Part One, 1-9 December – Fleeing the Homeland
Revolutionary Sportsmen and their families…
The famous footballers of Honvéd Budapest had left Hungary on 1 November, just before the second Soviet intervention, in order to prepare for their European Cup match against Athletico Bilbao. After the invasion, the players suddenly found themselves cut off from their homeland and their families, but, accompanied by the solidarity and compassion of their western European hosts, they played matches for charity and to cover their expenses. They donned black armbands and cut the red-starred Honvéd badge from their shirts.
The players did everything they could to get their families out of the country from behind the even more strictly controlled border fences of their homeland. Puskás’ wife and their four-year-old daughter, Anikó, had managed to cross into Austria on 1 December, making their way through muddy, ploughed fields, in the cold, wet night. Anikó had been told when they set off that they were going to visit relatives in Dunaföldvár, on the western bank of the Danube, some forty kilometres south of Budapest. She slept most of the way, carried for part of it by a young man, Tamás Csonka.
The family was reunited in Milan, receiving the attention of the world’s press. They spent Christmas together in the team’s hotel, together with the other players and the relatives who had managed to escape. Eventually Puskás, emboldened by his wife, along with Zoltán Czibor, who had taken part in the Uprising and was elected as the Honved sports’ club’s Revolutionary Committee, Sándor Kocsis, coach Jenő Kalmár, and technical director Emil Öestreicher, all chose to remain in the west, despite the pleading of Gusztáv Sebes, the Hungarian national team coach, as well as thinly-veiled threats from the Kádár regime.
Meanwhile, at the Olympic Games in Melbourne, Australia, Hungary’s highly successful water-polo team, who had also left the country just before the Soviet invasion, defeated the USSR team 4-0 in what became known as the Blood in the Water match, played on 6 December. After winning the gold medal, defeating the Yugoslav team, some of their star players also decided to defect and settle for a life in exile.
Tom Leimdorfer, on a Geography school trip in the Bakony Hills, September 1956
In these highly sensitive times for the Soviets and their puppet régime in Budapest, it was natural for those who chose to leave to be very cautious and only let their closest family know. Arrests had already begun, and many of those caught fleeing were among those detained. Edit Leimdorfer told her sister-in-law Juci, but they did not go to say goodbye to them or anyone else. There were still army checkpoints across the city, so that only essential trips were made.
Above: The Leimdörfer family: Grandparents, Aunt Juci, his father and his mother, Edit.
On Friday, the 7th of December, Tom and his mother went back to their flat. Everything had to be done so as not to arouse suspicion from neighbours. They packed essential clothing in a rucksack each with just a few treasured possessions. In Tom’s case, this included a few photographs of family and friends, including that of his girlfriend Kati, whom he had known for three years:
My last piano teacher lived on Rózsa Domb (Rose Hill), some distance from our flat. I needed to take a tram and then a bus to get there, but by the age of eleven I travelled independently all over the city. This teacher was recommended by my mother’s colleague, István. He and his wife Katalin were friends of my mother’s and I was getting increasingly attracted to their very talented daughter Kati, who was a year younger than me. We visited them at their lovely flat in the Buda hills, with great views of János Hegy (John peak) across the valley. The flat had a balcony and a steep hillside garden with steps and paths leading round shrubs and rockeries. Wonderful for hide and seek.
Kati was very musical and well ahead of me on the piano, in spite of being younger. It was her teacher who took me on and my weekly lesson usually followed hers. I made sure I was early and waited outside, so I could snatch a brief few moments alone with Kati. I was not yet a teenager, but I was definitely in love. I thought of Kati as embodying perfection in a girl and unattainable for mere mortal boys like me. Her parents were far better off than my mother and I always felt I had to be on my very best and formal behaviour when we visited their spotless and beautiful flat. Besides, the family were Catholics and such religious divides mattered, communism or no communism.
Their budding childhood relationship had been dealt a further blow when Edit Leimdörfer decided that they should move to the much smaller flat in Pest, a lot further away on the opposite side of the Danube, from where they were now escaping Hungary. Shortly before the October Revolution in the capital, the parents of the ‘couple’ had found an ingenious way of bringing the young lovers together again:
The piano had to be sold and my piano lessons ceased. With it went my weekly rendezvous with Kati and I barely saw her during the first nine months of 1956. This did not diminish my longing and teenage fantasies. One day in September 1956, my mother gave me an envelope with a mysterious smile as an ‘early 14th birthday present’. When I opened it, two season tickets to the opera dropped out. I was very pleased and asked her when we were going to the first performance. ‘Oh, you are not going with me’ she said. ‘Then who is the other ticket for?’ I enquired. ‘Well, who would you really like to take instead of me?’ she teased. I was both delighted and astounded. ‘But did Pista bácsi agree?’ I asked. ‘Yes, it was his idea’, my mother answered. This really surprised me. I knew Kati’s mother doted on me, but I thought her father would be protective and not regard me as altogether suitable… Kati and I talked excitedly on the phone about our forthcoming first date.
We arranged to meet on the day at the terminus of the old underground by the statue of the poet Vörösmarthy and travel together to the opera. We were both very smartly dressed and Kati looked stunning. I remember little of the performance itself, which was the Hungarian epic opera ‘Hunyadi László’, by Erkel. This time, the interval was more important, getting Kati her drink and impressing her with my attentions. Afterwards, we walked slowly hand in hand towards the underground station. To my disappointment, Mami and Kati’s parents were waiting there, having had a meal out in a nearby restaurant. That was just two weeks before the fateful day of the October revolution. The next time I saw Kati was sixteen and a half years later. We were both married, introducing our spouses to each other and watching our children play in the garden where we had played as young children.
Little over a month later, back in the city centre flat with his mother, Tom had to leave his now useless season ticket and settle for collecting the other things which could be packed in his rucksack. These included a pocket chess set and his button football team. Not being allowed to phone Kati made him feel miserable. He knew she would be fine, as they lived up in the Buda hills where there was no fighting, but guessed that she would be worried about them. It was a strange day, but he could not feel sentimental about leaving the flat as it never really felt like home. His real childhood home was the flat in Buda with the garden which he had been so sad to leave the year before. Now it was his desk, originally belonging to his father (killed on the Russian front during World War II), to which he bade a regretful farewell:
The beautiful green baize surface, which was the scene of button football triumphs and the backdrop to long hours of homework, the lovely inlaid marquetry patterns, all remained imprinted in my memory. The painful thought of leaving family and friends was pushed well into the subconscious as we prepared for our big adventure.
In the early hours of the 8th December, Gyuri, Ferkó and Marika rang the bell of the flat and they all met by the front door. It was still dark as they walked by the least conspicuous route to the railway station, hardly saying a word to each other. They had a rucksack each, looking as if they were going for a brief outing. Walking past piles of rubble, burnt-out lorries, broken power tram lines, shell holes in apartment blocks, some blocks totally in ruins, they could see for the first time the full extent of the damage in the war-torn, grey, sad, defeated city. It made sense to them then that they were leaving that scene.
The train was packed with similar ‘holiday makers’ all favouring unlikely resorts near the Austrian border, all eyeing each other curiously but not communicating. They had no idea if there were plainclothes police or ÁVH agents amongst us. Everyone watched the countryside rushing by the windows, all with memories of a homeland they were leaving behind, with hopes and fears of what lay ahead. The five got off the train before most of the others and joined what seemed to Tom to be a pre-arranged group:
I assumed this was the arrangement made by Mami through contacts. Apart from the five of us, there was a distant relative of ours in the same group. We were met by someone with a lorry and got on the back. Sandwiches were eaten en route and we arrived at some railway sidings, by a village near the border. There we waited for a while, then our ‘guide’ appeared and we followed him. Within minutes, we were faced with a small detachment of border police who asked for our documents. As I glanced round, I saw our ‘guide’ disappear under a stationary goods wagon and run as fast as his legs could carry him. None of the border guards bothered to run after him. We were summarily arrested.
The next few hours were like something out of a Kafka novel. The Hungarian border guards marched us to their base and took our details. They had clearly no real enthusiasm for what they were doing, but the new orders were to arrest people trying to flee, so they went through the motions. We were all interrogated separately. I was asked how many Russian tanks I blew up with Molotov cocktails. The guard seemed disappointed when I answered truthfully that I did no fighting. Many young teenagers did. Then a dozen or so Russian soldiers turned up and asked the Hungarian border guards if we were the refugees who stole their lorry. The border guards pretended to speak no Russian, so Ferkó was asked to translate. No, we affirmed, we did not steal their lorry. So the Russians left, with much shrugging of shoulders on the part of the Hungarian border guards. It was getting late and we were starving.
There certainly were many among the escapees who had been involved in attacking tanks, both in Budapest and the provincial towns, some of whom had actually killed Soviet soldiers and were unable to return to Hungary until the 1990s when a full amnesty was declared. With these Russians gone, however, Tom’s mother sprung into action again. She produced her (quite useless) documentation for the Hungarian officer, showing that they were going for a holiday as a respite from the trauma of recent events. Yes, they did join the refugee group once they were nearing the border, but this was an impulsive action they soon regretted. The children were tired and bewildered, she said, as they just expected to go on holiday. Would the officer allow them to seek to lodge for the night with someone in the village? They would report promptly in the morning to be transported back to Budapest under arrest. Edit Leimdörfer was at her most persuasive and the officer agreed, even suggesting which house they could try for a night’s lodgings.
Guests, a Guide and his Grenades…
The middle-aged couple who offered them refuge and hospitality were getting ready for bed when the family of five knocked on the door and explained their situation. They immediately rushed about getting food, getting spare beds ready and mattresses on the floor with duvets. Then the peasant-farmer started talking to Edit and Gyuri:
Surely, we were not going to give up our plans? “Oh yes”, we said, our attempt had failed and we would go back home. The man looked at us in earnest: “Is that really what you want to do?” He knew the border like the back of his hands. He ploughed the fields and had special permission to go right up to the fences. He could safely get us through before dawn. Mami and Gyuri hesitated, perhaps wondering if the man was an agent provocateur, but he looked like an honest peasant farmer, who would have had no interest in tricking us. By why would he take the risk? Mami explained that she had already given her money to the ‘guide’ who led us straight into the hands of the border guards. The best she could do was to give him an address in Budapest and a letter where he would get financial compensation if we were successful. The adults looked at us, Ferkó nodded in agreement, so did Marika and I, although we were too exhausted to care.
After no more than three hours’ sleep in their clothes, they were woken at 3.00 am on the Sunday morning of the 9th December. The wife hurriedly gave them some bread and milk before they set off:
It was a cold, clear night. The crescent moon had set already and the sky was bedecked with countless stars, the full glory of the Milky Way high and bright above us. All was still and we were very conscious of the noise of our footsteps. The man, in his late forties or early fifties, gave us brief military type instructions. The only lights visible apart from the stars were rotating searchlights of the border guards’ observation towers and we were making for a spot roughly halfway between two of these. We were crossing a plain with no trees, no shelter. Once my eyes got used to the dark, I felt very conspicuous and wondered why we could not be seen from the towers. We were walking through what had been a field of maize and there was enough stubble left for cover if we lay flat on the ground. As we reached the area within reach of the searchlight beams, the man gave precise commands to ‘lie down’ as the beam neared us and ‘walk on’ as it passed. Then at one point he said ‘stay down, stay still’ and we did just that till he said ‘walk on’ again. We reached the first set of wires without seeing them ahead of us. They were not formidable and there was a point where they had been cut and we could get through. The second set of barbed wires, a few meters on looked more difficult, but the man found a place where the bottom strand was missing so we could pass our rucksacks through and then crawl underneath. Even that did not seem as formidable an ‘iron curtain’ as the high electrified wire installation I was to witness being dismantled in May 1989 about thirty miles from where we were crawling to freedom that night.
The farmer warned them that they were not yet safe as the wires were well inside the actual border with Austria. They needed to walk towards what they had just started to make out was a line of trees. He told them to look carefully where they trod. Their flight and that of tens of thousands of others was only made possible by the de-mining of the border region as a goodwill gesture to neutral Austria earlier in the year, but they could not be sure that there were not still some active mines left in the ground. Tom could not resist the occasional glance upwards into the night sky:
All this time, none of us spoke. I felt a sense of danger, of course, mixed with a feeling of excitement at the adventure and pure wonder at the glorious firmament above, the sight of which has stayed with me all my life.
As we approached the lines of trees and bushes, it was clear that we were getting to a river bank. Suddenly, there was a shout of ‘Halt!’ and we froze until it was followed by a milder sounding: ‘Achtung, hier entlang’ (or something like it) as two young Austrian guards emerged to direct us towards a crossing point. Gyuri started to talk to them in his fluent German. It was time to express our immense gratitude to our guide, which he tried to shrug off. My mother gave him the letter with the address to visit in Budapest for his reward. She then said: “It was not as dangerous as I feared”. The man replied: “Did you not see the border guards passing when I asked you lie still on the ground?” None of us had. Then he said: “But I was prepared anyway” and he took two hand grenades out of his pockets. Even in the dark I thought I saw Mami go pale and a shiver went down my spine. Still, we had to concentrate on crossing the wide stream by balancing on the makeshift planks and tree-trunks, helped across by the two Austrian guards. We clambered on to the back of an army jeep waiting nearby. We made it. We were safe. We were refugees.
Asylum in Austria…
It was a short ride to the village of Andau where they were deposited outside a large hall. It was teeming with refugees, all of them new arrivals awaiting transportation to one of the large transit camps set up for Hungarian refugees under the auspices of the United Nations. An official took our details. ‘Gyuri bácsi’ was now in charge of the situation as he not only spoke totally fluent German (Edit’s was almost fluent, but less confident), but he also had some friends and a pre-war business partner living in Vienna. So, he explained, we only needed shelter till they could collect us.
Meanwhile, they were given a drink and some chocolate and a place on the floor to sleep. It was around six o’clock in the morning, but still dark. They were utterly drained and exhausted, sleeping on blankets on the hard floor until about ten in spite of people milling around in the noisy hall. There was some food on a long table for breakfast and a chance for a quick wash. Gyuri said his former business partner was very pleased to hear from him and was on his way down from Vienna to collect them:
We hardly had time to take in fully the scene of the motley, fairly bedraggled crowd of Hungarian refugees of which we were a part for just six hours. At midday, we went outside the hall in the bright sunshine of the village square. I remember the church bells ringing and villagers in local traditional rural Sunday best clothes standing around. They did not look any different from a Hungarian village over the border. Affluence had not yet reached rural Austria.
Then the heads of several people turned towards the road leading to the square and we saw a large black Cadillac approach. When it stopped, a portly man emerged and greeted Gyuri as a long-lost friend. I saw several villagers staring with open mouths as these refugees with their rucksacks piled into that luxury car and were driven off towards the capital. A few kind questions were addressed to us in Hungarian, before the conversation switched to German. Ferkó listened with interest, while Marika and I just watched the countryside go by. Actually, in many ways Marika was the real the real hero of this adventure. She was not yet twelve years of age, but she showed no fear, no tears, no complaints throughout those extraordinary couple of days.
(to be continued).
Gzörgy Szöllősi (2015), Ferenc Puskás, The Most Famous Hungarian. Budapest: Rézbong Kiadó.