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Last Updated: Monday, 23 October 2006, 08:47 GMT 09:47 UK
Escape from Hungary
By Alison Trowsdale
BBC News website

The Hungarian Revolution began as a student demonstration demanding political reform and an end to Soviet occupation. Within days the uprising had been brutally crushed and the first of 200,000 Hungarians fled to the West.

"It was mayhem outside and there were a couple of hundred people dead."

Tom as a 14-year-old boy
Tom pictured on a school field trip just days before the uprising

Fourteen-year-old Tom Leimdorfer huddled in the back room of the flat he shared with his mother.

Bullets had shattered the windows of the house opposite and the dead bodies of unarmed protesters littered the ground outside.

Tom - now living in western England - still speaks with a strong Hungarian accent, although it is now 50 years since he and his mother fled their flat just off Kossuth Lajos Square, the scene of the 1956 Hungarian uprising.

When they did venture outdoors a few days after the carnage, Tom recalls a very grim picture.

The Leimdorfers moved to live in central Budapest shortly before the Hungarian uprising began.

"I have a vague memory of seeing a body hanging from a lamppost." Vague, he says, because his mother hurried him away anxious not to let him see too much.

He found out later the freedom fighters had sought revenge for the deaths of their unarmed colleagues and shot a number of young police recruits in cold blood and then strung them up for all to see.

Rumble of tanks

Tom's mother, Edith Leimdorfer was an ardent pacifist: "I suppose the enemy for her was race hatred and war, not a particular nationality," he says.

Her Jewish parents were both killed in the gas chambers at Auschwitz and her husband, Tom's father, died in a Russian prisoner of war camp without seeing their son.

After bombing by the British and Americans during the war, the arrival of the Red Army in Budapest was initially greeted with relief by the remaining Hungarian Jews.

Tom Leimdorfer
Tom Leimdorfer left Hungary with a simple rucksack
But after years of brutal repression, those opinions had changed and when the Russian troops pulled out of Budapest on 30 October, Tom remembers the streets were suddenly full of people smiling.

The more liberal-minded Nagy had been reinstated as prime minister and reforms were promised.

But it was too good to last.

"On the 4 November, we first heard the rumble of tanks and I put on the radio and heard the broadcast by Imre Nagy, the famous broadcast from very early in the morning."

In that broadcast Nagy told the people of Hungary and the world about the Russian attack.

"It was clear the Hungarian Army and freedom fighters were resisting. There was a noise of heavy firing, artillery shelling, there were tanks everywhere."

A tank came out of our road and immediately fired a volley of shots

From the refuge of their cellar, Tom and his mother waited, not knowing when the shooting would stop.

When finally all went quiet, Tom was sent out to the corner shop: "A tank came out of our road and immediately fired a volley of shots."

"I ran straight back to the flat and down to the cellar.

"That decided my mother," he said, "enough was enough."


They decided to join the flood of refugees now heading for the border with Austria.

With the Soviet-backed Kadar once again firmly in control, any remnants of freedom won by the protesters had been stamped out.

Knowing he might never see his home again, Tom packed a few essentials including his button football game, a type of table football game, which he still treasures today as a lasting memento of his Hungarian childhood.

button football
Button football - a popular schoolboy game in Hungary
Along with many other families, the Leimdorfers boarded a train bound for a town close to the Austrian border, on the pretext of taking a holiday.

They were briefly arrested by the border guard, but martial law had yet to be imposed and in the confusion, they managed to persuade their captors to let them go.

In the neighbouring village they found a man, a total stranger, who offered to show them the way across the border, even though they had no money to offer him.

In the early hours of the following morning, the refugees set off on the final leg of their journey.

"It was a cloudless night and the sky was full of stars. You could see there was a border post with a light which went round. Every time the light went round you had to go flat.

"I remember getting to the Iron Curtain. He (the guide) knew the place where the barbed wire was weak and it wasn't electrified so we could crawl underneath."

They arrived in Andau in Austria, and from there were taken to a refugee camp and finally arrived in London on 16 December.

Tom was quickly absorbed into the local boys' grammar, then Tollington School in North London.

Tom (4th from right) taking part in cross country in his new English school
Tom was quickly absorbed into his new London school
His mother lived just long enough to see his first English school report.

On 11 April 1957 she died from cancer.

"It was the end of childhood," Tom says.

He knuckled down to his academic studies and graduated with first class honours in physics from University College London, went into teaching and rose to become a head teacher.

He worked for the Society of Quakers, becoming involved in issues such as conflict in education and he has also worked in areas of ethnic conflict like Croatia and the former Soviet Union.

Now semi-retired, he is the only Green member of North Somerset council and leads the independents.

So looking back now on the events of 1956, what are his feelings?

"1956 was clearly a failure in loss of life and violence," he says, but it did pave the way for reform.

"From the 1960s Hungary was the most liberal regime in Eastern Europe."

Footage from the 1956 uprising

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