Over the course of last month’s Friends of Hungary Conference, Hungary Today had the opportunity to sit down for an interview with Gyula Várallyay, a Hungarian-American engineer who was forced to leave his homeland in the wake of the 1956 Revolution. He is also a member of the Friends of Hungary Foundation, and was a participant in the Memory Project visual history archive (you can see his video interview from the Project below).
Over the course of our discussion, Várallyay discussed the role he played in the Revolution, becoming a leader of Hungarian student associations in the United States, traveling the world during the Cold War, and his work advocating for Roma education in Europe.
Note: This interview has been edited for concision and clarity.
In other interviews, you’ve spoken extensively about your active role in the 1956 Revolution in Budapest. What are some of the moments or experiences that stand out the most to you from that entire time?
Well, the most defining moment was the general meeting of all the students at the Technical University on the 22nd of October, a day before the Revolution. It was at that meeting where some very serious issues were raised by Hungarian students. Previously, on the 16th of October in Szeged, students got together and re-established MEFESZ, which was the United Federation of Hungarian Student Associations. This was a democratic student organization that was dissolved by the Communists in 1948. In Szeged, they reestablished this organization before our meeting in Budapest, and, in one of their demands, they also mentioned the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Hungary. But the Szeged meeting did not get much publicity, nobody took notice.
So, what happened was that, at our meeting, the most dramatic moment occurred when one of the students (we were all free to ask questions) who lived in my dormitory on Bartok Béla street posed a question: “Why are Soviet troops still stationed in Hungary? When are they leaving?”
There were about 2,000-2,500 of us in the Aula [university auditorium], the most prestigious location in the whole Technical University, and people began to chant “Ruszkik Haza!” – “Russians Go Home!” So that, I think, was in a way that psychological moment from which there was no return, because to raise that question publicly, in one of the most prestigious institutions in the capital, meant that it quickly spread around the whole town. It was ultimately one of the 14 points, the demands that the students established and drafted at that meeting. The 14 points were typed out and reproduced overnight, and pasted all over the place in Buda, on the trees on Bartok Béla Street, handed out to people, it was spreading like brush-fire. And I think that was one of the most memorable moments of the Hungarian Revolution for me.
One of the more unusual facts that you’ve mentioned about your experience of the Revolution was that there was an American student by the name of Stuart Kellogg who was visiting Budapest at the time. Could you speak a bit more about him?
That was really a very interesting event. It happened on Saturday, the 3rd of November, the day before the Soviets came back to crush the Revolution. He was an American student named Stuart Kellogg, studying in Bonn. He came in from Kelenföld Railway Station on Bartok Béla Street, found the student hostel where we were living, and he came in. The piquantry of the whole thing was that I had a roommate, who was a North Korean student. At that time, we had many students at universities from Communist North Korea. This student was my roommate, and we lived together.
I didn’t know English, but I spoke to Kellogg in German. And I introduced the two of them, the discussion evolved, and suddenly it turned out that Zang Gi Hong, the North Korean, had fought in the Korean War, and Stuart Kellogg was also there, on the American side. So, these two people, in a figure of speech, had been shooting at each other on two opposite sides. It was an extremely interesting moment, how these two people tried to reach a discussion level which allowed for good communication. They exchanged some memories about the war, and so on and so forth.
I never knew who Stuart Kellogg was; he could have been a CIA agent, I have no idea. He spoke good German, he came from Bonn (that’s what he told me), and then the next morning, at 4:30, Russian cannon began to rain on Budapest. So, he got up with us, and was trying to think as a soldier, where to put people in which windows and how (we were all National Guards, we had our submachine guns). We raised the question, “But what happens if they come with tanks?” Well, we were saved because that morning, the morning of Sunday November 4th, the Soviets did not come through Bartok Béla Street to the Liberty Bridge.
The day passed, and we told Kellogg, “you better get going, go to the American embassy and find yourself a safe haven.” We explained to him where it was, and at that moment the bridge was still open to pedestrians, so he left, and I never heard of him or saw him again. It was a bizarre encounter between two people who had fought against each other in a distant war in Korea. It was quite something.
When you came to the US and were accepted into Harvard, you became actively involved in the Hungarian student association that would later re-adopt the name of MEFESZ. Could you speak a bit about that experience?
In the beginning, it was only in the US. In the spring of 1957, when I was washing dishes in a club, I found out at the International Student Center in Cambridge, not far from Harvard, that there was a Hungarian student group on Mount Auburn Street in Cambridge that was organizing the 1956 student association in North America. So, I joined them, I got to know them. The leading figure was Béla Lipták…Soon, I gave up my job and we all went to the University of Chicago, where the first congress of this association was held, where the association was formally established, and where we elected László Papp as president, and Béla Lipták as vice-president.
At the University of Chicago, we prepared a wonderful exhibit about the Hungarian Revolution. So that was my start; I became a member of the executive council of the student association, and then a year later I was elected vice-president in June 1958. What happened was that the person who got elected as president in ’58 never showed up. He never came to New York or to Boston where we had offices, so he never became president in reality. At that point, I was appointed as acting president.
I was working quite extensively during the school year, to the extent that I could afford to alongside my studies, and then we had our third annual congress in Athens, Ohio, at Ohio University. It was there that the Hungarian apex student organization that existed and functioned in Geneva, Switzerland, which was called the Union of Free Hungarian Students, and which had member organizations in 14 countries (the US was one of them, and one of the largest, besides Germany), asked me if I wanted to run for the presidency of UFHS in the fall, because their congress was always on the 23rd of October.
I checked with Harvard, they gave me a leave of absence, so I went to Europe, to the Vienna Youth Festival, and then ran for office, was elected in October, and stayed in Geneva for three semesters. The election of officers was always for one year, and the president never stayed over. This was an organization that took great care not to be led by the same president for years on end. So, we always had genuine students in leadership roles, and everyone only served for one year. That’s how I got elected at the age of 22, at the source of the Danube in Donaueschigen.
That is when I began to travel a lot within Europe, since there were Hungarian students from Helsinki to Spain, from Oslo to Greece. It was a fascinating and extremely rewarding time of my life.
The three important objectives of the organization were: 1. to represent the demands of 1956, and to represent students who were silenced in Hungary. 2. to speak on behalf of the Hungarian refugee students, to make sure that they had an opportunity to continue their studies in whatever country they may have ended up in, to ensure they had access to scholarships and admission to universities. To this end we kept official contact with all kinds of organizations and governments that were busy trying to help Hungarian refugee students. And thirdly, we initiated a program to help refugee Hungarian students safeguard their own national cultural identity. Initially, we achieved this by organizing conferences and student camps, inviting prominent Hungarian émigré intellectuals: writers, poets, historians.
There’s been a number of books and articles discussing the fact that, during this period, the CIA was funding artists, student groups, and other cultural associations as part of a wider cultural front of the Cold War. As the president of an association that was directly linked to a major incident of the Cold War, did you have any links with the CIA?
First of all, I’d just say that I wrote two books about the Western 1956 student organization. The first one, titled “On Study Tour” (Tanulmányi úton) was a history of the ten years that this organization existed, as it was dissolved in January of 1967.
Since I had some misgivings over the last couple of years regarding what the organization was standing for, how they expressed and changed some of the basic rules of the charter of the organization and some of the declarations that we always made, I wanted to find out what brought about these changes. Since we were never able to collect the archives of the association from Geneva (they got lost over the years), in 2008 I went to the state security historic archives in Budapest, and I began to do research on the Union of Free Hungarian Students/MEFESZ. Soon enough, a number of names popped out, people who were recruited by the Communist secret service. In my second book, I write about this infiltration.
In the first book, I dedicate a whole chapter to the financial sources that we used and received in order to operate. I’m speaking of 1957-59, initially, but later as well. What happened was that we were suspecting that it may be State department or government money, but we didn’t know from where, because the first entity that financed us was called the Foundation for Youth and Student Affairs. They operated on E. 52nd Street in New York. The second organization that later supported us was the Free Europe Committee. The first phased out completely, and then the Free Europe Committee took over after I stepped down as president.
I was working in Brazil, in Rio, in March or April 1967. Every week I bought Time Magazine, just to be a little bit connected to the US. In Time, I saw an article about the covert organizations and activities that the CIA conducted, financing all kinds of activities. And it turned out that the Foundation for Youth and Student Affairs and the Free Europe Committee were both front organizations in order to distribute CIA funds for various activities.
It is very important to note that we had full, I repeat, full, freedom to say and do what we wanted to do. I’ll tell a very interesting story. In 1962, there was a second Communist youth festival held outside the Soviet bloc (the first was held in 1959 in Vienna), in Helsinki. We also went there. While I was already withdrawn from the organization, the Americans asked me to go, so I went, and met with the people who were then running the student organization. One day they came to me, saying “look, there’s this Mr. Metz from the Free Europe Committee, who suggested that we let some balloons up during the festival with all kinds of banners and captions.” I said to Eugene Metz, “look, we don’t want to do this, because we came here to confront the organizers, try to enter events, and say things about ourselves and about Soviet imperialism, but we don’t want to be doing this thing.” So, a colleague of mine said, “If Mr. Metz really wants to do this, ask the Ukrainians, they’ll be happy to do it.”
I knew Metz well from three years earlier. I went to see him; he received me in his hotel room. I said “Eugene, I’m really sorry, but I came here to tell you that this action of the balloons is not going to work, because our people don’t want to do it, and I fully agree with them. I wouldn’t be here talking to you if I didn’t fully agree with them. We have another agenda at this festival.” He was smiling, he said “fine, fine, forget it.”
That’s just one example showing that, within reason, we had all kinds of latitude to choose our own course in our activities. Now obviously, this changed somewhat when the association began to question some of its loyalty to 1956; at one point, they removed a section from an annual official declaration that declared “we, who came as refugees under stressful circumstances,” and rewrote it to read “we, Hungarian students who live in the West.” That is when they began to have problems with the financing. The Free Europe Committee began to question whether it was financing a 1956 student organization, or some new outfit.
I mention this to you so you can see that there were plenty of examples that showed that we had freedom to act, and didn’t sell ourselves, nor 1956, nor our moral rectitude.
So, you weren’t a CIA agent then?
I have never been an agent. I was living as an engineer in Rio, and that is when I learned about [the CIA’s involvement] from Time Magazine, years later. And, by the way, it was a major scandal for the CIA when all this came out, and within months the CIA closed a whole department, the Department of Covert Operations.
After your university education, you were travelling the world for eight years as a consultant?
Yes, but that had nothing to do with Hungary, it had nothing to do with Hungarian organizations. I was a civil engineer, and after I received my master’s degree at MIT in 1964, I began to search for international employment, and that’s when I found an American consulting firm with whom I spent eight years, mainly in the tropics.
It began in June 1965 and ended in June 1973. Out of those eight years, I spent about 10 months in the consulting firm’s headquarters in New Jersey. It is in this period that I came to know Asia, Latin America, and Africa, as I worked in all three continents.
How did you move from engineering work to working for the World Bank?
I originally went to the bank as a transport engineer, which I was. In the last two years of my time with the consulting firm Louis Berger International, I was their director in Rio de Janeiro and of their whole Brazilian subsidiary. In the course of that work, I met a couple of World Bank officials who came to supervise World Bank projects in Brazil. Our company was involved with a couple of highway projects which the World Bank was financing; the company had some difficulties before I went there, and that’s why the owner, Dr. Berger, said “look, go there and try to fix this.” So, one of these World Bank engineers, an older fellow, came and really dressed me down, but the next time he came, we began to have a more amiable conversation and dialogue, because he saw that our project management was improving. I think it was he who tipped off the director of the Latin American project department in the Bank to invite me for an interview. When I got that cable, I said “Well, isn’t it time to change course?”
At the Bank, I was employed for four years as a transport engineer, from 1973 to 1977. In 1977, I left project work and went to work on so-called ‘country work,’ which involved country economics, country strategy and management, landing work, negotiating loans, and similar tasks. It was a much broader type of activity than the project work which I did for the first four years. 1977 was when I really left engineering.
I’ve read that you were friends with Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor. Is that true?
Oh yes. I could say we were friends, we became friends over the years. I knew him from March 1957 on, when I was temporarily staying at my cousin’s place in Boston and working as a dishwasher. She told me that Professor Carl Kaysen from Harvard University had called for me, and that I should go to Kirkland House. Since I had a week, I began to really speed up my English studies as much as I could, since I was working in an elegant club in the dishwashing and pantry department; I was working alongside Greeks, Italians, Spaniards, all kinds of people who didn’t speak a word of English, so that was not a place to become an expert of the English language. I really had to prepare myself. A week later, I went to Kirkland House, and there I met Professor Carl Kaysen as well as Dr. Brzezinski, who was then a young instructor and a senior tutor at Kirkland House.
We met there, because these two professors were helping the Young Democrats’ Club, which had funded one scholarship and wanted to decide whom to give it to. They asked Kaysen and Brzezinski to come and help interview potential students. I was successful in somehow persuading both of them (they both had remarkable careers later: Carl Kaysen became the President of the Institute of Advanced Study at Princeton, which had been run by Einstein and Oppenheimer; Brzezinski became National Security Advisor for President Carter, and afterwards became an indispensable great strategist of global politics and foreign affairs for the US).
So, the acquaintance goes back all those years to 1957, and we kept in touch. We were together at the Vienna Youth Festival in 1959, we saw each other frequently in Cambridge, Massachusetts, had common friends, and then when he left for Columbia and I left for my eight-year tour of duty as a consultant, then we had less contact. We got together again after he left the White House in 1981 and started meeting again. I actually had lunch with him less than two months before he passed away in 2017.
You were also involved with the Roma Education Fund.
Oh yes. You know, it’s an interesting story, I have to say. In 1992-2007, I was keeping journal entries, not every day, but frequently, which later came out as a book here in Budapest. I found an entry in early 2002, that one of the most important social issues in Hungarian society is the question of the Roma minority. How to integrate them, how to give them an opportunity to integrate, and how to influence the mainstream society that they should cut back on their prejudices and should be helping the process of integration.
When I retired in 2002, two days later one of my colleagues called and said “look, we need you as a consultant” because the President of the Bank, James Wolfensohn, decided to organize a big international Roma conference in Budapest in 2003. I said “look, I cannot come before October,
because I am actually moving to Budapest to retire, but in October I’ll come back.” So, we started working together, and one thing led to another, and there were two very important follow-up outcomes from this conference.
One was to launch the “Decade of Roma Inclusion”, which was supported by a number of governments in the Central European region, including of course Hungary. The Prime Minister at the time, Péter Medgyessy, was very much in support of this.
The other was the establishment of a Roma education fund. Now the history of this is that we thought, as we were preparing for this conference in Washington, at the Bank (I was insisting, and our Vice-President was supporting me), that we should convince our president to support the establishment of a Roma education fund. Wolfensohn accepted this.
At our conference here in Budapest, we distributed a circular to close to 200 Roma participants, all activists and civil society figures, as well as to the rest of the event’s participants. There were 6-8 areas, and we asked participants to tell us which they considered the most important for Roma integration. Roma education received the largest number of votes. That immediately reconfirmed that the idea of establishing a Roma education fund is right-on.
With some delay, in spring of 2005, once it had received the support of both the World Bank and the Soros Open Society Foundation, they asked me to be the founding director of the Roma Education Fund. I started up as director from April through October 2005, when someone else came from the World Bank, a younger colleague, who then took over as director for the next two years. Six months after I started, we already had close to $1 billion USD of grants placed with beneficiaries.
Do you think, in the time since the Fund was established, that the general process of Roma integration has improved or not?
Look, complex processes can always be looked at one way or the other way. Since I was the founding director and remained a member of the board until a couple of months ago, I’m not sure I will give you the most objective assessment. That being said, my observation was that that first conference was the first event where Roma activists were actually meeting face-to-face with high-level politicians. There were four Prime Ministers and two Deputy Prime Ministers from within the region.
I would say that the Roma Education Fund that was launched as a result of the conference did have a significant impact improving the educational policy environment for Roma through the governments of Central European Countries. There was a measurable improvement in Roma participation in school, in Roma completion of school, and I believe that it set a very important example for policy-makers. It was certainly an important and decisive beginning.
Now, if you ask me, “has the question of Roma education been fully solved in Central Europe,” I will be the first one to say no. This is a process in motion, and there will have to be consistent, full political commitment from all these governments, so that this process doesn’t run out of steam, so that Roma children and youth have the opportunity to get the education which is a precondition of integration.
That’s how I look at it, obviously at the time, parallel with this there were Roma rights organizations that did their part. However, that was not about education, that was about ensuring that mainstream society doesn’t show prejudice against youth and supports these initiatives which are designed to help Roma children to be able to stay in school, to be able to perform better, and get diplomas and an education which then opens the door to integrate into mainstream society better. And I think that over the years, most people would say that the trend has improved, but we are far from home-free.
Reporting by Tom Szigeti
Images via Gyula Várallyay and the Memory Project
Video via the Memory Project