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Memories of '56 

In December 1956, a homesick 20-year-old student, entranced by the “storybook impression” of houses decorated with Christmas lights, arrived at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson. What made Béla Liptak different from the average student was that he was penniless, couldn’t speak a word of English, and was a refugee—one of more than 300 freedom fighters who arrived on the Bard campus in flight from the Hungarian Revolution that had been crushed the month before.

“We arrived from a war, fighting the Russians, overwhelmed by a tank force larger than Hitler used to overrun France,” Liptak, now 70, recalls. He and his young friends had fought those tanks with “no weapons at all—practically none” and had paid dearly. So arriving at the college “was a traumatic experience. We felt lost and miserable.”

But thanks to Bard, Liptak and his fellow refugees—ranging in age from 15 to 35—got a toehold toward starting a new life in the US. During an eight-week program that winter, they received intensive instruction in English and an orientation to American society. To commemorate this moment of Cold War generosity and to honor the Hungarians’ contributions to America, Bard will hold a three-day reunion and conference February 15-17, featuring panel discussions, lectures, a film festival, a concert, and informal discussions with faculty and students.

For Leon Botstein, president of Bard, the reunion and conference are valuable “not only as a reflection on the past, but as a reflection on something immensely relevant in the present.” Botstein hopes the event will prompt discussion of America’s relationship with human rights and justice.

In a foreshadowing of the “Prague Spring” that would occur 12 years later, the Hungarian Revolution began in October 1956, as a spontaneous nationwide uprising against repressive Soviet rule. The Russians responded by invading the country with 150,000 soldiers and 600 tanks. After bitter fighting, during which the US stood on the sidelines despite rhetoric about helping “captive nations,” the revolution was crushed. Thousands died and many others were tried, imprisoned, or murdered. Reformist Prime Minister Imre Nagy was executed and 200,000 refugees fled the country.

If Iraq is a case of misguided intervention, Botstein notes that Hungary is “a case of what America didn’t do. Because of the Cold War, we didn’t support this revolution…and you can argue that was a place we should have been. So it is a moment for honest reflection on America’s role in the world and when it is sensible to use or restrain America’s military might.”

Laszlo Bitó, the conference organizer, also arrived at Bard that December, at age 22. Before the revolution, he and his family were deported from Budapest for being anti-Communist enemies of the state. Bitó was imprisoned for two years as a slave laborer in a coal mine before organizing a camp revolt. He tried to make his way to Budapest to join the fighting, but by then it was too late. Now living back in Hungary after a career as a scientist in the US, Bitó hopes the conference looks beyond the revolution itself—or “who shot whom,” as he puts it—to focus on the extraordinary intellectual contributions the refugees made to American society.

Béla Liptak admits to “mixed feelings” about the approaching reunion. At a gathering in Budapest last October of student leaders of the rebellion, he couldn’t recognize his old friends. “Those beautiful girls and attractive boys,” he says. “You know what 50 years does. The only thing I could recognize was their eyes. Somehow there’s a little twinkle in your eye that doesn’t change.”

But Liptak has no mixed feelings about the role Bard played in giving him a second chance: “[I]t came like a blessing for an institution to say, ‘We’ll teach you English, you are welcome to have food and shelter, and you’ll be given advice on how to start a new life.’”

Liptak left Bard after the two-month program ended, but not before meeting 18-year-old Marta Szacsvay, a fellow refugee, who would become his wife. He went on to become a renowned engineer, has been involved in environmental protection efforts, and is now helping to build the world’s first solar/hydrogen demonstration plant, which he hopes will someday replace oil-based energy systems.

Upon their arrival in the US, the refugees lived in barracks at Camp Kilmer in New Jersey. To get out of the camp, they had to have a sponsoring family take them in.

“There were people who said they wanted to go to a film star in Hollywood or a millionaire in Florida,” Laszlo Bitó says, “but I figured they were going to be in Camp Kilmer for a long time. I wanted to go to the next person on the list.”

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