After Fleeing Iron Curtain, Exiles Seek Role Back Home


Bela Kiraly's mission today is identical to what it was 40 years ago: Hungary's democratization.

When Soviet tanks rolled into the city on Nov. 4, 1956, to crush the anti-Soviet uprising, they came looking for Mr. Kiraly, a four-star general who commanded the revolutionary armed forces. He was forced to retreat to Austria.

Sentenced to death in absentia, he settled in the US and became a renowned military historian and professor at City University of New York. When the Iron Curtain cracked open in 1989, he returned to Hungary. From 1990 to 1994 he served as a parliamentarian in Hungary's first freely elected government.

Such a calling - to contribute to the post-Communist transition - has drawn thousands of migrs and exiles back to their Central European homelands. Typically they are accomplished and affluent, with knowledge, skills, and capital.

"My 32 years in America made democracy an experience, not just a slogan," says Kiraly.

"I always remained a Hungarian patriot, so this is my mission here. It's what keeps me alive." Kiraly is currently editing a 22-volume, English-language series on Hungarian history for CD-ROM.

On the other hand, a few have alienated locals by returning simply to make a quick buck, or by speaking their native tongue in such an affected manner as to intentionally identify themselves as fortunate migrs.

So they're not always welcomed with open arms, and the locals are highly selective about whom they accept as one of their own.

In the Czech Republic, migrs of the 1968 Prague Spring (70,000 left the former Czechoslovakia) face resentment for not having endured the struggle with their countrymen. In Hungary, incredulous locals sometimes suspect the '56ers return only because they "couldn't make it" in their adopted countries.

A rich background

Still, armed with intimate knowledge of the culture, history, and, most importantly, the language, migrs become a critical bridge of communication between foreign nations and Hungary. Indeed, they say they are richer for having a foot in two cultures.

"I don't have divided loyalties in any way," said Peter Keresztes, editor in chief of the Hungarian Reader's Digest since its inception five years ago and a 23-year veteran of The Wall Street Journal. He was a teenager when he emigrated from Hungary to the US with his family. "There's an additional dimension to me in my heart and in my mind."

Not always by choice

But this depth of character was not a choice for most of Hungary's '56ers. Leaders of the uprising - students, workers and intellectuals - watched the Soviet Army use overwhelming force to destroy the movement. Estimates have ranged from 3,000 to 7,000 killed during the revolution.

In addition, revolutionary leaders correctly predicted a wave of retribution. According to later estimates, restoring order amounted to 300 executed, 24,000 imprisoned, and 120,000 fired from their jobs.

Surprisingly, immediately after the uprising the Hungarian Communists eased border patrols in the hope that key rabble-rousers would leave and relieve public tension. The move backfired to some extent as most of the 200,000 who fled (from a country of 10 million) were well-educated professionals. Some 50,000 returned within a few years, but 50,000 settled in the US, often in urban enclaves.

Although living abroad, many maintained ties to their roots through Hungarian cultural and social organizations. As a teenager, Magda Kertesz left Budapest with her mother and landed in Chicago's ethnic mosaic.

She eventually married a fellow ethnic Hungarian immigrant and later they spearheaded an effort to sponsor visiting ethnic Hungarian artists, writers, and musicians.

In 1990, Ms. Kertesz moved back to Hungary to run the State of Illinois office, which assists Illinois companies interested in expanding into Central Europe. Even after six years on the job, she regularly grapples with culture clash of American "can-do" optimism versus Hungary's pervasive "can't-do" pessimism.

"In the States we were always considered Hungarian, but here in my work, with my business attitude, I'm considered an American," said Kertesz, whose small office is chock-a-block with Chicago trinkets.

"Here they have no concept of the future. Everything is: Today, get it.... In the US, there's a future you think about," she says.

Memory vs. reality

But like the lifelong inhabitants, returnees have been discouraged by the pace of reforms and burgeoning societal ills. Childhood memories of teeming outdoor cafes, grand boulevards, and the familiar strains of Bla Bartk are being replaced with images of distasteful graffiti, ubiquitous American fast-food signs, and grandparents begging for spare change in the underground metro.

Yet the migrs realize that once they left their homeland, they also relinquished a native's right to criticize Hungarian society. For most, that's a sacrifice they're willing to accept.

Many migrs turn down the opportunity of dual Hungarian-American citizenship in favor of retaining their American citizenship.

When asked why he did so, Ivan Volgyes, General Electric's national adviser to Hungary, quotes a line from revered Hungarian poet Mikls Radnti: " 'He who changes his country, must change his heart,' " says Mr. Volgyes, a longtime political science professor at the University of Nebraska who fled Hungary when he was 20.

"And a man doesn't do that twice in his life," he adds.

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