At the end of September, Hungarian-American architect László Papp received the Officer’s Cross of the Hungarian Order of Merit from János Áder, the President of the Republic of Hungary, at a ceremony in New York.
Papp, a member of the Friends of Hungary Foundation and one of the driving forces behind New York’s new 1956 memorial, received this award for his decades of service on behalf of the Hungarian-American community. Following the award ceremony, Hungary Today had the opportunity to sit down for an interview with László Papp, who discussed the part he played in the 1956 Revolution, his professional career in the United States, and the current state of Hungarian communities throughout North America.
This interview has been edited for clarity and concision, and translated from the original Hungarian.
What was it like as a child in Hungary during the Second World War?
I was born in Debrecen, and attended school there through eighth grade. After this, I was a student in the Artillery Cadet School in Nagyvárad. I was there for two years until, during the war, they moved the school first to Csabrendek, then to Germany, to save us from the Russians. We wore uniforms, and were only 15-16 years old, but this didn’t matter when American troops came, they took us to a POW camp anyway. This is where my American connections began.
While a prisoner of war, I became sick and ended up in a hospital. In February of 1946, a hospital train took me home to Hungary. I returned to Debrecen, where the second-last year of high-school had already begun. Since the school year was already underway, I took the tests for this year. I then completed my final year of high school at the Debrecen Reformed College, with the same class that I had begun with eight years earlier.
Where within Germany was this POW camp?
It was located in a field near a town called Bad Kreuznach. We sat there, behind a large fence, under the open sky. This is what caused my ear infection, which in turn led me to a military hospital in the city of Bad Neuheim. From there, I was taken back to Hungary.
As I said, I completed my high school studies at the Debrecen Reformed College. Two weeks before my final exams, I was called in to the offices of the Military Political Department, the predecessor to Hungary’s communist secret police, the AVH (State Protection Authority). There, they threatened me in an attempt to get me to inform regularly on one of my classmates. Well, they were complete idiots: since I only had two weeks of school left, I told them “alright, I’ll return in two weeks.” Two weeks later, however, I was no longer in Debrecen.
I headed for the border, and went all the way to France in order to disappear from sight. By the end of summer, though, I’d come to the realization that I really don’t want to remain away from my country. And so, I slipped back into Hungary, applied to the Budapest University of Technology and Economics. I attended university there for three and a half years, when I was expelled for “having a bad attitude toward the Soviet Union.” In this, I was actually quite lucky, for two reasons: first of all, everyone who finished university at that time was immediately drafted into the army for two years, and those who were “bad cadres” would find themselves shoveling on work duty, rather than in the army proper. When I did receive my draft letter, I went into the recruiting office and said “look at my documents, I still have a half-year of school left.” They let me go, and told me to return once I’d finished my last semester. Well, I’ve kept them waiting ever since.
My second stroke of luck was that, had I completed my studies, I would have been given a job in some terrible, far-away town in the middle of nowhere, since I was a “bad cadre.” I wanted to stay in Budapest, since that’s where my fiancé was, who was still attending university. At this time, for all intents and purposes, I became a ‘free bird’ of sorts.
Then, luckily, I found a job at a planning office, where I worked until 1956. In the meantime, when the Imre Nagy reforms came into effect [1953-55], I requested permission to complete my remaining semester of university studies. I went to the Technical University, to the very people who had kicked me out. They said, “Well, Comrade Papp, of course, if the ministry will allow it, then that’s fine. But the only problem is that the next semester starts in twenty days.” They then found 8 subjects that I had not yet taken, politics, economics, Marxism-Leninism, etc., that I would have to test out of. Well, I pulled myself together and tested out of all of them.
I completed my university studies, and continued working at the Residential Building Design Institute, whose offices were located at Madách Square. There, I planned six schools in various parts of the country, and oversaw their construction as well.
During the Revolution a Revolutionary Workers’ Council was established. The office had 600 employees, including architects, engineers, landscape architects, structural engineers, and others. Every department selected a representative, and the representatives ultimately chose me to be president of the Revolutionary Workers’ Council.
What did this mean during the Revolution?
Before the Revolution, every company’s leadership was made up of three people: the company’s director, the Party secretary, and the workers’ representative, who of course were all members of the Communist Party. During the Revolution, in place of these, a Workers’ Council, chosen by us, took over direction of the company. This was the idea.
Our company planned to begin working on restoring buildings in Budapest that had been damaged or destroyed in the fighting. The Soviets returned on November 4th, however, and occupied the country, meaning our revolutionary activities came to nothing.
This is when I fled the country. Within a week of arriving in Vienna, I already had a job. At this point, I could have remained in Vienna and establish my life there, since I already knew a decent amount of German. Then, however, the opportunity arose to go to America. Ultimately, we chose the latter option, and came to America.
I had relatives in Pittsburgh, and so that’s where our American life began. I didn’t speak English, but since my wife had studied it in high school, she translated for me when I went looking for jobs as an architect. At the time, Hungarians were accepted with great sympathy in America. The architecture firm that hired me said “good, you can draw, you’ll learn to speak English eventually.” So, I started working there, and when I learned some English, I decided that it would be a good idea to add a US diploma to the one I had earned in Hungary, and so I applied to the Pratt Institute in New York for graduate school.
We packed up our things, and traveled to New York, thinking that we would settle down there. The only problem was, my wife was a chemical engineer. In Pittsburgh, she had quickly found work at a large chemical company, making much more money than I had at the time. In New York in 1957, however, the idea of a female chemical engineer was a completely alien one.
So, in this regard, 1950s Pittsburgh, or even Budapest, was more open minded than New York?
Not only were they more open, there were more opportunities, since there were factories in those cities, while there weren’t any in New York.
Anyway, we came to the decision that, no matter what, we would move somewhere that was close to where my wife would find a job, and I would commute to school. Then, in a stroke of good luck, my wife found a job as the second employee at a newly-launched three-person firm in Stamford, and so we ended up moving to Connecticut. Over time, her company kept growing and growing, so that by the time my wife retired there were 600 people in her office.
In Connecticut, we put down roots and started a family. At first, I commuted to New York for school, then I commuted to New York to work at a large architectural firm, Harrison and Abramovitz, which had planned the Lincoln Center, as well as the Metropolitan Opera House and numerous other important buildings. I worked there, and when, after five years, I felt that it was time to move on, I founded my own office in White Plains, which is there to this very day. Since I went into retirement, two younger partners I had hired took over the firm, which to this day carries the name Papp Architects.
I also took part in all sorts of Hungarian activities and groups, all of which began in 1957, when the American-Hungarian Student Association was formed. This group’s aims were two-fold: on the one hand, the goal was to help young people arriving in the US from Hungary get into university here, while on the other hand the group worked to build a Hungarian community. Since I was a bit older that the average undergraduate student, I was chosen as president of this association, and this is where my work with Hungarian communities in the US began.
What was it like to enter the American business world? In what ways did it differ from your experiences in Hungary?
For all intents and purposes, my work as an architect was the same: I had to plan in the same way here as I had there, so there really wasn’t any large difference. I had to get used to a different system of measurement, and there were certain differences in mentality, but these didn’t cause me any particular difficulties.
What was the strangest thing about moving to America?
Well, my first impressions came when, from Vienna, we took a rented propeller airplane to Shannon [Ireland], and went from Shannon to the Azores, and from the Azores to Newfoundland. From Newfoundland, we were supposed to go to New York, but fog forced us to land in Philadelphia instead. From there, a military bus took us to Camp Kilmer, in New Jersey, where Hungarian refugees were received. We went through some of Philadelphia’s roughest slum neighborhoods, and said to ourselves “Oh God, is this what America’s like?” But, after this, we quickly got used to the better parts of the US.
Since I was the president of the American Hungarian Student Association, I was interviewed in 1958, on the second anniversary of the Revolution, by Harrison Salisbury of the New York Times, a very famous journalist at the time. In his article, Salisbury described the 1956 Hungarian refugees as the most successful wave of mass migration in US history.
Do Hungarian communities abroad, and in the US in particular, have a long-term future?
This depends on a great number of factors. The Hungarian government established the Diaspora Council, which also holds meetings here in the US for local Hungarian organizations. At one of these meetings, I said that, if this Diaspora Council is serious about its commitment to the further existence of Hungarian communities that increase the good name of the country, then they will continue to survive. The Hungarian Scout Association in Exteris does the greatest amount of work in this, since they teach Hungarian to children, and pass along Hungarian culture to the next generation. In other words, there is a possibility that these communities have a long-term future.
The other, very important factor, one that isn’t in focus at all, is the fact that there many Hungarians here in the US illegally. My own estimate is that there might be as many as 300,000 Hungarian living illegally in the United States. Now, these people somehow always seem to be left out of everything. They can’t go back to Hungary; if their mother dies, they can’t go to the funeral, because then they won’t be let back into the United States. At the same time, they’ve started to build their lives here in America. We should be doing more to engage these people. Generally, they don’t belong to Hungarian organizations, at most they’ll show up if there’s a Hungarian festival or party being held somewhere. It’s very important that we keep this in mind as well.
Since the 1956 Memorial is now a reality, are there any further plans for the Hungarian American Memorial Committee?
There are not. We have done our job, the memorial is there, and it will be there forever. We have talked with the Hungarian Consul General [Ferenc Kumin] about his plans to build more Hungarian memorials in New York City. We would like to help with these plans with whatever many we have left over from the 1956 memorial, as well as in whatever ways we can.
Since we’re on the topic: Why a memorial with a ‘constellation’ design? Cleveland and other cities in the US have erected more traditional statues commemorating the 1956 Revolution.
It was very difficult to convince the city of New York to allow us to build a new memorial. In the end, the city agreed to allow us to set up a small Hungarian memorial park next to the Kossuth statue.
We held an international competition for potential designs. There were two groups of proposals: those from sculptors, and those from architects. None of the sculptors were able to grasp that you can’t erect a small statue right next to a large one [the Kossuth statue]. The architects understood that the new memorial could be expanded into a memorial park. This is what ultimately became the 1956 Memorial. A Hungarian architect by the name of Tamás Nagy won the competition, the Memorial Commission unanimously found his design to be the best. And, as it turns out, both the local area and the wider American community have been very accepting of the new monument, they appreciate it and like it.
In a past interview, you discussed some of the interesting architectural facts you learned about Budapest through your work at an architectural planning firm, including the fact that, contrary to rumors that spread in 1956, there never was a secret prison underneath Communist Party headquarters on Budapest’s Köztársaság Square.
I was working at the architectural firm I had mentioned. This firm had planned [Stalinist Dictator] Mátyás Rákosi‘s and other communist leader’s three homes on Sváb Hill in Buda. I also had a small role in this project, and for this reason, I was able to see what was going on. These homes were connected by underground tunnels; the way this was set up, was that our office planned the buildings, and there was a connecting area within the building that was left for the Ministry of the Interior to complete. The Interior Ministry’s planners then took over [to build the tunnels].
Our firm also designed the Party Headquarters on Köztársaság Square. When, during the revolution, hysteria began to spread and people began to claim that they could hear voices under the square, an announcement was made on the radio, asking anyone who knew anything about these matters to come forward. One of the engineers who had worked there called in, saying that yes, our office designed the building, so they should speak with us. I was the president of the Workers’ Revolutionary Council, so they came to ask me what I knew about all of this. I brought out the blueprints. If the Party Headquarters had a secret prison, the point of connection would have been on the drawings, as was the case at Rákosi’s villa. There was nothing there. I asked the structural engineer who designed the structure. He said there had never any prison or tunnel under the building. So, based on these facts, I was confidently able to say that all this was nothing more than mass hysteria.
While the two situations are naturally different in many ways, as someone who fled from war in 1956, how do you view the ongoing refugee/migrant crisis that currently faces the world?
When I first came to America, I couldn’t go back to Hungary for 20 years. Even then, I was only able to return due to a special intervention that got my name off Hungary’s black list. On the other hand, here [in the US], as a Hungarian refugee, I was welcomed with open arms. That being said, we also went through a screening process.
My view is that Hungary should have no problems admitting individuals who have been screened and who are qualified. When I go back to Debrecen, I see many people from Africa, Syria, and other parts of the world, who attend university there. I know a man from South Sudan who completed his medical studies at the University of Debrecen, and now works as a doctor in Hungary. To me, these people are a great positive for the country.
Reporting by Tom Szigeti
Photos by MTI – Noémi Bruzák and László Papp