Born near the Transylvanian town of Tîrgu Mures in 1935, Andrew Zsigmond, Baron de Lemhény, was a 21 year old medical student at Pécs University, in communist-ruled Hungary, when on 23 October 1956 a demonstration in the capital Budapest blew up into a full scale revolution in a matter of hours.
‘I, like so many others, took up arms to arrest secret police and communist party officials and to resist the invading Red Army,’ says Andrew, known to his friends as Ziggy.
The hated AVO secret police were one of the first targets for the revolutionaries – it was when the AVO began firing into the crowd of protesters on 23 October that the crowd turned from protest to armed revolt.
Hungary had been under the iron fist of Joseph Stalin since the war, with Hungary’s wealth siphoned off to Soviet Russia, and Soviet troops and tanks moved in to enforce Stalin’s regime. After Uncle Joe’s death in 1953 the Hungarians were hoping for better under the new Soviet leader Krushchev, but although he made a a few concessions to Hungarian demands, it was not enough.
The popular uprising saw up to 100,000 Hungarians in the streets, with students issuing their demands for more personal freedom, better food, the removal of the secret police, more democratic government, and so on.
On 4 November Soviet troops and tanks swept through Budapest, killing tens of thousands of rebels and wounding many thousands more. The suppression was brutal – troops were even dragging bodies through the streets as a warning to the rebels. Almost 200,000 refugees fled Hungary before the end of the year.
‘As I was the editor of the extraordinary edition of the University Weekly,’ says Ziggy, ‘they came looking for me. I lay low in my father’s cellar until my father urged me to leave the country. He knew what the options were – he had been a senior policeman in 1948 when the communists stuck him in jail for a couple of years.
‘By the end of the year, most of the refugees had already fled; we had stayed almost too long. On 2 January 1957 a group of five of us left. As well as me, there was another medical student, his brother, a 65 year old actor who was the Errol Flynn of Hungary, and one other.
‘In various disguises, we took the train as far it we could go, and then we had to walk the rest of the way to Austria. We walked at night and slept by day, and it took us three nights. It should have taken only two, but the terrain through the Austrian Alps was difficult – crevasses and ridges in deep snow; and then there was getting lost, and dogs…’ He makes light of the journey.
‘We had guns, but we threw them away because if we’d been armed when they caught us they would have shot us immediately. No guns, and we would only have been deported to Siberia.
‘When we got to the border there was a bigger group ahead of us. They were heavily armed, and were spotted by the border guards. The shooting gave us cover, and we ran for it.’
So the little band reached the refugee camp in Austria on 5 January. Andrew glosses over the horrors of the camp and moves the story on.
‘Of all things, a red doubledecker London bus turned up – it was a recruiting office for the National Coal Board in Britain. We signed up, and by 13 January we’d been lifted out and were in Barnsley, as apprentice miners. We didn’t speak a word of English, but the pay was good – £7.13s.6d.’
Barnsley didn’t keep him for long; Andrew moved on to Wath-on-Dearne as a hospital ward orderly. He was determined to get back to his medical studies, and got the local MP, Roy Mason, to help him apply to Liverpool University for a place in the third year of a medical degree. ‘The problem was my English.
‘You couldn’t buy an English-Hungarian dictionary, so I had to learn parrot-fashion. In the end, I managed to persuade the professor to allow the interview to be conducted in Latin, which I spoke much better than English.’
Andrew graduated in 1961, and, he says, that’s the end of the story.
But what about the other four escapees from Russian reprisals after the uprising? ‘One is a doctor in Liverpool, like me. The actor went to the USA and, having played one so often on stage, became a real life butler of such distinction that he became butler to Rockerfeller.’
Another of them, who also went to America didn’t fare so well. ‘He got a job as an animator with Walt Disney, but the memories of the past were too much for him, and he committed suicide three or four years after we left Hungary.’