Hungarians who fled in communism return to Jackson Barracks, recall welcome in New Orleans

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Hungarian refugees Elizabeth Brem and Katheleen Szita take in an exhibit of the failed Hungarian revolution of 1957 at the museum at Jackson Barracks in New Orleans Friday, February 8, 2013. The uprising was put down with a massive Soviet response. May Hungarians fled to New Orleans afterwards to escape the communist backlash, including the Szitas, who were housed for a time at Jackson Barracks.
Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Hungarian refugees Elizabeth Brem and Katheleen Szita take in an exhibit of the failed Hungarian revolution of 1957 at the museum at Jackson Barracks in New Orleans Friday, February 8, 2013. The uprising was put down with a massive Soviet response. May Hungarians fled to New Orleans afterwards to escape the communist backlash, including the Szitas, who were housed for a time at Jackson Barracks.

Hungarians recall 1956 exodus

Magda Szita was just 15 when her boyfriend told her “Let’s escape.” She said “OK” and packed a bag and handed it to him out the window, but decided she could not leave without telling her mother.

It was 1956, and Hungary’s revolution against the Soviet occupation had failed. At first, the uprising against the communist regime appeared successful. The revolt, which began as a student demonstration in Budapest on Oct. 23, spread quickly and the government collapsed. There was talk from the Soviets of a willingness to withdraw forces. By the end of October, the fighting had subsided considerably.

But on Nov. 4, the Soviet forces invaded Hungary in the dark of night with brutal retaliation, killing more than 2,500 Hungarians and causing another 200,000 to flee their homeland. The Hungarians resisted until Nov. 10.

By January of 1957, the Soviets had installed a new government and suppressed all opposition, but decades later the short-lived but influential revolution played a role in the eventual downfall of the Soviet Union.

Of those who fled, 40,000 made it to the United States. Of those, 104 Hungarian nationals landed in New Orleans.

Magda Szita and Gyula Szita, (then her 17-year-old boyfriend and now her husband of almost 56 years), two of Magda Szita’s sisters and their mother arrived at Jackson Barracks on Jan. 15, 1957.

On Friday at the Jackson Barracks Museum, Magda and Gyula Szita joined 12 other 1957 Hungarian refugees, the Hungarian ambassador to the United States, Gyorgy Szapary, as well as numerous other family members and public officials to honor the refugees for their courage as well as the National Guard and the region for welcoming the Hungarians. The ceremony also represented the unveiling of a new exhibit featuring their arrival more than five decades ago, as well as a special plaque. The plaque was intended to be presented at the 50-year commemoration, a plan interrupted by Hurricane Katrina.

Magda Szita and her two sisters and mother stayed in the wooden barracks on St. Claude Ave. until some nuns saw a picture of them in the New Orleans Item. The photograph showed the four of them saying a prayer before a meal under the headline “99 Hungry Hungarians eat first N.O. meals.”

The family then moved into the Ursuline convent on State Street.

Magda Szita said she thought about leaving the convent, because she had been told if she stayed she would have to become a nun. Szita said she didn’t want to — and already had a boyfriend. The reverend mother assured her she didn’t have to become a nun and allowed Gyula Szita to visit every Sunday. Gyula Szita said he was adopted by a family in Metairie who helped to teach him English and find him a job.

In Hungary, Gyula described an oppressive government, unbearable working conditions and little opportunity to further his education — any misbehavior or sign of resistance was punished. Gyula Szita said he knew he needed to get out while he could. “No matter where I might go it was better than that,” he said.

When the Ursuline sisters learned that the couple wanted to get married, they bought her a dress and threw a grand wedding celebration.

Welcomed with open arms by the city, the couple built a life and raised two children.

“When they say Southern hospitality — that is New Orleans,” said Gyula Szita. For 44 years, he ran the printing department for WWL news.

Pregnant with their first child, the couple briefly moved to Phoenix, following a friend. Magda Szita said she missed the hills of Hungary, and New Orleans just felt too flat. But they were in Arizona for less than a year before deciding to move back, settling in Kenner. “They had cactuses and scorpions and gravel painted green,” Magda Szita said.

Magda Szita said her mother moved back to Hungary 10 years after coming to Louisiana. Once there, Magda said, her mother, who was in her 80s, told her that “if there was a bridge on the ocean she would start walking — she wanted to come back.” She never did.

Magda Szita said she and her husband go back to visit Hungary every two years, and it is her family that she misses most. But after a month in Hungary, she can’t wait to come home.

One of her most treasured possessions were a handful of negatives she grabbed before leaving her childhood home in Hungary. Among them was a photo of Magda, her six siblings, and her mother and father, before he was killed in combat in 1944.

Hungary was allied with Nazi Germany in World War II and Hungarian soldiers fought against the Soviet Union.

On Friday, Gyula Szita led the crowd in the American national anthem, followed by the Hungarian national anthem. A display case, part of the new exhibit, held the 1957 newspaper clipping, the scarf Magda wore in the photo, a wedding photo of the two, a recent photo and a small box Magda Szita brought from Hungary.

During the presentation, Ambassador Szapary said he was among his countrymen who fled in 1956. Szapary praised the refugees for their courage in arriving in a new land without speaking the language, away from the country they loved, but with “hearts full of hope.”

Ivan Bencsek, who also attended Friday’s ceremony and lives in Slidell, was with the first group of “freedom fighters” who arrived in early January. He said more than anything he wanted to express gratitude.

“This place Jackson Barracks will forever be in our hearts a very happy memory,” Bencsek said. “This is the place where most of us received a new chance in life.”