How I became a child refugee in 1956

A child in Budapest - maybe a future child refugee
Soviet tank in Budapest 1956 from Wikimedia Commons
Licensed under CC BY 2.0

It was Thursday, 20 December 1956, barely six weeks after the might of the Russian army had invaded Hungary to squash the uprising.  It had started on 23 October when Budapest attempted to topple the Hungarian People’s Republic and its Soviet-imposed policies and bring back democracy to the country. 

On 4 November, a large Soviet force invaded Budapest and other regions of the country. The tanks rolling in the streets of Budapest sounded like thunder. The Hungarian resistance continued until 10 November when they realised nobody was going to help them fight the Russian invaders.  The world was busy with the Suez crisis. That was when I became a child refugee.

People began fleeing the country

The capital city was mourning the loss of its desperate attempt for freedom. The clean-up had not really started yet. Over 2,500 Hungarians and 700 Soviet troops were killed in the conflict. In the immediate aftermath, one heard of people fleeing the country.

The borders had opened because all Hungarian border guards had left their posts to fight with the population. But by mid December, the Russian military were patrolling the borders and all official transport across to Austria had stopped. 

BBC report on 1956

Father gets a surprise

It was midday. My father walked through the door to the dining room. There was a note on the table. It read: “Meet you in three day’s time at the Vienna St Stephen’s Cathedral! Love you! Magda”. 

“Christ! “ My father thought and realised he had been talking aloud. The flat seemed empty without his wife and three children. “What was she thinking, the stubborn woman?” 

He thought they had discussed this and decided they were better off staying in Hungary. The family had a nice large flat in the centre of Budapest. He had a great job as a soloist in two of the best symphony orchestras, for Hungarian standards we were very well off. But what he had thought had decided it for her was that she could not take her sickly 86 year old granny with her: the grandmother who had raised her after she was orphaned at 9 years old and meant the world to her. 

And how was she going to manage a perilous journey with three young children, the eldest a girl of eight and the youngest a mere fifteen months old? In this harsh Hungarian winter where the snow was four foot high? Panic hit him.

If he was going to try to find his family in Austria in three day’s time, without personal transport and no means of communication as all phone lines were down, he had to make some arrangements now. He was not very good at this; his wife was the adventurous one and the one with contacts. 

Preparations for a journey 

He had to be careful as any unusual activity would now be noticed and may be reported to the political police, the infamous AVO. People were all very frightened and one could trust no one. He decided to go back to the orchestra rehearsal after the lunch break as usual and see what he could do in the evening. That was not really safe either as there was a curfew after 6 o’clock. 

Rumours by people whose friends or family members had fled to the West successfully said one could bribe Russians, mostly with watches, gold and alcoholic drinks. Many of the soldiers were from poor Russian rural areas and had really no idea why they were fighting in Hungary, occupying the capital.

Dangerous Budapest

The Russian military commanders were worried about their soldiers. There were still some revolutionaries on the loose who presented a danger to the soldiers patrolling the streets. Some had been ambushed just the day before, a colleague had told him, even though they clothed the Hungarian conscripted soldiers in the same uniform as the Russian occupiers, right down to the red star on their caps, rather than the red, white and green of Hungary to make it harder to tell the soldiers apart.

People on the street were grabbed by soldiers for no obvious reason, never to be seen again. The rumour was that they were shipped off to Siberian camps. 

Still, he had to go out and visit Magda’s first husband who had taken part in the Revolution and as yet had avoided capture. He would know who was leading people across the border.  He had to get some money to pay them by selling something. The banks were not yet open, and he would need to use the black market, which was dangerous. He surveyed the flat to see what would be easiest to sell.

Left without a good bye

This is how the story of my life as a child refugee, aged 8 began. My mother had heard that the borders between free Austria and USSR ruled Hungary were being closed. She wanted her children to grow up in a democracy.

Her family had suffered expropriation of all their property, land they had owned for several generations. And she had been forced to shovel coal to earn a living for herself and her grandmother. In her second year at medical University, somebody had found out that she was not a member of the communist party and they threw her out. 

Our father, on the other hand came from farmer’s stock (which at first caused a huge scandal in my mother’s family who were landed gentry). His background ensured we had a flat in Central Budapest and he earned a good salary. He was a lot older than my mother and found the thought of starting afresh in a new country too daunting.

That is why my mother decided to force him to follow her and their children. Plus, women and children were said to be safer when caught by the Russians. They were known to love children and respect mothers. Also, men were more agile and moved faster on their own.

Many families split up and sadly not all managed to find each other again.

This was a very tough decision for my mother. She had to leave her beloved grandmother behind. It was breaking her heart to think that she would never see her again. There was no coming back. She asked her auntie to look after her and I saw a teary goodbye scene, which at the time I didn’t understand.

We used to visit great grandma two, three times a week. But I was never going to hear her stories of her interesting life again. I had become a child refugee. 

Editors Note: World Refugee week 2021 June 14-20. More articles on refugee experiences to follow.