Hungarian refugees of 1956 and the current refugee crisis

I have been thinking about the topic of today’s post for a long time, but it was only in the last couple of days that the threads came together to form a unified whole. 444.hu published an article yesterday with the title “Viktor Orbán’s 100 lies,” which prompted me add one of my own about the Hungarian refugees of 1956. That particular Orbán lie has been bothering me for ages, but I had no time to search for the necessary statistical data to prove that, as usual, Viktor Orbán is either purposely lying or is simply ignorant. Today, however, I got my proof. Népszava published a detailed article about the Hungarian Statistical Office’s originally secret compilation of data on people who left the country after the October 1956 revolution. I should also note that the hysteria over the sighting of alleged migrants that erupted in a village provided an added impetus for me to make some observations about the “good Hungarian refugees” as opposed to the “evil migrants,” a contrast that is often drawn by Fidesz leaders as well as the general population. Finally, there are a couple of telling sentences in a new poll about “the Hungarian dream” that may have some relevance here.

So, let’s start with the lie that 444.hu didn’t include in its list. It was about two years ago that Viktor Orbán explained that keeping “migrants” within walled compounds guarded by police was the norm when the Hungarian refugees arrived in Austria. “What do you think? They were free to go anywhere? They were in camps for years until they were properly vetted.” This was essentially Orbán’s justification for creating closed camps for those refugees who arrived in Hungary, after a fence was erected to keep most of the refugees out. According to official Hungarian statistics, 193,748 people left the country between October 23 and the spring of 1957, most of them via Austria (174,057). What happened to these people? Did they stay in closed refugee camps, waiting for years? No. According to the statistics, by March 31, 1957 only 35,250 Hungarian refugees were still in Austria. The rest were moved within months to 35 different countries, which offered them food and shelter until they found jobs.

This was an enormous achievement in and of itself, but there were also many difficult cases that the authorities had to handle. For example, I just read parts of a book about the 20,000 unaccompanied minors who needed protection. Some of them were war orphans who had lived all of their lives in institutions and who had special needs. Many of these children eventually found their bearing in their adopted countries, but some drifted from country to country, or ended up in the French Legion or in Vietnam. Most of the unaccompanied minors, however, were just normal kids, many from white-collar families. Their host countries provided them, among other things, with free education. As we know, among the refugees coming from the Middle East there are many unaccompanied minors, whose arrival is viewed with suspicion. But if you think about it, in the Hungarian case 10% of the refugees were under the age of 18, so these youngsters’ presence in the current migration mix is not unusual.

A Hungarian refugee boy somewhere in Europe in 1957

The other common complaint about the mass of Middle Eastern refugees is the predominance of young men. They should have stayed and fought, the argument goes. What was situation in 1956? Two-thirds of the refugees were men. Not only that, but more than half of them were under the age of 25 and one third were relatively young (25-39 years old). Moreover, the largest category of men was of military age: 10.3% of all 20-year-olds and 9.3% of all 19-year-olds left the country. Although about half of the refugees were from Budapest, the number of men from the capital was especially high. More than 15% of 15- to 24-year-olds in Budapest left the country. Perhaps these statistics could give today’s Hungarians some food for thought, but naturally one cannot expect the officials to enlighten people about the nature of migratory movements.

In fact, any comparison of the Hungarian exodus in 1956 to the present situation is hotly denied. As if all Hungarian refugees were either skilled workers or highly educated intellectuals. No, it was a mixed crowd that included troubled children and common criminals who were let out of the jail. And, of course, many who settled into a comfortable middle-class existence or who achieved fame in their professional lives. I think that, by and large, the host countries  benefited from their initial investment.

Meanwhile, the Orbán government’s anti-refugee propaganda is still going strong, and the results are disheartening. A couple of days ago panic broke out in the village of Kömlő in Heves County, which has a majority Roma population and a Roma mayor who seems to have a lot of common sense. An elderly inhabitant, who happened to be a non-Roma, claimed to have seen a couple of migrants, who actually turned out to be locals. Panic set in. People saw migrants everywhere. They allegedly saw them entering houses and stealing food off the table or out of the refrigerator. Total fear gripped the place. The village has four or five anti-Soros posters but, as the mayor explained, the locals have no idea who he is. It is not the posters that are responsible for the fear that exists in the village but “what they see on television. There is no real danger here, but still that is what the TV tells them all day long.” I wonder what would have happened in 1956 and 1957 if the Austrian government had launched a campaign against the refugees, claiming that they were all communists.

Finally, a fascinating poll was taken about the future Hungarians would like to see for themselves. This is not the time to discuss this poll in any detail, but the upshot of the survey is that “Hungarians would like to live about 800 km farther west, somewhere close to the Austrian-Swiss border, and live in the predictability and the social equality of the Kádár regime but with western standards of living.” This conclusion didn’t surprise me, but what grabbed my attention was a comment from one of the respondents: “We should reach Western Europe economically but not culturally.” Apparently, Hungarians dream about some “specific Hungarian road within the Union.” As Tamás Boros, one of the researchers who worked on the study, noted, they dream about “a rich and egalitarian but ethnically homogeneous country.” Hungarians have been chasing a “Hungarian road” in vain for almost one hundred years. The combination they are dreaming about is unattainable and most likely also undesirable.

November 4, 2017
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Michael Kaplan
Guest

Eva, thanks for this article. As I recall, I think you also left Hungary around 1956. I remember the arrival of several Hungarian refugees my age in Chicago in 1956 or 1957 as I played with those 2 kids one day. I found out years later that some distant relatives had also arrived from Hungary to Chicago post 1956. I have oddly never seen the interesting details in your article until today. Thank you. One difference between 1956 and today was the greater number of countries post 1956 willing to take in refugees (36). Sadly, refugees today will not see this change due to a perfect storm of real and unreal fears. Despite Orban’s lies about Soros, George Soros knows Europe-for example-will no longer accept great numbers of refugees and therefore suggests a more modest number be admitted as per earlier articles in “Hungarian Spectrum”. Trump will also likely be successful in using the perfect storm to severely curtail refugees coming to the USA. Of course, a coalition of 35 willing countries would offer hope to some. I doubt that will happen

Andy
Guest

Any “Hungarian” — i.e. ‘localized from Hungary’ comment will be colored by the subjective mind-set produced over the past 100+ years in loco Hungary.

This thinking results in a further repeat of the tragic results of the past 100+ years.

This produces a ‘No Exit’ result from archaic thinking patterns.

This is the reason the Orban government is still in place. i.e. the inability of the average population to adapt to changing circumstances.

wrfree
Guest

Re: ‘loco Hungary’

Reminds me a bit on the great North Korean big man who comes off being ‘mad’ to some. But he and the Magyar leaders are peas in the same pod as everything they do is premeditated and deliberate to fulfill planned goals of amassing and keeping power.

They know what they do. If there’s any ‘loconess’ it’s the acquiescence of the governed toward leaching away their power. Once gone difficult to get back. The country now has to be a test lab for the evolution of democracies in the 21st. All who enjoy freedom need to watch them carefully.

Guest

Again, much of what today’s Hungarians think (if you can call it thinking at all …) and feel seems to be similar to what (many of …) the East Germans have on their mind.

Is this really a long term consequence of those years first under Horthy/Hitler fascism and then “Communism”? Or maybe even a relic from the times of the Prussian/Austrian emperors?

Of course, as I’ve often said, not all people here are the same – I couldn’t have spent more than an evening with my wife if she were like them. But she’s the perfect counterexample – liberal, tolerant, progressive, atheist, … and her parents were progressives (not Communists!) too though they lived in a small town in East Hungary – but maybe the fact had her father spent some years working in Vienna made him see the ways of the world?

PS:
My wife says she feels much more at home in the small university town in Germany where we live, or in Munich, London, San Francisco, New York City – Greenwich Village with its multi-kulti population was her favourite btw!
But the typical Hungarian still has the fear of the unknown implanted?

Andrew Endrey
Guest

Australia accepted around 14,500 Hungarian refugees after 1956, many of whom went on to make a significant contribution in all fields and professions, including the arts and sport. The 1956 Olympics were being held in Melbourne at the same time as the uprising and most of the Olympic team, who had managed to leave just before the Soviets returned, stayed in Australia. Most Australians of a certain age remember the water polo match between the USSR and Hungary at the Games; it was literally a “bloodbath”.

Many of the refugees were single males and sadly some of them did not adjust well. I recall a contemporary study of the 1956 arrivals comparing them with the earlier cohort of post-war Hungarian refugees which found that, unlike their precursors, the 1956 group were largely irreligious. Unfortunately, that’s the only finding from that study I can recall.

Guest

One shouldn’t forget that of course there always was a “trickle” of people who managed to leave – before and after 1956 and also refugees from the other Eastern Block countries.
There probably also are a few thousand people who somehow found a way to leave the Socialist Paradise as the Ger,man Communists I knew called it -really strange people!

In my hometown I remember two Hungarians who were my age, very nice guys who didn’t talk about their past much however – they wanted a future! They both were customers of my favourite bar and we played cards together – those were the days!
Sadly one died early, the other is really sick but the second hand bookshop he founded is being managed by his friends now.

Istvan
Guest
There were indeed Eva many Hungarian nationals who served in French Foreign Legion post 1956 and pre-1956. The novel The Three Musketeers in Africa was written by the Hungarian Jenő Rejtő with the pen name P. Howard. It depicted several of these Hungarian Legionaries in the late 1940s. There is also this contemporary video in Hungarian about the Legion training program in French Guiana https://foreignlegion.info/2013/01/05/hungarian-legion-documentary/ Of course a good number of Hungarian refugees who ended up in the USA served in the US armed forces during the Vietnam War. I read somewhere the number was around 140, but I honestly can’t verify that number. I was born here so I and many others don’t count in that total. I met in 1972 in Vietnam one other Hungarian speaker, who joined the Army around the mid-1960s who was a refugee and who served in the U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) which was located at Tan Son Nhut Airbase. He was a fierce anti communist to say the least. There were Hungarian speaking immigrants who also served in the Counter Intelligence Corps special agents in the US army during WWII. My father had several friends who played that role and who… Read more »
Jim Buckingham
Guest

Great article.. great articles in general. I would only like to make one small request – that you support your work by sourcing it.. especially when using stats. I urge you to do so in an effort to make your writing more transparent and credible.

Reality Check
Guest
I have also heard Hungarians justifying the treatment of refugees in Hungary by invoking the experiences of Hungarians that fled to the west at the end of WWII. My mother, uncle, and grandparents were among this group. Yes, they did spend seven years as refugees, first in an Austrian Displaced Person’s (DP’s) camp and then as workers on a French farm. But, their circumstances were very different from the 56ers. They were citizens of a country recently allied with Hitler, and the infrastructure and economies of a war devastated Europe were in no shape to quickly absorb the millions of DP’s around Europe. It is not surprising that it took so long to settle them. After a long wait they were granted US visas. Despite the fact that my grandfather was an officer in the Hungarian army who was the director of pharmaceutical plant during the war, he was still welcomed to the US. They settled in New Jersey and were part of a large Hungarian community where me and my US born siblings attended Hungarian school on the weekends. After 1000’s of Hungarians were settled in the West after WWI and ’56, today’s Hungarians had a chance to repay… Read more »
Sakhoes Contributor
Guest
I was one of those refugees also. I was 15 years old when my father and I escaped to Austria by crawling across the border. We reached Austria on November 26, 1956. After we registered with the Austrian authorities as “Fluchtlinge” (refugee), we were supported by various agencies and charities that got us shelter for a week at a time. We stayed in a Gasthaus in Stockerau, stayed with a group of young Mormon volunteers, stayed in a cheap hotel in Vienna. All this time we visited UN agencies, who verified our status, registered our names at the US, Canadian and Australian embassies and waited… We spent Christmas in Vienna, where we wanted to attend Christmas Eve services at St Stephan’s Cathedral, but we could not afford the entry ticket. (Never in my life have I heard of a church charging money for attending.) Just after Christmas we found our name listed on a bulletin Board posted on a fence outside the US embassy, which told us to report on a certain date for our trip to the US. We were sent to a camp, where we were prepared for the trip. On December 31, 1956 we were bussed to… Read more »
Guest

Wow, that must have been the experience of a lifetime, especially for a teenager!
Thanks for reporting this.
PS:
Was that the famous Hotel Chelsea in Greenwich Village where Janis Joplin stayedand had an affair with Leonard Cohen?

wrfree
Guest

You’re on it. RS article Nov 14 ’16 tells it all. Lots of great artists roomed there. That area of NYC was a magnetic place in the 60’s.

Sakhoes Contributor
Guest

The Hotel Chelsea was north of the Village, in the actual Chelsea section of Manhattan, on West 23rd Street. The hotel was owned by members of three Hungarian families: the Bards, the Krausses and the Grosses (NYT article). In 1957 it was far from being famous, as far as we knew it. Here is link to some of the celebrities who stayed at the Chelsea. https://www.theguardian.com/culture/gallery/2010/dec/19/10-best-chelsea-hotel-moments

Ferenc
Guest
tappanch
Guest

The location of the almost 200,000 Hungarian refugees on March 31, 1957.

comment image

http://nepszava.hu/cikk/1144718-1956—a-disszidaltak-fele-fovarosi-volt

Guest

Interesting that West Germany (NSZK) didn’t take too many Hungarian refugees in/after 1956 – less than USA, Canada, England – and not much more than Switzerland or France.
Was there a special reason for this?
OK, we had to care for many people from East Germany, but still …
I found this very positive report on the acceptance of the refugees – but the number is similar, around 13 500.
http://www.sueddeutsche.de/bayern/willkommenskultur-in-bayern-als-die-ungarn-hilfe-suchten-1.2649221
Could the reason be that the refugees didn’t want to go to Germany, maybe had relatives in other countries?

Sakhoes Contributor
Guest

I believe the reason was that in 1956, 11 years after the end of the war, West Germany was viewed by many Hungarians as a country still struggling with recovering from the war. Also some might view it as a primary target for Soviet armed attack in case the Cold War heated up. Indeed, most of the conflicts in the 40s, 50 and 60s took place in Germany, especially Berlin.

Guest
Understandable, the refugees wanted to get as far away from the Soviet Block as possible. Rather OT – or not: From 1961 (still at school …) to 1965 I worked for the German “Luftschutz” aka Zivilschutz whose job would have been in war to give out warnings to the people via sirens and radio: The Russian bombers are coming in your direction – go into the nearest bunker or cellar or … There were 10 offices in old bunkers (later new bunkers would be built), one for each state where we were trained. As an aspiring mathematician I soon became responsible for interpreting the data on nuclear war that we got from NATO (I wasn’t even 20 years old …!) and we calculated the radiation that people would be subject to with special slide rules. I also took part in several of these famous NATO – Fallex/Wintex exercises. In this period of the Cold War we fully expected the Russians to detonate A or H bombs on German cities or the Western forces – and calculated with our special slide rules the amount of time that would be needed until people could safely return to their homes – really crazy… Read more »
tappanch
Guest

From the article:

11.7% of the university students,
10.9% of the engineers,
4.9% of the physicians left Hungary.

In the first 5 months of 1957, the authorities also permitted the legal emigration of 12,345 people, of which number 8,117 left for Israel.

Reality Check
Guest

It says 6,101 were repatriated (hazatelepült). What was the faith of these people?

Ferenc
Guest

Re – experiences for the ’56 refugees
As seen in the table (tappanch, from Nepszava), the situation for the ’56 refugees in Yugoslavia was quite different from those in Austria. In Yugoslavia after almost 5 months (counting from Nov.04) of the arrived almost 20.000 refugees, 86% was still there, 9% returned to Hungary and only 5% had gone through to another country.
Furthermore based on found scattered comments and the 2006 UNHCR magazine (see earlier comment to this post), it becomes clear that some of the Yugoslav camps were more than rough, e.g.isolated in the mountains (in Croatia?), barbed-wired former Nazi-camp(s), and gunned guards. These camps were not under the responsibility nor direct influence of the UNHCR, only after negotiations improvements were implemented by YU authorities.
So bad stories about ’56 refugee camps most likely have their source there, and/or are mix-ups of stories about camps after WW2.

tappanch
Guest
Ferenc
Guest

Both stories in English:
http://www.direkt36.hu/en/2017/11/06/befolyasos-magyarok-uzleteirol-is-kiderulnek-reszletek-az-ujabb-nagy-offshore-kiszivarogtatasbol/
https://english.atlatszo.hu/2017/08/09/orbans-enigmatic-swiss-friend-becomes-president-of-habsburg-otto-foundation/

PS: the direkt36 story also mentions off shore connections for OTP, MKB, Eximbank, Andi Vajna (TV2 frontman) and Soros (btw.also donor to Direkt36)

wrfree
Guest

And just something in song which holds to a theme that should never erode away….

https://youtu.be/-fCcMk4Kx2Q

Farkas
Guest
My own experience in 1956 does not seem to bear out the stats re unaccompanied minors. I crossed into Austria near Neusiedl am See on 10 November 1956 with a group of students, all older than me. I was fourteen and a half at the time, an unaccompanied minor. We were immediately transferred to a large holding camp in Wiener Neustadt, where a couple of days later I was allocated to a group of about 250 Hungarian refugees bound for Italy. The group was made up partly of couples and families with children, and partly of single males. I was the sole unaccompanied minor among them. Within another couple of days we were on our way to Italy by overnight express from Wiener Neustadt to Milan, and from there in buses up to our appointed destination high up in the Italian Alps near the Swiss border. The Italian Red Cross accommodated us in a very comfortable tourist hotel high up in the Italian Alps. The whole place was stunningly beautiful, right in the middle of the Alpine lake district between Lago di Maggiore and Lago di Lugano. Among the single males in the group there were many former Hungarian Nazis,… Read more »
Andy
Guest

great story !
kindly CONTINUE please !!!!

Farkas
Guest

Glad you liked it Andy, but whilst what I have written above is (I think) strictly relevant to Éva’s post, it would not be right to hog any more space on this forum with private stories that would be largely orthogonal to the topic at hand. :-)))

Ferenc
Guest

Thanks Farkas, for sharing your personal experience.
Some must have been terrible and confusing for you as a lonely teenager , especially together with leaving all familiar things behind.

Guest

Unbelievable!

Someone should collect these memories into a book – but probably most Hungarians would prefer to “not even ignore” them …

Sakhoes Contributor
Guest

Amazing and very touching story, Farkas. I know I was very lucky that I escaped with my father. He spoke German, French and English and served at the Hungarian Embassy in Paris before the war broke out. He understood that situation.

I remember how surprised I was when in response to my question about where we should apply to settle, he told me the US, Canada and Australia. Knowing how fondly he spoke of his years in Paris, I was surprised and asked him, why not France? His response was very wise. In France, he told me, as an immigrant you well never quite fit is. Your children’s children will be foreigners. The English speaking world, on the other hand, were built by immigrants, they need immigrants and the welcome immigrants. So we accepted the invitation from the US and never regretted it.

Guest

Thanks for this!
But it seems to me the US position re “welcoming immigrants” has changed …
Though of course some people are still welcome – like my wife’s nephew at Vanderbilt university …

Guest
Great article Éva. My family were also ‘56-ers, and though I was young, I remember arriving at the border where Austrian soldiers were guarding the area for us and not against us, and we were greeted with smiles and cigarettes for gasping smokers! Nuns looked after us most kindly the first night, and the following day we were whisked away to a most beautiful Panzio in the Alps, where we spent three blissful months and I thought I had gone to heaven. The next few months we were in a transit camp while waiting to be sponsored from the West. The camps were pretty rough compared to the Panzio, but we had shelter, warmth and food and were never mistreated in any way. As soon as our sponsor came through, we were on our way to the West and a new life and the whole process took less than 6 months, and not years, as Orbán’s propaganda machine is claiming. My parents were not high profile revolutionaries in danger of incarceration, or worse, but were, as so many refugees, economic migrants wanting a better life for their family. And today, the 600,000 or so Hungarians living and working in the… Read more »
Observer
Guest

Hungarian dreams – two results of the poll to note:

Large number of Hungarians display desire for stability, i.e. aversion to change and little in terms of exploration, endeavor, challenge and like, the attributes most needed in the world of accelerating and unprecedented technological changes reshaping industries, job markets and everyday lives. Bad news for them.

Propaganda works, however silly or false. My daily experience confirms that the myths of some unique AND superior Hu “1000 y.o. culture” or outright Hun superiority are popular. Those expressing such views can hardly justify them or even list some elements of the alleged “culture” beyond repeating the “defender of Christian Europe” or the “10+ Nobel Prize winner” myths. Invariably they turn negative denigrating the others to prove the Hun superiority. Bad news again.

Guest

Guest.
And how may of those nobel prize winning Magyars were still living in Hungary? Most, if not all, had to go abroad to continue their research and work, as the nationalistic, intolerant and, as you say, “aversion to exploration” mentality at home was not conducive to creative, progressive or sophisticated thinking and work.

Farkas
Guest

In fact, most Nobel Prize winners claimed by Hungarians as their own were (and are) of Jewish descent. It is fascinating to behold how a Jew will morph into a national treasure upon receiving a Nobel Prize, and instead of being regarded as a dirty, stinking “idegenlelkű” (alien-spirited) leech sucking the precious blood out of the sacred body of Hungarian nationhood and only good for the gas chambers and ashes for soap-making, becomes a warmly regarded “idegenbe szakadt hazánkfia” (an esteemed son of our Fatherland who finds himself living in an alien land for some mysterious reason). How disgusting and pathetic . . .

Guest

Unless his name is Soros – then he gets called “An American Jew born in Budapest”.
PS:
Not only Nobel Prize winners – most of the leading scientists of the Manhattan project were Hungarian Jews.
Feynman (whose parents were Jews from Lithuania) wrote some interesting stuff on this in his autobiography.

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