A revolt began in 1956 against the communist dictatorship in Hungary, and as freedom fighters held off the Soviet army, hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children poured across the border to freedom. The Soviet tanks would retake the country, but the example of the brief Hungarian revolt swept the world and united people in hope against tyranny.
Stories reached free Europe and the United States of the freedom fighters who tore the communist emblems from their coats, overthrew the Hungarian communist regime, and who would now hold off the Soviet forces for 10 days while people rushed to the borders to escape.
The Einser Canal ran through the border between Hungary and Austria. It was here that Hungarians would attempt to flee to the free world, and it was also here that many from the free world braved the freezing cold and the patrolling guards to rescue them.
Radio host Barry Farber, now 87, was among those youths who traveled to the border of Hungary to help save people fleeing from tyranny, and he was recently given an award for his work by the Hungarian Embassy in New York City.
“We had long been hoping for rebellion behind the Iron Curtain, because we knew those countries were horrible,” Farber said, noting that all people in the Soviet Union were living under “a terrible dictatorship.” It eventually reached a point where “the Hungarians weren’t going to take any more.”
A Poets’ Uprising
It all began on Oct. 23, 1956, with the memory of a long-dead general.
A poetry club laid a wreath in Budapest at the foot of a statue of General Józef Bem, who had fought for Hungarian freedom in the 1830s and 1840s.
This act, meant to commemorate the general on his birthday, emboldened the Hungarians who were living under the tyranny of the Soviets. When the people saw that the communist secret police didn’t throw the students in jail, Farber said, the control of fear was broken and more people joined the protest.
The group with its newfound numbers began marching towards the Parliament building for freedom, and the communists got nervous.
“A father was carrying a baby in the march, and the secret police fired down,” hitting the baby, Farber said. “Once the father raised his baby in the air and showed the terrible thing that happened, the freedom fight was on, and all of a sudden there were no more communists in Hungary. Everyone became a freedom fighter.”
That shot began an uprising, and news of the incident was carried by radio, books, newsreels, and articles in the United States and Western Europe.
Hungarian soldiers joined the uprising, and gave their weapons to the freedom fighters. Students hung off the sides of buildings to remove communist emblems. All flags bearing the communist emblem had the hammer and sickle cut out.
The rebellion won, and Hungary was free. But it wouldn’t last. The Soviet Union saw the loss as a blow to the image of communist leadership itself, and soon Soviet soldiers were marching and tanks were rolling toward the Hungarian borders.
After the Soviets struck to retake Hungary in early November, the freedom fighters held them for a heroic 10 days.
Once the Red Army broke through the freedom fighters, the Soviets were split between regaining control in the cities and shutting down the borders. Meanwhile, the world’s eyes were on those still trying to flee. 200,000 would eventually make it out.
As Farber noted, Hungary didn’t fall to communism until it was overrun by the Red Army in 1945. “The Soviets never knew a better life, but the Hungarians did,” he said, noting that for those who were able to escape, “They were so happy to be reconnected with freedom. It was very, very real over there.”
Journalist to Humanitarian
Farber was a journalist in North Carolina at the time, and brought a Norwegian girl on a date to the movies on a Saturday night. Newsreels played before the films at the theaters and told of the tragedy unfolding, and of the people from around the world who went to help in the rescue operations.
The next day, Farber got approval to cover the story. He received a phone call from the Air Force saying they could take him as far as Munich where he could cover the Air Force evacuation of refugees to the United States.
“But they knew well,” Farber said, “that you couldn’t take American journalists that close to the Hungarian border and not turn us loose.”
It was Christmas night of 1956 when Farber reached the Austria-Hungary border. It wasn’t long, however, before the journalists including Farber found a new purpose to be there.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Farber said. “When we got to the border we were journalists, but when we saw what [was] going on, all the journalists put their pencils and papers and cameras away, and instead of taking notes, they were lifting babies out of rafts.”
The people fleeing Hungary were filled with gratitude, Farber said. “They were kissing the ground of the free world.”
It was at the Einser Canal that Farber joined the “Freedom Navy” volunteers who helped ferry refugees across the freezing canal near the Bridge of Andau that would later be immortalized in the 1957 book by the same name, which told of the events.
“Sound travels far when it’s cold,” Farber said, “We could only speak in whispers, and everybody was so bundled up, you couldn’t tell whether the person on the rope in front of you was a male or female.”
He said he leaned forward and introduced himself, and as fate would have it, the girl in front of him was the sister of the Norwegian girl he had taken to the movies just five days prior. He said among the humanitarians, there was an air of friendship, determination, and hope.
The system established by the volunteers was crude, yet effective. Two men paddled a small rubber raft across the canal. They filled the raft with refugees, then left one of the two boatmen on the other shore so they could then pull the raft back and forth between shores using a rope.
The ‘Freedom Navy’
Guards patrolled the coasts, and beams from their flashlights could occasionally be seen. Sometimes the guards swept fields with machine gun fire. Farber noted that refugees knew not to come when the sun began rising and “we got them across in a hurry.”
He said on one occasion, after getting close to 48 refugees across, and after loading the rubber raft back in the Land Rover, an Irish boy said another group of refugees had arrived on the other bank.
“Like an animated cartoon, we got the boat down, ran back to the canal, and the boatmen bellyflopped into it.” When they reached the other shore, however, they loaded the refugees and “each boatman thought the other was on the far bank.”
They rescued another 26 people, but the boatmen were left on the Soviet bank, with the boat and no paddles on the other.
Farber was the second person pulling the rope, and a young Norwegian man named Torvald Stoltenberg was in front of him. Without a thought, Stoltenberg bellyflopped into the raft and tried paddling across using just his hands.
“It was hopeless,” Farber said, “the current was pulling him downstream.”
Yet by a stroke of fate, a pole was sticking up in the water, and Stoltenberg was able to use it to cross. Farber said, “There were religious people there among us who thought God put the pole there. None of us saw it sticking there in the middle of the river.”
Then a light shone out of the woods, and as Farber noted, “the only people who would have had a light were the bad guys.” Because of Stoltenberg, who today is a Norwegian politician, Farber observed, the boatmen were rescued before the patrol could reach them.
At the time of the revolt in Hungary, Farber noted that “communism was riding high, and the Hungarian revolution hit them in a way that they never recovered.” Its impact, he said, was felt right until the people of East Germany tore down the Berlin Wall.
The refugees helped the world see more clearly, he said, that “communism is a fraud,” and those who are trapped inside it “hate it, and they will do anything they can to get out of it.”
When it comes to freedom and communism, Farber said, “far too many people have learned the difference the hard way.”
“Freedom is worth fighting for,” he said. “Communism cannot be allowed to sharpen its teeth and start taking countries again.”