What is the most
significant memory of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution?
One of my favourite subjects at school was history. A subject that had
proved to me time and time again that political revolutions seldom
solved a nation’s essential problems. There were national flags lowered
from balconies and windows, ecstatic cheers of encouragement along the
way; and within an hour’s time, our timid demonstration, announcing
fraternal loyalty to our Polish and East-German brothers, had turned
into a full-fledged Revolution. Would history repeat itself?
How has the Hungarian-Canadian community commemorated the Uprising in
The commemorations from the outset acted as a unifying force. Members of
different generations joined forces in paying tribute to the spirit of
the Uprising. The earlier commemorations were more forceful, more
political and emotional. The wounds were fresh. Hungary was occupied by
a foreign power. A tyrannical government, set up over the nation by the
Soviet Union, labeled the refugees as a bunch of unpatriotic
counter-revolutionaries. Family members, relatives and friends at home
were persecuted, imprisoned, or executed. In response, passionate
speeches were given, denouncing the atrocities of the government.
Demonstrations were held in front of the Soviet Embassy in Ottawa;
cavalcades of cars drove through the cities of Toronto, Montreal,
Vancouver, banners and tricolour national flags sticking out of their
windows. In Victoria, a replica of a Russian tank was hauled along busy
Douglas Street. The national and local Canadian media carried long
articles about the revolution, based on first-hand experiences and
memoirs of resident Hungarians. It was the early commemorations that
kept the spirit of the Uprising alive. The fact that 1956 today has
regained its complexity and dignity in Hungary, it is, partly, due to
the early commemorations in Canada and elsewhere. The nature of the
remembrances has shown a dramatic change after the withdrawal of the
Soviet forces from Hungary. The replacement of the one-party communist
system with a freely elected government, and the official recognition of
the Revolution have made the commemorations historical, rather than
political. The revolution has gained a proper place in Hungarian
history, along with the nation’s other great events such as the Rákóczi
Freedom Fight of 1703-1711, and the War of Independence of 1848-1849.
Still, the spirit of the early commemorations prevails to this day. We
keep paying homage to the heroes and martyrs of 1956 at local memorials
which, over half a century, turned out to be sacred places in the cities
of our adopted home.
How will the Victoria community commemorate the 50th anniversary of
The Hungarian-Canadian community across the nation has been abuzz with
commemorative spirit throughout the year. In Victoria preparations
started shortly after the annual general meeting of the Hungarian
Society of Victoria. A small committee had been appointed to find a
prestigious auditorium; to draft letters of official invitations to
Federal, Provincial and Municipal dignitaries; and to generate a program
for the occasion. Some of us have been involved in preliminary
activities carried out by national organizations, such as the
Ottawa-based Canada-Hungary Educational Foundation, the Hungarian
Studies Association of Canada and the Rákóczi Foundation.
The first had organized a commemorative event in the Parliament Building
in Ottawa, attended by some two-hundred dignitaries, MPs, members of the
Senate, the Hungarian Ambassador to Canada, the Canadian Ambassador to
Hungary, and other eminent people, paying tribute to the 1956 Uprising.
The second society has held a conference at York University, Toronto, on
May 27-30. Most of the agenda (fifteen presentations) was dedicated to
the various aspects of the refugees in Canada, including the reaction to
the refugees; the psychological profile of the 1956 refugees in Canada;
the contribution of 1956 refugees to business; the role of the refugees
in the development of Canadian pluralism; the archival sources
pertaining to the 1956 Hungarian refugees etc. Other related events we
have participated in include the establishment of the Toronto-based
Rákóczi Foundation’s oral history archives, which contains a collection
of stories, poems and memoirs pertaining to the uprising and to its
refugees in Canada. The collection will form a traveling archive and
will be displayed in various cities throughout the country. The best
writings included will also appear in print. Another project we were
involved in is the Bridging the Divide, a collection of some fifteen
interviews conducted by Andrew Princz of Budapest and Montreal. Three of
the 56-ers interviewed are from B.C. Mr. Princz has also interviewed
family members in Hungary. The project is sponsored by the Canadian
Embassy to Hungary and the Hungarian Government. Another undertaking is
the erection of a 1956 memorial in Ottawa, dedicated to Canada by the
Hungarian community in appreciation of the host country’s generosity to
the refugees of the 1956 revolution.
The commemoration in Victoria will start on October 22, when the public
will pay tribute to the heroes and martyrs of the Uprising at the
memorial park. A short program will follow in the Hungarian Cultural
Centre along with a photo exhibition. The official remembrance will take
place on October 23 at the Conservatory of Music. Those invited will
include the Hon. Gordon Campbell, Premier of B.C., representatives of
the Federal and Municipal governments. Speakers will be the Hon. Iona
Campagnolo, Lieutenant Governor of B.C., as well as Helen Hughes, Deputy
Mayor, and Tibor Jandó, former graduate of the UBC Sopron Divisio. The
program will also include recitals by Victor Dolhai, film presentations,
the performance of the Greater Victoria Youth Orchestra, music arranged
and conducted by Professor János Sándor. The vivacious Connie More
conductor’s VIVA children’s choir will also appear, as well as the young
talented pianist, Margit Juhász. It is hoped that all will work out to
Do you think it is important that future generations of
Hungarian-Canadians learn about and remember 1956?
I most certainly do. From a personal point of view, the revolution will
help future Hungarian-Canadian generations realize that the Uprising was
a pivotal event in history that brought them to Canada. The 1956
Revolution is tied to and is a part of their family history. It is an
historical event that they should be proud of. By studying it they’ll
learn to realize that they are the descendants of a freedom-loving
people that refused to live under terror. From an intellectual point of
view, they will gain an understanding into the nature of oppression and
will learn to recognize it in their lives when/if they see it, heaven
forbid, forthcoming or occur. They will also know that when oppressed
they have allies in other freedom-loving people. And, above all, they
will understand that tyrannical powers can be overthrown even by the
smallest of nations. Furthermore, the 1956 uprising is a unique case
study in history. Nowhere else has it ever occurred that such an
historical event went through three very distinct phases within sixteen
hours, from peaceful demonstration to open revolution, and ending in a
war between two socialist countries. This aspect alone is worthy of
further scholarly pursuit.
What is the most essential lesson we can learn from the study of the
The revolution was about freedom. As the living body requires air, food
and water, the human psyche requires a sense of freedom. Political
oppression is harmful. It takes away the individual’s hope for
self-betterment. Hope is an essential element of survival. The ultimate
lesson is that it is possible to oppress a people - for a while. It is
possible to impose alien ideology on them; it is possible to starve
them, to keep them in their places by terror, by eliminating their
natural leaders. But as soon as the oppressor tries to eliminate a
nation’s language, deny its traditions, violent revolution results.
Oppressed people blow like a volcano blows, with elementary force that
cannot be met more effectively than the eruption of a volcano can. A
formidable lesson indeed.
Shouldn’t we, considering our cultural experience, be more outspoken
against the oppression of other sovereign nations today?
Yes, we should be. And we should be outspoken early enough to prevent
catastrophic events like the ones in Somalia, Kosovo or Iraq. We should
use every peaceful means to educate the oppressing governments, convince
them that the practice of noblesse oblige applies to everyone.
The practice of live and let live eases the tension within and
beyond a nation’s borders. The problem is that some governments of new
nations are trying to emulate the old ones by wanting to pass through
all of the historical phases the others have over the centuries.
Unfortunately, some aspects of those phases such as racism, intolerance
of minorities, were harmful at the time and they are definitely
Although the Revolution initially began with criticism and peaceful
demonstration by the intellectuals, it quickly became an armed revolt.
Is violence the only way to overcome an oppressive government?
No, violence is not the only way to deal with oppressive governments.
There are examples in history showing that oppression can be dealt with
through peaceful negotiation by offering amnesty or easing the
oppression. If members of oppressive governments were angels, there
would be a whole lot of other means of settling the situations, such as
political or intellectual conviction. This is what the reform-minded
intellectuals and university students of 1956 had in mind in the early
hours of October 23. We never even dreamed of waging an armed rebellion
against a supposedly invincible political empire. The peaceful method,
of course, depends on the nature and strength of the oppressive
government, and upon the strength and determination of those oppressed.
Unfortunately, in most cases the only method oppressive governments can
hope to retain power is by brutal force. Consequently, the only way to
topple them is by violence.