Well before the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, László Varjú, as a high school student, was jailed for anti-communist activities. Then, in 1957 he risked his life to leave the country, later joining a lesser-known Hungarian paramilitary organization in the US. All this before becoming a successful physician in adulthood. On the occasion of the publication of the third edition of Visszidensek (Remigrates), Hungary Today interviewed Dr. László Varjú, a former doctor-soldier of the US Air Force, who spoke about his adventurous and successful life.
Why were you put in prison well ahead of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution?
On the night preceding the celebrations on April 4th [the memorial day of the so-called “liberation” of Hungary, but in fact, the occupation by the Soviet Red Army] in 1955, we distributed anti-Soviet flyers all over Igal [in Somogy County in the southwest of Hungary], my hometown. These were flown in from the West at that time, and by then with one of friends, we had eagerly decided to do something against the regime. What we weren’t aware of was that one of our pals had already been recruited as a police informer. So he eventually snitched on us.
For almost three weeks, we endured beatings and interrogations during the nights, until my friend eventually gave in due to hallucinations, as did I shortly thereafter.
The principal of my high school in Kaposvár was our toughest accuser in the process. We were sentenced to two-and-a-half years of jail time. Today that man has a commemorative plaque in the city, which I tried to prevent, unsuccessfully.
Where did these strong anti-Communist feelings come from?
From my father who had fought in WWII. He had been at the Don River Bend [one of the most tragical events of Hungarian military history]. He was shot in the eye but continued to fight for one more week until medical help could reach him. He was decorated by Miklós Horthy [controversial Regent of Hungary from 1920 to 1944] with one of the greatest honors for soldiers.
At home, I was always taught that the Bolsheviks (and not the Russians in general) were evil. Not surprisingly then, I opposed them from the first moment I had the chance.
How was prison?
It was awful. Cold, starvation, forced work and punishment from start to finish. I spent most of my time in Sátoraljaújhely, sixteen of us jammed into a cell originally meant for four people. And we were kept together with common criminals. We had to work. I came out of there with frostbite. After that, in the lead-up to the Revolution, around April, there had been a kind of softening of the dictatorship.
What did you do in the Revolution? Did you fight?
Ultimately, I didn’t have the chance to actually fight on the streets. Right after the outbreak of the Revolution, I was elected to lead the student association in my high school in Csurgó, as everyone had earlier heard about “my past”.
On November 4th, together with my father, we were making our way to the capital, but couldn’t go any further than Székesfehérvár. Then, for some weeks, I also hid in the Bakony and joined the Szabó Group. I took part in small-scale “intimidation actions” against the Soviet Army.
As far as I know, you left the country only in the spring of 1957. Why only then and how?
I waited to see what would happen. It soon became evident that I would go back to prison (to complete my earlier sentence). But my father’s distress was the last straw. When I got home, he warned me that the authorities had already been looking for me.
Had they caught me, I would have been facing trial as a repeat offender, so I made the decision to leave.
And I don’t think it would have made a big difference that I had actually saved an ÁVH [State Protection Authority: the fearful secret police of Hungary from 1945 until 1956] officer from lynching in November.
How did you manage to leave?
By that time, the only way out was over the Yugoslavian border, but that was a tricky and bumpy ride. When I believed I had finally made it out, I knocked on the door of a house, which turned out to be the family of one of my classmates. Damn, I was still on the Hungarian side! So they made me eat and gave me a bottle of wine to drink as I was well in need of energy. They pointed me in the right direction. But this wasn’t all. At the actual border, two policemen passed just a few meters from me; I could barely hide in the sparse bush. Only God knows how they did not spot me and how their German shepherd couldn’t sniff me.
In the US, you were involved in the Hungarian-American Rifle Association. Was this a serious movement? How many people were part of this?
The paramilitary was founded by Zoltán Vasvári, a WWII veteran, in order to gather young and ambitious Hungarian émigrés. Yes, we indeed prepared for a possible liberation of Hungary from the Soviets, and I was an active member of the roughly 150-strong crew. As a matter of fact, the State of New York gave official recognition of the group’s operation, which consisted of get-togethers and military training (marching, shooting, river crossing etc.) on Vasvári’s farm in Pennsylvania. And thanks to the Second Amendment of the US Constitution, we had no problem obtaining state-of-the-art firearms.
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In the event of a potential “mission”, thanks to good relations with the Franco regime, we would have gone initially to Spain, from where we would have parachuted into Hungary. The group only dissolved after the so-called System Changeover.
When did you first come back to Hungary?
In 1968, thanks to a powerful party secretary who knew and respected my father.
Of course I was scared when I first laid eyes on the fence and border control, but it eventually went smoothly, just as the aforementioned official had promised.
Did the Hungarian communists contact you somehow while you were in Hungary?
Yes, on my second visit home, they approached me because they had known that each summer I would go back to the US to earn money to pay for my Austrian tuition. Basically, they offered to provide me an easy factory job in Germany in exchange for “keeping my eyes open” there. Stalling for time, I told them that I needed to think about it, but right then and there, I decided never to return.
How big was the contrast between Austria and Hungary at that time?
Perhaps this might sound surprising, but not much really. Although the Soviets had pulled out in 1955, Austria in the 1960’s wasn’t yet the prosperous country that it is today.
In Hungary everything also seemed a lot “softer” than in 1956. Cafes were full even during the day, when people should have been at work.
How did you join the US Air Force?
Soon after I finished medical school, I took over a practice in a small town named Greenup in Illinois, which was very busy and exhausting. After twelve years of practicing medicine there, I decided I needed a change, so I joined the Air Force, which was not only more relaxed but more interesting and better-paying. Even though I was a doctor in the Air Force, I was officially recruited, which meant that first and foremost I was a soldier, and only secondarily a doctor. This entailed a lot of flying as well, and I had to take part in military drills. Mostly I worked in Landstuhl, Germany, where all US war casualties were taken, then on Ramstein Air Base, the largest US military base in Germany. Ramstein was also where the nuclear weapons were kept.
Funnily enough, during the Yugoslav Wars, I was assigned as a liaison officer to Taszár, located just 26 kilometers from my hometown Igal. I was the only one authorized to leave the base, but only for daytime. And thanks to my superiors’ condonation – which meant I wasn’t officially authorized to do so – I regularly spent the nights in my house in Igal.
However, as it funnily turned out later, the undercover military police regularly followed me home, just to check on me.
When did you retire from the Air Force?
I left in 2000. And this was also when we decided to return to Hungary.
Partly because my love for Hungary proved stronger than my love for the US, and partly because of a US Air Force policy that covered relocation costs for retirees within a 15,000 km radius.
By the way, in 2004, I was called back (something that could legally be done), and I spent one more year in Stuttgart, Germany. Although they wanted me to stay longer because I had implemented many new things at the hospital, I decided that it had been enough. My wife didn’t want to spend any more time on military bases, and honestly neither did I.
How did you feel at the System Changeover?
At that time, I was still in the Air Force. Of course, I was looking forward to it; I had so hoped that a national and civil democracy would finally come to fruition. So I was really disappointed about what happened instead: dirty background deals, representatives of the old system coming back to power, corruption etc. And to be honest, although I’m a supporter of this government,
I’m still waiting for a true and clean-handed civil democracy to come.
I didn’t approve of the discontinuation of the Civil Circles (Polgári Körök) kicked-off following the loss in the 2002 parliamentary elections, which served as a bridge to the people. And it is also unfortunate that there is no Hungarian university among the world’s top 400. Not to mention the circumstances in healthcare.
What are you doing now?
I still work, though only part-time, at an American medical clinic here in Budapest. Working helps keep my mind fresh, and I will continue to do the job unless my hands start to shake.
photos by Attila Lambert/Hungary Today