'We walked 12 miles through the night': Muswell Hill stalwart tells of dramatic escape from 1950s Hungary
PUBLISHED: 13:26 06 February 2019
“I was very lucky three times: When the Germans came, then when the Russians came, and then during the revolution.”
John Hajdu has been running the Muswell Hill and Fortis Green Association for 19 years.
But more than half a century ago, in “another life”, John was walking hours through the night in order to reach Hungary’s Austrian border.
And before that, he survived Nazi-occupied Hungary and life in the Budapest ghetto even as his parents were sent away to labour camps.
John remembers being a small child “marked” as a Jew when Hungary fell to the Nazis during the Second World War.
That was only the first time he survived a perilous political situation, though. The arrival of Stalin’s forces at the end of the war was another frightening moment, but it took a third – the brutally suppressed Hungarian Revolution – to push him to flee the country and begin a circuitous journey to Muswell Hill.
As a teenager during the 1956 uprising, John became one of up to 200,000 people to flee as the USSR quashed Imre Nagy’s rebellion and cracked-down on political dissent in its vassal state.
“What happened was after I finished school I went to technical college, because I wasn’t allowed to go to university due to my capitalist family,” John said.
“So I was working on the railways when we – a friend, my mother and I – decided it was time to escape.
“We had seen the news, knew that people had been making for the border, and had heard it was possible.”
So, after Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest and their army had been “shooting indiscriminately”, John took advantage of the chaos and fled the crack-down – which saw Nagy eventually arrested and executed and over 2,500 Hungarians killed.
Although working on the railways was not John’s first choice, when it came to fleeing the Soviets, it had a particular advantage – he had free train travel, and could get free tickets for others, too.
And it was with these free tickets that – with his mum, his best friend Peter, two holdalls and a teddy bear which he has kept to this day – that he escaped.
He explained: “There was no other way out. And so we decided to take a train. Many others were already on their way to the border.
“The driver was sympathetic – he specifically stopped so we could get off and head for the border.”
John explained they got off the train just past the town of Gyor at Csorna in the north-east of Hungary, and then started to walk.
“We had to walk 12 miles through the night,” John said.
He explained they crossed a dark border river by clambering over some frozen pipes, and even had to traverse a field full of mines before spotting the border, where a watchtower marked the end of Hungary.
John added: “We had some luck, though. The searchlight from a watchtower on the border was not on.
“We had to pass under it to be able to cross into Austria, and for some miraculous reason it wasn’t manned when we approached – otherwise I would not be here today.”
When he successfully made it across the border, John was separated from his mother, who was sent to a different refugee camp.
“Then we were across in Austria. We were taken to refugee camps before the Red Cross helped us to come to England.”
John’s friend Peter decided to stay in Austria, but John, his mother, and another old friend from Hungary travelled to England, and by March 1957 he had moved into a flat in Cricklewood.
The anniversary of his arrival in the UK is this week – he landed here on February 5, 1957.
He said: “From then on I worked my way up in hotels. I did all sorts of jobs – waiter, porter, receptionist – before eventually ending up travelling the world.”
Beyond that, from chairing Haringey’s independent police advisory board during the London riots to a decade as a magistrate, John’s adult life has seen him embed himself in the community that welcomed him after his flight from Budapest.
He’s led the Muswell Hill and Fortis Green Association for 19 years, and been in Muswell Hill for close to five decades.
John told this newspaper that much of this was inspired by how he had been helped himself, all those years ago.
He said; “I have always been very conscious of how I was welcomed, and always keen to play my part in the community.”