Author's Notes Table of Contents Chapter 1

Hungary index page


1996 began very similar to 1956, forty years earlier for me, although it could not have been any more different.

1956 started off as most of the previous years and without much premonitions of what was to come. By the end of the year, it turned out to be a major watershed for many people all over the world, but especially in Hungary, including me.

Soon after the New Year everything started to change, slowly at first, hardly noticeable, without much indication of the major, dramatic events that would come and significant changes that would happen to me.

As I returned to my hostel and school in Ózd, after our end-of-year break, the hard fact of less than six months left until my graduation hit me with it's tremendous significance. I had to brace myself for the University Entrance examination and decide what I wanted to study after that, if I was allowed to study further.

As fate would have it, I was born in Hungary just before the Second World War hit my country, into a well-educated family. In a few years time the war was ravaging Hungary.

My father had an Agricultural Management Degree (or something similar) and before the Second World War, I suppose my family was doing better than average. Although I cannot remember my father serving in the army during W.W.II, he did serve during the W.W.I in a Hussar regiment as a captain. (I understand that some people can actively serve in the Reserves, (Ready if 'called-up') without leaving home. I can't however confirm that, so do not quote me on this.) Before the war, my father managed some very large estates. Because of this and his army rank, he was categorised as a 'class enemy' of the regime and hassled, condemned until my whole family became destitute.

Many people in similar circumstances joined the Communist Party smartly after the Communists came to power as self-preservation and usually they were the ones that banged their chest and screamed the Communist slogans the hardest. My father never joined any parties and in reality, he was staunch anti-Communist. They called him a 'Reactionary'. The communist regime did get the better of him and us in the long run, they made my family and me a destitute and outcast, a persecuted class enemy.

We were forced to move from place to place every few months. I was too young to know how it really worked but I was a victim of it too. As we had to move around, my brother and I had to change schools at least once a year.

From 1949 until about 1951, we lived in Balassagyarmat, three different places.

The mayor of the city was our family friend. In early 1950, if I remember right, my father told us that the mayor got sacked and had to move out of his office and house. First my family helped him and his family to move to a small local flat. Then a few months later they had to leave town altogether. We helped them to move again. We already had the know-how and experience.

I do not the exact workings or philosophy behind it, but I think, they would not let a 'Reactionary' such as my father settle down for any length of time anywhere and make friends, as they might 'plot against the regime'. (Absolute and absurd paranoia, I would call it.) His employment opportunities were curtailed to strictly manual work too, such as driving horse drawn dories at construction sites. (My father did like horses, he did have deep empathy with animals.)

To draw a better picture, I had better start at the beginning, about some details about our persecution.

After the war, we were living in Baross Street in Budapest. It was a beautiful five-roomed modern apartment. Soon we had to share our own apartment with a large family, who taken the major share of the apartment, while four of us ended up in one room and sharing all the amenities with the other family.

Our first deportation (Kilakoltatás) was to Beregdaroc, near the Russian border. It was probably a blessing in disguise for us, as it was cheaper and easier to get food and better food as well. After the war there was rationing and long queues for food in Budapest and very limited variety. During this time my family lived on what family treasure my father could hawk off to the pawnbrokers. Family treasures that took a lifetime to collect disappeared for ever. Ever hoping that life for us would improve and he can buy back his treasured articles. He waited until his death, it never happened in his life time.

A few months later we were back to our apartment in Baross Street, still sharing, still struggling.

Before we left Beregdaroc my father bought a large pig and the big pig moved with us to Budapest. We had to collect scraps in our large apartment block every day and go by trams to the outskirts of Budapest where the pig was housed, to feed it. I can't remember what happened to the pig in the end; I presume somebody ate it.

The next place I remember was Ludas. A small village about half way between Budapest and Miskolc, on the main trunk railway line. I spent two half school years there and amongst a lot of other things I remember I had to walk about 5 kilometres to the next village and back every day to fetch some milk for our family.

After Ludas, we had to move to Szügy in Northern Hungary near Balassagyarmat, by the Ipoly River on the Slovak border.

There were times when we lived in one place, but my father was forced to work somewhere else. The communist bureaucracy accepted my father's out of town employment as another move, so the family did not have to move. Here I started school in a small Catholic Church. The Father was our teacher too. Six or eight classes altogether. Oh boy!

Our next address was Balassagyarmat. I have mentioned this place before. I liked our house, opposite the Court and the District Administration Building and my school was nearby too. After about six months, again we had to share our house with another family. Soon our time was up and had to move altogether, twice in fact, during our period in Balassagyarmat. The final few months of my last year of elementary school (first to eighth year) I had to spend living with a teacher's family while my family moved to Recsk, near the famous Concentration Camp and later to Hollókõ, now a World Heritage village. A 'Paloc' village, with architecture reflecting the village's long standing 'paloc' heritage.

The first year of my high school education I still spent in Balassagyarmat, but while I lived in the student hostel, my family had to move to Patvarc, about 5 kilometres east of Balassagyarmat. I had to walk the five kilometres to Patvarc and back many times during weekends and school holidays. Public transport as we know it today did not exist in those days, I couldn't afford it anyway, even if there were any.

From Patvarc, we had to move to Endrefalva, but by the time I had to start my second year at high school, my parents had to move again to a small place near Salgótarján. I was left at Endrefalva from where I had to bus to school to Salgótarján every morning (Well, except Sundays. Our school week included Saturdays in those days in Hungary). I say 'those days in Hungary', because I do not know the present day circumstances and arrangements or practices. I was about 16 years old and I was left pretty much to my own resources.

I have had good and regular lunches during school days at the Student Hostel in Salgótarján during school days. The main meal used to be lunch in those days in Hungary. Apart from that, I had to fend for myself fairly much by myself. The old lady next door used to knock on my door in the mornings, to make sure I do not miss the bus to school. I had some quick growing up and maturing to do.

The third year of my high school studies I spent in Budapest at one of the better schools in Buda, while I lived with one of my half sisters and her husband, a brain surgeon. I do not really remember how many times my parents had to move and where to during this time. The distances where too great and communication was nothing like it is today. I settled down in my circumstances and got on with my studies. The high school was the former Szent Imre (Saint Emery) Catholic College, on Villányi út. Of course in my days, the teaching brothers were gone and the college was 'nationalised' and part of the state run high schools. I remember those days with much affection. I enjoyed the school, friends, classmates, teachers and the atmosphere of the old, traditional school.

My final year at high school I spent at Ózd and lived at the Student Hostel, nowadays the Civic Centre and Mayor's Office. I have already written about this period and will come back to it again at some time. My family lived at Szécsény, about halfway between Balassagyarmat and Salgótarján in Northern Hungary, and Királd just a short distance from Ózd during this period.

Many times during these years I felt sorry for myself and insecure. I often reached the conclusion that I was born at the wrong place at the wrong time. During the Communist regime following the war I had to spend my school years ostracised as 'rightist' and 'reactionary' in schools and kids, even though they weren't quite sure why, treated me as an enemy.

During my final year at High School I often wondered whether I would be allowed to study at any university. It was very questionable as I was constantly treated as an 'enemy of the regime', considering my family's background and my father's army post and rank before the communist regime.

In Hungary and behind the 'Iron Curtain', in general, - the regime styled on the Soviet Russian system, (after all most of the leadership spent years in the Soviet Union before the W.W.II being groomed to be the future communist leader of Hungary) there was only one party, the Communist Party. You were either a card carrying, chest thumping Communist Party member, or a 'Reakciós' (Reactionary). No other parties or middle-of-the-road sympathisers were tolerated. Educated persons (Intelengentia) were also treated with suspicion. The system knew that an educated person could easily see through the thin veil of lies and contradictions the communist system was dishing out constantly.

I will not apologise for making this book appear to be a political statement, after all politics affected and shaped my life all the time. I will not apologise for expressing my political affiliation being right-leaning either, the system that ostracised me is more to blame for this than anyone or anything else. Although during my school years the regime spent enormous time and effort trying to 'brain wash' the future generation, they went very short of endearing their system to me.

I can not remember how many times my family had to move because of the 'kitelepités' (displace) system or for employment reason. The funny thing about these 'kitelepités' system although was forced on you and your family, was never enforced by the authorities, but you never taken any liberties with them or made them angry by refusing any of their wishes. If they told you to jump, you asked them, how far comrade?

I grew up without being born with any prejudice for or against the communist regime or system, but the way the regime treated my family and myself and being on the receiving end of it made me turn bitterly against it.

At Graduation Time I was 'artificially failed' in Hungarian Language, which was my strongest and best loved subject. The irony was that for eight years I managed to scrape through the compulsory Russian Language studies, that I hated thoroughly, without studying or showing much effort. I suppose too many failures in the subject showing up in the statistics wouldn't have looked good for the regime.

Because of my 'failing' I had to sit an extra examination, two weeks later, which I passed with flying colours of course without any further studying, but my 'failure' was on the records and I couldn't enrol at any normal course at any University except for night studies. Those studies, as was all education, was free in Hungary, but because the part-time nature of it I did not get any bursary (living allowances). Thus, I had to work during the day and my studies would take years longer than normal. As it turned out, it was all academic any way.

When 23 October came around I wasn't ready for, or, better still,
never even dreamed about a Revolution. My perception of the Soviet Union and the communist regime in Hungary was as something that will last forever, something even the Western World was frightened and scared of. I was settled for practically the first time in my life.

Although there were meetings at the Universities and 'Writer's Circles' and there was some opposition to the 'regime' at all times, I do not believe that anybody in Hungary or elsewhere entertained the slightest hope of the vulnerability of Communism in Hungary or world-wide. Yet in the end a peaceful demonstration turned the tide and events overtook events and we had a 'bloody' revolution on our hand, which would end up changing my life very dramatically and forever.

The Hungarian Revolution of 1956 changed all this. Because of my involvement in the fighting and my subsequent injuries, hospitalisation, and the fact that records were kept of my stay in the hospitals, I had to leave my beloved country, family and friends like 200,000 others.

The Soviets brutally crushed our Revolution and I felt it was prudent to escape to Austria and freedom before the retributions started ending all my future plans about my further education, my girl friend and my family.

I was forced to say goodbye to them all and end up the other end of the world in New Zealand.

I was twenty years old and the 'émigrés burden' of loosing touch with my family, girlfriend, friends, familiar language, surroundings, history and culture was very hard to bear, especially in the first few years.

At the time I thought, with some relish, that even the Kádár regime didn't have long enough arms to reach me in New Zealand.

In Vienna after my escape, I had many options choosing from the countries of Israel, U.S.A., Portugal, Argentina, South Africa and New Zealand. They were the few who amongst many other countries offered shelter to us refugees. I put my name down and registered choosing New Zealand for their speedy intervention. I have spent nearly fifty years here now.

Despite all of this, over the years I have realised that I've had a very interesting life. I always felt lucky I was born and lived during these changing times and technology which made my life very 'interesting, rich and colourful.'

Life in New Zealand was very different and hard for me in the beginning, I landed here 'penniless and without knowing a word of English.

As the years went by many things have improved - slowly.

New Zealand, as well as I, experienced dramatic changes through the seventies, eighties and nineties.

When my forty years in New Zealand was drawing nearer, the enormity of past events and their consequences of my life paraded through my memory in vivid recollections, flashbacks.

The previous year I had purchased a computer and I found that it was easier for me to write on the computer than by long hand. Realising the many interesting events of my life, I started to write my recollections of many events, my fulfilled and unfulfilled dreams, and experiences.

The last forty - now nearly fifty - years were very beautiful, colourful and exciting, whether I can put it on paper as beautiful, colourful and exciting will remain to be seen. I will try to write my story as well as I can remember the events that shaped it.

The story is true, I have changed most of the names to save any embarrassment to the people involved or their families without getting their consent in the first place and also to save my own embarrassment: because of the time involved I can not remember many of their names.

Everything has changed dramatically in Hungary as well as in the whole Communist world since. The Revolution is being treated as a patriotic, heroic uprising these days in Hungary. No one has to worry about his or her involvement any more. My family and I have visited Hungary many times since.

I hold my head high, proud of my involvement in something heroic, something worthwhile in those glorious days of Hungarian history.

In 1996 similarly drastic events happened to me. I was forced to retire and for the first time since the fall of the Iron Curtain, I was able to visit Hungary with my family as a free, democratic country. That was undreamable in 1956 when I left Hungary or even in 1978, when I returned for a few weeks. At that time the Kádár communist regime was still ruling Hungary, but in a more relaxed manner compared to earlier years.

After forty years, well fifty years in two years time now while I am rewriting this. Looking back, the Revolution affected many, many lives including mine dramatically and drastically. I was an eyewitness and although at first reluctant, but later an active participant. I did get wounded a number of times, by the Grace of the Almighty, I did survive. I had to flee my family, my city, my country, my friends, my heritage, and my usual lifestyle.

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  Author's Notes Table of Contents Chapter 1

Hungary index page

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N.B. I made these pages simple and printer friendly on purpose for a more elaborate pages please visit

The 1956 Hungarian Revolution (My story)

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1996-2007 Erwin Bernhardt

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