by Sophia Tellen

It was 1956, she was out of boarding school—forever. Sixteen, and free, prepared for everything but life.

“The Hungarian immigrants to South Africa will be arriving in Vanderbijlpark next week. The Red Cross needs a volunteer to distribute clothes. Would the job interest you?” the Roman Catholic priest asked, all in a kafuffle. He knew my parents spoke several languages, among them Hungarian, and no doubt he hoped I did, too.

The prospect delighted me. I had just passed my Matriculation exams and life held limitless possibilities. I even had a new bicycle! Distances were considerable and buses few. My father needed the car to get to work, and most of the time we walked. Thus I became the proud owner of a high-gloss black enamel Raleigh Roadster, “The All Steel Bicycle” with a front mirror, and a strong rear carrier. It was a serious vehicle, made of the best British steel: solid and dependable and built to last 100 years.

Fifty years later, 2006 marked the 50th anniversary of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution and President Bush paid a personal visit to Budapest to commemorate the event. And on the 23rd October Hungarians throughout the world celebrated.

For four and a half decades Hungary had been a closed country. Then the revolt broke out. On 23rd October 1956 a crowd of 23,000 mostly unarmed students took to the streets of Budapest, in spirited but peaceful protest against the government. For 18 days, millions of men, women and children participated, demanding more freedom—of speech, trade unions and self-management of the workplace, as well as the release of political prisoners.

We, too, had been immigrants and until recently, had been living in Cape Town. By 1956 we had been in South Africa for eight years. Just two years previously my father, a mechanical engineer, had obtained a position in Vanderbijlpark, designing mine winders to meet South Africa’s deep level mining requirements. It was a cordial workplace, with kind people. The Managing Director of the engineering company was an Afrikaner whose ancestors had been in South Africa for centuries and whose wife was the most hospitable and courteous lady I had ever met. My father’s immediate superior was German; his draughtsman, British. In this environment my father was appreciated, and so were we.

It was here that we became members of a community; indeed, we became citizens. My father maintained lifelong gratitude to South Africa. “This country took us in, and gave me work. It enabled us to start a new life. Now it is my country.”

We had heard the disappointing news that the Hungarian Revolution had failed and mass exodus had begun. Over 200,000 Hungarians had fled to Austria. The number of refugees became almost unmanageable. The Austrian Minister of the Interior had to ask for international help. It had become urgent for the refugees to move on.

There was a world-wide response. On 10th October 2006 the UNHCR news reported: “The relief and resettlement operations that followed were quite extraordinary—100,000 people were resettled out of Austria in the first 10 weeks alone. In all, 37 countries spanning five continents took in resettled Hungarians in an unprecedented wave of international solidarity on behalf of refugees.”

The largest numbers emigrated to the United States and Canada. Israel was prepared to admit every Hungarian Jewish refugee in Austria.

South Africa offered to accept 1,000 refugees, 500 carefully picked artisans and families, and 500 dependants on humanitarian grounds. The first contingent of 75 (which included selected workers, their wives and children, and 8 men to be trained as miners) arrived on the 18th December 1956; the second party (among them 23 children, the youngest being six months old) was due on the 21st; the third batch on Christmas Eve, the fourth group were expected on January 2nd. They had lost their homes and some of them nearly their lives. They arrived very tired, but free. Only three of the first group spoke English. But the gratitude of the immigrants lay in their eyes: “Thank You, South Africa.” Through Mr. J. Jankovics, a Hungarian who had been in S.A. for some time, and who acted as their liaison officer they promised, “We’ll prove worthy of your trust.” (The Star, 22.12.1956).

Many Hungarians were at the airport to welcome and cheer their fellow countrymen, as the first group came off the Skymaster of the Flying Tiger Line and got into the bus for Vanderbijlpark.

Vanderbijlpark (VDBP) was a small new industrial town about 39 miles south of Johannesburg. It had only actually been proclaimed a town in 1949 and attained municipal status in 1952. Now it was able to provide two modern well-designed and comfortable workers’ hostels, which were turned into a temporary reception center for the refugees.

One evening, with mischief in his eyes, my otherwise very serious father said,
“I will teach you the Hungarian alphabet.” And began right away.

But my attempts at pronunciation only brought forth peals of laughter and finally had him in stitches. Hard as I tried to imitate the sounds he made, it was difficult to get my tongue around them. The double consonants did nothing to make the situation easier. My father did his best to encourage me.

“Once you know the Hungarian alphabet,” my father assured me, “you can also read.”

I learned the basic vocabulary: Hello or good day (jó napot kívánok); yes (igen); no (nem); thank you (kösnönöm szépen); and the words for individual items of clothing. So by the time things got under way, I had learned the essential words, among them munka, the word for work.

At the Hostel, the Hungarian’s first stop was at the Red Cross space. Whenever a woman came, I would show her the different items, and invite her to rummage among the piles.

But I was better equipped for the men.

Nadrág?” I’d call out with a huge smile. And in no time at all a young man would try the proffered two-legged item.
Csipö?”—pointing to three rows of shoes. (Cs pronounced like the Ts in Tsetse)

There were enough clothes for all, and a lot to spare.

Shirt-Sweater? That was all the vocabulary I needed. A grateful Hungarian elder would thank us the old-fashioned way, by kissing one’s hand.

There was something I heard people say about me all the time.

Csinos lány!”(Chinosh lahny – with ny as in Nyet!) I heard them call out, almost every day. “Csinos lány!”

“Papa,” I finally brought myself to ask, “what does csinos lány mean?”

A moment of cold silence, while my father searched my face.

“And who’s been calling you that?” he growled.

“Oh! They all do!” I replied blithely, forgetting to mention that it was the young men who did.

“It won’t do you any good to know,” he retorted.

So I assumed it must be something bad.

I was sixteen and out of a boarding-school, forever! Sixteen, prepared for anything, but Life!

In fact, it meant I was a quite-something girl!

I loved this, my first growing-up job. Here I was treated as a responsible adult. How different from the heavy “do-as-you’re-told” atmosphere there had been at school.

Many of the donated clothes were brand new. One day my supervisor, Mrs. Van der Merwe, said, “As you are not being paid, I suggest you help yourself to some clothes. I myself am not in need of anything.”

But I was! It takes a long time for immigrant families to catch up. I found a pale blue cotton dress that made me feel a million dollars.

People from all over South Africa sent Christmas gifts and gifts of clothing. 300 resident Hungarians from Johannesburg and the Reef (many of whom had escaped after WWII and sought refuge in South Africa) came to give the refugees a good Christmas feast, with turkey. And it was they who received their stories of horror. Afterwards they all sang the Hungarian national anthem, and a Hungarian carol. But the Hungarians were also happy for another reason—all were smartly turned out. “Gone were the old tattered clothes they had worn when they crossed the frontier into Austria. The women wore summer dresses given by the Vanderbijlpark people and by the Red Cross in Johannesburg.” The Star reported: “Despite memories of terror, they had a merry Christmas.” (26 December 1956)

The refugees expressed their desire not to become a burden to society, and hoped to be able to start work soon. And indeed, work opportunities arose rapidly. One man, an electrician, actually began work on the day after arrival. By the 27th December, 20 refugees were being considered for jobs in the local steel works, eight were taken on by the SA Railways, and 9 went to the mines. Hungarian craftsmen, well-trained in at least two or three skilled crafts, are highly regarded artisans, known to work hard and well. As more of them arrived, businessmen and industrialists by the hundreds were offering jobs. Even though our streets were not, after all, “lined with gold,” the immigrants were “dazzled by ‘big pay’ prospects.” (The Star, 19.12.1956) Used to measuring everything they see and want in weeks of pay, and having to save for months or even a year for a suit, the standard of living amazed them.

One day I got a call to go to a certain men’s outfitters. The proprietor, who spoke little English, told me he had a job for a man named Zsidó (Zs as in azure). I was to find him, and to bring him to the shop.

Enthusiastically I set about this new task, cycled to the reception center and found the Hungarians assembled in the large hall, sitting on the floor after a meeting: quiet, forlorn, homesick, and uncertain about the future.

“Mr. Zsidó? I called out. “Is there a Mr. Zsidó here? Munka! Work!

A wave of discomfort rustled through the group. Shoulders drooped, eyes were lowered: a hushed silence, broken only by an awkward cough.

“Mr. Zsidó?” I called out again, never doubting that I had got it right.

Hesitantly a tall man rose.

Follow me, I beckoned, and led him to my sturdy black Raleigh bicycle; solid and dependable. “Sit here,” I said, pointing to the strong rear carrier.

Taller by far, and much heavier than I, the man looked at me with the utmost concern.

Munka!” I repeated reassuringly. “You, me, work!”

Petrified, the once brave and freedom-loving man straddled my bicycle carrier, doubtful as to whether this was any safer than the Hungary from which he had just escaped. He clasped me tightly, holding on for dear life as I wobbled away, his enormous weight behind me. From time to time a little groan escaped him. Slowly I got into my stride, and pedalled hard along the veldt for the next ten minutes. Puffing and panting, then flying down an innocent hill (while my terrified rider tightened his embrace) I reached the outfitters and screeched to a halt. A pale and unhappy man slid off the carrier and unfurled to his full height. A beaming proprietor awaited us in front of his shop.

“I found Mr. Zsidó!” I called out triumphantly.

In an exuberant burst of smiles, gesticulations and rapid Hungarian, he embraced his countryman.

Overwhelmed by such a welcome, together with the security of a new job, Mr. Zsidó turned to me with a gentle smile and said, “My name is Tibor Lakatos.”

“You’re not Mr. Zsidó? I stuttered, completely taken aback.

“No,” he replied, “but I am, indeed, a Zsidó—a Jew!”

From then on my parents often invited the immigrants to our modest little home and they’d spill out from the living-room onto the stoep. Most of them were men. Among them was Sándor an upholsterer, a small man whom my father hired to turn the upholstery of the settee and two armchairs in our living room inside out, hoping the reverse side of the material would look less worn. He and his wife had two dear little children and they set up home in a garage free of charge. One single woman was a very experienced dressmaker. Another worker was skilled in making chicken wire fencing and set to work making rolls of that. I met one young woman, a gymnast, who had been to many operas, while I had been to none. She got a job in a stocking factory, working alongside black women. István, “a leader in Budapest
[who had been] too busy fighting,” and Margit, finally found time to get married. Now that the revolution was over!

The sister of a college friend had married a Hungarian immigrant and through her I was able to enquire about his first impressions. His wife wrote: “When N. came to South Africa he was 16, and so went to school to do Standard 9 and 10. He doesn’t remember much about how he was received in VDBP, except that the food was very strange. He remembers eating Boerewors (farmers’ sausage) for the first time, and finding it very sweet compared to the sausage in Hungary. The hardest thing was language—it took him about 6 months to learn some English. He found the Black people very friendly, although he had never seen any before.” This young man started work by winding thread onto reels of cotton, and later established his own business, which is still flourishing today.

One of the people who helped the immigrants in her own quiet way, bringing them cheer and encouragement, was a very gracious, unassuming, elderly lady. Goodness and kindness radiated from her. She took the bus from Vereeniging (ten miles away) and would spend most of the day with the refugees. She came often, and I wondered who she was.

Late one afternoon, this lady joined us in the Red Cross space.

“You are doing a fine job,” she said. “The Hungarians told me you have been looking after them splendidly.”

“Would you like to have a cup of tea with us?” asked Mrs.Van der Merwe, my supervisor.

“I’d love to,” she replied. But then her face clouded. She looked at her watch and stiffened. “Goodness gracious! I am supposed to attend a meeting in Johannesburg this evening. But the last bus leaves in twenty minutes. I must leave at once.”

Mrs. Van der Merwe looked uncomfortable. “I would offer to drive you myself,” she said, “but my husband has taken our car for the day.”

“Never mind,” I said cheerfully. “We’ll call a taxi.”

The cab phone rang a long time, but in vain. Neither of the two local taxis was available.

“What am I to do? I must be there this evening!”

“It’s not too late yet,” I said. “I’ll phone the Church. There’s bound to be someone around who could take you.”

I let the phone ring a long time, but no one answered, and the minutes slipped away.

“Well, perhaps you could hitch-hike!” I suggested cheerfully. The lady agreed at once. But as we stood at the side of the road, not a single car passed. And the minutes went ticking by.

Just as the situation seemed hopeless, my eyes caught the glint of the shiny black Raleigh Roadster, solid and dependable, made of the best British steel and built to last 100 years.

“I could take you to the station myself,” I said, pointing to my royal steed.

My supervisor looked up to the Heavens, tried to say something, swallowed it, and went pale.

“That would be wonderful!” the lady replied, without a moment’s hesitation. Then with infinite grace, she swung herself onto the rear carrier, settled side-saddle, and laced her arms around my waist.

So here we were, the lady and I: she a silvery seventy and I sixteen, with twelve minutes and several miles between us and the last long-distance bus to Johannesburg. I pedaled for all I was worth. She felt as light as a feather and my sturdy steed responded gallantly. Suddenly from behind me, came a delighted, tinkling laugh…. Her gaiety was infectious and the harder I pedaled, the more we laughed. We reached the bus station with two minutes to spare. Immensely relieved, she found a seat and waved cheerfully as the bus took off. She looked at least thirty years younger!

Back at the hostel, Mrs. Van der Merwe was waiting for me, as pale as before.

“I got the lady to her bus in time,” I announced. My supervisor heaved a sigh of relief.

“But who is she?” I asked.

“A countess,” she replied, in hushed tones. “She is Countess Jankovics!”



In my attempt to verify my memory, I needed to consult the South African newspaper archives. In spite of their busy schedule, two kind, efficient persons offered their help, and in time I received over 22 articles each from the Johannesburg University archives (The Star, The Rand Daily Mail) and the South African Red Cross National Office in Cape Town (The Cape Times, The Cape Argus and Die Burger). These showed me the extent to which the overall reality was far richer than I could have imagined.

However, in spite of the fine journalism provided by the press at the time, I found it impossible to do justice to all the information received, in this—a story of a moment in history—and a flash in a young girl’s life.

What struck me, however, was the overwhelmingly generous response of the people of South Africa. Hungary’s “plight moved people in all walks of life and of all ages to give what they can.” It was Nurses who started the ball rolling by giving £120 to the Red Cross. The 300 strong Hungarian community in Johannesburg collected £2,000. Eighty employees of an engineering firm decided to donate their overtime pay to the Red Cross. In Cape Town Street collections were held, and there was a Gala concert, an open-air party, a fashion show, and a young child emptied her piggy bank. “Money for the Hungarian Relief Fund organized by the Red Cross continues to come in at Cape Town in a steady stream, and by yesterday the total had reached £13,100 16s. 5d—an increase of more than £1,000 since Saturday.” (Cape Times, December 12, 1956). Of this, £40,000 had already been sent to the international headquarters of the Red Cross in Geneva.

But the effort required in the Cape had to go far beyond the initial 1,000. More and more was asked of them as several Norwegian and Italian ships carrying large numbers of Hungarians on their way to Australia, called at Table Bay. By January 22nd the total number of refugees to have called was nearly 1,500. Another 855 were expected. By January 23, 1957, the Cape Times reported that “The Cape Town branch of the South African Red Cross Society took a three-ton load of clothing, shoes and toilet requirements, given by the public of Cape Town for the refugees, to the quayside soon after the liner had docked,…(to) be distributed at sea.”

By the time three ships had been equipped, Cape Town was running short of stocks. 12,000 more refugees were to call at the City on four following ships. Another appeal was made.

Individual creativity came into play. One couple organised a clothing collection in Paarl and Malmesbury. On January 27, 1957 they brought some truly beautiful clothes in a very large box to the quayside. Someone had even given evening dresses that still had their price tag on, and “a Cinderella dream come true for two pretty Hungarian refugee girls (of 15 and 17).”

My sincere thanks go to Ms. Henriette W. Latsky, University of Johannesburg Library and Information Service; to Ms. Estelle Neethling, National Tracing Coordinator of the South African Red Cross Society, Cape Town, and to their archivist, Ms Theresa Finnan, who found all the information; as well as to Mr. Laszlo Plesko, Chairman of The Hungarian Association of South Africa, who did his best to find the life dates of the mysterious Countess.



Sophia Tellen now lives in Geneva, Switzerland. She believes that Travelers’ Tales holds a secret code for opportunity—that of time travel.
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