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2007-06-25 01:34:56 (UTC)

Hungary's loss, Canada's gain

Hungary's loss, Canada's gain

Jun 24, 2007 04:30 AM
Tamsyn Burgmann
Toronto Star

No one has forgotten the day they fled.

Most Hungarian fugitives went in the middle of the night,
through vast frozen fields laced with landmines and barbed
wire. To stifle crying, the women drugged their babies
with sleeping pills or alcohol. A hot shot of espresso was
the reviving antidote, but sometimes the children didn't
wake up.

When the Soviets shot up flares, it didn't matter that
their dictator was freshly dead – the "Stalin candles"
flooded the earth with a terrifying light that allowed the
soldiers to see, and shoot, moving bodies.

Dezso Kadar, 23, trudged several kilometres through thick
mud, his 21-year-old bride of only one day trailing in his
footprints three metres behind. If his fate was to meet a
landmine, he figured she'd be spared and could still
return home.

But when it was she who tripped, shrieking, over barbed
wire snaking across the ground halfway to the Austrian
border, they changed strategy. "We held hands and went
side by side the rest of the way," Kadar says, 50 years
later. "If we blew up, we'd go together."

More than 200,000 Hungarians fled their homes in the Iron
Curtain country in 1956 and 1957, after a two-week
uprising that began in Budapest on Oct. 23 with university
students rallying for basic human rights – and, mainly, to
get the Soviets out. Hundreds of Hungarians were executed,
2,500 died fighting, and 20,000 were injured.

Nearly 40,000 Hungarians found asylum here, becoming the
first major – and largest – intake of refugees in Canada's

No one has forgotten the day they arrived, either.

Susanna Marlowe, 84, came with her young family to frigid
Halifax in early January 1957 and immediately travelled to
Quebec City. The government, having knowledge of Hungarian
tradition (which is to keep the tree up for a while), kept
the streets filled with Christmas trees as a sign of

"Everything in the street was white, so white and
sparkling so beautiful – I will never forget," she told
the Star.

Such memories continue to be captured for posterity by a
small but ambitious group of Torontonians. Armed with a
digital video or audio recorder, as well as a tissue box,
they have spent the past two years capturing true stories
of the Hungarian exodus – a 50th-anniversary memorial
before these seniors are no longer around to share their

Anna Szakaly, 38, co-ordinated 13 local volunteers and six
others who interviewed at least 100 Hungarian-Canadians
across the country, in both English and Hungarian. Along
with memories of persecution and escape, the team
collected first impressions of Canada and descriptions of
how people created new lives. The recordings add a raw,
personal dimension to an event in the nation's past.

The interviews, running on average for 1 1/2 hours each,
were shaped into a travelling exhibit currently touring at
least 10 Canadian cities (it has already touched down in
Toronto), a documentary called Young Rebels, produced with
OMNI Television, to be aired in the fall, and an enormous
collection including digital video and audio, memorabilia,
written recollections and photos to be housed for public
access in the archives of the Multicultural History
Society on Queen's Park Cres. E.

Participants would dispassionately rhyme off what they
were doing when the revolt began and then retrace how they
crossed the border, Szakaly says. "But when I asked, `What
was your first Christmas here like?' it was major

"That's when it first hits home you're not at home."

The 1956 Memorial Project started when several offspring
of the Hungarian refugees teamed up with the Rákóczi
Foundation, an Eastern European benevolent society, and
the Multicultural History Society of Ontario, a not-for-
profit educational institution, to illuminate history you
can't even learn about in Hungary.

"We all know what the world leaders did; we can all go to
the history books," says Szakaly, who conducted more than
a dozen interviews herself. "But it's these little
details ... that bring it to life, make it understandable,
humanize it."

Seeing no future for his family in Hungary, her own
father, Laszlo, fled after learning his employers kept
secret files on him noting that he was a landowner – which
could mean firing or imprisonment.

"Person after person was incredible," says Monika Berenyi,
30, who conducted scores of interviews and brought the
project to Saint-Petersburg State University in Russia
last fall for a conference meant to promote better
relations between Russia and its former satellites. "We
collected very delicate subject matter – many people
wouldn't talk about their stories until after the Berlin
Wall came down."

There are the retired Stelco steelworkers, men with rough
hands who speak like poets. There's also Toronto artist
Istvan Kantor, who says that, as a six-year-old, he used a
fake gun made out of wood to halt a Soviet tank, forcing
it with sheer confidence to retreat.

And there's retired veterinary science professor Laszlo De
Roth who, as a tenacious 15-year-old, stealthily moved
from apartment to apartment. The 65-year-old Cobourg
resident recalls how, flanked by machine-gun toting teens,
he'd bang a gong in the courtyard, and then collect empty
wine bottles for Molotov cocktails.

They raided his family's paint store for more supplies. "I
said, `We can go and "arrest" my grandmother and get her
key for gasoline,' so that's what we did."

The influx of Hungarians, from only 30 by Nov. 19, 1956,
to nearly 40,000 by March 1957, paved the way for future
refugees from other places. But it didn't happen without a
fight. Aware of the Hungarians' plight, Canadians
demonstrated with a mass motorcade in Ottawa and a wreath-
laying ceremony at Toronto City Hall, and by writing
letters to major newspapers.

Though slow at first, the government finally waived
medical exams and picked up the tab for transportation out
of Europe.

Though speaking a foreign language, the refugees, many of
them educated or skilled, quickly established themselves
here and took up jobs as professors, engineers,
librarians, doctors, scientists and skilled labourers.
Some opened theatres and coffee shops with patios; one
group founded the Faculty of Forestry at the University of
British Columbia. A government study three years later
found of all the families, only six were on welfare, says
Susan Papp-Aykler, president of the Rákóczi Foundation and
the manager of the 1956 memorial project.

Stories of adventure, terror, hardship and freedom are
enticing, but perhaps more inspiring are people's
reflections on why they'd now fight tooth and nail for

"Canada is a haven for refugees and political losers,"
says Istvan Hegedus, "and thank goodness, because us
losers arrived in such a wonderful country." Hegedus, 64,
a teacher with the Toronto District School Board, came
here when he was 14, after his fleeing family was caught
by soldiers twice and eventually crawled through a sewage
pipe to escape.

"There is justice, sometimes."

As for De Roth, he notes that he participated in the
project for one reason: to thank Canadians from his heart.

A pastor told Szakaly how, years into his new life in
Canada, he sat down with other clergy to pray over a meal.
Looking around the table, he realized a Russian man sat
beside him.

"Where else could you sit down at a table with someone in
a previous life you'd consider an enemy and see him like a

How to participate: The 1956 Memorial Project continues to
accept written submissions, photos and mementoes, and to
conduct interviews. Call 416-979-2973 or go to