Zsuzsa Ördög’s Memories about 1956

Property of the Hungarian Physical Education and Sports Museum

by Suzie Zimsen (Zsuzsa Ördög)

Much has been written about Hungary in ’56. Let me present some events not usually seen. Originally my name was Ördög Zsuzsanna. I was born in April 1940. My parents and little brother lived in Pest until about 1947. My dad owned an auto parts store, with his partner who was Jewish. The store basically hid the Jewish man.

When the Communist State began naturalizing large industries, he saw the handwriting on the wall. “They” would be coming for small firms, and him, next. So he sold the store, bought a 4 story house in Moszva square, (Now Sell Kalman square). I recall sitting on a pile of furniture on a horse drawn wagon during our move to Buda.

I learned to swim at 12 years. Soon after, at a local pool, my brother who could not swim, jumped in and sank. Dove in and pulled him out. (Since then, he has twice been on a world champion water polo team.) I was 16 years old, and competing, when the Melbourne Olympics were scheduled for Fall 1956. In Australia, summer is Nov, Dec, and Jan. In Hungary, selection of athletes for the Games was done by a committee, not by an extended competition as it is here. I was selected.

In Ocober some demonstrains began. They became a revolution. To protect athletes from being involved in dangerous activities, the Committee decided to locate all the Olympic at the top of Svághegy, where there was a hotel, swimming pool and some athletic fields. And they took us to Margit Sziget to train.

Because we were firmly cloistered on top of Svábhegy, none of the athletes participated in the demonstrations, riots, or combat. One evening they took all of us to the movies, to break up our cabin fever. After the movie we heard that Josef Stalin’s enormous steel statue had been pulled down, broken at the top of his boots. When we got there, the statue was gone. After pulling it down, the crowd dragged it down Andrassy Avenue to the Radio Station.

Next, I remember going down to my home on Moszkva square, to pack my things. Then, by myself, riding my bicycle down to Margit Island to the swimming complex to pick up my “stuff”. That day there was no fighting in our area. No tram was running, and the buildings and streets all had bullet holes in them, I had to dodge around the craters and piles of rubble in the street. Back at home without problems, I packed my suitcase, which my Mother had modified. She cut the stitches in the lining, put in forty US dollars, from a tomato can buried in the garden, and sewed it up matching the original needle holes.

It was time to go. My Dad and I set out for Janos Hegy on foot. The cog railway was still not running. Apu was carrying my suitcase.

Because of the revolution, the airliners charted from Air France would not land at Budapest. So, we had to go by bus to Prague. I sat in the back of the bus. My dad climbed onto the bus, and told me “If you can, stay out.” A brave thing to say out loud in a communist environment.

At the Magyar-Czechoslovak border we were held up, in the dark, for hours while the guards checked EVERYTHING. We were released to cross the Danube about 2 am. Later I was told that a large group of Russian tanks turned into the road and went into Hungary as soon as our buses past them. We were the last to legally cross the border for some time.

The buses took us to a school near Prague where we slept, stayed a few days, worked out for a couple days, until the Air France plane could land.

The flight was on Prop Planes, and took a long time, as in 7 or 8 days. Our first stop was in Turkey. We then flew over Saudi Arabia, where we saw, for the first time, oil refineries, with the flames from the flares burning off natural gas. Next refueling stop…. India. We all assembled on the pavement. Mr Nehru, the Prime Minister, came to speak to us, and rode around us in a convertible so we could all get close to him.

Next stop was Singapore. We stopped for a couple of days so that the athletes could get some training time. The swimming pool was, to my astonishment, filled with SEA WATER. Without goggles, our eyes burned. Who can swim in THAT? They warned not to drink the water because it had bacteria in it. I followed directions, but I brushed my teeth using tap water. That was enough to give an intestinal infection. Luckily, by the time the Games started, I was well enough to compete.

Then more flying, to Darwin, and on to Melbourne. My recollection is watching the totally barren land below us, for hours and hours. At 16 I could not have imagined that much nothing. Landing in Melbourn, we went directly to the Olympic Village where teams were segregated by nationality.

The official uniform for the team included a blue blazer. Because of the revolution, the blazers were not all ready when we departed. So in Melbourn the committed had blazers made for those athletes who did not have one. When you see pictures of the Opening Ceremony you will see two colors of blue on Hungarian team members. That’s why.

At home the Russians won. They used a big park, Város Major, behind our house for a tank lager. One afternoon a bored soldier loaded his cannon and fired a random shot. My mother was in the kitchen cooking, and then went to the other side of the house to the WC. The shell exploded on a corner of the kitchen. Destroyed two walls. My father eventually repaired it, even though the State should have, while my mom was visiting me in Seattle in 1962. In 2017 the floor tiles still had chips in them from the shrapnel. A reminder of God’s care for us.

Few people recall the Hungarian swim team in action. Everybody in the world remembers the Hungarian water polo member emerging from the pool with a cut on his forehead, and blood streaming down his face. During the semifinal match he was attacked by a Russian swimmer. He fought back. The umpires stopped the match and awarded the victory to Hungary. Officials feared an outbreak of the events in Budapest streets could be played out in the pool.

One afternoon when my event was scheduled for late afternoon, a group of us took a bus and went to a movie (In English). My watch stopped. When I realized that, I bolted into a taxi bound for the swimming pool. I changed into my suit and arrived shortly before the start time of my race. The coach, who was coach of the Olympic Swim Team, not my coach from Budapest, was furious. Publicly and soundly shouted insults at me. And removed from swimming the relay but I was swimming my own event. Naturally, I did not win a medal. It must be noted that the Aussies had quietly developed 3 swimmers that surpassed the rest of the world of swimming. They swam far faster times than any of the us Europeans or the Americans.

The American dorm was across the street from the Hungarian dorm. Shuttle buses ran between the pool where we practiced for the few days before our scheduled events and the Olympic village. I missed my bus, and another bus was leaving for the American dorm, I caught a ride back to Olympic Village. I was befriended by an American swimmer from Mercer Island, Nancy Ramey. I did not speak English but enjoyed getting a ride from the Americans. Unbeknownst to me Nancy telegraphed her parents on Mercer Island and told them about this Hungarian swimmer she had met.

At the end of the Games, we were all called to a meeting with the Hungarian non-athletes, administrators and government watcher. They asked who, if anybody, was planning to avoid going back to Hungary. They said planes are expensive, and we can’t afford two planes if we only need one. Nobody raised their hand.

“OK: have your bags next to the bus at 08:00, we board at 08:30 and leave at 09:00. If you miss the bus you are on your own.”

Four years previously the managers had physically dragged reluctant athletes onto the planes. This time they were in a bind. Communication with Hungary was zero. Long-distance phone calls would be exorbitant. Nobody knew what was happening at home.

If the managers had been lax, and invited anybody to stay behind who wished to, and the Russians won, they would have been in big trouble when they got home. If the leaders were brutal, and dragged us onto the planes, and the Freedom Fighters had won, they might be hanging from a lamp post. So, they were very politically correct, went through the motions, and said nothing.

As I remember I was looking out Nancy’s window when the buses left. Then, I, and some other stay-behind athletes took public transportation to the airport and watched the others board and fly away. My picture, standing behind a 3 ft high chain link fence, with tears streaming, was shown later in the US Newsreels.

After the planes left for Hungary, we stayed at the Olympic Village dorm for 2 weeks. The press made a big event out of our staying behind, and I got a number of marriage proposals, by mail in English. Australia was settled as a penal colony for Britain. There was an over population of males. At 16 I was eligible in Australia; at home I was but a child. That was true in America too. I married at age 25.

After a couple weeks or so Henry Luce, the publisher of Life, Look and Sports Illustrated, chartered a TWA Super Constellation to come to Australia and bring us to the US. He prevailed on his friends in Congress to give all of us Green Cards on arrival.

On the flight, an older athlete stood in the aisle and got everybody’s attention. This is what he said: “All of us are comfortable with the way life is lived in Hungary. In America it is not like Hungary. There are lots of things different. If you want the best experience, never in your mind say ‘This is not like at home. The customs, food, transportation, schools at home are better.’ For a while you will not be comfortable. But, in the end, you will be successful.” (Years later my husband got a job in Germany, and we gave our kids the same speech.)

We landed in Fiji for fuel just before daylight. As we walked down the stairs and across 50 m of tarmac to the terminal, I was amazed. The sun appeared, instantly 100% bright and hot. No twilight!!!

The media in America was announcing our soon arrival in San Francisco. Nancy Ramey’s dad, driving home from work on Christmas eve, got off |-90 at Mercer Island, went to a travel agency, and bought a round trip ticket for Nancy and a one-way San Francisco to Seattle, for me. As we got an envelope with documents in it from Immigration Service, and milled around, Nancy appeared. She picked up my suitcase, and said, ” OK. Come On”. Her dad met us at SeaTac and took us home.

I stayed with Rameys for a while, attending Mercer Island High School. Then I moved to Holy Names Academy in Seattle, where I learned 25 English words a day, and forgot 20, but day after day I kept 5. In Summer I stayed with a Hungarian Family, The Justus’s in Seatle, then started Seattle University.

Meantime, in Budapest, the Sport Ministry called my Mother in for hostile interrogation. They started with “Where is your daughter?” She had no idea. So, she said “Yes, where is my daughter? She is 16 years old, a mere child, I gave her into your custody, you took her thousands of kms away and lost her. I demand you bring her back.” The burocrat ushered her to the door.

But The State would not be denied. They then caused my Dad to lose his job for a year or more, my parents supported themselves by selling at flea markets.

After I graduated from Seattle University. In 1962 I worked for Boeing as an Engineer. In winter, my Mom was here for 6 months. She did not like Dan. She wanted a Hungarian Diplomat for a son in law. In 1965 Dan and I were married. My Dad got a passport which allowed him to come here. He was part of the marriage prep work, including frosting the wedding cake we made. Not wanting to leave him alone while we were on honeymoon, Dan and I went to San Juan Island and Victoria, and then to Port Angeles, where we met him. We made a trip together around the Olympic Peninsula. At North Head lighthouse, he looked down at the jumble of drift logs on the beach. “That would never be allowed in Hungary. Overnight the people would cut up all those logs and haul them home. “

Later, when my brother got married in Germany he also went along on their honeymoon. That might be a world record.

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Saying goodbye to the leaving Hungarian athletes

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Suzie Ördögh and John Boyd reading her order of parole, Seattle, December 26, 1956

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Suzie Ördögh signing naturalization papers inside courthouse, Seattle, April 23, 1962

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