Willoughby: Refuge – when Aspen did its part

Tim Willoughby
Legends & Legacies
Hungarians protest in 1956 — some found refuge in Aspen.
Wikimedia commons |

The United Nations reports a staggering figure: 65.3 million people displaced from their homes by war and global warming. More than one in four, 19.5 million, are refugees. The U.S. commitment for absorbing Syrian refugees relative to the scale of the crisis is miniscule, less than 10,000 this year. Even for those few, many have withdrawn the U.S. welcome mat, “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

During the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, 200,000 refugees fled their country. Elvis Presley appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, where he helped the Red Cross raise more than $50 million in today’s dollars to help with the crisis. The National Catholic Refugee Conference inventoried individuals, families and their occupations in refugee camps. 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, Bil 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 1957 to find housing and jobs for refugees. They identified eight positions, including ski instructor and printer. Mrs. Garth Williams, wife of the illustrator of several E.B. White books, led organization 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.

This was in the days of leather ski boots, which were in constant need of repair. A Hungarian cobbler arrived and expected a factory job. After he discovered Aspen wanted a shoemaker to open a store, he departed. Henry Pedersen hired Tibor Barta, another refugee, to work in his landscaping business.

The Herczeg family — Josef, Marin and their daughter Erzsebet (Elisabeth) — became the most long-lasting newcomers. The communist government had imprisoned Josef in 1952 for refusing to provide information about his brother, a suspected resistance fighter. Upon his release four years later, Herczeg and his family fled immediately.

Aspen set up a shop for Herczeg, a cobbler by trade, in donated space in the Independence Building. He started with repairs and soon after he made and sold new shoes. Organizers stationed a translator in the shop until Herczeg could communicate in English. Also without English, Elizabeth entered Aspen High School, quickly assimilated, graduated and attended Colorado University.

During those years of John Birch Society influence and far right-leaning dominance, Aspen offered refuge for individuals whom other places shunned. In Aspen, blacklisted writers and artists weathered McCarthy’s witch-hunts for communists. The town welcomed Jews, some of whom survived the Holocaust. Williams withstood controversy over his children’s book, in which a white rabbit wedded a black one. German and Austrian families emigrated from their war-ravaged homes to work in the ski industry. Although closeted gays felt safer from harassment in Aspen.

Aspen residents welcomed contributions to the local economy and community while providing refuge for a family from a tortured past. Those residents’ children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren may no longer need a boot cobbler. But would we welcome a Syrian chef, especially a culinary artist who could concoct a berry cobbler?

Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching for Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at