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What a year that was: Britain and the World in 1947: Part II.   Leave a comment

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The Winter of 1947 has gone down in history and personal memory as a time of almost unbearable bleakness. For three months, Britain endured not only the shortages of almost everything in the shops, and a virtual medieval peasant diet, heavily based on potatoes and bread, nor only the huge state bureaucracy bearing down on so much of daily life, with its 25,000 regulations and orders never heard of in peace time before. Neither was it just the smashed and broken homes, and the irreplaceable war dead. The crisis of 1947 was also the product of that most common of British complaints, the unpredictable weather.

Towards the end of January, a great freeze had swept across from Siberia and covered the country in thick snow, a bitter cold which brought the exhausted British people very nearly to their knees. The country still ran on coal,  newly nationalised under the National Coal Board, but the piles at the pits froze solid and could not be moved. The collieries’ winding gear ceased to function and drifting snow blocked roads and rail lines. At the power stations, the remaining stock piles ran down swiftly until, one by one, the stations were forced to close. Lights went off, men dug through snow drifts, tamping for miles to find food to carry back to their families and neighbours. Cars were marooned on exposed roads. Factories across the Midlands and South of England had to stop work and within a week two million people were idle. Electric fires were banned for three hours each morning and two in the afternoon. As people ran out of coal, they had only blankets to keep them warm. Around London, commuters were unable to reach the capital. Scotland was cut off from England.

Government ministers were not immune to the health problems which resulted. Herbert Morrison was nearly killed by thrombosis when new drugs given to him caused his kidneys to pour with blood. While he was still in hospital, Ellen Wilkinson, the education minister who adored him and may have been his mistress, died from an overdose of barbiturates. Wilkinson, a small flame-haired woman who had led the pre-war Jarrow Crusade for most of its length to London, was much-loved in the party, but became increasingly depressed by the slow pace of change, particularly in education. On 25 January, in the middle of the blizzard, she insisted on opening a theatre school in a blitzed, open-to-the-sky building in south London. Ellen became ill and seems to have muddled up her medicines, though others believed she killed herself, out of a mixture of frustrated love and political disappointment. In some ways, her death was symptomatic of the strain Attlee’s government was under.

Then things deteriorated further as the coldest February for three hundred years began. Another half million people had to stop work. The sun was so little seen that when it came out, a man rushed to photograph the reassuring sight for the newspapers. The greengrocers ran out of green vegetables. After a short thaw, March brought terrible storms and snow-drifts thirty feet high. There were ice-floes off the East Anglian coast. Three hundred main roads were impassable. These conditions were then followed by the worst floods in living memory, cutting off towns and drowning crops in huge areas of low-lying England. Sheep were dying on the hills, unable to be brought down to lower-lying pastures. Their carcasses had to be burnt in huge pyres, causing foul-smelling smoke to hang over the hillsides of rural Wales.

As people were digging out frozen vegetables from fields and despairing of the empty shops, the run on the pound resulting from Keynes’ Washington ‘deal’ and the balance of payments crisis meant that the Treasury was running out of dollars to buy help from overseas. This was the moment when the optimism of 1945 died for many voters. But the summer did come, and it was a good one, the sun blazing away with the cricketers at Lords as the nation sweltered. However, the pound continued to fall dramatically against the dollar, and with the Chancellor, Hugh Dalton, unable to buy food from the USA, secret preparations were made for a ‘famine food programme’ which included a provision to take children out of school to help with the harvest. It was never instigated, but the rationing of bread, which had not been necessary during the war, was put in place, as wheat supplies could no longer be bought from the United States. At the same time, British ministers had to ensure that there was no famine in other parts of the world for which they were responsible, including India, Germany and Palestine. Bread rationing at home was hugely unpopular and long remembered.

As Aneurin Bevan’s visit to Coventry had demonstrated, housing was the most critical single social issue of the post-war era, remaining at the top of the political agenda throughout the early fifties. Half a million homes had been destroyed or were made uninhabitable by German air-raids and a further three million were badly damaged. Overall, a quarter of Britain’s 12.5 million homes were damaged in some way. London was a capital with a background of ruins and wrecked streets. Southampton had lost so many buildings that during the war officials reported that the population felt the city was finished and ‘broken in spirit’. Coventry had lost a third of her housing in a single night in the November Blitz of 1940. Birmingham had lost 12,000 houses, with another 25,000 badly damaged. Together with the impact of demobilization of young men eager to marry and start families, the government estimated that 750,000 new houses were needed urgently. In addition, there was a need for further slum clearances in London and the older industrial cities, the grimy terraces lacking proper sanitation, gas and electricity supplies.

The demand was for more than bricks and mortar, since the war had separated husbands and wives, deprived children of their parents and, in general, shaken the familial fabric of the country.  Some 38 million civilians had changed addresses a total of sixty million times. Despite the break-up of many marriages under the strain of war, most people wanted a return to the security of family life. There were more than 400,000 weddings in 1947 and 881,000 babies were born, the beginning of the ‘boom’ that would reshape British life in the decades ahead. In all, a million extra children were added to the population in the five years after the war. Since there were not nearly enough individual homes to go round, hundreds of thousands of young people found themselves living with their parents or in-laws, deprived of privacy and trapped in inter-generational conflict.

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It was, in positive terms, a time when people were prepared to live more communally than would be the case later. Wartime queuing had revived a kind of street culture which lingered among women, as they spent hours standing together. Cinemas and dance halls continued to be crammed with people trying to escape the cold of their homes which as yet had no television (only 0.2 per cent of the population owned a television in 1947) or central heating, and not much by way of lighting. People really were in real austerity together, managing without much privacy and with the ongoing effects of wartime requisitioning, evacuation and the direction of labour, lodging in unfamiliar rooms. The sharing of toilets and kitchens in the late forties was therefore just a continuation of conditions they were already used to, like the meagre food and dreary clothing.

The most dramatic government response was the factory-made instant housing, the ‘prefabs’. Although designed only for a few years’ use, many of them were still lived in forty or more years later. Between 1945 and 1949, under the Temporary Housing Programme, a total of 156,623 prefabs went up, a welcome start in the provision of mass housing. They were more than huts, but a prototype bungalow, with a cooker, sink, fridge, bath, boiler and fitted cupboards. It cost fractionally more than a traditional brick-built terraced house, it weighed a fraction of the latter and was prefabricated in former aircraft factories using a fraction of the resources, then unloaded and screwed together on a concrete plinth, ready for families to move into within days. They were all weatherproof, warm and well-lit. The future Labour leader Neil Kinnock lived in one, an Arcon V, from 1947 to 1961, and remembered the fitted fridge and bathroom causing much jealousy among those still living in unmodernised colliers’ terraces in the south Wales valleys: Friends and family came to view the wonders. It seemed like living in a spaceship. They came to be regarded as better than bog standard council housing. Communities developed on prefab estates which survived cheerfully well into the seventies; I remember visiting these, homes to many of my teenage friends at that time.

The British Housewives’ League, formed in 1945 by a clergyman’s wife to campaign against rude shopkeepers and the amount of time spent queuing, helped remove the hapless food minister Ben Smith over the withdrawal of powdered egg. Other foods brought into the country and foisted on consumers were regarded as disgusting. Horses were butchered and sold, sometimes merely as ‘steak’. Whalemeat was brought from South Africa, both in huge slabs and in tins, described as rich and tasty, just like beefsteak. It was relatively popular for a short while, but not long, because it had a strong after-taste of cod-liver oil. Then there was snoek, a ferocious tropical fish supposed to be able to hiss like a snake and bark like a dog. The young Barbara Castle was then working for the fish division of the Ministry of Food. She was quartered at the Carlton Hotel, which had generously sized baths which she filled with the fish, which she observed for experimental purposes. Her report on its behaviour must have been favourable because in October 1947 the government began to buy millions of tins of snoek from South Africa. So ministers tried to persuade the British people that, in salads, pasties, sandwiches or even as ‘snoek piquant’, the bland-tasting fish was really quite tasty. The people begged to differ and mocked it mercilessly, buying very little. Eventually it was withdrawn from grocers and sold off for almost nothing as cat-food.

The Labour government’s attempts to import alternative sources of protein became a great joke in newspapers and in Parliament. The Conservatives put out pamphlets showing pictures of a horse, a whale and a reindeer to show the wide choice of food you have under the Socialists. Labour tried hard to keep the country decently fed during the forties when most of the world was at least as hungry. But between the black market organised by ‘spivs’, the British Housewives’ League, whose rhetoric influenced a young student called Margaret Thatcher, and the spontaneous uprising against the snoek, the public was becoming fed up to the back teeth with rationing. From 1948, Labour ministers began to remove the restrictions and restore something like a free market in food.

It also took a long time for British clothes to brighten up. Well into my childhood in the sixties, children were still wearing baggy grey trousers and home-knitted jumpers throughout the week and all year-long. Our fathers were still dressing in heavy grey suits, with macs and hats, and older women still wore housecoats and hairnets. However, younger women did try to dress more fashionably. One of the women who attended the unveiling of Christian Dior’s New Look in London in 1947 said that she heard for the first time in her life, the sound of a petticoat, realising  at once that, at long last, the war was really over. However, the British Guild of Creative Designers complained that they did not have the materials to compete or keep up with French frippery. Yet from the young princesses downwards, women were ignoring matronly MPs like Bessie Braddock and doing everything they could to alter, buy or borrow to achieve the Dior look. Clothing became a powerful symbol of a return to the prosperity of the 1930s for many women, if not men.

001A Honeymoon Couple at Billy Butlin’s Hotel near Brighton, 1957

The Holidays with Pay Act, passed shortly before the outbreak of war, was another postponed pleasure, but few workers could afford to travel abroad for these in 1947. For one thing, total time on holiday was limited to a fortnight in total. For another, the amount of money a person could take out of the country was severely restricted. Just over three per cent of people holidayed abroad, the vast majority being wealthy. Few of these went further than Northern France or the Riviera. They didn’t drive around the British countryside, as they had done in the thirties. Nonetheless, in 1947 slightly over half the British did take some kind of holiday. Many took the train to one of the traditional Victorian-era seaside resorts, soon bursting with customers. Others went on cycling or camping expeditions, since the roads were almost entirely empty of traffic. Yet more began to take the ‘charabanc’ or train to one of the new holiday camps, run by such entrepreneurs of leisure as Billy Butlin. He opened his first at Skegness in Lincolnshire in 1936, and by 1947 he had become a millionaire. To begin with, he was targeting the middle classes as much as the better-off workers. Opera singers, Shakespearean actors, radio stars, sporting heroes, politicians, archbishops and royalty were all invited to his camps, and came. Although Butlin had his fingers burnt with an attempt to open a Caribbean camp in 1948, for millions of British people the camps remained a synonym for a summer holiday well into the age of cheap overseas tourism in the 1970s.

On reflection, and with the benefit of seventy years of hindsight, 1945-1947 was not the best time to set about building a new socialist Jerusalem. Most attempts at forced modernisation quickly collapsed. The direction of factories to the depressed areas brought few long-term benefits to those areas. Companies encouraged to export at all costs were unable to re-equip and prepare themselves for tougher markets ahead. Inflation, a major part of Britain’s post-war narrative, appeared as an economic factor for the first time by the end of the forties.

Again and again, Britain’s deep dependency on the United States was simply underestimated by the politicians. Harold Wilson, for example, slapped import duty on Hollywood films in 1947, when the sterling crisis made saving dollars a priority. The Americans responded by simply boycotting Britain, a devastating measure for a population so reliant on film as its only real means of mass entertainment. Some wonderful British films were made to fill the gap, but already glamour was something that came from the Pacific coast. Could Labour’s 1945 dream of a socialist commonwealth, high-minded and patriotic, standing aside from American consumerism, still be built on Britain’s grey and muddy land? The reality was not only that she was dependent on her transatlantic cousins, but also upon an Empire which, paradoxically, she was having to let go, at least in piecemeal fashion.

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India and Pakistan had become independent on 15 August 1947, ten months ahead of Attlee’s original schedule. Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy, had arrived in Delhi on 22 March. He appealed to everyone to do their best to avoid any word or action which might lead to further communal bitterness or add to the toll of innocent victims. He soon decided that the June 1948 transfer date was too late, as the communal rioting had reached a state of which he had no conception when he left England. In making this decision, he was also indulging his lifelong fondness for acceleration. It seemed to him that a decision had to be taken at the earliest possible moment unless there was to be risk of a general conflagration throughout the whole sub-continent. He had a remarkably careful yet quick and businesslike method of working. As soon as he finished an interview with a leader, and before proceeding to the next, he would dictate a résumé of the talk, a copy of which would be circulated to each member of his staff. He held staff conferences every day, sometimes twice and even thrice a day, to study and discuss how events were shaping.

Consultation with the Governors certainly gave him a good idea of the colossal administrative difficulties involved in a transfer of power based on partition. Within six weeks of his arrival Mountbatten had produced a plan which marked the first stage towards the transfer. In all his discussions with party leaders and others, despite their divergent views, which he was forced to adjust and reconcile, there was nowhere any evidence of an attempt to question either his own impartiality or the bona fides of His Majesty’s Government. The greater the insistence by Jinnah, the Muslim League leader, on his province-wide Pakistan, the stronger was the Congress demand that he should not be allowed to carry unwilling minorities with him.

In reality, Mountbatten came down on the side of the Hindu-dominated Congress by bringing forward the transfer of power. Perhaps one factor in this was Lady Mountbatten’s rumoured affair with Jawaharlal Nehru. In particular, Mountbatten put pressure on the supposedly neutral Boundary Commissioner, Sir Cyril Radcliffe  – cruelly mocked by W H Auden – to make critical adjustments in India’s favour when drawing the frontier through the Punjab.  Nevertheless, the last Viceroy’s achievement was only surpassed by those of Gandhi and Nehru, to whom he paid tribute in his address to the India Constituent Assembly in New Delhi on what the India Independence Act referred to as ‘the appointed day’:

The tasks before you are heavy. The war ended two years ago. In fact it was on this very day two years ago that I was with that great friend of India, Mr Attlee in the Cabinet Room when the news came through that Japan had surrendered. That was a moment for thankfulness and rejoicing, for it marked the end of six bitter years of destruction and slaughter. But in India we have achieved something greater – what has been well described as ‘A Treaty of Peace without a War.’ India, which played such a valiant part… has also had to pay her price in the dislocation of her economy and the casualties to her gallant fighting men… Preoccupations with the political problem retarded recovery. It is for you to ensure the happiness and ever-increasing prosperity of the people, to provide against future scarcities of food, cloth and essential commodities and to build up a balanced economy…

At this historic moment, let us not forget all that India owes to Mahatma Gandhi – the architect of her freedom through non-violence…

In your first Prime Minister, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, you have a world-renowned leader of courage and vision. His trust and friendship have helped me beyond measure in my task. Under his able guidance, assisted by the colleagues whom he has selected… India will now attain a position of strength and influence and take her rightful place in the comity of nations.

It would have been an ideal arrangement if Mountbatten had been able to continue as Governor-General of both Dominions. But even as General-Governor of India, he could still be of immense service. It was his personality that had helped to bring about some measure of common action and had prevented a bad situation from getting worse. His presence would be of great help in solving the problem of the Indian States. It would also have a reassuring effect on serving British officers, particularly in the Armed Forces, where their retention for at least some time was indispensable.

The communal rioting and the two-way exodus of refugees provided the Government of India with a task which was so stupendous as any nation ever had to face. If in its initial stages the situation had not been controlled with determination and vigour, the consequences would have brought down the Government itself. It is to the eternal credit of Lord Mountbatten that he agreed to take over the helm of responsibility at that critical stage, and it redounds to the statesmanship of Nehru that he unhesitatingly and confidently offered it to him.

According to V P Menon, the Constitutional Adviser to the Governor-General from 1942 to 1947, reflected in 1957 that the main factor in the early transfer of power was the return of the Labour Party to government in 1945. The Attlee Government’s decision  to quit India not only touched the hearts and stirred the emotions of Indians, he argued, it also produced an immediate reassuring effect on the whole of South-East Asia and earned Britain universal respect and goodwill in the region. India and Pakistan both chose to remain in the Commonwealth and this was taken by a demoralised Britain as a tacit but welcome vote of thanks. Burma followed on India’s heels into the ranks of newly independent nations in January 1948, and Ceylon (Sri Lanka) in February. Both of them had far too much independence already for the full version to be denied to them. Ceylon remained in the Commonwealth, but Burma did not. The first stage of Britain’s decolonisation came to an end there, with the letting go of what, after the war in the East, just could not be held.

In some ways, as Niall Ferguson has pointed out, the break-up of the British Empire happened with astonishing speed compared with the two centuries it had taken to build it. Once the British had made up their minds to get out, they aimed to catch the first boat home, regardless of the consequences in their former colonies. In the words of the Labour Chancellor Hugh Dalton:

When you are in a place where you are not wanted, and where you have not got the force to squash those who don’t want you, the only thing to do is to come out.

This had its disadvantages. In their haste to get shot of India, they left behind a chaos that almost undid two centuries of orderly government.

For those colonies in other parts of Britain’s global empire who wished to pursue India to independence, it was not simply a matter of following along a path beaten flat by her. The hurdles she had knocked down Britain erected again for the others. To become free, they would need to fight. What was chiefly standing in their way was their value to an all but bankrupt Britain. That value was not quite what it had been, but Britain had plummeted quite disastrously in the world’s league table of great economic powers. She no longer had a significant surplus to send abroad. In 1900, she was responsible for a third of the world’s exports in manufactured goods. Sixty years later this share had declined to 18 per cent. Just before the war the empire had accounted for 40% of her imports and 49% of her exports. After the war the imperial proportion of what trade she had left was even greater. Between 1946 and 1949 it accounted for 48 per cent of imports and 58 per cent of exports.

It followed  that Britain’s political interests in the world were not so very different either, though her capacity to safeguard them may have been. Britain still had stakes in certain parts of the world, like Africa and south-east Asia, where security or stability seemed to depend upon her maintaining a political presence there, or nearby. In addition, these stakes and all Britain’s others in more reliable parts of the world, like North America and Oceania, together made up a network of interests which was thought to require continued political presences elsewhere to safeguard it; forts and garrisons at strategic points to protect the traffic between Britain and the world. For a colonial people ambitious to be free, either of these interests, or both, would continue to present a considerable obstacle to their independence.

In the years after the war African nationalism sprang very suddenly and very rapidly into full growth. Out of the plethora of welfare associations, tribal associations, community leagues, friendly societies, youth movements, trade unions and all the other vehicles for African discontent which had proliferated before the war, there arose in the 1940s most of the main colony-wide movements for national liberation which took the battle to Britain in the 1950s, and most of their leaders. They took encouragement from India, and from the general tide of world opinion at the time which seemed to be swimming with them. Very early after the war they showed their teeth. There was a six-week general strike in Nigeria in 1945, and another one in the Sudan in 1947.

The British could not afford to ignore these events, claiming that the nationalists were trying to push things too fast, to achieve in one jump what the government claimed to be preparing them for in easy stages, and far in advance of the bulk of the people they professed to represent. Some in Britain resisted the nationalists because they resisted the whole idea of colonial independence. But for many of those who did not, who had reconciled themselves to losing Africa, it was still to be some years before they would accept the ‘extreme’ nationalists, the ‘power-seekers’, as their ‘proper successors’.

In the  immediate post-war period, there had been various grand designs for a ‘new’ Empire. The Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, was convinced that the road to domestic recovery began in Africa. As A H Poynton of the Colonial Office told the United Nations in 1947:

The fundamental objectives in Africa are to foster the emergence of large-scale societies, integrated for self-government by effective and democratic political and economic institutions both natural and local, inspired by a common faith in progress and Western values and equipped with efficient techniques of production and betterment.

There was a new Colonial Development Corporation and an Overseas Food Corporation, and marvellous-sounding schemes for growing groundnuts in Tanganyika and producing eggs in the Gambia. The Crown Agents travelled the world, selling old British trains and boats to any colonial government that could pay and some that could not. There were ambitious plans for the federation of West Indian colonies; of East Africa; of the Rhodesias and Nyasaland; of Malaya, Singapore, Sarawak and Borneo. There was even talk of a new building for the Colonial Office. The old Empire meanwhile continued to attract a steady stream of migrants: from 1946 until 1963 four out of every five emigrants leaving Britain by sea were headed for Commonwealth countries.

The imperial renaissance might have led further if the United States and Britain had made common cause. Imperial recovery was dependent on American support and Clement Attlee certainly saw the need for it, although he was more realistic than Churchill about the future of the Empire as a whole. He recognised that the new military technologies of long-range power meant that…

 … the British Commonwealth and Empire is not a that can be defended by itself… The conditions which made it possible to defend a string of possessions scattered over five continents by means of a fleet based on island fortresses have gone. 

In their place, he had argued in 1946 that it was now necessary to consider the British Isles as an easterly extension of a strategic arc the centre of which was in the American continent, rather than as a power looking through the Mediterranean and the East. The North Atlantic ‘Alliance’ was, of course, mainly a product of the Americans’ growing awareness that the Soviet Union posed a far more serious threat to American interests than the British Empire. With the beginnings of the Cold War, the White House and the US Chiefs of Staff both agreed that there was something to be said for British imperial and maritime power after all, especially its network of military bases which could complement their own. All this made Bevin bullish:

Western Europe, including its dependent overseas territories, is now patently dependent on American aid… The United States recognises that the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth… are essential to her defence and security. Already it is… a case of partial inter-dependence rather than of complete dependence. As time goes by (in the next ten to twenty years) the elements of dependence ought to diminish and those of inter-dependence to increase.

Of course, within that next decade, the Suez crisis was to reveal that the fundamental American hostility towards the Empire lingered on and the facade of neo-imperial power collapsed. 

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Sources:

Richard Brown & Christopher Daniels (1982), Documents and Debates: Twentieth Century Britain. Basingstoke: MacMillan.

Niall Ferguson (2003), Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Michael Clark & Peter Teed (1972), Portraits & Documents: The Twentieth Century, 1906-1960. London: Hutchinson.

Bernard Porter (1984), The Lion’s Share: A Short History of British Imperialism, 1850-1983. London: Longman.

Andrew Marr (2007), A History of Modern Britain. Basingstoke: MacMillan-Pan.

Budapest between the Holocaust and the Uprising, 1946-56: Part Three; The Crucible, 1953-56.   1 comment

Family days and Events in the Fifties… 

Family days in Tom’s extended family had started before the war as enjoyable social events, but increasingly became times for sharing anxiety and problems caused by increasing persecution of Jews. After the holocaust, they then became a means of rebuilding a strong sense of family of those  who survived.  During the dark years of the communist era these family get-togethers were a time of mutual support, of sharing problems and giving advice, of debating the subtle political changes in the regime and generating some hope amidst the gloom. These events in extended Hungarian families continued throughout the Kádár era and even into the transition period which followed the collapse of communism in 1989-91. Tom’s direct memories were of the gatherings of the early to mid 1950s:

Everyone tried to make sure that we children had a good time, with special cakes and sweets, usually made by great-aunt Manci, my grandmother’s younger sister. We played games, while the adults were deep in conversation. The oldest of us was my second cousin Éva, two years older than me. I was next in age, my three cousins Jani, Andi and Juli (all children of my aunt Juci) were all younger as was my second cousin Kati. Her sister Marika and my other two second cousins András and Isti were all born in the early 50s. Éva made up some exciting ‘murder in the dark’ type of games, which involved hiding in cupboards and getting into some mischief.

There were occasional raised voices. It was often Éva’s mother Magda who was in some trouble. Like my mother, she had lost her husband in the holocaust in one of the ‘death marches’ and she never regained any kind of equilibrium. Her life seemed to go from one crisis to another. My grandfather Ármin (who was generally regarded as the ‘head of the family’) was always ready with advice, which Magda was not ready to receive. It was often my great-uncle Feri (Ármin’s younger brother) whose mild-mannered voice acted to mediate and bring calm to the proceedings. He was a much respected architect whose advice was sought by many.  Workplace problems were discussed, ways of getting round food shortages, childcare issues and, of course, politics. Most of the family were generally inclined to be liberal and tending towards socialist ideas, which dominated amongst the Jewish middle class.

Anti-semitism was generally linked to the old right-wing nationalism and the horrors of the holocaust were inflicted by the fascists. The Soviet Red Army, while bringing its own atrocities in some areas, meant liberation for the remnants of our family. So there was initially a lot of tolerance towards the proclaimed aims of the communist regime. The disillusion and the realisation of the total loss of freedom and the fear brought by the dictatorship of the Rákosi era dawned on members of the family at different rates.

Following the ‘turning point’ year of 1949, it only remained for the Hungarian Communists to apply some cosmetic surgery on the face of the Stalinist system to invest their de facto rule with a thin gloss of constitutionality. The rumps of the remaining parties, largely consisting of Communist fellow-travellers, merged with the Hungarian Workers’ Party (MDP) in the Hungarian Independence-Popular Front and undertook to submit to the decisions of its national board led by Rákosi as President, Dobi and Erdei as deputies and Rajk as General Secretary. They also pledged themselves to the leading role of the  MDP in the construction of socialism. Those who espoused alternative programmes were denounced as enemies of the Hungarian people, rather than being seen as any sort of ‘loyal opposition’. Predictably, on 15 May, 96 per cent of the electors voted for the candidates of the Popular Front, of whom more than seventy per cent were communists.

Shortly after the creation of the Popular Front, organised opponents of monolithic communist rule either evaporated or were forced into compliance through general repression. Within a week, the Democratic People’s Party dissolved itself and Cardinal Mindszenty was brought to court on fabricated charges of espionage and subversion. Having struck at the two pillars of the Catholic Church, landed property and youth education, the Communists had, early on, evoked the wrath of the militant prelate who was determined not only to defend religious liberty but also to preserve many of the Church’s anachronistic privileges. Now they turned on him as the head of what they termed the clerical reaction of 1947-49. He was sentenced to life imprisonment on the basis of an extorted confession. Despite this, there was no break in the adherence of ordinary Catholics to their Church, but its power to openly resist did decline sharply decline, as became evident on 5 September 1949 obligatory religious instruction was abolished, and circumstances were made unfavourable for parents sending their children to optional classes. By 1952, only a quarter of elementary school pupils took them.

Religion was rarely discussed in the extended Leimdörfer family, either, as it was such a sensitive subject among many surviving Jewish families. Most of the family remained Jewish, but only practised at the time of festivals, while Edit (Tom’s mother), aunt Juci and her husband Gyuri became committed Christians in the Reformed (Calvinist) Church following their conversion. Tom recalls his mother’s distress over the recurring rift this decision had created in the family:

The only time I saw my mother in tears at a family day was when her right to bring me up as a Christian was being questioned. It was my grandmother Sári who smoothed out that particular row. Although we might have been playing, Éva and I heard what was going on in the adult conversation. Occasionally, when they noticed us listening, the conversation would switch to German. All the adults spoke fluent German, but only ever used it in these circumstances.

One of Tom’s more distant relatives had been in the French resistance during the war (having been a student at Grenoble university) and was the only one of the family who was actually a member of the Communist Party. As a sideline from his office job, he made up a game called Five Year Plan, which became available in the shops to replace the banned Capitali (a Hungarian version of Monopoly). As a ‘western communist’ he was, no doubt, in just as much danger from the secret police and the ‘Muscovites’ who were leading the party, as were the other members of the family. Even the seventy-one member Central Committee of the party was dwarfed in its significance by the Political Committee which met every week; even within this body, the ‘Muscovites’ formed an ‘inner circle’ within which the ‘triumvirate’ of Rákosi, Gerő and Farkas reigned supreme, with Rákosi surrounded by a personality cult second only in its dimensions, within the Communist bloc, to that of Stalin himself.

If any complex financial questions arose, the family turned to Pali (Hédi’s father, my grandmother’s younger brother) who was an accountant. Pali had another daughter, Márti, who had Down’s syndrome. She was a much-loved and nurtured member of the family:

We children adored her as she always played with us and always had a warm smile and a hug for us. She joined in with our games and clearly enjoyed playing with our toys. She was well-known in her neighbourhood and could do some shopping for her parents as well as helping at home. Márti was not the only member of the family with a disability. My young second cousin Kati had a genetic disorder resulting in very restricted growth and associated mobility problems in later life. However, she was bright, always even-tempered, went through mainstream school and university, took a doctorate and became a very competent and respected accountant.

Sixteen members of the extended family had died in the holocaust, but those who survived remained close to each other through thick and thin, notwithstanding any strains of religious, economic, political or philosophical differences. The dark years were hard for everyone, but when anyone was in acute hardship, there was always help. If things got difficult at home for anyone, there was always a listening ear. Tom recalls an occasion when, aged about nine, he ran away from home:

I forget the reason, but Mami and I had a row and she took to her periodic silent phase. I took the 49 tram, then changed to the 11 and arrived at my aunt Juci and uncle Gyuri’s flat. The adults had a quiet word, decided I might as well stay the night, play with my cousins, and start next day as if nothing had happened. It worked, I guess we just needed some ’space’ from each other. Juci and Gyuri’s home was a lovely flat and I always liked going there. They were always very busy, both working full-time and with three young children, but they always had time for me. Jani, Andi and Juli liked having me around and regarded me as an older brother. Their paternal grandmother, Ilonka mama, lived with them, helped with household chores and quietly fussed around us. Feeling at home in their family in Budapest laid the foundation for my crucial years as a teenage orphan in London, but surrounded by a loving family.

In the period after the war, throughout the 1940s and even through to 1956, the cultural scene in Budapest remained vibrant, with a vigorous and colourful press at first, in which all the trends that survived the war-time crucible represented themselves with excellent periodicals. There were renowned musical and theatrical performances and a host of films which represented the highest standards of international cinematography. For Tom, this creative atmosphere was a central part of his upbringing:

Music was very important in our lives. It was my mother’s great source of comfort and it became one of the strongest bonds between us, though occasionally also a source of strain. I grew up listening to classical music on the radio and started going to concerts, the opera and the ballet at an early age. Tickets were cheap for everyone and sometimes even free for us, once Mami started to work for the Hungarian Philharmonia, the state bureau which organised all major musical events in the country and distributed all tickets. Its offices were just opposite the sumptuous classical building of the Opera House.

My parents were concert goers during their courtship and the short married life they had together before the war tore them apart. Mami now just had me and she started taking me to concerts and the opera at what might be considered a very early age. Works deemed suitable for children, like Tchaikovsky’s ‘Nutcracker’ ballet, Massine’s ‘La Boutique Fantastique’,  and Engelbert Humperdinck’s ‘Hansel and Gretel’ I saw before the age of six. I was not yet eight when I saw ‘Carmen’ at the Opera in a mesmerising performance…  Apart from the two opera houses of the capital (the classical Opera House and the more modern Erkel Theatre), there were outdoor performances in the summer. The outdoor theatre was near the zoo and occasionally a hapless tenor or soprano had to compete with some noisy peacocks or other nocturnally vocal animals.

There were a lot of excellent Hungarian musicians of international renown, who were not able to travel to the west. With visiting artists from the other communist countries, the quality of performances was always high… After Stalin’s death, when the regime became relatively less repressive, the first western artist to visit was the great Yehudi Menuhin. He played both the Beethoven and the Mendelssohn violin concertos in the same concert, one each side of the interval. Mami managed to get three tickets. She and her best friend Gitta (my friend Dani’s mother) were both looking forward to the concert as a high point of the year. Dani and I were to share the third ticket. He played the violin, so he had first choice and chose the Beethoven (which is longer). I was satisfied, because the Mendelssohn was my favourite, having been told that it had been one of my father’s best loved pieces of music. In any case, we could each listen to the other half outside the door. It was a magical performance and the four of us talked about nothing else for weeks.

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Tom, all dressed up for a night at the opera

Nagy’s New Course & Rákosi’s Return:

It is no wonder that Hungarians received the news of Stalin’s death on 5 March 1953 with almost unanimous relief. Gyula Kodolányi recalls how in school the next day they had to stand for a minute. Most of his friends bent their heads down, he remembers, not in mourning, but to hide glances of outright joy. Life on the streets was also commanded to halt for minutes of silence, but the attitude of the adults was similar, except for a few hysterical party members sobbing theatrically on the departure of their demigod.

As the new Soviet leadership recognised the possibility of peaceful co-existence with the West, this resulted in their recognition of the wider crisis which existed throughout their Empire in general, and Hungary in particular. Mátyás Rákosi, who was also Premier since 1952 and thought that things would return to normal once the power struggle in the Kremlin was over, was summoned to Moscow in the middle of June. In the presence of a party and state delegation he was reprimanded in a humiliating fashion by Lavrentiy Beria and the other Soviet leaders, who brutally dismissed him before his comrades for developing a personality cult and presiding over the collapse of the absurdly centralised Hungarian economy (due to policies implemented on their own demands, it has to be recognised, including the senseless industrialisation and forcible collectivisation of agriculture) and appalling living standards. At the same time, Beria announced that Imre Nagy, present in Moscow as Deputy Prime Minister, would be the new leader of Communist Hungary.  Nagy had fallen into disfavour in 1949, due to his dissent over the issue of collectivisation, and although he had gradually returned to the leadership of the party, he had managed to remain untainted by the terror. However, the ‘cadres’ in Budapest remained perplexed, since Rákosi had retained the party secretaryship, and it was therefore difficult for them to predict whether the Soviet leadership in the future would favour him or Nagy. Nevertheless, in the twenty-one months that followed, the Nagy government implemented significant corrections, justifying the description of the period as the new course. Nagy moved energetically to proclaim his policies for the new course on 4 July 1953. Kodolányi, then aged twelve, remembers walking home on a blazing hot evening in Budapest, in which all the windows were open to let in a cooling breeze:

… from every window Imre Nagy’s maiden speech as Prime Minister resounded forth from radios, often from radio sets placed on the window sills. It was a somewhat rasping but pleasant and unobtrusive voice, with intimate overtones of his native dialect of southwest Hungary… the unbelievable happened after so many years of Communism: a human voice speaking in Parliament, to real human beings. A Hungarian to fellow Hungarians. Morally and intellectually, Communism fell in Hungary at that moment – although in the world of power it remained here to pester us for another 37 years, an obtrusive carcass.

Imre Nagy may have been unaware of the full immense effect on the nation of the speech and his voice. He found his way to the hearts of the people, and at this moment already his road to martyrdom was fatally decided…

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At the earlier meeting of the party central committee on 27-28 June, Nagy had already stated that, in his view, Hungary had become a police state, and its government a shadow government in the service of the Communist Party. He demanded that the Party had to resort to ‘self-criticism’. In his historic Parliament speech, he promised the restoration of legality, the curbing of police power and the bringing of the ÁVH back under the control of the Interior Ministry. He promised a partial amnesty for political prisoners, the stopping of deportations and forced labour, and greater tolerance for religion. He also promised a sharp rise in living standards and the restructuring of the economy.  This would involve the abolition of costly development priorities in heavy industry, the restructuring of agricultural policy, the easing of burdens on the peasantry and the granting of their right to return to individual farming. His most urgent and important reforms were all codified in Parliament within a month. The effect was an immediate, immense sense of relief in society as hope, self-confidence and creativity emerged in all walks of life, despite the resistance which lurked in many pockets of Stalinist power. Too many people in positions of influence had been involved in the excesses of the Rákosi régime. Although the refreshing breeze of a new freedom of speech swept through the country, and the sins of Stalinist past were discussed widely, passions were kept in check.

However, partly owing to the power struggle ongoing in the Kremlin itself, the Soviet leadership became increasingly convinced that Nagy’s New Course was progressing too fast and dangerously. In early 1955 it decided that Rákosi had to be brought back to power. In January Nagy was censured by Khrushchev, who had displaced Malenkov, for the ‘radicalism’ of the reforms and ordered to correct the ‘mistakes’. His subsequent illness was used by Rákosi to prepare charges of right-wing deviation and nationalist tendencies against him and to arrange for his dismissal (18 April). Initially, Nagy’s replacement was András Hegedűs, a young man whom Rákosi and Gerő hoped to manipulate. However, Rákosi had not learnt the lessons of his fall from ‘grace’ and came back with the intention to take personal revenge in the spring of 1955, even though, by then, Stalinism had become a dirty word throughout the Soviet Empire. Another wave of forcible collectivisation of agriculture and a sharp increase in the number of political prisoners were among the most visible signs of re-Stalinisation. Nagy was ousted from the Hungarian Communist Party and withdrew from public life, but wrote memoranda defending the Marxist-Leninist basis of his reforms. He was supported by a large group of reformist intellectuals and revisionist Communist politicians, who still regarded him as their true leader. Tension continued to run high, so that the Soviets felt driven to interfere for a second time. The Twentieth Congress of the Soviet Communist Party in February 1956 indicated that the Kremlin now deemed the use of widespread terror to maintain the pace of the armaments race as unaffordable. Although Rákosi claimed, on his return, that the ‘secret speech’ had confirmed that no further steps were necessary to restore socialist legitimacy, the illicit listeners to it in central and western Europe knew that it put the seal on the policy of de-Stalinisation, the toleration of different national paths to Communism and the peaceful co-existence of the two world systems.

Catalysts of the Uprising:

On 21 July 1956 Rákosi was finally deposed and sent into exile in central Asia. But instead of bringing back Imre Nagy, Mikoyan appointed Rákosi’s hard-line henchman Ernő Gerő as Prime Minister, a grave miscalculation as it turned out. It was mistakenly believed in the Kremlin that by dropping Rákosi things would return to normal, but his replacement by another veteran Stalinist did nothing to satisfy either the opposition in the Hungarian Communist Party or the Yugoslav Communists, whose voice had started to matter again following the reconciliation between Moscow and Belgrade. It is clear from the 1991 account of the then British Ambassador to Budapest, Peter Unwin, that by the time of Mikoyan’s deposing of Rákosi on 17 July 1956, only Nagy had any chance of replacing him successfully as both party secretary and prime minister. But although Nagy was once again becoming a figure of influence, he was not only no longer prime minister, but was still out of office and suspended from the Party indefinitely. In appointing Gerő, Mikoyan missed the chance to make a clean break with the Rákosi régime. Gerő was an experienced, hard-working apparatchik who had been close to Rákosi since their days in exile in Moscow during the war. Although less hated than his erstwhile boss, he was equally discredited among his colleagues in Budapest. He also lacked the flexibility and skill of Rákosi.

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If Mikoyan had chosen Nagy in July, he would have given him the chance to create a position like Gomulka’s in Poland, strong enough both to resist both popular Hungarian and Soviet pressure. But the Kremlin remained distrustful of Gomulka’s efforts to come to terms with its own people and did not want to replicate these conditions in Hungary almost simultaneously. As a result, Nagy’s return to power was delayed for three vital months during the summer and early autumn of ’56, months which were also wasted by Gerő. Many Hungarians concluded that in replacing Rákosi with Gerő, the Soviets had made no decisive change in substance, even fearing that Rákosi might reappear yet again. All the old régime’s critics were equally convinced that real change could only be brought about by the return of Imre Nagy. Mikoyan kept in touch with Nagy, concluding that, should Gerő fail to establish his authority as a loyal Soviet subordinate, he would still have time to turn to the insubordinate and unrepentant Nagy.

During August and September the rehabilitation of political prisoners continued and there was no attempt made to silence the reformists clamouring for liberalisation and freedom of the press. Their success depended on their ability to stay ‘within bounds’, to gain popular control of peripheral spheres of national life, but not to threaten the central core of orthodox party power. Gerő remained reluctant to give Nagy a platform for renewed political activity. Yet the former prime minister was also a Bolshevik of nearly forty years’ standing and, as such, the one individual who could unite the nation and most of the party. Yet at the same time Gerő ignored the various unofficial promptings from Nagy, refusing to take action against him and his associates. When Nagy applied in writing for readmission to the Party on 4 October, he specifically accepted democratic centralism, in other words the right of the Party to discipline him, and Gerő’s leadership, despite the outrage of his friends. Gerő took nine days to respond to the application, making the strained atmosphere between the two camps even worse.

Discredited party functionaries were exposed in the press and the Petöfi Circle continued with its debates on burning issues like economic policy, the condition of agriculture and educational reform. After discussing the matter with Moscow, Gerő finally agreed to Nagy’s readmission. He was finally re-adopted by the party a week after the reburial of Rajk on 6 October, which turned into a 100,000-strong peaceful demonstration against the crimes of Stalinism. A delegation of Hungarian leaders visited Belgrade, and, by the time they returned, matters had already slipped beyond the party’s control. What had begun as a struggle between revisionist and orthodox Communists, set off by and adjusting to changes in Moscow, had turned into growing ferment among the intelligentsia and become a full-scale anti-Soviet revolution.

Following the reburial and rehabilitation of László Rajk and the victims of the purges of 1949, on 6th and 13th October, the newspapers carried the decision of the Political Committee to readmit Nagy to party membership. His Chair at the university and his membership of the Academy of Sciences were restored soon after, but there was no word of a return to public office. Demands for reform continued to spread and the country was soon ablaze with debate and discussion groups, which became local ‘parliaments’. But both sides seemed to back away from confrontation while events in Belgrade and Warsaw took their course. Events in Budapest were shaping as Nagy had predicted they would, with the nation facing crisis. He was close to power. The British Minister in Budapest reported on 18 October that…

Nagy’s star appears firmly in the ascendant and I am reliably informed that it is only a question of time before he obtains high office.

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As he relaxed on a short break at Lake Balaton, there was tumult throughout the country. Besides Budapest, students were calling for marches and demonstrations in Miskolc, Szeged, Pécs and Sopron.  The news of the Polish success in the showdown with Khrushchev on 19 November intoxicated them and excited mass meetings began by passing resolutions in support of Poland and ended in the formulation of demands for reform in Hungary.

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The origins and causes of the events of 1956 are often viewed through the prism of more recent attempts of central-eastern European states to wriggle free from the overarching and all-pervasive control of Soviet communism. However, whilst we may conclude that the 1956 Hungarian Uprising was an anti-Soviet revolution, based on contemporary and eye-witness accounts, there is a wealth of evidence to suggest that it was not intrinsically anti-Communist, despite the justifications used by apologists for the Kádár régime which followed. Like many of the subsequent rebellions, even that of East Germany in 1989, both the leadership and the bulk of their followers were committed communists, or Marxist-Leninists, seeking reform and revision of the system, not its total overthrow. In her detailed and well-informed analysis of the Hungarian Revolution, Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt wrote in 1957:

This was a true event whose stature will not depend upon victory or defeat: its greatness is secure in the tragedy it enacted. What happened in Hungary happened nowhere else, and the twelve days of the revolution contained more history than the twelve years since the Red Army had ‘liberated’ the country from Nazi domination.

This was certainly the case, although, as we have seen, the twelve previous years were hardly uneventful. However, anyone who has lived through one of the accelerations of history which have happened in Europe in more recent years may have some idea of the sense of headiness engendered at that time. Arendt marvelled at the way in which the Revolution was initiated by the prime objects of indoctrination, the “over-privileged” of the Communist system: left-wing intellectuals, university students, workers; the Communist avant-garde: their motive was neither their own nor their fellow-citizens’ material misery, but exclusively Freedom and Truth”. This was, she concluded, an ultimate affirmation that human nature is unchangeable, that nihilism will be futile, that… yearning for freedom and truth will rise out of man’s heart and mind forever. What, for her, was also remarkable, was that, given the atmosphere and the lines drawn by early October 1956, there was no civil war. For the Hungarian army, the interior police and most of the Marxist-Leninist régime and its cadres, those lines were quickly swept away by the tide of events. Only the Ávó remained loyal to the hard-line Stalinist cause.

The eye-witness evidence of Sándor Kopácsi, the Budapest Police chief, and Béla Király, the commander-in-chief of the Hungarian National Guard, both committed communists, of itself provides sufficient evidence that the Revolution was not an anti-Communist counter-revolution. More recently than their accounts, a memorandum of István Bibó, a Minister of State in the Nagy government of 1956 has been translated into English. Bibó was not a Communist, having been delegated by the re-established National Peasant Party, re-named The Petöfi Party. Between January and April 1957 he wrote down his thoughts for world leaders and delivered his memorandum to the US Embassy. He was later arrested along with Árpád Göncz and others and tried for treason and conspiracy. Although given the death sentence, he was released in 1963 under the general amnesty negotiated by the US and the Vatican with the Kádár régime. In the memorandum, his contemporary interpretation of the causes of the Uprising comes across even more clearly than those of Kopácsi and Király, who were caught up in its events:

In a word, the Hungarian action of the Soviet Union, which had been meant to avoid surrendering a position, has only dealt a blow to the position of communism… … the movements in Hungary, Poland and other Communist countries have most amply demonstrated that there is a genuine and active demand for the reality of freedom and its most developed techniques… These movements have proved that the demand for change is not limited to the victims of the one-party régime, it indeed came forth from those the single-party system brought up, its youths; there need be no worry that they would lead to the restoration of outdated social and political forms… The Hungarian Revolution and the popular movements of Eastern Europe mean that the Western world can and should follow a policy line that is neither aggressive nor informed by power considerations but is more active and enterprising and aims not to impose its economic and social system on others but step by step seeks to win East European countries and finally the Soviet Union over to Western techniques of freedom and the shared political morality in which it is grounded.

The fact that this was written in hiding and smuggled out of the country lends a certain poignancy to Bibó’s perspective, since it is not influenced by the western surroundings  of exile in North America. I have dealt elsewhere with the events and outcomes of this spontaneous national uprising, as the UN Special Committee described it in 1957. What is clear from the reading of the available evidence about its causes is that Kádár’s propaganda that it was inspired and led by fascists, anti-Semites, reactionaries and imperialists, echoing, strongly at first, all the way down to the recent sixtieth anniversary, no longer has any place in the national discourse.

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Bartók Béla Boulevard elementary school Class 8a, spring 1956

Tom is third from left in the middle row, Dani in front row extreme right

Form teacher Benedek Bölöni (Béni bácsi)

Sources:

Hungarian Review, November 2016, Vol VII, No. 6.

László Kontler (2009), A History of Hungary. Budapest: Atlantisz Publishing House.

Tom Leimdofer’s Family Memoirs, unpublished (including photos).

Budapest between the Holocaust and the Uprising, 1946-56: Part Two, 1948-53; Descent into Dictatorship.   Leave a comment

1948-49: The Turning Point

In February 1992, Tom Leimdorfer, my former colleague at the Society of Friends (Quakers), was running a week’s residential course for teachers and teacher trainers in Szolnok in eastern Hungary, in the middle of the great plain (Alföld). After the first session, a Physical Education lecturer from a teacher training college called Katalin asked him if by any chance he was the same Leimdörfer Tamás who once attended the Veres Pálné experimental primary school in 1948-49. She remembered being amongst his group little lady friends!

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Veres Pálné experimental primary class 1, September 1948

Tom in top row, extreme right. Bomb damage seen in background

Class teacher Sára Németh

As that academic year got underway, Hungary was effectively becoming a one-party state. It was, and is still often assumed in the west that the communist era in Hungary started at the end of the war. This is far from the case. The Soviet Red Army drove out the previous occupying German troops and the fascist arrow-cross regime of Szálasi was thankfully brought to an end in April 1945. Democracy was restored with free elections, and in fact a more genuinely democratic government came to power than Hungary had known for decades. However, within a year the pressures from Stalin’s Soviet Union ensured that Hungary would be firmly within its economic sphere and the government had few choices. By 1947 the right of centre prime minister from the Smallholders’ party was ousted. The most dramatic political change came early in 1948. The election gave the Communist Party 22.3% of the vote, but their strategy of salami slicing the ‘opposition’ parties came to a successful conclusion with the absorption of the left-wing of the Social Democratic Party into the Communist Party. Those who opposed the move had either been exiled, or, like Anna Kéthly, together with tens of thousands of ordinary members, were expelled. On 12 June 1948 the first congress of the now 1.1 million-strong Hungarian Workers’ Party had begun. Rákósi became General Secretary, with another former Muscovite exile, Mihály Farkas, the left-wing Social Democrat György Marosán and János Kádár serving as his deputies. In its programme, the Party committed itself to Marxist-Leninism, to the building of socialism through the ‘struggle’ against ‘reactionaries’, friendship and co-operation with the Soviet Union and the other people’s democracies, combined with a domestic policy of further nationalisation and comprehensive economic planning. The year 1948 soon became known as the year of the turning point. By this time, as László Kontler has written,

… major battles had been won by the Communists in the war for minds, that is, the struggle for dominance over the network of education and cultural life in general, by transforming their structure and content. As in the political and economic spheres, here, too, the destruction caused by the war, the desire to create something out of nothing and the vacuum which could be penetrated, favoured the most tightly organised force on the scene. The damage caused in school buildings, in educational and research equipment, library holdings and public collections by the warfare or by German and Soviet pillage was matched by the number of casualties of war among teachers and intellectuals, especially writers, who fell victim… by the dozens.

Those who resisted either fled the country or were arrested. By the end of the year other political parties had been banned and wholesale nationalisation was in full swing. Yet the Communists were careful to maintain a the post-war ‘coalition’ of an education system based on liberal democratic and national values without imposing Marxist-Leninist ones. The first National Council for Public Education, created in April 1945 and chaired by Albert Szent-György, the Nobel Prize winning scientist, included such diverse members as the composer Zoltán Kodály. Its main initiative was the transition to the eight-year elementary system which Tom Leimdorfer was now entering, originally proposed in 1940 which, besides skills in literacy and arithmetic, also made the acquisition of fundamental knowledge in the social and natural sciences possible. In the new curriculum, the conservative nationalist traditions were being replaced by more progressive ones. The transition to the new system was completed by the end of the 1940s, despite 70% of teachers not having the qualification to teach special subjects in the upper elementary section. At higher levels of education, the opening of the gates to free university places resulted in a doubling of students, though at the cost of a decline in overall standards. Nevertheless, this and other measures meant that several thousand young people from more humble origins were able to gain access to higher education.

However, the debates over aesthetic and ideological issues related to literature and culture, invariably initiated by the Marxist circle of Lukács, gradually metamorphosed into a witch-hunt against the apolitical or decadent representatives of the western-oriented populist writers. The Hungarian Academy of Sciences was also denounced by Lukács at the party congress in 1946 as a stronghold of reaction, and the removal and destruction of several thousand volumes of fascist, anti-Soviet and chauvinist literature from its library by the political police a few months later bode ill for the future. As in politics, 1948 became the year of the turning point in the cultural status quo, when the winding up of the non-communist press started and the Communists scored their most important success in their Kulturkampf against its most formidable rival, the Catholic Church, with the establishment of state control over ecclesiastical schools. The introduction of the eight-year elementary school system and the nationalisation of textbook publishing had already incited violent protests, especially among the organised clergy. Pastoral letters, sermons and demonstrations denouncing the proposed nationalisation of schools were all in vain: parliament enacted the measure on June 16. About 6,500 schools were involved, about half of them being Catholic-controlled.

Dark years again, 1949-53:

The New Year of 1949 saw the establishment of one party dictatorship under Party Secretary Mátyás Rákosi, whose salami tactics had got rid of all opposition and whose establishment of the feared secret police (ÁVH, commonly referred to as the Ávó) heralded an era of full-blown Stalinist repression. It lasted just over four years, but was all-pervasive. The first victims were some of Rákosi’s former political allies and hence rivals. The most prominent was Foreign Minister László Rajk who was accused of siding with Tito, who had led his  communist Yugoslavia out of the Soviet Block towards neutrality. The perceived threat posed to Soviet hegemony led Rákosi to opt for an astonishment effect to convince people of the need for an ‘iron fist’. The fact that Rajk had worked in the western communist movement before the war lent some plausibility to the fantastic allegations that he was an imperialist agent collaborating with the excommunicated Yugoslavs. Convinced by Kádár that the class enemy must be intimidated and that he therefore needed to accept his role as a ‘scapegoat’, though he would ultimately be spared, Rajk signed the expected confession. The charges against him were made public in June 1949. In October he was executed together with two of his associates paid with their lives for just keeping lines of communication open with Tito. Many others accused in the case were also put to death, jailed or interned later on, in the party terror which lasted until 1953. The proclamation of innocence, exhumation and ceremonial reburial of László Rajk in 1956 was one of the key events leading up to the Revolution. A new constitution, modelled on the Soviet one of 1936, made Hungary a People’s Republic. The role of the state organs at all levels was confined to practical management of issues, while strategic policy and control remained in the hands of the party élite.

Tom’s second school year started in September 1949  in a school nearer home, Bocskai primary school (named after one of the Transylvanian princes who successfully resisted both Habsburg and full Turkish rule). Although it was only 15 minutes walk from home, there were several roads to cross, so in some ways it was a more hazardous journey. It was a dull building, which would have been recognised as a suburban primary anywhere and it had a small dusty playground. Tom was a stranger in a year two class of all boys who were all pleased to see their friends and ignored me. Then, on the second day, a boy with a nice smile and very big ears started to talk to him. They soon discovered that they both only had Mums, but Dani was the middle one of three brothers, while Tom was an only child. They both listened to classical music and Dani had recently started to play the violin, while Tom was in his second year of making very slow progress on the piano. They had both recently learnt to play chess and were both keen on football. Within days they were firm friends, a friendship which was to last a lifetime in spite of distance. Dani’s mother (‘Gitta’) wasted no time in inviting him and his mother to her flat. He remembers that…

She was one of the kindest, most patient and loving people I ever met. She had lost her husband in the final days of the siege of Budapest. Gitta and my mother Edit, having met through their sons, became the closest of friends. Living close to each other, Dani and I were in and out of each other’s homes, played football in the street outside our house (which was safe, unlike the main road outside their large block of flats).  To a large extent our friendship must have been rather exclusive as I have no memory of any of my other classmates till we moved to the middle school in year five and became part of a wider group or little gang of 10/11 year olds.

The school day in Hungary started at eight in the morning and finished before one. They took sandwiches for break time (elevenses). Outdoor playtime during break was carefully structured with organised games or walking quietly in pairs. Tom’s class had the same teacher throughout the three years he was at the Bocskai school. She was an efficient and motherly woman. It was the ‘dark years’ of 1949-52, but school was a quiet haven, if rather dull. At the beginning of each year, they all had to buy the grey textbooks stacked in piles for each year and each subject in the bookshop. These were standard texts for all schools and only cost a few forints. Each year they contained more and more propaganda mixed in with what would be recognised as standard subject matter, especially in history.

By 1954, the number of secondary school pupils was 130,000, nearly double that of the highest pre-war figures, and three times as many students (33,000) went to universities, including several newly established ones. The proportion of young people attending from peasant and working-class origins, formerly barred from higher education, rose to over fifty per cent. The inculcation of Marxism-Leninism through the school system was emphasised at all levels within the new curricula. To satisfy this requirement, the whole gamut of text-books was changed, as Tom mentions above, new ones being commissioned and completed under careful supervision by the relevant party organs. Teaching of foreign languages was confined to Russian which became compulsory from the fifth year of elementary school in spite of the lack of qualified teachers.

For Tom, there was some homework even in the early years of elementary school, but afternoons were mainly free for play. When not playing with Dani, Tom spent much of his time with his grandmother, ‘Sári mama’:

We read books together, played endless board games (including chess and draughts), listened to music on the radio and talked about different performers, went for walks in good weather. Sometimes my cousin Éva came over too and we would play together. Occasionally, Sári mama sang songs from Lehár and Kálmán operettas, read me poems translated from world literature and told me stories of plays. From time to time (with the odd tear in her eye), she talked about my father when he was young, telling me which poems and what music he liked. School gave the basic numeracy and literacy skills, but my education during those year came mainly from my grandmother. With Mami working all day and often tired and stressed in the evening, ‘quality time’ with her had to wait till the weekend.

Among the most immediate and direct effects of the events of 1949-52 on Tom’s family was the loss of property, and for the second time within a few years. Tom’s grandfather’s timber yard had been confiscated under the Jewish Laws during the war. He had re-built the business from scratch as soon as the war was over. However, in 1948, he could see the signs ahead. The nationalisation of the large banks and the companies controlled by them, which was the ultimate test of the Smallholder Party, had been enacted on 29 September 1947. The bauxite and aluminium followed two months later. Then, on 25 March, 1948, all industrial firms employing more than a hundred workers were taken into state property by a decree prepared in great secrecy and taking even the newly appointed ‘worker directors’ by surprise. Ármin Leimdörfer (whose business only employed six or seven) generously offered it to a newly formed large state-owned building co-operative.  He was employed in the new firm and they valued his expertise. A few months later, all small businesses were also nationalised and their owners deported to remote villages. This also nearly happened to Tom’s grandparents twice during 1950-52. On both occasions, the senior management appealed to the political authorities to rescind the order as Tom’s grandfather was deemed essential to the firm and had several inventions to his name. On the second of these occasions, all their furniture was already piled on the lorry before they were allowed to return to their flat. Tom’s great-uncle Feri also lost the garage he owned, but kept his job as a much valued architect.

Just five years after surviving the Holocaust, many Hungarian Jewish people, in some cases entire families, were deported from the cities to distant farms in the country together with so-called class aliens, aristocrats, Horthyites and bourgeois elements, ordered to leave behind their apartments and personal belongings and to perform forced labour. It was no longer the upper and middle classes who were the objects of the communists’ ire, but any person belonging to any class who could be branded as an enemy in Rákosi’s system. During the eight years of this reign of Stalinist terror, mostly between the period 1948 to 1953, 600,000 Hungarians were made subject to legal charges taking away their rights, many of them being placed in detention by the police and juridical authorities. By adding family members to this number, the number of citizens affected increases to more than two million, out of a total population of less than ten million.  

The deportations also had the effect of freeing up accommodation in Budapest for workers the government wished to bring in from the provinces. There was also housing shortage as the result of war damage. Without legal proceedings, 13,000 ‘class enemies’ (aristocrats, former officials, factory owners, etc.) were evicted from Budapest, together with a further three thousand from provincial towns, to small villages where they were compelled to do agricultural labour under strict supervision. The official justification was their unreliability during a time of imperialist incitement and sharpening of class struggle, but the reality was their removal to satisfy the need for city housing for the newly privileged bureaucratic class. As living space became rationed, Tom’s small family flat was deemed too large for just his mother and himself:

She acted quickly to offer one room (my room) to a friend of hers whom we always called by her familiar name of ‘Csöpi’. If Mami thought that she had prevented a forced flat share with strangers, she was to be disappointed. We still had the small room next to the kitchen, the one designed for domestic staff, which Bözsi had occupied midweek during the immediate post-war years. The district authority allocated that room to a couple from the provinces. They were not unpleasant people, but the situation was difficult for everyone with shared kitchen and bath room for three very different households (one single young woman, one couple, my mother and me). Mami and I shared the largest room in the flat. The large sofa was turned each night into a wide twin bed. The room also housed a baby grand piano, a large bookcase, a coffee table and a very large old desk, which was my pride and joy as I was allowed full use of it from an early age. The wall opposite the window had the large ceramic stove jutting out into the room (next to the piano). Our room had the french window leading to the small balcony and the stairs to the garden. We shared the garden with Csöpi, but the couple just had the small room and use of kitchen and bathroom all of which opened from the entrance hall. The windowless dining area also opened to the entrance hall, then had two doors: one to our room and to Csöpi’s room (my old room). Our two rooms also had an intercommunicating double door, which did not give either of us any privacy, though we kept it closed…

… It was assumed that the couple who were `brought in’ had some party links, so it was always best to keep a low profile. All blocks of flats had wardens and the wardens were paid to keep an eye on the residents and to inform the secret police of any trouble or suspicious activities by the standards of the state. Residents gave wardens gifts in order to try to keep in favour, as false accusations were quite common.

Our warden lived in the flat below ours, which now would be called a ’garden flat’. Their front window looked out to our garden at knee level, but they only had access to the yard at the back. He was a cantankerous middle-aged man with a liking for too much alcohol, but he had a kind and forbearing wife. Mami made sure that whenever we had a parcel from my uncle Bandi in England, the warden had a present. Occasionally, the warden would appear on our doorstep, somewhat embarrassed, and ask a few questions about a visitor he had not seen before. It was all part of his job.

The shocking figures, combined with Tom’s eye-witness evidence, reveal the supreme inhumanity of the régime not just in terms of the scale of the deportations but also in the dehumanising effect of the housing measures in poisoning private relations, breaking consciences and confidences and undermining public commitments. For anyone who has read George Orwell’s 1984, published in 1948, it is not difficult to imagine how varying degrees of distrust pervaded individual relations, if not necessarily in their families and with intimate friends, surely with colleagues, neighbours, fellow members of clubs and choirs. On one of my first visits to Hungary, in July 1989, a Catholic priest commented that, for him, growing up in Budapest, 1984 was not a work of fiction. It described exactly what life was like in Hungary in the period 1948-53. The gap between the official proclamation of the people’s democracy and the reality of their helplessness against the obvious violations of its principles made people apolitical in a highly politicised age, turning them away from civic service.

Meanwhile, the communist state embarked on a 5-year plan of heavy industrialisation. The three-year economic plan, whose task was bringing reconstruction to completion, through the restoration of pre-war production levels, had been accomplished ahead of schedule, by the end of 1949.  The building of Ferihegy Airport, just outside the capital, begun during the war, was also completed. Huge investments were made to enhance industrial output, especially in heavy industry. Planned targets were exceeded, at the expense of agriculture. In respect of the latter, the earlier gradualist approach had been abandoned by the Communists in the summer of 1948. Although the organisation of co-operative farms was their long-term goal from the outset, they realised that the sympathy of the peasantry depended on land reform, and therefore they supported it in the most radical form possible. Even in early 1948, a long and gradual transition to cooperative farming was foreseen, but in view of the June resolution of the Cominform, which censured the Yugoslav party  because of its indulgent attitude to the peasant issue. Rákosi also urged the speeding up of the process, setting aside a few years to its accomplishment. Smallholders were forced into large agricultural collectives managed by party bosses (large landowners had already fled to the west and their land was confiscated). Eventually, the cooperatives were quite successful, but in the first years the effects were devastating. Food production slumped by half and food shortages became the order of the day. In spite of the fact that its share of national income was the same in agriculture as for industry, the former suffered from low investment.  When Tom’s uncle visited from Britain, where ration books controlled the austerity of 1947, he was surprised that war-devastated Hungary still had food in plenty. But by 1951, queues for rations of milk, bread, cheese and meat were the order of the day. Tom remembers standing in food queues after school, keeping a place for his grandmother.

The entirely unreasonable project of transforming Hungary, whose mineral resources were insignificant, into a country of iron and steel established an imbalance in the national economy to the extent that, while the population in general was satisfied with the modest increase in living standards compared with the terrible conditions of 1945-6, the target of reaching pre-war consumption levels was unrealistic. Meanwhile, Hungary’s foreign trade relations were undergoing a profound transformation. By 1949, the Soviet Union took over Germany’s place as its foremost foreign trade partner, a process sealed by the signing of a treaty of friendship and mutual aid between Hungary and the Soviet Union in February 1948. This was followed by the establishment of an entire network of exchange through the creation of the Council of Mutual Economic Aid (COMECON) on 20 January, 1949. The Soviets realised that they could save the expenses of dismantling, transporting and reinstalling equipment and, in addition, use Hungarian labour while exerting greater control over the country’s domestic economy, by creating or reorganising companies of key importance in shipping, air transport, bauxite exploitation, aluminium production, oil extraction and refinement, as mixed concerns. Tom Leimdorfer comments on the combined effects of these economic policies on ordinary people:  

With everything nationalised, gradually all choice in items of clothing also disappeared. Worse still, there were actual shortages of items likes shoes or socks or shirts. These were quite unpredictable and probably partly due to rumours and panic buying. Occasionally, one would hear that clothing items of a certain size were available at a particular outlet (by now all stores were also state-owned or directed co-operatives), but there would soon be a shortage. Long queues would form and the item would soon disappear. Large quantities of other items would be lying around unsold. The state denounced the rumours as being started by enemies of the communist state. It is possible that they had a point, but the ridiculous system of supply led planned production was probably mainly to blame. A certain factory had a target to produce a quantity of a certain product and that had to be fulfilled, irrespective of what was actually needed. Workers and managers who fulfilled or exceeded their targets were given prizes (‘Stakhanovite’ medals with small financial bonuses), those who failed faced disciplinary action.

There was a culture of fear in the workplaces. People were regularly denounced as enemies of the state and investigated. Someone could be denounced for pre-war right-wing connections, for having been a ‘capitalist’, for having links with the west or for supposed fraud or misdemeanour at work. Actually, there was a lot of fraud, mainly perpetrated by those who thought they were safe. In fact, nobody was safe as they could be denounced by others who wanted their job or who wanted to climb the political ladder within the party. One close friend who experienced the horrors of the ‘knock in the night’ was Gyuri Schustek, who had been at college with my father. He was taken for interrogation by the secret police for allegedly falsifying documents in the workplace. At one point, he was told at gun point to sign a false confession. He kept his nerve and refused. After several months, he was released without explanation or apology. He never knew who denounced him or why. Such experiences were quite common.

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The main organ of repression, the ÁVH or Ávó, was separated from the Ministry of the Interior and put directly under the authority, first of the council of ministers, and then of the Defence Committee. Its permanent staff originally consisted of 28,000 officers, striking at individuals or refractory groups or rivals of the leaders upon direct orders from them, based on ‘evidence’ collected from about 40,000 informers also employed by the the political police. Records were kept on about one million citizens, or over ten per cent of the total population. Of these, around two-thirds were prosecuted and nearly 400,000 served terms in prisons or internment/ labour camps, mostly in quarries and mines. By 1953, the tide of persecution had turned on the creators of the system itself, including the chief of the political police. About eighty leading party members were executed, tortured to death or committed suicide in prison, and thousands more zealous communists served prison terms.

There were a few ‘show trials’ and presumed disappearances to Siberia. More likely, prominent figures who were or were deemed to be in opposition to the regime served lengthy terms of imprisonment, some with hard labour. One distant relative, the poet György Faludi (his hungaricised name from Leimdörfer) spent time working in stone quarries and later recorded his experience in the book ‘My happy days in hell’. 

For most people, however, it was all much less dramatic. Just an all-pervading atmosphere of fear and distrust, families teaching their children not repeat conversations they heard at home, everyone careful not to be overheard in public places. The language of the school and the workplace (which had to be really ‘politically correct’) was totally different from private conversations. The state controlled media was not believed by anyone (not even when it happened to tell the truth) and listening to low volume radio broadcasts of the BBC World Service or the right-wing ‘Radio Free Europe’ was both risky and difficult as they were often jammed by state-generated radio interference signals.

It was not all negative, of course. The communist regime improved the health service and education, especially in rural areas, and eliminated absolute poverty. There was no real starvation, homelessness or unemployment. There was improvement in sports facilities and Hungary gloried in its near invincible football team and the 16 gold medals at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics. The pervading mood, however, was drabness and fear.

While the mobility between the main sectors of the economy was as yet insignificant, the project of social levelling advanced towards the ultimate communist ideal of a classless society with no private property, an ideal which was not against the wishes of a broad cross-section of society. As a result of the land reform, the nationalisations, the mass forced removals of officials from their posts and the deportations, ‘genteel’ Hungary, the peculiar amalgam of post-feudal, capitalist and liberal-nationalist values was, as Rákosi claimed triumphantly, thrown into the dustbin of history. The business and middle classes who had championed them either emigrated or metamorphosed into service industry or factory workers and engineers. Previously sharing over forty per cent of the national income, they now accounted for a mere ten per cent, while the mass of rural paupers became small proprietors or kulaks, before they too were consigned to history’s dustbin by the intensification of the class struggle in the 1950s. People were told that the reason they could not buy butter or eggs was because the kulaks who were hoarding and hiding their produce.

The party operated an immense system of patronage through which non-measurable benefits (mainly job promotion) could be earned; and for the party élite various perquisites were available according to rank, in a salient contradiction to the professed ideal of equality and the frequent calls to ever tighter austerity in the interest of a glorious future. Among the bulk of the population, a silent resentment grew. Aversion to the personality cult and the ideological terror, the hatred of police repression, bewilderment at the stupidities of economic planning and anger at the anomalies it caused, and the utter exasperation and disillusionment with the régime in general were sentiments occasionally expressed in strikes and perceptible across the Hungarian social spectrum by the time Stalin died on 5 March, 1953. Besides sparing Hungary and other eastern-central European countries from having to ‘import’ a new wave of terror from  the USSR, which had begun in the previous months, the ensuing power struggle and its outcome favoured important changes in the tone and methods, if not in the content and substance, of the communist régimes. With the permission and even on the insistence of Moscow, the process of de-Stalinisation could be started throughout the Soviet bloc. 

Sources:

See part three, following.

Budapest Between the Holocaust and the Uprising, part one: The Ghosts of War, 1946-1948.   1 comment

A Survivor’s Tale:

Tom Leimdorfer was born in Budapest in 1942. Unlike sixteen members of his extended family, he survived the Holocaust in Hungary in 1944-45, both the deportations to the extermination camp  of Auschwitz in the spring and summer of 1944, and the forced marches, starvation and shootings which happened throughout Hungary and in Budapest in particular in the winter of 1944-5. I have edited and published Tom’s account of this ‘survival’ already, and have also made use of his family’s recollections of the events and aftermath of the 1956 Uprising in an attempt to present a variety of perspectives of them.

In the following two ‘posts’ I aim to join these two narratives together by publishing the family’s recollections of childhood after the war in Budapest. For many historians, these years take up no more than a few pages, a few paragraphs even, in the post- world war two History of Hungary, between Soviet ‘liberation’ and invasion. Yet to those growing up in Budapest during these years, they were just as important in terms of their own formative experiences, as Tom’s accounts demonstrate. In any case, the effects of the Holocaust were still a daily presence in his consciousness, and the causes of the Uprising were also present, though less conscious.

The wreck of an engine:

The old steam engine stood there on the siding, a crumpled wreck of rusting metal, but still clearly recognisable as a steam engine. I clambered up the railway embankment through the mass of red poppies just ahead of Mami (my mother), who was anxiously telling me to stop and wait. It must have been a weekend afternoon as my mother worked on other days and I was looked after by my grandmother (Sári mama) or by my nanny Bözsi, who lived with us midweek. It was the summer of 1946 and I was nearing my fourth birthday. The time when children start to be insistent with questions.  This occasion has stood out in my memory as the day when I started to open the door to some awful mysteries around my young life.

‘Why is that engine broken?’ The questions was simple enough. Perhaps I had already asked many other questions about ruined houses, holes in walls. Perhaps this happened to be the moment when my mother decided the time has come to tell. She took my hand and crouched down beside me as I kept staring at the engine. ‘There was a war – many things were broken. Houses, bridges, trains, lorries and many people died’. Her eyes filled with tears, but she did not try to hide them this time. The wreck of the engine remained fixed in my mind, the details of the conversation have faded, but gradually I started making links. The gaps between houses still littered with great heaps of fallen masonry, the bullet holes in walls, the wrecked bridgeheads on the Danube bank, the ruins of the Buda Castle. Then, one by one, the ghosts of missing family members started to emerge in my consciousness.

While time spent with Sári mama and Bözsi was mainly carefree play, my precious time with Mami was often overshadowed by her anxiety and tears. It took time for me to connect the tears with the loss of her parents and the (presumed, but still unconfirmed) loss of her husband. My little friend Éva, and my slightly older second cousin (also called Éva) did not have fathers either, so this did not seem unusual even though my other playmate András did have a dad. My father figure was Dádi (my paternal grandfather, whose real name was Ármin Leimdörfer) and there was a close-knit family of my aunt Juci, uncle Gyuri and great-aunts and uncles who all surrounded me with attention. So it took time for the ‘gaps’ to emerge as family members lost to the war and to the greatest mass murder of all times. Much of my memories of childhood is full of special early friendships, enjoyable holidays, adventures of schooldays and young boy gangs, sport and hobbies, family days and national festivals. These interact with awareness of hardship and my mother’s struggle to keep me safe and to give me the best she could, awareness of new clouds of political persecution and the dangers of living in a dictatorship. It would be easy to paint the picture in very dark colours. Holocaust survival as a toddler, followed by school days in the darkest years of Stalinist communism. Yet there was much fun and laughter and enjoyment and learning. Enduring friendships were formed and I had the precious gift of love in a very special family. It was a priceless childhood, for all the pain and the sombre background.

The story of the tears in my mother’s eyes on that summer’s day in 1946 must be told, but this is pieced together from her words, from my aunt Juci’s book (‘By Grace Alone’) and from history. The memories of the little boy who asked about the broken engine need this backdrop. A good starting point is my old family album.

juliandi-janiMy cousins: Juli, Andi and Jani  

In my early conscious memory of family days, I also see the baby newcomers in the immediate post-war years, my cousins Jani (1946) and Andi (1947), Juci and Gyuri’s two boys, who were joined by my cousin Juli, born in in 1949. We were all treasured as precious signs of a future for the family as well as for ourselves.

childhood-memories

Contemplative by the garden fence

Our flat and our garden were very special places for me. While I have no memories of it before we had to flee on my fateful second birthday, I feel sure that returning to a known home must have been part of the healing. Not many flats in Budapest have secluded private gardens and we were very fortunate. 

That small garden was a wondrous place for me. Once I graduated from the sandpit, a section of the rough grassy patch (not even pretending to be a lawn) was gradually transformed by me to be a network of roads, bridges and tunnels. I created a small imaginary town and played with my cars and bricks and small figures for hours on end when the weather was fine. We had a hammock, which could be strung across near the patio end and where I could doze in the sunshine. As it was the front garden, I could also watch people passing by (through the Russian vine) without them seeing me. The houses opposite were flattened by an air raid or shelling. For a while it was a mysterious forbidden site of weeds and rubble till a new health centre was built there. The mystery was lost, but at least I did not have far to go for my X-rays.

My early recollections are of playing a good deal by myself, under the watchful eye of Bözsi who was calmness and gentleness personified. My mother went to work as secretary in my grandfather’s timber yard. I have no idea how she found Bözsi to look after me, but she was the perfect choice. She was a highly intelligent peasant woman of limited learning, but great wisdom and practical sense. She lived in our small room during the week and went home at the weekends. It never occurred to me at the time that she could be a mother and have children of her own, but she was. She left us when I started nursery school at the age of five in 1947 and I missed her terribly. Some years later, when I was nine, I spent a week with her family in the country in their typical peasant household. That was when I got to know her two children (a few years older than me), learnt to relate to geese and cows and oxen and sleep in one room with the whole family. Bözsi was the brains and the soul of the household and gently directed her husband and all her family. It was probably hard times after the war that made her seek midweek employment as a nanny and it must have been hard for her children, but I am eternally grateful.

The other dominant figure in my early life was Sári mama, my grandmother. She looked after me regularly while Bözsi did the shopping, which was a long complicated matter of queuing in several different shops. Bözsi also had a regular day for going home to her family midweek, when my grandmother took over. Sári mama was much more proactive in her approach to childcare. She had an endless repertoire of games to play indoors or out. She taught me songs to sing and rhymes to recite. We listened to music and she tried to get me to dance. She taught me the basics of draughts and chess and other board games from a very early age. She read stories, patiently answered my endless questions and opened doors to many of the mysteries of life.

Sundays were special times with Mami. She could be distant and preoccupied, anxious and angry, but I always knew that I was her treasure. She was obsessional about hygiene and nutrition. She had the highest expectations for the son for whom she tried to play the role of two parents. Apart from working in the timber yard, she sold  English fashion magazines (such as Vogue) sent by her brother Bandi. This became risky, then impossible during the fifties. Most Sundays, except the monthly Family Days, we went to the Reformed (Calvinist) Church. On the whole, I found it boring, but usually came away with a question to ask Mami. We often went to a little restaurant in Buda called Zöld Fa (Green Tree) where my favourite food was Wiener Schnitzel (escalope of veal). I was her little gentleman escort from a very early age. 

Occasionally, Mami took me with her to the timber yard, perhaps because neither Bözsi, nor Sári mama were free to look after me. My grandfather (Dádi) worked hard to restore the business, but on a much smaller scale than the pre-war firm. Part of the yard was bombed, the office was a small shed. I loved to play hide and seek amidst the piles of wood and enjoyed the scent of fresh shavings in the sawing shed. I now wonder about the health and safety aspect of a four year old running about in a timber yard, but all those working there were looking out for me. I loved watching the goods trains in the railway siding, where the timber was loaded. I was particularly friendly with one of the older workers (Béni bácsi) who occasionally lifted me onto a goods wagon or on a lorry and let me pretend to be in charge of operations.

An uncle returns from overseas:

There were two related events in my mother’s life in 1947. The first was the expected, but still devastating, confirmation that my father had died in 1943. Prisoners of war gradually returned from the Russian camps in small numbers over the post-war years. There was an article about one man who did not return till the 1990s as an elderly man with little memory left. For some families the uncertainty remained for a lifetime. The doctor friend of my father’s who returned in 1947 was there when he died, but could not get news to the family till he was freed in 1947. So my grandparents lost both their sons since young Sanyi died of Spanish flu in childhood. Juci was the one remaining child. By 1947, they had three grandsons and then a granddaughter in 1949. They made our future welfare their main purpose in life.

It may have been confirmation of my father’s death that prompted my uncle Bandi to visit us from London. There were no direct flights, he came by train. He had to leave the combatant units in the army quite early in the war, when they discovered he was colour blind. As an economics graduate, he was given a teaching job within the forces. After the war, he got a job with the Milk Marketing Board in the accounts department and this is where he met his future wife Lilian. He always called her ‘Compie’ (short for ‘companion’). Lilian was a widow with a young son, Roy. Bandi was becoming rapidly anglicised. He also nurtured a deep hatred of Germans (until the 1970s, when he went to work in Germany for while), but his resentment of Hungarians was even deeper and longer lasting. He could not forgive the people of Szécsény who watched his parents (and all their Jewish neighbours) being taken from their homes to Auschwitz and did not raise a murmur of protest. He blamed Hungarians as much as Germans for their death.

He visited my mother to see what support he could give. He also helped her to finalise the handover of my grandparents’ house to the state. A small sum was paid in compensation (houses in Nógrád County were not very valuable) and Bandi insisted that it should all go to my mother. This was generous as he was far from well off at the time. England was still a land of post-war austerity and rationing, while food was still relatively plentiful in Hungary with no rationing. However, Bandi had received help from the family when he left Hungary, so he was repaying a debt. I remember little of his visit as I was feeling very ill with jaundice (hepatitis A).  The little model open top red Jaguar car he brought for me was, however, amazingly memorable and a source of pleasure for years. It had a clockwork motor, steering and forward and reverse gears. He must have taken to me, because he told my mother that if she ever decided that I should go to live in England, he would look after me. This tentative agreement that ‘someday’ I might go to England was something I learnt much later, but it was somehow in the background of our lives. He vowed never to return to Hungary.

Bandi remained a very keen and active tennis player for all but the last four years of his very long life. He won many minor tournaments, became a Wimbledon umpire and as a ‘veteran’ became a legend on the international over 60s circuit. It was a veteran’s tennis tournament in the late 1980s that (when he was well over 70) that made him break his vow of never returning to Budapest. He rather enjoyed it and met up with three cousins he had not seen for forty years.

Little friends:

My very first ‘girlfriend’ was Éva Fischer, who was just a few months older than me. Her mother (Irén néni)  had been a close friend of my mother for many years. Her father also died in a forced labour unit. The two widows met as often as they could and Éva and I played for hours on end. We made up imaginary places and adventures, acted out stories we were told, made secret dens in corners of their flat or ours. In the autumn of 1947, I started going to nursery in the mornings. Mami normally took me and Sári mama collected me at lunchtime. It was a tram ride along the Buda side of the Danube and then a short walk up some steps as the nursery was in a street on the lower slopes of the Castle Hill. The main reason I loved to go was that Éva attended the same nursery. In fact the only thing I remember doing there all year was playing with Éva. The deep snow of that harsh winter is linked with memories of struggling up the icy steps to the nursery.

Our friendship was destined to be cut short by further events of history. The post-war democratic government of Hungary (dominated first by the Smallholder’s Party and then by a Socialist-Communist coalition) presided over a period of hyperinflation followed by a period of gradual reconstruction and land reform. Gradually, with the country under occupation by the Red Army and becoming increasingly linked economically to the Soviet Union, the Communist Party became the dominant force. During the course of 1948 they forced members of the Socialist Party to amalgamate. Those opposed to the process left the country or eventually ended up in prison on trumped up charges as the country moved towards one-party dictatorship by February 1949. Éva’s mother, Irén néni, saw it all coming and was determined not to live under another dictatorship. She was a jeweller by trade and worked hard in the post war years to rebuild her shop, which had been confiscated as part of the anti-Jewish legislation. She was not prepared to lose it again to the Communists. She had an acquaintance in Paris, a middle-aged widower, who was also a jeweller. He came to visit and marry her so she could get to Paris, with most of her merchandise. It was supposed to be a marriage of convenience, but it lasted till the day he died. They had separate shops and mainly separate lives, but seemed to love each other dearly.

I recall one evening in the autumn of 1948 when my mother and I were at the flat of Imre Budai, a colleague who was clearly smitten by her. By that time, Mami had left employment with my grandfather (who was negotiating the handover his timber yard to the state). As an attractive young widow, she was not short of admirers, but generally kept them at a distance. Budai was a kind balding and portly man, whom I found very boring. On this particular evening, he tried to distract me by allowing me to use his typewriter. I had just started school and Mami encouraged me to write a ‘letter’. So I did and it went like this: ‘Mami  I am bored let us go to Éva’. This caused some amusement and Mami kept the missive to show Irén. We did go to see them that night and I was shocked to see Éva amidst trunks and packing cases. She was in tears as all her toys were being packed away. The next time I saw her was in Paris in the summer of 1959. She was seventeen and engaged to be married. She and her husband went to live Geneva for some years and then emigrated to Israel. Irén néni kept in touch with me till she died in her seventies,  but I lost touch with Éva. Imre Budai had little success with my mother, though he courted her for months. One day, he produced an expensive Swiss Doxa watch as a gift for Mami, which must have cost him nearly a month’s salary. She refused to accept, he refused to take it back. So they agreed that I should have it and I have got it to this day (although I was not allowed to wear it till I was ten). I always thought of it as a gift from my mother.

My other little friend was András. His mother (Eszti) and and my mother met on the platform at the railway station saying goodbye to their husbands going to the Russian front. They were both pregnant, Eszti was just about to give birth, while my mother was four months pregnant. They became very close friends and shared news from the front, where the two men served in the same unit. Unlike my father, Jenő manage to escape both death and capture and made it back home after months of hiding and unspeakable deprivation. He did not stay with his unit and was officially missing. So he had to stay in hiding for eighteen months, till the end of the war. He could not even go down to cellars during bombing raids for fear of being seen and recognised.

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András with Tom in his garden, and skiing in the Mátra Mountains

After the war, Eszti and Jenő helped my mother by including her and me in their outings and holidays. Jenő was a keen photographer and there are photos and films capturing happy moments by the Lake Balaton in the summer or skiing in the Buda Hills or the Mátra Mountains in winter. Skiing was not a luxury sport for us. If there was snow on a winter weekend, we just took our skis on the trams or buses to the cog-wheel railway, which ascends the Buda Hills. There we would have our sandwiches and flasks of hot drinks while the wooden skis were waxed with a hot iron (there was a small fee to be paid for this). Then we were off to the slopes. Often we also had András’ other little friend (also called Tamás) with us. The three little boys practised together and raced each other on the safe and gentle nursery slopes, but we often watched the experts on the steep slopes and the ski jumps. Eventually, we ventured further as Jenő felt we were ready. Most memorable was the ‘round trip’, when we would go right down to Hűvös Völgy (Cool Valley) for a meal in a tavern and then take the tram home before dark.

András was a good friend throughout our childhood and we often played in each other’s homes. Their fourth floor flat had a fantastic view over the Danube, across to the Castle and the  hills. We always watched the firework displays on the 20 August (Constitution Day) from their balcony. We went to different schools except for the brief seven weeks in the autumn of 1956 before the Revolution and our flight to the west.  It was always strange and comforting to be back where I had my childhood ‘sleepovers’ with András, still surrounded by some of the old furniture and looking out over the lit panorama of bridges over the Danube.

Another little friend, a year younger then me was Gyuri Sarkadi, son of my mother’s cousin Kornélia (Kori néni to me). His father also died in the war and he was also an only child. Their flat opened to a large overgrown garden with some statues and exciting hiding places where we played for hours. Later we also played button football (of which more later) and board games while our mothers caught up with each other’s news. It was always an enjoyable visit as Kori néni was always very kind and Gyuri’s nanny,  Baja néni, always had some special treat for me. Gyuri became an electronic engineer and married a lovely paediatrician, Kati.

 

Early school days:

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Veres Pálné experimental primary class 1, September 1948

I am in top row, extreme right. Bomb damage seen in background

Class teacher Sára Németh

On a hot weekend during the summer of 1948, I was just waking up from my afternoon siesta. The sun’s rays were streaming through the gaps in the heavy wooden roller blind. I became aware of Mami sitting by my bed. She started to talk about the end of the summer. What did I think about starting proper school? This was her style; she always consulted me about decisions which affected me even at that early age. I remember asking some questions. I would have to see the school and they might not take me because I was not six till October and school (even now) only starts at the age of six. Also, the school she had in mind was on the other side of the river (Pest side) and we would need to take the tram. But it was where she went as a young girl. I said I would go on the visit, but I was a bit scared about it.

All I remember of the interview was the beautiful young teacher who showed us round, asked me a few questions and set me down to play a game of dice with pieces going round a board. I tried to concentrate because I knew I just had to be in her class. At the end she asked me which was my right hand. That was alright, but then she asked me which was her left hand. I just looked at her in total confusion and was mortified that I failed. They offered me a place all the same. It was a new ‘experimental’ primary unit attached to the famous city centre Veres Pálné gimnázium (grammar school), which my grandmother and aunt had attended. The ‘experimental’ aspect included the fact that it was a mixed class and they taught French right from the start. I learnt very little French in the year, but I remember gazing through the window at the large tree outside, knowing it was ‘fenêtre’ and ‘arbre’.

I made friends easily with some girls and the parents of one of them (also called Éva) took me with group of her friends skating a few times to the outdoor ice rink. It was great fun, though not on a par with skiing. The large artificial lake at Városliget (City park) would be drained each winter down to a few centimetres and artificially frozen. The replica castle on the far bank made a magic backdrop. There were special areas for children, for adults, for expert dancers and also for ice hockey. It made a great outing and I enjoyed being the only boy amongst a group of girls.

The boys in the class were more of a problem. I was the youngest and also one of the smallest. It soon became clear that playtimes were dominated by two big boys who were quite physical and each had their ‘group’. These were games I generally did not wish to take part in. One of the ‘big boys’ was far from bright and quite early on I made a point of quietly helping him whenever he got stuck with schoolwork. This strategy succeeded as he always leapt to my defence in the playground without me even asking him.

Travelling to school is worth a moment of reflection. It meant walking a few steps from our road to the main road, crossing over to the raised platform in the centre, which was the tram stop, five stops by tram (going over the river), crossing the main road again (now there is an underpass), walking five minutes to the school buildings. For the first couple of weeks, Mami took me before going off to her work, but this probably made her late. After that, she saw me onto the tram before catching her bus and I did the trip alone. There was not much traffic and I was taught to cross roads carefully. It would not have occurred to anyone that a six year old was at risk from strangers. Most days, my grandmother (Sári mama) met me coming out of school and took me to her home for lunch and helped me with any problems I might have had at school. In reality, I learnt more from her than from anyone else. On Wednesdays, my great-aunt Manci took me to her home and I was spoilt with her kindness and home-made teacakes.

One day my teacher, Sarolta, was very cross with me. I absolutely cannot recall why. She was beautiful and charming, but quite firm. She insisted that I must write right-handed, which was a struggle and would tap my hand with a ruler if I tried to use my left hand. None of this reduced my ‘crush’ on her which started when I first saw her at interview. Solemnly she declared that day, that I must stay behind until my mother came from work to fetch me. On the one hand, this was sweet punishment as I had her all to myself when the rest of the class went home, but the worry of my mother’s anger spoilt it. Like most young children, I remember the punishment, but not the supposed misdemeanour.

The ‘experimental’ primary school was closed after a year. By September 1949, communism was in full swing and Stalinist centralised standardisation became the educational climate. In fact, it was a return to the Prussian model of very formal pedagogy which was favoured by the old Austro-Hungarian empire, only with communist propaganda colouring the content. Anything ‘experimental’ (favoured in Russia in the early years of the Revolution under Lenin) went out of the window, together with attempts to teach French at an early age. Russian became compulsory from the age of 10 and thousands of language teachers (mainly of English, French and German) had to become teachers of Russian within weeks. Forty year later, the process was repeated in reverse as teachers of Russian became a dying breed.

Budapest, 1944-45: A Child Survivor of the Holocaust.   Leave a comment

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Dancing with the Devil Himself:

Had Horthy decided to do his little dance with Hitler before the Italians pulled out, there might have been a small chance that Hitler would have overlooked his effrontery in attempting to pull Hungary out of the war. In the early Spring of 1944, Edmund Veesenmayer, Hitler’s envoy to Budapest had been reporting that, at best, Hungary was a hesitant and unreliable ally. At worst, Hungary was a liability. At seventy-six, the Regent was befuddled by age, and would have to be swept aside. Prime Minister Kállay had made the mistake of his predecessors in thinking that the Russians were the greater threat to Hungarian independence. Veesenmayer was made Reich plenipotentiary, and Hungary ceased, in effect, to be an independent country. Jewish matters would be administered by the SS, two detachments of which soon arrived in Budapest. Lieutenant-Colonel Adolf Eichmann’s special unit arrived in the capital a few days later. Himmler had already decided to do away with the services of the Abwehr intelligence network, and to absorb it into the SS and the Security Service.

Before his arrest, the Abwehr leader, Winninger did however suggest to Brand and Kasztner that money and valuables might prove to be useful in dealing with the SS, in exchange for something of no value to them: Jewish lives. That was the first suggestion of what became known as the blood for goods deal. Despite what the Abwehr men had said, however, a Jewish community meeting at Samuel Stern’s house concluded that the Reich had greater problems than the Jews. They refused to accept that Hitler and Himmler had already ordered the liquidation of the Jews of Hungary, the last large Jewish population left in central Europe.

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Above: Dohányi Street Synagogue

As long as Horthy was still in power, Stern believed, they would still be safe.The Hungarians would not abandon their Jewish citizens. We have lived here for a thousand years, he reminded his friends. Hungarian Jews were fully integrated at all levels of society, especially in manufacturing and commerce, the legal and medical professions, teaching, musical life and the media. Tom’s grandfather, Ármin Leimdörfer (Dádi) had been an officer in the imperial army in the First World War, serving in Serbia, as had many Jews. Nearly twenty per cent of Budapest was Jewish and even the aristocracy and the senior government figures had inter-married and had some Jewish relatives. There was also the poor Jewish quarter in Pest. It was true that these Jews had been prominent (along with other socialists) in the communist revolution of 1919, which had been crushed. There had been no further association with revolutionary violence, but these fears were easy to stoke up by home-grown fascists. The government under Regent Horthy was reluctant to agree to full-scale deportations, but was in no position to resist. Rezső Kasztner described the situation which existed from 19 April onwards:

From now on, the Gestapo ruled unhindered. They spied on the government, arrested every Hungarian who did not suit them, no matter how high their position and, by their presence, instilled fear into those who would have attempted to save the remnants of Hungarian sovereignty or protest against German orders. Concerning the Jewish question, the supreme, the absolute and the unfettered will of the monster ruled… the head of the Jewish command, Lieutenant-Colonel Adolf Eichmann. 

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Sam Springmann was one of the first to ‘disappear’. He had known that he would be high up on the list since, as he told Kasztner, they have me both ways. I am Polish and I am a Jew. Reviving the Europa Plan seemed the only hope now that the German Eagle had landed. Regent Horthy, whose train had been held up near Vienna while the Germans occupied Hungary, announced a new government under the protection of the Reich. Döme Sztójay was named PM. A devout follower of National Socialism, he was a vocal anti-Semite who had been Hungary’s minister in Berlin, where he had formed close relationships with several high-ranking Nazis. German cars sped like angry wasps from street to street, their back seats occupied by machine-gun-wielding SS men. They stopped in front of houses and apartment blocks, dragged people from their homes and took them to the Buda jail or to the Astoria Hotel. Not long before, there had been spring dances in the ballroom of the stately hotel; now the Gestapo had taken over all the floors. Prisoners were held in the basement, their piercing screams keeping pedestrians from the nearby pavements for more than a year following.

On 20 March, Wisliceny called a meeting of representatives of the entire Jewish community at which he instructed them to establish a council whose orders would be obeyed, with no questions asked, by all Jews in the country, not just in the capital. As a first task, the new council had to invite Jewish leaders from across the country to an information meeting to be held on 28 March. The Budapest Jewish leaders were impressed with the respect shown to them by the gentlemanly SS officers. Their job, unbeknown to the assembled Jewish leaders, was to annihilate every one of them as well as all the other Jews in Hungary. They simply wanted to achieve it as calmly and cleanly as possible, without the unpleasantness of the Warsaw ghetto uprising. The means to do this lay with the Jewish Council. Despite this plan, more than ten thousand people were arrested during the following week, about a third of them Jewish. Their valuables, including furniture and paintings, were then put into trucks and transported to Germany. The prisoners were beaten, deprived of sleep and tortured.

On 22 March, PM Sztójay informed the government that Dr Veesenmayer had insisted that Jews throughout the country wear a distinguishing yellow star. Regent Horthy asked that, in future, such “requests” should not be made to him. He told Samuel Stern that his hands were tied and that Veesenmayer had told him that, in future, he would be excluded from all political decisions. He had held out for far too long on the Jewish question. The order  went into effect on 5 April. Members of the Council were exempted, together with war invalids and heroes, and those who had converted to Christianity before 1 August 1919. But on 31 March, after a meeting with Adolf Eichmann, the Jewish leaders were stunned by several new decrees regarding Hungarian Jews: they could no longer work as lawyers, journalists, or public servants, or in the theatrical and film arts; they were not allowed to own motor vehicles or to drive them, even if they belonged to someone else. Nor could they own motorbikes or bicycles. They also had to hand in their radios and telephones and all were now expected to wear yellow stars.

On the morning of 3 April, British and American aircraft bombed Budapest for the first time since the beginning of the war. In response, the Hungarian security police demanded that the Jewish Council provide five hundred apartments for Christians who had been affected by the raid. Those Jews moving out of their homes were to be concentrated in apartment buildings in an area between the National Theatre and the Dohány Street synagogue. The following day, 4 April, László Baky and Lieutenant-Colonel László Ferenczy of the gendarmerie met to firm up plans for the ghettoisation and deportation of the Jews of Hungary. All Jews, irrespective of age, sex or illness, were to be concentrated into ghettos and schedules were to be would be set for their deportation to Poland. The few people who were still employed in armaments production or in the mines were temporarily spared, but only until suitable replacements could be found for them. Each regional office would be responsible for its own actions. The “rounding up” of the Jews was to be carried out by the local police and the Royal Hungarian Gendarmerie units. If necessary, the police would assist the gendarmerie in urban districts by providing armed help.  It took until 16 April for the full directive and extensive explanations to be typed in multiple copies and sent to local authorities, but the ghettoisation had already begun on 7 April. The orders were marked “secret” and bore the signature of László Baky. He declared:

The Royal Hungarian government will cleanse the country of Jews within a short time. I hereby order the cleansing to be conducted district by district. Jews are to be taken to designated collection camps regardless of gender and age

This was the basis on which the Hungarian government agreed that the Gestapo could organise the removal of the roughly 450,000 Jews from the provinces, but not the 200,000 from Budapest. It was Adolf Eichmann’s task to organise the liquidation of Hungarian Jews. Between 7 April 1944 and 8 July 1944, we know (from the meticulous records kept) that 437,402 men, women and children of all ages were forced to leave their homes, first herded in to ‘collection camps’ or ghettos and then transported to Auschwitz. They were transported in 148 long trains of cattle wagons. Few survived, and of those who did, even fewer returned to their former homes. Once gathered in the collection camps, they were effectively doomed to annihilation, even before they boarded the trains. My wife’s mother avoided deportation herself because, although she had both a Jewish father and step-father, Imre Rosenthal, she was illegitimate and adopted, so there was no proof of her Jewish parentage. As a sixteen year-old, she remembers a Jewish family from the same apartment block in Békescsaba being taken to the detention camp. Some days later her mother made some stew for them and asked her to take it to them, as the camp was not far from the centre of the town. When she approached the guard, a Hungarian gendarme, at the gate to the compound, he raised his machine-gun and threatened to shoot her. She immediately knew this was no bluff, and never tried to make  contact with the family again. The story underlines the futility of resistance to the almost overnight operation which was put into effect across the Hungarian countryside.

Tom Leimdörfer’s Breuer great grandparents were spared the ordeal. They both died the year before and their daughter, Zelma cared for them in their last months. Tom’s grandfather Aladár spent much of his time on his allotment just outside the town, where he also kept bees, enjoying the simple life in retirement. Tom’s mother told him that we visited them in the early spring of 1944, when he was 18 months old, just a few weeks before they were taken. The story of the lively Jewish community in Szécsény was told by the photographer Irén Ács in a moving account and photos of her friends and family. She also survived in Budapest, but nearly all her friends and family perished. Early in May, the Jews of Szécsény were ordered to leave their homes and belongings apart from a small case with a change of clothes and essentials. They were restricted to a ghetto of a few houses near the school. On the 10 June 1944, they were taken under special forces’ escort to the county town of Balassagyarmat, some 20 km away. There were no Germans in Szécsény, the whole operation was carried out by Hungarian special forces. In Balassagyarmat, the Germans supervised the loading of the wagons from the whole region with ruthless efficiency. By nightfall, the long train of cattle wagons carrying over 2,500 men, women and children were on their way to Auschwitz. Tom is in no doubt that his grandparents would have been taken straight to the gas chambers on arrival. The memorial in the Jewish cemetery of  Szécsény has 303 names of those killed in the holocaust from that town of around 6,000 people. A similar fate befell villages across Hungary, where there was no time for any reaction, let alone organised resistance, by the Jewish families or their Christian neighbours. I have recently documented the recollections of the people of Apostag, and these appear in an article elsewhere on this site. The large village, roughly the same size as Szécsény, lost all of its six hundred Jews in one afternoon, transported on their own carts to Kalocsa, with their neighbours watching from the woods. Two weeks later, they were taken in cattle trucks from Kalocsa to Auschwitz.

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Apostag

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The deportations soon became common knowledge in Budapest and this terrible news was added to the rumours about the extermination camps. One of Tom’s German relatives, having escaped from Dachau had already given an account of the dreadful nature of the camps. Two Slovak men, Rudolf Vrba and Alfréd Wetzler escaped from Auschwitz on 7 April 1944. For a week they travelled at night, avoiding the local residents and hiding in barns or outbuildings during the day. When they reached Bratislava, they contacted the Jewish Council the next day. They told their incredible story, illustrated by drawings of the barracks, the gas chambers and crematoria. They reported on the selection process that sent women and children directly from the trains to be gassed, on the desperate attempts of people to save themselves, on the collection of valuables, and on the systematic disposal of bodies. Only twenty years old, Vrba was already a veteran of the most terrifying place on earth. He felt overwhelmed by the importance of his message to all surviving Jews, particularly the Hungarians: do not board the trains.

The Auschwitz Protocols, as Vrba and Wetzler’s report was labeled by the Bratislava Working Group, was translated into German and English within a fortnight. Then they tried to decide what to do with the information, knowing that anyone caught with the document in the occupied countries would be executed, along with its authors. For this reason, the awful truth about Auschwitz was not fully and widely told until after the war. By the time Tom’s second birthday approached, his mother suspected, but did not know for sure, that she had lost her husband and both her parents.

A significant birthday:

While the dreadful events were unfolding in rural Hungary, the Jews of Budapest were living with increasing fear and repression. All had to wear yellow stars and live in homes marked with a yellow star of David. Tom’s house was marked, so they were allowed to stay at home. His grandfather’s timber business was confiscated; his business partner (Imre Révész) had recognised the signs and emigrated to England just before the war. The warm summer of 1944 was also a summer of allied (mainly RAF) airstrikes. Tom often played outside in their small but secluded front garden. They had a radio and were generally the first to hear the air raid warnings. The bombers normally came from the south and the direction given over the air waves was: ‘Baja, Bácska, Budapest’. These were amongst Tom’s first words, acting as an air raid warning to people in the flats above us as he ran around naked in the garden shouting ‘Baja, Bácska, Budapest’! We would then all go down to the cellar, which served as a very inadequate air raid shelter.

Tom’s mother’s brother Bandi had emigrated in 1939 and was in the British Army. He left for a tennis tournament and did not return. He was an illegal immigrant in Britain, sheltered by tennis playing friends, till he had the opportunity to volunteer for the army, change his name to Roy Andrew Fred (R. A. F.) Reynolds and was allowed to stay. The RAF was bombing us, but they were not ‘the enemy’ even though our lives were threatened by them. My father was ‘missing’ on the Russian front, Russian troops were advancing towards Hungary with all the uncertainties and horrors of a siege of Budapest approaching, but they were not our ‘enemy’, but hoped-for liberators. Yet Tom’s maternal grandparents were taken by Hungarian special forces on the orders of the Gestapo with no objection or resistance from their neighbours. Looking back, the ‘enemy’ was war and inhumanity, hatred and anti-Semitism.

There were some signs of hope that summer. Regent Miklós Horthy could no longer stomach the activities of Eichmann. On 29 August he sent word to Edmund Veesenmayer that he had decided there would be no more deportations, at least for the time being. With the transportation of Jews from the provinces completed, there were only the Jews in the capital left. Himmler approved the suspension of deportations and the continuation of negotiations through Kasztner and Brand. Himmler, like the Hungarian government itself, had been thinking of an acceptable way of bringing the war to an end. Once back in his office in Budapest, Kasztner was astonished to learn from Dieter Wisliceny that Eichmann and his unit had been ordered out of Hungary. You have won, the Nazi officer told him, the Sonderkommando is leaving. Eichmann, furious with Himmler’s vacillations, retired to sulk at his estate near Linz. The latter later compensated him with the order of an Iron Cross, Second Class. Kasztner, unlike the members of the Jewish Council, had no faith in Horthy’s protestations that he had been duped into allowing deportations in the first place and even less faith in Himmler’s change of heart. He pressed on with his negotiations for the lives of the remaining Jews of Budapest, Bratislava and Kolozsvár. In the late summer of 1944 a bloody insurrection erupted in Slovakia. A few parachutists from Britain and two Soviet airborne brigades also took part in the uprising, as did some Jewish partisans, including Rudolf Vrba, one of the authors of The Auschwitz Protocols. The uprising failed and led to further reprisals against Bratislava’s Jewish community. In Budapest itself, there was what Kasztner thought of as a brief lull in the terror in the early autumn. Nevertheless, there was a widespread belief that the Germans would pack up and go home. The cafés and restaurants were full, and no-one left even when the sirens sounded.

By mid-October the Second and Third Ukrainian Fronts were ready to execute Stalin’s order to take Budapest quickly. Arrow Cross newspapers accused the Jews of signaling bombers from rooftops, directing bombs to specific targets. Raoul Wallenberg had opened the door of the Swedish Embassy and directed his staff to hand out Swedish protection papers to all Jewish applicants. The certificates claimed that the holders were Swedish citizens awaiting exit visas. The number of Jews with official Swedish papers exceeded 4,500 by the end of October, and another three thousand fake Swedish certificates were handed out by the Rescue Committee and its halutz workers. They all waited for permits to leave the country and be allowed into Palestine. The Swiss Red Cross had received over three million Swiss francs from the Jewish ‘Joint’ in the US to pay for food in the protected Star Houses bearing the Swedish colours, and in the Columbus Street camp.

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Throughout the period of Géza Lakatos’ premiership, rumours abounded that Horthy was getting ready to exit the war, and that all he needed was an honourable way out. He wanted to sue for peace, but not if that peace included Stalin. The British and the Americans were not interested and insisted that nothing less than unconditional surrender would do. I have written elsewhere on this site about these unsuccessful diplomatic overtures and how Horthy’s insistence on hanging onto his German alliance, however reluctantly, did not help his country’s cause. In final desperation, Horthy sent Lieutenant General Gábor Faragho across the front lines to present Hungary’s case to the Russians. On 11 October, Faragho returned with a draft armistice agreement requiring Hungary to give up, once again, its historic territories in Transylvania, everything he had fought for during his years as head of state. His hesitation gave the Germans the time they needed to prepare a coup.

On Sunday morning, 15 October, Tom Leimdörfer’s second birthday, there were rumours that the Regent’s son had been abducted, together with a general and two senior officers. It was a warm, sunny autumn morning. German planes had dropped leaflets over the city urging a rebellion against the government. Politicians had also been arrested. Hungarian Radio announced that the Regent would make a general proclamation at 1 p.m. In a soft and shaky voice, Horthy gave a long, detailed statement, in which he announced his decision to sign a separate peace treaty with the Allies, that Hungary had withdrawn from the war and had declared that it is returning to its neutral status. All laws relating to the repression of the Jewish population were revoked. The Reich had lost the war and had also broken its obligations to its Hungarian partner when it had occupied the country in March and arrested many Hungarian citizens. He blamed the Gestapo for dealing with the “Jewish problem” in an inhumane way and claimed that his nation had been forced to persecute the Jews.  The news spread like wildfire on what was a glorious autumn afternoon: Anna Porter has described the scenes…

…the sun was shining and the trees along the boulevards displayed their startling red, yellow and deep-purple colours as if the horrors of the past few weeks had not happened, as if the houses lining the avenues had not been turned into rubble. People came out of their cellars, put on their best clothes and walked, holding hands and greeting each other as in peacetime. Many Jews who had been in hiding paraded their newfound freedom; some tore the yellow stars off their breasts and ordered shots of pálinka in bars where they used to go, or dared to use a public telephone and take rides on streetcars where the tracks had not yet been bombed..

But the atmosphere of general euphoria did not last long. The Germans had listened into every conversation in the castle, and were not surprised by the attempt to break free. They were aware of the plan to bring two Hungarian regiments into the city, and knew of the arming of the Jewish battalions. German troops and armoured vehicles appeared on the streets of Budapest and set up control points. A further announcement came over the waves: Horthy had been forced to abdicate, and the Hungarian Arrow Cross (Nazi) party has formed a government under its leader Ferenc Szálasi. Hungary was back in the war on the Axis side, and all anti-Jewish legislation was back in force. With the Arrow Cross in charge, the Jews realised that Eichmann would be back to complete their transportation and that random killings would be carried out by the Arrow Cross units themselves. Tom Leimdörfer recalls his family’s fears:

The lives of all of us were in immediate danger. What followed was six months of hell redeemed by some amazing bravery and kindness on the part of some who were willing to risk their lives for us.

In hiding…

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Edit Leimdörfer, Tom’s mother, in 1957

Tom continues the family’s story:

By now, my grandparents (Sári and Ármin) and my aunt Juci all lived in our flat. Juci’s husband Gyuri was in a labour camp. He had a dreadful accident there in March 1943 when he fell off a scaffolding. For some time, his life was in the balance, but he recovered albeit with a back injury which gave him much pain for the rest of his life. He was allowed home when he was in plaster recuperating, but was then back again in the forced labour camp outside Budapest. As the family wondered what to do on the evening of my eventful second birthday, Dr. Groh arrived. A kindly medical consultant, he was one of my grandfather’s customers who became a friend. He was a Roman Catholic who was appalled by the treatment of Jews and by the apparent acquiescence of his church. He said we were in danger and should leave our home immediately as Jews were being herded from ‘marked’ houses to designated ghettos. He insisted that we should all (15 of us!) go into hiding with his family even though that risked their lives

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Dr.Groh and his wife had six children. They made a room available for us and kept its shutters closed. For the next eight days we huddled together in that room, joining the family when there was nobody around who might report our presence. With Arrow Cross gangs and police raids everywhere, this was not a safe hiding place and the Groh family were at great risk. In spite of their protests, we crept back to our home one night to pick up some essentials and left for different destinations. Soon after we left, an Allied air raid hit the Groh’s house and tragically one of their daughters was killed. The room where we had been hiding was a pile of rubble.

My mother and I first headed across the Danube to the Pest side, to a house protected by the Swedish Embassy, where Feri bácsi and Manci néni (my grandparents younger siblings) were already staying. The Swiss and Swedish embassies as well as some churches had tried to set up ‘protected houses’ outside the overcrowded main Jewish ghettos. These were not always ‘safe’ as the Arrow Cross raids were unpredictable and (depending on the particular gang commander) would carry out atrocities without respect for any foreign diplomacy or even orders from their own Nazi puppet government, with its very thin veneer of legality. There were no more trains for Auschwitz, but there were the ‘death marches’ towards Austria organised by Eichmann as well as the random Arrow Cross raids. Diplomats such as Raoul Wallenberg did all they could to thwart the murderous onslaught by distributing Swedish and Swiss passports and demanding safety for their ‘citizens’, by declaring houses as being under their protection and by threatening allied retribution after the war. With the Russian army advancing, this had some effect.

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One Arrow Cross raid resulted in tragic losses for our wider family. On Christmas Day 1944, six members of the family were marched to the banks of the Danube and shot into the river. This included my grandmother’s sister Erzsi, her husband and son as well as three members of Juci’s husband Gyuri’s family. Gyuri’s  mother (Ilonka néni) had a miraculous escape. The shots missed her, she jumped into the freezing cold water and managed to swim far enough downstream to clamber ashore unseen. It was a compassionate policeman who found her shivering and took her along to the Swiss embassy.

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My mother followed her instincts as she balanced risks in those desperate weeks as she moved between places of hiding. When she ventured out she did not wear the compulsory yellow star, gambling on her Aryan looks and her false identity documents with no trace of Jewish origin and using her hungarianised maiden name of Lakatos. She told me she had a narrow scrape on one occasion when she was stopped and interrogated and the papers were carefully examined. Even though my mother was a devout  Jewess, I was not circumcised precisely because my mother could foresee the possibility of having to negotiate checkpoints. On this occasion, my genitals were part of the ‘proof’ that we were not Jewish.

For a while, my mother joined Juci and others at a flat provided by Emil and Mary Hajós, which was like a crowded refugee camp. Gyuri (Juci’s husband) managed to get away from the labour camp as a result of Sári mama’s brave and brazen ingenuity and the use of more forged documents. Emil and Mary were friends of the family. They were a Jewish couple who became Christians and worked for a Presbyterian (Calvinist) mission known as ‘Jó Pásztor (Good Shepherd)’, helping to shelter Jews and at the same time-sharing their newfound Christian faith. Their bravery, kindness and fervour had a great influence.  Juci first, then Gyuri embraced Christianity during those times of crisis and Edit, my mother, gradually moved in that direction. While my father’s family were secular Jews (observing the festivals but not much else), my mother was brought up as an observing, though not orthodox, Jewess. Unlike Juci and Gyuri, she did not get baptised till much later. She did not wish to change her religion while still hoping for my father to return.

Day by day, the dangers shifted. By January, the siege of Budapest was in full swing. As the threats from the Arrow Cross and the Gestapo reduced, the danger of being killed by shelling increased. We huddled together crowded in cellars, hardly venturing out to try to get whatever food we could. At least the freezing temperatures helped to preserve any perishable supplies. I am told that I provided some welcome entertainment in those desperate days. Amidst the deafening noise of artillery, I appeared to display premature military knowledge by declaiming: ‘This is shelling in!’ or ‘This is shelling out!’

Budapest was liberated by Russian troops on the 26 February. Those days were a mixed experience for the population as a whole depending on contact with the actual units. There were instances of rape and other atrocities, but also acts of kindness. The soldiers who found us were keen on acquiring watches. When some were handed over, they became all smiles and one of them gave me a piece of chocolate.

Gradually the remains of the family found each other and counted the loss. Altogether sixteen members of our wider family were killed in the holocaust by one means or another. Those of us who remained started to put our lives together. Our flat was intact, but empty. Gradually, some items of furniture and possessions were returned by neighbours who said they kept them ‘safe’ in case we came back. There was much that was not returned. Amidst all the tragedy of war and losses I could not guess at or comprehend, I knew that I had lost my lovely large panda bear. Whatever happened to it, my mother told me ‘it was taken by the Germans’. On more mature reflection this was  unlikely, but for years I had the image of German troops retreating, blowing up all the bridges over the Danube (which they did) taking with them priceless treasures (which they did) and worst of all – my panda. Perhaps my panda was for my mother just one symbol for her happiness – ‘taken by the Germans’.

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By contrast, Tom recalls the happier times he experienced as a young child growing up in Budapest after the war:

Paradoxically, my early memories of the post war years were mostly happy. Children can be very resilient. The love and care I received soon healed the scars left by the horrors. The remnants of the family became very close-knit. I was the first of my generation in the family on my grandmother’s side. One small baby second cousin was separated from her parents during an Arrow Cross raid and tragically starved to death. On my grandfather’s side, my second cousin Éva survived but lost her father and three of her grandparents. She is two years older than me and we had great fun playing ‘hide and seek’ on the monthly ‘family days’ while the adults discussed the latest political turn of events and sorted out how help could be given to anyone in the family who was in need.

with-second-cousin-kati Tom with second cousin Kati at New Year, 1946?

Secondary Source:

Anna Porter (2007), Kasztner’s Train: The True Story of an Unknown Hero of the Holocaust. London: Constable (2008).

Budapest, 1942-44: A Child Survivor of the Holocaust.   Leave a comment

Every Picture Tells a Story:

Tom Leimdörfer was born in Budapest, seventy-five years ago this year, on 15 October 1942.  In Tom’s case, this is a milestone which is certainly well-worth celebrating. After all, in the mere fifteen years between his birth and mine, he had already survived the Holocaust and had endured two Soviet invasions of Hungary, his native land, a revolution, a counter-revolution and a hair-raising escape as a refugee across the Austrian border. He had also, as a young teenager, adapted to the very different language and culture of his adopted country, England. Tom has kept and carefully recorded the family’s archives and stories from these fifteen years, perhaps most importantly in respect of the first three, for which he has, of course, few direct memories of his own. As the older Holocaust survivors gradually pass on, the role of these younger ones in transmitting the experiences of this time will, no doubt, become increasingly important. In Tom’s case, as in many, the photographs and artefacts which they cherish provide the emblematic sources around which the transmitted stories and information are woven. In the initial part of this chapter, I have left Tom’s words as his own, indicated by the use of italics.

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A picture I treasure is taken on balcony. It was almost certainly the flat belonging to my great uncle Feri and great aunt Manci. Feri was my grandfather (Dádi) Ármin’s younger brother and Manci was Sári mama’s younger sister. Two brothers married two sisters and to make matters even more bizarre, they were cousins (once removed). I expect it was Feri who took the picture on one of their family days. The five people in the picture look happy, even though war clouds were gathering and laws restricting basic human rights for Jews were in the process of enactment. It was the spring of 1939. The photo shows my grandparents (Sári mama and Dádi) and my aunt Juci aged 16. The other two smiling figures are my parents. My father (András Leimdörfer) is in uniform, looking lovingly at my mother (Edit) and having his arms around her. They were married about six months before. My father is in his proper army uniform, with three stars on the lapels.  Two years later that was exchanged for the plain uniform of the Jewish (unarmed) forced labour unit serving with the Hungarian army. He was first sent to Transylvania in the autumn of 1941. His brief few months back home resulted in my conception. In June 1942, he was off to the Russian front, never to return. The war and the bitter winter took his life in February 1943 but the family only learnt the facts four years later.

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On the same page in the old album are two more pictures of my parents. One (above) relaxing, reclining on a grassy slope in summer (1939 or 1940), though looking far too smartly dressed for such a pose. The other (right) is taken in December 1938 in Venice outside St. Mark’s Cathedral, surrounded by pigeons and snow. It was their brief honeymoon in the last winter of peace in Europe.

The father I never knew was a very good-looking and bright young man. Known as Bandi to his family, he had an Economics degree from high school in St. Gallen in Switzerland and a doctorate from the University of Szeged in southern Hungary. It was the effect of the law known as ‘numerus clausus’ (restricting the percentage of Jewish entrance to universities in Hungary) that led to his going to Switzerland for his first degree. There he formed strong friendship with three other young Hungarian Jews. One of these, Pál Katona, was head of the BBC’s Hungarian broadcast section for many years. The second, Fritz Fischer, emigrated to America. The third and his closest friend was Gyuri Schustek, who was to play a significant role in my life as well.

My parents met on the social round of the Jewish middle class in Budapest. My mother’s elder brother (also called András and also known as Bandi) was the same age as my father and also an economics graduate as well as a first class tennis player. So one day, probably at a party, Bandi Lakatos introduced his younger sister Edit to Bandi Leimdörfer who promptly fell in love with her. Their months of courtship included outings to the Buda hills and rowing on the Danube, which they both loved. Their special friends Gyuri (Schustek) and Lonci (or Ilona) were also planning to get married. My father was nearly 27 and my mother nearly 23 when they married in December 1938. Unusually, everyone wore black at their wedding as my father’s grandmother had died just before. With the increasing anti-Semitism at home and uncertainties of a possible war, they decided to delay having any children and concentrate on setting up a life for themselves in their pleasant flat in the quiet Zsombolyai street in the suburb of Kelenföld. It was also conveniently near my grandfather’s timber yard and the office of their firm of Leimdörfer & Révész, where my father also worked.

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So back to the pictures in the album. There is a small photo of a group of Jewish forced labour unit workers in the deep snow along the banks of the River Don, not far from the city of Voronezh. There is another of my father on top of tank in the snow. After much internal political strife, Hungary entered the war on the German side in June 1941 in exchange for the return of part of the territories lost after the first World War. The 2nd Hungarian Army, sent to the Russian front in the late spring of 1942, included ‘disposable’ elements like the unarmed Jewish labour brigades, conscripted socialists and trade unionists as well as parts of the professional army from all over Hungary (‘to spread the sacrifice’). Their job was to hold the Red Army on the banks of the river Don (over 2000 km from their homeland) while the battle of Stalingrad was raging. On the 12th January 1943, in the depth of the bitterest winter with temperatures of –20 to –30 degrees, the Soviet Army attacked and broke through. They took over 25,000 prisoners within days. The food supplies were scarce and a typhoid epidemic broke out. My father died of typhoid in February 1943, five months before his 31st birthday. A Jewish doctor was there, one of his brigade, and he was released in the summer of 1947. When he arrived in Budapest, he informed my mother and my father’s parents. Till then, they hoped in vain. Only one-third of the army of 200,000 returned. Hungary then refused to send any more troops to help the German cause.

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The next pictures are those taken of me as a tiny baby. Plenty were taken and sent to the front for my father. There is the one in the hospital bed with my mother, just after I was born on the 15 October 1942. Then there are some professionally taken pictures. The one in sepia by a firm called ‘Mosoly Album’ (album of smiles) shows a cheeky nine weeks old doing a press-up a sticking out his tongue. It was the last picture to reach my father and he wrote back with joy. The other baby pictures were taken in hope of sending them to the prisoner of war camp, but there was no news and no way of communication. I am amazed at the quality of these pictures, taken at a time of war. One of the photos shows me holding a bottle and drinking from it, looking up with wide eyes. This picture appeared in a magazine, sent by the photographer. I wonder if the editor realised that he was publishing the picture of Jewish baby! If so, he was taking a risk.

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One poignant picture, taken in the spring 1944, shows me sitting on a chair with a toy lorry on my knee. It is the identical pose as a picture taken of my father when he was a little boy. Clearly my mother was thinking of him when she had that taken of me. At the same time, there is a photo with me clutching a large panda. I was told it was my favourite toy – and it has its story.

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One of my older pictures shows a strikingly elegant and beautiful woman in her thirties. Born Zelma Breuer, my maternal grandmother was the object of admiration both in her home town of Szécsény in northern Hungary and in her social circles in Budapest, where she lived most of her married life. My mother got her beauty from her and the two of them were very close. There is a lovely picture of the two of them, arms round each other in the garden in Szécsény. My mother’s father was a lot older than her mother. Grandfather Aladár Lakatos worked his way up in the Post Office in Budapest to the rank of a senior civil servant. He had changed his name from Pollitzer in order to feel more fully integrated. When the laws forbidding Jews from holding such senior posts came into effect, he was nearing retirement age. So his dismissal was in the form of early retirement. Zelma’s ageing parents still lived in Szécsény, so they decided to retire there, selling the flat in Budapest and buying a substantial brick house next door to the old Breuers wattle house. With increasing threat to the Jewish population, they thought they would be safer in a quiet town where the Breuers were well-known and well liked. How wrong they were! When my father did not return from the front in 1943, they urged my mother to join them. The air was also healthier for small child, they said. My mother decided to stay in her own flat in Buda and to stay close to her husband’s family. Whatever her reasons were, it saved our lives.

The Growing Shadow of the Eagle:

To give some broader context to these early years of Hungary’s war into which Tom was born, I have been reading Anna Porter’s book, Kasztner’s Train, which, in dealing with the controversial ‘hero’ of the Holocaust, also provides the most comprehensive information about the situation in the Jewish communities of Budapest and Hungary during the war. In January 1942, Hungarian military units executed more than three thousand civilians in the recently occupied part of Yugoslavia, including 140 children, who, according to one of the commanding officers, could grow up to be enemies. Joel Brand, Rezső Kasztner’s colleague, found out that close to a third of those murdered had been Jews. The thin pretext that they were likely to have joined the Serb partisans was no more than a nod to the government authorities who had demanded an explanation. The flood of refugees into Hungary now included Jews from the Délvidék, or southern lands, as Hungarians referred to lands which had once been part of Hungary until the Treaty of Trianon awarded them to Yugoslavia. The new arrivals had terrible tales of mass executions: people had been shoved into the icy waters of the Danube, and the men in charge of this so-called military expedition continued the killings even after they received orders to stop.

By the early summer of 1942, Baron Fülöp von Freudiger of the Budapest Orthodox Jewish congregation had received a letter from a little-known Orthodox rabbi in Bratislava, Slovakia. It was a cry for help, mostly financial, but also for advice on how to deal with the Jewish Agency on the survival of the surviving Jews of Slovakia. Deportations had begun on 26 March 1942, with a transport of girls aged sixteen and older. The Germans had already deported 52,000 Slovak Jews by the summer and Rabbi Weissmandel, together with a woman called Gizi Fleischmann, had founded a Working Group as an offshoot of the local Jewish Council, with the sole object of saving the remaining Jews in Slovakia. In subsequent meetings with Wisliceny, a Nazi officer, the Working Group became convinced that some of the Nazis could be bribed to leave the Jews at home. It also realised that this could, potentially, be extended to the other occupied countries in Europe. Weissmandel called it the Europa Plan, a means by which further deportations could be stopped. Rezső Kasztner and Joel Brand, working for the Va’ada, the Zionist organisation, from still sovereign Hungary were unconvinced: Hitler would not, they said, tolerate any Jews in Europe. But Kasztner agreed that fewer barriers would be put in the way of Jewish emigration, provided it was paid for, and quickly. The rabbi’s Europa Plan sounded very much like the Europa Plan devised by Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, which had earlier allowed large-scale emigration from Germany to Palestine, until it had encountered stiff opposition from the Arabs and had led to the imposition of harsh quotas by the British.

In December 1942, Sam Springmann, a leading Zionist in Budapest, received a message from the Jewish Agency office in Istanbul that the Refugee Rescue Committee should prepare to receive a visit from Oskar Schindler who would tell them, directly, about those regions of Eastern Europe occupied by the Wehrmacht. Schindler endured two days of uncomfortable travel in a freight car filled with Nazi newspapers to arrive in Budapest. He talked of the atrocities in Kraków and the remaining ghetto, the hunger in Lodz and of the freight trains leaving Warsaw full of Jews whose final destination was not labour camps, as they had assumed, but vernichtungslager, extermination camps. In the midst of this stupid war, he said, the Nazis were using the railway system, expensive engineering, and an untold number of guards and bureaucrats whose sole purpose was to apply scientific methods of murdering large numbers of people. Once they became inmates, there was no hope of reaching or rescuing them. Kasztner did not believe that adverse publicity would deter the Germans from further atrocities, but public opinion might delay some of their plans, and delay was good. With luck, the war would end before the annihilation of the Jews was realised.

By this time, but unbeknown to the Va’ada leaders in Budapest, most of the politicians in Europe already knew about the disaster which was befalling the Jews. During October and November 1942, more than 600,000 Jews had already been deported to Auschwitz, including 106,000 from Holland and 77,000 from France. Newspapers in the United Kingdom, as well as in the United States and Palestine, carried reports, some firsthand, from traveling diplomats, businessmen, and refugees, that the Germans were systematically murdering the European Jews. But anyone who followed these news stories assumed that the German’ resolve to annihilate the Jews would likely be slowed down by defeats on the battlefields. Stephen Wise, Budapest-born president of the American Jewish Congress, had announced at the end of November that two million Jews had already been exterminated and that Nazi policy was to exterminate them all, using mass killing centres in Poland. In hindsight, it is surprising that the extermination camps were not better anticipated.

Oskar Schindler’s firsthand information was a warning that the use of extermination camps could spread to the whole population of Poland and Slovakia, but Rezső Kasztner and the Aid and Rescue Committee still hoped that the ghettos would remain as sources for local labour. They knew of several camps, such as Dachau and Bergen-Belsen, where the treatment, though harsh, could be relieved by a supply of food parcels, clothing and bribes. The couriers reported the starvation and the rounding up of work gangs, but not the extermination camps. As Schindler’s story circulated to the different Jewish groups in Budapest, it initiated an immediate if limited response. Fülöp von Freudiger called for more generous donations to help the Orthodox Jews in Poland.The leader of the Reformed Jewish Community in the city, Samuel Stern, remained confident, however, that these terrible stories were isolated incidents. His group was busy providing financial assistance for recently impoverished intellectuals who could no longer work in their professions because of the Hungarian exclusionary laws. Stern did not want to listen to horror stories about systematic murder. Such facilities were impossible to imagine. He told Kasztner that in the months to come we may be left without our money and comforts, but we shall survive. The very idea of vernichtungslager, of extermination, seemed improbable. Why would the Germans sacrifice men, transportation and scarce resources to murder unarmed civilians with no means to defend themselves?

The Times in London reported from Paris that four thousand Jewish children had been deported to a Nazi concentration camp, while in the House of Commons, British PM Winston Churchill gave a scating adddress that was broadcast by the BBC and heard throughout Budapest. Referring to the mass deportation of Jews from France, he claimed that this tragedy illustrates… the utter degradation of the Nazi nature and theme. Meanwhile, Jewish organisations in Budapest continued to provide learned lectures in their well-appointed halls on every conceivable subject except the one which might have concerned them most, the ongoing fate of the Jews in Germany, Austria, France, Poland and Slovakia, and what it meant for the Jews of Hungary. Two million Polish Jews had already disappeared without a trace.

In January 1943 the Second Hungarian Army was destroyed in the Battle of Voronezh. The losses were terrible: 40,000 dead, 35,000 wounded, 60,000 taken prisoner by the Soviets. The news was played down by the media and the politicians. In Budapest, news of the disaster was only available by listening to the BBC’s Hungarian broadcasts, or to the Soviet broadcasts. Under the premiership of Miklós Kállay, Hungary’s industries continued to thrive, supplying the German army with raw materials. Mines were busy, agricultural production was in full flow and the manufacture of armaments, military uniforms and buttons kept most people employed and earning good wages. Kállay’s personal antipathy towards further anti-Jewish laws lent credence to Samuel Stern’s belief that it cannot happen here.

By the summer of 1943, rumours were circulating among Budapest’s cafés of an armistice agreement with Britain and the United States. Kállay’s emissaries to Istanbul and other neutral capitals had been fishing for acceptable terms. Kállay even went to see Mussolini in Rome to propose a new alliance of Italy, Hungary, Romania and Greece against Hitler. Mussolini declined, and it soon became obvious to ministers in Budapest that the Germans would soon have to terminate these breakaway plans.

Samuel Stern knew in advance about Regent Horthy’s meeting with Hitler in late April 1943. He had been at Horthy’s official residence in Buda Castle playing cards, when the call came from Hitler’s headquarters inviting Horthy to Schloss Klessheim. Horthy was too frightened to decline the invitation, although he detested the ‘uncultured’ German leader. Hitler ranted about Kállay’s clumsy overtures to the British. As a show of loyalty, he demanded another Hungarian army at the front. Horthy stood his ground. He would not agree to sending Hungarian troops to the Balkans, nor to further extreme measures against the Jews. Hitler, his hands clenched behind his back, screamed and marched about. Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister attended the dinner that followed, and wrote in his diary that Horthy’s humanitarian attitude regarding The Jewish Question convinced the Führer that all the rubbish of small nations still existing in Europe must be liquidated as soon as possible. 

Meanwhile, terrible stories were circulating in Budapest about the actions of Hungary’s soldiers as they returned from the front with the Soviet Union. In late April 1943, retreating Hungarian soldiers in the Ukraine ordered eight hundred sick men from the Jewish labour force into a hospital shed and then set fire to it. Officers commanded the soldiers to shoot anyone who tried to escape from the flames. Neither the Hungarian press nor the Hungarian Jewish newspaper reported these deaths. Instead, the pro-Nazi press increased its vitriolic attacks on Jewish influence at home, persisting blaming food shortages on the Jews, who were falsely accused of hoarding lard, sugar and flour, engaging in black market activities, and reaping enormous war profits from the industries they controlled. That summer, Oskar Schindler returned to Budapest, bringing letters to be forwarded to Istanbul for the relatives of his Jews. He gave a detailed report of the situation in Poland and of the possibilities of rescue and escape from the ghettos.

In a letter she wrote to the Jewish Agency in Istanbul, dated 10 May 1943, Gizi Fleischmann reported from Bratislava:

Over a million Jews have been resettled from Poland. Hundreds of thousands have lost their lives due to starvation, disease, cold and many more have fallen victim to violence. The reports state that the corpses are used for chemical raw materials.

She did not know that by that time 2.5 million of Poland’s Jews were already dead. On 16 May, members of the Hungarian Rescue Committee gathered around their radios and toasted the Warsaw ghetto’s last heroic stand. On 11 June, Reichsführer ss Himmler ordered the liquidation of all Polish ghettos. By 5 September she wrote to the American Joint Distribution Committee’s representative in Geneva that we know today that Sobibór, Treblinka, Belzec and Auschwitz are annihilation camps. Later that month, Fleischmann traveled to Budapest, where she visited the offices of both Komoly and Kasztner. Both had already seen copies of her correspondence, as had Samuel Stern, but his group met her case for funding with colossal indifference. They made it clear that they thought her allegations about the fate of the Polish and Slovak Jews were preposterous. She also informed Kasztner that Dieter Wisliceny, the ss man in charge of the deportations from Slovakia, had told her of a dinner he had attended on Swabian Hill with a senior functionary from the Hungarian prime minister’s office. They had discussed the extermination of the Hungarian Jews. After her visit, Kasztner wrote to Nathan Schwalb of the Hechalutz, the international Zionist youth movement:

The gas chambers in Poland have already consumed the bodies of more than half a million Jews. There are horrible, unbelievable photographs of starving children, of dead, emaciated bodies on the streets of the Warsaw ghetto.

Kasztner raised the money for Gizi Fleischmann to offer a bribe to Wisliceny in exchange for the lives of the remaining Slovak Jews. Whether it contributed to the two-year hiatus in murdering the Slovak Jews is still disputed, but there is no doubt that Fleischmann and Rabbi Weissmandel believed it had.

The late autumn of 1943 was spectacular with its bright colours: the old chestnut trees along the Danube turning crimson and rich sienna browns, the oranges of the dogwood trees rising up Gellert Hill. Musicians still played in the outdoor cafés and young women paraded in their winter furs. Late in the evenings there was frost in the air. Throughout that autumn and winter, many inside the Hungarian government sought ways of quitting the war and starting negotiations with the Allies. On 24 January, 1944, the chief of the Hungarian general staff met with Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel and suggested that Hungarian forces might withdraw from the Eastern Front. The Germans had been aware of Hungary’s vacillations about the war, its fear of Allied attacks, and its appeal to the British not to bomb  Hungary while it was reassessing its position. Several more Hungarian emissaries had approached both British and American agencies, including the OSS in Turkey, and offered separate peace agreements. Of course, Hitler had got to know about all these overtures, and had called Kállay a swine for his double-dealing.

Admiral Horthy followed suit within a month in a formal letter to Hitler, suggesting the withdrawal of the Hungarian troops to aid in the defence of the Carpathians. The soldiers would perform better if they were defending their homeland, he said. He also stressed his anxiety about Budapest, asking that German troops not be stationed too close to the capital, since they would attract heavy air-raids. Hitler thought Horthy’s plan was as ridiculous as the old man himself, and summoned him to Schloss Klessheim again for a meeting on 17 March 1944, a Friday. Hitler insisted that Jewish influence in Hungary had to cease, and that the German Army would occupy the country to ensure this happened. If Horthy did not agree to the occupation, or if he ordered resistance, Germany would launch a full-scale invasion, enlisting the support of the surrounding axis allies, leading to a dismemberment of Hungary back to its Trianon Treaty borders. This was Horthy’s worst nightmare, so he agreed to the occupation and the replacement of Kállay with a prime minister more to Hitler’s liking. The Admiral could remain as Regent, nominally in charge, but with a German Reich plenipotentiary in charge. Horthy also agreed to supply a hundred thousand Jewish workers to work in the armaments industry under Albert Speer.

Over the winter months of 1943-44, many of the labour camps had become death sentences for the underfed and poorly clothed Jews. In some Hungarian army labour units the brutality meted out to Jews was comparable to Nazi tactics in occupied Poland. In one division, sergeants doused Jews with water and cheered as their victims turned into ice sculptures. In another camp, officers ordered men in the work detail to climb trees and shout I am a dirty Jew as they leapt from branch to branch, the officers taking pot-shots at them. Of the fifty thousand men in the labour companies, only about seven thousand survived.

Secondary Source:

Anna Porter (2007), Kasztner’s Train: The True Story of an Unknown Hero of the Holocaust. London: Constable.

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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