FLORENCE GILKESON: '56 Recalled: Hungarian Uprising Caught Fire 50 Years Ago
Hungary remembered the 50th anniversary of its anti-communist uprising last week.
Maybe it was ironic or maybe just appropriate that the observance coincided with political rioting in Budapest. The Associated Press reported injury of 167 people and nearly $1 million in property damage when anger spilled over between followers of the prime minister and the nation's main opposition party.
We were in the midst of the Cold War in the late 1950s when my husband and I met our first Hungarians.
They came into our lives a few years after the uprising. Most people who fled their homeland settled briefly in West Germany or other sympathetic European countries before reaching the United States.
Andreas Bartha came to Laurinburg under sponsorship of the First United Methodist Church. His employment experience in Laurinburg was not all that fruitful. A machinist by training, Andreas worked at first in a machine shop, but his poor communication skill in English made it difficult to deal with the specifications of individual customers. He worked for a while at an automobile dealership, but his trade was that of machinist, not auto mechanic.
It must have been frustrating, but Andreas finally moved to Raleigh, and later to California, where he opened his own shop and prospered. He achieved the American dream.
One skill he definitely had was the ability to make friends and keep them. His sunny and generous disposition was a gift that we continue to enjoy.
The story was quite different for the other two Hungarians, a physician and his wife, whose attitude was considerably more elitist than that of Andreas. I do not remember their names. They lived in Laurinburg no more than a year or two before leaving for a more lucrative practice in another community.
I remember joining them as dinner guests with another Laurinburg couple. I was appalled to hear them make unflattering remarks about everybody from Nat King Cole, who was dying of lung cancer at the time, to the late President Roosevelt. They turned up their noses at Nat King Cole's music and sneeringly called Roosevelt a Jew. I remember vaguely that they also called Eisenhower a Jew.
It struck me at the time that the people of Laurinburg had invited a nest of vipers into their midst. Despite good intentions, the Christian folks in a small North Carolina community learned that they were befriending bigots. At the time we thought we were helping people to escape an oppressive regime that focused on squelching individuality.
Gee whiz, we can find bigots here at home. We surely don't need to import them.
The saving grace was Andreas. Within a few years he had married a beautiful young woman met during his stay in Germany before migrating to the States. From California he sent messages about his marriage, and later came the message about the arrival of their daughter. To say the least, he kept in touch. There were telephone calls on holidays, and Christmas cards and post cards from vacations.
Andreas and Christa were among the first to call when my husband died.
It takes all kinds of people to make up any country, whether it be Hungary or the United States.
Maybe the Hungarians of 2006 don't think all that fondly about the uprisings of 1956. For one thing, they were not successful. The communist regime just clamped down worse than before.
The United States and its capitalist allies did little more than tap our feet when the Hungarians struggled to free themselves from communism. It took almost 40 years for the people of Eastern Europe to break those bonds.
Last week's rioting, apparently rooted in economic issues, took on a wry note when someone commandeered a Soviet-era tank on exhibit for the 50-year commemoration and rushed a police blockade.
To the average American in the 1950s, Hungary was just a country on the map of Europe. If we had heard of a Hungarian, most probably it was Professor Higgins' comical reference in the musical "My Fair Lady."
How much closer they appear today.
Florence Gilkeson can be reached at 947-4962 or by e-mail at florence@ thepilot.com.
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