On February 6, 1957, devoted daily diarist Eleanor Roosevelt recorded her attendance at an American Hungarian Medical Association fundraising dinner to benefit Hungarian refugees. She observed:
“This association helps in Europe as well as in this country, and I am glad it does, for the refugee burden on Austria and Yugoslavia must be great.
“[Chairman of the president's committee for Hungarian relief, Tracy S.] Voorhees told me that efforts were being made not only to move Hungarian refugees out of Camp Kilmer, N.J. quickly, but to give them an opportunity to learn the language and to get them into work similar to that which they were doing in their own country.
“He also mentioned that attempts were being made to bear in mind the needs of refugees in accustoming themselves to the change they face when leaving Europe and entering into the different atmosphere and culture of the United States.
“This is no easy situation, and the committee is trying to do a remarkable piece of work in meeting the refugees’ social and spiritual needs as well as their bread-and-butter problems.
“Concern for the Hungarian refugees in this country has been very great. And I think that this is because we are readily moved by people who fight for freedom.”
The post-World War II history of Hungary began with Soviet occupation, then moved to a more subtle domination under the national Communist government of Matyas Rakosi. The Warsaw Pact of 1955, which touted the principles of “respect for the independence and sovereignty of states” and “noninterference in their internal affairs” formally bound Hungary and other eastern European states as satellites to Mother Russia. When Austria was declared a neutral country that same year, and Poland won some limited autonomy for its national government in June of 1956, Hungarian citizens began to hope for change.
Rakosi, who had risen to Hungary’s General Secretary of the Communist Party, was deposed in July. Students, writers, and journalists felt the muzzle lifted and began to write and speak out in criticism of the economically and spiritually crushing status quo. On October 23rd, demonstrations began, the State Security Police responded with bullets, government officials requested Soviet military assistance, and the next day saw Soviet tanks in the streets of Budapest. Resistance continued until a cease-fire was put in place on October 28th. The day before, a new Hungarian government had been constituted with the beginnings of reform on the horizon.
The Soviets were not amused. By November 1st, Khrushchev began informing his allies of his plans for more forceful intervention in rebellious Hungary. Through the first ten days of November, Soviet troops effectively took Hungary back under control. When the ceasefire took effect on November 10th, over 2500 Hungarian citizens and 700 Soviet fighters had been killed, with many more wounded. In the aftermath, many thousands of Hungarians were arrested. Records seem to indicate that 26,000 were brought into court, with 22,000 sentenced, 13,000 imprisoned, several hundred executed, and hundreds deported, probably to the gulags of the Soviet Union. Masses of refugees – more than 200,000 souls – fled their motherland.
The United States’ response to the Hungarian crisis was complicated by events at the Suez Canal. “We couldn’t, on one hand, complain about the Soviets intervening in Hungary and, on the other hand, approve of the British and the French picking that particular time to intervene against Nasser,” Vice President Richard Nixon later explained. Time magazine, less inhibited by international opinion, named the Hungarian Freedom Fighter as its Man of the Year for 1956. The United Nations created a Special Committee on the Problem of Hungary in January of 1957 to determine the whether human rights had been violated. Representatives from five member nations conducted refugee interviews and studied documents, newspapers, and other records. The new Hungarian - and the old Soviet - governments refused access and requests for information.
Meanwhile, the refugees were making their way across Europe and many came to the United States. Relief efforts on their behalf by the American Hungarian Medical Association, and other organizations, hoped to aid displaced families and individuals as they joined the melting pot that has helped make America strong.