New Jersey Jewish News
A Dover couple who fled Hungary remembers fearing that the anti-Soviet uprising would turn on the Jews
Agnes Somjen of Dover doesn’t like crowds. Perhaps it has something to do with her upbringing in Hungary. “When a Hungarian mob gets together…,” explained her husband, Gabor Somjen, a recently retired physician, before his voice trailed off.
The Somjens were both 25, living in Budapest, married five years and with an eight-month-old baby boy in October 1956, when Hungarian demonstrators launched a national uprising against Soviet rule, the first in the Eastern Bloc. He was the company physician for a local elevator firm, having recently transferred there from a hospital in the countryside town of Pecel; she was an elementary school teacher.
“We didn’t know any other life,” said Agnes.
They studiously did not take part in any of the activities during the revolution, which lasted from Oct. 23 until the Soviets put down the rebellion on Nov. 4. “Our motto was ‘Keep quiet. Don’t participate. Be a fly on the wall.’ That way, you could mostly survive,” said Agnes.
The revolution saw sporadic attacks on Jews in small towns across the country, with some targeted as representatives of the Soviet regime and others simply for being Jews. In Budapest, a few soap-box orators raged against “the Jews,” and some now elderly Jews like the Somjens say they feared the revolution would turn against them.
All told, about 200,000 Hungarians, or some 2 percent of the population, fled the country, including an estimated 20,000 Jews, or one-fifth of the Jewish population.
The Somjens had front-row seats for the turmoil. “We were at home sitting on the balcony and saw a friend of mine pass by, marching,” said Gabor. “They wanted something free free elections and travel what all youth want. But you see, here comes the glitch: When a Hungarian mob gets together.…”
His wife finishes the thought: “I was almost happy when the Russians came in.”
At first, Gabor said, he thought the revolutionaries would “go away tomorrow, and everything will be the same.” But then, Agnes said, “It started. We closed our windows and stayed put.” She added, “We only dared to go out because we had to go out and stand on line for bread.”
By the time Nov. 4 rolled around, everything had changed for the Somjens. “The city was broken up. There was damage to houses, broken windows, bullet holes.” Worse, the latent anti-Semitism they most dreaded had been tapped.
“By the end of the month, people carried banners: ‘Itzik, we won’t take you as far as Auschwitz,’” said Gabor. “The Jews are always in a special category. There’s what’s good for Hungary, and what happens to us. If they have a democratic society, there’s always a second question: What happens to the Jews?”
The Somjens decided to leave Hungary. They had reached a point, explained Agnes, “when you have enough. To see the signs to have a feeling anything can happen.”
“The decision was very hard,” both acknowledged.
While Agnes had plenty of relatives already living in the United States, she had never been separated from her mother; both she and her husband knew there was a chance neither would see their parents again.
“My mother said, ‘You have to go,’” said Agnes.
So they did. The trip was perilous, because the borders were closed. Part of it they did on foot, in the snow. “I lost a shoe; he lost a hat,” remembered Agnes. For the last leg of the journey, they managed to find a car. By then, the baby, Georgie, was 10 months old. “A Russian soldier put a flashlight in the car,” recalled Agnes. “Georgie was such a gorgeous baby. [The soldier] smiled and waved us through. He didn’t ask us for any papers.”
Agnes speaks matter-of-factly about a moment at which they could all have died or been arrested and imprisoned. The soldier “probably wanted to go back to Russia himself,” she said simply. “I’m a very great believer in a good God. There have been so many miracles in my life. This was just one.”
She had already grown accustomed to accepting miracles, having lived through not only the communist rule in Hungary but also the Nazi Holocaust.
‘I was elated’
Once the couple arrived in Germany, they found refuge first with a peasant family, then with friends of the family and at a hotel. Eventually they traveled to Munich, where the International Rescue Committee helped them get to the United States. They arrived at Camp Kilmer in New Jersey on Dec. 31.
“I was elated,” recalled Agnes. Agnes’ sister and family joined them, and they went to live first with relatives in the Bronx and then in an apartment in Manhattan. Meanwhile, Gabor was lucky enough to find work nearby in his field, at Holy Name Hospital in Teaneck, at Lutheran Medical Center in Brooklyn, at Valley Hospital in Ridgewood, and, finally, at Saint Clare’s Hospital in Dover. In 1963, he was eligible to take the board exams; he passed and opened his own practice in Dover; Agnes managed the office until his retirement. They had another son and now have six grandchildren.
With friends and relatives still in Hungary, they have returned 35 times in the 50 years they have been gone. This fall, they were in Hungary during preparations for the half-century anniversary of the revolution, and did not care for the similarities to the rioting 50 years earlier.
“They stormed the radio station and then on comes the mob, with looting and fighting,” said Agnes. “I have never felt so panicky. We canceled the rest of our trip and took the first flight home. I just wanted to get out and come home.”
But they did not leave before she saw nationalists waving the Arpad flag. The red-and-white striped flag, a medieval banner, was adopted during World War II by the notorious Hungarian Arrow Cross Party, which led the Nazi-installed puppet regime.
Although Agnes said she had no doubt about the meaning of the flag, a gentile friend whose father helped her family escape Nazi persecution felt otherwise. “A gentile Hungarian sees things completely differently from a Jew,” Gabor explained.
The Somjens visit Hungary not for love of the country but of their friends. Agnes compares the country to “parents who kicked us out, couldn’t support us, didn’t want us, didn’t treat us well. First the Nazis, then the communists. We were lucky still there were so many hardships. We came to this country like to an adoptive parent, and we have made ourselves a home here.”
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