Hungarian refugees: our family visits Sevenoaks in 1961


The UK, like many other Western countries took in thousands of the around 200,000 Hungarian refugees arriving in 1956. Austria was the “distribution centre” from where refugees travelled to various countries. Sweden and Germany invited large numbers and America was many people’s dream destination. 

My family had applied to go to the US but due to a serious ear infection my little brother could not travel. This incident shaped our future as we then remained in Austria. I personally am quite happy that we remained in Europe. 

Traiskirchen refugee camp

As reported, in my article refugee family in Germany, my family returned to Vienna in 1957 after a few months stay with our aunts in Germany. We stayed in countless make shift camps in church halls and school sports halls.

Large former army headquarter barracks were being prepared to take the refugees but they were not habitable yet. The Russian army had used them whilst occupying Austria.

Later, in the Traiskirchen refugee camp, it was discovered that nearly all members of the Budapest symphony and Opera house orchestra was assembled there. I recognised some of my father’s colleagues and some well known opera singers I admired.

A young conductor was amongst the artists and he got the idea of forming a new orchestra made up of the refugees. My father joined this new Hungarian refugee symphony orchestra called Philharmonia Hungarica (PH) as French horn soloist.

My first trip to England

In USSR ruled Hungary, my mother had not been allowed to attend University and, once we got asylum in Austria, Vienna gave her a grant to study. She became a mature student of economics at Vienna University and one of her compulsory subjects was English. It was quite an undertaking to study with three children and I remember her staying up till late in the night to prepare for exams.

Her first year English exam showed that she needed help to get to the required level.  She luckily had the opportunity to attempt a retake in autumn. In order to support her, Vienna University decided to fund a trip to the UK to improve her English language skills.

However, there was a snag: She had three children whom she could not leave without child care. 

Our  father was travelling a lot on tour with the PH across Europe and the US.

What about the children? 

Thus, my mother had nobody with whom to leave her children in Vienna while she visited England. The University, with the help of refugee organisations decided to allow her three children to accompany her on the trip. Two local families in Sevenoaks were to be our host families.  

One of the host families actually picked us up by car from Vienna. We travelled across Germany, Holland to Belgium. We took the Ostend to Dover ferry. I remember the long process we had to go through to cross the borders with our UN refugee passports. There were no mine fields or barbed wire to flee across. However, all my life I carried on feeling a bit stressed when seeing armed border guards.

I had never travelled in a car before, had never been on a ferry, and had never seen the sea before. Hungary and Austria are land locked. The overnight crossing was an amazing adventure. 

Host family in a mansion

When my sister and I were dropped off at the family who was to be our host, we were too awestruck to speak. It was a detached, beautiful large house surrounded by a huge garden. The house was built of red brick and had a bay window. The hall was bigger than our living room in Budapest. And I could see two staircases. One wide, red carpeted staircase and a narrower, grey carpeted one. That was the servants staircase, my mother explained to me. 

When we followed the lady of the house up the servants’ stairs we realised we were each to have our own room. My sister and I never had our own bedroom before. At that time, five of us lived in a one bedroom flat. We considered that already a great improvement to sleeping on matrices on the floor of refugee camps. 

The trip and the stay with the Sevenoaks family, where I had my first cooked hot breakfast, was like a dream. The family had a 15 year old daughter and I went to Sunday school with her. Because of the age difference, we were not in the same class at school, but we walked there together every morning. I was given a school uniform which you can see in the 1961 Sevenoaks Chronicle photo.  

In the Sevenoaks Chronicle: Refugee family arrives

On the left, the article in the Sevenoaks Chronicle of May 1961. I am on the right, aged 13. My 8 year old sister and I are in school uniforms, my little brother is wearing Austrian leather shorts. On the right, a photo of the Traiskirchen refugee camp handing out food at lunchtime.

The Sevenoaks host family came to see us in Vienna in 1962  and my new English friend spent the whole summer with us. She squeezed into one bedroom with my sister and me. She thought it was fun and I couldn’t believe that she was upset about leaving us at the end of the summer.

It seems that our bohemian life style was fascinating to her. I, on the other hand, missed having a bit more space and the beautiful rhododendron bushes in the St Botolph’s Road garden.

My sister and brother in front of our

The family visited us several times and even came with us to Budapest when, after the state gave us general amnesty, we had our first holiday there.

My sister with Ginger in Sevenoaks garden

This is how I formed my first connection to Sevenoaks, Kent and England, not dreaming at the time that England would become my permanent home in 1970.