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Strictly speaking, this isn’t a story about France, although it starts and finishes there.
It is a story about one of history’s great tragedies, the ill-fated uprising in Budapest just 50 years ago against the dominance of the Soviet Union over Hungary. It is about the drama of some of the refugees from that conflict and, strange as it may seem, it also is about the mysterious power of the religious site in Lourdes, France, the home of St. Bernadette.
Apparently disassociated events, they all linked up for me by chance.
At the time, in the autumn of 1956, I was a military correspondent in France and had been ordered by my editors to go urgently to Germany and fly to the United States with the first plane-load of Hungarian refugees being transported by the U.S. air force to safety and asylum in America.
The troubles in Budapest that had driven them from their native land had begun in mid-October of that year, with a series of uncontrollable student and then general public demonstrations followed by repeated clashes between lightly armed Hungarians throwing Molotov cocktails and Soviet tanks firing on the crowds and killing hundreds in the process.
On October 28, the fighting stopped briefly and Soviet forces withdrew temporarily to posts in the countryside. But the truce lasted only long enough for Moscow to prepare to crush the rebellion definitively and reaffirm iron control of its East European empire.
On November 4, Soviet tanks supported by 60,000 Soviet soldiers rolled back into the capital for a week of murderous repression. During that time more than 2,500 Hungarian ‘Freedom Fighters’ were killed, thousands more were wounded and more than 200,000 refugees fled the country.
During this, I had been in Lourdes completing a story about the ‘daily miracles’, not so much of physical cures but of faith, that drew hundreds of thousands of pilgrims each year to the city’s shrine of Bernadette.
When the revolt in Budapest broke out, however, I hurried quickly to Paris, stopping only briefly in my newspaper’s office to send a copy of my article about the special kind of miracle in Lourdes to an American lady there who figured largely in it. Then I moved off immediately to Munich, Germany.
There the first busloads of refugees who had escaped across the Austro-Hungarian border were starting to arrive at the city’s airfield for what would become the U.S. Air Force’s “Operation Safe Haven,” the biggest airlift since the Berlin blockade.
As they stepped from the 10 packed busses bringing them from their first stop at emergency shelters in Austria, those refugees evoked tremendous pity.
Only one cried, although they all had a right to. Most had few belongings other than the Red-Cross-supplied clothes on their backs. All had lost, within days, their families, their homes, the fruits of years of labor, all left behind in the rubble of Budapest.
But they had kept their dignity and many had displayed remarkable courage.
One, Andras Acsay, then only a shaggy-haired boy of 16, had manned a machine gun fighting Soviet troops for five days during the battle of Budapest. The only request he made of his U.S. Air Force hosts before boarding the plane for America was to have a haircut so that he would look correct upon arrival.
When our flight, the forerunner of a series that eventually would bring 10,000 refugees to the United States, arrived in New York, the first words addressed to them on American soil and read to them in Hungarian by interpreters were from then U.S. president Dwight D. Eisenhower. “You are among friends,” he told them.
Throughout America they were viewed and greeted enthusiastically as people who had chosen liberty and the American way of life over the harsh communist regime under which they had lived for more than a decade since the end of World War II.
In the Austrian refugee camps which first took them in when they crossed the Hungarian frontier they had been asked to which country they would like to go. And they had indeed opted for America.
They were undoubtedly happy to be going there, but their choice had not been that simple. In their distress they would have opted for almost anywhere where they could find peace and quiet and a chance to start a new life.
I had flown across the Atlantic with them. I knew that they were lost, numbed and bewildered souls who for weeks had been treated kindly but who still herded about like sheep or cattle.
Had anyone with an air of authority after their arrival in New York told them to get on another bus and another plane for another country I was convinced that virtually all would have done so meekly and without protest.
In fact, during the plane trip, most of them spent their time trying to teach me Hungarian rather than pumping me with questions about what would become their new country of adoption. I realized quickly that I could be of more help to them by being interested in their lives than in trying to stimulate them about life in America.
For a while I stayed with them in New York. Then I headed back to Paris where I found waiting a letter of reply from the American lady to whom I had sent the story about Lourdes just before my departure with the refugees.
She had come there with her dying husband as a last desperate attempt at salvation. It hadn’t worked, however. During my time in the United States he had passed away and, in her grief, she had returned from his death bed to her hotel room contemplating suicide. In the room, however, she said she had found my letter with the article about the miracle of faith in Lourdes.
She told me that it had made her change her mind about suicide. Instead, she said, she had decided to return to the United States, sell all her possessions and come back to the city of Bernadette to spend the rest of her life assisting other people who had come there seeking help.
I have kept that letter to this day as a souvenir of two emotion-packed weeks of my life and a French-American-Hungarian adventure that even half a century cannot erase.