November memories and the Hungarian revolution

The month of November and the clothes worn by a young girl 50 years ago hold special significance for York University staff member and alumna Marika Kemeny (BA ’82). It was in November 1956, that as a frightened 12-year-old Kemeny and her family fled Hungary, on what would be an odyssey lasting over eight months. Her family had survived the Second World War, the loss of relatives in death camps, hunger and deprivation, and then on Oct. 23, 1956 the Hungarian Revolution brought new fear into their lives.

Right: Marika Kemeny

Now a grandmother with two adult Canadian children, a grandson, and a thriving career in communications for York’s Glendon College, Kemeny enjoys her life in Canada, but 50 years ago, circumstances were very different.

“I was a 12-year-old schoolgirl in 1956, born in the worst year of World War II for Hungary. My family survived the war and it was over, my parents were determined to protect me from every danger,” said Kemeny. “So, when news came of political upheaval on Oct. 23, we were glued to the radio, our only source of information. We listened to Hungarian broadcasts of the BBC, Radio Free Europe and Voice of America, as well as the Hungarian stations, trying to piece together the reality of the events.”

The initial news brought hope that Hungary would return to democracy and be free from communism. Leaders of the revolution spoke of freeing the country from its Russian occupation and of creating a democratic, neutral country.  “The heady days of October were followed by the return of the Russian occupying forces in early November and these hopes were brutally crushed,” said Kemeny. “There was constant shooting in every part of the city, making every foray into the street a life-and-death adventure.”

Family friends and neighbours began to discuss leaving the country. The Russians managed to hold on to military power, but civil administration broke down. The police joined the freedom fighters and border-guards stayed home, offering a brief window of opportunity for escape for those who had the courage to cross the border.

One day in late November, a Russian tank took up position facing the building where Kemeny and her family lived. “They threatened to blow us up unless the two freedom fighters hiding in our attic surrendered. We cowered in the cellar for several days along with the building’s other residents, until they gave themselves up. All of us knew that their fate was sealed,” she said sadly.

Her parents made the tough decision to try to flee for the border while it was still possible. Early the next morning, the family left behind their home and most of their possessions. They climbed into a produce truck requisitioned by her father, a produce buyer for the capital. He sat up front, having a permit to travel around the countryside. Kemeny and her mother hid in the back. “We hid under a tarp at the back of the truck and held our breath while a Russian guard toting a machine gun questioned my father at a checkpoint. The guard took a cursory look at the back, and then waved us on,” she said. “We spent the night in Györ, the last major town before reaching the border zone.”

That evening the family, along with 30 others, trekked across frozen fields into Austria. Later the next day, Kemeny says they were taken by train to a refugee camp near Linz and a week later, boarded a train to Switzerland. “Local families gathered at the train windows at every stop, handing us clothes, chocolates and toys,” said Kemeny. “I will never forget their kindness.”

Right: Marika in 1957

The family chose Toronto, Canada as their final destination since they had relatives in the city. It took eight months before they received their papers and in August 1957 they boarded the S.S. Ascania at Le Havre, bound for Canada for the two-week trip across the Atlantic. “At last we sighted Newfoundland’s barren, craggy shoreline. Was this to be our new home? We were big-city people and our hearts sank at the thought. It took some time before the ship finally came to rest at Quebec City, our first Canadian destination.

“Our first reactions to our new home were ones of surprise and disorientation. Toronto was big, but it lacked all the markers of a European city: tall buildings, apartment houses, dense population. Instead, there were endless family homes with gardens. Almost everything was closed on Sundays: movies, stores, many restaurants,” she remembered.

After a week, they moved into a furnished flat. “All sorts of immigrant aid groups came to our rescue: we received used clothing, a $12 weekly food allowance. I went to school. Nothing was clearer to my parents than that education was the key to getting ahead. It was tough at the vulnerable age of13 — I didn’t know a word of English when I arrived,” she said.

Inevitably, the early years were difficult for the new Canadians, however, Kemeny thrived in school, learning to speak English and eventually attending Carleton University to earn a BA in French language and literature in 1967 and York’s Glendon College to earn a bachelor of arts degree and a certificate in translation. After a career as a translator, she returned to her alma mater to take up a position as Glendon’s communications officer. Kemeny speaks four languages and is a frequent contributor to YFile.  She works in liason and communications for Glendon. 

At the urging of her family, she published her experiences as a child of the Second World War and a Hungarian refugee in a memoir titled, High Cheekbones. Each year, as she recalls her family’s flight from Hungary, she says she takes nothing for granted. “I still have the clothes I wore when I walked across the border. They remind me of where I started and how lucky I have been,” she said.

A full synopsis of the events leading up to the revolution can be found by visiting CBC Television’s DocZone.