Flight to safety

The flight from Budapest to the safety of the West

Hungarian Revolution 1956
Photojournalists witness death, starvation, and desolation as Russian forces suppress the anti-communist revolution in Budapest

When the 1956 Hungarian Revolution lost to the powerful Russian army, for a while the borders to Austria were open. Around 200,000 Hungarians decided that a flight from Budapest to the West was the best for their families. Life under USSR rule meant living in constant fear of detention and even deportation to Siberian salt mines.

The infamous political police headquarters swallowed up people who were taken from their homes never to be seen again. The attempt to restore democracy had failed and the reign of terror started against anybody who was not seen to be a devout Communist or didn’t have a working class or farmer’s background.  Neighbour feared neighbour. It was a grey, oppressive world. 

Home secrets

When my mother picked me up from ballet school on that Thursday, she seemed very nervous and told me we had to hurry up as Auntie Maria was waiting at home for us. I was not to ask any questions on the street but wait till we got home. 

I was used to being told not to say anything when strangers could overhear us. I understood that there were some bad people around who would come and take my Mum or Dad away if they knew what we were talking about at home. Or if they knew that we had been to Holy Communion in a mass held in the basement of our house. Or that my Mum hated Communists as they had taken away her family’s land, country property and flat in the centre of Budapest.

When they found out that her parents had been royalist land owning gentry, with her late father an officer in the Austro Hungarian Royal Army they threw her out of medical university. 

Flight from Budapest: a confusing world

I was eight years old. It was all very confusing and hard for me to remember all the rules. Mum did not like the songs I learnt at school and wanted to sing to her. But I was not to tell the teacher that I knew how to sing songs my Mum and great grand mother taught me to sing in mass.

Adults were so complicated and seemed to be angry a lot of the time. And often so afraid of something that they always asked with a trembling voice who was outside when somebody knocked on the door. Especially now that the Hungarian soldiers were not fighting on the streets any longer and Russian tanks were posted on every street corner of Budapest. It was dark and cold and people’s faces were sad and everybody spoke in quiet, hushed voices. 

But some shops started to open up again when the broken glass and rubble was being cleared. I was glad I could attend Miss Balogh’s ballet school again. She planned to put on a Christmas show for parents. I was excited about the role allotted to me and couldn’t wait to show my parents what I had learnt. It was hard for me not to chatter to my Mum about the ballet lesson as we walked towards home. 

It was normally only a ten minute walk home but lots of snow had settled a couple of days ago and had been swept into walls twice my height on either side of the pavement. The streets were eerily deserted. There was no traffic on the roads, except for the tanks of the Russian army and from time to time a snow plough. It was like walking in a white tunnel which was only interrupted when a road needed to be crossed. The pavement was slippery so we could not walk with the usual speed.

My hands, clutching my ballet shoes, were frozen despite the warm gloves and when we reached our house, I was stamping my feet on the mat in front of the door to clear the snow off my boots. Our flat was nice and warm due to the huge floor to ceiling green ceramic stove in the middle of the living room wall which heated two rooms at the same time. It was built into the partitioning wall between living and dining room.

There were also central heating radiators which were switched on from a communal centre by the caretaker of the block of flats. Budapest had enough hot water underground to heat most of the city at very low cost. It was only later in life that I realised what luxury central heating was in the 50s and what a nice home we had. 

Not a day as usual 

Stepping into the living room, I  greeted my little sister and gave my baby brother who was sitting on my great auntie’s knee a kiss on the pink cheeks. He gave me a huge smile. Auntie was not smiling. She asked my mother:

Are you sure you want to do this?”

My mother didn’t answer but told me to go into my room and change into my warmest trousers and jumper which she had put out on the bed.. We were all going on a train trip, and we had very little time to get ready. We were going to see my Mum’s aunties who lived in Germany. When I came back into the living room, it was empty and everybody was already in the hallway and wearing coats. My three year old sister was asking where we were going and I took her hand and told her we were going on an adventure. 

The flight from Budapest by train

By the time we reached the crowded railway station, our feet were frozen and the floor in the station was full of dirty puddles made by the melting snow coming off people’s feet. My Mum told us all to hold hands and not to let go as we must not lose each other in the crowd. We joined the long queue winding to a window which said “International”. My Mum got a ticket and was told that there would be a train leaving in ten minutes. We had to hurry. 

Auntie started to cry when I asked whether she was coming with us. She accompanied us to the train and we climbed into an already packed compartment. My auntie gave us all a kiss and a hug, and made the sign of the cross on our foreheads. She said “May God look after you!” Then she turned round and  I noticed that her shoulders were shaking as she got off the train. I asked my Mum why Auntie was upset. She told me that she would have liked to come with us but had to stay with her mother who was old and in hospital. And her daughter had a baby in her tummy and could not travel.

While my Mum was feeding my brother from a bottle, she was looking out of the window with a very weird expression on her face. She murmured: “Good bye, Budapest!” And I saw that she had tears in her eyes. There were a lot of people standing in the corridor of the carriage and many kept coming into the compartment and people were talking, asking questions about the train, about where people were going and everybody seemed very nervous.

I was looking out of the window watching the scenery. Once we got out of Budapest, the villages we passed were covered in snow. The sky was that type of grey which promises to discharge some more snow. I noticed that my sister had fallen asleep on my lap and I started to feel sleepy. Leaning against my mother’s arm, I dozed off. 

Everybody out

I awoke with a jerk to the loud sound of screeching brakes. It took me a few minutes to realise where I was. My sister and brother were crying as both my Mum and I nearly fell off the seats with them on our laps. The train stopped very suddenly and people were opening the windows to look outside. Somebody was shouting: 

Everybody out, this is as far as this train will go.”

My Mum asked the man standing by the window whether we had reached the Austrian border. He shook his shoulders and left the compartment. 

Everybody was in the corridor talking at the same time. There was slow movement towards the left and a cold draft told us that the door must have been opened. A man in a uniform pushed his way through the crowd in the corridor and repeated: 

Everybody out. This train will return to Budapest now.” 

My mum told me and my sister to hold hands and we made our way along the corridor following the crowd. A man helped first my sister and then me to get off the train. My Mum asked him where we were. He said he didn’t know, but that the conductor had pointed to the left and had said that that was the way to the border…

He walked beside us for a while talking to my Mum about the rumours that the border was now closed. He said some people had been shot trying to cross and many had been captured and returned to where they had tried to flee from. I didn’t understand what all that meant but I was starting to feel frightened about this adventure. 

Where are we?

It was late afternoon, it was dark, bitterly cold and I could see that my Mum was upset. I was standing knee deep in snow. My Mum took us by the hand and told me to be a big girl and hold on to my sister while she carried my baby brother. 

We started to walk, as fast as our feet could carry us, following the stream of people who seemed to know which way we should be going. No one stopped to help us. The young man who had walked with us for a while became impatient and left us behind. Looking around all we could see was snow, as far as we could see. No lights, just dark sky and white snow. The crowd in front trampled a path in the snow which we followed. 

Falling behind 

My sister and I could not walk fast. My Mum was still limping from a shot in her leg. Everyday life had been dangerous during the Revolution, especially for people wandering the streets searching for food. A bullet had injured my Mum’s leg when she had gone out to get us some bread and if possible some winter vegetables. When our larder was empty, she had found flour and lard. We had eaten dumplings every day for two weeks. 

But now on the flight to the Austrian border, we were slowly falling behind until we were the last in the line and soon lost sight of the crowd in front of us. My 5 year old sister sister was getting tired and was complaining. My Mum started to sing songs that we knew and told us to march like soldiers in tune to the music. She said that we did not have far to go.

We walked and walked but after a while my sister said she could not walk any longer. My Mum put my brother down and asked me to help lift my sister on her shoulder. She told her to hold on tight and lifted my brother up again. Thank God it wasn’t snowing. We were in a deadly silent, white world creeping along the footprints left behind. We walked for what seemed like hours.

Suddenly, the snow was lit up. We turned around to see where the light was coming from. As it came closer, we realised it was a large car. It looked like a snow ship coming to rescue us. Mum told us to spread out so the car had to stop. A window was rolled down and a woman’s voice asked my Mum: 

Have you got dollars?” My Mum said: “Sorry, no.

The window was wound up again and the car took off. My mum started to sob loudly and my sister and I hugged her. That made her stop and she calmly said that we must continue walking. She took my sister on her shoulder again and I carried my brother for a while until my arms seemed to fall out of their sockets. Then my Mum took over and we just put one foot in front of the other as if we were in a trance. The white scenery surrounding us seemed endless. 

A new dawn

Slowly, the sky started to get lighter and suddenly my Mum said:

Stop. Look there!”

In the distance, I saw a tractor making its way though the snow. She told me to hold my brother and she ran off towards it. When she came back, she was repeating:

He speaks German, he speaks German!”

I didn’t understand what it meant until my mother said that we were safe. We had reached Austria, the destination of the flight. We were refugees.


Editor’s note: This is the second article in Kent Bylines for World Refugee Week 2021 June 14-20