The Orphans of ’56

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Béla Nóvé in Eurozine:

In late 1956 and early 1957, after the second Soviet invasion, some 200,000 refugees fled Hungary. These included an estimated 20,000 teenagers who left without parents or adult escort. These minors, as members of a “wartime generation” born mostly in the period 1939-1944, experienced many kinds of misery, loss and violence during early childhood. Among them were children adopted or brought up in state orphanages, a great number of industrial apprentices and peasant children from the poorest families as well as Budapest grammar school pupils with an intellectual, and – before 1945 – a middle or upper class family background. In the autumn of 1956, many of them took an enthusiastic part in the revolutionary demonstrations and the street fights against the Soviet tanks and the communist state security forces. Once they had escaped to the West, fate led them down many different paths.

The lucky ones were soon able to leave the refugee camps of Austria and Yugoslavia for one of the 36 host countries worldwide, and were received by host families or hostels for young people, learned languages, finished their secondary studies, graduated and made a decent professional career, returning to visit Hungary many years later as well-to-do and respected western citizens. Other escapees drifted for many years, wandering from one country to another often without papers, living on aid and casual work or joining the US army and the French Foreign Legion as mercenaries, only to be taken to fight in the bloodiest period of the Algerian and the Vietnam wars. However, the most defenceless, as it turned out later, were those who, after a few months or years, returned to Hungary driven back by homesickness and a naive trust in the treacherous amnesty promises. Many were put in prison or suffered harassment during the years of massive reprisals. According to the surviving files, the reorganized communist secret police after 1956 preferred to recruit its new spies from among these youngsters.

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