A Reunion of Revolutionaries
Bard College Remembers
In the aftermath of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, close to 300 student refugees called Bard College home. This month, the college hosts a reunion of these courageous men and women.
Béla Liptak remembers the sound of blood dripping on the floor. In the shuddering silence after the Soviet shell had torn through the fragile Hungarian house, the noise was surprisingly loud.
It was the girl’s blood. She had been helping to carry basic supplies to Liptak and his fellow revolutionaries as they fired rifles at the Soviet tanks. The huge steel beasts had rumbled into Budapest to crush one of the most glorious moments of freedom in modern history. On October 23, 1956, Liptak had been part of a student group that led a successful nationwide rebellion against the Soviet-imposed Communist regime in Hungary. But the new democratic government was short-lived. The Soviets ultimately quashed the revolution, arresting 26,000 Hungarians, imprisoning 13,000 and executing 350. More than 200,000 citizens fled the country.
Liptak was one of them.
Within weeks, the 20-year-old found himself living in Dutchess County. He was one of almost 300 refugees taken in by Bard College while the school was closed for an extended winter break. For about three months, these students lived among the trees and mansions of this small liberal arts college on the Hudson River — organizing themselves, learning English, forging friendships, and gaining other skills needed to help launch their new lives in the U.S. “Bard’s initiative was unusual, if not extraordinary,” says Leon Botstein, Bard’s current president. On February 14-17, Bard hosts a special weekend reunion for the former student refugees (which includes a conference — open to the public — that will examine the impact and legacy of the Hungarian Revolution. For more information, see http://hungary56.bard.edu).
“The situation at Bard gave us a new start in the U.S.,” says Liptak. “Before going to the American universities, we spoke no English. In no time at all, we taught the teachers Hungarian and learned very little English, but it was good enough to get started.”
Liptak’s involvement in the Revolution began when his student group planned protests against such banalities as poor cafeteria food, terrible living conditions, and incompetent professors. But the students’ conversations quickly focused on the underlying reason for their discontent: Soviet control of Hungary (which had begun in earnest in 1949).“We first started off with typical student demands, and by midnight we ended up with the demand for the Russian occupation forces to leave the country,” Liptak says.
Furious at the brutal political repression and frustrated by the country’s economic stagnation, other student groups also began agitating. A list of 16 proposals helped solidify the movement, and jolt the rebels from talk into action. On that fateful October evening in 1956, 200,000 people were shouting for change in the streets of Budapest. A 30-foot-tall statue of Stalin was toppled from its plinth, and Hungarian flags (ragged with huge holes where Communist emblems had been ripped off) flew from the boots that remained.
Soviet tanks rolled into the streets the next day. But the tanks were the older, more vulnerable models. “We destroyed their tanks with so-called Molotov cocktails,” Liptak says, speaking softly with a rich, rolling accent. “We threw them at the tanks and afterwards penetrated the gasoline tanks with small arms, and they burnt up.”
By the 28th, hostilities were almost over. “They were beaten. We had almost a week of freedom with a multiparty, democratic form of government,” Liptak says. But new orders came down from the Kremlin, and on November 3, Soviet tanks rolled towards Budapest again.
“The Russians used more tanks in the second attack on Hungary than Hitler used to occupy France,” Liptak asserts. Nonetheless, it took a savage week of fighting before the Soviets defeated the determined Hungarian rebels. “It was a very bloody invasion,” he says.
And still, Liptak can’t forget the girl. “She had run back towards the front of the house to fetch a loaf of bread she had forgotten. We found her very badly wounded. And I remember as I put her down on the floor I saw her mouth moving. I didn’t even realize she was conscious. I put my ear to her mouth. She said, ‘There is some candy in my pocket. Take some.’ Then we were captured.” Drunken Soviet troops later allowed Liptak to escape. His father ordered him to leave the country. He went. He never found out what happened to the wounded girl.
More than 20,000 Hungarian refugees made their way to the United States after the Revolution. Most wound up at New Jersey’s Camp Kimmel; many were then sent to colleges all over the country. The U.S. government had encouraged the Hungarian revolt: broadcasts on Radio Free Europe had assured the revolutionaries that help was on its way. Hungarians felt betrayed by America, and many in this country felt they had a point. It is said that President Eisenhower requested that major colleges offer scholarships to the refugees as a small way of making up for the nation’s inaction.
Bard officials felt that hosting the students would be a superb way to express the school’s commitment to human rights and other core values. And the refugees knew a superb thing when they saw it. “By Christmastime we were at Bard,” says refugee Ferenc Novak (who had been prohibited from attending college in Soviet-run Hungary because he was from the despised “intellectual class”). “Looking back 50 years, it was the best thing that could have happened to us. We were welcomed there. We were made safe. We had a chance to deepen or start our English studies, and in general try and get ourselves embedded into the American surroundings.” Novak went on to work for over 30 years as a systems analyst and manager for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
Although attendance at Bard was free, some refugees had to finagle a way to get there. Béla’s wife, Martha, aided the Revolution by carrying drugs and supplies to the fighters. Afterwards, she tried to flee to Vienna, but was detained at the border; she spent time in a refugee camp before coming to the U.S. Her first weeks here were drenched in culture shock. “We were driven through sections of the country where there was nothing but white clapboard houses with Christmas tree lights on. This did not line up with our idea of what America was like. We thought of America as New York City, instead there were little white houses with twinkling Christmas lights.”
Martha’s disorientation continued after friends found her a dead-end job as a janitor’s assistant. “I heard about Bard and the language courses, so I borrowed $10 and took the train up the Hudson.” She hid on the campus for three weeks, afraid to register because she had snuck in. When she finally revealed herself, she was welcomed. She went on to attend Skidmore, earn her master’s degree in English, and teach school for many years; today she is a respected ceramics artist. Besides her education, Martha also got something else from her stay at Bard: a husband. She and Béla were wed in December 1958. Three children and almost 50 years later, the couple credits the college with giving them the start to a very satisfying life. Béla attended New Jersey’s Stephens Institute of Technology, and has written several texts on computer controlled processes. His 2001 book, A Testament of Revolution (Texas A&M University Press), describes his experiences during the Revolution.
Because they were so focused on the future, many of the refugees have only vague memories of the campus. They remember wide-open spaces, lots of trees and beautiful buildings. Béla clearly recalls one detail: “The food in the cafeteria was fantastic!”
Béla’s eagerness to see his compatriots at this month’s reunion is tinged with a very Hungarian melancholy. “I’m looking forward to it,” he says. “But I was back in Hungary just this October for the 50th anniversary of the Revolution. I was meeting old friends and being amazed that those beautiful girls and handsome boys had become fat and bent old people.”
More important than classroom lessons, Bard gave the refugee students a feel for American life. “I learned how to talk to people and interact with them and to have some idea as to how society worked,” Novak says. “Bard was the first place where I experienced the magnanimity, goodness and openness of the American people.”
Pataki’s Peekskill Memories
Perhaps the Hudson Valley’s most famous Hungarian-American is George Pataki, who left Albany last month after 12 years as governor of New York State. Pataki, whose paternal grandparents were farmers in Hungary before emigrating to the U.S., has often spoken of his fond recollections of growing up in a predominantly Hungarian neighborhood in Peekskill.
While leading a presidential delegation to the 50th anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution in Budapest last October, Pataki made the following comments to students at the city’s Central European University:
“I remember those events like it was yesterday. I was only 11 back on October 23 of 1956 but it’s a day and a week in that period of time I will never forget in my life… It was an enormously emotional time and I can remember back in upstate New York on our little farm my whole family gathering together in front of the television and having tears of joy when the Soviet tanks pulled out and it looked like the Hungarians would live in freedom for the first time in so long. Then those tears of joy became tears of sadness and sorrow eight days later when those tanks returned…
“There was a factory in my hometown, and hundreds of immigrants from northeastern Hungary came and settled in that town in upstate New York to work in that factory. So although my father was born in New York, he couldn’t speak any English, everyone spoke Hungarian. The church was on
, the church service was in Hungarian, everybody spoke Hungarian. It wasn’t until he went off to school that he learned English…
“We grew up in a very strong Hungarian community and in fact my grandfather, after he saved up enough in the factory, he bought a little farm, which was very much like the farm that he had and his family had in Szabolcs County [in northeastern Hungary]. As a kid I remember that farm. On that farm every Sunday in the summer we would have a szalonnasutes. And till this day, Sundays in the summer, my children and I “es az unokatestverem, mind a cslad,” have a szalonnasutes.”
And what — ask all you non-Hungarians — is this szalonnasutes that still delights the former governor and his family? It’s the traditional Hungarian bacon barbecue. Although there are many schools of thought on all the intricacies, the basics involve roasting the Hungarian bacon (szalonna) over an open flame and letting the drippings fall onto a piece of fresh bread, which is then garnished with such things as cucumbers, radishes, tomatoes, peppers, and onions.
Keeping the Faith
Forty years ago we had 80 to 100 active members,” says Rev. Alexander Forro about the Hungarian Reformed Church in Poughkeepsie. “Now we have about 30 or 35 members, and maybe 10 or 15 people coming to the service each Sunday.”
Founded in 1932, the church used to be the center of a bustling Hungarian community in Poughkeepsie. “This whole neighborhood used to be Hungarian,” says Forro, referring to the area surrounding the
church. “Hungarians started coming in large numbers after World War II. And then, of course, more came after the Revolution. Although the biggest grouping of Hungarians was in New Jersey, some came up here. But many of the older people here have died off and the younger ones intermarry, choose other churches, or move away.”
Currently, about 3,100 people in Dutchess County — or 1.1 percent of the population — claim Hungarian ancestry, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Still, up to three generations of families sometimes worship at the church — the only Hungarian church in the entire Hudson Valley. It is a member of the Hungarian Reformed Church of America, part of a network of Reformed churches which dates back to the time of the Reformation and still has congregations in Manhattan, Staten Island, Rochester and