Supplied photo courtesy of Louis Harmati
Louis Harmati, left, with his father, Louis, and brother, Laszlo, in 1958.
One dark November morning 56 years ago, Louis Harmati, his brother and their father walked three miles toward a light they were told would take them to freedom, leaving behind their home in Hungary and the old Communist system.
They crossed the Austrian border to a building where a man was milking cows. The man led them to a collection point with other refugees, and after the sun rose they had a Thanksgiving-like meal that included bread, meat, fruit, vegetables and candy bars.
“I remember the sun as clearly today coming out,” Harmati recalled during a recent telephone interview from his Leland home. “The sun was as big as the sky almost, and it was so red and beautiful … No fear anymore.”
Harmati was 9 when he, his brother Laszlo and father Louis escaped during the 1956 Hungarian Revolution against the Soviet Union, which occurred from Oct. 23 to Nov. 10.
The Soviet Union had dominated east central European countries since World War II, said Sue McCaffray, a University of North Carolina Wilmington history professor.
People were demonstrating for freedom, and secret police, or AVH, fired into a crowd of students, Harmati said.
“People all over Hungary, well initially in Budapest, started fighting back and started civil disobedience,” said Harmati, a Republican who ran unsuccessfully for the North Carolina State House against incumbent Democrat Rep. Susi Hamilton.
The Soviets invaded Hungary, and reformers were arrested or rooted out, McCaffray said.
But during the uprising Harmati’s father and many others decided to leave the country.
Childhood and Communism
Harmati lived near Budapest with his parents and younger brother and sister. He remembers food shortages and people not earning enough money to buy things.
“I was always hungry,” said Harmati, who searched for food wherever he could, even in a Communist youth camp for breakfast.
He also remembers passing a toy store during his walks home from school.
“I’d go by the toy store every day and look at all the toys inside, wondering if I could ever get one,” Harmati said. “I never got a toy for Christmas.”
There was full employment under Communism, but not enough food, clothing and shelter, he said.
Communism is a forced choice, whereas capitalism is a free choice, Harmati said, adding his immediate family never joined the Communist party even though members could earn more money and live better lives.
Harmati’s father and brother chose to leave during the uprising, but his mother Helen and sister Eva stayed behind. Harmati was torn but decided to follow his father and brother.
“I don’t know why my parents didn’t go together that time,” Harmati said.
They traveled by train, walked and hitchhiked and saw destroyed buildings and dead bodies, he said. They passed through several checkpoints but were never arrested, and eventually made their way from Budapest to Hegyeshalom, where one of his aunts and her husband lived.
The couple, who were Communists, helped them escape, connecting them with a man who guided people to Austria. After a few hours’ sleep they left with the guide before dawn on a wagon.
The guide dropped them off a few miles from the border and pointed out three lights in the distance, telling them to walk toward the middle light.
“I was scared to death the whole time,” Harmati said. “I didn’t know if we were going to land on a land mine. Are we going to be captured?”
They made it safely to Austria, soon immigrated to the United States with other refugees at Camp Kilmer, N.J., and later got on an airplane to California.
A Family Torn
By then it was January 1957. Families from a church in Long Beach met the Harmatis and other refugees at Los Angeles World Airport. They stayed with a host family for several weeks while his father looked for work and an apartment.
But Harmati’s family was never fully reunited.
His mother and sister tried to leave Hungary too but were captured, imprisoned, repatriated and released, Harmati said.
His mother was allowed to visit Harmati in the 1960s, but his sister was not given permission. The family asked his mother to stay, but she would not leave her daughter behind and returned to Hungary.
Harmati, who moved to North Carolina in 1967, is retired and has formerly worked as an IRS internal auditor and defense contract auditor, among other jobs, and served 20 years in the U.S. military, including in Vietnam. He has six children and 14 grandchildren.
He has been visiting family in Hungary since the 1980s and has stayed in contact with his sister, a retired teacher. Their parents and brother have died.
Trauma from the family split still affects Harmati.
“Breaking the family up and separating us was a very painful experience, even today,” Harmati said. “Even Vietnam didn’t impact me emotionally, physically, spiritually as this experience did.”
During a trip to Hungary about five years ago, Harmati was reunited with his aunt who had helped him escape.
“We cried, we hugged each other and we cried some more,” Harmati said. “This is a lady I only met for two hours now 55 years ago … We made such a connection.”
That was the last time he saw her; she died two years later.
More than 2,500 Hungarians and 700 Soviets were reported to have died during the Hungarian Revolution, and Harmati’s family was among nearly 200,000 refugees who escaped.
While the Soviets ended the Hungarian Revolution, that and other uprisings were important steps toward the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the end of the Cold War because they kept hope alive, McCaffray said.
“The memory of it was something that was never forgotten,” she said. “It was kind of always there for the next generation of Hungarians and others who would try to take advantage of an opening.”