Escape from Hungary: Three Dark, Cold Days in 1956
by Joseph Nagyvary
Neuer Kurier, Austrian daily newspaper, November 23, 1956
"The hunting down of people by the Soviet forces in the Hungarian border region goes on. Last night alone, which marked the arrival of the 60,000th refugee, more than twenty men and women lost their lives. Hundreds of people were arrested by the Soviet patrols, often just a few steps from reaching safety. These unfortunate people were herded into temporary camps for later deportation to the east".
Prologue. Budapest, November 21, 1956
The only shooting war of the Cold War period against the Soviets was fought in Hungary, beginning on October 23, 1956, by civilians who appeared to be victorious by October 28. Initially, the Soviet tanks stationed in Hungary were no match for the courage and the Molotov cocktails of the freedom fighters. However, several international events — including the U.S. presidential elections and the Suez crisis —interfered with and damaged the Hungarians’ cause. Though Radio Free Europe and The Voice of America fanned the embers of hope for direct military assistance, the freedom fighters did not receive the expected help from the Western democracies and ran out of ammunition.
By the third week of November the Soviet control of rebellious Hungary was almost complete, and new Hungarian stooges led by Janos Kadar had set up a government, poised to exact a terrible revenge for their previous humiliation. Their henchmen, the AVO (State Defense Division) began to hunt down everybody involved in the fighting. The AVO was in Hungary what the Gestapo was in Nazi Germany, but much worse since its torture methods exceeded even those of the Spanish Inquisition. The Iron Curtain was lifted only for a short period of time, perhaps two weeks, and this enabled the safe exodus of the most opportunistic. Thousands of Hungarians, among them the most exposed student leaders who initiated the revolution were already safely in Vienna and well taken care of, while the real fighters and desperados were still firing their last bullets. But it was time for them to leave too, and join the tens of thousands of other desperate Hungarians who were trying to escape as the Iron Curtain was about to close again.
In the glorious days of late October and early November, I experienced a personal epiphany: a new consciousness of my dignity as a human being. This awakening was a gift of freedom, which is as vital source of human dignity as religion can be. Unfortunately, our revolution was crushed, and my new and transformed self was poised to face dangerous confrontations with the Soviet occupying forces and their Hungarian communist stooges. It became urgent to come to the right decision between two choices that would determine my future and survival. On the one hand, I was clinging to my Hungarian identity that would require compromises and humiliations; on the other hand, I also desired to live in freedom with my dignity intact. The latter choice meant nothing else but escaping from the country, and it had been the choice of many thousands of people who had already fled to Austria. This was not an easy choice for patriotic Hungarians who tended to look down on emigrants with the contempt befitting the deserters of the fatherland. After a week of seclusion at home with my family in Kaposvar, I was still undecided.
I returned to Budapest on November 20 to get my friends' take on the situation. When I arrived I found the men's dormitory in ruins. The men had moved to the women's dormitory at 5 Rakoczi Street both for their own safety and to provide some security for the girls. Here I connected with my most trusted friend Bandi Andrasi and several classmates who had nothing but bad. Apparently, the new régime of Janos Kadar was determined to exact a terrible revenge for the uprising, and the agents of the AVO were already looking for perpetrators of the "contra-revolution". We had a lengthy debate after dinner about the advisability of leaving the country at least for a while. It was a proposition I advocated and everyone else rejected. They had already decided to stay and tough it out. They felt it extremely unwise to give up our studies two months before graduating.
I didn't sleep much that night, just lay in bed restlessly, my mind racing with foreboding thoughts about being arrested or losing my friendships and budding romantic interest in Marta. Unlike the others, I was involved in the shooting war, albeit to a limited extent. I had to keep that a secret even from my best friends since they would be interrogated about our activities during the uprising. Finally, I got up at 5:30. Since it was windy and freezing outside I dressed in my warmest clothing—the 1925 vintage ski boots recently acquired from my father, and my pufajka, Russian army thermal uniform pants. Thus attired I was prepared to spend the entire day on the streets. At 6:15 it was not too early to drop in on my friends down the hallway.
The girls' dormitory was half empty , and the men elected to occupy a cluster of rooms at the back of the building facing the center of campus. I knocked on the door of Bandi Andrasi and Tibor Zanati, and looked in. They were up and listening to the news on Radio Free Europe., which reported that 60,000 refugees were already in Austria. The coffee water was near boiling. As we waited for the coffee, I again raised the prospect of temporarily leaving Hungary.
“I can't go back to the same humiliating way of life we had¾paying obeisance to idiotic communist party chiefs; keeping my religion secret; practicing the Stalinistic ritual of public self-criticism. I have a huge chip of contempt on my shoulder.” I pleaded my case.
Bandi responded gloomily: “It won't be easy. Personally, I have no choice. I have a sister and a brother to take care of. The AVO may beat me up, but I don't fear for my life. I didn't fire a gun and hurt no one.” I turned to Tibor who was the top student in our class. "Do you see a future for yourself as a scientist in a police state?”
“Being a Hungarian, however poor and miserable, is important to me. It defines me. I refuse to be chased out of my homeland by the agents of the Soviet occupiers. I'll suck it up and give to Caesar his due and nothing more.” This was something to think about: the loyalty we owe to our country.
We were quietly drinking our coffee when suddenly someone was running through the hallway whispering urgently, "There are two AVO men going through the ground floor looking for Joseph Nagyvary! Their submachine guns are leveled and ready to fire."
Mention of AVO never failed to strike terror in the heart of the bravest Hungarian man. Their first victims of the most terrifying torture—a glass tube in the penis hammered to shards—had been liberated a few weeks ago along with Cardinal Mindszenty, and similar brutalities could be anticipated in the future.
Bandi opened the door and pulled the messenger in. It was Ferenc Szili, my high school classmate from Kaposvar. He looked me in the eye with a grave expression on his face and just blurted out, "Joska, run, you have only seconds to get away!"
I dropped my cup, but then I collected myself and with a surprising calm put on my overcoat.
"Where are they now?"
"Going from room to room with one of them staying outside. They may be halfway here by now. Your best bet may be running across the front hall while they're at the far end."
I did not like that idea, and the expressions of my colleagues showed they agreed. My loaded pistol was in a nearby room, and the vision of a daring shootout crossed my mind, but the prospect of my one pistol against two submachine guns was not promising. The only remaining escape route was through the window, and Bandi had already opened it. I looked down to the back entrance of the building. There were a few students on the narrow path leading to the small plaza between three science buildings, with no AVO or military among them. How do I get down? Jumping 15 feet onto a hard surface would mean almost certain injury. To my relief, I discovered a drainpipe running from the roof to the ground. I could grab it if I swung out to my right and my grip was tight. If I miscalculated the move and the distance, I would fall sideways.
I hesitated only a few seconds then stepped up onto the window sill and lunged for the drainpipe—after all I had been a good gymnast on the high bar. I held firm with both hands as my feet swung beyond the vertical, and then loosened my grip to slide down. I hit the ground hardly buckling my knees. I looked up and saw Bandi tossing down my cap. “Call Marta, please!”was my last request as I waved good-bye to my friends. Then I turned and walked quietly toward the group of students at an entrance to the Organic Chemistry Department. I had to avoid looking suspicious and tried to blend in but my heart was beating so hard I felt my pulse in my head. At the center of the gathering was the popular physics professor, Dr. Istvan Cornides. I stepped near and listened, as he sounded a patriotic chord.
"There is no compelling reason for you to flee the country. You joined the National Guard only to safeguard our institutions and surrendered your weapons when ordered to do so. Our country needs you. Let us all be good Hungarians and tough it out no matter what happens." That was his advice, and I had no time to waste arguing. I glanced furtively towards the dormitory building and saw nothing unusual. As I reached the end of the path, I looked again and saw the back door opening as I stepped out of view.
I turned the corner and ran at full speed passing the two buildings of chemistry and mineralogy and then out of the campus gate to Museum Street, where I tried to look like the others walking toward the National Museum. I passed the Russian tanks at the Calvin Plaza, whose soldiers scrutinized nervously every passer-by. I crossed the Freedom Bridge, where I was undoubtedly the most exposed to danger, and turned my face away whenever a car passed by, ready to jump into the Danube if necessary. I hurried along the main gate of the Technical University that was besieged by military men and hardware. Further up on Bela Bartok Street, I turned into the entrance hall of an apartment building and sat down on the stairway. I forced myself to breathe slowly, but I felt dizzy. "Is this really happening to me?" Yes, obviously. I was on the run, a wanted man. I had to think and analyze the situation.
I had gotten away by sheer luck simply because I awakened earlier than usual. I could have been caught still sleeping in bed at quarter to seven when the AVO came for me, in my own room where there were no window escapes. The optimist in me said this was my lucky day. I was still free, had money in my wallet, and I was suitably dressed for the cold days.
But the negatives were overwhelming and scary. There was the realization that I was on the AVO hit list, and obviously high enough to be captured in the first phase of mass arrests. Being a prisoner of the AVO meant torture, more dreaded than death itself, or deportation to the Soviet Far East, or even execution at the notorious 60 Andrassy Street.
Some people had disappeared without any trace like my friend Istvan Fuzeki, who had called the Russian commander who arrested him a fascist. But why me? My public role in the revolutionary guard was relatively minor, and our University as a whole did very little beyond demonstrating solidarity. My forays into military action, like firing at tanks with small arms and fumbling with Molotov cocktails, were not exactly heroic deeds to boast about, and I tried to keep them secret. Was I betrayed by someone close to me? Of course, I did sign my name to a document when I and a couple of guys from the dormitory borrowed a truck from a state printing company for the legitimate purpose of procuring food from the villages. For whatever reason, my name could well be on the national list of "counter-revolutionaries" and therefore I would need to avoid any checkpoints where identifications would be required.
Now the die had been cast and the decision made for me by the AVO. I had no choice but to escape from Hungary to survive. I had no maps. My knowledge of the geography of Western Hungary was abysmal. I knew that the western-most city, Sopron, was about 110 miles away ¾a very long walk¾and all the roads would have Russian and AVO checkpoints. Four to five days of walking through fields with no food seemed a tough proposition, but I was confident in my will and endurance.
I had left the apartment building and headed toward the Moricz Circuit Plaza when I found a working phone. I dialed Marta's number, but there was no answer. There was nothing I could do but give up. She would be shocked when she got the news from Bandi. I hoped she would understand that I had no choice but to flee. In that moment, I felt desolate like never before. I was losing a best friend, a potential mate for life. This feeling was to haunt me for a long time, but the instinct for survival forced me to concentrate on practical matters. As I turned back, I saw familiar faces looking at me across the street. They were Laszlo (Laci) Puskas from our dormitory and his girlfriend, Lenke.
"We just came from the dormitory where the AVO was still checking the beds of every girl and gathering information on you. Your getaway was fantastic, I heard. What will you do now?"
"Laci, I'm in trouble and unprepared. I have to get some information about the best route to Austria. I need to get some bread, at least. Perhaps I could get help in a catholic church, or at least I could do a quick confession. What are you guys doing?"
"'We're going to my hometown, Szombathely. Budapest isn't a safe place for us either. We hoped we would run into you because there is some important news: the radio announced this morning that today trains will resume limited operations from Budapest-Kelenfold to the western cities, all the way to Szombathely. The last 50 miles or so, the train runs near the Austrian border zone. The first train is scheduled for 10 a.m., just about two hours from now."
What a fantastic news! With this train I would escape from the clutches of the local AVO, plus I would save three days of walking. It was an incredible coincidence that Puskas came upon me on this street, when it would have been a better choice for me to turn to north towards the Moscow Plaza. This coincidence seemed almost miraculous.
"What would I say when asked for the purpose of my travel, defecting to the West?"
Puskas already had some ideas. "First of all, there are not enough hard-core AVO guys to man the stations. So let's say you're going to be the boyfriend of my sister and you're traveling to Szombathely to get engaged. What about that? We could use this ruse if we get checked out here at the Budapest station, or at any other checkpoint. By the way, my girlfriend, Lenke, is coming with me for the very same reason. We really are getting engaged!"
"Then congratulations to both of you! I like your idea. Going with you guys would improve on my chances. I also appreciate the offer to join your family. The most important thing is first to get on that train. Then we can improvise. Play it by ear."
We had to hurry because the route to Kelenfold led through a major war zone at the Moricz Zsigmond Plaza, which was teeming with Russian troops, and we had to go around them. With the tall Puskas leading the slow Lenke and me in his trail, jogging occasionally, we reached the station about 9:30 a.m.
Without bothering to buy tickets, we proceeded through the crowded halls out to the platform where pandemonium had broken out like I hadn't seen since World War II! The eight train cars were full, and there were hundreds of people milling around the train. I caught a glimpse of some guards trying to keep order and check identifications, but their task was impossible. We bypassed them in the middle of the mass of bodies, moving towards the cars that seemed to have the lowest density of passengers, and ended up at the third wagon from the end.
There was absolutely no way to get in through the door since there were already people standing on the steps outside. However, the windows were open. As in my best gymnastic days, I pulled myself up and fell in while someone inside mercifully held my head up. For a while my body was suspended sideways, but eventually I managed to get nearly vertical with one foot on the ground. Before long Lenke also wriggled through the same window, pushed along by Laszlo and pulled by me. She remained in an undignified position pleading for space and help to right herself. Laszlo had little problem muscling in through the next window, and so we were able to talk to one another.
Since I was completely demobilized, I couldn't help feeling captive. Could there be government agents among us? Of course, there was no way of knowing from the looks and casual remarks. Conversation among strangers was guarded, but the information one could glean was encouraging. The majority of these people appeared to have the same aim as I did: to get anywhere close to the Austrian border. Like me, most of them had no ticket for the ride. We felt secure within our impenetrable mass, and so we gladly put up with the inconvenience. What was bad for our creature comfort was good for our peace of mind. The few complaining ticketed passengers were hushed down.
To our collective relief, the train pulled out on time. The word came around that the conductor and three men in pufajka uniforms — possibly AVO — were in the first car behind the locomotive. The train made its first stop at Tatabanya, less than an hour after departure, but apparently few passengers got off — at least there was only a minor relief in the pressure against my body. I managed to get closer to Lenke, who by now was standing on her own feet. One of her bags rested on her shoulder and sometimes on her head, which made her look like the farm-girls carrying their baskets to the marketplace. We spoke only about neutral, non-political topics, like their finding love during a revolution and the upcoming engagement. There were periods of long silence with tension in the rank air. The last half an hour before arrival in Gyor was made memorable by a passenger getting sick and having to throw up. This turned into a chain reaction, but luckily I was able to suppress the urge to follow suit.
One of my neighbors told his friend in a quiet voice, "If we want to play it safe, we should get off in Gyor. We'll be there shortly." The other responded, "We have to decide depending on the circumstances. Gyor is still two full days of marching from the border. It would be good to get closer."
The arrival in Gyor generated a lot of excitement and commotion. Many people got off, and although new passengers also came in, the intense crowding became more tolerable. We saw the AVO security men and the conductor entering the second car. They were still far from us but they could now move forward. I moved closer to Laszlo and Lenke, who suggested I stay at least until the next stop. One of the young guys who had stepped out briefly came back with useful news. I heard him say that there might be reinforced guard units at every station from here on, and they could intercept those who were not local to the area. But he seemed to have a plan.
"Just to be sure, I paid the engineer and asked him to slow down at a small village before Csorna, the next scheduled stop, so that we can jump off the train."
"I doubt he'll do it, but we'll see within half an hour," his companion responded.
After ten minutes in Gyor, the train moved out. Ready for anything, I said goodbye to my friends. Lenke put two slices of bread and two hard-boiled eggs in my coat pocket, saying: "You may need this more than we do, Joska." Indeed, I might have been the only person there without some provisions. As I was pushing forward towards the door, it occurred to me that this could be a set-up— I could jump into the arms and guns of the Soviets. Suddenly the train reduced its speed, with no town, no people in sight, just wide-open land. Our engineer was a decent man after all. God bless him, he kept his word.
People from other cars began to jump off. The speed at 5-10 miles per hour was safe enough, and I negotiated my jump with no complications. In a minute the train was gone, and we were left alone, perhaps twenty of us, my age, or even younger. To our left we could see the farmhouses of a village.
We quickly spread out in the general direction of north/northwest like molecules of a diffusing gas, keeping a good distance from one another, some moving faster, others slower. In our surroundings, I saw cultivated fields alternating with marshland and cow pastures. There were no roads and plenty of hiding places. There could be no surprise attack on us, and I felt relieved and relatively safe, for the time being at least.
It was around 2 p.m. and I was in no hurry. Cold wind blew into my face from the north, and there was a dark cloud cover over the entire sky. I was dressed adequately for the expected freezing temperatures, but not for rain. Fortunately, there were only a few drops, which turned into sleet later in the day. For hours I did my best impersonation of the military march in our summer army camps, taking long and deliberate steps and breathing evenly. The motions were robotic and left my mind free to reflect on the situation.
I realized now fully: I was progressing on an irreversible course. If I were successful, I would break off my chains, leave the AVO's sphere of power, would never have to humiliate myself, violate my principles; I will never again have to march in May 1 celebrations and practice self-criticism in public meetings. I can practice my religion. However, all this would come at a very high price. I might never see again my mother, my father, my sister and my brother. How could I endure this separation? Thinking of them had always been a source of warm feelings throughout my life; from now on it would be coupled with pain and guilt. The long-distance contacts with friends and Marta may fizzle out. Would I be able to form intimate friendships and a loving relationship in a foreign land?
The possibility that I could be shot and killed could not be discounted. The thought of not making it alive sent my mind racing and churning through past memories in rapid succession. I went back to the years of a happy childhood, the lucky survival during World War II, the high school years and the college years in fast-forward mode, and then lingered on some good memories. Then came the time of self-evaluation. I approved and disapproved some of my past actions, and strangely enough it was my righteous moral decisions which caused me regrets. Perhaps I shouldn't have resisted the advances of the two married women who wanted to initiate me in the art of love. They had come on to me like the wife of the ancient Egyptian Putifar to the biblical Joseph, and I remained blameless. But I was not Joseph in Egypt with a mission. Now I was also wondering if God had anything special planned for me, if I had a mission or would be soon terminated. Anguish and danger can facilitate our approach to God, and I prayed often that day.
A few hours after darkness fell and covered us with the first true sense of safety, I came upon a paved road leading north. Roads would be where government and Soviet troops could pass and be deployed, so I became more apprehensive. To the south I could see the faint lights of a city. Two shadows appeared on the road from that direction, and I crouched in a ditch. Visibility was less than 50 feet, and they might not see me on the ground. There was no reason to worry, however; the uncertain, staggering footfalls I heard was not the cadence of soldiers. I approached them with caution.
A young man carried his four-year old son on his shoulder, a suitcase in his right hand and a bag on his back. His wife also had her hands full carrying a basket with a baby in one hand and a large bag in the other. I greeted them in a subdued voice and inquired about the content of the basket.
"She is a girl, 11 months old," the woman answered with quiet maternal pride.
They had arrived on the train I was on and had gotten off in Csorna together with hundreds of other passengers. The security guards managed to check the identifications of only a handful; the rest simply ran away from the station. The few people who lined up for the security check were Csorna residents returning home, and they kept the guards busy. These Hungarian army regulars were not too keen on doing their assigned duties anyway.
"How come it took you six hours to walk, what, six kilometers?" I asked.
"We stopped on the way out of the town for information, and the people invited us in to rest and feed the children. They gave us some directions and suggestions on where to spend the night."
This sounded reliable and useful to me. I offered the father my help in carrying one of his children. "I would be grateful if you would relieve my wife for awhile. She's already exhausted, and we have more than 15 kilometers yet to walk to reach the border."
I took over the basket and said, "I don't think it's safe to be on major roads, or any road. The enemy may patrol them, and we could get arrested. You may get away and be released because of the family. I would end up in Siberia, at best. I would be glad to carry the baby, but I'll walk 50 feet off the road." And so we did, remaining in visual contact. Following their directions, we walked towards the north about three kilometers, and then followed a dirt road to the west for another three to four kilometers, also crossing a creek. I enjoyed the feeling of a few snowflakes melting on my face.
We arrived at a settlement of several farmhouses, most likely a "socialist co-op" farm conglomerate. There were a good number of men milling around a large barn, local farm people and refugees. I surrendered the baby to the mother, who was as grateful as I was exhausted. Both of my arms and shoulders felt the effect of carrying the sweet live load. The basket seemed light at the beginning, perhaps only 25 pounds, but its wide shape made it hit my knees on the side unless I pushed it out sideways. I learned to appreciate the physical demands and chores of a mother on the march toward freedom. The emotional stress of risking the life of the family could have been overwhelming.
I walked around the settlement in order to judge whether it was safe. There were perhaps a dozen farmhouses for families, a couple of larger buildings for equipment, and several small structures in poor condition, possibly for farm animals. Newcomers were gathering in several places. I picked the largest barn, which already harbored about three dozen people, and the number kept growing.
It was a welcome shelter for us with its warmer air scented by hay, animals and the associated biological processes. There were a few young couples, one family with children, but mainly men below middle age. Clothing in most cases was not fashionable, but practical. Almost everyone wore two pairs of pants. Some wore the thick Russian pufajka pants underneath and their legs were rounded like sausages. There was a boy by himself who barely looked 16, without an overcoat. According to the comments of those near him, he was still reeking of gasoline and explosives. He knew it, but had no reason to be defensive. "I apologize if I offended your senses, but I had no chance to shower since October." I said to him: "To me, this is the perfume of a freedom-fighter. Keep it as long as you can." After some prodding, he went on telling of his battles in the Castle district of Buda in an unpretentious way as if it had been a game of soccer.
I asked those next to me if we had a guide lined up, and they pointed to a small man at the other end of the barn. He wore a worn, arms-length sheepskin coat and a black fur hat. On his feet were black boots that reached just below his knees. His face was ruddy with the darker skin of an outdoors-man, and he had a short mustache. He had an animated conversation with a couple of people for a few minutes. Then he lifted one hand and looked around. The chatter ceased immediately.
"Good evening everybody! Let me tell you first of all that I sympathize with your situation. I didn't volunteer to be your guide but only agreed to the many requests of several individuals in this room. I would prefer playing cards with my friends right now. I was born and lived 44 years in this area. You should realize that I'm taking a major personal risk as an accessory to your defection from the "people's republic" – an obvious crime. It's in my interest that we succeed in this mission of getting you safely across the border and, for my part, to live another 44 years here with my family."
He stopped at this point and looked around for eye contact with his audience, which was lit only by one dim light. His fluency and good enunciation gave proof to the contention of the noted Hungarian essayist Gyula Illyes that our farmer folks are indeed intelligent well above their lowly station in life. We were a rapt audience, full of appreciation for this extraordinary man who would help us at his own peril.
He went on, "You should know that people by the thousand have passed through here, and they're all safe in Austria. Even today, many have crossed the border in broad daylight. Doing it at night surreptitiously is actually more risky. So listen up!" All the coughing was suppressed, and we were straining our ears to get the crucial details.
"The most direct route as the crow flies would take you through a small river, wetlands and swamps, and I don't think you could handle that, not with women and children. Also, it'll freeze and maybe even snow tonight, and the water is very cold. Believe me, you don't want to get wet! My plan is to lead you across a bridge but it'll make the distance longer. I estimate 16 kilometers (10 miles). We could cover it in about four hours. We can leave here at 10:30 tonight. Since I have to return by 6 a.m., I'll have to leave you alone for the last hour approaching the border canal." Sounds of discontent arose.
"If you leave us alone, how can we find the best place to cross over to Austria?"
"When you get to the canal, and you can't miss that, you will see Austrian students on the other side. Ask them for directions to the footbridge. Ask: wo ist die Bruecke? For families, this would be the only practical way of crossing over the canal. The water may be deep, besides being icy."
"What do you know about the situation with land mines?"
"On this portion of the border there have never been many mines, perhaps because of the wet grounds. Most of the mines were removed by the Hungarian army during the last weeks. I can't guarantee you absolute safety. If you're concerned, stay in the marshland, which you will find plenty."
At this point several voiced the same request. "Would you mind mailing a letter to my parents? I'll give you all the money I have on me. I'll have no use for Hungarian currency."
He said, "Of course, I would do that within a few days. I didn't ask you for your money, but I certainly won't refuse it."
Most people, including myself began to write farewell letters to their loved ones. I wrote a brief one- paragraph note to "Dear Mother and Father", telling them that staying in Budapest would have been life-threatening for me. I continued that I was just a short distance from the Austrian border, and with a good guide and God's will I would be in Vienna by the time they got this letter.
I gave the guide my letter, the mailing address and 800 forint, all of my cash. It was a significant amount of money, at least by student standards, enough for me to get by for two months. He took the letters and the monies and assured each of us that he would do his best.
Behind me, sitting on the floor were three tough looking guys. Their conversation, spiced with colorful profanities, suggested they could be workers from Budapest. They did not write letters or give away any money. They raised questions of vulnerability and trust, using a curse word for every punctuation mark. They took turns going outside and reporting back that the perimeter was secure.
"I would feel much better with my pistol in my pocket," one of them said, and I could only echo this sentiment.
"I was thinking the same just now. I also left my gun in Budapest." I turned to them, trying to establish an association with at least someone. I began to feel the need for some teamwork. As a sole operator I was at a great disadvantage. I wished I could have persuaded my own buddies to come with me, especially Bandi Andrasi and Gabor Kezdy, who were so savvy. Just three months ago we had faced down a pack of wolves in the Slovakian Tatra Mountains. They would have been a great comfort.
"Well, we have no guns, and we shouldn't need them if we keep our eyes open and trust no one," said one of the three.
Another added, "I can't help thinking that if these letters get into the wrong hands, the AVO will know immediately on whom to take revenge."
This was a chilling thought and not unfounded. Suddenly, I felt an urge to turn my thoughts to God with a prayer, making the sign of the cross on both ends. This was my first public display of Catholic piety in years. Many of our companions spent their last hour of rest praying quietly, or even loudly. "Deliver us from evil" was a common wish among believers and non-believers alike. I went outside, ate my slice of bread, drank fresh water from a faucet and attended to physiological necessities. I was ready to face the coming ordeal, the physical challenges and the mental stress, which would be more intense on the second day of my flight from home.
Finally as the hour approached, people moved outside to a clearing and bunched together in a circle, a very natural formation in the animal kingdom, like a herd in danger. We moved out and the guide admonished us to be quiet and follow him on the road that turned northwest.
From the outset, I kept behind everyone else about 100 yards and to the side of the road, and I began to see this marching troop of people ahead of me as would an outsider. It was a small exodus of "my people", and I was wondering when the pharaoh's warriors would catch up with them. Though related, I was separate from them in time and space, at least in my mind, identifying with my namesake, the Biblical Joseph. He was imprisoned in the well, and he could not get out on his own.
As I looked around I spotted three shadows to my left, and veered over to them, stumbling over muddy furrows. It was the threesome from the barn. One of them was saying in a barely audible whisper, "Listen to their damn clanging feet. You can hear that from far away. This is downright stupid. They should know better than to march as a group. Shouldn't we tell them to spread out to a long line?"
The cloud cover was rapidly breaking up over us, giving way to a full moon. Moonlight was never less welcome than in those hours. It extended the visibility to 150 yards according to my estimation. I was cursing it, wondering why it had to be a full moon exactly on the day when I was seeking cover for my safety. We kept on for nearly an hour when suddenly the acoustic blast of one gunshot pierced my ears and a loud shout rang out.
"Stop right now and raise your arms! You, despicable bandits, cohorts of the Western imperialists! If you move we'll shoot you like the filthy dogs you are, enemies of our socialist nation, the scum, the dregs of Hungary."
There were three guards surrounding the compact marching formation of the group ahead of us, pointing their submachine guns at the people and taking turns spouting verbal abuses. Under normal circumstances these expressions and adjectives would be laughable since they were familiar standard phraseology used to officially condemn Marshal Tito of Yugoslavia. This was not an ordinary army unit but dedicated AVO border guards.
At the first crack of gunfire, I hit the ground and kept slowly crawling away. Initially, I was a little more than 100 yards away and saw them as distinct shadows. Soon I could not see them but I could hear the shouting loud and clear. Obviously, they were unaware of us, else they would have sprayed the area with submachine gun fire.
It crushed me to see these poor, tired people being led away into captivity and uncertain destiny, yet I was not surprised. After a few minutes of somber quiet I got up and approached the three friends who knelt close together holding counsel.
"Do you think our guide has lead them intentionally into this trap?" I asked.
"We don't know and can't worry about that anymore," the tall one replied. "We have enough worries of our own, like picking the right direction to the border. Then we also have to avoid stepping on a mine. Speak up if you have any idea how to proceed from here."
"I heard on the train that Fertod would be two stops or perhaps 40 km to the west," I volunteered. I knew that Fertod was famous as the site of the Eszterhazy palace and estate, where the great composer Josef Haydn worked for 30 years. It was close to Lake Ferto, which was on the Austrian border. "So, taking a northwest direction would make sense for us, but which way is northwest?"
It was difficult to guess the direction at night since we could not locate the North Star. We had to rely on the last bearing in the vicinity of Csorna and the angles of turns taken over the last few hours.
"If we're on the right track, we should run into the small river or creek our guide referred to," I added, not very convincingly.
We marched on for about two hours, through the soft earth of cultivated fields, which gave way to pastures of grass and rushes. The simple mechanics of walking became a challenge because each step required concentration to lift my feet and place them carefully to avoid twisting an ankle. Hunger, thirst and the increasing pain in my legs also kept me occupied, not to mention the ice crackling under my boots and the cold water squishing between my toes. As had been my habit in college, I tried to overcome the anguish of the circumstances by lifting up my mind and soul into the realm of sublime arts, mainly music. Over the years I had become adept at that.
In my thoughts I went through the entire Beethoven violin concerto, measure by measure, in the performance of Yehudi Menuhin, who had made his triumphant appearance in Budapest two years before. The silvery sound of his Stradivarius, modulated by his sensuous vibrato, unfolded like a necklace of shiny pearls. I forgot all my discomfort, including my cold wet feet, which were soaked from crossing small creeks, or perhaps, the same one multiple times. My mental gramophone continued to bathe my soul with the best opera arias featuring my favorite tenors of the past and present. I compared Caruso with Gigli, and Bjorling with the Hungarian tenor Simandy.
It was during the latter's performance of Lohengrin's farewell to his swan when I suddenly stepped into a patch of cattails that signaled an area of deeper water. I stumbled, fell forward and ended up lying on my belly halfway in a thick sludge of water, mud and algae¾a rude awakening from the stupor of my fantasy. It hit me like an electric shock and paralyzed me temporarily. Within seconds I felt my legs, loins, trunk and chest iced down as the cold water seeped over my upper body. One of the boys pulled me up. I scrambled to higher ground wondering how I will be able to deal with the cold from now on. I realized that I will have no chance of getting dry again. We arrived at a wider creek¾about 15 feet wide¾and the dangers of wading into the cold water had to be considered carefully.
We proceeded along the creek looking for the best place to cross when I detected someone on the other side. I asked optimistically, "Hey! Are you on the Austrian side?"
"Hell, no. Not even close. But you have to cross this water anyway even if you get wet."
The four of us waded into the creek at its widest point, where the water reached just above my knees. We surrounded the man, another young fellow who was all wet and shivering from the cold. We asked about his day and night.
"I was with a group of people and all seemed to be going well for awhile. Our guide left us early. He said it was less than three kilometers from the border canal and pointed out the direction. We came to the canal, and five of us went across the water, having to swim in the middle of the canal. But the men meeting us on the other side were not a welcoming committee of Austrians but Hungarian border guards. We were led to a nearby house and locked into a room. I managed to escape through the window, but that's a long story. I came back through the canal once again. I gotta move fast to keep myself warm. I need to find a house of friendly people to dry my clothes and warm up. I wish I could find the guide and beat him up!"
"Do you know which way is north?" I asked him.
He pointed. "Supposed to be that way, but beware of many AVO patrols in the area," he said, then left in a hurry.
The boys decided that we should press forward more towards the wetlands to the west because the AVO would presumably stay on dry ground. This seemed arguable to me, since I felt uncomfortably cold in wet cloths, and I followed them only reluctantly as the terrain shortly began to look worse. Soon we were surrounded by swamp in every direction, standing in water often knee-deep, looking at a high growth of reeds and cattails covered by hoarfrost. I had no idea that such an expanse of swamp existed in my homeland, and under normal circumstances, in summertime, I would have found it very attractive. Even now it had an undeniable beauty, as it lay blameless in its wintry splendor, everything white as if powdered with sugar, glistening in the moonlight. But I knew this was a domain of death that I could not stand for long. The temperature was in the mid 20s and the wind was brutally chilling. A person could get lost here, die of hypothermia and sink into the hypo-oxygenic depth of the peat, perhaps to be found in a thousand years perfectly preserved.
I shared these prospects with my new travel buddies, who agreed to continue only a little longer. Then we heard plaintive sounds close by, and it made sense to investigate them. Undaunted by the cold, the boys sloshed through the sludge and soon disappeared in the mist. I stood there like a frozen snowman struggling with hypothermia, knowing that I could not endure this much longer. I began swinging my arms wildly in a circular motion to convert some of my sparse fat reserves into body heat. Fortunately, it did not take long. Out of the mist emerged my new friends followed by several ghost-like figures covered with hoarfrost, crying and wailing in anguish.
"What happened?" I asked.
It was the leader of the threesome, called Sandor by the others, who answered for them. "They've been tramping in this swamp since noon yesterday, probably going around in circles. They want to go back to the first farmhouse they can find. We have to get them out of these waters quickly to keep them alive."
One of the women said, "My feet feel frozen, and my shoes are gone. I also lost my bag. I can't take anymore. I just want to go home."
Their spirits were slightly lifted once we reached the dry land of rushes and grass. So were mine. They suggested I go with them, but I declined after a brief hesitation. I rather placed my bet for survival on the company of the tough fellows. There we parted. They went southeast, away from the Austrian border, while we moved northeast. They had learned a lesson of survival the hard way; we benefited from their experience.
The moon was down and gone by now, and I could not see the time on my watch, but it was probably close to 6 a.m. There was no point in pressing on with our futile search for the border at this time, since darkness would end soon. All of us were worn down both in body and spirit. We had to find a place to rest and hide out during the daylight. We scouted our surroundings going northwest until we reached open pastureland. Fortunately, we saw a number of haystacks, a God-sent haven for the weary and cold refugees. The first one we approached was already occupied by a small group of men and women, but we were able to claim another for our own.
I took off my boots and all my clothing and squeezed out the excess water. My entire body was trembling from hypothermia as I dressed again. I dug a hole and burrowed myself into the hay. Soon I felt wonderfully warm, well sheltered like a silkworm in its cocoon. The outer world had no idea about the whereabouts of Joseph Nagyvary, fifth year chemistry major; neither friends nor foes knew where I was. Of course, God knew it, and I took great comfort in this thought that He keeps track of every piece of hay which surrounds me for my safety and comfort, and it was safe to fall asleep.
It was not a deep sleep, and I awoke to a conversation on the other side of the haystack. For a few seconds I wondered where I was, what was I doing here deep in the hay, and who was speaking. Then a sense of reality returned. I was on the run, a refugee, on my own with no real friends, even though I had formed a loose alliance last night. My Swiss Doxa watch was no longer working. Perhaps the water did it in.
I surfaced from my burrow, stretched my muscles and, with a hello to the others, announced that I was up. These were the early minutes of dawn with a slight haze and visibility of no more than half a mile. East could now be well discerned. As I stood up straight, as far as I could see, heads kept popping up from piles of hay and reeds one after the other like prairie dogs or animal sentinels of the Serengeti looking out for predators. The distant rattle of automatic weapons reminded us that our sense of safety was tenuous and illusory. I had the first good look at my travel companions, and introduced myself just by my first name, adding that I was a fifth year chemistry student at the Eotvos University of Budapest.
"We were also in our fifth year as machine operators from the metal works of Csepel," said the one whose voice was most familiar from the previous night. "My name is Sandor. This handsome fellow is Mishka, and we call the tall guy Morcos."
"You seem to be tight friends like the French Three Musketeers." I ventured, as a compliment with a purpose. "They joined forces with a fourth swordsman named D'Artagnan. Since I had to come by myself, I would appreciate having a partnership with you while we look for the border."
"We won't charge you a membership fee. You can hang with us since you already showed yourself capable of keeping up. Just don't fall asleep when walking at night. You may fall again into the water."
I decided not to take offense and suggested I might be able to contribute somehow. "I could go back to the nearest farm and try to get some food. We should eat something before the day is over," I said tentatively, hoping for approval.
"We spent our money on food last night. It would be good to have something to drink, like a liter of fresh milk. But the limited supply would go to the highest bidder, and we have no money left. Do you?"
Now I really felt like an idiot. I had given away my money with nothing to show for it. So buying food and drinks was out. Water would be free but not worth the effort and risk of showing myself in broad daylight.
"I gave my money to the guide last night rather unwisely. However, I can go without food and drink for a day easily. In 1945 we starved for two and three days at a time." That was true, but we always had water to drink.
Mishka started unpacking his backpack. "Well, we'd better eat up our reserves while we can. Hell, imagine how upset we'd be if we got shot with the best bites left uneaten." This was an honest attempt at humor, befitting the circumstances. We sat down and slowly consumed what we had. I ate my other boiled egg, but had to throw out the bread that was mushy from the dirty water in my pocket. Their superior menu consisted of bread with homemade kielbasa sausage and onions. They also had apples. Obviously, these guys possessed much more common sense and practical knowledge than I did. Instead of playing music in their heads, they must have plotted detailed plans for survival. They offered me a piece of sausage, which I declined. I accepted an apple from Mishka after he insisted that he never liked apples. I needed the water in the fruit more than anything. We got thirsty after the dry food, and they wanted to go back to the river for water.
"I advise against drinking from the river. It's contaminated with bacteria. There may even be dead animals in it, and you could get really sick," I said.
"We drank from the Danube many times with no problem," Morcos retorted, and soon he and Mishka left, leaving me with Sandor.
Covered up with hay once again, I welcomed a one-on-one conversation with Sandor who was apparently the leader and the smartest of the three. It turned out he was two years older than me, and all three had served two years in the military. His face was aquiline with long curved nose bordered by two deep lines. His bright eyes commanded attention and suggested intelligence beyond what I associated with factory workers. He had a slender, sinewy build with a slightly bent back, and an air of superiority that struck me as almost aristocratic. I did not want to be overly inquisitive, but I had to ask what they have been doing lately.
"We were active in the defense of Csepel, and after its fall we continued harassing the Russians in Pest. The military experience with guns and grenades was useful in ways we never expected. We knew the Russian equipment and military hardware, personnel carriers and tanks. We knew of their weaknesses. It made us feel great to fight the invaders. We acquitted ourselves well and fought effectively as long as the ammunition lasted."
"The burn on your hand," I point to his left. "was it done by a Molotov cocktail?"
"Good guess. I spilled some burning fluid from a gasoline bomb. We never called it a Molotov cocktail. That was the invention of foreign journalists. Hell, I have no idea what a cocktail is. We also called them firebombs."
"I have a little burn of the same origin." I pulled up the sleeve of my shirt and showed him the scabs on my left arm.
"You mean you actually threw some firebombs? I thought university students stayed within their own campuses and used their guns only for parading around in safe territory. Did you in fact fire a gun?"
"I did both, but you're right about students," I admitted. "We're better at talking, writing up our demands in a dozen points, than at fighting and getting killed. Personally, I wanted to do more than spouting slogans and exhortations. I wanted to be a part of a battle, but I wasn't good at it."
"Where and when did you see any real action?" Sandor was curious.
"It was around the 25th of October. One young fellow was shot in the stomach in front of the dormitory on Rackoczi Street as Russian tanks and armored personnel carriers kept going up and down the street. With my friend we brought him in but he died a few hours later in the hospital."
"You went out in front of the Soviet guns and brought him in?"
"Yes, it's the only thing I am proud of. We are not quite the cowards we may seem to be".
"Did the doctors try to do anything for him?"
"There was no surgical staff at the university clinic. He got a painkiller and died of septic shock within a few hours." My voice was still choked from reliving those hours. "He was only 16 according to his ID, a vocational student from Csepel. In any case, I was overtaken by a burning wave of anger. I picked up my submachine gun and went out to Puskin Street. At the corner to Rakoczi Street I came upon a group of fighters, tough and worn looking guys, who were well armed. One of them had a rocket propelled grenade launcher. I recognized their commander who was directing fire at an armed personnel carrier (APC) that was coming down on Rakoczi Street in the direction of Museum Street."
"Can you tell something about the commander of the unit?" Sandor asked. "I wonder if I met him."
"I knew him from his visits to the dormitory. He was a medium built skinny guy in his mid 30's, known only as "Laci". I doubt that was his real name. Fluent in Russian. He fought the Nazis in 1944 and was a communist, but he was in prison until recently. He was also active in the fights around Corvin Place."
"I think I also met this guy at Corvin Place. He was most valuable in logistics with food and ammo." This was the only comment of Sandor that revealed any of his hunting grounds.
""Back to Rakoczi Street - all four tires of the APC were blown to shreds by small arms fire, and it veered right into the wall. Our guerillas were waiting for the Russians to come out and surrender or fight back but they didn't. As dusk began to set in, Laci told me to go up to a third floor window above the APC, which had no cover at all, and flush them out with gunfire."
Miska and Morcos arrived back from their river reconnaissance. Sandor said: "Joska here has a good story going. Listen."
"As ordered, I went up to the third floor where I had a clear view into the APC. I saw eight soldiers laying low. I pressed my submachine gun on the windowsill and trained the sight on them. Their lives were on my fingertip, but I couldn't bring myself to pull the trigger and kill them. I saw innocent young men of my age frozen by fear, who all had mothers waiting for them at home. In my frustration, I fired a few short burst of rounds over their heads into the wall. I left them wondering why they were spared and watched later how they were towed away to safety by two Russian tanks under the cover of darkness. I wasn't cut out to be a guerilla fighter. I assume you were more successful."
"You weren't angry enough," suggested Sandor. "You have to hate your enemies. You can't think too much. We reacted in self-defense and got more and more pissed off at these motherf***ers. We were out for revenge. We used our opportunities, and there was no shortage of targets. We took out a few tanks with gasoline bombs. These two guys were deadly accurate." He referred to Mishka and Morcos.
I was eager to engage them in our discussion so I turned to them and said, "By now everyone in Hungary has heard of the men of Csepel. You may go down in history with the defenders of the fortress of Eger. One thing, however, begs for explanation. You guys, the workers of Csepel, were supposed to be the pet project and the pillar of the communist government. Why did you turn against it?"
"Rakosi, Gero, and all his f***ing Moscovite bunch thought that we were too simple-minded to understand what they were doing. Hey, most of the writers you admire so much didn't think much of us either." Morcos definitely revealed a class-consciousness, as he went on.
"You don't have to be college educated to realize that the entire leadership of the Communist Party are criminals and sadists. They torture and kill innocent people. They even cannibalize each other like they did to Laszlo Rajk." All Hungarians knew that this hero of the Spanish civil war had been executed even though he was innocent of all charges.
"We are also patriots and want the Russians out of our country," chimed in Mishka and added with resignation, "This time we failed. We're the ones having to leave and they're staying."
"I expect our exile to be temporary, and we can return to a free Hungary within a year, if the Americans and the United Nations finally begin to do something," I surmised without much conviction.
"First, we have to get out alive. You'd better take a rest now, while I check out the neighborhood." Sandor was clearly our leader.
Extremely tired I crept back under the hay. Our conversation provided me with some new challenging thoughts, which would have to be assimilated. Revolutions were often fomented by intellectuals, and in Hungary, writers and poets were usually the main instigators. However, ordinary people always paid the price. Of course, there were exceptions, like our most famous poet Sandor Petofi who gave his life in the war of 1849, also against the Russians. Most of my fellow college students agreed readily with the professors who told us, "Don't risk your lives. You and your knowledge and talents are too precious for the nation to lose." In order to win freedom, however, it is not enough to stand up and demand it eloquently. Not even the willingness to die for one's country is enough. One must be willing to kill for it. Of course, by the authority of Jesus we know: "The meek shall inherit the earth." But will they still possess a national identity? I faded away before I could finish my prayer.
I woke up well rested in the mid afternoon, but I decided against leaving my warm nest where I felt safely ensconced. At least my underwear had dried from body heat, but my coats were still damp. Soon dusk fell, and I could not see much beyond a quarter mile circle. Sandor was sleeping now, the last person to take his turn. I decided it was time for a walk and to say hello to the others in the nearby haystacks. Among the first group I encountered were families with children, and some of the women were in poor condition, tired, hungry and thirsty. Sitting on a pile of hay was a mother with a four-week-old baby. She pleaded, "Please, help us get across!"
Only the most hardened men would have remained unmoved at the plight of a helpless mother and her baby. This sight conjured up the esthetic beauty of Raphael's Madonna del Granduca and something primeval, the instinct of a caveman to provide for the weak ones of his tribe. I could not help being deeply moved. Obviously, she and her family had to get to Austria tonight. I suggested to the men in the group to join us at our place for some strategic planning before we all get going.
I went back to my home base and counted the minutes. I kept my mind busy by reciting Hungarian, German, and even Russian poetry. I came upon one that best fit our situation, The Song of the Kuruc Warrior Fleeing from His Homeland by Endre Ady. The Kuruc was the freedom fighter of the Rakoczi uprising in 1705. I repeated the poem again and again until Mishka asked me what I was mumbling to myself. I recited the poem to them, and they liked it. The end is the strongest in the poetic beauty of the words, and I kept repeating it:
Hatar-szelen botot vagok,
Verem tobbe sose issza
Veszett nepem veszett foldje:
Sohse nezek tobbet vissza.
In plain English:
My last act on the border will be
Cutting a good wanderer's staff.
I'll shed no more blood on this soil,
And I'll never turn to look back.
These were tough words–even if the poet did not really mean what he said–and certainly suitable to dispel any feelings of sentimentality on our part. The boys learned it in minutes.
I also tried to make small talk with Mishka and Morcos, but our interests and thinking were too different. I asked them what other reason they had for leaving Hungary apart from being rounded up and executed if they didn't.
"I want to earn decent wages," said Mishka.
Morcos also had similar views. "I want to earn the money of a unionized auto worker in America. What's your other reasons for leaving?"
"My reasons were not material ones. I concluded that satisfying my sense of human dignity should take precedence over my national identity as a Hungarian. Recently I made some tough and irrevocable decisions along the following lines: I won't take insults to my human dignity again. I will never again deny being a Christian just to curry favor with atheists. And definitely, I will never, ever kiss up to anyone for the rest of my life." They felt I should be more flexible.
Around 10 o'clock we held our council with the representatives of our immediate network, perhaps a dozen men. We agreed on the direction to be taken, first north then northwest, which was also the direction of the gunfire and explosions from the previous night. We estimated the distance to be less than six miles, or three hours of walking. We would move out in a long linear formation spearheaded by our group of four and followed by other unattached males, all the time in visual contact. The plan was to keep the women and children at a safe distance from possible small arms fire until we scouted out the border and declared it safe. Then someone would go and lead up the families.
We began our move around 11 p.m. It was windy and the cloud cover was dissipating to our discomfort. With a full moon and many stars out, visibility sometimes reached 200 yards, so we proceeded very cautiously and slowly. The terrain was almost entirely grassland, with some boggy areas. I walked at the front with Sandor 50 feet to my left. After covering no more than four miles in about two hours, a line of high reed growth loomed close by.
I went over to Sandor to consult. This could be the waterway crossed by the wet stranger we encountered last night. If so, the other side would still be Hungary. Cautiously, I sneaked forward and found what we expected. Beyond a low dam was a canal or river about 20 yards wide, flanked by a thick stretch of reeds on both sides. Looking over to the other side, I noticed a person standing, then moving back and forth. I called over to him rather timidly, but he heard me and turned towards me.
"Do you know how far is the Austrian border?" I asked. I received only garbled words as an answer. Then it occurred to me that he might be Austrian and, of course, would not understand Hungarian.
So, I quickly repeated in German, "Sind wir an der Landesgrenze?" (Are we at the border?)
And, he answered emphatically, "Ja, wo ich stehe ist schon Oesterreich." (Yes, this is Austria.)
"Austria!" I cried out. It was like being hit by an electrical shock. I was thrilled yet a little incredulous. Based on the story of the wet stranger, this canal was supposed to be within Hungary, and we expected another one beyond it.
What if he were a communist agent? I had to get more information, and I called over in German, "Who are you, and why are you here?"
"I'm a university student from Vienna. Together with a few colleagues we work here as volunteers to help you fellows any way we can. A quarter of a mile further back is our receiving station with a fire burning and plenty of blankets."
His accent was genuine inimitable Viennese. Sandor came up to me asking what had been said. I told him what I learned, and he left promptly to pass the news down the chain to the others. I looked at the canal with a feeling of impending victory. Between me and full freedom, there was only a short stretch of cold water. I was overcome by a giddy feeling that I had made it. I had the urge to take off my overcoat and boots and dive into the canal. I could swim over in no time. Then I remembered the obligation to the others following us.
"Can people wade over there or do we have to swim across?" I asked.
"You must be a good swimmer and have to take off your heavy clothing and boots or you may drown. Also beware, the very cold water temperature will shock you."
Swimming over could have worked for a few of us, but not the majority. How did all the previous thousands of refugees get over there? I asked the Austrian about the purported bridge. He confirmed what our guide told us was true.
"There used to be a wooden bridge further down there, but it was blown up by the Hungarian border guards or the Russians yesterday. So you're facing a new situation and have to improvise. You should build a raft from whatever wood you can find, perhaps using beams from the vacant guard tower. Someone is already working on this a few hundred yards to your left."
By now we were joined by a good number of men from our campsite. We agreed to move out in both directions and explore the possibilities of building rafts. Our foursome went to the left, towards the west. Soon we could see the two levels of the watchtower, and heard the thump of a beam hitting the ground. There was a fellow twelve feet up furiously pushing on a metal rod wedged in between two beams and prying them apart.
"I could use some help with this! I'm working up a sweat." He was of small stature, possibly even a teenager. He had only a sweater on. "This will be a raft for families, mainly women and children—to avoid any misunderstanding. Together we can get it ready in no time. You'll find another ice pick down there, courtesy of the Austrians." As I got closer I recognized him from last night as the kid with the stench of a freedom-fighter. He introduced himself as Gyuri.
We attacked the tower structure with great enthusiasm. The teamwork paid off, and the beams fell one by one. Two Austrians were watching us from across the canal. I called over and asked them for a rope. They threw over one piece, wound around a hammer. They promised more within an hour, and some rubber rafts for tomorrow. But we were not interested in anything beyond the present.
Soon, we had ten beams, each about 12 feet long and 8 by 8 inches. Our man in charge, Gyuri, ordered us to carry them down to the water one by one. As we went down the dam through the wide band of reeds, Mishka, my front man, stumbled and sank halfway into the water. There was no way around it; the job required getting in the frigid water. We had to clear a path and space for the ten beams. We tied them together well on one end but ran out of rope, so the other end was loose. Our mood was positive, and we were even joking that we might have to use our belts to fix the raft, and arrive in Austria with our pants down. Gyuri, still up on the tower, urged us to go back and get belts, scarves, or anything suitable. We were loud, momentarily unmindful of our situation, and totally unprepared for what was to come.
Disaster struck swiftly and unexpectedly. A sudden explosion of gunfire erupted from the west, not more than 200 yards away, as I judged from the loudness of the submachine guns. There were at least three of them spouting fire at us.
I threw myself instantly into the soft mud of the reedy riverbank, but then I realized I would not be able to make it through the canal in full view of the gunners. With as much speed as I could muster, I began crawling away from the canal, crossing the clear path on top of the dam and then down into the thick rushes of the adjacent marshland. There was a group of small birch trees nearby, and I was heading towards them. The submachine guns rattled on, and bullets were whistling around, but I kept moving with my elbows and knees, staying low. When I had gotten almost 100 yards away, I lay motionless with my face breaking the thin ice layer on top of the mud and waited. I expected a bullet to hit me at any moment, and I hoped it would not be a lethal shot to my head. I prayed for my survival, constantly repeating: "Lord Jesus, save me. I will never again hide being a Christian."
Lying there as deep as I could possibly sink into the mud was the lowest point of my life. This is a bad dream, this cannot be me, I thought. I wiped the mud from my eyes, but all I could see was the glistening top of ice-coated rushes. I thought of my parents, wondering whether they sensed by mental telepathy the trouble I was in. It was only five days ago that I had visited them in Kaposvar, our small provincial city. I had told them I might have to escape from Hungary but I was not sure then. Our farewell was not the usual one; it was heavy with mutual apprehension and gloom. If my mother could see me now lying in the muck and mire of this swamp, she would be distressed for many reasons. One of them would be that I was all wet and exposed to the cold wind. How often she had told me not to wear wet clothes because my tender constitution would not endure it, and I would contract pneumonia, as one of her uncles had. Perhaps my father was up and praying for me. He had a proven record of prayers answered.
Meanwhile, the gunfire had stopped and started again intermittently but the shooters were moving east. After 15 minutes there was only silence. At that point I realized that lying there wet and motionless in 25 degree weather would send me into dangerous hypothermia, and I may lose my capability to act and move. I arose and began running away from the canal to find anyone from our group. Soon I was stopped by a male voice, "Hey, what happened?"
I told this stranger in the dark what I knew; that the border canal was only a quarter of a mile away, and we were building a raft when we were surprised by a patrol of Russians or AVO. I continued that it was anyone's guess when they would return, and that he and the others should wait a little while before moving up with the utmost care. They might have to build a raft, or they might have to swim across. After all, I didn't know if our raft was still intact after the violent barrage.
Having passed along this information, I turned back, first walking briskly, and then crawling on hands and knees as I neared the border. My wet overcoat must have weighed ten pounds, and I was thinking that pneumonia would be probable in the near future as I lay again in the mud near the low dam that bordered the canal. I lurked quietly, listening for any suspicious sounds above the sibilant background noise of reeds fluttering in the icy northerly wind. Then I began to discern a soft, deep moan and a heart wrenching long wail of someone in pain.
I crawled across the dam and called out in a low voice, "Who's there? What happened?"
"I'm shot," a man answered, his weak voice warbling from fluid in his throat. "I'm finished. Hardly any time left. Don't - let - me - sink - in - this - water." The words came out slowly and with great effort.
There, in the midst of the high reeds, I saw a man sitting in the canal with only his head above water. He must have been shot there or tried to hide there after having been shot.
I waded into the ice-cold water, grabbed him carefully under his arms and pulled him out. I laid him down, and then I recognized him in his sweater. It was Gyuri, our chief architect; his body was as cold as the canal water. Just 30 minutes ago he had been full of life, instructing and directing us from the top of the guard tower. He could not get away fast enough, or else he was simply the victim of random shooting by the guards. I had only one experience with gunshot wounds, but this had the markings of the hopeless final minutes of life.
I knelt down to him and kept calling his name, Gyuri, Gyuri, so that he will at least understand he will not die anonymously.
The only audible sound now was a gurgling from his throat. I held his hand and stroked his face. I could do no better than tell him, "Soon you'll have peace, Gyuri," as I choked up and cried. Then I prayed for him quietly, but loud enough so he can hear it and perhaps find some comfort in it.
It could have been me lying here dying, I thought.
In a little while, a voice behind me said, "I believe he's dead. Poor Gyuri. What a loss!"
It was Sandor, who was also moved by the tragedy of this stranger he had only met an hour ago. But he had seen violent death many times before, and he was pragmatic.
"There is nothing we can do for him now. He wanted us to use this raft and show others how to make them. We have to test Gyuri's raft in a hurry, and now you see why. Then we have to get more rope from the Austrians. Are you able to move and help me?"
It took a little while for me to compose myself and focus on the urgency of our situation, but finally, I was able to respond and set out to do what had to be done. I moved robotically and felt detached from reality under the mental and physical trauma.
I shed my heavy, wet and muddy overcoat and boots. By now, I was violently shivering from hypothermia as Sandor and I pushed and pulled the partially completed raft into the water. The ten beams were tied only at one end, and the other end moved like the foot pedals of an organ.
We lay down side by side and began furiously paddling with our hands, since that was our only option. The hasty, makeshift raft was heavy and unbalanced, leaving me half submerged sometimes. The icy water took my breath away, but fear and determination kept me thrashing the water with as much force and speed as I could muster. We progressed awkwardly, first veering left, then right almost 90 degrees. It took about a minute to cross the 20 yards of the canal and every second I expected gunfire. These were seconds of total vulnerability, out in the open, and that cursed moon seemed brighter than the sun. The raft held together, and the front end hit solid ground. I jumped off into the shallow water, tugging the raft further up. Then a powerful hand grabbed my free left arm and pulled me up.
"Willkommen in Osterreich, mein Freund! We saw what happened on the other side. We feel terrible that we couldn't do anything," he said and put a blanket around me. "You're half frozen and dizzy. From here let me guide you in."
Sandor was out on solid ground too, but he was in much better shape and hardly wet. He could not speak German, and he said I should ask for more rope. The Austrians already had it in hand. They also produced a wooden paddle and a long pole. Sandor took them all and waded back into the water to the raft. I cried desperately to him.
"Sandor! Come out! Stay here where we're safe. I can't go with you! Let other people do that."
He looked back and waved. "You go, Joska, my student friend, and don't worry. I have to go back for some unfinished business. I promise, we'll all be here within the hour."
I was not there an hour later and never saw him or the others again. My last view of the canal was from the top of the bank, and it will be etched in my memory forever. The scenery of our trials was still illuminated by a full moon. A fantastic vision it was: partly dark and gloomy, and partly silvery like a Francesco Goya painting. In the middle was the makeshift raft propelled by a man who gave new meaning to the concept of loyalty and heroism.
I was in a state of shock and total physical exhaustion as I was helped away by two students who supported me. I felt numb and was shaking violently from the cold, but I was also exhilarated that I had made it. I was free. Behind a patch of trees not too far away was a campfire. I got hot chocolate to drink. There was also a pile of warm athletic clothing, shirts and pants. Volunteers helped me and other new arrivals get into the dry clothes.
Within half an hour, a tractor pulling a hay trailer came and took us to Andau, a village about five miles north. We were taken to one of the inns, which was almost full of people lying and sleeping on the floor. I got myself a blanket and found a spot in the corner. Then I passed out so fast it was as if I had been injected with a powerful anesthesia.
At the same time, I had the intoxicating feeling that I was finally free and safe. In a fever-induced delirium, I visualized a Biblical Hebron of 4000 years ago and Joseph in a deep well tied to a board. He was being pulled out by three strangers who tied a rope to him. Joseph looked like me, and one of the strangers who saved him was Sandor.
The night of November 22, 1956 went down in history as the bloodiest night of the entire exodus period, with at least 20 Hungarians shot dead at the Austrian-Hungarian border.
My parents learned the news of my survival six months later, although they never received my letter. My father, chief of city engineering, was fired for his failure to report my planned defection. Ironically, within six months he was hired by the Russians to do engineering work on the construction of a military airport. He never passed a church, even in the company of the communist bosses, without making the sign of the cross. My brother, who was high on the ladder of the local Communist Party, was excluded from the party and demoted to the lowest rank of factory worker. In his heart, he is still a good communist, the last of a nearly extinct breed.
My classmate, Ferenc Szili, the messenger who saved my life, was retained and endured the fury of the AVO. He survived only because he was a star soccer player. He wrote his story of AVO interrogation in a book that was published in Hungarian. My close friend, Bandi Andrasi, who did not fire a single shot during the uprising, but risked his life in the crossfire bringing in the wounded, got into trouble for giving his personal ID to an escaped political prisoner who was captured and confessed. Bandi was "interrogated" repeatedly. He never told anyone the details. They were too awful to remember. Laszlo Puskas and his bride Lenke passed the interrogations relatively smoothly. Their story that they had eyes only for each other was convincing. They now have five children and countless grandchildren. Drs. Andrasi, Puskas and Zanati became leading scientists in Hungary.
I have never seen the three amigos again, and I could not hope to find them without knowing their real full names. Guardian angels come in unexpected shapes and then just disappear. I only hope they all made it across safely. Every year on November 23, I seclude myself for a little while and remember them. I also think of Gyuri, whose raft saved me and others. With unending guilt in my heart, I keep wondering who buried him and where, and whether or not his poor mother was notified of his tragic end.
To everyone's surprise, communism and the entire Soviet Union collapsed in 1990. The Red Army finally withdrew from their Hungarian bases that same year, and Hungary was the first country to lift its Iron Curtain, three months before the Berlin Wall came down. Our sacrifices of 1956 were not entirely in vain. Hungary is now a member of NATO and the European Union. However, the country still struggles with many issues as it recovers from 40 years of oppression.
In 2006, I made my first pilgrimage to the area of the former Iron Curtain, which I had only seen once in the dark on that fateful night. I walked the path on the dam, looking for a cross or some sign of a grave, but I saw none. I wondered if there were human remains buried in the canal or in the marshland. Probably, there are. The Russian army had the humane habit of burying the enemy dead close to where they were found. This is an excellent location for eternal rest, and some memorial artwork would be fitting, but the financially strapped Hungarian government has had other urgent concerns to deal with. As it is now, the entire area shows little resemblance to the one of my memories. There is a dense forest along the canal, which was not there 50 years ago. There is a memorial tower on the Austrian side of the bridge to Andau, nonchalantly guarded by two teenage border guards, with their submachine guns sitting on a table next to a two-liter bottle of Coke. The memorial has a page written by James Michener and the front page of the Wiener Kurrier of November 23, 1956, the day of my escape.
Among the people I remember with immense gratitude are the students from the universities of Vienna. Many of them sacrificed an entire semester of study to provide essential services to the refugees. Standing on the border and watching the Russian patrols spray the canal banks with bullets was very dangerous. The exodus of over 200,000 refugees was a tremendous drain on the resources of the Austrian state, especially for the immediate neighbors in Burgenland. They opened up their homes and hearts to strangers, giving of themselves generously and freely, never expecting or receiving anything in return. I would like to shake their hands and thank them all individually, but Andau is now full of a new generation. People hardly know anymore where the famous bridge is located.
During my site visit, with a good map at hand, I was able to solve a 50-year-old puzzle. There was and is only one border canal running west to east, but at one point the border takes a 90-degree turn north. Those who crossed the canal east of this point remained in Hungarian territory, and some of these unfortunate people were captured. We crossed the canal approximately three miles to the west and stepped on Austrian soil only by Divine Providence.
Personally, I have fared well. Initially, I went to Switzerland, where I received my doctorate in natural products chemistry. After more study in Cambridge, England, I embarked on an academic career and became a professor of biochemistry in the United States. From the very beginning the USA was the most welcoming country to the Hungarian refugees. Two famous Americans greeted them right there at the Austrian border in 1956: Vice-president Richard Nixon and James Michener, who personally witnessed and documented many of the events described here. In this country I found unlimited freedom, especially freedom of religion, which was so important for me. It was not a coincidence that I accepted a position and spent most of my career at Texas A&M University, a fine state institution known for its conservative traditions and unmatched loyalty, the virtue I value most. I have a loving wife, four children and grandchildren for whom freedom is a natural entitlement, and the American dream can be a reality.
My own dream was very modest, as I swore only to "never, ever kiss up to anyone for the rest of my life". By those standards my life has been an enormous success. I enjoyed academic freedom to study whatever I wanted, and my research topics ranged from cancer to the origin of life, and most enduringly, the mysteries of the Stradivarius violin. The latter earned me much notoriety. I often wish Sandor knew of my contributions and hope that he and all the others who helped me complete this journey would feel that their efforts were worthwhile.
Below: Joseph Nagyvary at the new footbridge of Andau viewing the border canal in June 2006 near where he escaped. In the background a partially decayed guard tower is visible. The large trees were not there in 1956.