(From October 2006)
This October marks the 50th anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution, a democratic popular uprising against the Soviet-installed government that was rapidly turning Hungary into a puppet state. Tragically, this successful Revolution in October 1956 was quickly crushed by a Soviet armored invasion. Many leaders of the revolution were jailed and executed; others fled. The highest-ranking military figure to survive the Hungarian Revolution was General Béla K. Király, Commander-in-Chief of the Hungarian National Guard. For nearly thirty years, this Hungarian patriot called Vernon Township his home.
Király (silent “l,” pronounced key-rye) was born in Kaposvár, Hungary, on April 14, 1912, the same night that the Titanic sank--perhaps a harbinger of an eventful life. His father was the town railway stationmaster. Király grew up with a love of animals, and wanted to become a veterinarian, but was instead offered a scholarship to the Ludovika Military Academy, often called “Hungary’s West Point.” Graduating in 1935, he served on the Hungarian General Staff’s War Academy, and later in the Ministry of Defense through the Second World War.
A tall and handsome man who could be charming in the best old-world manner, Király could also be a stern, no-nonsense taskmaster—probably an ideal combination for military command. His military training also gave him the habit of dressing impeccably when circumstances so required, a custom he retained in later life.
During the Second World War, Hungary was uneasily allied with Germany; Captain Béla Király found himself fighting the Soviets on the eastern front. During this time, he used his authority to maintain the safety and welfare of several companies of Jewish labor conscripts in the Ukraine. His efforts on their behalf would be remembered decades later, as we will see.
In 1949 Király was appointed Commander of the Hungarian Infantry, but in the postwar era, Hungary was rapidly falling under the control of the Soviet Union. Anti-Soviet, and a strong proponent of an independent Hungary, Király’s political beliefs got him into trouble. One night in 1951, he was arrested in the middle of the night. A typical Soviet-style “show trial” led to his prompt conviction as an “American spy.” The sentence: death by hanging.
For reasons never clear even to Király, the sentence was never carried out, but commuted to life. He spent the next five years in prison. Then, in September 1956, with Stalin dead and the winds of change blowing, he was freed from prison. He quickly joined the cause of reformist politician Imre Nagy, and was named Chairman of the Revolutionary Council for Public Safety.
On October 23, 1956, student protests in Budapest rapidly spread into a popular revolt against the Soviet-installed Hungarian government. The government soon fell, and Nagy was named Prime Minister. Initially, the Revolution seemed a success, and Király negotiated peace terms with the Soviet ambassador (later Soviet General Secretary) Yuri Andropov. But on November 4, even while they were negotiating for peace, the Soviets struck back with tanks and aircraft, invading Budapest, killing thousands, and crushing the Revolution. This betrayal led to one of Király’s famous quotes about the Soviets: “Even pirates, before they attack another ship, hoist a black flag.” Imre Nagy was executed. Thousands—including Béla Király and many of his troops—fled the country to carry on the fight, via political means, from the West.
So at the age of 44, Béla Király had no country, no job, no possessions, and no family (his wife had divorced him while he was in prison). Instead of bemoaning his fate, he set about building a new future for himself as a lecturer, scholar and historian. For decades, he traveled the globe and spoke at universities, conferences, and legislative bodies about the Hungarian Revolution, keeping the message alive. He also enrolled in Columbia University, where he obtained his MA in 1959 and his Ph.D in 1966. He subsequently wrote a number of books, edited scores more, and published dozens of scholarly articles.
In 1964, Király joined the faculty of Brooklyn College, where he taught for the next 25 years. As an educator, he was both mentor and inspiration to numerous young students (including this one). Having re-formed himself as a distinguished speaker, author, scholar, educator, and historian, one would think Király was satisfied with himself. But this ever-energetic person wasn’t even half done. In 1979, he founded Atlantic Research and Publications, Inc.(ARP), to publish books on societies in change. To date, it has published over 130 titles on the subject, and has also organized dozens of international conferences.
Like many New York City residents, Király had a summer home in the country. His rented bungalow in Kerhonkson, in the Catskills, was sold around 1970, so he went looking for a new summer home. Friends told him about Highland Lakes, in the mountains of Vernon. Király visited, and bought a house his first day here. Eventually, Highland Lakes became Király’s year-round home. His Vernon home allowed him to pursue what he has always referred to as his true passion in life: pigeon breeding. His coops produced a number of prize-winning hens over the years.
The focal point of Király’s Highland Lakes home was the fireplace, over which hung a photo portrait of Imre Nagy, and next to which was a large bronze plaque of a Hungarian Freedom Fighter standing atop a Soviet Tank. His home was thus sort of shrine to the Hungarian Revolution, and on many occasions Király was host to an array of Hungarian expatriots. He also had a history library of over five thousand volumes.
Still, all this happiness and success in his adopted country was bittersweet for Király. His homeland remained in the grip of a Soviet-supported Communist regime, and many of his relatives still lived there. He had been told in no uncertain terms that should he ever attempt to re-enter his homeland, the Communist authorities there would have him arrested and charged with treason (he had been sentenced to death—again—in absentia).
All that changed starting in 1989, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the collapse of the Iron Curtain and the Soviet Union. And thus started the amazing third chapter of Béla Király’s life. With the fall of the Soviet-supported government of János Kádar, a new era dawned for Hungary. On June 14, 1989, Béla Király returned to his homeland for the first time in thirty-three years to speak at the ceremonial re-burial of Prime Minister Imre Nagy, who had lain in an umarked prison grave since 1958.
The wave of changes that swept Hungary in the post-Communist era could hardly have been better reflected in its attitude to Király, the one-time death row inmate who now found himself a national hero. The Hungarian military both restored him to his former rank, then promoted him to Colonel-General, and issued him back pay retroactive to 1956. And in 1990, Király received the ultimate honor: his hometown district of Kaposvar elected him as a member of the Hungarian Parliament. He served until 1994.
In the early 1990s, a survivor of a World War II-era Jewish labor company in the Ukraine recalled that a Hungarian officer, through acts of kindness and compassion, was responsible for his survival and the survival of many others from 1943-44. The officer’s name was Béla Király. Yad Vashem, the Israeli memorial to victims of the Holocaust, conducted inquiries into the claim. An examination of living witnesses and the historical record concluded that Király had risked his own life to save Jewish prisoners. On this basis, he was awarded a medal and the title “Righteous Among The Nations,” joining the likes of Oskar Schindler and others who risked their lives to help Jews during World War II.
Through all this, Király kept his home in Highland Lakes until advancing age convinced him to live with relatives in Budapest, where he still owns both an apartment downtown and a large house in a leafy suburb where he can raise his beloved pigeons. He sold his house in Highland Lakes in the late 1990s, donating his massive library as a special collection to the Miklós Zrinyi National Defense University in Budapest.
Nonetheless, Király retains retains fond memories of Vernon. At the spry age of 94, he remains active in political and scholarly circles in both Hungary and the United States. Never one to let age hold him back, the onetime Highland Lakes resident is presently contemplating the purchase of a Vernon condo, so he can once again enjoy the hills of northern New Jersey.
With the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution now at hand, Király—far from slowing down—is actively participating in an array of conferences and ceremonies commemorating the event. He has also recently published his latest book—fittingly, an autobiography. Soldier, general, commander, teacher, writer, statesman, publisher, editor, politician, and pigeon fancier: few Vernon residents have played such a role in history, and had as long, productive, distinguished, and varied a life, as Béla Király.
(Ron Dupont can be reached at Dupont@vernonstories.com.)