After fleeing Hungary in the wake of the defeat of the 1956 Revolution, Dr. George Szele made a new life for himself as a successful cardiologist in the United States. A few weeks ago, he sat down with Hungary Today to discuss his role in 1956 and his father’s efforts to save Jews during the Second World War, as well as his recent return to his home country and his decision to write a work of historical fiction.
Note: This article has been edited for concision and clarity.
Could you speak a little bit about your experience in the Second World War? I understand that your parents were involved with saving Jews during the war.
When the bombing of the important strategic centers started in the summer of 1944, I was working in the Air Defense Force, and I was involved in that as a 16-year-old. We moved to Budapest when the Russians came into Szolnok. My father was actually running a big chemical factory in Budapest, and there were dozens of Jews under false identification, names, and passports, working in the factory. Several people who did not want to fight with the Arrow Cross guards just defected. They took off their old military uniform and put on civilian clothing, and we hid them in the cellar of the building.
That went on, and during the siege of Budapest, he continued this same project. We were in a four-story building which collapsed completely, so we moved down into the cellar and lived there for two months.
Do you know what ultimately happened to those Jews and others who had fled, who worked at the chemical factory?
Most of them survived. Some of them were captured by the Russians and taken as military prisoners just as Hungarians were. They didn’t make a distinction between Jews and non-Jews, so some of them wound up in Russian captivity after the city was liberated by the Soviets.
If I understand correctly, you were a Soviet prisoner of war as well?
Yes, for two weeks. I was caught on Királyhágó street, and we were marched slowly, day-by-day, toward Budakeszi, to the West. There were civilians, there were Hungarians in military uniform, there were Germans with SS marks on their shoulders, so it was obvious that this was a POW group, not a working group.
We knew that we were going to wind up somewhere in the Soviet Union. The opportunity [to escape] came one night, it was very foggy and there was a huge cloud. There were Russian posts every 20-30 meters, but it was very foggy and rainy. It wasn’t a regular march either, just a freely-flowing crowd. There were people coming up from work in the opposite direction, and some them yelled at us, “Why don’t you just slip out, and come back with us?” They gave us shovels and all kinds of instruments to put on our shoulders, and three or four of us just stepped out from that group, and marched back into the city. That’s how I escaped.
Did you live in Budapest all the way through 1956?
No, we went back to Szolnok, to my hometown. I finished gymnasium [secondary school] there, in 1946, and then I went to the University of Budapest medical school [today Semmelweis University] and graduated in 1952.
In 1956 you were a surgeon here in Budapest?
I was a surgeon on Vas utca. There was a city hospital, a quite nice, large hospital, near where the Radio headquarters used to be. Today the hospital is part of Semmelweis University, but at that time it was a general hospital. So, we got the first casualties from the fighting at the Radio.
During the Revolution, did you join a Revolutionary Council?
Yes, we joined the Council at the hospital, and we marched in the various demonstrations. That’s where the problem started, because a photograph of us showed up in LIFE Magazine, and people pointed out that they recognized us. When the Revolution collapsed, it became obvious that this is going to be a terrible crime of which we are going to be accused, as we participated in “enemy” demonstrations. That was one of the reasons why I thought it would be better to leave.
So that LIFE photo was one of the things that drove you to make the decision to leave?
One of the reasons. The second reason was that there were AVO soldiers [Communist-era secret police] treated in our hospital. This was not an organized system, there were no admission offices, they just brought in the casualties by hand, on trays, etc. So, we didn’t know who was an AVO or a freedom fighter, we just treated them as human beings. And some of them walked out on their own or disappeared once they were getting better. The relatives of the AVO people came in and asked us “where is my brother, I know they brought him here,” or “where is my father” “where is my husband?” And, of course, they had left already, or they were taken away, we didn’t know. They were accusing us of letting the freedom fighters take possession of them, and threatened us that if they were hurt, they would hold us responsible.
And when did you ultimately leave Budapest
It was in the middle of November, around the 10th. Within a week of the freedom fight’s collapse. I went to Vienna with another physician. There was a big dilemma over where to go from there. At that time, they did not approve the Hungarian diplomas as easily in Europe as they do now, for instance in Germany, Switzerland, or England, you couldn’t become a doctor next year and work right away.
However, the United States gave us an opportunity that, within two years, if you passed a certain test and met certain requirements, you could get licensed. So, I chose to go to the United States.
Did you move around within the US?
I went to New York first. They told me there were a lot of Hungarian doctors in Washington [DC], so I went there, and they put me in the hospital as an intern right away, so that’s why I stayed in Washington.
I actually stayed in Washington for several years, and then, when I got licensed in Virginia as well…it’s country, not city life, so we moved out to Virginia, and that’s where I worked. It was a suburban part of Washington, like Budakeszi here.
I read that in 1991, after the wall had fallen and communism collapsed, you were involved with a USAID plan that provided some funding and established a partnership between Szent Ferenc Hospital and two US hospitals?
When Communism collapsed, the [George H.W.] Bush Administration wanted to help Central and Eastern Europe as much as they could with various projects, and that was one project, in healthcare: to get American hospitals together with Hungarian or Bulgarian or Polish ones, to form partnerships and transfer our knowledge, American knowledge, of how to practice, for example, cardiology, to the Europeans.
I was traveling in Europe at that time and came to Budapest. I formed a connection with Szent Ferenc Hospital, which was Szent János Hospital at that time. We established a partnership, and this went on for five years. It involved Hungarian cardiologists going over to be trained in America, while American cardiologists would come over to Budapest and work with the Hungarians. In the meantime, we set up a whole new department, a cardiology intensive-care unit. So, it was a complete rebuilding of acute cardiology care at Szent Ferenc.
For that five-year period, were you living in Budapest or just traveling?
I was traveling. I was still working at that time and would come every 2-3 months for a few weeks at a time to supervise the project.
What were your most vivid or biggest impressions of the differences between healthcare and the overall approach of the doctors at Szent Ferenc and your own experiences in the United States?
It was totally different. I think in Hungary, we still have a feudalistic, archaic system with the chief, the professor, sitting on the top. It’s a pyramid: after him there’s the intern, then the physician’s assistant, and so on.
In the United States, you finish medical school and then you get specialized. So, you’re a cardiologist, or you’re an internist: you open your own office, and your patients go there to your office, and then you admit your own patient into the hospital and take care of them in the hospital. So, there’s no chief in the hospital.
Now this is starting in Hungary, there are now private hospitals. The problem is that it’s too expensive, and very few people can afford it. In the United States that’s part of the general healthcare system: I pay about $200 a month for health insurance coverage, but that assures me that I can go to any physician, and he can treat me and admit me to the hospital or do any surgery, and that doesn’t cost me any extra money. So, it’s sort of a privately, completely-covered medical care.
When you were a doctor here in Budapest in the 1950s, was hálapénz [the system of “tipping” or paying a cash gratuity to doctors in exchange for a procedure] already an existing part of the system?
Very few, there was practically none. Occasionally you would get a couple of hundred forints in an envelope, but you never asked for anything, you never said that “if you give it to me, I’ll do” [the operation or other medical service], there was nothing like this. Occasionally they expressed their gratitude, and that’s it. But we were not expecting it. They were not required to give it, it was totally on a voluntary basis.
So, it wasn’t at the level that it grew to, or that it’s at now?
It ‘s almost a rule now. This is disgusting, this is absolutely disgusting. I’ll tell you another thing you may not know, which bothers me. Let’s say I am ill, I need an MRI. They schedule me three months from now. I am covered by Hungarian state healthcare insurance. If I go and pay 45,000 forint ($145 USD) for private x-ray and radiology, I get it done tomorrow. It’s not fair. One person can afford 45,000 forint and gets it done, the other has to suffer another two to three months before a diagnosis? That’s unacceptable, that just has to go.
As a Hungarian doctor who was forced to leave the country, do you think that it’s possible to reverse the general trend of young Hungarian doctors leaving the country because of differentials in pay between here and Germany or here and Britain? Do you have any thoughts on the state of the healthcare system here, and on the ongoing issue of hospital upkeep in Hungary?
There’s a huge difference among hospitals in terms of neatness, cleanness, equipment, and patient rooms. I think they’re working on it, they’re building newer hospitals and newer units. I think, on the whole, there are way too many hospitals here, they put patients into the hospital right away for examinations and work-up, they sit there for a week to get lab tests, which is not necessary really. Some of them are almost like nursing homes or extended-care facilities.
About the young doctors: whoever has their education paid for by the Hungarian government should have to sign a contract that, after you graduate, you have to work in this country for 5 years, for instance. You got a free education here, you’re trained to treat Hungarians, not to go out and treat English people or others.
In the United States, the military will give you absolutely free medical training, but you have to sign a contract with the military for five years, that you have to stay in the military for that long after you graduate, and then you’re free to go wherever you want. That’s one solution to the problem. I don’t think that it’s fair that the Hungarian government pays for your education, to benefit the Hungarian people with your expertise and your knowledge, and then you go out to England because the pay is better there.
Could you talk a little bit about what inspired you to move from medicine into writing historical fiction with your book From Hungary with Love?
After I retired, I had this topic in mind, this idea that I should write a book about all these things, but I couldn’t do it in the United States, I just couldn’t get to it. I came back to Hungary and I refurbished my parents’ old little one-bedroom apartment in Szolnok; I liked it so much that somehow…it was a spiritual thing. I just felt that “this is it, I’ve got to stay here and start to write.”
I thought this might be for a month or six weeks, and it became a year. I went back for a few months, then came back again; this went on for several years. I just felt that I had to live in Hungary to be able to write this book. I could not have done this in the United States. I feel that somehow it was God’s hand that led me back, His plan that I had to come back here and do this. [Note: you can view a Hungarian-language video of Dr. Szele discussing his book below]
You wrote it first in English?
Yes, because I wanted the West to read it, I wanted the Americans, the English, and the French to read it. Everyone in my family said that “you’ve got to have this in Hungarian,” and so it naturally came that I had to re-write it in Hungarian. And I did re-write it, I did not have a translator, although I did have editors and lectors.
It was a spiritual thing.
The book itself covers the period from the Second World War to 1956.
Yes, it ends in ’56 after the end of the Revolution. And it’s from the point of view of a young guy, it’s not an old person reminiscing, it’s not a historian telling history, it’s a young guy and how he lived through those years, how he struggled, how he was fighting this and that, and how he was strong in spirit, faith, love, and conscience, the conscience to do the right thing.
Reporting by Tom Szigeti
Images via the Friends of Hungary Foundation and György Szele