The "Sopron Division of Forestry" in Canada
April 22nd, 2009
We have recently become aware that Professor Antal Kozak, retired Dean and Professor Emeritus of the UBC Faculty of Forestry published a detailed article in 2008 about the arrival and integration of the Hungarian students and faculty from the Sopron Forestry School into the UBC Faculty of Forestry in 1957. The article was published originally in Hungarian. in a special 200th anniversary commemorative volume of the forestry Almanach of Sopron published in 2008 (Az Erdészeti Felsöoktatás 200 Éve - Emlékkönyv - Selmecbánya 1808 - Sopron 2008. NymE Erdömérnöki Kar, Sopron. 3 volumes).
The article has now been translated into English (thanks to Mr Béla Görgényi, P.Eng.) and we are pleased to provide it here to enrich the historical record about this important and symbolic moment in the Hungarian refugee movement to Canada in 1956/57. The Hungarian version has a number of photographs which are missing in the English version.
We are grateful to Dr Laszlo Jozsa for helping us in making this material available on the website as well as for the photos he has sent us. We will soon have a special feature on Dr Jozsa and his wood carvings and paintings.
Tony (Antal) Kozák came to Canada in 1957 as a 21-year-old 3rd-year university student from the Forestry School in Sopron. He continued his studies at UBC, obtaining his Ph.D. degree in 1963. He started his working career as a lecturer, became an assistant professor, associate professor, and full professor in 1972. From 1977 to 1998 Dr. Kozák served as an Associate Dean of Forestry at UBC. He retired in 2001, but continues to mentor graduate students in statistics and experimental design. He was one of the first visiting professors from the West teaching courses at the Forestry and Wood Sciences University of Sopron. In 2003 Tony Kozák became a member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (Magyar Tudományos Académia or MTA).
November 4, 1956
This date is a very memorable one in the history of the Faculty of Forest Engineering of Sopron. The early morning radio speech by Imre Nagy, which confirmed the attack by the Soviet tanks, shook the majority of the Hungarian people. The news spread very quickly in Sopron as well. Early in the morning, a large number of students who could be reached were directed to go to the main road toward Györ, (highway No. 84) “to defend Sopron”. The group, mostly fourth and fifth year students, were armed with light weapons obtained from the border guards. They were taken in the direction of Kópháza. Anti-tank guns were supplied from an artillery division at Fertöd. When the Soviet tanks arrived, just before four o’clock in the afternoon, the anti-tank guns did not work, because they were missing their firing pins. For this reason, luckily, the “Battle of Kópháza” ended without a shot or bloodshed. Nevertheless, this created confusion and panic among the students and many of them decided to head toward Muck, the border-crossing into Austria. They did this in order to prevent persecution and retaliation by the Soviets.
The tanks reached Sopron shortly after four o’clock, which elevated the fear in many people. Later that afternoon and during the following days many students sought refuge in Austria. The number of forestry students in the group was estimated to be 330. Confusion and apprehension led to an exodus that was not organised or premeditated, in contrast to accusations still being heard from many quarters in Sopron. Many of those fleeing considered their stay in Austria only temporary. They hoped that the Western Powers would come to the aid of Hungary and then they would be able to return to Sopron. We were all very disappointed to find that aid never came.
Our Days in Austria
There were large groups of Hungarian refugees in Austria at this time and their accommodation and care was a problem for the government officials. Most of the forestry students (about 250) and their professors (about 50, including family members) were housed in temporary facilities together with other refugees. Those students who crossed the border carrying their weapons (about 80) were separated from the group and housed in a military compound in Klosterneuburg. When Kálmán Roller, the director of the Forestry University, (he later was given the title “Dean” in the West) and some of the older professors heard about the large group of students in the camps, they requested the Minister of Public Education of Austria to try to house all the group members in one location so that they might be able to continue their studies, if arrangements could be made. Consequently, the teaching staff and their families were transferred to Stroble, to be housed in the dormitories of a girls’ school, around the 10th of November. The students were provided with accommodations about 10 km. from there, in the school itself, at Ferienhort, on the shores of Lake St. Wolfgang. Unfortunately, the students who were under military supervision were not released at this time, but they were also brought together into one camp near Salzburg at Sitzenheim. They organised a hunger strike there to be released, but even then they were not allowed to join their school mates.
In Ferienhort, the students soon organised the “Ifjusági Kör”, a student “club” which was traditional for the University since Selmec but was disallowed in Sopron in the communist era. Miklós Grátzer, a fourth year student, was elected as president on December 2nd. After we settled in, the professors tried to organise lectures, but without the necessary facilities it was progressing very slowly. Also, there were not enough professors to accommodate all the required subjects. Kálmán Roller and the professors started a search for available forest engineers among the other refugees to complement the staff. The lectures started on November 17th, but lasted only a few days, as we received information, that the Soviet occupation in Hungary put an end to the revolution and that the West was not going to provide aid to free our country. It became also obvious that the Austrian government was intent on preserving their recently acquired freedom and independence; therefore our settlement in Austria on a more permanent basis was hopeless. A temporary “Council of Professors” decided that the best course would be to find separate routes for the various faculties, such as the mining engineers, the foresters, the geophysicists and land surveyors.
On the 25th of November a decision was made to send letters, with the signature of Kálmán Roller, to twenty countries around the world, requesting help in accommodating the Forestry University on a temporary basis, until the students could complete their studies. Many positive responses arrived and among them the proposal by Canada seemed to be the most advantageous for us. The President of the University of British Columbia, N. A. M. MacKenzie, the Dean of their Faculty of Forestry, George Allen and two Ministers of the Crown, Hon. J. W. Pickersgill and Hon. J. Sinclair worked together with enthusiasm and great interest. We heard about their offer on an Austrian radio broadcast, on December 4th. Their proposal was as follows:
- The forestry students would be able to complete their studies in Hungarian in Canada, at the UBC Campus in Vancouver.
- The Sopron Division would be part of the Faculty of Forestry and the degree would be equivalent to the Canadian degree authorized by UBC, which was well known and respected around the world.
- Canada would pay the transportation costs from Austria to Vancouver.
- After arrival, the Powell River Paper Company would provide accommodation for the whole group until September 1957.
- English language courses would be available during this time.
- The Canadian Government would provide financial aid to the students and the teaching staff until the last group had graduated, for a maximum of five years.
- The professors and the students would be free to return to Hungary at any time.
- The official invitation and proposal from the Canadian Government arrived in a letter on December 12th. On the 15th of December, Dean Allen and Mr. Fred McNeil, a representative of the Powell River Company arrived in Ferienhort to meet us and to explain the proposals. They also tried to introduce us to the Canadian, and in particular, the British Columbian way of everyday life. The offer seemed extremely advantageous for us but the long distance from Hungary to Canada made some of us think it almost impossible to undertake. We had a hard time choosing between the very difficult options. Fortunately there was time, because the visitors invited Kálmán Roller and three students of his choice to go to Canada. Miklós Grátzer, Ernö Krétai and András Szalkai, all fourth year students, flew to Canada with the visitors and Dean Roller on December 16th.
Kálmán Roller and Miklós Grátzer returned from Canada just before Christmas and gave us a detailed description of their trip. They made us understand, that it would not be easy for us there, but the proposal was worthy of acceptance. One encouraging fact was hat Ernö Krétai and András Szalkai did not return with them. Their message was that they intended to remain in Canada and continue their studies there, whether we agreed to accept the proposal or not. After a lengthy debate of the issue and a ballot vote, we did agree to accept the Canadian proposal. Some of the students (approximately 70) decided to remain in Europe. West Germany, Sweden and Switzerland were willing to accept individual applicants. Another group of roughly 60 students decided that they would return to Sopron. Some of the older professors also chose to either remain in Europe or to return to Sopron.
Following our decision, the accommodations at Ferienhort were closed, the students in the military camp were released and the whole group was transferred to Salzburg until our departure to Canada could be arranged.