MY ESCAPE FROM THE HUNGARIAN REVOLUTION
Our May 2018 talk - reviewed by Mike Chitty
This was a talk with a difference - a very personal account of fairly recent history - and it attracted a large audience. Dr Andrew Zsigmond has lived in Woolton for many years, but was born in Transylvania. He began by apologising for his strong Hungarian accent, but explained that when he left his native country at the age of 22 he spoke not a word of English.
There was no freedom and (officially) no religion in Hungary in 1956. But, after Khrushchev denounced Stalin, people began to talk more openly. In October, 150,000 workers and students demonstrated against the Communist regime, and asked to read out a list of demands on national radio. The manager called the secret police, who fired on the demonstrators from the top of the radio building and killed 55 people instantly. The uprising continued, and the head of the Army decided to support the rebels. Three days later, the Russians asked to negotiate peace - but promptly arrested the Army chief.
What did Andrew Zsigmond have to do with all this? He was a 3rd year medical student, given the job of arresting the Mayor, the Communist Party Secretary and the Chief of the Secret Police! "Young man, you're making a great mistake", they told him. On 4th November, at 4 a.m., the Russian re-invasion began, supported by 2,000 tanks. The President of the Hungarian Writers' Association begged in vain for international help. Altogether 2,500 Hungarians died. Andrew and two medical student friends hid in his father's vineyard for six weeks. "There wasn't much food, but a lot of lovely wine". Then Andrew and his friends, along with a philosophy student, an architect and an actor, travelled by train to a point nearest to the Austrian border.
It was very cold. They had a compass and a torch, but not much else. After a long detour to avoid barking dogs, they found themselves in a farmhouse two miles from the frontier. All they now had to do was to cross a frozen river and a ridge - and a snow-covered minefield! On 6th January 1957, Andrew's group arrived in Austria - one by one so as to avoid the revolving lights. They registered as refugees, and were sent to the nearest camp, a converted school.
One day an ex-London bus arrived, a National Coal Board recruiting office signing up apprentice miners for the South Yorkshire pits. Andrew and his friends arrived in Barnsley, went down the mine and took Barnsley girls to the cinema - their only way of learning English. The chest physician who examined him found out that he'd been a medical student, and invited him for Sunday lunch. He also told Barnsley's new MP, Roy Mason, who promptly asked a Parliamentary question: "Why are two Hungarian medical students mining coal?". Andrew was given application forms for various British medical schools. It was Liverpool University that offered him a place. In January 1958, Andrew became a 3rd year medical student in Liverpool, and three years later qualified as a doctor. He worked in the city until his retirement. He was appointed the Honorary Consul for Hungary in Liverpool - and in 2009 was also made an Honorary Scouser by the Lord Mayor.
Dr Zsigmond's first-hand account gave us a vivid impression of the Hungarian revolution and its aftermath. His anecdotes continued during the lengthy question-and-answer session, which gave an indication of just how much his talk had been appreciated.