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The “Bear” who dodged bullets, but luck found him – the life of 1956 emigrant and patriot József Komlóssy

Ábrahám Vass 2019.10.23.

On October 26, 1956 the roof of the car he was riding in was shot to pieces in Budapest. The second time, on November 4th, his life was spared by a couple of centimeters. Following these disastrous events, József Komlóssy went with more than half of the students and teachers of the Faculty of Forestry in Sopron to Austria. From there he traveled to Canada by boat. The group from Sopron settled in Vancouver where Komlóssy received his engineering degree from the University of British Columbia. However, he did not stay long in the North American country—he found work in Switzerland. He continued his engineering studies at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH). Following this, he had his own engineering design office until the mid 90s. He dedicated himself to serving the global Hungarian cause after his trip through Transylvania in the early 60s. Above all else, he strove to support the rights and interests of those Hungarian minorities within the Carpathian Basin. His name is attached to the border-crossing established in 2005 between Nagyszelmenc (Veľké Slemence/SK) and Kisszelmenc (Mali Selmentsi/UKR) which used to be the same municipality, Szelmenc, but was split in 1945. Aside from this, he successfully represented the Hungarian minority voice in countless affairs in the UN, OSCE, Council of Europe, and with NGOs in the EU.

Interview with József Komlóssy, member of the Friends of Hungary community.

What memories do you have of 1956?

The mosaics of 1956 are quite alive within me. Before anything else, I’d like to emphasize that

we Hungarians in 1956 went to fight for our freedom, as opposed to the Germans in 1952 who fought for better economic standards.

Back then we were cut off from any western media, and maybe because of this, we had such an enormous sense of idealism that today’s youth couldn’t even imagine. There was no blood drawn in Sopron. There, the Faculty of Forestry took charge. We even locked the State Protection Authority (ÁVH) in basements and fed them properly.

In our dormitory room we had a “people’s radio” that we had bought together for 380 forints. Any chance we had, we listened to it. Radio Free Europe and Voice of America radio stations ensured us that western aid was coming, that we should hold our ground. It was heartbreaking to find out from Russians captured by the Hungarians that they thought they were being sent off to the Suez Canal to fight against the imperialists. We only found out later in the West that there was only one head of state who wanted to help us, and that was Franco. However, the Americans did not let him take action. Everything was pre-arranged by the West and the Soviet Union. You “bring order” to Hungary as we do in the Suez.

Photo by Péter Csákvári/Hungary Today

In the last days of October – before the November attacks of the Soviet forces—the youth were convinced the Hungarian uprising would be successful.

Personally, the most positive thing about 1956 was that I survived after facing death twice.

I was one of the firsts who on October 25th and 26th travelled to Budapest on the trucks carrying aid from Austria. This was an overall very adventurous journey. At Móricz Zsigmond Square we had to stop at a barricade built of cement blocks for an identity check. At this point, a machine gun shooting from a nearby restaurant shaved off the top of our car because the roof was just visible over the barricade. Our lives were saved by a hair.

The second time was November 4th at Fertőd—I was almost a goner. The night of November 3rd-4th we were able to leave Budapest with our truck and get to Sopron by morning.
We were gathered in front of the school’s chemistry building and two of us volunteered to go with an army truck to Fertőd to get ammunition. Our only luck there was that the trunks we would have carried the supplies in were not yet filled, so we could jump into them for cover when Soviet soldiers opened fire on our truck– right where I would have been standing. So we just barely made it out alive.

The Good Lord blessed me with a healthy life, and gave me such loyal friends that I could always rely on and have a shoulder to lean on.”

The Austrian-Hungarian border at Kópháza is like a bird’s neck. We students naively thought we could cut this neck off and stop the Soviets on November 4th. What happened there that day at Kópháza on the morning of November 4th I know firsthand from my roommate who was there.

Photo by Péter Csákvári/Hungary Today

As engineering students, it was part of our curriculum to have a class on artillery handling and every summer we went to a military professional for practice. This is how the seniors could professionally set up the 76mm tank destroyer guns at Kópháza. On the night of November 3rd, Captain Farkas, the director of the military department, went out to check on the weapons. After that he disappeared. The next day when we noticed the Russian line of army vehicles headed straight for us (right along the cannon barrel), within seconds, the seniors filled their cannons. They yelled “fire” but there was no point, because for some reason the cannons didn’t fire. The tanks were getting dangerously close. Then two students and the Russian teacher went out in front of the Russians, shaking from fear and waving a white shirt tied to a stick. To their greatest surprise, Captain Farkas popped out from the tank –clad in a red starred hat—and berated the three shocked individuals. It turned out: the night before he had taken out the firing pins from the cannons. After he finished, the military officer in charge appeared in the tower. He then said: “I know what you are fighting for! My family is in Kiev and my command was to take over Sopron. I cannot do anything else. But I’ll give you thirty minutes, disappear!”

But I am only telling one tragic story out of many. One of my classmates climbed up a public building to remove the red star. An AVO shot him down, as if he were just a bird. He was his widowed mother’s only hope. Csaba had just finished his studies at the Kandó Kálmán Faculty of Electrical Engineering. The Varro family was very, very poor. After his death, his mother had to raise his three little sisters alone! Anyway, I actually don’t go to 1956 commemorations.

How come?

Because most of the people at those events weren’t even there during these October-November weeks, or they were, but perhaps on the other side of the barricade.

Fact

The origin of the nickname ‘Bear’
Though we might think József Komlóssy was named this because of his involvement in Transylvania, the nickname was given to him much earlier in the traditional 'christening' at his first year of college.
In Sopron where he studied, it was tradition for the first year students to get an alias name based on some characteristic of their behavior or appearance. In closed groups, decades later, they still call each other by these nicknames. He was named 'Bear' because of his outstanding physical capabilities.

The young József Komlóssy

When I was still in Europe in the beginning of the 60s, my mother’s request for a passport in order to travel to Austria was rejected twice. An ex-ÁVH at the company where I worked then informed me that my mother would never receive a passport because her son is sentenced to death. It took weeks to discover that the name was somewhat identical, and that I am actually a forest engineer, but in reality the charge wasn’t about me. Who knows, if I was home then, they may not have asked me about my mother’s name and immediately hanged me. That’s why I say one needs luck in life, just as with women.

How did you manage to thrive in Canada, essentially as a refugee with no knowledge of the language in a totally unknown place?

We all carried our basic knowledge and morals with us from Hungary. Thanks to this, not one person got lost.

For us, Canada was a place of no prejudices and unlimited possibilities.

No one cared what our future was, what our past was, if we owned land or not. And if we did, then why? Who were our ancestors? This truly freed me, because in Hungary I was a second class citizen because of my ancestry.

One of our axioms in Sopron, in the tradition of Selmecbánya, was: love of country-love of the profession-camaraderie. I have been faithful to these principles since then.

When we went out there, there was practically no forestry, in the technical European definition! The establishment of classic forestry in British Columbia is tied to those from Sopron. Therefore, Sopron is still relevant there in certain professional circles. In addition, three times as many of us from Sopron got their doctorate or masters’ degree than those in the parallel class of Canadians. Many who did not settle in academia found themselves in charge of the local forest industry companies.

Relating to camaraderie: if one of us got a job, we would immediately try to get another worthy Hungarian in there. There were cases where at the beginning of the summer there were three of us at a company, and by the fall there were ten of us. Aside from finding work, we helped each other with everything. Last, but not least,

it was very important to us that we were representing Hungarians there, not just through our professional knowledge but our actions as well! Because this opinion of us there determined their opinion of our homeland.

How did you end up in Switzerland?

After completing my two year engineering internship, I used the money I saved to go on a euro-trip—with one of my main intentions being to see my mother again.
Though this trip was planned to be a short stay, I ended up not returning to Canada. I got an offer from a Swedish company to re-train me from a road-planner to a railroad-planner, and afterwards they would send me to Iran, which back then was already a very stringent and restriction-filled country where Europeans lived entirely separately, almost in ghettos. Therefore, I wasn’t so enthusiastic about this idea and eventually settled on the alpine country at the behest of my friends.

Photo by Péter Csákvári/Hungary Today

In Switzerland, I quickly found work at an engineering company that dealt with planning countryside infrastructure and land consolidation. I became independent very early on. My little engineering office was in operation until the middle of the 90s. My company dealt with road design, land surveying, and land consolidation. I utilized my experiences later on when I created a plan to “develop agricultural infrastructure” in Transylvania, especially in Szekler territories where conditions were quite unfortunate. I submitted this plan in the form of a motion to the European Council, which they accepted with an 86% majority. They then made a report on my concept as a Central and Eastern European “trial project.” Tens of millions of EU support would have gone to Gyergyóremete (Remetea). However, the necessary legal requirements and framework for this was the “consolidation law” which couldn’t be implemented because of a single Romanian parliamentary vote. The consolidation law was a prerequisite for the EU Agriculture Committee to give the green light on actualizing these plans and to later ensure the necessary materials for this “trial project.” It’s possible that the Romanian MPs did not realize the true potential of this project. But it’s conceivable that they had something against the place (Gyergyóremete), itself.
All in all though, this was my life’s most tragic defeat—not just politically, but idealistically—that I still haven’t been able to come to terms with.

How did you become so committed to the interests of Hungarian minorities?

Above all, the spirit of my “parental home” was a main motivator behind my involvement in 1956, just as it was behind my activism on an international level. According to my friends, before we reached the Austrian border on the 4th of November, 1956, I declared, while standing on the gun of a lone tank destroyer: we aren’t leaving to find a new life, but rather to gather friends and weapons to continue the fight against our oppressors. Since then more and more of us have come back and with more frequency. With friends, or without. But always armed with spirituality. With our “spiritual loot” many of us were able to help our forever ALMA MATER in Sopron.

Photo by Péter Csákvári/Hungary Today

After WWII, in January of 1963, I first went back to visit Transylvania, where as a child I had started elementary school in my father’s patria, in the hilly Szilágyság (Salaj). Upon the invitation of one of my uncles who I hadn’t yet met, I stayed with him in Kolozsvár (Cluj-Napoca). From there I left for a one-week journey with his son to the Szeklerland. Csaba had recently come back from the Duna-delta labour camp, so the Securitate was continually tracking him as well as my CH marked car. Therefore, the whole time we couldn’t stay at the same place for more than one night. When we got back my uncle called me into his room and said: “In this last week, you’ve seen and experienced a lot. During the war you involuntarily left. You now live in that beautiful, free country, Switzerland. Tell me, what will you do for those who were left behind at home?” This question made me realize that I must commit myself to the global Hungarian cause.

When I reached the point after years of hard work where I could participate in international conferences, be it the UN, OSCE, or European Council, I often reflected on the question that my strict mentor had presented: Mr. Lajos, do I at least deserve a below average grade?

My familial home’s spirituality as well as my uncle’s question started me on my life’s journey. Today my basic principle is: “You can do a lot for your country. But never, never enough!”

How did you start your active political career?

I first came into contact with the Federal Union of European Nationalities in the beginning of the 90s. I was briefly a member, then a Central/Eastern European advisor, and then in 1993 at the annual conference in Cottbus I was elected president after serving as vice president.

Based on my recommendations, we started organizing fact-finding missions first through Transylvania, then later on in Slovakia, Transcarpathia, and Vojvodina. Regarding the Transylvanian Hungarian cause, I was able to win over the famous Viennese professor, UN expert, and rector of the University of Vienna, Dr. Felix Ermacora. Prof. Dr. Christoph Pan from southern Tyrol, an expert on territorial autonomy, joined us on one of our Transylvanian tours. Prof. Dr. Reinhard Olt, a reporter from the German Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung came as well who, after meeting the Csángó people at the Csíksomlyó Pilgrimage, wrote the century’s first three articles about them. He got a lot of backlash from Romanian parties for these articles. One night he called me and said, laughing: now I’m sure my writing was good. Even today he speaks out in favor of Hungary and his articles still play a big role currently looking at Hungarian problems from an objective point of view internationally.

Photo by Péter Csákvári/Hungary Today

My first “diplomatic” success was obtaining consultative status for FUEN at the UN in New York. Thanks to this, I spent years partaking in UN work as vice president of FUEN: I had 13 speeches in the UN’s Human Rights meetings and at other related events.

What are you most proud of?

I feel that for the majority, I successfully won partners for Hungarian causes. However, I don’t wear this as a medal but rather the utilization of a lucky ability.

What principles were most helpful in your diplomatic work?

I always held Ferenc Deák’s saying as a standard for myself: “Never lie.”

In my experience, you must first convince the person. Not the representative of a nation or office. This job is often like a piano piece.

You must be aware which keys to press and for how long, because if the song isn’t just right and you can’t sense your partner’s attention, then you have definitely failed! It is very important when creating connections to find affinities and to continue the conversation along those. I always ensured that what I said stayed with my listener. For a time they called me “the briefcase man” because I always had the documents that I referred to in my presentations or commentaries.

Another important thing was that I always spoke on behalf of someone’s interests and never against anyone or anything.

At the UN’s 58th plenary meeting in Genf, I spoke twice about the problems the Csángó people face. The first was about freedom of religion, and the other on children’s rights. On both occasions, my motto was the same. “I’m not speaking against anyone, but rather on behalf of those who cannot be here to express their own hardships in front of you all here in the UN.”

What memories do you have of your diplomacy work?

One of my most cherished memories is tied to Genf. This happened back around the time of the Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF), and that was when I started at the UN. It was towards the end of winter and I was again in Genf at the annual UN Human Rights conference. The Hungarian team had worked out a draft resolution that managed to get the support of four countries’ diplomats. Thus it appeared as a mutual resolution on the daily schedule. During a coffee break, the diplomats involved with this discussed how the third version of their work was swept off the table by the American legal advisor. Upon hearing this I asked them to tell me Dr. DB’s convictions. It was Friday morning and the sun was shining. Those sitting around the table left, but I stayed. Suddenly I looked up and saw that Dr. DB was walking right past me to the bar. Well I didn’t think twice. I ran after him and got his attention and then managed to start a conversation with him. As we spoke, I called his attention to the beautiful scene of the snow-covered mountaintop of Mont Blanc glistening in the sun. I then added how great it would be to be skiing now instead of spending the day in here. He then took out my business card that I had just handed him and said, after glancing at my name: Mr. Komlóssy, you’re right. Come ski with me tomorrow. I was speechless. I thanked him for the invitation but told him before accepting I had to check with the Hungarian delegation’s leader if they had anything planned yet for tomorrow. Within minutes, I was talking with the Hungarian delegation’s leader, telling him about Dr. DB’s invitation. I also added: we already planned with a group to go over to France to ski for two days. Now what should I do, I asked. What should you do, what should you do? Of course you’re going skiing tomorrow with Dr. DB! I returned to the café and thanked him again for the honorable invitation and we discussed where and when we would meet the next day. The next morning of course the embassy’s car brought us both to this new and unfamiliar ski route. On the way Dr. DB “shared his wisdom” with me which without a doubt was quite useful. But when he arrived at relentlessly and wrongly condemning Hungary, I had to hold myself back more and more.

Photo by Péter Csákvári/Hungary Today

After this it was no surprise that upon getting out of the lift’s cabin, I started off towards the “black slope” with a good amount of rage in my soul and Dr. DB following behind.
When we got to the starting point, I glanced down and saw a daunting, narrow and extremely steep gun-barrel. After just a minute of consideration I took off. To be honest, the ski slope was quite challenging. Luckily the week before Genf I spent a week in Klosters skiing. Upon reaching the bottom I looked back and saw Dr. DB taking quite a nontraditional approach, skiing with his arms and legs spread apart on his stomach.

When he finally got up I saw an entirely different man in front of me than who I saw that morning in Genf. After this introduction, we went over to the more comfortable red slopes. Over lunch we shook hands and drank in a Dave-Joe manner. By night, on the road back to Genf we were practically speaking as friends. Now he was asking me and I was trying my best to answer in an even voice, or explain the nature of Central-Eastern Europe, specifically Hungary. The next day I woke up and headed for France with the other group.

On Monday in the UN’s meeting room, before Dave sat down at the president’s table, we greeted each other with a wave. He then approached our group and asked why we were so deep in thought? I answered his question. Dave you remember right, that on the way back from Genf I mentioned that draft resolution which Hungary submitted with four other countries. Towards Genf I also mentioned that you, as the US legal advisor, had always vetoed this resolution! Well, after hearing the aims and content of this resolution from you, Joe, I support the resolution. I thanked him for the good intentions and Dave went back to the president’s table.

D.A., my Hungarian diplomat friend turned to me and said: “Well Jóska, you certainly ‘skiied out’ this draft resolution!”

Translation by Katrina Hier
Photos by Péter Csákvári/Hungary Today