City guide
Interviews: 3 refugees and returnees of Hungary’s 1956 Revolution
Photo : Norbert Hartyányi/We Love Budapest
Interviews: 3 refugees and returnees of Hungary’s 1956 Revolution

Soon after Hungary’s valiant revolution was trounced by the oppressing Soviet forces in 1956, over 200,000 Magyars left their homeland – either by choice in hope of finding a better future, or to escape ferocious retribution by the Kremlin-backed authorities. After embarking on arduous journeys to find freedom, most of these refugees resettled permanently in their new countries, while a few of them could later return to Hungary. We present the stories of three refugees who decided to reunite with their roots by moving back to Budapest decades after leaving the country, told in their own words.

Tibor Gőzsy Andrea Nádasdy Nikolits István Pálffy
While enjoying pleasant childhoods with cheerful memories before the Soviet occupation of Hungary at the conclusion of World War II, our interviewees never thought that they would someday be forced to leave their families and dreams behind to instead flee their homeland in the hours of darkness. Tibor Gőzsy, Andrea Nádasdy Nikolits, and István Pálffy were among thousands of desperate Magyars who had to separate from their roots amid harsh conditions and escape to a new world to make a fresh start and rebuild their life. Although all three of them found freedom, love, and success in their new countries, Hungary always remained close to their heart, even during all those years when musing about their native land evoked deep-rooted anxiety – but one way or another, they all managed to return here, and now live in Budapest.

Tibor Gőzsy

Born in 1940 to a family of landowners, Tibor Gőzsy remembers his youngest years at the family’s countryside manor as being in paradise. After Hungary’s Soviet takeover, his vast estate was nationalized along with all of his parents’ possessions in 1949, and Tibor found himself banned from education, instead being forced to engage in physically demanding jobs. While fleeing Hungary after the defeated revolution, Tibor was bid farewell by the Soviets with a bullet in his thigh. He was admitted to high school in Austria and graduated in Germany. Tibor came back to live in Hungary in 2000.
Photo: Norbert Hartyányi/We Love Budapest
•   Life in Hungary before the revolution

“I come from a family of landowners. We had an extensive estate in the village of Pusztahencse, an entire manor with a staff of about 80 people. It was a true paradise. In 1944, when the Russian troops came into Hungary, we went to Austria aboard horse-drawn carts, only to return when World War II ended. Over time, the majority of our estate was nationalized. March 28th, 1949 was a turning point in our life. My family was deprived of all our possessions, and we had to vacate our estate within 24 hours, leaving almost everything behind. We found shelter at a decrepit farmhouse in Szekszárd. I finished my studies in 1954 at a local elementary school, but because I was of noble origin, I was considered a class enemy, meaning that no high school would grant me education. I started working as a swineherd at a farm six kilometers from Szekszárd… a party secretary got me fired in 1955. For a while I worked at a school construction site in Szekszárd… I was only 15 at that time. After I was dismissed, I descended into a mine in Komló, and I served beneath the ground until the outbreak of the revolution.”

Photo: Norbert Hartyányi/We Love Budapest
•   Experience during the revolution, and the decision to leave

“On October 23rd, 1956, we emerged from the mine. As soon as we learned what had happened, we raided the nearby army camp and seized weapons from the site. We loaded the arms on trucks and took them with us to Budapest. I joined the revolution at Móricz Zsigmond Square… I saw several young fellows of my age, who sacrificed their lives by carrying multiple grenades and throwing themselves under Soviet tanks. It was terrifying. When I returned to Komló I joined the militia in Szekszárd. During these days, I experienced a never-before-seen solidarity and unity among Hungarians. I got into hazardous situations on several occasions. At one time, while transporting guns, we were halted by the Russians – but luckily an armored car with the Hungarian national flag arrived, before our consignment of weapons was discovered by the Soviets. We could have been shot dead by the Russians at that moment. I didn’t want to be thrown into jail, or be executed as some of my fellow workers were from the mine… it was time for me to flee Hungary.” 

Photo: Norbert Hartyányi/We Love Budapest
•   Life as a Hungarian refugee

“On November 26th, I was smuggled to Kapuvár aboard a delivery truck to meet a person who would navigate refugees to the border. I drafted a farewell letter to my father by candlelight… he never received this note. The next day after sunset we left for the Austrian border. All of my luggage was a simple bread bag containing a piece of bacon, cigarettes, and a bottle of rum. After walking 20 kilometers we reached a channel, where we were supposed to cross a wooden viaduct, but we only found the burnt-down remnants of the bridge. We had no other choice other than jumping into the cold water and swimming to the other side. We made it, but at this point the Soviets spotted us, and even though we were already on Austrian soil, they opened fire… Suddenly I felt a bullet hitting my thigh, but I continued running. Once we were out of sight from the Soviets, I removed my boot. It was filled with blood. I was taken to a village in a temporary shelter. I refused to go to a hospital, so a paramedic who served there stitched my wound. Not having a single drop of anesthetic on site, my bottle of rum came in handy to ease the pain during the operation.”

Photo: Norbert Hartyányi/We Love Budapest
•   Settling into a new country

“I spent three weeks in an Austrian camp at the German border… soon I gained admission to a high school by the Norwegian Red Cross. This establishment was up in the mountains near Innsbruck. We had classes in various languages, including Hungarian, German, and English. When the institution closed down in 1958, I shifted to a Benedictine high school in Bavaria in Germany. I truly enjoyed life there. I even had my own herd of pigs… thus I was able to provide the school with meat. Over these years, I exchanged several letters with my family back in Hungary. Since in my absence I was convicted and sentenced to imprisonment, a return to my country was impossible. I was grateful to Germany and the German nation for providing education and a place for me to stay, but I still considered Hungary my home. I graduated from high school in 1961 and I went to universities in Munich and in Cologne… then I found jobs in the chemical industry. I married my first wife in 1964, and after I divorced I tied the knot again in 1974… later I divorced again.” 

Photo: Norbert Hartyányi/We Love Budapest
•    The return to Hungary

“When I was granted amnesty in 1969, I applied for a visa at the Hungarian consulate in Munich… soon I embarked on a journey to Hungary with my first wife and my daughter by my side. When we reached the Hungarian border, we were welcomed by heavily armed officials. The difference between my homeland and Germany was enormous, and this experience was quite distressing… as if I had landed on another planet. In the years that followed I traveled back and forth quite frequently. In 1993 I was compensated by the state with 150 acres of our family estate… so all I wanted from this point on was to develop this freshly reclaimed property. My goal was to build a paradise in Pusztahencse that would become my own hunting ground. After I was laid off from my job in Germany in 1996, I became a regular at my property here in Hungary. Eventually, after spending four decades on foreign soil, I relocated back to my home country in 2000. This estate was my home until 2006, when I sold the entire space and I moved to Szekszárd.”

Photo: Norbert Hartyányi/We Love Budapest
•   Life back in Budapest

“I made several new friends, especially during those years in Szekszárd… while rebuilding my life here in Hungary went relatively smoothly. Nevertheless, there are certain things that oftentimes annoy me, like the cigarette stubs on the streets and some people’s arrogance. I like passing time by playing cards, and this is how I met my third wife, Klára, who is also a great fan of card games. I married her in 2011, and now we live here in Budapest together. I was moving around extensively all my life, but now I truly want to settle down where I am. After all, I’ve come full circle.”

Andrea Nádasdy Nikolits

Growing up in Budapest and Pécs as the second child in an upper-middle-class family, Andrea Nádasdy Nikolits, born in 1933, faced rapid challenges in her adult life: after an improvised marriage and the birth of a baby girl, Andrea encountered destitution in Hungary during an era when fear was very much part of daily life. This valiant woman decided to leave Hungary to follow her brother’s footsteps in hopes of finding freedom in the Western world through Austria, France, Switzerland, and the USA. Andrea relocated back to Hungary in 1996. She tells the story of her life in an English-language book (Between a Rock and a Hardplace) published in 1999, with the book’s recently edited Hungarian version (Homokláp és csengőfrász) to be released soon. 
Photo: Norbert Hartyányi/We Love Budapest
•   Life in Hungary before the revolution

Our life was atrocious… and almost always at risk, but I believe that the Lord protected my family. In 1951, we were forced to leave our home in Budapest’s Rószadomb district to avoid deportation. My mother and my father headed to Szolnok to live with my grandparents… my brother and I stayed in Budapest. Temporarily I lived with friends. I had a job in a silk studio until 1952… then I was hired by the Budapest Precision Engineering Company, where on false accusations I was nearly arrested. During my interrogation, the party secretary ordered me to remove my Virgin Mary pendant, but I refused to do so. I was shaking like a leaf, but I was released at the end. My brother was in the army, so I was all by myself. I got married to an old friend of mine. The wedding ceremony was pretty ridiculous, we didn’t have money for a proper wedding dress, or to hire a musician, and not even for candles. My husband was a traveling magician… so after I got pregnant I moved to my in-laws’ place in the countryside. Later, to finance ourselves, I joined a band as a singer, while a couple looked after my child. When I quit the band, I started singing at a late-night bar in the Castle District.”

Photo: Norbert Hartyányi/We Love Budapest
•   Experience during the revolution, and the decision to leave

“On my way to work on October 23rd 1956, I was waiting for the bus, but it didn’t turn up… so I had to catch a cab. As the taxi approached Blaha Lujza Square, a chaotic scene unfolded before my eyes, with a truck blocking the road and people running around. ‘What the hell is going on here?’, I asked the driver. ‘Haven’t you heard the news?’, he said, ‘There’s a demonstration.’ That night, none of us worked a single bit at the bar… those dropping by delivered the freshest news about the events outside. I couldn’t get home, there were military tanks all around and I heard gunshots across town. My husband was out of town, and I had no idea of his whereabouts. I stayed with a friend of mine. Three days later my brother arrived… we walked home together, risking our lives. By that time my husband was back, and he picked up our child. When the revolution was trounced by the Soviets on November 4th, and my brother fled the country, I knew I had to get out of here to provide a better future for my daughter… but my husband refused to come. On November 27th, I left Budapest with a neighbor of mine, Júlia by my side. I didn’t want to expose my small child to an unknown journey, so I had to leave her behind for a while.”

Photo: Norbert Hartyányi/We Love Budapest
•   Life as a Hungarian refugee

“I packed a dress, a carton of cigarettes, and a bottle of alcohol in a small-sized bag before we left for the train station. The alcohol was to serve as a bribe in case we were detained, or as a payoff to somebody who would help us cross the border. Keleti Station was crammed with masses of heavily loaded passengers bidding tearful farewells to their loved ones. We were heading to the home of Júlia’s relatives near the Austrian border… as soon as the train reached Mosonmagyaróvár, many people were immediately detained by ÁVO officials {Soviet-controlled State Defense Forces}, but Júlia and I managed to hide. Júlia’s relatives connected us with some drunkard who would lead a group of refugees to the border. At night, the guide took us to a creek, and he left us with instructions to follow the waterway. After a demanding walk in the darkness, we suddenly saw a house in a valley… it’s hard to describe what I felt when I found out that we were on Austrian land. I was taken to a refugee camp in Ried near the German border, where I encountered one of my cousins… with his help I found my relatives in Vienna. I learned that my brother had left for America. Due to quota restrictions I was not able to join him.”

Photo: Norbert Hartyányi/We Love Budapest
•   Settling into a new country

“While staying in Vienna, my aunt visited us from France, and she invited me to live in their family mansion 60 kilometers from Paris. While organizing my immigration papers I ended up being stuck at varied refugee camps in France. She never came to pick me up… I worked in factories and I managed to save up for the journey to go live with my aunt. She made me work around their house day and night… it was going on for a few years like this. Meanwhile, I exchanged several letters with my parents, and from one of my father’s messages I learned that now I was divorced. Later, I landed a housekeeping job with a wealthy Armenian businessman. After three months of serving there, I traveled to Switzerland, where I had lots of contacts. I tried to enroll in a university in Geneva, but with no luck… instead I became a babysitter with an American couple. I really loved their child, Billy. By summer, I had to leave Switzerland… then I went back to France. After five years I finally got my American permit, so I left for New York in 1961. I learned to become a textile designer, and slowly built up a career by getting promoted over the years. When I got my American citizenship after another five years, I could bring my daughter to the USA. She was 12 years old at that time. It was quite intimidating to see her after such a long time…” 

Photo: Norbert Hartyányi/We Love Budapest
•    The return to Hungary

I never forgot my roots. It was in Hungary where I went to school; this is the country, where I first fell in love… and I do love Budapest! I first returned to my homeland in 1968. I remember I felt extremely excited when I spotted the Danube from the plane. When I left in 1956, I thought I would never be able to see this country again. My enthusiasm quickly subsided when I saw the armed officers at the customs checkpoint, poverty-stricken masses on the streets, and my family’s unfortunate life… however, I was roaming around Budapest in a nostalgic state of mind. After this visit, I used every opportunity to return to Hungary whenever I was on a business trip in Europe. Meanwhile, I got married again and I moved with my husband to Canada in 1981. I spent the next 14 years there. After the fall of communism in 1989, my husband, Ferenc Nádasdy, and I decided to set up a foundation to turn the Nádasdy Mansion into a cultural center. I moved back to Budapest in 1996; he followed me a few years later. By this time, my mother was no longer with us, and my father was 91… I had just a few friends around.” 

Photo: Norbert Hartyányi/We Love Budapest
•   Life back in Budapest

“People often ask whether I regret my return to Hungary… but this is my home, I feel very well here. I worked hard in America and in Canada, and life was far from being awful there, but I never forgot that I’m a Hungarian. I never became American. What I learned is that the grass is not greener on the other side. I visited the U.S. a few times after I settled down in Hungary, but I stopped traveling back. My family is scattered across the States, and I can’t take such a long and demanding journey anymore. Many of my friends whom I met in America regularly visit Hungary, plus some of them now own flats here. One of my good friends lives right next door, and we support each other as much as we can. And I’m eager to watch all of Woody Allen’s movies… he is my favorite film director. If I was able to travel back in time, I might leave the country again, only to return with a lot of experience… but that’s a different world out there.” 

István Pálffy

Born into a Catholic noble family in 1933, István Pálffy reminisces about a happy and highly intellectual youth, but his aristocratic origins prevented him from pursuing higher education in Hungary when the Soviet-backed government tried to eliminate the bourgeois class. István later faced imprisonment and forced labor in a mine, before the retaliations following the 1956 Revolution necessitated an inevitable change in his life. He decided to leave devastation behind to pursue further education in the Anglo-Saxon world. István returned to live in Hungary in 2000.
Photo: Norbert Hartyányi/We Love Budapest
•   Life in Hungary before the revolution

“I was born into an aristocratic family… My parents were divorced when I was two or three, and I lived with my mother in the Castle District until 1946… When I finished primary school, I was admitted to a Catholic high school, but I was ordered to leave the institution when it was nationalized. I was labeled a class enemy, just because of my family name. I was a private student for a year, but no organization would let me take my exams. Finally in 1950, I was enrolled in a secondary school, but deportations started the following year, forcing us to get out of Budapest. My mother managed to obtain a medical certificate… so she ended up at a health resort in Hévíz, while I went to Kazincbarcika to work with the transport infrastructure for a chemical plant. That same year my mother was arrested… In 1953, I was enlisted in the army, where I became a regimental clerk, and a corporal with the Air Force. In 1955 I was arrested by the ÁVO, and I was thrown into prison in Budapest. I was deported to various labor camps… I was doing coal mining in Várpalota, followed by construction works in Herend and in Pécs.” 

Photo: Norbert Hartyányi/We Love Budapest
•   Experience during the revolution, and the decision to leave

“I remember October 23rd being an ordinary day at the camp, but the next morning we were gathered and transported to the county prison. I think we heard the demonstrations and even gunfire from the jail, but we had no idea about what was going on outside. We spent ten days in uncertainty… On November 1st a committee turned up to inspect prisoners and our files. That took a while… it felt like the longest night of my life. Then they started releasing us from the jail. We received some food and cash to cover the price of a one-way train ticket to Budapest. Since train service was suspended, I went to a café downtown to find out what was happening. Inside the cafeteria, I encountered a group of young men from the worker’s revolutionary council… they stamped my release letter. The next morning, I was on a truck from Pécs to Budapest. I got off at Kálvin Square… it was completely destroyed. I found my mother, popped a sleeping pill, and succumbed to slumber. When I awoke the next day, the streets were conquered by Soviet tanks… I knew if I was to stay in the country I would be detained… so my mother and I decided to run away before the Iron Curtain rolled down again.”

Photo: Norbert Hartyányi/We Love Budapest
•   Life as a Hungarian refugee

“We got on a train at Keleti Railway Station to Hegyeshalom. My entire luggage was a gas-mask bag packed with a set of pajamas, a toothbrush, some toiletries, and a bottle of vodka. There’s no Soviet soldier who wouldn’t take vodka. As the train was approaching the border, the conductor walked through the cars to notify passengers of an upcoming Soviet inspection. Almost everyone got off the train right then and there. Now, I can’t recall how we ended up in a farmer’s attic… but I remember we sneaked out of the village through fields during the night with a guide. At one point, our smuggler left us… so I started navigating by the Pole Star. When we reached a paved road, a car showed up with bright lights. We were terrified, but soon we learned that we had made it to Austria, and the car belonged to some Belgians who were driving up and down the road to help refugees. They took us to Vienna, since we had relatives there. Here we were in a free country, where laundry detergent and the abundance of bananas were a real novelty for us. I spent ten days in Austria… then I flew out to England with the help of the British Council in Vienna.”

Photo: Norbert Hartyányi/We Love Budapest
•   Settling into a new country

“It was December 10th, 1956 when I first arrived in England… on January 14th the following year, I could start my university studies at Trinity Hall in Cambridge. Fortunately, I had good English skills… in Hungary I used to have several British children’s books that certainly gave me a solid base for interacting with the locals. I moved into a set of rooms with a Welsh student… we became friends for a lifetime. Most of my fellow Hungarians attended an intensive English-language course prior to their studies in a separate group… hence I was never really part of the Magyar community in England. The mandatory in-house dinner was a perfect platform for me to develop a vast network of local contacts. After my graduation, I moved to London to become a market researcher at an advertising agency, but I soon had enough of that… who cares which laundry detergent is the best one? In 1963, I shifted to the then-developing world of IT… later I became a freelance Systems Consultant. Meanwhile, I married an English lady, and we had two children. During all these years, I had no connection with my homeland.”

Photo: Norbert Hartyányi/We Love Budapest
•    The return to Hungary

“Even though I had a fairly good life in England, I never forgot that Hungary is where my home is… In the late 1980s, I sent a letter to the Minister of Interior Affairs, asking if I could travel freely in and out of Hungary. They said I could come to Hungary on a visa. As I got no response to my second question, I sent a letter again, saying that my aim is to travel IN and OUT of the country… they responded that I could certainly leave Hungary. I drove back to Budapest in the summer of 1989. ‘Here I am again… it’s quite unbelievable,’ I told myself, when I crossed the border. I booked an apartment, then I went out to see the city. My first very positive experience was when the waitress at a downtown bar immediately noticed that I’m a Hungarian. After spending a few weeks in Budapest and driving around the countryside, I returned to England. In 1990, I visited the country again with my wife… she had been battling with multiple sclerosis. I decided to move back to Hungary after she died. Following 40 years living in England, I resettled here in January 2000.”

Photo: Norbert Hartyányi/We Love Budapest
•   Life back in Budapest

“I adapted to life here in Hungary fairly fast, and soon I established lots of new contacts. I managed to track down one of my childhood buddies, who was not able to flee the country, and thus lived through the revolution and the turbulent times that ensued. He had a devastating life. As we took different paths during the past decades, we were not really able to connect, and after awhile we lost touch. We really tried to fix our friendship, but I think at the end we both just gave up on it. For a long time after I returned to Hungary, I frequently visited England… I still owned a small house there, but I sold the property last year. Now I enjoy life in Budapest. I used to go to the opera in the UK, and I do the same here. Wine is considerably cheaper in Hungary, which is good, and I really like Hungarian cuisine. As traffic is quite heavy in the city, I don’t go downtown by car, but I enjoy that I can use public transport free of charge at my age. Eventually, I became at home in this country.”