Sunday marks the 60th anniversary of the Hungarian revolution
On October 23, 1956, a student protest sparked an ill-fated uprising
Janos Antal Peter fled to England after the outbreak of violence
Both mother and son held their breath. Concealed in a hay wagon, the pair had been warned to sit close to the surface in case soldiers thrust swords into the bottom of the stack checking for fleeing residents.
Today, the journey between Hungary’s capital of Budapest and the city of Linz in Austria is only a four-hour drive. But in 1956, it was along this treacherous route that Hungarian Janos Antal Peter fled as a doomed revolution was quashed at home.
Back in Hungary, what started as a student march through the capital October 23 had become a fully-fledged uprising against Communist rule and Soviet suppression. Sunday marks the 60th anniversary of the start of the ill-fated revolution.
Mounting tensions had been simmering since the end of the Second World War. It was a time of economic hardship, violent purges and draconian order. With the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953 came the promise of change across eastern Europe. And yet his successor, Nikita Khruschev, proved no less ruthless when hanging onto the Soviet empire.
The Hungarian revolution would be brutally crushed in a matter of weeks. And by its end, more than 2,500 Hungarians and 700 Soviet troops would be dead and 200,000 people would be scattered west as refugees. Most fled through Austria, carving out the same route taken recently by so many Syrian refugees.
One of those who fled along that route in 1956 was 18-year-old Peter.
From demonstration to revolution
Peter was standing outside the state radio building when the first shots rang out on October 23. He watched in horror as a boy his age was badly wounded, just meters away.
“We, the people, didn’t start the revolution,” he recalls to CNN. “It was the communists – when they started killing.”
At first, citizens were bolstered with hope as Soviet forces initially suggested a willingness to negotiate. But two weeks later, Russian troops re-entered Hungary with a full invasion force, including 1,000 tanks. The interim government and any meaningful resistance lasted less than a week; arrests and recriminations would continue until public opposition had been extinguished.
In early December, Peter and his mother decided it was time to leave. But that in itself was going to be a difficult task. When the revolution broke out in late October, the borders were open and relatively easy to cross, but those avenues of escape had now been fortified again.
On the decision to leave his home, Peter reflects: “Living in that world, it’s easy to become older than you are.”
Months earlier, his mother had left his stepfather and so the three decided to make the journey together – first by train, then a hay wagon and finally, on foot. The fear of capture clung to them for almost three days.
While Peter’s stepfather had hoped to reunite with his mother, it was not to be. The three would separate once safe at a refugee camp in Austria across the border. Peter and his mother would undertake the next stage of their journey alone.
At the final stop before the border, he remembers the words of an old man imploring them not to leave: “Don’t go, good people, this is your country.” But Peter had set his heart on England.
Arriving in England
His biological father – an esteemed art historian – had spent time there, and often spoke of the country with affection. In fact, before the Second World War broke out, he had opened a bank account in London with a plan to move his family there when Peter was a baby.
Tragically, in 1944, he was killed by Hungarian Nazis – a third-generation Catholic, shot and thrown in the Danube river because of his Jewish ancestry.
Following the revolution, the Austrian government granted all Hungarian refugees political asylum. They set up camps to provide food and shelter, and offered transport to Germany and beyond.
Upon arrival at an army base in Tidworth, southern England, Janos Antal Peter became John Anthony Peter. He recalls how, even before they had left the plane, “emergency” cups of tea were ferried on board. “A most moving kindness” is John’s overwhelming memory of those first few disorienting days.
“I was so pleased and excited because everybody was so nice and I knew it was England. They knew how to make us feel that we were at home here.”
Embracing his new home
It would take another two months before the pair was permanently relocated to an East London flat, all the while absorbing a culture and language that was utterly alien against his bleak upbringing in communist Hungary.
The whole time, he “learned, learned, learned English like a machine, like mad.”
He saw pictures of Elvis Presley and was enthralled by the music of Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald. He even tried Coca-Cola, the “evil drink of the West,” and found it didn’t make him “high” as he’d been led to believe back in Hungary.
He says: “They gave us so much to eat at breakfast, lunch and dinner and a little money so I could go to the local village, get a cup of coffee and pay for it.”
In September 1957, Peter entered Oxford University, where he studied English literature. As a refugee, he worked as a part-time college “servant” in return for his fees and expenses; after his first year, he was offered a grant.
Following the Hungarian revolution, universities across Europe played their part in a coordinated international response. Even the highest seats of learning in the land – Oxford and Cambridge – placed a Hungarian in each of their colleges.
When he arrived in Britain, Peter knew just two words of English: “Cowboy,” from American Western movies, and “Times” – then the quintessential English newspaper. Eight years later, he would join that paper’s staff, working there for 40 years and rising to the role of chief drama critic before retiring in 2004.
Over the decades, he has fully embraced his adopted country, becoming a highly-respected English gentleman – something that might have pleased his father enormously.