Archive for the ‘Tom Leimdorfer’ Tag

Summer Storms Over Hungary (II): Child Witnesses of the Holocaust, May-August 1944.   Leave a comment

Surviving Auschwitz and the Budapest Ghettos:

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Susan (Zsuzsa) Pollock was deported as a child of fourteen to Auschwitz from the Hungarian countryside in 1944. Her story is available to read and download at https://www.hmd.org.uk/resource/susan-pollack/. Apart from those who survived Auschwitz, there were many children who escaped the death marches and Arrow Cross terror in Budapest, and survived, scarred by the experience of loss of family and friends. Here, I quote published and unpublished testimony from these children remembering that dreadful summer of 1944.

Tom’s Tale – Air Raids on Budapest:

15 October 1944

The German occupation and the collaboration of the Hungarian state in it meant that the previous agreement with the Allies not to bomb the country was negated. The bombardment of Hungary began in the summer of 1944. The warm summer of 1944 was a summer of allied (mainly RAF) airstrikes. Two-year-old Tom Leimdorfer (whom I first met in the UK in 1987) often played outside in their small but secluded front garden on the Pest side of Budapest. 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 airwaves 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!’ They would then all go down to the cellar, which served as a very inadequate air raid shelter.

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The RAF was bombing them and their lives were under threat from them, but they were not ‘the enemy’ as far as Tom’s family was concerned. Tom’s father was ‘missing’ on the Russian front (pictured above with his unit) and Russian troops were advancing towards Hungary with all the uncertainties and horrors of a siege of Budapest approaching, but they were not their ‘enemy’ either, but their 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, Tom wrote that the ‘enemy’ was war and inhumanity, hatred and anti-Semitism.

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Tom’s ‘official’ baby picture.

May 1944

Tom Leimdorfer’s grandfather Aladár spent much of his time on his allotment just outside the small town of Szécsény, where he also kept bees, enjoying the simple life in retirement. Tom’s mother later told him that they last visited the elderly couple in early May 1944 (as shown in the picture of her with her mother, right), when Tom was 18 months old, just a few weeks before they were deported to Auschwitz. Tom is in no doubt that his grandparents would have been taken straight to the gas chambers on arrival. The story of the lively Jewish community in Szécsény was later 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.

The Long Shadow of Auschwitz from Szécsény to Pest:

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 being 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. 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.

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Another ‘Jewish’ child in Budapest in 1944 was Marianna (‘Daisy’) Birnbaum (née László), who wrote up her family and friends’ stories in her 2016 volume, 1944: A Year Without Goodbyes. In her introduction to this, she wrote:

1944 was the most important year of my life. My childhood ended in 1944 and what I experienced during that time determined the decades that were to follow. Ever since the age of ten, I see the world as I then saw it. In the battle between God and Satan. Satan won, but we have not been told. By now, I know that the perpetrator can be a victim at the same time. However, this awareness does not help me to give up that hopelessly ‘Manichaean’ view of the world that the year 1944 had created in me.

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Due to luck and the bravery of my father, my parents… survived, but many of my relatives became the victims of German and Hungarian Nazism. … I also want to report on those who by some miracle had survived those terrible times, because their lives too had irrevocably changed.

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In the summer of 1944, she and her mother rushed to her Uncle Lajos Benke (formerly Blau, pictured below) for advice when her father was taken by the Gestapo. For a while, having an ‘Aryan’ spouse exempted Jews from racial legislation. Although her Aunt Juliska was non-Jewish, Uncle Lajos was registered as a Jew. They lived in an elegant apartment in Buda. He could give them no advice, but would not allow his sister and niece to return to Pest due to the allied bombing. They spent three days there, but Daisy’s mother grew nervous and worried that they would cause trouble for their hosts. In order to take up residence, even temporarily, they should have registered with the local police, but Jews were not permitted to change residence and so it was safer for them to leave. Daisy became six that summer, so she had to wear a yellow star. By then, her father, who had paid a large bribe to a Gestapo officer, was temporarily free.

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He also arranged Swiss protection for Uncle Lajos, who came to live with them in the apartment they shared with about twenty other people. In order to be with her husband, Aunt Juliska appeared daily in the house, despite exposing herself to the constant danger of air raids through these visits to the Jewish neighbourhood. Martial law was put into effect: Jews could only leave their so-called ‘protected houses’ for only two hours per day. In any case, she was never allowed to leave the house alone, though she sometimes rushed out in secret when she could no longer bear such a large number of people packed into the house, the permanent loud yelling and various other noises. Once outside, she walked down one of the main streets until stopping in front of the local patisserie. What happened next was one of those peculiar small acts of human compassion which randomly punctuated life during wartime:

… swallowing hard, I watched the children inside, sitting in the booths, licking their ice creams. Jews were banned from there, too, and I had not had ice cream since the summer before, because … by the time spring came, I was no longer permitted to enter such places.

Suddenly a shadow was cast upon the shop window and when I turned around, I saw a German soldier standing next to me. He must have been an officer because there were stars on his uniform. “Was magst du? Willst du ein buntes?” he asked. … Frightened, my response was barely audible. He took my hand and walked me with the yellow star on my dress into the patisserie and ordered two scoops of mixed ice cream for me. Of course, it was he who was being served but I believe that the people sitting inside understood what had happened.

The officer pressed the cone in my hand, paid and moved toward the exit. I followed him, the ice cream in one hand, the other that the soldier no longer held, hanging awkwardly, as if next me. I murmured my thanks as he hurried away without a backward glance. He was the one and only German soldier I had met during the war. Should I draw from this meeting a conclusion regarding the relationship between the German Nazi army and the Jews? 

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The map shows the ghettos and zones set out in the deportation schedule. Places referred to in the text: Szécsény, Balassagyarmat, Szolnok, Komárom, Cinkota, Csepel, Kispest.

Daisy’s Relatives & Friends in Szolnok & Komárom:

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Daisy’s father’s family lived in Szolnok, and her mother’s relatives were in Komárom, which was returned to Hungary through its Axis alliance. Of these two families, sixty-four perished in the various extermination camps, comprising men, women and children. Her father’s brother, her Uncle Bálint (above), was arrested on the German occupation of Szolnok, together with several of the wealthier Jews. They were beaten and tortured, first in the jail in the town and later in Budapest. Meanwhile, their families were deported from the town. Trains, made up of cattle cars, were already in the station when the gendarmes took Aunt Ilonka back to their home leaving Pista, aged twelve, on his own with a rucksack on his back, waiting for her in front of the wagons. She returned to the platform just as the huge doors were about to be slammed shut and locked. The gendarmes had been searching her home for hidden money and jewellery and had she not handed everything over, she would quite possibly have been beaten to death then and there. In the best case, she and Pista would have been put on the next train.

They did not know it at the time, but the first train was directed via Austria whereas the following one went directly to Auschwitz. Their catching the first meant the difference between possible survival and immediate death. They were eventually reunited with Bálint on an Austrian farm he had been deported to but found themselves separated again when taken to work at the Anker bakery in Vienna. They then survived an air raid and by the time they were transferred to Terezin concentration camp, there were no longer any trains being directed to Auschwitz. When they eventually all returned to Szolnok, they were able to begin a new life with the help of other jewels which Bálint had hidden in a different spot that he had shown only to Pista.

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Bálint and Ilonka also had an elder son, who was twenty-three in 1944. He was known as ‘Sanyika’ (pictured above). Barred from university because he was Jewish, he was put to work in the extended family’s iron and metal plant, though at heart he was a poet. Drafted into the forced labour corps in the army in 1940-41, he was dispatched to the Carpathians. After his parents were deported, his poems (stored in the attic of the Szolnok house) were thrown about by neighbours who ransacked the place, searching for anything of value. Many years later, Pista met one of Sanyika’s friends in Budapest and two others in Israel. They told him that Sanyika had become desperate after he had learned of the deportations of his parents. He stopped caring about his own fate, clashed with the guards who beat him severely. When his three friends tried to escape, he refused to join them. It was a cruel twist of fate that those whom he believed to have died survived, whereas he disappeared without a trace and was thought to have perished.

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Daisy’s mother’s family lived in Komárom and the neighbouring settlements. In early June 1944, Hungarian gendarmes put her grandparents into a freight train and sent them off to Auschwitz. Two letters from them have survived. The first was written to her around Christmas 1938, and the second came into her hands in 1995 when she found it among her mother’s papers. Her grandparents wrote it together, a day before they were deported from the Komáron ghetto. She realised that her mother must have carried the devastating message in her own clothing until after the liberation of Hungary and then when they escaped Hungary in 1956 and went to live in California. She reflected on how, when …

… soon after the war’s end I saw my parents – who were then in their thirties – having a good time (they even danced!), I was very angry at them for “forgetting so fast.” It took a long time of maturing until I understood that they forgot nothing: Just here and there they searched for a moment of joy in order to survive what had been barely survivable.

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Her mother’s younger brother, József Blau, sent two postcards to family members in July 1944, one of which encouraged his cousin to send a postcard to deported relatives, which was limited to thirty words in German, placed in an envelope and given to the Jewish Council in Budapest from where it would be forwarded. We know now that, in order to avoid panic among the newly-arrived deportees at Auschwitz, the Nazis made them send postcards to their families from Waldsee. The cards could be picked up in the office of the Jewish Council at Budapest, Sip utca 12 on the basis of published lists. Characteristic of the Nazis’ infinite cynicism, there was no need to put stamps on the cards sent in response, because the cards were destroyed, either in the Council or at the next step, since the addressees were no longer alive. Daisy’s mother also had a cousin in Komárom, Aunt Manci, whose daughter, ‘Évike’, was of a similar age to Daisy so that they became inseparable friends (pictured below). Uncle Miki, Aunt Manci’s husband, had been called up to serve in a forced labour camp at the beginning of the war and after a short time he was declared ‘missing’. They never found out what had happened to him. Aunt Manci and Évike remained alone until, in the early summer of 1944, together with Marianna’s grandparents, Aunt Manci’s family was deported and Évike was also taken to Auschwitz. Daisy wrote that she often wondered: Who held her hand on the ramp as they stood in front of Mengele?

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Another little friend in Komárom was Ági. She was also deported to Auschwitz with her mother where they were immediately gassed. Her father was in a labour camp at the time, but somehow survived and returned to Komárom in 1945. Jenő found no-one alive from his family and lived alone for months in their old house until he met Rózsi, a former acquaintance. She too had been sent to Auschwitz with her mother and her own daughter. The child clung to her grandmother which resulted in the two of them being sent immediately to the gas chamber. Rózsi, therefore, found herself in the other line of those who had survived the first selection. She was transferred from Auschwitz and worked in an ammunition factory. Broken, the lone survivor from her family, she also returned to Komárom and after a short time, she and Jenő decided to marry. However, soon after four or five young women who had spent some time recuperating after surviving the camps, also returned to Komárom. They recognised Rózsi as the “dreaded capo”, a prisoner assigned by the Nazis to supervise the rest of the prisoners in the camps. They visited Jenő and claimed that she had beaten and tortured them both in Auschwitz and later in the ammunition factory where they too had been transferred. Allegedly, he then pounced on her and almost strangled her. With a great effort, the neighbours succeeded in pulling him off Rózsi, taking her onto the grass outside to revive her. He then went into the house, left with a bag and disappeared from Komárom, reportedly for Palestine.

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It was, again, a twist of fate which meant that Daisy was not sent to Auschwitz with her grandparents. When the Germans occupied Budapest in March 1944, her grandfather had demanded that her parents should send her to Komárom right away, accompanied by her friend Mariska, and they both set out for the Western Station soon after. However, when they arrived at the station, there were police and soldiers everywhere, demanding to see documents. When Mariska admitted that whereas she was a Christian, her companion was Jewish, they were barred from boarding the train. However, had she been allowed to board, she would almost certainly have been deported with her grandparents, ending her life in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. In early June, her grandparents, along with the rest of the Jewish community of Komárom, were first moved to the ghetto and then, a few days later, they were all herded into cattle cars to be deported. Gazsi, their shop assistant and factotum, helped the Bau family, although the gendarmes threatened to put him on the train too. Daisy’s dog, Foxy, who had been cared for by Gazsi for the previous few weeks, began barking at this struggle, and one of the gendarmes shot him dead. Gazsi then ran to the post office from where he mailed the Bau’s last letter, adding the last details about Foxy. The letter arrived on 13 June, Daisy’s mother’s birthday, the letter which eventually came into their granddaughter’s possession over fifty years later. Daisy recalled its immediate effects:

Neither before, nor after, have I seen anything like this. With the letter in her hand, my mother ran through the apartment in circles, screaming and tearing out her hair (literally). I was merely told that my grandparents, in the company of many relatives, were ‘taken away’; no-one knew where. … I was around fifteen when I found out that (Foxy) had been shot… Since then, I have been mourning him as another Holocaust victim from my family.

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Scarred Schoolfriends from Budapest:

In the capital itself, rumours had been circulating claiming that those who converted would not be deported so that many Jewish families tried to save themselves by seeking Protestant pastors who would help them by providing certificates of baptism without studying or preparation. In one of Uncle Józsi’s postcards, sent just before he was shot dead while being deported to Austria, he mentioned that some members of their larger family were visiting a parish priest. Tom Leimdorfer’s mother had already converted to Calvinism. Daisy’s father gained the assistance of the pastor of the Fóti út Evangelical Congregation and decided that both she and her mother should convert. Her mother, however, refused, and would not let her daughter attend either. Her father, therefore, got his ex-secretary to stand in for his wife, but he could not get a Christian child to stand in for Daisy, so she remained Jewish.

A number of Daisy’s friends and classmates also survived the year 1944 as children and grew up to be wounded people. Instead of losing their relatives to illness or old age, to traffic accidents or even random bombing, their family members were victims of a well-prepared genocide. ‘Tomi’ was born in Budapest in 1931. His father owned a large factory that produced light fixtures; his mother was a concert pianist. The entirely assimilated family, living on the first floor of a Rózsadomb villa, decided to take the final step and converted to Catholicism, mainly to avoid the increasing restrictions on Jews. Nonetheless, in June 1944, they had to leave their home, as Tomi, his mother and his older sister Edit were moved to a ‘Jewish house’. By then, his father was also in a forced labour camp. In October, all three of them had to report to the brick factory of Óbuda, from where they were supposed to be deported. Tomi’s father was able to provide them with Swiss protection documents and, therefore, three days later, they were moved to the overcrowded ghetto. There, Tomi shared a room with six children but he succeeded in smuggling them all out because he had two copies of the document proving that he was a Roman Catholic. Following his plan, two boys left the ghetto (one at each exit) with the documents, met outside, one returning with both copies so that the exeat could be repeated until all seven of them were outside the walls.

Ágnes, born in Budapest in December 1933, lived with her parents in an apartment which became crowded when her mother’s sister Irén, her husband Retső and their two sons moved in with them from the small town of Cinkota, near the capital, during the spring of 1944. Her father was soon drafted into the army, but as he was forty-six years old, he narrowly avoided being sent to the Russian front. Instead, he was directed into forced labour from where he was allowed to send a postcard to his family each week so that they were not too worried about him. Teaching at Ági’s elementary school was discontinued after 30 April and she had to wear a yellow star, a humiliating sign that had to be sewn on to each and every piece of outside clothing. The family was also forced to move to a house marked with a yellow star. Ági slept with her mother on a couch in the hallway. Jews were allowed to shop only after 10 a.m. by which time everything had gone from the shelves. Ági went to the local bakery and queued for bread, so at least they had fresh bread to eat. She did not remember whether they had ration cards, which were legally valid for Christians only. She did remember her Aunt Irén poking the worms out of a piece of meat and cooked it, but Ági refused to eat it. During the warm summer, the children played out on the flat roof, or on the staircase, as they were no longer permitted to go to the park. On 3 July, Ági’s Uncle Ernő and his sixteen-year-old son Péter went out to Csepel, the industrial island in the Danube, to look for work in order to avoid deportation. They were never seen again. The family later heard that they had been rounded up in a raid and later perished in Auschwitz, the father committing suicide by running into the electrified fence.

Before the spring of 1944, Marianna’s Jewish friends in Budapest led a very active outdoor life, getting ‘Brownie’ cameras and bicycles for their birthdays. As late as the winter of 1943-44, they went skying at Normafa, a popular skiing slope in the Buda Hills. However, outdoor life soon came to an abrupt end as Jewish families no longer dared to show themselves at places of leisure, even if not yet officially banned. They feared to call attention to themselves during the frequently conducted parasite roundups aimed primarily at Jews by Hungarian fascists. Following the Nazi occupation, they suddenly found themselves excluded from most public places and during the worst times the families lost contact with each other because they were ordered to live in different ‘Protected houses’. They didn’t meet again until 1945 when Marianna learnt that her best friend in Budapest, Marika, hidden in a nunnery, remained the sole survivor of her family. Her parents and her brother Andris were taken from their ‘protected house’ by the Arrow Cross paramilitaries and were shot into the Danube. Andris, Marianna’s first boyfriend, was just thirteen.

Ágota, or ‘Ágika’, was a silent little girl who loved her father more than she loved anyone. Whenever her father was at home from his forced labour service, Ágika always sat very close to him, but during the spring of 1944, she was at home alone with her mother, Ilus. When her husband was away, Ilus found it difficult to cope with the new world that seemed ready to destroy her and her family at any moment. She continually expected to be arrested by the Gestapo, a fear not quite unreasonable since Ágika’s father owned a rubber and tire factory which was now under the control of the Hungarian state, but could have been too useful a source for the Germans to allow to remain in the hands of the state. There were still a number of similarly wealthy Jewish families living in the same building. Once a green Mercedes stopped at the park entrance of the house, and a few minutes later, when the soldiers left, they took one of the tenants along. A few days later, when Ilus saw the distinctive Mercedes again from the window of the fifth-floor apartment, she assumed the worst when three soldiers got out and started towards the gate. As she heard the elevator approaching the upper floors, she grabbed her daughter and dragged her towards the balcony door, with the aim of throwing themselves off the balcony. Ágika struggled with her mother, preventing her from opening the door by biting her wrist before screaming at her:

You are not going to kill me, you murderer, I am going to wait for my Daddy!

While they continued to fight quite bitterly, the noise from the elevator shaft stopped, and the sound of boots could be heard from the floor below. Mother and daughter sat on the floor for some minutes, gasping for air, before bursting into tears. They were later hidden by a Christian family who, though well remunerated for doing so, were  risking their lives, as the ubiquitous posters chillingly proclaimed:

Whosoever hides Jews will be hacked to pieces.

Thanks to Ágika, the three of them survived the horrors of 1944. So did Gyuri, Ágika’s cousin, who moved in with them. His mother was the elder sister of Aunt Ilus and one of the many ‘who did not return’. His parents had divorced when Gyuri was little, so he lived with his mother, brother and maternal grandmother. His father was ‘reported missing’ earlier in the war, so Gyuri became a ‘half-orphan’ at the age of ten. In 1944, they lived in wretched misery with many others in a ‘Jewish house’ waiting to be deported. He later recalled the hostility of their ‘Christian’ neighbours:

We were gathering in the courtyard when the passers-by stopped in the street, cursing us and spitting at us over the iron fence. Watched by, and at the pleasure of the bastille crowd, we were taken in a long procession along Rákóczi út to the synagogue in Dohány utca.

Apparently, a German soldier filmed the entire action by the Hungarian gendarmes which can be viewed in the permanent collection of the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. The plan was to move the several hundred Jews to the railway station, but the manoeuvre was suddenly halted and all were marched back to the ‘Jewish house’, after being forced to hand over their watches, jewellery and the cash they had on them. With the help of relatives, Gyuri’s family then received Swedish protective papers and, together with twenty others, they were moved into the abandoned apartment of Aunt Ilus, which had become a Swedish ‘protected house’.

Kati was also born in Budapest in 1934. Her father owned a paper factory that he managed with his father and the family lived on the Pest side of the capital, in a house where one of the apartments on the upper floor belonged to them, while her grandparents’ apartment and the shop were on the ground floor. Although Kati’s father was conscripted to forced labour even before the war, they lived comfortably, without worries… until, at age nine and a half, the world changed around them. One of Kati’s most painful memories was that she had to go to school each day with the yellow star on her dress. Because their house was declared a ‘Jewish house’, they did not have to move. Instead, dozens of people were forcibly moved in with them. Kati took care of the younger children, among whom some were under six. She took them down to the air-raid shelter and played with them to distract them during the raids. One time, bombs were dropped very close by, but only shattered the windows and damaged a few pieces of furniture.

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Then one day, while on his way to join his company, Hungarian soldiers removed Kati’s father from a train at Nagyvárad and, suddenly, he went missing without a trace. Kati’s mother was able to procure copies of the ‘protection documents’ Wallenberg had been handing out, but it was too late because the Germans occupied their house and transported both sets of grandparents to the ghetto. Kati was sent to live with distant relatives and one of her father’s employees got hold of false papers for her, with a new name, Aranka Sztinnyán. Although she was with relatives, she felt terribly alone. Although I looked Aryan, I was not permitted out on the street, she recalled. A few weeks later, Kati’s mother, who had escaped from the Óbuda brick factory, came to fetch her. Together with ten other relatives, Kati and her mother hid in the coal cellar of an apartment block where, from time to time, they received food from unknown benefactors who were not permitted to see them. Kati does not remember being hungry, neither was she scared, except for the bombs. Her mother saved her from sensing the daily danger that surrounded them. When they returned to their home following the ‘liberation’, they discovered that, except for her father, everybody had survived. Eventually, he too returned from Terezin at the end of the war, having survived ten different concentration camps.

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Misi ‘Gyarmat’ was born into a ‘Jewish gentry’ family in Balassagyarmat, which had been the family’s home since the eighteenth century. His maternal grandfather, Ármin, was a well-to-do, well-respected local landowner. Although Misi’s parents lived in Budapest, ‘Gyarmat’ was the paradise where he, his mother and his younger sister Jutka spent their summers, immersing themselves in the pleasures of country life which offered unlimited freedom. His father, Dr László Gy. held the rank of lieutenant, working as a physician among the mountain rangers during World War I. In Apatin in Serbia, which was awarded to Hungary in 1941, László took over the medical practice of a young Christian doctor who was drafted to serve with the Second Hungarian Army on the Russian Front. He lived there between 1942 and 1944 when he went to live with his family in the ghetto in Budapest. When Misi’s maternal grandfather died in 1943, the family council decided that since both uncles were serving in forced labour camps, Misi’s mother would take over the management of the estate, and she and the children would not return to Budapest and Misi transferred to the Balassgyarmat Jewish school. Following the German occupation, the estate was immediately confiscated, and the family’s mobility was increasingly curtailed. The local Jews were moved into a hastily assembled ghetto and all those deemed ‘temporary lodgers’ were ordered to return immediately to their permanent places of residence. For Misi and his mother, this meant a return to Budapest, so his mother pleaded to be allowed to stay in Balassagyarmat in order to take care of her recently widowed mother. Her brother, home on leave, went to see the local police chief, but the captain denied the request, saying:

I am doing this in the interest of your sister, her children and for the memory of your father.

The meaning of this sentence became clear later, making it clear that the police chief knew exactly what would happen with the deportees. As in other villages throughout rural Hungary, he did nothing to rescue any of the local Jews but instead rendered fast and effective police work to accomplish their deportation. Next day, Misi, his sister and his mother left for Budapest. Two weeks later, those of their family who remained at Gyarmat, together with the rest of the Jewish community, were all crammed into cattle cars and sent to Auschwitz. One survivor later told them that, in the wagons, they had to travel standing, all packed in like sardines. One of the gendarmes stabbed the leg of an old woman who, due to her varicose veins, could not walk fast enough. Blood was spurting from her leg as she was pushed into the car. A dying man was shoved into another wagon and his body was not removed until six hours after his death, though the train did not leave until after those hours. Misi lost his grandmother in Auschwitz and all his childhood friends from Gyarmat.

Hoping to avoid deportation later that summer, Misi and his family converted to Catholicism. Whereas none of the churches stood up openly for the persecuted, during the worst period, both children were saved by members of the Catholic orders. Misi found refuge in the Collegium Josephinum on Andrássy Boulevard. Zsuzsa Van, the Prioress of the nunnery was later awarded the title Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem, on the memorial honouring those Christians who risked their lives to save Jews. Misi’s sister was saved by the Carmelite nuns in Kőbánya. Their paternal grandmother remained in the family apartment in Budapest, never sewed the yellow star on her own garments, yet somehow survived, along with both their paternal uncles. Thirty-five years later, Misi returned to his once-beloved Balassgyarmat for his first visit since those awful events.

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Most of the children of Budapest of 1944 were just one generation away from country life and many, like Ágnes had been born in the countryside and still had relatives there. She had been born in Endrőd, a town in eastern Hungary, but by the time she was in the first form, her family had moved to Budapest and she became another of Daisy’s classmates at the Jewish elementary school on Hollán Street. Until 1944, Ágnes’s happiest moments were spent at her grandmother’s house at Zalaegerszeg in western Hungary. Her father, György, was a journalist and newspaper editor, politically aware and active. He took his little girl seriously, talking to her about politics and other grown-up topics. His sudden disappearance, therefore, created a void that has accompanied her throughout her life. In November 1943, unable to bear their confinement any longer, he left his hiding place, a loft, said goodbye as if he were just leaving for the forced labour camp, and was never seen again. She also lost her maternal grandmother that same year, from blood poisoning, Her only son died of starvation at Kőszeg. Her paternal grandparents were deported together with their daughter, György’s sister. They were sent to a farm in Austria where Ágnes’s grandfather, a rabbi in Hungary, drove a tractor. All three of them survived, saddened and scarred by their son’s disappearance. Ágnes always remembers the gigantic capital Zs (for ‘Zsidó’, ‘Jew’ in Hungarian) in her father’s military record book. Her poem to him stands for the unfathomable sense of loss many of these children have grown up with:

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I feel, you are off. Stepping out,

a well-dressed vagrant,

you never really leave; you are just stepping out,

looking back, laughing, at age thirty-eight,

I’ll soon be back, you nod and wave.

Your birthday would have been the following day.

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The Last Days of the War in the East:

It is a remarkable testimony to the dedication of the Nazis to complete their ‘final solution’ to ‘the Jewish Problem’ that their programme of deportations continued well into July. The huge Russian summer ground offensive, timed for the moment when attention in the Reich would be most concentrated on events in Normandy, was launched on 22 June 1944, the third anniversary of Operation Barbarossa. The counter-offensive, Operation Bagration (codenamed by Stalin after the great Georgian Marshal of the 1812 campaign). The attack was supported by four hundred guns per mile along a 350-mile front connecting Smolensk, Minsk and Warsaw. Bagration was intended to destroy the German Army Group Centre, opening the way to Berlin itself. The Red Army had almost total air cover, much of the Luftwaffe having been flown off westwards to try to deal with the Normandy offensive and the Combined Bomber Offensive. Much of the Third Panzer Army was destroyed in a few days and the hole created in the wildly overstretched German line was soon no less than 250 miles wide and a hundred miles deep, allowing major cities such as Vitebsk and Minsk to be recaptured on 25 June and 3 July respectively. By the latter date, the Russians had moved forward two hundred miles from their original lines. They encircled and captured 300,000 Germans at Minsk. Army Group Centre had effectively ceased to exist, leaving a vast gap between Army Group South and Army Group North. Bagration has been described by historians as being, from a German perspective, …

… one of the most sudden and complete military disasters in history. even in the months following the Allied invasion of Normandy, German casualties in Russia continued to average four times the number in the West.

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I have written about the tactical errors made by the German High Command, including Hitler himself, in my previous article. The movement of senior personnel on both the Eastern Front and, to a lesser extent, on Western Front, resembled a merry-go-round. Having been appointed commander-in-chief west in 1942, General Rundstedt was removed from command on 6 July 1944 after trying to persuade Hitler to adopt a more mobile defence strategy rather than fighting for every town and village in France. He was reappointed to his old post on the Eastern Front in command of Army Group South. By 10 July, twenty-five of the thirty-three divisions of Army Group Centre were trapped, with only a small number of troops able to extricate themselves. In the course of the sixty-eight days of this vast Kesselschladt (cauldron battle), the Red Army regained Belorussia and opened the way to attack East Prussia and the Baltic States. The year 1944 is thus seen as an annus mirabilis in today’s Russia. For all that is made of the British-American victory in the Falaise pocket, the successful Bagration offensive was ten times the size, yet it is hardly known of in the West.

On 14 July 1944, the Russians attacked south of the Pripet Marshes, capturing Lwow on the 27th. As a result, the Germans had been forced back to their Barbarossa start lines of three years earlier. Further south, Marshal Tolbukhin’s 3rd Ukrainian Front prepared to march on Belgrade, aided by Marshal Tito’s Yugoslav partisans. It was extraordinary, therefore, considering that the war’s outcome was in no doubt by the end of July 1944, that the Wehrmacht continued to operate as an efficient, disciplined fighting force well into the spring of 1945. The ‘Battle of Budapest’ played a major role in this. On 20 August, Marshal Vasilevsky began his drive to clear the Germans out of the Balkans, which saw spectacular successes as the 2nd and 3rd Ukrainian Fronts crossed the River Prut and attacked Army Group South in Romania. With Hitler desperate to retain control of the Romanian oilfields, without which his planes and tanks would be forced to rely on failing synthetic fuel production within the Reich, he could not withdraw the Sixth Army, twenty divisions of which were therefore trapped between the Dnieper and the Prut by 23 August. On that same day, Romania surrendered, and soon afterwards changed sides and declared war on Germany: a hundred thousand German prisoners and much matérial were taken.

At the end of August, after the success of the D-day landings in Normandy had been secured, Horthy recovered his mental strength and replaced Sztójáy with one of his loyal Generals, Géza Lakatos. By then the war aims of the Horthy régime, the restoration of Hungary to its pre-Trianon status, were in tatters. The First and Second Awards and the acquisitions by force of arms would mean nothing after the defeat which now seemed inevitable. The fate of Transylvania was still in the balance in the summer of 1944, with everything depending on who would liberate the contested territories from the Germans. When Royal Romania succeeded in pulling out, the Soviet and Romanian forces combined forces began a joint attack and the weakened Hungarian Army was unable to contain them. By 31 August, the Red Army was in Bucharest, but despite having advanced 250 miles in ten days, it then actually speeded up, crossing two hundred miles to the Yugoslav border in the following six days.

Sources:

Marianna D. Birnbaum (2016), 1944: A Year Without Goodbyes. Budapest: Corvina.

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

Zsolt Zágoni (ed.)(2012), From Budapest to Bergen-Belsen: A Notebook from 1944. Published by the editor.

Szabolcs Szita (2012), The Power of Humanity: Raoul Wallenberg and his Aides in Budapest. Budapest: Corvina.

Andrew Roberts (2010), Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War. London: Penguin Books.

Gyula Kodolányi & Nóra Szekér (2013), Domokos Szent-Iványi: The Hungarian Independence Movement, 1939-1946. Budapest: Hungarian Review Books.

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

Laurence Rees (2008), World War Two: Behind Closed Doors; Stalin, the Nazis, and the West. London: BBC Books.

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, 1944-45: A Child Survivor of the Holocaust.   1 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).

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.

Advent and Christmas Exiled in England, 1956-57.   Leave a comment

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Tom’s mother, Edit Leimdörfer,

London, December 1956

A Seven-day Sojourn in Austria: 10-17 December 1956… 

As the black Cadillac belonging to Gyuri Schustek’s business associate drove Tom Leimdörfer’s refugee family into the outskirts of Vienna on that Sunday afternoon following their escape from Hungary, the contrast with Budapest could not have been more stark. Quite apart from Budapest having suffered the ravages of the recent fighting, the Austrian capital was already showing signs of becoming part of the wealthy west. The shops, the cars, the bright lights all spoke volumes of a different world. Tom describes how…

We were taken to a large flat, sumptuously furnished, where Sunday dinner was being laid for the family and for us. I remember going to the bathroom and having trouble looking for a cistern and a chain to pull for the toilet, till I risked turning a strange lever on the beautifully tiled wall and being relieved that it worked. We were conscious of being under-dressed for the occasion, thankful for the meal and needing to be at our most polite when addressed in Hungarian. Some phone calls were made and then we were escorted to a quiet back-street ‘Pension’ (guest house) where two dingy rooms were rented for us. We never saw the family again, but I assume Gyuri was given or lent enough money to see us through the coming days, till we could get to England. Mami had already rung my uncle ‘Bandi’ and asked him to try to make arrangements for us to get visa permits as soon as possible.

Memories of next few days in Vienna merged together: long waits at the British Embassy for visas and travel documents, long walks on the streets of Vienna gaping at the wide range of goods in brightly lit shops, walking down the Kartner Strasse with its Christmas lights glowing, rides on trams and buses, a visit to the Stefankirche, more long waits at the British Embassy. They had no money to buy anything, of course, and mainly ate snacks in their rooms. Tom associated that week in Vienna with feeling really hungry, perhaps for the first time in his life. However, they were given a special treat one day by way of their first banana. Oranges had appeared in Hungary occasionally since 1954, but it was in Vienna that Tom ate his first banana. In the evenings, they were back to playing rummy and canasta again to relieve the boredom.

The following Friday, 15 December, came the great news that the authorities had all their papers and they made their final trip to the British Embassy. From there they were sent to the offices of British European Airways (as it was known then) to collect flight tickets for the Sunday. They had assumed that they would go by train, but BEA had some empty seats to offer to refugees and so they would be going to London in style. Of course, none of them had ever flown before. Tom had been taken to Ferihegy airport a couple of times, most recently to see his aunt ‘Compie’ fly back to London in the summer. Apart from the communist countries, the only airlines that flew to Budapest were KLM (Dutch airlines) and SAS (Scandinavian Airlines). On their last day in Vienna, a full week after their adventures getting to the Austrian border, they were able to do some sightseeing around the capital:

Naturally, we were full of excitement. With our spirits lifted, we enjoyed Saturday by going out to Schönbrunn Palace. It was bitterly cold, but for a few hours we felt like a family on holiday and not like refugees in transit.

On returning to the pension, they began packing for the onward journey. There was not much for them to do as they still carried all the worldly goods they had escaped with in the same rucksacks, and wore the same clothes. They had managed to get them all clean and washed at the guest house, which they were not at all sorry to leave. Arriving at Vienna airport on the Sunday afternoon, they were surprised to see a stark, cold, unfriendly looking hangar used as a temporary departure lounge. A sparking new terminal was being built, but they waited for what seemed ages in a very unpleasant place before being called to board the plane:

The Vickers Viscount waited on the tarmac. It was a lovely aeroplane with its shining white exterior, the BEA logo with the Union Jack. Inside, the seats were comfortable and the large portholes gave a panoramic view looking out. We were treated same as all the other passengers and made to feel at ease by the stewardesses. It was getting dark by the time we took off and most of the flight across Europe was in cloud, with the occasional jolts of turbulence. Then as we started to descend over London and we came below the cloud level, I caught my breath at the sight of a vast carpet of orange lights as far as the eye could see. This was our first sight of London and I will never forget the impression of its enormity. I had never seen orange sodium streetlights before either, so that was new. Everything was going to be new and strange and bewildering and exciting.

A New Name and a Second-hand Bright Yellow Woolly Jumper…

They had arrived in what was to become their new homeland. They were sent to a separate area, away from other passengers, where immigration officials were waiting for us. They looked carefully at the travel documents and asked some questions, which Edit Leimdörfer tried to answer:

She struggled with English, but the conversations with ‘Compie’ in the summer must have helped. I was asked if I spoke any English. “A little”, I replied. “You will learn quickly” the official assured me with a kindly smile. Then they made out some fresh documents for us and we were each asked for the names we wanted to be known by in England. I said “Thomas Charles Leimdorfer” without hesitation. So Tamás Károly was left behind, but did resurface when I applied for a Hungarian passport (in addition to my British passport) some three decades later.

After the immigration officers, they found themselves being paraded in front of some middle-aged ladies wearing the uniform of the WRVS (Women’s Royal Voluntary Service). They looked them up and down and asked them to show what clothes we had with them. The ladies then selected items from a large pile of used clothing and asked each of the family if they would like to have this or that:

One kind looking lady offered me a hideous bright yellow woolly jumper. It looked warm and I did not want be choosy, so I accepted with a polite “thank you”. I grew to like that jumper and kept it for years.

When they eventually emerged  into the arrivals hall, Edit was looking for my uncle ‘Bandi’, but instead they were met by his friend and business partner, Irwin Reynolds. He explained that ‘Bandi’ was waiting at the terminus of the airport bus in London. He got them all on the bus:

We barely understood, but it had something to do with Suez and petrol rationing and the airport being too far. It was a bit disappointing, but totally understandable in retrospect. The main topic of conversation between Ferkó, Marika and me on the bus was the fact that all the cars drove on the ‘wrong’ side of the road.

Bandi was waiting for them as we got off the bus and gave Mami and me a warm hug. It was the first time they had seen him since his brief visit in 1947, when Tom had been sick with jaundice. They were taken by two cars, Irwin’s and Bandi’s from Cromwell Road to Muswell Hill:

I was in Irwin’s car and he gave us a commentary of the sights as we drove through central London. We did not understand any of it, but I remember catching sight of the bright neon signs of Piccadilly Circus. Of course, there were Christmas lights everywhere. 

Mostly it was all a blur, till we walked through the doors of 10 Vallance Road, where ‘Compie néni’ and her son Roy (who was just coming up to his 18th birthday) were waiting for us. They did their best to look joyful at our arrival. Five homeless guests eight days before Christmas at a couple of days’ warning was hardly undiluted good news. To make matters worse, Ági, the relative who was also part of our original ill-fated group of escapees, also managed to make it to England and arrived at their doorstep two days later.

Vallance Road, Muswell Hill

The house at Vallance Road seemed a suburban palace after their accommodation in Vienna, and their small flat in down-town Pest. The downstairs consisted of a large entrance hall, a dining room, lounge, kitchen and breakfast area and another reception room called the ‘Chinese Room’. On the first floor, there were three bedrooms and a fourth large room used as the ‘table tennis room’. It had a full size good quality table with just sufficient room around for a proper game. There were three rooms in the loft, an extra bedroom, a study and a room kitted out as a gymnasium. Physical exercise was Uncle Bandi’s priority. The large garden was also on three levels; a large patio with borders at the top, a lawn with borders in the middle and a full size tennis court on the lowest level. Apart from the oddity of the Chinese room, there was nothing ostentatious, but it was all mind-blowing. Bandi, Compie and Roy were keen tennis players, played table tennis and exercised avidly each day, so the house just reflected their dominant interests.

Tom knew that his Uncle Bandi had done well for himself in London. He had seen a small picture of the front of the house, but the reality was overwhelming. After his time of hiding as an illegal immigrant and then serving in the British Army, Bandi had struggled in the immediate post-war years on a clerk’s salary at the Milk Marketing Board. He made his money in the fifties by getting together with a tennis partner and setting up a small factory in Holloway. They manufactured a range of household goods and ornaments all made of black-coated steel cable with bright plastic knobs on the end. These made coat racks, toaster racks, letter racks, candle holders, lamp-holders, pen-holders. They were bent in all kinds of shapes, including cats, dogs, snakes etc.. They were sold all over the place, but mainly in every Woolworth chain store. As there was a store in every town of any size by then, Bandi’s small factory made a lot of money and he bought the house in Vallance Road.

Though they were treated kindly on arrival, it was soon obvious that the refugees’ presence meant a huge disruption to the Reynolds household. Neighbours and friends from the tennis club called, there were parties and preparations for Christmas and we tried our best not be in the way. The children started to explore Muswell Hill Broadway, walking up to Alexandra Palace, where they had a splendid view of the city. The palace itself was a ghostly place, recently abandoned as the main centre for BBC television broadcasts. They walked a lot, but also wanted to learn how to use the buses and the underground:

Our first ride on top of a red London Routemaster bus was yet another new experience. While the three of us were getting gradually more adventurous, Mami and Gyuri were busy trying to work out what their next step should be. Gyuri had an old pre-war business contact who lived and had a small business in south London, so they went to see him.

Our momentous year of 1956 ended with blurry haze of new experiences, a kind of limbo existence after the traumatic events, (accompanied by) feelings of uncertainty and not belonging.  

The New Year of 1957 should have been one to look forward to, but it brought further suffering and tragedy for Tom and his family.  Edit Leimdörfer was just 41 years old when the family celebrated her birthday at Vallance Road on the 4 January. She was such a strong person and her spirit through the previous months had been indomitable. She led the family to England with all the adventures of the escape over the border. Shortly after her birthday, Gyuri Schustek’s business contact found him a low-paid job in Richmond, and the couple moved there and married, leaving the children in Vallance Road for the time being. The following March Edit fell ill with what seemed at first to be a bad cough, but then her breathing got worse and she was admitted to hospital with what was first diagnosed as pleurisy. However, an operation revealed widespread cancer from which she died in the middle of April. Tom was not simply a refugee, but had now lost both his father and mother:

The mother who hid and protected me from the Nazis, struggled to bring me up after losing her parents and her husband, introduced me to concerts and operas, started to treat me as a young man and who loved me always, was no longer. I felt a huge void, but almost at the same time a very strong sense of a real ‘presence’. It felt like her presence and the ‘presence’ I associated with the faith she tried hard to introduce to me, all rolled into one. God, Jesus, Mami, I did not question. It was a strong loving presence and I was not letting go of it.

Exodus & Asylum at Advent: Refugee Experiences in the Aftermath of the Soviet Invasion of Hungary, 1956   1 comment

Part One, 1-9 December – Fleeing the Homeland

Revolutionary Sportsmen and their families…

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The famous footballers of Honvéd Budapest had left Hungary on 1 November, just before the second Soviet intervention, in order to prepare for their European Cup match against Athletico Bilbao. After the invasion, the players suddenly found themselves cut off from their homeland and their families, but, accompanied by the solidarity and compassion of their western European hosts, they played matches for charity and to cover their expenses. They donned black armbands and cut the red-starred Honvéd badge from their shirts.

The players did everything they could to get their families out of the country from behind the even more strictly controlled border fences of their homeland. Puskás’ wife and their four-year-old daughter, Anikó, had managed to cross into Austria on 1 December, making their way through muddy, ploughed fields, in the cold, wet night. Anikó had been told when they set off that they were going to visit relatives in Dunaföldvár, on the western bank of the Danube, some forty kilometres south of Budapest. She slept most of the way, carried for part of it by a young man, Tamás Csonka.

The family was reunited in Milan, receiving the attention of the world’s press. They spent Christmas together in the team’s hotel, together with the other players and the relatives who had managed to escape. Eventually Puskás, emboldened by his wife, along with Zoltán Czibor, who had taken part in the Uprising and was elected as the Honved sports’ club’s Revolutionary Committee, Sándor Kocsis, coach Jenő Kalmár, and technical director Emil Öestreicher, all chose to remain in the west, despite the pleading of Gusztáv Sebes, the Hungarian national team coach, as well as thinly-veiled threats from the Kádár regime.

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Meanwhile, at the Olympic Games in Melbourne, Australia, Hungary’s highly successful water-polo team, who had also left the country just before the Soviet invasion, defeated the USSR team 4-0 in what became known as the Blood in the Water match, played on 6 December. After winning the gold medal, defeating the Yugoslav team, some of their star players also decided to defect and settle for a life in exile.

Leaving Love…

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Tom Leimdorfer, on a Geography school trip in the Bakony Hills, September 1956

In these highly sensitive times for the Soviets and their puppet régime in Budapest, it was natural for those who chose to leave to be very cautious and only let their closest family know. Arrests had already begun, and many of those caught fleeing were among those detained. Edit Leimdorfer told her sister-in-law Juci, but they did not go to say goodbye to them or anyone else. There were still army checkpoints across the city, so that only essential trips were made.

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Above: The Leimdörfer family: Grandparents, Aunt Juci, his father and his mother, Edit.

On Friday, the 7th of December, Tom and his mother went back to their flat. Everything had to be done so as not to arouse suspicion from neighbours. They packed essential clothing in a rucksack each with just a few treasured possessions. In Tom’s case, this included a few photographs of family and friends, including that of his girlfriend Kati, whom he had known for three years:

My last piano teacher lived on Rózsa Domb (Rose Hill), some distance from our flat. I needed to take a tram and then a bus to get there, but by the age of eleven I travelled independently all over the city. This teacher was recommended by my mother’s colleague, István. He and his wife Katalin were friends of my mother’s and I was getting increasingly attracted to their very talented daughter Kati, who was a year younger than me. We visited them at their lovely flat in the Buda hills, with great views of János Hegy (John peak) across the valley. The flat had a balcony and a steep hillside garden with steps and paths leading round shrubs and rockeries. Wonderful for hide and seek.

Kati was very musical and well ahead of me on the piano, in spite of being younger. It was her teacher who took me on and my weekly lesson usually followed hers. I made sure I was early and waited outside, so I could snatch a brief few moments alone with Kati. I was not yet a teenager, but I was definitely in love. I thought of Kati as embodying perfection in a girl and unattainable for mere mortal boys like me. Her parents were far better off than my mother and I always felt I had to be on my very best and formal behaviour when we visited their spotless and beautiful flat. Besides, the family were Catholics and such religious divides mattered, communism or no communism.

Their budding childhood relationship had been dealt a further blow when Edit Leimdörfer decided that they should move to the much smaller flat in Pest, a lot further away on the opposite side of the Danube, from where they were now escaping Hungary. Shortly before the October Revolution in the capital, the parents of the ‘couple’ had found an ingenious way of bringing the young lovers together again:

The piano had to be sold and my piano lessons ceased. With it went my weekly rendezvous with Kati and I barely saw her during the first nine months of 1956. This did not diminish my longing and teenage fantasies. One day in September 1956, my mother gave me an envelope with a mysterious smile as an ‘early 14th birthday present’. When I opened it, two season tickets to the opera dropped out. I was very pleased and asked her when we were going to the first performance. ‘Oh, you are not going with me’ she said. ‘Then who is the other ticket for?’ I enquired. ‘Well, who would you really like to take instead of me?’ she teased. I was both delighted and astounded.  ‘But did Pista bácsi agree?’ I asked. ‘Yes, it was his idea’, my mother answered. This really surprised me. I knew Kati’s mother doted on me, but I thought her father would be protective and not regard me as altogether suitable… Kati and I talked excitedly on the phone about our forthcoming first date.

We arranged to meet on the day at the terminus of the old underground by the statue of the poet Vörösmarthy and travel together to the opera. We were both very smartly dressed and Kati looked stunning. I remember little of the performance itself, which was the Hungarian epic opera ‘Hunyadi László’, by Erkel. This time, the interval was more important, getting Kati her drink and impressing her with my attentions. Afterwards, we walked slowly hand in hand towards the underground station. To my disappointment, Mami and Kati’s parents were waiting there, having had a meal out in a nearby restaurant. That was just two weeks before the fateful day of the  October revolution. The next time I saw Kati was sixteen and a half years later. We were both married, introducing our spouses to each other and watching our children play in the garden where we had played as young children.

Little over a month later, back in the city centre flat with his mother, Tom had to leave his now useless season ticket and settle for collecting the other things which could be packed in his rucksack. These included a pocket chess set and his button football team. Not being allowed to phone Kati made him feel miserable. He knew she would be fine, as they lived up in the Buda hills where there was no fighting, but guessed that she would be worried about them. It was a strange day, but he could not feel sentimental about leaving the flat as it never really felt like home. His real childhood home was the flat in Buda with the garden which he had been so sad to leave the year before. Now it was his desk, originally belonging to his father (killed on the Russian front during World War II), to which he bade a regretful farewell:

The beautiful green baize surface, which was the scene of button football triumphs and the backdrop to long hours of homework, the lovely inlaid marquetry patterns, all remained imprinted in my memory. The painful thought of leaving family and friends was pushed well into the subconscious as we prepared for our big adventure.

Initial Escapades…

In the early hours of the 8th December, Gyuri, Ferkó and Marika rang the bell of the flat and they all met by the front door. It was still dark as they walked by the least conspicuous route to the railway station, hardly saying a word to each other. They had a rucksack each, looking as if they were going for a brief outing. Walking past piles of rubble, burnt-out lorries, broken power tram lines, shell holes in apartment blocks, some blocks totally in ruins, they could see for the first time the full extent of the damage in the war-torn, grey, sad, defeated city. It made sense to them then that they were leaving that scene.

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The train was packed with similar ‘holiday makers’ all favouring unlikely resorts near the Austrian border, all eyeing each other curiously but not communicating. They had no idea if there were plainclothes police or ÁVH agents amongst us. Everyone watched the countryside rushing by the windows, all with memories of a homeland they were leaving behind, with hopes and fears of what lay ahead. The five got off the train before most of the others and joined what seemed to Tom to be a pre-arranged group:

I assumed this was the arrangement made by Mami through contacts. Apart from the five of us, there was a distant relative of ours in the same group. We were met by someone with a lorry and got on the back. Sandwiches were eaten en route and we arrived at some railway sidings, by a village near the border. There we waited for a while, then our ‘guide’ appeared and we followed him. Within minutes, we were faced with a small detachment of border police who asked for our documents. As I glanced round, I saw our ‘guide’ disappear under a stationary goods wagon and run as fast as his legs could carry him. None of the border guards bothered to run after him. We were summarily arrested.

The next few hours were like something out of a Kafka novel. The Hungarian border guards marched us to their base and took our details. They had clearly no real enthusiasm for what they were doing, but the new orders were to arrest people trying to flee, so they went through the motions. We were all interrogated separately. I was asked how many Russian tanks I blew up with Molotov cocktails. The guard seemed disappointed when I answered truthfully that I did no fighting. Many young teenagers did. Then a dozen or so Russian soldiers turned up and asked the Hungarian border guards if we were the refugees who stole their lorry. The border guards pretended to speak no Russian, so Ferkó was asked to translate. No, we affirmed, we did not steal their lorry. So the Russians left, with much shrugging of shoulders on the part of the Hungarian border guards. It was getting late and we were starving.

There certainly were many among the escapees who had been involved in attacking tanks, both in Budapest and the provincial towns, some of whom had actually killed Soviet soldiers and were unable to return to Hungary until the 1990s when a full amnesty was declared. With these Russians gone, however, Tom’s mother sprung into action again. She produced her (quite useless) documentation for the Hungarian officer, showing that they were going for a holiday as a respite from the trauma of recent events. Yes, they did join the refugee group once they were nearing the border, but this was an impulsive action they soon regretted. The children were tired and bewildered, she said, as they just expected to go on holiday. Would the officer allow them to seek to lodge for the night with someone in the village? They would report promptly in the morning to be transported back to Budapest under arrest. Edit Leimdörfer was at her most persuasive and the officer agreed, even suggesting which house they could try for a night’s lodgings.

Guests, a Guide and his Grenades…

The middle-aged couple who offered them refuge and hospitality were getting ready for bed when the family of five knocked on the door and explained their situation. They immediately rushed about getting food, getting spare beds ready and mattresses on the floor with duvets. Then the peasant-farmer started talking to Edit and Gyuri:

Surely, we were not going to give up our plans? “Oh yes”, we said, our attempt had failed and we would go back home. The man looked at us in earnest: “Is that really what you want to do?” He knew the border like the back of his hands. He ploughed the fields and had special permission to go right up to the fences. He could safely get us through before dawn. Mami and Gyuri hesitated, perhaps wondering if the man was an agent provocateur, but he looked like an honest peasant farmer, who would have had no interest in tricking us. By why would he take the risk? Mami explained that she had already given her money to the ‘guide’ who led us straight into the hands of the border guards. The best she could do was to give him an address in Budapest and a letter where he would get financial compensation if we were successful. The adults looked at us, Ferkó nodded in agreement, so did Marika and I, although we were too exhausted to care.

After no more than three hours’ sleep in their clothes, they were woken at 3.00 am on the Sunday morning of the 9th December. The wife hurriedly gave them some bread and milk before they set off:

It was a cold, clear night. The crescent moon had set already and the sky was bedecked with countless stars, the full glory of the Milky Way high and bright above us. All was still and we were very conscious of the noise of our footsteps. The man, in his late forties or early fifties, gave us brief military type instructions. The only lights visible apart from the stars were rotating searchlights of the border guards’ observation towers and we were making for a spot roughly halfway between two of these. We were crossing a plain with no trees, no shelter. Once my eyes got used to the dark, I felt very conspicuous and wondered why we could not be seen from the towers. We were walking through what had been a field of maize and there was enough stubble left for cover if we lay flat on the ground. As we reached the area within reach of the searchlight beams, the man gave precise commands to ‘lie down’ as the beam neared us and ‘walk on’ as it passed. Then at one point he said ‘stay down, stay still’ and we did just that till he said ‘walk on’ again. We reached the first set of wires without seeing them ahead of us. They were not formidable and there was a point where they had been cut and we could get through. The second set of barbed wires, a few meters on looked more difficult, but the man found a place where the bottom strand was missing so we could pass our rucksacks through and then crawl underneath. Even that did not seem as formidable an ‘iron curtain’ as the high electrified wire installation I was to witness being dismantled in May 1989 about thirty miles from where we were crawling to freedom that night.

The farmer warned them that they were not yet safe as the wires were well inside the actual border with Austria. They needed to walk towards what they had just started to make out was a line of trees. He told them to look carefully where they trod. Their flight and that of tens of thousands of others was only made possible by the de-mining of the border region as a goodwill gesture to neutral Austria earlier in the year, but they could not be sure that there were not still some active mines left in the ground. Tom could not resist the occasional glance upwards into the night sky:

All this time, none of us spoke. I felt a sense of danger, of course, mixed with a feeling of excitement at the adventure and pure wonder at the glorious firmament above, the sight of which has stayed with me all my life.

As we approached the lines of trees and bushes, it was clear that we were getting to a river bank. Suddenly, there was a shout of ‘Halt!’ and we froze until it was followed by a milder sounding: ‘Achtung, hier entlang’ (or something like it) as two young Austrian guards emerged to direct us towards a crossing point. Gyuri started to talk to them in his fluent German. It was time to express our immense gratitude to our guide, which he tried to shrug off. My mother gave him the letter with the address to visit in Budapest for his reward. She then said: “It was not as dangerous as I feared”. The man replied: “Did you not see the border guards passing when I asked you lie still on the ground?” None of us had. Then he said: “But I was prepared anyway” and he took two hand grenades out of his pockets. Even in the dark I thought I saw Mami go pale and a shiver went down my spine. Still, we had to concentrate on crossing the wide stream by balancing on the makeshift planks and tree-trunks, helped across by the two Austrian guards. We clambered on to the back of an army jeep waiting nearby. We made it. We were safe. We were refugees.

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Asylum in Austria…

It was a short ride to the village of Andau where they were deposited outside a large hall. It was teeming with refugees, all of them new arrivals awaiting transportation to one of the large transit camps set up for Hungarian refugees under the auspices of the United Nations. An official took our details. ‘Gyuri bácsi’ was now in charge of the situation as he not only spoke totally fluent German (Edit’s was almost fluent, but less confident), but he also had some friends and a pre-war business partner living in Vienna. So, he explained, we only needed shelter till they could collect us.

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Meanwhile, they were given a drink and some chocolate and a place on the floor to sleep. It was around six o’clock in the morning, but still dark. They were utterly drained and exhausted, sleeping on blankets on the hard floor until about ten in spite of people milling around in the noisy hall. There was some food on a long table for breakfast and a chance for a quick wash. Gyuri said his former business partner was very pleased to hear from him and was on his way down from Vienna to collect them:

We hardly had time to take in fully the scene of the motley, fairly bedraggled crowd of Hungarian refugees of which we were a part for just six hours. At midday, we went outside the hall in the bright sunshine of the village square. I remember the church bells ringing and villagers in local traditional rural Sunday best clothes standing around. They did not look any different from a Hungarian village over the border. Affluence had not yet reached rural Austria.

Then the heads of several people turned towards the road leading to the square and we saw a large black Cadillac approach. When it stopped, a portly man emerged and greeted Gyuri as a long-lost friend. I saw several villagers staring with open mouths as these refugees with their rucksacks piled into that luxury car and were driven off towards the capital. A few kind questions were addressed to us in Hungarian, before the conversation switched to German. Ferkó listened with interest, while Marika and I just watched the countryside go by. Actually, in many ways Marika was the real the real hero of this adventure. She was not yet twelve years of age, but she showed no fear, no tears, no complaints throughout those extraordinary couple of days.

(to be continued).

Secondary Source:

Gzörgy Szöllősi (2015), Ferenc Puskás, The Most Famous Hungarian. Budapest: Rézbong Kiadó.

The Twin Crises of 1956: Suez and Hungary; part eight.   1 comment

15-30 November:

Turning the World Upside Down

In her interview for September’s BBC History Magazine, Alex von Tunzelmann was asked  why she thought the Tripartite Aggression against Egypt was so badly bungled. She pointed out that the military plans from the time show that they were full of gaps, and that the Joint Chiefs of Staff were clearly opposed to the whole operation. Indeed, they themselves had advised the British Prime Minister that consequences of the action could be terrible, but he had chosen to ignore their advice. They were proved right, but partly because of the weight of world opinion was so heavily against them that, by the time the British and French forces got a third of the way down the canal, they had to stop. Israel achieved its objective of taking Sinai, but soon lost it again. Neither Britain nor France achieved their objectives, and all that they succeeded in doing was strengthening Nasser’s control in the Middle East while his ally, the Soviet Union, reasserted its control over its satellite states. In addition, people no longer talked about Britain as a major world power. From this point on, there were just two ‘superpowers’, the United States and the Soviet Union. In the following years and decades, Britain was reduced to playing the junior partner in its ‘special relationship’ with the USA.

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Eisenhower was not in favour of an immediate withdrawal of British, French and Israeli troops until the US ambassador to the United Nations, Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. pushed for it. Eden’s predecessor Sir Winston Churchill commented on 22 November, “I cannot understand why our troops were halted. To go so far and not go on was madness.” Churchill further added that while he might not have dared to begin the military operation, nevertheless once having ordered it he would certainly not have dared to stop it before it had achieved its objective. Without further guarantee, the Anglo-French Task Force had to finish withdrawing by 22 December 1956, to be replaced by Danish and Colombian units of the UNEF. Britain and France agreed to withdraw from Egypt within a week; Israel did not. A rare example of support for the Anglo-French actions against Egypt came from West Germany; though the Cabinet was divided, the Chancellor Konrad Adenauer was furious with the United States for its “chumminess with the Russians” as Adenauer called the U.S. refusal to intervene in Hungary and voting with the Soviet Union at the UN Security Council, and the traditionally Francophile Adenauer drew closer to Paris as a result.

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Still from a 1957 newsreel on the aftermath of the crisis

Reading the newspaper accounts of the Autumn of 1956, von Tunzelmann was struck by the speed of the events both in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, and the way in which both sets seemed simultaneously to be upsetting the existing order of the world. In the climate of world opinion against Britain and France, the Soviet Union was able to avoid large-scale diplomatic repercussions from its violent suppression of the rebellion in Hungary, and even to present an image at the United Nations as a defender of small nations against imperialism. In addition, the Soviet Union made major gains with regards to influence in the Middle East. The American historian John Lewis Gaddis wrote about the aftermath of the crisis:

When the British-French-Israeli invasion forced them to choose, Eisenhower and Dulles came down, with instant decisiveness, on the side of the Egyptians. They preferred alignment with Arab nationalism, even if it meant alienating pro-Israeli constituencies on the eve of a presidential election in the United States, even if it meant throwing the NATO alliance into its most divisive crisis yet, even if it meant risking whatever was left of the Anglo-American ‘special relationship’, even if it meant voting with the Soviet Union in the United Nations Security Council at a time when the Russians, themselves, were invading Hungary and crushing—far more brutally than anything that happened in Egypt—a rebellion against their own authority there. The fact that the Eisenhower administration itself applied crushing economic pressure to the British and French to disengage from Suez, and that it subsequently forced an Israeli pull-back from the Sinai as well—all of this, one might thought, would won the United States the lasting gratitude of Nasser, the Egyptians and the Arab world. Instead, the Americans lost influence in the Middle East as a result of Suez, while the Russians gained it.

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In Hungary, by the middle of November, the rebellion had been completely crushed. The Soviet invasion had rolled back its small, nascent reforms and life became much more unpleasant for many people living in the Soviet bloc. Yet, initially, Kádár had no real idea as to how to cope with the situation he faced, no clear set of policies to implement. The government programme which he had drafted in Moscow at the beginning of November, included promises of welfare measures, amnesty, workers’ self-management, indulgent policies towards the peasantry and small-scale private enterprise in general, and even a transition to a multi-party system and a re-negotiation of the presence of Soviet troops (once order was restored).

Last days in Budapest

Tom recalls continuing to listen to the radio in their shared flat during the second fortnight in November:

One bizarre event was the holding of the International Liszt Piano Competition. Of course, it was boycotted by everyone outside the Warsaw pact countries. Still we listened to it on the radio as the two top prizes were awarded to Russian pianists playing Liszt’s piano concertos. The third prize went to a Hungarian who played the less known ’Mephisto Waltz’ in the final round. The dance of the devil – a touch of artistic resistance rewarded by the jury? We could hope so. Then the Olympic Games started in Melbourne towards the end of November, so we started to take an interest in the exploits of the Hungarian team. How were they feeling competing against Soviet athletes?  Every medal still gave us a sense of national pride.  

On 16 November, one of the major centres of underground resistance, Péterfy utca Hospital, was raided and a number of leaders arrested. Since 23 October, this had been one of the main hospitals in the capital where those injured in the fighting, including some ÁVH and Soviet soldiers, were brought for emergency treatment. It was not far from the Eastern Railway Station, where a number of armed groups had their base, and close to Köztársaság Square, so that it received those injured on 30 October. On 4 November, the day of the Soviet reoccupation of the city, more people had turned to the hospital for shelter from the storm of tank fire raging outside, including the armed insurgents. An illegal press had been established under the hospital, with groups of young people delivering leaflets around the city encouraging resistance. This work was inspired and led by István Angyal, who set up a base in the same basement. On the 16th, armed security forces surrounded the hospital complex and entered the grounds. The whole building, including its underground passageways was combed and the publishing equipment seized. There was no armed resistance from inside, and Angyal was arrested and taken away, to be executed later for his part in the uprising. Others among the resistance spent years in prison.

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On the same day, Sándor Rácz, the outspoken twenty-three-year-old toolmaker from the Beloiannisz (Standard Electric) factory in Buda, was elected President of the KMT (Central Workers’ Council of Greater Budapest). Following his delegation’s meeting with the Kádár government the previous day, his first act was to go on the radio to appeal for a return to work. The appeal was printed in the following day’s Népszabadság:

Fellow workers! Regardless of any outside call, we feel that the immediate resumption of productive work has now become essential. We are saying this in full awareness of our profound responsibility towards the national economy and the people of our country. We have all suffered enough; in the present critical situation sober judgement, conscience and solidarity dictate us to call upon you, while maintaining the right to strike, to return to work on 17 November… Negotiations are continuing. We are convinced that all questions left open can and will be satisfactorily resolved by our joint effort.

Rácz, interviewed in 1983, recalled further reasons why the call for the return to work was made:

We couldn’t allow Kádár’s lot to be the ones who gave work and bread to the workers. , because then they would manipulate them. If the Central Workers’ Council could bring the men back to work, back into the factories, then it would be strengthening its own position as well – that was the idea. The workers’ councils also had to be re-elected. Kádár’s lot were always going on about the workers’ councils not being valid, because the workers weren’t there in the factories – as if they, on the other hand, had been elected by public acclaim.

Despite these justifications, the Associated Press correspondent, Endre Marton, remembered the KMT as a haphazard organisation, whose leaders were manual workers, and not professional trade union men. They had no written statutes and did not care about parliamentary procedures. Nevertheless, he added, they knew their strength and knew that Kádár desperately needed their help to reopen the country’s idle industrial plants. Before the revolution, Kádár had been a popular and respected figure among the workers. Even after 4 November, Marton recalled, while remaining loyal to Imre Nagy, several council members grudgingly acknowledged that they still trusted Kádár despite his betrayal of the revolution.

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In addition to the strike issue, the KMT was determined that the workers’ councils should cooperate on both a regional and national basis. While Kádár was willing to accept the idea of councils at a factory level, concerned with questions of production, and had issued a decree to this effect on 13 November, he was firmly opposed to them establishing networks which might pursue demands of a more political nature. If these were  to materialise into a national body, this might constitute a situation of dual power. Although there was no such intention on the part of the KMT, its leaders certainly wanted to establish a National Workers’ Council to represent workers across the country. They issued a call for a conference to establish this, to be held on Wednesday 21 November at the National Sports Hall in Budapest. However, when the delegates arrived they were confronted by Soviet tanks blocking the streets around the hall, and had to make their way back to the KMT’s headquarters at Akácfa utca. There, an angry meeting passed a resolution calling on the government to recognise a democratically elected national workers’ council as the sole body empowered to carry out negotiations in the name of the working class. They also agreed to the call for a forty-eight hour general strike throughout the capital, excepting food workers, in protest against the banning of the proposed earlier meeting.

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While Kádár negotiated with the leaders of the Budapest Workers’ Council on 22 November, he also ordered hundreds of arrests. While the uncertainty as to his real goals remained, he had busied himself in organising special police squads for the purposes of retaliation and maintaining order. This was also the day which saw the abduction of Nagy and his associates, who left the Yugoslav Embassy on assurances of safe passages home given by Kádár himself, but found themselves being taken by Soviet forces to Romania, where they were placed under house arrest. The developments at the Yugoslav Embassy had, as their international background, a speech by Tito to a group of Communist Party activists on the Istrian peninsula on 11 November, the contents of which did not become known in Budapest and Moscow until a week later. In it, he argued that while the Hungarian uprising had been a  justified response to the failure of the Soviets to make a clean break with Stalinism, it had been taken over by counter-revolutionaries. Therefore, in his view, the second Soviet intervention was also justified, as was the setting up of, and his support for, Kádár’s government. The Yugoslav deputy foreign minister was sent to Budapest to negotiate a written agreement between Kádár and himself to the effect that the Hungarian ministers, their families and fellows, would be free to go home without fear of prosecution.

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So it happened that, late in the day on Thursday 22 November, a bus arrived at the embassy allegedly to take the Hungarians home. The ‘refugees’ were already nervous, as Mária Haraszti recalled:

At the time I was very pessimistic, but I can’t explain why… I turned to ‘Uncle Imre’ and asked ‘Is it definite we are going home?’ He said, ‘Of course, Marika, it’s definite’.

As they got on the bus, the first members of the group soon realised that their driver was Russian and some returned to the embassy building to warn the others. Eye-witnesses report that this was followed by a lively exchange between Nagy and the Yugoslav ambassador, who stressed that if they had any doubts about the situation, they should not leave. The belief that there was a formal written agreement seems to have decided the issue, so that the whole group boarded the bus. They had little alternative, since they could not go home on their own due to the curfew. As they pulled away, the Yugoslav embassy cars were prevented from following the bus by two Soviet armoured vehicles. When the bus failed to turn to stop at the first address, the general alarm of its occupants was echoed by one of their children, six-year-old Juli, who cried out, “Oh, no! The Russians are taking us away!” The remaining Yugoslavs on the bus were then ordered off. They were then taken to the Rácóczi Barracks, then used as the KGB base, on the perimeter of Pest. From there they were flown to Romania and placed under house arrest in a villa in Snagov, thirty kilometres north of Bucharest.

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While the revolutionary committees were also being dissolved, almost simultaneously, the ideological justification for the ‘retaliation’ campaign was being drawn up at a Party conference which blamed the October events on:

  • the mistakes of the Rákosi-Gerő faction;
  • the formation of a circle around Nagy which undermined the party;
  • a capitalist-feudal counter-revolution of the Horthyite fascists;
  • the intervention of international imperialists.

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Despite its obvious absurdity to post-communist readers, at the time this was a clever ‘two-front’ strategy of struggle by a virtuous centre against Stalinism on the one hand and revisionism on the other, emphasising both the enemies within and outside the country. The Suez Crisis served its purpose in respect of reminding people of the latter, and Kádár’s other, internal justifications served as the basis for bans, arrests and prosecutions which began under the introduction of summary justice. Mass arrests and denunciations continued for months afterwards. Eventually 35,000 people were brought before the Hungarian courts; 22,000 were sentenced and 13,000 imprisoned. Around 350 people were executed (229 were sentenced to death). Thirteen thousand were sent to internment camps without trial, many of these eventually being deported to the Soviet Union without any evidence being brought against them. Some sources have estimated the deportations to have been as high as twenty thousand. The UN General Assembly, meeting in plenary session, adopted a series of resolutions urging the Soviet Union to stop deporting Hungarian citizens from their homes and calling on the Hungarian Government to admit UN observers to assess the situation, also urging member states to assist refugees. Some two hundred thousand Hungarians fled their country as refugees, including the current and future intelligentsia, among them Tom Leimdorfer and his family, as well as many famous writers, poets, artists musicians and athletes. President Eisenhower announced that the United States would offer asylum to 21,500 Hungarian refugees, and that these would be brought to the US with the utmost practicable speed.

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When the news of the abduction of Nagy and his ministers began to trickle through to the ordinary citizens of Budapest, no doubt it added to the anger and determination which resulted in the silent ‘shut down’ of the city in the afternoon of 23 November. Exactly a month after the uprising began, the streets of the capital fell silent as a planned protest against the continued Soviet occupation. Word had spread that between 2 pm and 3 pm there would be a silent protest, that the city centre would be deserted and that no-one would set foot on the streets. Endre Marton, the AP correspondent drove his Volkswagen towards Blaha Lujza tér, one of the busiest squares in the capital and parked it near the National Theatre. Then minutes before two o’ clock the normally crowded square rapidly emptied, people in doorways motioning to those still on the streets to join them. When the church clocks chimed two, the whole city centre came to a standstill. Marton commented that there was more life… on those streets during the hours of air raids in 1945 than there was during that hour. The only vehicle he saw moving was an armoured car packed with Soviet soldiers shouldering rifles, wearing combat fatigues and steel helmets, and when they slowly passed our car I could see the tension on the young faces looking around in disbelief. After comparing notes with other journalists, Marton reported that the situation had been the same everywhere, even in the residential districts and industrial suburbs – deserted streets and complete silence.

Though there were few other acts or events to follow that Friday in the capital during the last week of November, passive resistance throughout the country continued to take place over the following early weeks of December, with strikes and marches being met by police rounds, killing hundreds of demonstrating workers in northern towns of Salgótarján, Miskolc and Eger.

Preparing to leave

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For Tom Leimdorfer, that last week of November brought the dawning yet still dismal realisation that his prospects would now, indeed, involve leaving his beloved Budapest:

As that sad, depressing November drew to its close, we started to talk about the future. Somehow, those four weeks created a break with everything we had regarded as our normal pattern of life. We heard that the border was still open and tens of thousands had already fled. Some were escaping from certain retribution, having played a prominent part in the revolution. Most others were leaving because they could not face a return to repression after hopes for freedom were crushed. Mami started to talk about London again, but this time it was not just for me or the two of us. Gyuri seemed to take to idea and gradually Ferkó and Marika warmed to the thought of a new life in England. Yet it must have been a frightening prospect for them. They had a really lovely flat, their childhood home, which they would leave for an uncertain future. None them spoke even the little English I had. Ferkó spoke quite good German and schoolboy Russian and his father was fluent in German and French but knew no English. Sári néni must have been devastated at the prospect of being left alone by her family, having only lost her daughter two years before. Yet she was supportive of the idea that we should try to leave.

Once the decision was made, my mother swung into action. She went back to her workplace and sought an interview with a senior manager. Somehow, she persuaded him to write an official document entitling her and her family (including her new partner’s two children!) to a week’s holiday at one of the hostels at the disposal of the worker’s union – which just happened to be close to the Austrian border. This was in case we were challenged on the train journey. Then she went to see her friend and colleague who desperately needed a small flat, having lived with her parents all her life. She told her in confidence what our plans were, gave her our duplicate keys and instructions about what to do and say to the authorities if we were successful and also if we were arrested. Some money for our furniture was to go to our family, which eventually was turned into a single lens reflex Praktica camera I was to use for over 25 years.

The next episodes in Tom’s tale, mirroring those of the bitter winter which followed for many of his compatriots, is one of exodus and exile, which I aim to tell in my next series of posts. They are more concerned with the personal and familial experiences of fleeing the homeland, arriving as a refugee in England, and the struggles associated with settling into the host country. That is why they need to be told separately from the events of the autumn of 1956 in Budapest and elsewhere, though they are no less a seminal part of modern European history, especially given the more recent troubles and turmoil to affect both the continent, and the ‘Middle East’.

Main Secondary Sources:

Bob Dent (2006), Budapest: Locations of Drama. Budapest: Europa Könyvkiadó.

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

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

Primary Sources as given in the texts.

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