Tom’s Tale – A Young Hungarian Refugee in England: January-June 1957, and after…   1 comment

The International ‘backcloth’…

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In January 1957, a number of members of the British Parliamentary Labour Party, wrote a letter to the Editor of Pravda about the use of Soviet armed forces in Hungary. They included Fenner Brockway, Barbara Castle, Dick Crossman and Anthony Wedgwood-Benn. In it they asked a series of questions, perhaps the most important of which was…

do you consider that the present government of János Kádár enjoys the support of a majority of the Hungarian people? Would it make any difference to your attitude if it did not? We ask this question because, on November 15th, according to Budapest Radio, János Kádár said that his Government hoped to regain the confidence of the people but that “we have to take into account the possibility that we may be thoroughly beaten at the election.”  

Whatever Kádár himself may have believed, or been given to believe, in mid-November, by January 1956 there was little or no prospect of free and fair elections taking place, as the Nagy Government had promised. Hungary would remain under direct Soviet occupation, with the Red Army remaining until all traces of resistance had been eliminated. Anna Kethly, giving evidence to the United Nations Special Committee (see photo above) on her mission from the Nagy Government, declared that Kádár was a prisoner of the Russians, and that she could not believe that he would have accepted his part voluntarily.

First School Term and Easter Holidays…

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Cross-country run, class 3B of Tollington Grammar School, Muswell Hill, February 1957 (Tom is fourth from the right)

For Tom Leimdörfer and his ‘half-siblings’, learning English and adjusting to school life in England dominated the early part of 1957. Tom’s ‘Uncle Brandi’ had approached the Headmaster of Tollington Boy’s Grammar School and the Headmistress of Tollington Girl’s Grammar School. He explained the situation of the children’s flight from Hungary and arrival in England, and stressed the fact that Ferkó and Tom had attended two of the top high schools in Budapest. While their English was not very good, it was improving daily. Marika was not of high school age in the Hungarian system, but she had been doing well in her elementary school. She was trying hard in making a start with English, but understood very little. Tom described how…

Ferkó and I found ourselves in the study of Mr. Percival, a greying and sombre looking man, sat behind his desk, crowded with books and papers. He asked us a couple of questions. I managed to answer one, but the others my uncle had to translate. Mr. Percival said we could start there for a trial period to see if we would fit in and could keep up with the work. He introduced me to class 3B (the middle of three sets in the year group) and Ferkó to class 4A, which was a year below his correct age group, but this was inevitable as he could not be expected to take the dreaded O level exams within six months. So started our school days on Muswell Hill.

Tollington Boys’ Grammar School was situated in a road called Tetherdown. The unimposing red brick pile is still part of the complex of buildings of the present Fortismere Community School. The school was originally founded in the late nineteenth century and moved to Muswell Hill from Tollington Park (hence the name) at the beginning of the twentieth century. It gave the impression of a somewhat overcrowded and slightly chaotic place with equipment and resources inferior to the school Tom had left in Budapest. The plans for a brand new building and the amalgamation with Tollington Girls’ Grammar School were already well advanced by Middlesex County Council, which was then the local authority, before the days of Greater London boroughs like Haringey (which administers the present school). Only children who passed the old eleven-plus exam could be normally admitted to grammar schools and in Middlesex that was less than twenty per cent of the school population. Tom thus felt grateful for the opportunity, but it did not stop him feeling even more of an ‘alien’ when at school:

The first few weeks were totally bewildering. Almost everything was different. School assemblies with prayers and hymns, school lunches with oddities like shepherd’s pie and puddings with pink or green custard, exhausting cross-country runs in Coldfall Wood in the freezing cold or the pouring rain, an incomprehensible team game with an odd-shaped ball called rugby were all part of a strange initiation into a new culture. Some lessons were beyond my comprehension, but I soon noticed that I was well ahead in mathematics, physics and chemistry and the teachers started to show appreciative surprise when I started answering questions when no other hands went up in the class. In geography and biology, I simply tried to copy down as much as I could from the board. Mr. Ron Davies, our history master dictated all his notes. At first, this made things very difficult especially as I had to get attuned to his broad Lancastrian accent. I gathered that the Spanish Armada had just arrived and been defeated, but not much of that found its way into my book. However, by the time we got to the Stuarts, I became good at taking down his dictation and then checking the spelling afterwards. I also tried to memorise as much as I could. At the end of the year I actually came top in history by simply regurgitating the notes and being able to answer just the right number of questions.

For all its oddities for me, Tollington school was a humane and generally tolerant place. The boys of 3B initially reacted as if a Martian had landed in their midst. They asked questions about Hungary, but I often misunderstood or struggled with words and they did not have the patience to listen. However, they all knew that Hungarians were supposed to be brilliant at football (the national team having beaten England twice) and I was included in playground games with the right shaped ball. They were soon reassured that I was just about average for their standard… After our first three weeks, Ferkó and I were summoned to Mr. Percival’s study. He said it was time we attended school in proper school uniform (green blazers and caps with gold badge). He said he no longer wanted to see me ‘looking like a canary’, referring to my yellow jumper by courtesy of the WRVS ladies at Heathrow. That meant we were accepted as proper Tollington students. As an afterthought, he added that we were both doing very well and he was pleased. At the end of term, I was ‘promoted’ to class 3A, probably because in maths and science I was too far ahead of the class.

Meanwhile, there were momentous family developments in Budapest. When Bandi informed Tom’s Aunt Juci that they had safely arrived and were getting settled, he told her that he could also get visas for her and Uncle Gyuri, their three children, as well as Tom’s grandparents (Sári mama and Dádi). This came as a great challenge for them, as they had good jobs and a lovely flat they would leave behind. Times were growing darker there, however, with a repressive communist regime back in charge, though they had been through all that before. They thought and prayed a lot about it before thinking about submitting a passport application. The border was closed, of course, and chances of getting passports to the West were remote. It was at this point that a strange twist of Hungarian politics produced a miraculous opportunity. Kádár imprisoned hundreds of liberal activists who were associated with the revolution and executed dozens, but he wanted to signal that his administration would be different from that of the hated Rákosi regime. He invited the left-leaning, puritanical Reformed Church Bishop of Debrecen, who was not actually communist party member at the time, to be in his government as Minister of Culture (years later he was to be Hungary’s Foreign Minister). The bishop accepted, after some hesitation, and was therefore looking for a flat in Budapest. This was known to someone in the Ecclesiastical Office, who also knew that Juci and Gyuri were thinking of emigrating. A deal was done within days: seven passports for a large comfortable upper ground floor flat in Buda with garden.

The excitement of hearing that his beloved uncle, aunt, cousins Jani, Andi and Juli were to come to England, followed shortly after by his paternal grandparents, lifted Tom’s spirits as he visited his mother in hospital. He still has two letters written by his mother to ‘Sári mama and Dádi’ as they were preparing to come to England. She was anxious to reassure them that her illness was not serious and her cough was getting better. She also wrote:

Throughout his years at school, my Tomi never gave me as much joy as he has these past weeks. It is such a surprise to see that now when I dared not demand too much from him, he has worked harder than ever.

Tom saw his mother for the last time at the very end of March. She was weak, but still insisted that she was getting better. This time she asked to have a few minutes just with him. She said she was proud of him and also that it gave her much joy that Aunt Juci and family had arrived in England. They had just landed at Dover and were going to Ramsgate, where they had temporary lodgings in a guest house run by the Hebrew Christian Alliance. Ferkó and Tom were going down there for the Easter holidays while Marika stayed with her father’s friends:

Our first term at school ended, we packed our bags, Bandi took us down to Victoria Station and we boarded the train for Ramsgate. Juci, Gyuri and my cousins met us at the station and it was a wonderful feeling to see them. Ferkó hardly knew them, but was treated as part of the family immediately and fitted in without fuss, as he always did. The guest house was a grim place run by an austere elderly couple. They found fault with everything we did, rationed our use of soap and toilet paper and turned off the heating even though it was a cold and drizzly start to April… Aunt Juci set about ensuring that we children had as good a time as possible. It was the first time Ferkó and I saw the sea, so a walk along the promenade was a novelty. There was also a miniature model village and some other traditional seaside attractions.

Then, on 11 April, Tom received the shattering news of his mother’s death. He went down to the sea at Ramsgate, sat on a rock, and watched and listened to the waves breaking and crashing on the shoreline for what seemed like ages. Aunt Juci continued to ensure the children had as much fun as possible during the next few days, going by bus to Margate and Folkestone. They then met up with Bandi, Compie, Gyuri Schustek and Marika at Golders Green Crematorium for Edit’s cremation:

We sang Mami’s favourite hymn ‘Just as I am..’ in Hungarian, some prayers were said by the Presbyterian minister and her coffin was gone. I knew I had the support of close loving relatives but I also felt that my life was mainly in my own hands. I must try to fulfil Mami’s dreams for me.  My childhood was over; I had to be an adult at the age of fourteen and a half.

Gloomy Relations…

International relations over the Hungarian ‘situation’ also continued to get gloomier during the early part of the year. In January 1957, the UN General Assembly had adopted a resolution establishing a specialist committee to investigate the situation in Hungary, also calling on the Soviet and Hungarian authorities to allow committee members free access to the country. The Hungarian government had retaliated by requesting the recall of the Head of the US Legation, Minister Wailes, whom it alleged was conducting his activities without having presented his credentials for formal acceptance by the new government. Wailes left Budapest on 27 February, following which the US was represented by Chargés d’Affaires ad interim until 1967. In March, Soviet and Hungarian officials had finally responded to the UN resolution by issuing a joint declaration denying the right of the UN to any purview over Hungarian affairs. Relations with the West deteriorated still further that month when the US began using a postal cancellation stamp reading, Support Your Crusade for Freedom on letters sent to Hungary. The Hungarian government protested that the stamp encouraged counter-revolutionary elements and violated the Universal Postal Union Convention. Mail bearing the stamp was returned to senders. In April, the US Legation replied that the stamp was meant to encourage voluntary contributions to privately supported organisations, and was in general use only during the first quarter of 1957. Officials denied that the stamp had any political intent, adding their ‘surprise’ that the Hungarian authorities seemed to consider aspiring to freedom as counter-revolutionary.

Also in April, Soviet and Hungarian military personnel detained US Military Attaché Colonel J. C. Todd and his assistant, Captain Thomas Gleason, charging the latter with espionage and demanding that he leave the country. The US Legation denied the charges against Gleason and demanded his release from detention. In a tit-for-tat move, on 29 May, the US demanded the recall of a Hungarian Assistant Military Attaché. The Hungarian government then demanded that the US Legation reduce its staff by at least a third and make proportionate reductions in its staffing by local employees. On 10 June, the Legation replied that it did not accept the concept of the Hungarian Government determining the size of the US mission. Ten days later, in New York, on 20 June, the UN Special Committee issued its report on events in Hungary. It concluded that a spontaneous national uprising had occurred in October and November of 1956 and that…

… the ‘counter-revolution’ consisted in the setting up by Soviet armed forces of Mr Kádár and his colleagues in opposition to a Government which enjoyed the overwhelming support of the people of Hungary.

Despite its de facto stability, significant, continued, passive resistance and the lack of international recognition still denied the Kádár régime full legitimacy. On 26 June, representatives of the twenty-four countries that had sponsored the January resolution met to discuss the prompt consideration of the report by the General Assembly. The GA then adopted a resolution in September endorsing the Special Committee’s report, calling on the Soviet Union to desist from repressive measures against the Hungarian people. It also appointed the President of the General Assembly, Prince Wan Waithayakon of Thailand, as its special envoy to further study the situation in Hungary. However, the Kádár Government refused to allow the prince to enter the country.

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On 23 October, the White House issued a statement proclaiming the anniversary of the uprising to be Hungarian Freedom Day. In December, President Eisenhower announced that his emergency program for Hungarian refugees would come to an end at the end of the year. About 38,000 refugees had been received in the United States and a total of $71 million had been spent on their assistance, including $20 million from private and voluntary contributions.

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The Hungarian Communities in Britain…

Of the approximate total of 200,000 who fled Hungary in 1956, about 26,000 were admitted as refugees to the UK, a respectable number for their hosts to have accepted then, given the relative size of the population and the fact that the period of post-war ‘austerity’ in Britain had only recently ended and there were still some privations. A British-Hungarian Fellowship had already been established in Hungary in 1951. After the refugees arrived, many more clubs and associations began to be established and to thrive. Three other area associations were formed between 1965 and 1971. In one area the Hungarian community only ‘fifty-sixers’, while in the two other areas it also included earlier immigrants.

Diplomatic tensions between Hungary, the Soviet Union and the ‘West’ continued throughout the 1960s and ’70s, however, and tight restrictions on travel to and within Hungary meant that exiles remained cut off from their familial, linguistic and cultural ties in their homeland. To begin with, those who spoke up among the exiles (others feared reprisals against their families back home) did so in uncompromising terms. After news came through of Imre Nagy’s execution in June 1958, Tibor Meray, wrote an account of the uprising called Thirteen Days that Shook the Kremlin. He concluded:

To say that Hungary’s history had never known a leadership more thoroughly detested than this ‘Revolutionary Workers’ and Peasants’ Government’ would be in no way an exaggeration… Little by little the rule of the Rákosi-Gerő clique was restored… The activities of the Kádár Government soon gave the lie to the glowing promises with which it assumed power.

Due to the extent and continuation of the Hungarian diaspora after 1956, as refugees were joined by emigrants simply wanting a better life, there was a low ethnic and linguistic vitality of the Hungarian speech community in Britain. Given the rapid shift from Hungarian to English which, it would appear, has taken place in the second and third generations of ‘exiles’, it is not altogether surprising to note that mother-tongue teaching did not seem to be generally demanded by those of Magyar descent. Marriage to non-Hungarians consolidated assimilation for some while others attempted to integrate their partners into existing Hungarian circles; some partners and children attended language classes especially to enable them to converse with relatives when visiting Hungary or when relatives visited Britain. Three of the five associations held language classes in 1988, students ranging from age eight to forty-five and one group even helped with preparation for ‘O’ and ‘A’ level exams in Hungarian. The School of Slavonic and East European Studies at the University of London also offered courses in Hungarian.

One of the very few sources of information on Hungarians living in Britain in the 1980s was the Inner London Education Authority (ILEA) Language Census, which showed that in 1981 there were ninety Hungarian speakers attending schools in the capital; in 1983 there were 86; 1985, 83, and in 1987 there were 86. However, because numbers were so small, the Hungarians were aggregated with ‘other Eastern Europeans’, so that it is impossible to say whether these were descended from 1956 exiles, and were bilingual, or whether they had arrived more recently and were in need of ESL (English as a Second Language) support. ILEA funded HFL (Hungarian as a Foreign Language) classes in Pimlico, and there was a new Saturday morning class in Highbury for young children. It included folk-dance teaching, as did the various social clubs which also showed Hungarian films, held dances and performed other traditional, social functions. Hungarian commemoration days were observed traditional crafts such as embroidery were taught, and there was an annual Hungarian Cultural Festival.

Nevertheless, due to the easing of the political situation in the seventies and eighties in Hungary, and particularly the restrictions on the travel of ordinary citizens in 1986, there was an awakening of interest of ‘second generation’ exiles in their ‘roots’. Few of these clubs and associations survived into the third generation of the late 1980s, however, so new organisations were needed to facilitate the coral growth of inter-cultural links and exchanges which now emerged.

The Reform Communist governments of the late 1980s in Hungary attempted to foster Hungarian language knowledge and a knowledge of Hungary among the children of Hungarian descent living abroad by running summer camps for 7-14 in three locations in Hungary. In the summer of 1988 eight camps were held of ten to fourteen days’ duration. Although the prices in the online brochure were given in US dollars, most of the participants were from Hungarian ethnic minority families in the bordering Slavic countries rather than from third generation refugee or exiled families in ‘the West’.

The relative difficulty of learning the Hungarian language as a non-native, second or foreign language in the UK may help to explain why, in 1988, only eight students entered for the University of London School Examination Board’s ‘A’ level in Hungarian, compared with eighty entries for Polish. Even allowing for the comparative sizes of the two communities, the proportion of entries for Hungarian was disproportionately small.

Living Adventurously…

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Above: Tom (centre), standing behind his wife, Valerie,

outside the Friends’ Meeting House at Sidcot, c 1990

Tom Leimdorfer graduated in Physics from London University, where he met his wife, Valerie. They both joined the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in 1971. He had a career as a Science teacher before becoming Headmaster of Sidcot (Quaker) School in Somerset in 1977, moving there with Valerie and their three children, Andrew, Gillian and Karen. They stayed at the school until 1986, when Tom left to do a master’s degree in Bristol. He then began working for Quaker Peace and Service (QPS) as their Education Advisor at Friends House in Euston, London. This was when I met him in 1987, as I began working for the West Midlands Quaker Peace Education Project, based at Woodbrooke in Birmingham. Tom and I attended the International Teachers for Peace Congress in Bonn that year, meeting teachers from the Hungarian Peace Council. We acted as hosts to their delegation which visited the UK the next Spring, including Woodbrooke, and Tom invited me to join the QPS teachers’ delegation to Hungary the following Autumn, 1988, just as the major changes were beginning to take effect in the country. It was then that I first heard his incredible story of how he had escaped Hungary in 1956.

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Tom visited again in May 1989, taking part in a symbolic cutting of the barbed wire on the Austrian border, close to where he had crossed thirty-three years earlier. I returned in the summer, to establish a teachers’ exchange between Coventry and its twin town of Kecskemét, where I met Stefi, my Hungarian wife. Tom and Valerie attended the Meeting for Worship in celebration of our forthcoming marriage in Hungary, which was held at Bourneville Friends’ Meeting House in Birmingham on 6 January, 1990. His advice to us, given during the meeting, was to live adventurously!

Seeking alternatives to despair…

We took his advice, living and working as English teachers in southern Hungary for most of the next six years, while it underwent ‘transition’ to a democratic society. The area also provided a base for NATO troops and UN peacekeepers working in the war-torn areas of Former Yugoslavia. Three years into this period, Tom visited us at our home in Pécs, on his way to a conference in Osijek, now in Croatia, not long after that country’s war of independence. The town had seen some of the worst fighting in the conflict, as it is close to the border with Serbia as well as with Hungary. Tom gave me a copy of his presentation to be given at the Children at War Conference. In its introduction, he wrote:

Anyone coming to Osijek must come with a feeling of humility. How can we, who have watched only on the screen the horrors which were experienced by those who lived through it, relate to what you felt and are feeling still? 

I need to search the memories of my childhood, for I too am a child of war. Born in neighbouring Hungary, I was barely six months old when my father died near the shores of the river Don, where the Hungarian army had no business to be; I was two years old when my grandparents were taken to Auschwitz and when we lived in hiding through a siege which brought both terror and hope of survival. I was fourteen when I saw tanks on the streets of Budapest in 1956 and became a refugee soon afterwards.

My work has been mainly with children as a teacher, then as a head of a school where many children came from abroad, often from places of tension or conflict. In my present work, as Education Advisor for the Society of Friends (Quakers), I run courses in conflict resolution techniques for teachers, educational psychologists and others involved in education both in Britain and central/eastern Europe. Such work has special significance in places of ethnic, cultural or religious conflicts such as Northern Ireland, Romania or indeed in your country, but children are growing up with violence all around them everywhere. They not only see violence on television, they can experience it daily in the school corridors and playgrounds, and on the streets. A child’s life can be made hell by the children or adults around her or him anywhere, even without a war… Does it all demonstrate that human beings are fundamentally evil and there is nothing to do but despair?

I regard much of the work I am doing as seeking the alternatives to despair. The starting point of such work is encapsulated in some lines written by the Hungarian poet Attila József :

Ti jók vagytok mindannyian: Miért csinátok hát rosszat?’

(You are good, all of you; so why should you commit evil?)

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The fundamental aim of Peace Education is to lead each child, or adult, to a form of self-respect which is not only tied to being Croat or Serb, Catholic or Orthodox, Muslim or Jew, Anglican or Nonconformist, Marxist or Nationalist, Monarchist or Republican, but simply to being human. From this child-like, simple understanding they may aim to develop a spirit of affirmation of the worth of ‘others’, even when they disagree with them and need to challenge them with the truth of Attila József’s words above. Violence comes from a feeling of despair. Peace Education aims to empower people to seek alternatives to despair. That is Tom’s witness and testimony, and mine: it is also the story of his life.

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Published Secondary Sources:

Marc J Susser (ed.) (2007), The United States and Hungary: Paths of Diplomacy, 1848-2006. Washington: Department of State Publications.

Marika Sherwood (1991), The Hungarian Speech Community in Safder Alladina & Viv Edwards, Multilingualism in the British Isles: The Older Mother Tongues & Europe. London: Longman.

Valerie Leimdorfer (1990), Quakers at Sidcot, 1690-1990. Winscombe, N. Somerset: Sidcot Preparative Meeting.

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One response to “Tom’s Tale – A Young Hungarian Refugee in England: January-June 1957, and after…

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  1. Reblogged this on hungarywolf.

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