From Budapest to Pontypridd: A Hungarian refugee’s story after the ’56 Revolution

By Anna Rátkai

In October 1956 a group of university students in Budapest decided to hold a demonstration in the heart of the capital condemning the cruel crushing of the Polish revolution by the Soviet regime. However, the word spread quickly all across the city and the protest evolved into something much more significant than a sympathy march. By a quick turn, the demonstration shifted from a focus on the Poles to the economic hardships and tensions that the communist rule afflicted on Hungary.

In a couple days the students’ march transformed into a full-scale uprising against the Soviet regime. As enthusiastic and resilient the protesters were in the first two weeks, it took only twelve days for the Soviet tanks to fill the city. Budapest endured long days of heavy and bloody fighting. The uprising was cruelly repressed, and some participants had no other choice, but to leave their home country – and many would think that this is the end of their story. However, for many, this was just the beginning.

After the uprising, approximately 200,000 Hungarians decided to flee their home country. It is estimated that 20,000 Hungarians choose the United Kingdom as their second home. After the Second World War the demand for coal was rising, and the Western blockade was extremely willing to accept Eastern Europeans running away from their Soviet enemy. According to Campbell, Hungarians were welcomed as heroes in the UK, and people competed to share their homes with them on the nights of Christmas. As Péter Faragó, a Hungarian refugee recalls, not only the locals were incredibly friendly, but the media was enthusiastic and positive about migrants.

Many Hungarians settled in Wales and started to build a new life here, to which the country gave an immense amount of help. This Hidden History is telling the story of Fülöp Tihamér, a 78 years old Hungarian man who settled in Pontypridd, and his friend Ceri Thompson, a native Welsh who grew up next to him.

Hungarian refugees

Hungarian refugees lay a wreath at the War Memorial in Cathays Park, Cardiff in 1958

 

During the Hungarian Revolution Tihamér was only 17 years old, but he was still an active participant in the uprising – he and his brother drove back and forth between Budapest and Vienna to bring back medicine from the well-supplied Austrian hospitals for the injured Hungarians. After the revolution was cruelly repressed by the Soviet government, Tihamér had no other choice but to leave Hungary – and his unpredictable travels led him to Wales. Although at his arrival he was warmly welcomed, getting there wasn’t exactly easy:

Tihamér: ‘They forced us to get off from the trains in Győr, at the border. They knew we wanted to leave the country. Once they even turned the train back, and took us back to Budapest. But then we just took the train again. We didn’t give up. And then they told us ‘You can go wherever, but don’t use the train! Trains are controlled!’ So we had no other choice but to walk. We walked from Győr to Eisenstaedt, that’s how we crossed the border.

Interviewer: ‘You walked with all your luggage?’

Tihamér: ‘Luggage?’ – asked laughing – I had a sandwich with me. That’s all I had when I left the country!’

After arriving to Wales, Tihamér, along with another 96 Hungarians started to work in the mines of Hawthorn and Hirwaun. According to him, it was a great help that the Welsh welcomed the Eastern-European refugees with open arms:

Tihamér: ‘They taught us how to live here, but I don’t mean teaching the language. They taught us where to go to dance, where to find the girls, where to have fun. We were very young after all.’

Tihamér also made long-lasting friendships with the other Hungarians and other Polish people who worked together, as well as with the Welsh. His friend, Ceri Thompson also remembers the Eastern European refugees warmly. When asked, how did Ceri become friends with the Hungarian refugees he simply answered:

Ceri: ‘I was working with them, and to me they were just like anybody else. Just because they don’t speak exactly like you do… It didn’t really matter, I mean, even if someone in the beginning thought something along the lines of ‘Oh, these immigrants are taking our jobs’, that thought didn’t seem to last very long. After a while everyone got along. If you are working alongside someone, you know, you are just bound to become friends.’

When asked whether or not Ceri thinks accepting the refugees benefited his tiny town Churchvillage, he said:

Ceri: ‘There is a world-wide trend of becoming a right-wing supporter. It is the fear of what is foreign or unknown to you. And in a way you can understand why, I mean if someone who was blue walked down the streets, everyone would look at them twice. But in places like Churchvillage we are quite used to different nationalities. And every time I meet people from other countries living in Wales, I feel like it enriches the culture, it does! It’d be bloody boring if everyone were from here!’

Tihamer.jpg

Tihamér and his wife

 

Although the opportunity to work laid down the foundation for a safe life for refugees in Wales, and it also led to the creation of many long-lasting friendships, it was not the only factor that helped the Hungarians in settling. Tihamér, during his interview referred to football as a cornerstone of his integration in his new home country:

Tihamér: ‘Right after I arrived I met the Welsh boys from a local football team. They had shoes my size, so they told me to put them on and show them what I can do. That was it. I was in the team. And when we played, everyone played with everyone. We didn’t care about nationalities. Now that we talk about it, I just remembered that I have gotten a mail like a year ago from one of those guys that I played with in the team. He organized a team catch-up in the sports centre here in Churchvillage. We still keep in touch.’

Interviewer: ‘So as soon as you arrived, you could start working, doing sports, making friends, …

Tihamér: ‘And dance! I also started dancing as soon as I was here. It helped a lot to feel at home. That’s how I got to know my wife! One night me and my friends went on a dancing event and I got to know this Welsh girl and you know… in 4 years’ time we were married.

When asked whether Tihamér thinks he would have travelled back to Hungary if he weren’t taken so good care of he answered:

Tihamér: ‘Well, I can’t be sure of that. But what I know is that only 2 of us went back to Hungary. Only 2 of the 96 Hungarians I arrived with. We were welcomed very warmly, and that helped a lot to settle. Not many people needed to go back.’ – remembers Tihamér smiling.

Wales contributed a great deal to the peaceful settlement of those fleeing Eastern Europe in the second half of the twentieth century, and highly benefited from accepting the workforce without which many mines would have had to be shut down. The response to the Hungarian crisis, and the happy memories of a 78 year old man who managed to build a peaceful life around himself with the help of the Welsh locals reminds us all, that a tiny bit of altruism and selflessness might have a life-changing power for the ones in need.

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