Éva B. Kisvarsányi
Recollections from 1956
Background. My name is Éva B. Kisvarsányi. In 1956 I was a 20-year-old university student in Budapest. I live in Sarasota, Florida and I am the Executive Director of the Hungarian American Cultural Association, Inc., the Kossuth Club of Sarasota.
I was born and raised in Budapest in a family of intellectuals in pre-World War II Hungary. My grandfather was the chief engineer of the Capitol City's Water Works, a job that carried a cabinet-level position (Miniszteri Tanácsos) in pre-1945 Hungary. My father was a meteorologist and served in the fledgling Hungarian Air Force as a weather observer/officer. He served a tour of duty on the Russian front and by the end of the war he rose to the rank of captain.
After the Communist takeover in 1949 my father was interred to the provinces and my family lost everything. I was valedictorian of my High School graduating class in 1954 and had the second highest APT score among 200 applicants to the university but was denied admission on account of being a class alien. With nothing to lose and being 18 I appealed the decision. After a lengthy process, and thanks to the courageous help and recommendations by the faculty and staff of the university, I was finally admitted as a freshman in Geology to the Eötvös Loránd University in December 1954.
October 23, 1956. My account of this glorious day is described in Hungarian (see the second attached document, Oral history-56-02). I will reflect on only a few points here as prompted in the Interview Guide.
Unforgettable people. It has to be Imre Nagy who I met shortly before the revolution on Kossuth Lajos Street. It was on a sunny but somewhat cool autumn day and he was wearing a light overcoat but no hat. My classmates and I were going to have lunch in the City and we were walking on the sidewalk when he suddenly appeared in the crowd walking toward us. We immediately recognized him and stared, unbelieving. I'll never forget his face. He appeared calm and wise. It looked like he was just having a quiet stroll in the autumn sunlight. We did not talk and there was really not much to this meeting but in retrospect I always felt that it was significant that I should have been so close to him. I know he was a Communist but I believe that when the chips were down he stood with his people and his martyrdom washed away his sins.
How the Revolution affected my life. Profoundly. Really, that is all I can say. If it had not been for November 4 and the Soviet invasion, I would never have left my country. I marched with the students in the front row under the banner of Eötvös Loránd Tudományegyetem and decades later recognized myself on a French documentary about the revolution, which aired on NBC television. My husband gave a rousing revolutionary speech to the plenary session of the University. After the revolution was crushed we were afraid of the retribution and having given up hope of getting help from the West, we left Hungary on December 1.
The Story of our Escape. By the time we tried to leave in December, the borders were under close surveillance. We crossed the border to Austria at Pamhagen under the cover of night, partly on the back of a truck, partly on foot. At one point we passed by a stationary Soviet military column (about a dozen troop carriers full of armed men) headed by an empty jeep. I was certain they were going to kill us but nothing happened. Our truck sped by them and we escaped. In retrospect we figured that the empty jeep was the key: the commanding officer was not in his place and there was nobody to give the order to shoot!
I have to mention another incident right at the border. We were to cross into Austria at a place where the border is a narrow canal, maybe 10-15 feet wide. Refugees before us laid a tree across the canal to make it easier to cross. Our local guide told us that Russian troops stay a few kilometers inside from the border lest Western news agencies and photographers should spot Soviet troops on the border of neutral Austria creating an international incident. We arrived at the canal at the first dim light of dawn. As I was about to cross over the tree/bridge, two figures emerged from the mist. They were two young Hungarian conscripts with guns. In quiet, almost gentle tones, they kept repeating the phrase over and over again: It is not permitted to cross here. They did not draw their guns, however, and did not seem especially threatening. I remember their faces, too. Nice looking, young Hungarian boys. After a few seconds of hesitation, I started across the tree/bridge and was soon across the border. The rest of our group, about 8-10 people, followed me. The two soldiers still stood on the other side and never fired a shot.
In America. I don't want to get into detail about my career in the United States, let me just say briefly that I have completed the university education I fought so hard for and had a successful and very satisfying professional life as a geologist and administrator with the State of Missouri. When my daughter left to go to college, she asked me to tell her my story, so I did. I tape-recorded the entire history of the year 1956 for her, beginning with the January earthquake (a real one!) up to our escape from Hungary. She asked for it in Hungarian and I was happy to have granted her wish. She is bilingual, you see, and visited Hungary many times with us after the 1963 amnesties made it easier to see our families.
Conclusion. Since I have retired in Florida I have been very active in the local Hungarian community. I started the Kossuth Club's monthly newsletter, Hirmondo/The Messenger (see our homepage on http://epa.oszk.hu/sarasota) and in 10 years we raised nearly $200,000.00 to benefit Hungarian children and youth in the Carpathian Basin. Our membership increased from about 45 to 180.
The Spirit of 1956. In a word: freedom. We revolted against foreign occupation, tyranny, injustice, intellectual duress, and physical torture. I firmly believe that the 1956 Hungarian revolution will enter the history books as the purest, cleanest and by far the most idealistic revolution ever recorded by mankind.
Éva B. Kisvarsányi
Éva B. Kisvarsányi emigrated to the United States in 1956. She is now the Executive Director of the Hungarian American Cultural Association, Inc., the Kossuth Club of Sarasota, Florida. Among her accomplishments, Kisvarsányi started the Kossuth Club's monthly newsletter, Hírmondo/The Messenger, and in 10 years raised nearly $200,000.00 to benefit Hungarian children and youth in the Carpathian Basin.