the chaos of the revolution, but rather afterward, when it was no doubt more difficult.
My mother saw the opportunity of a better life and wanted to leave the country to pursue it. My father was content and didn’t want to leave his family. This doesn’t completely surprise me as my mother’s family was very poor while my dad’s were better off. Mom wouldn’t let it go however. It took two months for him to relent. My mother can be quite tenacious when she gets in idea in her head, but this wasn’t the only factor at play. My father seems to have expressed his thoughts about the future of the communist party in Hungary to a local communist party member (who was one of the bigger fish in the local small pond), and those thoughts were hardly complimentary or positive.
So off they went on the evening of December 22, 1956. They travelled twelve kilometres by bicycle, each taking one of the kids, through the snow to stay with a relative of my mother’s in Szentgotthárd, the nearest town. My brother was nearly five years old and my sister one and a half years old, so it must’ve been quite a ride. My parents left with their children, a dozen diapers, seven dollars, and no knowledge of English. The relative was my mother’s stepmother’s brother, but I don’t think he could properly be called her uncle, but I’ll do so for convenience. Interestingly enough, his daughter also decided she wanted to leave. Her parents gave their permission and my parents agreed to take her along. She was just 14.
The next day, my mom’s uncle went ahead to a friend’s farm very near the Austrian border. He hired a horse-drawn wagon to go back and bring my mother and the kids to the farm. My father took his bicycle so they wouldn’t appear to be a family making for the border. That night, during heavy snow/rain mix, they planned to make their move. The weather kept the border guards indoors most of the time, facilitating my family’s escape. On the other hand, the precipitation made being outside miserable, and the accumulation obscured the roads.
The farmer gave them directions but my mother pleaded with him to accompany them part of the way because other than his verbal directions, they had no idea where they were going, and the snowfall wasn’t helping. He finally agreed, and they set off. The farmer brought them much of the way but he finally did leave them to continue on their own. They found the bridge they were looking for and crossed the river. I’m not exactly clear on whether they crossed over the bridge, or under it on the frozen river. The bridge didn’t mark the border however. Only when they came across a rail line would they know they made it. In addition to battling the weather, they went off-road for part of the trek, walking through freshly ploughed fields covered in snow. But they finally did come across the rail line and the knew they’d made it. They were in Austria.
While it’s very easy to relate the basics of the story, it’s hard for me to even understand what kind of experience this was. They were leaving behind everything and everyone they knew. If this is not hard enough to imagine, there was the very real chance they would be shot down if they made their border crossing attempt at the wrong moment. I wouldn’t be here to tell the tale because they would’ve died in the silent snow.
They made their way to a refugee camp, where they stayed far longer than they planned. My brother and sister picked up some sort of illness at the camp. My mother doesn’t know what they had, probably because of the language barrier. Whatever it was, it was extremely contagious because at one point, my parents were not permitted to even see their own children for seven weeks. When they reunited, my brother was very pleased to see them, but it was plain by my sister’s reaction that she wasn’t entirely sure who my parents were!
I asked my mother if, at this point, she wondered if their flight was a mistake. “No,” she told me, “I knew there were better days ahead.” The feeling wasn’t universal, however. My mother’s cousin developed such a severe homesickness while they waited in the refugee camp that she decided to go back. I wonder if in later years she regretted her decision. I know that my mother will tell anyone who asks in no uncertain terms that the decision to leave with the right one.
Most of the 48,000 Hungarian refugees Canada accepted made the trip overseas by ship. My family enjoyed a plane-ride instead, because the children had been so ill. While they were no longer contagious, and well along the road to recovery, they were still sick kids. They arrived in Moncton, New Brunswick on May 21, 1957, with their new home a three-day train trip ahead of them.
This just goes to show that enough determination can make heroes of the most unlikely stock. You might disagree on their hero status, but my parents are heroes to me.