The Orphans of '56

Hungarian child refugees and their stories

Of the 200,000 Hungarian refugees who fled Hungary following the Soviet invasion in 1956, close to 20,000 were what is now known to border controls as “unaccompanied minors”. Based on his archival research and the personal testimonies of these people, now in their seventies, historian and former dissident Béla Nóvé traces their life stories.

At least 15 per cent of the Hungarians who have fled to Austria were minors. Most of them arrived with their parents and, as families had priority, they were soon received by a number of Western countries. But the young who came without parents met only closed doors in the whole of the free world. Nobody wants to take responsibility for them and their future. In the meantime, one has long forgotten that it was these young people – most of them 15-18 years old – who, just five months ago, were much admired by the anti-communist countries.

Dagens Nyheter, Stockholm, 3 April 1957

In late 1956 and early 1957, after the second Soviet invasion, some 200,000 refugees fled Hungary. These included an estimated 20,000 teenagers who left without parents or adult escort. These minors, as members of a “wartime generation” born mostly in the period 1939-1944, experienced many kinds of misery, loss and violence during early childhood. Among them were children adopted or brought up in state orphanages, a great number of industrial apprentices and peasant children from the poorest families as well as Budapest grammar school pupils with an intellectual, and – before 1945 – a middle or upper class family background. In the autumn of 1956, many of them took an enthusiastic part in the revolutionary demonstrations and the street fights against the Soviet tanks and the communist state security forces. Once they had escaped to the West, fate led them down many different paths.

The lucky ones were soon able to leave the refugee camps of Austria and Yugoslavia for one of the 36 host countries worldwide, and were received by host families or hostels for young people, learned languages, finished their secondary studies, graduated and made a decent professional career, returning to visit Hungary many years later as well-to-do and respected western citizens. Other escapees drifted for many years, wandering from one country to another often without papers, living on aid and casual work or joining the US army and the French Foreign Legion as mercenaries, only to be taken to fight in the bloodiest period of the Algerian and the Vietnam wars. However, the most defenceless, as it turned out later, were those who, after a few months or years, returned to Hungary driven back by homesickness and a naive trust in the treacherous amnesty promises. Many were put in prison or suffered harassment during the years of massive reprisals. According to the surviving files, the reorganized communist secret police after 1956 preferred to recruit its new spies from among these youngsters.

The fate of these “orphans of the revolution” has not been systematically researched so far and the scattered source material has neither been collated nor published. This is as true for institutional resources such as those of the International Red Cross, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, western immigrant services, the US forces and the French Foreign Legion as for the onetime Hungarian secret police. Nevertheless, their stories can be discovered in unpublished memoirs, archive press and radio reports and through oral histories revealed in interviews with members of this emigrant generation, now well into their seventies. Their story is long overdue and though the present study cannot be comprehensive, if it attracts public attention to a neglected episode of the Cold War, it will have served its purpose.

The size and impact of the Hungarian exodus of 1956

The first massive refugee flood in Europe since World War II took Europe by surprise and presented a huge challenge to international humanitarian organizations, in particular the UNHCR and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Both institutions had become somewhat moribund since their foundation in the years following World War II and were suddenly forced to change their whole system of operations. The reconstruction undertaken then lasted until the end of the bipolar world power system.

The UNHCR, was established in 1951 with a small budget and a five-year mandate, which by the end of 1956 was about to expire. Small wonder that the almost dormant UN body was woken up and mobilized dramatically by the Hungarian refugee flood. In a decision taken in New York on 9 November 1956 the UN General Assembly declared – in spite of Soviet protest – that all international humanitarian aid offered to the Hungarian refugees should be conducted and coordinated solely by the UNHCR. However, its leaders were not received officially either in Moscow or in Budapest; even the UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld, who repeatedly but in vain urged direct talks on the Hungarian issue with both the Hungarian and Soviet leaders, was himself considered persona non grata in both countries. Thus, the UNHCR could only make modest efforts from Vienna and Belgrade to find appropriate humanitarian and diplomatic means to tackle the unstoppable flood of refugees, and to supply them with vitally important aid and services.

This was the moment when, as a result of intense multilateral talks in Vienna, the UNHCR delegated a number of its important tasks to the ICRC, which had national member organizations in the USSR and Hungary, although under strict Party control. Swiss author Isabelle Vonèche Cardia published a significant number of primary source documents on the ICRC’s activities in Hungary during 1956-7 in her critical monograph L’octobre hongrois entre croix rouge et drapeau rouge.1 According to her, from the first days of the revolution the ICRC took a major pioneering role in transporting and distributing western aid in close cooperation with the democratically elected new leadership of the Hungarian Red Cross. The country suffered wartime devastations and was still paralyzed by a general strike that lasted until the end of the year; it badly needed material aid of any kind. This led the Kádár government, backed by Soviet tanks, to renew cooperation with the ICRC by signing the mid-November agreement, which was valid until June 1957.

However, the promising start was soon altered by a number of insoluble conflicts: the aid was welcome but the government demanded exclusive control over its distribution and refused all efforts by the Swiss staff aimed at providing legal protection and humanitarian help to, for example, the many thousands of interned or imprisoned civilians. Official contacts also became tense because of the conflicting principles of family reunification and the interests of the child refugees. The Kádár government demanded that the ICRC should reveal all lists of refugees in the western host countries and expected the Swiss representatives actively to help in returning all child refugees without parents as soon as possible. However, the Swiss staff, identifying itself with the prevailing western point of view, stubbornly argued that all political refugees were entitled to anonymity and a free choice in deciding where they wished to live. These western humanitarian principles only served to make their communist counterparts, who could never believe or fully grasp such “abstract” ideas, angrier.

Emigrants and remigrants

The future fate of Hungarian refugees – above all that of the minors – had remained for years a number one issue of the Cold War propaganda fights, especially when the Kádár government, backed by the Soviet tank divisions, tried to prove its legitimacy and “population preserving power” by winning back as many refugees as possible. Yet during the first few weeks of the exodus, the western border of the country remained uncontrolled, and the world press on the other side of the breached Iron Curtain was eager to find out how many Hungarians had “voted with their feet” against the Stalinist dictatorship. Before strict border control was reintroduced, there was a massive flow in both directions through the “green” – soon to become the “white” – borders of Western Hungary. The winter of 1956-7 was the coldest in the entire Cold War period with heavy snow and ice. This two-way traffic during the first two months was especially typical of teenagers such as 15-year-old Gyula Kozák and many of his mates from a Budapest grammar school who simply wanted to look around in the “free world” and returned a few weeks later through the green – now white – borders without being checked or registered by any of the authorities. They could take those western “study and adventure tours” all the more easily because as a result of the chaos left behind by the fighting there was no teaching in most schools in Hungary until January 1957.

On 29 November 1956, Reuters reported from Vienna on the safe arrival of the one hundred thousandth Hungarian refugee. On the same day, the Hungarian government publicly demanded that Austria should help all Hungarian minors to return to their native land and announced that in two days an amnesty was about to be proclaimed for all Hungarian citizens who had left the country illegally if they returned by the end of March 1957. In fact, minors left not only for the West (Austria) and the South (Yugoslavia), but also for the East, though in the last case not voluntarily. There were no reports of them in the communist press and no hope of searching for them via the Red Cross: these unfortunate teenagers were all captives of the Red Army and the KGB. According to a secret Soviet internal report of 15 November 1956, among the 846 Hungarian prisoners held in the city of Ushgorod in Ukraine there were 68 children between 15 and 17 years, including nine girls. As the KGB officer in charge of writing the report suggested: “It seems to be necessary to delegate some responsible and competent colleagues (may be even some Hungarian ones) who could urgently review the cases of these imprisoned Hungarian citizens and release all those who were arrested on unfounded charges.” However, this was still two months away.

Towards Christmas, Radio Free Europe of Munich and Radio – no longer “Free” – Kossuth of Budapest engaged in an ardent propaganda fight, broadcasting frequent reports on emigrants – and remigrants – and passing messages from the refugees to their families or vice versa. In the meantime, the Kádár government despatched “Repatriating Committees” to both Vienna and Belgrade, demanding the return from the western host countries of the considerable number of child refugees who had already been transferred there. At the same time, the Hungarian authorities were also busy supplying those parents who decided to take their “prodigal sons” home from the Austrian and Yugoslavian refugee camps with special passports. Just a week before Christmas, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees landed at Vienna airport, as did US Vice President Richard Nixon, who brought US$500,000 aid, tons of insulin and the good news for the refugees that the US government was ready to raise the immigrant quota for Hungarians significantly. As it did: more than 50,000 Hungarians finally found their new homes in the USA.

Austria, which received 90 per cent of the refugee flood, managed in a couple of weeks to establish hundreds of temporary or lasting refuges ranging from the large camps for many thousands of escapees such as Eisenstadt, Traiskirchen and Salzburg, through the sorting centres for onward transport to the West such as Wels, Passau and Ried, to many of the smaller local refuges throughout the country. The underage refugees were mostly placed in the latter: in hotels, pensions, dormitories, villas, castles, nunneries and, from spring 1957, in the five newly-founded Hungarian grammar schools. Homes for young people were set up in Einbüchel, Filach, Gishül, Hirtenberg and Krems as well as in other places. In Preding, a sorting centre for teenagers was set up; meanwhile, in Katzendorf, Mariazell and elsewhere, special institutes for Hungarian girls were opened. The further destinations of under-age refugees were in most cases determined by which country’s aid service ran the refuge – the Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Dutch, French Red Cross organisations etc. Austria, a relatively small neutral country in the “buffer zone” that had got rid of Soviet military control itself only a year before, played a major role in resolving the Hungarian refugee crisis. The Austrian government had to find solutions for a number of sensitive humanitarian and human rights problems of the young refugees, sometimes daring to resist both Eastern bloc demands and western political pressures.

Yugoslavia, led at the time by Marshal Josip Broz Tito, the communist country that a year before was still considered an enemy of Moscow and the Soviet satellite states, also saw the political aspect of the Hungarian refugee situation – but from a different perspective. Many of the 20,000 Hungarians here were finally transported to western host countries. However, at the demand of the Hungarian authorities, every tenth refugee, including a number of minors, was returned to their native land; a couple of hundred stayed in Yugoslavia. Tito’s ambivalent tactics towards both East and West was most obvious in the treatment of the underage escapees. The latter were sometimes protected by the Yugoslav authorities and the UDB (Tito’s state security forces) from the Hungarian border guards and their attempts at espionage by, for example, the expulsion of a number of Hungarian secret police officers who were hanging around the refugee camps. At other times, refugees listed by the Hungarian government were readily returned by the Yugoslav authorities to their native land. In early December, there were temporary refuges set up in the border area in places such as Melence, Szenttamás, Ilok and Palánka, together with the sorting camps at Zombor and Lendva. Later, some larger permanent refugee camps were also opened in a number of remote places of Croatia and Serbia. The young refugees still have some bitter memories of these.
One of them, Sándor Nemes, a 15-year-old at the time of the revolution and a first year grammar school boy from the town of Szekszárd, who escaped all alone and later got to France where he joined the Foreign Legion, was interned in Gerovo, a remote place among the high hills of Slavonia. Fifty-six years on he recalls:

This was a huge casern, which earlier had served as a Nazi concentration camp, 1.5 meter-high snow, barbed-wire fence, watchtowers with machine guns pointing at us from all around […] Thousands of us were housed here, all shocked and uncared-for Hungarians: men, women, children and elderly people alike, with great fear and sadness in our eyes. Everybody wanted to escape from here because of the brutal treatment by the soldiers who wore red stars on their caps. Famine and misery made people monsters. Among the refugees there were frequent cases of theft, fighting, stabbing and sometimes fatalities. […] I remember a fatal attempt at escape, when the guards opened fire from the watchtowers, and one refugee was shot dead, another gravely injured. A young girl, who was pregnant, committed suicide by jumping out of a third-floor window. […] It went on like this until the next spring.

Nándor Orbán, a second-year grammar school boy from Nagykanizsa, who fled with three of his classmates to Yugoslavia in early 1957, experienced similar afflictions. Over a period of nine months he was taken to a dozen different places until he was directed to the Australian “transport selection camp” in Eszék. As he remembers it, the painfully long selection process for Australian immigration was finally accelerated by a teenage boy’s tragedy. The latter’s elder sister, a university student, and her fiancé had already been selected for the Australian transport when it turned out that her underage brother was not on the list. He recalls:

On that very day, the boy deserted through the fence and threw himself under a fast train. Everybody was deeply moved and outraged; even the “Aussies” seemed to be quite shocked because from then on all who had already applied were permitted to leave for Australia. My name was also read out soon after this sinister case.

Fostering and adoptions

Though we cannot entirely rely on the statistical data, contemporary press reports and other information give the impression that there were many thousands of instances of family hosting, fostering and adoption, especially in Austria, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, the UK and the Benelux and Scandinavian countries. According to the documents of the Swiss Red Cross (SRC) in Switzerland alone there were 580 young Hungarian refugees hosted by Swiss families as well as a number of Hungarian Jewish minors adopted as a result of the active mediation of local Jewish organisations. Their confidential files, though still not published, have been preserved by the SRC archives and provide a solid basis for statistical conclusions. In late 1956 and early 1957, altogether 499 Hungarian children arrived without family in Switzerland, most of them in their early teens, the youngest a three- year-old boy, the oldest a 17-year-old girl. One year later, another group of 80 underage refugees arrived from Austria, but their files are far less detailed. With the help of the SRC, all were hosted by families within a few days or weeks; in none of the cases was this formal, legal adoption. The host parents took care of the hosted child but practised rather de facto than de jure tutelage. The hosting programme was generously financed by the SRC through substantial donations, though most of the host families were middle class or even wealthier. One-fifth of the hosted children were girls. Within a year, 85 of them were returned to Hungary and 40 more were transferred to a third country. (There is unfortunately no record on their later fate.) However, of those who remained, according to the SRC files, most were lucky enough to stay with their new family for many years, if not for a lifetime.

“The orphans of the revolution” were equally lucky in Italy. As the Hungarian emigrant journalist Zsuzsa Szönyi writes in her memoirs: “In Italy it was difficult to find a job even at that time, yet many families offered their help to the young Hungarian escapees. Those under-age refugee boys – most of them miners’ apprentices – arriving from Pécs coal-mines were hosted by Italian families.”2

Individual cases of fostering and adoption vary. The 17-year-old orphan Tibor Sámuel Pataky was the son of a state secretary during the mid-war period; before her marriage, his mother was a well-known actress. He was arrested in a street raid on the second day of the revolution and was detained and interrogated for three days in the central prison of the ÁVH (the Hungarian KGB) even though he had taken no part in the street fights. Later, he managed to escape to Austria and in March 1957 was taken to Glarus in Switzerland by Dr. Otto Müller, a grammar school teacher, who provided a warm and supportive intellectual family ambiance for him though he did not formally adopt Tibor. Though his higher studies could not be financed by the host family and he had to support himself, the ambitious refugee boy had an outstanding career and finally became the senior manager of the Association of Swiss Textile Companies.
Other stories are less happy. The causes of failure may differ in each case but much could be attributed to the major mental, social and cultural differences as well as the general frustration caused by language barriers. Sometimes, even the most dedicated and well-off families had to return the fostered youngster and, in some serious cases of conflict, young refugees could not be prevented from escaping or from committing suicide.

The story of Lajos Kiss is possibly one of the most extreme and has a strong whiff of politics. The 13-year-old boy escaped from a state orphanage at Dorog, a mining town in the Transdanubian area, and was transferred from Austria to Portugal a week before Christmas together with 30 other boys who were all housed by a children’s home at Santa Mare near Lisbon in Portugal. As he later remembers:

A few days later the ex-governor of Hungary, Miklós Horthy, came to visit us to express, as he said, his compassionate feelings towards the Hungarian youth who shared his fate as a political exile. Finally, his choice fell on me, he took me with him and from then on I could live close to him in his Lisbon residence.

However, this symbolic adoption, which was intended as a political rather than a personal gesture, was felt to be quite cold and rigid by the “poor proletarian boy from Dorog” as Lajos Kiss characterized himself, and the luxurious treatment was ended by Admiral Horthy’s death just two months later. The teenage boy was dismissed and thus exposed to all the troubles of a lone and alien child. “When I was sent away, I felt like seeing life and lived as a tramp for a while. Later I was taken to approved school and sent back to Austria where I was trained as a car mechanic.” Coming of age a few years later he left for the USA and is still living in Passice near New York City.

Secondary school pupils as refugees in Austria

On 10 January 1957, UN Resolution 1132/XI established the Special Committee on the Problem of Hungary for the purpose of investigating the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, the subsequent Soviet military intervention and the circumstances and events that led to the installation of a counter-revolutionary government under János Kádár. Five countries were asked to delegate members to the Committee: Australia, Denmark, Ceylon, Tunisia and Uruguay.

Before the “Committee of Five” submitted its first report on the “Hungarian problem” to the General Assembly in June 1957, it had interviewed 111 carefully selected refugees in New York, Rome, Vienna, Geneva and London. Among them was a grammar school girl from Budapest, whose testimony was heard and recorded confidentially in Vienna at the end of March 1957 under the identity code “PP”. The name of the girl and her later fate is still a secret; for good reasons, the Committee guaranteed the anonymity of all witnesses – the Soviet UN delegation persistently demanded the disclosure of their list – but “PP” was hardly chosen as a witness by chance. Even before the revolution she was elected by the “Pupils’ Parliament” onto the five-member delegation which entered into talks on school reforms with the Ministry of Education. On 23 October, she was one of the organisers of the student demonstration, officially banned till the last moment, and the same night, along with many thousands gathered around the radio building, she demanded the broadcast of the students’ 16 points for radical changes.

It was then that the troops of the ÁVH opened fire on the peaceful protesters. Later on, during the street fights she assisted with first aid in a hospital and in the transport of the wounded. She had close friends among those hundreds of students arrested and taken to the prison of Ushgorod as captives of the KGB, and she herself witnessed some brutal reprisals on the streets against the unarmed students caught by the ÁVH. Following 4 November, “PP” was repeatedly searched for at her home. She remained in hiding for three months until she managed to escape in early February 1957 to Austria, where she was placed by Austrian Caritas with 30 other refugee girls in a nunnery in Vienna.

There were secondary schools, especially in Budapest and close to the Austrian borders – in cities such as Györ, Sopron, Sárvár and Szombathely – from which whole classes fled, often led by their teachers. A good example is the Berzsenyi Grammar School of the border town Sopron, which was left almost abandoned after its pupils and teachers had walked to Austria led by director Dr. Rezsö Peéry, who later became a prominent founding teacher of the Hungarian refugee grammar school opened in Obertraun. Another commonly known example of “corporate emigration” is that of the Special School of Sopron for Training Forestry Technicians. From here the third and fourth year pupils left together with the students and professors of the local Forestry College and finally finished their studies in Canada, near Powel Hill, where a Hungarian language training institute was established for the refugee youth.

By 1957, the Austrian government managed to establish a complete secondary school system with dormitories for some 2,000 Hungarian pupils, running it for almost six years. In addition, the UNHCR itself, together with the French, Dutch and Norwegian missions, greatly contributed to the maintenance of the refugee schools. Hungarian language special schools were operating for many years in Retz, Spittal an der Drau, Innsbruck, Rum and other places. The best known was Hirtenberg, where hundreds of joiners, locksmiths, car mechanics and electricians trained. As a result of Dutch aid, the Hungarian worker youths in Hochleiten were placed with the Austrians, but in separate rooms. As for the grammar schools with dormitories, these were all established, with only one exception, in the remote Tyrol area. For six years, there were more than 800 Hungarian teenagers educated in five grammar shools: in Grän, Innsbruck, Iselberg, Kammer and Wiesenhof, with some 160 girls among them; the “orphans” represented beween 60 per cent and 90 per cent in these schools. After the last pupils had maturated, all five Hungarian schools were closed in 1963. Since then, the only remaining grammar school for Hungarian emigrant children was Burg Kastl in Bayern, Germany, founded in 1958. Most students managed to pass their exams fairly successfully in adult life and became teachers, doctors, engineers, economists and businessmen. Since 1990, some of them have settled back in their native land. However, many of their mates on the Hungarian side of the border, who had returned from Austria, were faced with a far less promising future.3

Under-age remigrants as agents of the communist secret police

Among the scanty files of the Hungarian State Security Archives in Budapest (ÁBTL) from 1957, there are no fewer than eight new registrations of underage secret spies solely from Vas County in Western Hungary. These young boys, who were obviously all frightened – their illegal escape of late 1956 was never forgiven for all the amnesty promises – were charged to spy on their mates, to find out if any of them wanted to leave for Austria and to watch and report on the homecoming emigrants. As their personal registration files show, most of them were brought up in large labourers’ or peasant families, left school in their early teens and took poorly-paid hard work on state farms or in factories close to the Austrian border in places such as Ják, Ikervár, Pusztasomorja or Szombathely. After one or two years most of them were dismissed from the agents’ network as “inappropriate” or “with no chance of getting operative information”. However, one with the pseudonym “Puskás”, was eventually courageous enough to refuse to spy on his mates. There was only one among those eight underage spies who continued to serve longer: a high-school boy with the pseudonym “Lázár” from the border town of Szombathely, who later acquired a law degree and managed to make a decent countryside career as a state company lawyer, remained in active service with the secret police until the age of 33 when he was finally released in 1972. Many of his lengthy reports reveal the dubious character of an intelligent, ambitious yet morally disintegrated young man.

One should note that the earlier large network of spies suddenly collapsed during the revolution and the whole system had to be completely rebuilt from its ruins, especially in the “youth sector”. This is well reflected in the confidential notes of a secret report given in early 1958 by the sub-department of the Hungarian Ministry of the Interior II/5-f entitled “On the present political situation of the secondary schools pupils and teachers”. As its summary argues: “There are whole counties where our operative corps have no more than one or two agents to rely on. […] In the city of Szeged [the educational and regional centre in South-East Hungary], for instance, where there are three grammar schools, two teacher training schools and ten technical schools, we have presently only one single agent to control all of these.” (ÁBTL A-985/2)

Among the minors who returned from the West and were then forced to become secret police spies, one of the gravest cases is that of a prison agent with the pseudonym “Pál Csorba”. His handwritten reports over more than six years have survived in four thick files (ÁBTL-M18130; M-24608, M-24608/1-2) from the years 1960-6 and may be read even today as shocking testimonies. They have preserved the words and characters of dozens of his fellow prisoners, among them those of some prominent intellectuals and politicians such as István Bibó, Árpád Göncz, Jenö Széll and Ferenc Mérey with more or less credibility. The secret “reporter” himself was made a spy at the age of 20, soon after the hunger strike of the political prisoners at Vác was violently suppressed in March 1960. He is still living among us as a respected natural scientist and environmentalist; his autobiography is silent about this dark secret of his youth. In the autumn of 1956, at the age of 17, he was a third year secondary schoolboy who joined the revolutionary armed group of Széna tér (Hay Market Square), then left for Austria, engaged in some emigrant plots and was finally recruited as an agent by the British Intelligence Service, which sent him back to Budapest repeatedly on secret missions. On his third trip to Hungary, at the end of January 1957, he was caught and arrested, sentenced to 12 years in prison, which he spent at “Fö utca”, “Gyüjtöfogház”, Vác and Márianosztra, and was finally released by the general amnesty of spring 1963. In his regular reports on István Bibó and other fellow-prisoners, there is a striking paradox: while he himself is obviously becoming more and more broken, he describes in utmost detail the bravery of the others, although with some understandably negative comments added. For instance, the way in which the outstanding middle-aged scholars, writers and politicians, such as those above, teach and protect the uneducated young workers, try to help those in trouble, pass secret messages out of prison by taking a great personal risk and more. Thus, their betrayer “Csorba” became the true chronicler of comradeship, prisoners’ solidarity and loyalty to the exceptionally high moral standards of the revolution.

Victimization of teenage freedom fighters

In László Eörsi’s half-dozen monographs published so far on the revolutionary armed groups of Budapest,4 one may find many minors who bravely took part in the street fights and the rescue of the wounded, among them dozens of teenage boys who later escaped to the West but soon returned to Hungary and suffered many years imprisonment or long-term police harassment. There is no space here to present all the individual cases, so let me just mention some of the groups who were victims of the ruthless reprisals following 1956.

In the mediaeval part of Buda Castle during the 1950s, in one of the oldest buildings of “Úri utca” (Gentlemen’s Street), there was a dormitory for mason-apprentices. From this place many teenage boys with a country background joined the freedom fighters of “Széna tér” (Hay Market Square) right from the outbreak of the revolution. They provided patrol and courier services, prepared Molotov-cocktails to attack Soviet tanks and often fought themselves. Later, many of them fled to the West without parents, as did the 17-year-old Árpád Képes. He took part in the street fights then escaped to the West, drifting in some 16 countries worldwide until he joined the French Foreign Legion. After a few months, he escaped from Algeria and by the end of 1958 returned to Hungary, where he was arrested. Apart from him, there were at least some six more mason-apprentices from the “Úri utca”, all minors in 1956 when they joined the freedom fighters, who were sentenced from six to eight years in prison.

Another case leads us to the countryside correction school for minors in the village of Aszód where there was a 14-year-old boy named Gergely Fodor (“Spiny”), an orphan brought up in state children’s homes. In October 1956, he persuaded a dozen of his mates to escape, get arms from the local military casern and then to march some 30 miles to Budapest in order to join the revolutionaries there. The hell-bent troupe of teenage boys first offered their services to the largest stronghold of freedom fighters at the Corvin-Alley, then left for the hilly Buda side of the city and joined the revolutionary militia at Schmidt Castle. Their task as scouts was to control the strategic lines of the Soviet tank advance towards the capital, which they not only monitored but also tried to block by some daring actions such as blowing up a bridge in the way of the Russian tanks near the wood of Bag. Soon after the fighting ended, six boys from the “Aszód squadron” were caught and sentenced to five to nine years imprisonment.

The sacrifice of the Oroszlány miner-apprentices is even more tragic and moving. There were some 400 of them, all boys between 14 and 17, trained at the coal mines of Oroszlány, who were sent home on the second week of the revolution to their distant homes in Eastern Hungary. However, they could not get further than the Eastern Railway Station of Budapest since all the railroads leading to the East were heavily barricaded by the Soviet Army. Among those 400, some 90 voluntarily joined the insurgents of the Baross Square group just a night before the second Soviet invasion of 4 October started. The next morning, they became the first victims of the attack. Many of them died, were wounded or vanished; others managed to escape to the West but later, having returned, were caught and imprisoned for long years.

Underage refugees who joined the US army

At the beginning of 1963 – the first year of the “Kádárist consolidation” – Colonel Lajos Karasz of the police, head of the counter intelligence department of the Hungarian Ministry of the Interior (BM III/II dept.), ordered all the 20 regional sub-departments to open new files for all Hungarians who had served or were still serving as soldiers of “the hostile imperialist armies”. The two major target groups in question were the Hungarian emigrants who had joined the US army and the French Foreign Legion, an estimated total contingent of some 8,000-10,000 men. From the US category only the Györ-Sopron County file survives, from the French group only that of Pest County. Even so, these scarce documents reveal many astonishing details.

Let us start with the Hungarian “emigrant contingent” of the US army after 1956. At the end of the secret file of Györ-Sopron county referred to above, there is a detailed registration list of 134 men who left for the West and then joined the US army – the number is likely equal to one-third of all the volunteers from that part of Hungary who served under the “stars and stripes” banner. But how did communist state security forces know so much about them? It seems that the three main sources of the onetime secret police were the regular mail control, secret agent reports and those remigrants and their relatives who were questioned. Out of those 134 mercenaries registered after their discharge or escape, 25 emigrants returned to Hungary before 1965. The proportion of those who were minors when they left for the West is close to one-third of the total 134 on the list.5 Thus, these 38 underage emigrants, to which we can add approximately two times as many of similar age but not known to be US soldiers, may run to the size of a peace-time company, which allows the cautious extrapolation that nationwide there were in total some 2,500 Hungarian underage emigrants who later joined the US Army.

Their individual careers are revealing. Many of these emigrants did not even have to cross the Atlantic to serve in the US army; they could be recruited at almost any of the US military bases in West Germany, Italy and France. As was Zoltán D, a locksmith-apprentice from the city of Györ, who served on a number of US military bases in West Germany before returning to Hungary, and Tibor Rajna (“Blondy”), who with some mates from Austria was transported first to Belgium and from there went to West Germany illegally just to join the US army at its Frankfurt headquarters. Other minors, if hey had left home soon enough, went with the first refugee transport to the “New World”, where a few years later they could volunteer either for the army or the navy. These offered good prospects for those who had already finished two or three years in a technical or grammar school back home; they could easily pass the exams to become warrant officers and officers and the costs of their higher education in civvy street were mostly covered by the Pentagon in return for a further term in the army once they had graduated. From the mid-1960s, more and more of these young men, now US citizens and army officers, came for short family visits to Hungary.

A secret police report written in late 1965 in Györ mentioned about nine such visitors in Györ-Sopron County, among them four who escaped as minors in late 1956. The career of Zoltán B, born in Györ in 1939, is typical. The report on him sums up:

He spent his holiday at his sister’s in the village of Bágyogszovát from July 28 to September 4. He had left for Austria as a minor in November 1956 and from there he emigrated to the USA six months later. From 1959 to 1961 he served in the US army, and then received a scholarship for his studies at a University of Economics. He is about to start hhis fifth year now with a monthly grant of US$275. When questioned, he firmly refused to answer any questions about the US army, stating cynically that he could not provide us any such information. (ÁBTL 3.1.5. O-18563/1, p 53)

However, not all careers in the US army were success stories. According to an agent’s report of June 1963, Zoltán J, born in Budapest in 1940, sent a secret message to his parents in the village of Bönyrétalap (West Hungary), “letting them know that he had joined the US army and was currently doing his service in West Germany. As he informed his parents, he was not allowed to give his address. However, he was planning to desert and return home as soon as possible, before he could be taken to fight in Indochina”. Further “adventures” can be read in the records of secret police interrogations of those who returned. László M, born in Györ in 1940, for example, was transported from the camp of Salzburg to Cleveland, from where he later joined the US navy. He served on the submarine Carton Conny until May 1962 when he escaped from an Italian naval base and returned illegally to Hungary. These Cold War “picaresques” found in the surviving secret police files suggest an endless variety of lonely paths along which people were driven by necessity.

Hungarian legionnaires

We are lucky enough to have far more substantive sources for the same age group of minors who joined the Foreign Legion. Of the estimated 500 who enlisted in the French colonial corps between 1956 and 1965 we have so far identified 256 volunteers. The complete headcount of Hungarian legionnaires in the period is estimated at 3,000. Here we can rely on not just a great number of secret police documents – agent and police reports, archive letters and photographs, minutes of interrogations etc. – but research has also been extended recently to the of the Legion’s Archives (Centre de Documentation and Bureau des Anciens) in Aubagne. Moreover, in the summer of 2011 we were lucky enough to find a circle of Hungarian veterans in Provence, with whom we started to compile an oral history and a documentary film called Patria nostra. They had all fled as minors in late 1956 and served 15 to 30 years in the Legion; today they are pat of a veteran community of around 25 members in Provence and some 70 throughout France.

These sources all suggest that, apart from their common early experiences, each legionnaire had a very different career. Even their individual motives in joining the Legion varied greatly. We also discover they came from surprisingly different social backgrounds: some of them were brought up in state homes and orphanages, others came from large peasant and worker families, but there are also children with intellectual, middle class, even aristocratic family backgrounds, whose descent was a source of constant humiliation under communist rule. Many of them had dropped out of school and were forced to take poorly paid slave-like work in mines and factories; others were put behind bars in their early teens for rebelliousness, vagrancy, petty theft or simply for trying to escape to the West through the Iron Curtain.

Small wonder that in the autumn of 1956 they all took up the protest demonstrations and the revolutionary unrest with great enthusiasm. Now well over 70, they still remember this time as their “baptism of fire”. Thirteen-year-old János Spátay volunteered as a courier, passing secret messages sewed in a football from the isolated revolutionary troops through the bridges of Budapest blocked by Russian tanks. Fourteen-year-old Béla Huber from Sopron was the first to throw a hand grenade at the local headquarters of the ÁVH; he continued to hide out in the woods along the Western border with other teenage boys for a month after the adult insurgents had all fled to Austria. Sixteen-year-old Gyula Sorbán took up arms on the first night at the siege of the Radio building and for days was busy in producing Molotov cocktails until he was gravely injured in the leg by a Russian tank grenade. Sándor Soós, a 17-year-old apprentice miner of Oroszlány protected the entrance of the New York Palace – a hotel and press centre in downtown Budapest – with a light machine gun and only fled to the West with the last groups of insurgents one week after the second Soviet invasion started.

The boys mentioned above, together with many of their would-be fellows in the Legion, happened to know each other even in Hungary, but became close friends in most cases only when they met again in North Africa during the Algerian war. Those Hungarians who had joined the Legion a decade before at the end of World War II, were mostly teenage prisoners of war in French camps and had experienced the ravages of war in Indochina; the volunteers after 1956 served in Algeria and subsequently in Corsica, Chad, Madagascar, Tahiti and other places. To begin with, all recruits signed a contract for five years, but there were many who did not serve their time. Some deserted after a few weeks, others served long enough to qualify for permanent leave to stay in France or for French citizenship; at least one was awarded a pension after 15 years and eight months service; others ended their 16-30 year careers as ensigns, the highest ranking warrant officer in the Legion and as a rule only awarded to French citizens. One in every four Hungarian legionnaires deserted or attempted to do so, especially after mid-1958 when the war in Algeria increased in savagery.

Why then did so many young refugees choose to join the Legion? The seduction of popular pulp fiction may be one reason but there were more compelling factors, particularly for those who had fled in 1956 and feared reprisals if they returned; experience showed these fears to be well grounded. For many of them the motto of the legion “Legio [est] patria nostra” was more than a slogan: the legion became their new home.

In conclusion

As we have seen in a number of cases, many of the emigrant and remigrant Hungarian youth on both sides of the Iron Curtain remained for long years, if not for a lifetime, hostages of the Cold War. Lonesome and defenceless, falling from one trap into another, most of them were unable freely to choose their future or enjoy a normal adult life. For different reasons and to different degrees this is equally true for those who, as stateless youths, drifted through a dozen or more countries, changing jobs frequently in ports, dockyards, factories and mines, and for those who joined foreign armies as mercenaries, or who, after a couple of months or years returned to their “homeland” only to find themselves the victims of massive police harassment, court cases and imprisonment, or forced into the shameful shadow life of a secret police spy, with its lifelong stigma and sense of guilt.

And at the beginning, even those who were hopelessly stuck for years in the refugee camps, the victims of immigration bureaucracies or easy prey for western intelligence and propaganda services, fared little better. These powerful organizations all wanted to use the large crowds of immigrant Hungarian youths for their own corporate or political purposes. It took many more years for the “free world” to shed its spy hysteria and the gloomy threats of a third world war.

Isabelle Vonèche Cardia, L'octobre hongrois entre croix rouge et drapeau rouge, Brussels, Bruylant, 1996. English version: Hungarian October: Between Red Cross and Red Flag: The 1956 Action of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Geneva, 1999.

Zsuzsa Szönyi, A Triznya-kocsma. Magyar sziget Rómában [The Pub Triznya. A Hungarian island in Rome], Budapest, 2006.

See András Lénárt, "Fluchtgeschichten von 1956er Jugendlichen", in Zoltán Fónagy and Ibolya Murber (eds.), Die ungarische Revolution und Österreich 1956, Vienna, 2006.

See for example his latest monograph The Baross Republic 1956, L'Harmattan, 2011, or his website:

See: ÁBTL 3.1.5. O-18563/1, pp. 163-78.

Published 21 January 2013
Original in English
First published by Eurozine (English version); Kulturos barai 12/2012 (Lithuanian version)

© Béla Nóvé / Kulturos barai / Eurozine



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