Sixty Years Ago, A Different Refugee Crisis

by Doug Howard.
Sepia toned image of a young man wearing a suit coat and tie.
Gustav Bayerle in 1957. This photo was stapled to his University of Rochester application.

My teacher, Gustav Bayerle, died in October. Watching the unfolding refugee crisis this winter has reminded me of Gustav’s experiences, sixty years ago in another refugee crisis, brought on by the 1956 Hungarian revolution. When the revolution was suppressed by the tanks and troops of the Soviet army, nearly 200,000 people left Hungary, about 2 percent of the population of the country. Most were men, and most were young, half under 25 years of age. The vast majority became permanent expatriates, the largest number (some 44,000) in the United States. Gustav was one of these.

Gustav spoke little about his experiences, except on a memorable evening in 1989. News of his recent death reminded me of that evening, when he said that he had told his story to the student newspaper at the University of Rochester. Last week, I called the archivist at Rochester, Melissa Mead, and she produced scans not just of the story (in three parts) that Gustav himself had written for the Campus-Times, in March 1957, but also an article about his arrival (December 1956) in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle and, to top it off, a copy of Gustav’s handwritten application for admission to the university, dated 23 May 1957. Asked his reason for leaving his previous university, he had written laconically, “Hungarian Revolution.”

The revolution was largely student-driven, started by students at the University of Szeged and, in Budapest, urged on through a list of national demands drawn up by students at the Technical University. It began on October 23 when protests at the parliament and the state radio were met with violence. Gustav’s role at first was helping publish the revolutionary student newspaper, but a few days later he went to see his parents in the suburbs and there joined the Freedom Fighters. The communist government collapsed, Russian troops withdrew, and “the week that followed was one big victory festival.” Hungary left the Warsaw Pact and announced its neutrality.

When Soviet tanks and troops returned, Gustav fought alongside others in the doomed battle to defend Budapest. When the urban combat ended, “The city swam in a smoky, sickening cloud,” he wrote, that “carried a mixture of the odor of burning houses and slowly decaying corpses.” Gustav’s unit threw down their arms in a church and disbanded. One of their group disappeared overnight. Gustav and others fled, helped by families in villages along the way. After hiding in a haystack for a day and a half, they were led to the border in the middle of the night by a farmer. Running through the last fields with flares firing overhead at one-minute intervals, using the “creep-and-sprint” technique they had learned in the army, they came to the river and crossed into Austria. They reached safety at Naschensdorf, where “the whole village was illuminated to prevent the refugees from losing their way.”

Arriving in New York with financial help from Lutheran Resettlement Services and the World University Service, Gustav entered an intensive English course at Bard College, and then was offered a fellowship at the University of Rochester, one of two grants initiated “to repair some of the terrible human damage done by the tragic events in Hungary,” in the words of Louis Beck, dean of the Graduate School. Gustav’s learning curve was steep. He wrote in his Rochester application, “I am experiencing the difference between a dictatorial and a democratic system.”

What do these old stories have to do with what we’re going through now? I want to say both, “very little,” and “a lot.”

History’s precedents are never precise, the parallels never perfect. There are differences of scale—the number of Syrian refugees living today in Turkey alone swamp the total number of Hungarian refugees by ten times. Today, a third of the prewar population of Syria is displaced. And of time frame—the Hungarian revolution was put down by force two weeks after it began. The Syrian civil war has been going on for six years. Yet there are similarities, especially in the reality of oppression, suffering, resistance, defeat, loss, and the permanence of change. Anyway politicized comparisons always oversimplify and miss a larger point—to me, the lessons of Gustav’s experience were always personal.

After earning a degree at Rochester, Gustav went on to Columbia University, where he did a PhD under an earlier Hungarian émigré, Tibor Halasi-Kun. In 1966 Gustav was recruited by yet another Hungarian émigré, Denis Sinor, to join the faculty of the Department of Uralic and Altaic Studies (now Central Eurasian Studies) at Indiana University. He taught for thirty years, eventually succeeding Sinor as department chair. An early computer advocate, he got one of the university’s first PCs for the departmental office and liked to envision research projects that harnessed its power, such as my own dissertation, whose data analysis was impossible without it.

The conversation in which he told me his story, in the summer of 1989, took place in Budapest, during my first time in Hungary. Gustav had organized (with György Hazai) a collaborative project of Hungarian and American historians to publish Ottoman historical sources, funded by the International Research and Exchange Board (IREX). I was one of the Americans. The first symposium of our little group was planned without knowing that all across Eastern Europe the Iron Curtain would be coming down that summer and the Cold War ending. We flew into Budapest three days after the public reburial of Imre Nagy, the executed leader of 1956. Can Gustav have imagined, on arriving in New York in 1956, that thirty-three years later he would be narrating his story over coffee with his student, in a McDonald’s restaurant on Régiposta utca? Can he have imagined that evening that this student would return to Hungary many times, bringing his own students? That the collegial relationships forged that week would bear fruit in research over decades? That one of those Hungarian colleagues would hold the Turkish Chair at Gustav’s own former university, and come to America in 2014 as a Fulbright fellow at Calvin College?

I am the same age now as Gustav was in 1989, and I don’t think we get better at imagining. But these examples are not meant to be trivial, petty, self-indulgent—they are the whole point. I have no doubt that the protestors at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York and at Gerald R. Ford Airport in Grand Rapids last week were there for similar personal reasons. Refugees bring their world to us, and they take us to their worlds, over long periods of time, in ways we find hard to imagine. I am grateful for the life and teaching of one such refugee.

Doug Howard is a professor of history at Calvin College. His History of the Ottoman Empire, has just been published.

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