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How I fled from terror on a bicycle
8:39am Monday 23rd October 2006 in Leader
Today is the 50th anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution, which saw more than 200,000 people fleeing their country after the Russians moved in. John Hobbs retraces the story of one of them, who now lives in quiet retirment in rural Weardale.
THE radio broadcast that a young Imre Antal heard on that bleak October day heralded the start of a perilous journey that was eventually to lead to freedom. Today, 50 years on, he can still vividly recall the events that changed his life - and the lives of tens of thousands of Hungarians - for ever.
Imre, a 19-year-old miner, was off work sick from the Tabanya coalfield, east of the capital of Budapest. "I remember listening to the radio at around two o'clock," he recalls. "Suddenly I could hear guns firing. The programme finished abruptly and someone put on some records. An announcement was then made that severe fighting was taking place between the Hungarian secret army and the Russians."
A group of students had entered the state radio building in Budapest attempting to make certain demands. They were then fired on by security police inside the building. The news spread quickly. The Hungarian Revolution had begun.
It ended on November 10, 1956, with the Russians invading Budapest with a large force. There were mass arrests and killings and an estimated 200,000 Hungarians - including Imre Antal - fled the country.
Imre, who now lives in the tranquil village of Westgate, in Weardale, remembers how thousands of his countrymen, including neighbours and friends, were sent off to labour camps by the Russians.
"Nobody knew really what was happening, but they were very frightened."
Along with three pals, Imre decided to make his way to Austria - by bicycle. "It was a frightening ride for all of us. We kept hearing of killings and people being sent to labour camps. But luckily we eventually managed to reach the border. We made contact with the Red Cross, and they eventually took us to safety in Graz.
"From there we were taken to the Austrian Tyrol, where we stayed for six or seven weeks. I remember it was snowing most of the time."
But Imre feared for the family and friends he had left behind in the small town of Lenti, where he was born, particularly his parents, Alex and Rose.
Alex, along with other soldiers in the Hungarian Army, had been drafted in by the Germans to fight on the Russian Front during the Second World War. The freezing conditions of that campaign led to him contracting thrombosis and having both legs amputated.
But he still managed to run a pub, until a Russian-led cooperative took over the industry, leaving Alex unemployed and confined to a wheelchair.
Alex died in 1966. Tragically, because of fears that he would be arrested if he returned to Hungary, Imre couldn't attend his father's funeral. His mother has also since died.
Imre, along with 24 other young Hungarians, officially became a refugee when he was visited by the British consul in the Austrian town of Linz and asked if he would like to come to the UK.
"I was a bit reluctant at first. I had always thought of Britain as being covered with smog and smoke - and I had the whole world to choose from. But, more by chance than anything else, there was a plane ready to go - and I got on it."
On arrival in Britain, in late November, 1956, the refugees were taken in by the Army at Aldershot. "I was there for about a week, then a bus-load of us was taken north to Bradford," says Imre. About 30 of us stayed in the Salvation Army hostel there."
Meanwhile, Imre had found work at a local bakery. "I worked 12-hour days, six days a week and earned £11. It was an awful lot of money in those days," he recalls.
It was then Imre became Eric. "Friends and workmates kept calling me by so many different names that sounded alike, but I eventually settled on Eric."
By then, Eric had met his wife, Carol, who now works as a practice nurse in Weardale, and the couple lived in Leeds.
"Those were some of the happiest days in my life," says Eric. He spent 32 years stoking the furnaces at the Kirstall foundry in Leeds. "It was hard, dirty work, done in filthy conditions, but I loved every minute of that job.
"Every two years or so I have been going back to Hungary. Although I have distant cousins there, I don't feel I belong. There are no real strong ties.
"But I enjoy going to Budapest. It's such a beautiful city these days. So many of the old buildings have been done up, like the Royal Palace."
Next to that, however, is a building riddled with thousands of bullet holes. It has been left untouched as a grim reminder of the revolution.
Much of the history of the Hungarian revolution still remains a mystery, suppressed by the authorities over 50 years Many of the facts remain disputed, with personal and family feuds still unresolved.
But Eric - Imre - Antal finds himself at peace with the world, walking in the hills of Weardale as he did as a boy in the forests around his home at Lenti in Hungary.
Russian tanks, hell-bent on slaughter
Arnold Hadwin, the former editor of The Northern Echo's sister paper, the Evening Despatch, was a reporter on The Oxford Mail when he heard about the plight of the Hungarians. After readers donated medical supplies, blankets, food and clothing, Arnold went with the aid to Hungary. Here, he describes the scenes he came across.
'WE arrived at the Red Cross in Vienna, unloaded our supplies, then headed to the Hungarian border. On this side of the border we met up with hundreds of refugees at Nevsiedl. They had few possessions. Many had spent several nights in the nearby freezing swamps. Some had swum across icy rivers in a hail of Russian machine gun fire.
Saying we would be back, we pressed on. The Austrian guard at the post was reluctant to let us through, but finally said we could have ten minutes in no man's land. The crudely-made track ran for about a quarter of a mile to the Hungarian check-point. The guards wore Russian Army jackets.
They were very young. Their rifles with bayonets remained slung all the time we were with them. I gesticulated, holding up a camera and a packet of cigarettes.
They posed for their photographs, allowing us a few yards inside the Iron Curtain. Then, out of nowhere, came several children. It was a prosaic scene. The sun shone, the guards were all smiles; the children chewed the sweets avidly. But down the road were Russian tanks, hell-bent on slaughter.
Back at the refugee camp we heard tragic, accounts of their flight to freedom. We wrote letters to their relatives across the world.
But most of these care-ridden patriots faced a dilemma: they didn't want to go far from Hungary, always thinking that they would be able to regain freedom on their own soil.
I detected a bitterness towards the West. European and American radio stations seemed to have promised help if they rose against their Russian masters. But none was forthcoming in the form of military involvement.
We knew - and the Russians knew - that here was a Cold War stand-off. The balance of power had to be maintained. Unfortunately, the Hungarians didn't know the score.
Russian propaganda painted a picture of a counter-revolution, a Western bourgeois ploy. The reality was quite different. Many of the refugees I spoke to were Marxists. All were workers, in factories, fields, universities, even newspapers and radio stations.
They were incensed against Russian masters who brutally exploited them - paying lip-service to brotherhood, while bleeding Hungary dry.
I hope those brave, wronged people ultimately found freedom. They showed that brain washing from Left or Right doesn't last forever; human spirit will triumph.'