How 'the 56ers' changed Canada:
When the Canadian public embraced 38,000 'freedom fighters' fleeing the bloody aftermath of the Hungarian revolution, it marked a shift in government policy that would open the doors for other refugees fleeing violence and oppression.
On a cool September afternoon, Andrew Telegdi is coasting down Vancouver's Granville Street toward the mountains and ocean. The car passes office workers and shoppers from around the globe -- familiar sights in a shiny metropolis that has become a magnet for immigrants.
Almost 50 years ago, Telegdi found himself in a taxi that followed a similar route, but under very different circumstances. At the time, he and his family were refugees from Soviet-occupied Hungary, heading for an immigration facility near the train tracks at the ocean's edge. During that ride, the family's matriarch wondered out loud whether they should have come to Vancouver.
"It was one of the few times my mother really asked, 'Did we make the right decision?'" recalls Telegdi, who has served as Liberal MP for Kitchener-Waterloo since 1993. Telegdi, now 60, has a greying moustache and is wearing the casual slacks and collared shirts of a parliamentary backbencher. On a recent trip to retrace his family's arrival in Canada, he vividly remembers their voyage which, over time, has become part of family folklore and the larger story of the Hungarian Diaspora.
At 10 years old, Telegdi fled the 1956 Hungarian Revolution with his parents, older brother and younger sister. At the time, his mother's questions about right and wrong were cast under a shadow of Cold War politics: Was it right to leave your home when Soviet tanks rolled into your city? Was it wrong to build a new life in Canada when Hungary might one day be safe?
In June 1957, seven months after a popular uprising was crushed in Budapest and five months after the Telegdi family marched across the Austrian border on foot, their future was uncertain.
When they arrived at the immigration facility, the family was split: women on one side, men on the other. They spent two nights in the dark, stone building that was previously "an immigration jail" for suspected criminal immigrants. The government then arranged for them to stay with a host family in the city's northern suburbs, where houses pushed up against the old-growth forests of the North Shore mountains.
But the dangers of this new western world soon presented themselves to the Hungarians. A story floated around the immigration centre that a mountain lion had been spotted in a North Shore neighbourhood. "We've escaped the communists but now we're going to turn into cat food!" Telegdi says, repeating an old family joke.
In 1956 and 1957, approximately 38,000 Hungarian refugees were welcomed to Canada. "The 56ers," as they came to be known, brought with them memories of a bloody revolution. They had fled an oppressive communist regime in eastern Europe at the height of the Cold War. Canadians embraced these "freedom fighters" with a warmth usually only extended to close family.
As much as it marked a fresh start for thousands of Hungarians who settled in cities and towns across this country, it also marked the birth of a new Canadian identity rooted in global benevolence that forever changed the country's refugee policy.
Ask any 56er to describe life in 1950s Hungary and their eyes go wide, their voices become indignant. After the Second World War, the Soviet Union occupied the landlocked country and installed a tyrannical police state that received its directions from the Kremlin. The secret police, the AVH, were widely feared and even children were suspect under the Stalinist regime.
Telegdi still remembers a Grade 2 teacher who once discussed Easter in his Budapest classroom: "The next day, men in suits, hats and ties came into the school, and interviewed the second-graders about what they had learned," he says. Soon afterward, the teacher disappeared.
"You had to say that something was green, when really it was red. Sometimes it was as simple as that," remembers Zale Tanner, a 71-year-old retired architect from Budapest who later settled in Vancouver.
After Stalin's death in 1953, discontent reverberated through the Soviet satellite states. On Oct. 23, 1956, Hungarian students marched brazenly through downtown Budapest in solidarity with striking Polish workers. The students had drafted a list of 16 now-famous demands they wanted broadcast on state radio. At the top of their list: Soviets out of Hungary and free elections.
"We wanted basic freedoms," Tanner says.
What started as a student protest sparked a revolution. Thousands joined the students in a sweeping, collective show of outrage at the government. The protesters held nothing back: they beheaded a statue of Stalin and trampled on his concrete skull. Angry demonstrators cut the hammers and sickles from their flags, leaving holes in the middle of their national stripes. And when the secret police fired on protesters, they picked up arms themselves.
The street battles that ordinary Hungarians waged against Soviet forces have become the stuff of national legend: sweet-faced teenagers and women in fashionable fall coats picked up rifles and joined rebel militias; youngsters lobbed Molotov cocktails at Soviet tanks; crowds gathered in squares across the country as AVH members and suspected collaborators were publicly executed.
The Hungarians' struggle immediately became a story for western media eager to spin a Cold War tale of freedom-loving rebels fighting the Red menace.
For their part, the Hungarians expected western nations would throw troops at their fight against a common enemy. But by November 1956 the world was largely consumed with the Suez crisis. Hungary fell off the international radar, something many Hungarians have never forgotten.
"We really thought they would intervene," is a common refrain among the 56ers who once listened to Radio Free Europe and thought help would come.
For a brief period at the end of October, Soviet troops retreated from Hungary, leading many to believe the Hungarians had pulled off an impossible coup. But on Nov. 4, a new wave of heavy tanks rolled into the country and within days put a final, violent end to the revolution.
The following months resulted in more crackdowns.
"Anyone who had been seen participating, demonstrating or writing in favour of the revolution feared for his life," explains Nandor Dreisziger, a former history professor at the Royal Military College in Kingston, who also left Hungary in 1956.
Almost 200,000 Hungarians fled their country after the revolution, the vast majority pouring into neighbouring Austria. The refugees left under a haze of uncertainty -- many thought they would return in days, maybe months. They hitched rides to border towns and fled with backpacks of possessions. The Telegdis were among the thousands who decided to leave Budapest.
Telegdi's mother was a draftswoman and his stepfather a town planner who had joined the French resistance while studying in Paris during the Second World War. The MP doesn't remember them as especially political people, but as the situation in post-revolution Hungary worsened, they hatched a plan to leave.
"My parents sent us kids to a farm community close to the border," says Telegdi. "We said we were going to stay with relatives because our mother was sick."
Around midnight on a cold February night, Telegdi's parents came to the farmhouse and the family set off in a haywagon for the Austrian border. When they approached the no-man's land that separated the two countries, their guide left them with a simple set of instructions: "He said, that's the border. Head in that direction," Telegdi recalls.
It was a gruelling nighttime march. The family walked through snowbanks in forests and farmers' fields. Many Hungarians who had tried to escape along the same route turned back -- it was impossible to know if they were heading in the right direction, and the threat of landmines lurked underfoot. But the refugees pressed on and eventually came upon a cemetery. It would become their marker of freedom.
"My father looked at the tombstones to see if the names were German," says Telegdi. "Then we heard someone yelling at us in German. My mother worried that maybe they were Soviets who also spoke German."
But the Telegdis had indeed crossed into Austria. A farmer let them sleep in his barn for two nights before the family headed for the growing refugee camps in Vienna. It was there Telegdi first tasted chocolate powder. "The one thing we noticed was that the food was much better in Austria."
Atop the arching gate that stands outside the gleaming new forestry building at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver are the words, "Isten Hozott," a Hungarian expression meaning, "With the Grace of God." It is perhaps one of the most visible legacies of the Hungarian migration to Vancouver.
On a brilliant fall afternoon, Tony Kozak joins Telegdi for a tour of the campus where Kozak and almost 300 Hungarian forestry students resumed their studies after the revolution. Kozak went on to become the forestry school's associate dean for 21 years.
Looking back at their arrivals in Canada, the MP and the professor agree their reception was remarkable.
"It was very special for us," says Kozak, expressing the unbridled gratitude that almost every 56er intones when acknowledging their acceptance in Canada. "We learned very quickly that this had never happened before."
Prior to 1956, Canada's preferred immigrant was either a white Brit or a white American. Just a short decade earlier, Canada refused to accept Jewish refugees trying to flee the horrors of the Holocaust. Central and eastern Europeans -- including Hungarians -- were near the bottom of the racist immigration hierarchy.
By the 1950s, the postwar economy was booming and Canada opened its doors, if only a crack, to previously rejected groups.
Still, when the initial streams of Hungarian refugees marched past the Iron Curtain into Austria, the Canadian government was hardly keen to accept them -- on either humanitarian or economic grounds. It was only when the Canadian public, bombarded with shocking images from Budapest, demanded action that politicians approached the refugee issue.
"This was partly a humanitarian response and partly a response to the Cold War that the Hungarians had fought on the streets of Budapest," says Harold Troper, a University of Toronto historian, about Canadians' reaction to the crisis.
The refugee issue immediately became a political football. Responding to public pressure, Ontario's Conservative government proposed bringing the Hungarians to Canada. Sensing they might have been scooped in the battle for public opinion, the federal Liberals pounced on that idea.
In their efforts to help the Hungarians, the Grits let nothing slide. Jack Pickersgill, immigration minister at the time, arranged free airlifts from Austria and waived basic security and health checks on the refugees. He even visited a refugee camp in Vienna where he tried to woo a group of young forestry students to come to Canada.
Kozak was a 20-year-old student with a girlfriend and carefully slicked hair when the uprising erupted. As the political situation worsened, Kozak and his fellow forestry students at Sopron University made the quick trip from their border town into Austria. Kozak thought he would be gone just a short time; he left only in a sweater and slacks. With their school year interrupted, the school's dean appealed to several countries.
"UBC basically gave us carte blanche to teach the Hungarian curriculum and teach courses in Hungarian," says Kozak from his office in the forestry school. "The university as a whole accepted us and we're very grateful for everything that they've done."
Transplanting an entire university faculty across the Atlantic was an extraordinary example of institutional generosity, but thousands of Canadians echoed that sentiment in countless gestures between 1956 and 1957. The Telegdi family benefitted from the free airlifts that would take them from Europe to Gander, N.L., and finally to Vancouver.
"Pickersgill commissioned anything that crawled to bring the refugees to Canada," recalls Telegdi who, like most 56ers, still fondly remembers the immigration minister who marshaled the plan to assist the Hungarians.
After a couple of nights at the Vancouver immigration centre, the Telegdis loaded themselves and their belongings into two taxis to go to the Hay house on the city's North Shore. Lauren Hay, seven years old when the Hungarian Revolution erupted, still remembers her mother responding to a radio appeal for Canadians to host refugees. The family of five was told they would receive two single, Hungarian women. Instead, the Telegdis arrived and their four-bedroom, one-bathroom house became home to 10 people.
"We never really asked why they did it," says Hay, whose mother was a homemaker and father a carpenter. "My mother was an idealistic person and was interested in different parts of the world ... As a child, it was just something that you took for granted. You almost assumed that everyone had an immigrant family in their home."
The Telegdis stayed with the Hays for almost three months in 1957. During that time, the Canadians learned to eat chicken paprika, cabbage rolls and poppyseed cakes, while the Telegdi children played in the neighbourhood and their parents looked for work. That fall, a private Catholic school agreed to give the Telegdi brothers a bursary for tuition and board -- another welcome gesture for the refugees.
Canadians reached out in other ways, too. In 1956, Eva Kossuth was a young Red Cross worker in Montreal; she recalls that Simpsons department store delivered a new load of care packages whenever the radio announced another plane-load of Hungarians had landed. "We received constant calls with people asking, 'Do you need any food or clothes for the Hungarians?'" says Kossuth, a native of Hungary who settled in Vancouver. "At Christmas time, they called to ask, 'Do you have any Hungarians for us to have at Christmas?'"
The Telegdis' future neighbour, Steve Tanack, was a 40-year-old dining-car worker for CP Rail in 1956 when he was assigned a new route; his job was to cook for the hundreds of Hungarians who were being ferried across the country on the so-called "Freedom Train." Tanack remembers crowds welcoming the refugees at train stations in different cities.
The outpouring of generosity reflected the compassion and hospitality that many Canadians now view as their country's trademark in international humanitarian crises. Historians often say 1956 set the template for Canada's government sponsored refugee programs that later helped those fleeing Vietnam and the Balkans.
"The fact that the Hungarians adjusted so well encouraged the notion in the popular mind that Canada could do well by doing good," says Troper from the University of Toronto. "And doing good felt good."
Walking through his old east Vancouver neighbourhood, Telegdi points out the "originals" -- the wood-sided houses near 49th Street and Victoria that haven't been torn down and replaced with new, stucco-sided structures. A wave of immigrants from Asia has moved into this neighbourhood during the past decade or so, but Telegdi remembers when his was one of the only immigrant families on the block.
"Like with most immigrants, buying a house was a huge deal," says Telegdi.
In many ways, the Telegdi family story unfolded the way immigrant stories are meant to unfold. After five years on the West Coast, the family moved to Toronto where his parents found work in their professional fields. After high school, Telegdi enrolled at the University of Waterloo where he got involved in student politics and met his future wife, Nancy.
Telegdi now spends most of his days around Parliament Hill. It hasn't always been an easy ride. His thorniest fight in government has come at the intersection where Canadian immigration policy, public opinion and Europe's dark history converge. In 2000, Telegdi resigned as parliamentary secretary for citizenship and immigration over a proposed bill that would deny immigrants the right of appeal if a federal court ruled they should lose their Canadian citizenship. Instead, cabinet would make the final decision.
"When you deal with citizenship, it's a judicial process. It's something that's too important to be politicized ... I'm a Canadian by choice. I wasn't going to be part of something that treats six million Canadians like me like second-class citizens," says Telegdi.
Several Jewish groups in the country attacked Telegdi in the press for his position; their fight to deport suspected war criminals had come to a head in 2000, and backlash over the issue has left a strong mark on Telegdi's political career. The proposed bill eventually died when an election was called that year, but Telegdi still insists citizenship should remain an issue for the country's courts and that should be enshrined in a future citizenship act.
On the eve of the 50th anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution, Telegdi has been at events around Ottawa to commemorate the uprising: a monument thanking Canada for welcoming the refugees was unveiled on Maple Island earlier this month; a portrait exhibit of 50 prominent Hungarian-Canadians is showing at the National Arts Centre until Oct. 22.
At the opening of the exhibit, Telegdi was among the glittering crowd of 56ers who gathered at the NAC to remember the world-changing events that brought them to Canada. The black-and-white photographs portrayed CEOs, doctors, artists -- and one federal politician. Beneath Telegdi's photograph, taken against the stately backdrop of Parliament Hill, was an inscription that read: "Like millions of other immigrants, my parents were wondering whether they did the right thing. Would their family flourish in this new land?" The answer is clear from the portraits on display.
The Ottawa Citizen, October 15, 2006. The Citizen's Weekly, page B4