Escape to America: The Hungarians One Year Later

IDA BOBULA, who took her degrees at Budapest and Vienna, was the first woman to hold administrative rank in the Royal Hungarian Ministry of Public Instruction and was the first to teach history in a Hungarian university. In 1947 she was forced into exile and took refuge in the United States, where she is today librarian of the American-Hungarian Historical Society. She has been closely in touch with the Hungarian refugees from the day of their arrival.

A YEAR ago a popular revolt threw off the puppets Russia had imposed on Hungary and tore open the Iron Curtain. Russia struck back, and more than 100,000 Hungarians paid with their lives in the fighting. In the aftermath perhaps twice as many were imprisoned and deported. Those who could make the Western frontier, roughly 200,000 souls, barely escaped with their lives to the Free World.

The first refugees to pour into Austria found that they could go wherever they wanted: every country welcomed them. Switzerland admitted over 10,000; Canada took 24,000; we admitted 33,000 — more than any other country. Now, a year later, the excitement has died down, Camp Kilmer is closed, and only a few occasional latecomers trickle across the ocean. It seems pertinent to ask, Who are these Hungarian refugees? Are they assets or headaches for America? Where are they and what are they doing? The best way to get the answers is to listen to the refugees themselves.

Last fall my telephone rang, and a friend from my youth, whom I had not seen for more than a decade, announced that he had just come from Camp Kilmer a few hours ago, with his wife and two children. I rushed to their hotel in Manhattan and we rejoiced. This internationally known scholar was not in America for the first time. In his earlier years he had been a Fellow of one of the great American foundations. He spoke fluent English, and I told him that surely there would be a place for him under the sun in America. His first impulse was to explain why he came.

“I don’t believe in emigration,” he said, “unless absolutely necessary. I tried to hold out; I held out in Budapest, though they treated me like a pariah on account of my Western connections. I took every humiliation. Now I saw that this was the end — it was get out or be killed. We left everything behind us. In the clothes we have on we passed the frontier. Believe me, I had to do it.”

I could understand the pain gnawing at the heart of a scholar, dedicated to teaching the youth of his own suffering nation, who tried to hold out, as I did ten years ago.

“Things may change, we may be able to return,” said his wife. “This city, this traffic is frightening.”

“You go home, but I remain here,” said their fifteen-year-old Tommy. “I like this country. Hats off to the food they served us at Camp Kilmer. I am not afraid of this city, I want to have a car myself and get into that traffic.”

Professor R. told me that with his first dime he telephoned from camp to his old foundation. The foundation at once sent one of its officers to sponsor them and generously guaranteed the living expenses of the family for six months.

Now Professor R. teaches American students at one of our universities. The family has a home, and Mrs. R. is no longer so frightened. Hospitable America gained the grateful services of Hungary’s best physicist.

Naturally not every Hungarian has found in America the fulfillment of his dreams. In one large Eastern city alone, I know ten refugee lawyers who wash dishes, clean rugs, or work as unskilled factory hands. None of them complains. They keep a stiff upper lip and answer only if you ask them. “I won’t say that I enjoy cleaning rugs,” said one. “I believe that with some care and a bit of organizing, we could be used here for something more adequate and useful. But then, if this is fate, we accept it. It is better to be a laborer in a free country than a state office holder in a tyranny.”

An old doctor of law, who in Hungary was once a city employee of high rank, confided to me that all his life his avocation had been dendrology, the science of trees. He spent all his free time in learning about the problems of forestry.

“I had the choice of going to West Germany or the United States. I chose the United States, because I hoped that I might see the great Western forests of this country. Now I am stuck on this Eastern shore, with a wage so small that I will never be able to go West.” He earns $35 a week. “This is my only complaint.”

I thought of the young pilot who stopped me at Camp Kilmer six months ago. “Please give me advice,” he said. “A bus of the Resettlement Committee starts in an hour for Los Angeles. They told me to come along. There is no job offer, but they say there will be something. My only friend is in New York — here I made some acquaintances, here you are. There in the West I do not know a soul. Should I go?”

I hesitated for a moment only. “Hurry, pick up your luggage and hop on that bus. The West is for people like you. There is a future. You will find friends. Here is my address. If you get into trouble, let me know. Write anyway. God bless you.”

The first letter sounded like a bad fix. A hotel room paid for a week, and no job. But in time the job materialized. Then he got a better job. The last post card, with a beautiful view of the Pacific shore, sports only two happy letters — “O.K.” — and the respectful signature of the young pilot.

In their waking hours Hungarians look westward; at night their thoughts wander east. “Will Hungary be free? How can one help? How can one get out those left behind?”

“My husband has a good skill,” says an engineer’s wife. “His field is electronics. The National Academy of Science found work for him on the first day after we arrived at Camp Kilmer. To us this country seems a perfect haven. We could be ever so happy here, if we could get out of Austria the orphan son of my brother who was killed by the Communists. His poor mother is in Hungary, the boy in despair — more than a year in camp, without hope. Children are still admitted, but he is nineteen and does not qualify as a child. Cannot the Americans be told?”

I CANNOT forget those who are inadequately placed. The majority of the refugees admitted to the United States came from the ranks of skilled workers. Ferenc A. is a nice chap of twenty, from the Hungarian town of Kecskemét. He was by training an auto mechanic and hoped he would be able to work in his trade in this great country of motorcars. Well, he cannot. There is the language difficulty, plus the lack of tools. You are told everywhere to bring your tools — he does not have them. So he got a job in a multigraphing plant; he stands eight long hours by a large bin filled with motor oil and washes in it the soiled plates. The vapors of the motor oil make him dizzy — he dreads that he will fall in the bin. He keeps telling himself that somebody has to do that job too, but it makes him more and more sick every day. What is his way out?

Janos P., nineteen years old, works in the same city. He studied music in the Conservatory in Hungary. In America there was no place for him, in the whole world of music. He works at a bakery. The dollar for an hour wage would be enough, but carrying the large, hot trays all day long is slowly ruining his hands. “I am afraid that I won’t be able to play the piano any more,” he told me.

The sponsor brings Béla, a nice but desperatelooking boy of seventeen. She is a kind-enoughlooking second-generation American-Hungarian widow, with a torrent of complaints. Béla stole a dollar from her to buy cigarettes. She thinks he has no business to smoke, but the nervous young boy is obviously a tobacco addict and words won’t cure him. But what have I except words?

“How dare you steal from your sponsor?” I ask. “This is suicide. You are a parolee here. You have no status. A thief born here can defend himself at a trial. A Mexican laborer, who crossed the border illegally, can ask for a hearing before being deported. You have not this right — you are only a parolee who can be deported any minute without a hearing. You can be sent back to Hungary — where you will die.”

“I have no stronger wish than to be hanged,” says the boy with infinite bitterness. “Then all this dirt will be over. It lasts since I live. I never had one chance; I had no luck. I thought it might be different in America. It is not. I don’t care what happens.”

I ask to speak to the sponsor alone. “Dear Mrs. N., can’t you see this is an absolutely clear, typical case of the emotionally disturbed adolescent who comes from a broken home, extreme poverty? He is an unfortunate child.”

“He is simply a bad boy who will take no advice. I tried to educate him, I preached to him every day for hours, but he does not listen.”

“His trouble is that he needs a man’s positive guidance, not feminine reproaches. Who placed him with you?”

“The church got a busload of refugees, and I took him home. I’ve been sorry for it ever since.”

“Have you spoken to the minister?”

“That poor reverend is fed up with all those newcomers. Imagine, they sent us two prostitutes. He had them shipped right back to Hungary.”

“How did he know what they were?”

“They refused honest work. These are Communists.”

Many churches labored hard. Some did wonderful work; others failed.

Most of the placements were made by volunteers, people of good will, but without training and experience in social work. With maddening regularity the most benevolent, cultured American sponsors were burdened with the least desirable refugees, while the best refugees often fell into the hands of sharks.

One heartbreaking case was that of an executive architect, an expert on building materials and work organization, a man of exceptional intelligence. Unfortunately, he was sent from Camp Kilmer with a group of others to a small community, where a sponsor offered a home to his family — but there was no suitable work for him.

The little community was built around a foundry, and the only work available was heavy foundry work, to which this architect of thirty-six was not accustomed. He did the work in order to feed his family, and at the same time he struggled to get out of his predicament, but in vain. He did not even get sympathy. Everybody thought: he is employed. He begged for a bricklayer’s job — he could not get one. Before my eyes the man’s physical condition went from bad to worse. He had accidents. He became drawn and nervous, and lost weight. By the time a chance for a better job came, he was no longer able to grasp it. This man of courage and character, who would be a real asset to any construction firm in America that would be willing to help him over the initial language difficulties, may be heading toward the human dump heap.

In any group as large as this you will find the adventurer, the delinquent, the prostitute, but far more numerous and important than these are the young, the brave, the gifted, the determined, who could at the right moment make the right decision in order to survive. The spirit they bring is one of practical idealism — a bonus to any nation.

Trying to determine the ratio of happy and unhappy placements, I took a quick random sample: a hundred names picked from the refugee list of the American Hungarian Federation. I classified them into one of four categories:

1. The well placed: men and women who work now in jobs for which they were trained in Hungary. Homemakers who remain homemakers; students who remain students — 33 per cent.

2. The passably placed: men and women who work using some of their old skills, though not on the old level. The former engineer who is a draftsman; the former foreman who is a factory hand. They are in familiar surroundings, and in time they may make the forward step — 20 per cent.

3. The inadequately placed: the lawyer who washes dishes; the former secretary who works on a sewing machine in the factory; the architect in the foundry; the auto mechanic who is a butcher’s helper. These are out of their places, without hope of acquiring usable knowledge and improving their lot — 38 per cent.

4. The unemployed — 9 per cent.

Nearly half of the Hungarian refugees need competent further help and guidance before we can call them happily integrated. But that guidance should be intelligent.

“If we can change them or if they see that democracy is a hundred times better than Communism ever was, what a triumph that will be.” That sentence I exactly copied from a report by the assistant executive of a social agency. When freedom fighters become aware of such pious wishes, they explode. Among the hundreds I am well acquainted with, I have not found a single one with traces of Communist indoctrination. The main trouble with the refugees is something different. They are bruised, exhausted after the long, cruel struggle with Communism; they are like survivors of a shipwreck two feet from the shore. Their first necessity is care and then a job; not any job but the right place for the right man.

I should like to see a social center plus an office of placement and counseling established for Hungarians in every large city. The Canadians have opened one in Toronto. Letters sent to the first address left at Camp Kilmer return in alarming quantity, with the laconic message of the postman: not at address given. Where are they? We cannot afford to lose these new Americans.