Willoughby: Aspen provided refuge for victims of the Hungarian Revolution
Legends & Legacies
States, cities and civic organizations are lining up to aid Afghan refugees. Aspen took on that responsibility for Hungarians in 1957.
During the Hungarian Revolution 200,000 refugees fled their country in 1956, most to camps in Austria. The Red Cross raised $50 million in today’s dollars to aid them. Elvis Presley appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show to ask for donations.
The National Catholic Refugee Conference inventoried the refugees identifying their occupations. They distributed the information throughout the U.S. and sought organizations, including one in Aspen, to sponsor the refugees.
Aspen residents became involved when the editor of the Aspen Times, Bill Dunaway, wrote a Thanksgiving message, “Perhaps Aspen as a community can not contribute all the clothes that are needed. Nor can its residents sponsor all the refugees that are homeless and in need. But our efforts can be a start, and no matter how small, they will help.” By Christmas, organizers had collected 30 boxes of clothes and shoes for the Red Cross.
The Aspen Rescue Council formed in January of 1957 to find housing and jobs for refugees. They identified eight positions, including ski instructor and a printer. Mrs. Garth Williams, wife of the illustrator of several E.B. White books, led organizing efforts in Aspen. Mrs. Courtland Barnes, then a summer resident, managed the New York side. From there, she worked with Catholic Charities and the International Rescue Committee that hoped to place 21,000 refugees across the country.
Aspen hosted six refugees. Henry Pedersen hired Tibor Barta to work in his landscaping business. A Hungarian cobbler arrived and expected a factory job. After he discovered Aspen wanted a shoemaker to open a store, he departed.
The family that made Aspen their permanent home was the Herczeg family; Joseph Maria and their daughter Elisabeth. Josef was an experienced cobbler. Joseph resisted the communist takeover beginning in 1949, especially because the communists attempted to stop his family from practicing their Catholic faith. In 1952 the government took away his home and his business shop. The Russian army bolstered the government as resistors like the Herczegs continued to organize.
His brother-in-law had escaped to the West but returned to visit. The communist government imprisoned and interrogated Joseph and 98 others to get information about the relative, a resistance fighter. Five were executed, the others, including Josef, imprisoned.
The prisons were overcrowded so after four years of a ten-year sentence Joseph was paroled and he escaped to Austria. Maria and Elizabeth, who had moved to a different part of Hungary, were able to flee to Austria two months later.
Aspen, much in need of someone to repair leather ski boots set up a shop for Herczeg in donated space in the Independence Building. He started with repairs and soon after fashioned and sold new shoes. Organizers stationed volunteer translators in the shop until Herczeg could communicate in English.
The family made a quick adjustment. Elisabeth a year after coming to Aspen made the honor roll as a senior at Aspen High. She also won that year’s Achievement Award for math. She went on to Colorado University. The family bought a home on East Cooper and moved the shoe repair shop there in 1963.
A journalist covering the plight of the refugees followed the Herczegs. Josef revealed to him that he had been bombarded with propaganda about how terrible America was. But when he and 53 others were flown to New York on a military transport Joseph told the reporter that even with no English and the fear they could not support themselves, “Every man, every woman, every child who escaped from Hungary had one dream-somehow get to America. In our hearts none of us believed what they tried to tell us about your land.”
Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Back in 2013, while working on a proposed box set of archival recordings, singer-songwriter Melissa Etheridge came across a group of songs that had been recorded in the late 1980s but never released.
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