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Born American, But in the Wrong Place

Peter W. Schramm

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A personal reflection on the 50th anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution.

On October 23, 1956, students gathered at the foot of Sandor Petofi's statue in Budapest and read his poem "Rise, Magyar!" made famous in the democratic revolution of 1848. Workers, and even soldiers, soon joined the students. The demonstrators took over the state-run radio station and the Communist Party offices and toppled a huge statue of Stalin, dragging it through the streets. Rebellion spread throughout the country. The demonstrators -- now Freedom Fighters -- held Soviet occupation forces at bay for several days.

On November 1, the Hungarian Prime Minister announced that Hungary would withdraw from the Warsaw Pact. At dawn, November 4, the Soviets launched a major invasion of Hungary, in an offensive involving tens of thousands of additional troops, air and artillery assaults, and 6,000 tanks. A heroic resistance was crushed in less than a week.

The last free Hungarian radio broadcast spent its final hours repeating the Gettysburg Address in seven languages, followed by an S.O.S. Over 20,000 Hungarians were tried and sentenced for participation in the uprising, hundreds receiving the death sentence. An estimated 200,000 Hungarians -- of a population of nine million -- became refugees. Forty-seven thousand came to the United States. Hungary became a member of NATO on March 12, 1999.

In October 1956, my parents, my four-year-old sister, and I shared a small apartment with my father's parents and his brother on the plaza near the eastern railroad station in Budapest. I was two months shy of my tenth birthday when the Hungarian Revolution began.

Because the revolutionaries had taken over the railroad station, the Soviets positioned several tanks in our neighborhood, and we could not leave our apartment. There was heavy fighting, and bodies were strewn everywhere; one lay just outside our window for several days. After a week and a half, the action moved elsewhere and we could once again venture outdoors -- carefully. Walking around one day, I came upon a Russian personnel carrier that was stacked with skeletons. It seemed that each was covered with about two inches of black velvet. I later learned that these poor souls had been burned alive by a Molotov cocktail.

It soon became clear that though the Soviets had pulled out of our immediate area, they were winning. The Revolution was going to be defeated, and they would be back. Things were going to get more unpleasant than ever, and Hungary had not been a pleasant place for the Schramms for quite a long time.

My father, William, was born in 1922, into a politically tumultuous Hungary produced by the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the end of World War I. His father, an active participant in the 1919 Communist revolution, was hounded by the Fascists then ruling Hungary. By the time my father reached his teens, the Depression hit, followed by another world war. My father was placed in the air artillery. He liked it there, he said, because they could pretend to shoot down American planes, knowing that the B-17s were flying well out of range. They couldn't hurt the good guys, yet they did their duty. That was as good as life got in those days.

[ ... ]

Teaching Americans

America became home to me, and these days I continue my life as a student of America. The difference is that now a university pays me to study, rather than my paying it for the privilege. Here at a liberal arts college in central Ohio, I'm in the ironic position of teaching native Americans (I mean native-born Americans) how to think about their country. How odd it seems, and yet how perfectly American, that I, a Hungarian immigrant, should teach them.

When I teach them about American politics and American history, I start with a simple thing about their country and themselves. I tell them that they are the fortunate of the earth, among the blessed of all times and places. I tell them this as a thing that should be as obvious to them as it was to my father. And their blessing, their great good fortune, lies in the nation into which they were born. I tell them that their country, the United States of America, is not only the most powerful and the most prosperous country on earth, but the most free and the most just. Then I do my best to tell them how and why this is so. And I teach them about the principles from which those blessings of liberty flow. I invite them to consider whether they can have any greater honor than to pass undiminished to their children and grandchildren this great inheritance of freedom.

Read the entire article on the Claremont Review of Books website (new window will open).

Posted: 12-Dec-06

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