Witnessing Hungary’s Journey to Democracy
Q&A with Réka Szemerkényi, Ambassador of Hungary
Name: Réka Szemerkényi | Age: 50 | Hometown: Eger, Hungary Ambassador to the U.S. since: February 23, 2015
Q: Tell us a little bit about yourself and where you grew up.
I was born in a small but very historic city about 80 miles to the east of Budapest, it’s called Eger. It’s a very famous city for its history, its wine production — we have very good wines — and also for its academic background. We had one of the very first efforts to build a university in Hungary in Eger and the academic culture goes back to the 1700s. The city is also famous for being a fortress that defended Hungary against the Turkish invasion in the 1500s. For me as a child, that was always a powerful thought.
In the 1400s and 1500s, the Ottoman Turkish army came in several waves with a new military invasion wave aiming to conquer the West. Hungarians believed in being the bastions of the Western Christian values of Europe and that we had to stand up to the Turks and stop them. We very much believed in being the defenders of European values and of Europe. And we were. After several of these waves of military invasions, the Hungarian forces could not resist any more. So the Turks invaded Hungary and stayed for 150 years in Hungary’s territory, taking away Hungary’s sovereignty, while we continued to believe in our nation’s role in preserving our values. The Ottoman Turks were never able to go further west into Europe.
In this part of our history a very famous battle was fought in my city — Eger. That’s a famous story and there’s also a great movie made about this fight against the Turks. The number of defenders was about 2,100 in the fortress itself, and the Turks had an army of 30,000 to 40,000 around the city. The siege of the fortress lasted for five weeks but the defenders held on, and in the end, the Turkish troops had to withdraw and did not lay siege to Hungary for 42 years afterwards. One of the elements of holding on against the Turks was that women were fighting with the men in this long siege. So ever since that battle, it is very well-known in Hungary that the Eger women are the fighter-types. It really inspired me in my childhood that women were among the fighters, and that they were together with the men defending their country, their fortress.
For me, it set a really a high standard: That you don’t just sit around and expect others to fight for your values, but that you go and do it yourself.
Q: You’ve had a very interesting career path, you began your career working for the Hungarian Ministry of Defense, you’ve worked in the private sector and as a researcher. You also completed a PhD and worked in academia as a university lecturer. Tell us a little bit about your career path and what inspired you to work internationally and in Foreign Service.
Well, I very much believe that walking these different paths really adds up. I was always interested in the world and international affairs. But, I was a university student behind the Iron Curtain in the 1980’s, before the first free elections, when we were still living under a regime that was not allowing for freedom of speech or free elections. I understood that if you wanted to do international relations in the regime back then, you would have to work for the Hungarian Socialist Workers Party, and I definitely did not want to do that because my family was a family that was based on the 1956 values of freedom, democracy, and Western values. We were strongly against the communist regime, so I definitely did not want to work for that government or for that political party. So I thought, “This career path is not open for me.”
But I finished my university just in 1990 when we had the first free elections in Hungary. I was taking part in some of the demonstrations, and it was a very historic moment. We felt like we were continuing on the path of the ’56 freedom fighters. It was a historic era. When we had the free elections in the spring of 1990, I came to realize that it was wonderful for my country, but it was also great for me personally, because I could now do whatever I wanted to do in my life.
And I wanted to work for my country. That has defined my career choice ever since — the desire to serve and the desire to help my community and country get back on track and get back into the values that we have always believed in.
In 1990, I first started to work — accidentally — in the Ministry of Defense. It was really accidental, because I was very interested in the world — I spoke a few languages and I wanted to go to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Luckily, I ended up in the Ministry of Defense. Those were the days when the very first civilians entered the Ministry of Defense. They were all civilians who were in charge of the military, which was totally unlike the Soviet logic. That was really historic, to start to work with a staff that was not just military, but Soviet-trained military personnel, in the Ministry of Defense at the time. Among the new people coming in to the MoD, I was practically the only woman.
While in government and then in the opposition, also when working for the private sector, I had the chance to be able to continue to work on the issues that I believed in. For six years I worked as the senior international relations public affairs advisor to the chairman and CEO of the Hungarian oil and gas company, MOL, with a task of establishing an interconnected regional and European energy network. I believed in the importance of energy import diversification and saw this as a strategic mission. Also, I think it’s an experience that every person who wants to work in the administration of their country should have — to work in business, in the private sector, because it gives you a very different background and experience. In addition to this market logic, even in the private sector, I could work on the same logic and the same values and the same interests that I believed were serving my country’s interests.
I also did a lot of work in academia and taught at University. The majority of the young electorate now has no personal memory of life before 1990, of how it was when we didn’t have free elections. It’s a historic gift, but also a responsibility to have lived through and to have a personal memory of what life was like before 1990, but also to be there throughout the change of the early 90’s of how these things were developing. I very much believe it’s my responsibility to pass it on, to make sure the values remain at the forefront, and that we continue to work for them.
Having worked in academia, in government, and in business, all of these experiences have given a very different perspective and a very different set of tools of how to approach problems and how to solve them. But in terms of issues, I was always working on strategic issues.
Q: You said that you ended up in the Ministry of Defense by accident, tell us a little bit more about that story.
After graduating, I was looking for how I could serve my country and by chance, I met the Deputy State Secretary of the Ministry of Defense of the newly elected government, who was just trying to set up the first team for the Ministry. He couldn’t convince me to join the Ministry of Defense, because I so much wanted to do foreign policy, but we agreed on a three-month contract because I said, “What’s the shortest contract you can have?” and he said, “Okay, three months.”
Training in security policy was not available before 1990. That was definitely a field that was not allowed for any civilians in the Soviet logic and handling of the satellite countries. It was obvious that nobody had any background in the science of security policy, so my having no security policy training was not the exception. We — about ten of us — with no security policy background in the MoD, were the rule.
In the three months, I realized that in the Ministry of Defense, in the cellars, there was a library. In the library you could find the entire international literature on foreign policy and security policy that was published in the Cold War — a fascinating library. All translated into Hungarian and all — classified. Everything that you could buy here at any bookstore was there in the Ministry of Defense’s basement’s classified library. It was fantastic because I could use this as a resource to understand what NATO was about, what the structures were like, what containment was, what was written about the Soviet Union in the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s, 80’s. It was a fascinating opportunity for me. During the day we were working and negotiating with our new American, German, and French partners, and at night I was digging into the library of the Ministry of Defense for more depth in what has to be known and what are the basics of these issues. After three months, I said, “I want another three months,” and then I ended up staying there.
Q: How long did you work in the Ministry of Defense?
I was there practically until the first freely elected government lost the elections in 1994. In the meantime, I applied for a Fulbright Fellowship in the United States, and that’s when I came to SAIS to the Johns Hopkins University for the same desire of better understanding this science — which is strategic studies. That’s how I ended up in Washington, D.C.
Q: You also mentioned you were the only woman at the time. What was that like?
It was a fantastic experience, very challenging, very tough at times. They were Soviet-trained military and that meant they had a different mindset. On many occasions I had the feeling that I would go into a meeting and I had to fight my way through just to be heard. It was a very special, and in many ways a very challenging era. But I could also see that little by little over the years, the mentality started to change.
We have gone through a sea of change in this field. I remember when we first started talking about NATO enlargement. I was with the Minister of Defense because there were so few of us, so even this young kid could be a help for the Minister of Defense. I had the honor of going with him to these negotiations and I remember we were talking about how we wanted to join NATO, and I thought to myself, “Sure, but for us to really contribute to NATO…not in my lifetime.” Since then we have been able to contribute to stopping the war in the Balkans. Working together with Americans troops, we fought in Afghanistan. We are still there fighting together, and we said that we’re going to be the last ones to leave, together with the U.S. troops. So we’re there and we have 200 special operations people in the north of Iraq fighting ISIL. To me it’s a historic thing because I know where we’re coming from. For me personally, although it seems like a professional thing, for me it’s a personal joy to see Hungary’s military and I am personally very proud of our military because I have seen how much they have changed since the beginning of my career. So I accidentally ended up in the security field but I am very, very happy for this.
Q: What is the most difficult challenge you’ve faced as ambassador and how did you overcome it?
Well, at the time when I was nominated, we were following a few years of a very negative cycle. A lot of the very profound changes in Hungary that took place since 2010 or 2011 were so difficult to understand from far away, and we were not doing maybe the best job in explaining what was really happening, that caused a lot of misunderstanding and miscommunication.
And that hurt me, personally and professionally, because as a person who is very committed to the free and democratic Hungary, who came from this anti-communist democratic underground group of Hungarian politicians, I very much believe in the importance and power of the transatlantic relationship. I think the European and transatlantic ties are the most important roots for my country. So when there is a growing misunderstanding it really hurts from a professional and strategic point of view. Of course, we have a very complex recent past as well. I understand how difficult it is to understand from outside.
We have to separate issues from each other in order to understand every one of them better, to be able to speak in the best interest of our countries, to keep the transatlantic ties strong. We’re under very strong pressures in Europe. If these pressures are not understood correctly in the U.S. that will then lead to the weakening of the transatlantic relationship. We need each other and we have to work together to face these challenges. Because they go way beyond any one country’s possibilities. Nobody, not Hungary, a country of 10 million, or even Europe as a continent, will be able to solve these challenges that we’re facing now alone. The U.S. also is a country that needs allies and friends and will not be able to solve these challenges on its own. I very much believe that common values will provide us the potential to solve these challenges. But we have to be aware of our responsibility and part of that responsibility is to understand better, pay more attention, listen to each other on both sides, and then to develop common policies and common action.
Over the course of last year, a lot of the migration challenges in Europe hit Hungary first. Hungary was in many cases heavily, heavily criticized in the international media. What we could see on the ground was very clear, that security is an understanding that we didn’t have in Europe. Until this, we were quietly sitting in Europe with the idea that all international challenges were going to hit the U.S. and kindly avoid us and that was a false concept that we’re waking up to now. And yes it’s a shock that we have to focus on border defense. Who would like that? But if you don’t, you can’t expect your population to respect the government and respect the laws and be welcoming to anyone.
So the need for security and the need for understanding the challenges of our times is hitting Europe now. It’s causing a lot of intellectual and political shocks. But what you could see over the course of last year is that many of the policies that we were proposing and which had been criticized are now becoming mainstream. And people are understanding that yes, it’s correct, it’s right, and it’s serving values. It’s not destroying values that we have been proposing and I very much believe that we in Europe will have to get our act together.
When I was nominated, it is a very honoring and elevating thing to be nominated. Of course, to represent your country anywhere in the world, but in the U.S. in particular, it’s something very, very humbling. I believe what I came here first to do was to narrow the gap of understanding and increase the understanding and the respect for each other, because I think that’s what we need for working together. We may make mistakes. I’m not thinking that we are a flawless government or that there is any flawless country anywhere in the world. We all in our countries are trying to better our systems, and we’re making an effort. There may be mistakes along the road that could have been avoided and are being adjusted, and there are mistakes that in reality are not mistakes, that make perfect sense, but they are seen as problems from the outside.
I believe it is my mission to close the gap of understanding, to fight double standards, to get back on track, to understand each other better and to work together on issues of strategic interest.
Q: What would you say is the most rewarding part of the job?
What I really appreciate is the tremendous support and good will that I get from the most varied parts of our contacts. For instance, we have a fantastic support for strengthening Hungarian-American bipartisan support through Congress. Some members of the Hungarian Caucus have Hungarian backgrounds, some don’t. Some of them have Hungarian Americans in their electoral districts, some don’t. But they have a commitment to strengthening U.S. ties with my part of the world. And the power of this and the attention and the personal commitment is very moving and very powerfully telling me also that we have to appreciate this and build on this.
The other very rewarding part is to see a strengthened military cooperation. It’s my soft spot — I acknowledge. To me to see that the Hungarian military is fighting back-to-back with the Americans in the most challenging parts of the world, and that this is appreciated by the American military and the American military leadership, and the civilian leadership of the American military is very rewarding. For a country of 10 million to be able to contribute to a common mission is a big thing. Wherever I go, immediately as I say that I’m the Hungarian ambassador, people who deal with security issues will say, “We very much appreciate Hungary’s contribution to the fight against ISIL.” To me, especially coming from the Ministry of Defense of 1990, it means a lot. And I think it’s a very solid foundation of our relations.
It’s also very rewarding for me to have many Hungarian talents, for example musicians here. Talented young people who we invite to the embassy and the interest and the love that they get from the American audience is fantastic. They are so warmly received. We are, humbly, very proud of our musical talents, and we very much believe that this is something special that Hungary has offered for the global world of culture. To see their positive acceptance here and to see how warmly they are received and how appreciated they are in Washington DC, and in New York, Chicago, Cleveland, Florida, California, etc., that’s really very nice. I think that creates a very strong spiritual tie between our countries. But spiritual in the sense that it’s very tangible, that we all can sense it. It has an impact.
And of course I’m very, very much rewarded by a growing interest and a growing investment rate into Hungary. I spend at least 40 perfect of my time in business meetings with U.S. investors into Hungary and Hungarian investors coming into the U.S. In practically every single meeting, they are so appreciative of their investment in Hungary, they want to increase their investment in Hungary, and they tell me how much they enjoy their work in Hungary. Outside of the EU countries, the biggest investor in Hungary is the United States and the biggest export market of Hungary is the United States. I think that’s fantastic.
Beyond the political level, the real pillars of how you can measure and understand the relations between two countries are these two — first, who you fight with, who will give their lives for common goals. Because that’s a serious decision — where you send your troops. It’s not a decision that any government would do lightheartedly because it means we may be losing Hungarian men and women in this, obviously. So first, who you fight with, and the second, where you put your money. Where you invest and do business projects with. I think both of these two are really powerful messages of what we really think about each other. And if I take a look at either and both of these, I can see we really trust each other.
Q: Your twitter bio says, “Ambassador of Hungary to the United States. Mother of four.” What advice would you give to women who want children and want high-powered jobs?
I think this is one of the most important issues that I have been dealing with apart from security.
I very much believe that women, like anybody else, have to have the choice for themselves. If they want to focus on work, fine. If they want to focus on family, fine. If they want to focus on both work and family, that should be fine too. And that we have to be able to understand that it is a free choice and that all of these choices are of equal value.
You have to have that knowledge and that certainty that women have to be in key positions in the society and in policymaking because if they’re not, then we’re in trouble. It’s very, very important for women to believe that they have a role, and they have to be there, and also that they have to fight their way through it. But also, that they believe that they don’t have to give up their family aspirations for their career, and they have a chance to combine the two.
I give a lot of lectures and speeches at universities, conferences, everywhere. On most of these occasions younger women will come up to me — my presentations are always about security policy questions — but when young women come up to me after these presentations, on most of the occasions they ask me about this: How you can combine family and career?
It’s a tricky thing which can only be solved on the individual level, so there is not one big solve-all answer.
One important thing is, I don’t know if it’s politically correct or not, but I keep thinking that your first career choice is your husband. Because your partner has to be with you.
If you want to combine family and career, you have to be sharing the burden, you have to be able to distribute responsibility, and juggle time and logistics. If a person is not ready for this, then you cannot make your choices, and you end up having serious difficulty in some part of your life. It’s very important to have a clear and solid understanding of the ability of playing it together. Of course it’s very individual — and personal — but I think it can be discussed. It can be nicely discussed, and it can help even strengthen the relationship.
I am fortunate to have a fantastic and very supportive husband, who also has a high-powered job. This helps me because he also understands the pressures of time and the pressures of work. He understands the responsibilities. On many occasions it was my husband, when I was giving up or saying, “I’m too tired, I don’t want to go to this conference because I think they’re going to be fine without me. I just want to sit around and have a quiet weekend,” it was my husband who told me, even when we had little children, “No. I will take over now and you go.” And it really helped me. In difficult moments you are tired and it is really demanding, and of course you want to give your whole heart to your children because that’s what matters most in life. That’s not questionable. But it helps a lot when there’s somebody who will always keep you moving. And I think that’s very important.
The only way to stay in job is to stay in job. You have to combine everything and it’s not easy, but it’s not impossible to keep the balance right between life and work. Yes, I have more time away from my children than what I wish I would have, but the time we have together is very focused, so we very much appreciate that.
I have very many evening events in Washington now, but even after dinner, I go from room to room. Every night I spend time with another child and we have our little pillow talk and our discussions with them individually. There is a moment for this and they know they have my full attention. I have been watching my children very carefully from the beginning and I thought that if I saw anything that indicated to me that they would need more of my time or more of my attention of course I would have to redirect my calendar. But I have continued to see them balanced and happy, so I felt I could continue along this path.
You have to have a strong understanding of the importance of time and of not losing the time available, but also a special appreciation of family. It’s been unique, but I’ve never heard any criticism or anything from my family. We have developed this saying with my children when they were little and I had to go off to a conference or for some meetings they would say, “Oh Mom, don’t go! I want you to stay with me.” And so I would say, “Mom sometimes has to go to work, but she always comes back.” And they loved it because it meant for them that I am really theirs. Going away for work is temporary; being with the family is permanent. We have this saying ever since and it’s very nice that they understand this.
We have a special ceremony for family dinners. We understand that family dinner is a time for discussion and a time for sharing, and everybody loves it. The more my children are opening up to the world and the more they are understanding, the more questions of course they have, so of course these family discussions are on real big topics: pollution, national indebtedness levels, global warming. We’re very often discussing big issues at the family table. I really, really enjoy that they throw these big issues on the table and everyone gets involved. We had, for instance, month-long family dinners over the pros and cons of vaccination because they were interested. And then we had a series of breakfasts over the levels of America’s and Hungary’s national indebtedness and why and how to decrease that.
Q: What are some of your hobbies?
I love skiing. That’s a winter activity I would never miss. All my children ever since they were born, we took them skiing with us, so it’s a family event. Also, I love very much when I have just a little afternoon and to grab a book and do four hours of reading and not do anything else. I also very much like walking. With my husband, we can sometimes go on longer walks and it’s great to chat and just be together. I love cooking special food. Not everyday cooking — that’s very tiring and is a real challenge — but when you have friends or big events, to do some special food. And my husband is a fantastic cook, he loves cooking too. We have friends over for cookouts. We love weekends when we can have that. We love music, to go to concerts. We have a family concert master — my husband and my son — they choose where to go. We love traveling, everyone in the family. It’s not a problem for my children. I’m amazed. They will sit for ten hours in the car just to see places…anytime. We have long family car rides where we love the time that we can spend together.
Q: What are some of your favorite places that you’ve visited in the U.S.?
We had a fantastic summer of visiting the national parks in Utah. The children chose it — they wanted to go there, and in family discussions, we are often outvoted four to two. We all really loved this trip. We had a fantastic time seeing the Canyonlands, Arches, and we very much enjoyed staying in Moab. Last summer we did the East Coast. They have big plans for next summer to go to the West Coast. They also want to see Texas. We have a long list of places to visit.
Q: What do you like most about living in DC?
DC has changed tremendously since I was here 20 years ago. At that time Washington was primarily about politics but there weren’t many other issues of interest. I have been so positively impressed by the intensive cultural life that we have now — concerts, ballets, and the musical events are fantastic.
We very much enjoy the parks in DC and feeling the nice mix of nature and city. It’s really one of the nicest aspects of the capital, which you don’t get easily in many capitals because most of them tend to be just city. But I think DC made a very concerted, nice, and successful effort in keeping nature in the city. It’s one of the special bonuses of life here.
And the museums of DC — they are fantastic. The Museum of the American Indian, the new Museum of African American History and Culture, the Udvar-Hazy Center. Steven F. Udvar-Házy (whom the museum is named after) is a fantastic Hungarian, and by the way — he’s a very inspiring person too.
Q: How has it been working with the other EU Member State ambassadors here in DC?
The diplomatic corps in DC is impressive. I very much enjoy and appreciate interacting with them. I think they are wonderful people, with fascinating backgrounds and experiences, and just to exchange impressions and ideas is intellectually inspiring and it’s really something that you feel that the whole world is here in DC…and that sort of outlook is fascinating. It’s a very nice atmosphere.
Among the diplomatic corps, I have two special more intimate groups. One is the Ambassadors of Central East Europe. We have very deep and thought-provoking discussions on every issue and I very much appreciate working with my colleagues from the region because I think we have a strong understanding of the importance and strategic nature of relations with Washington.
And the other group of ambassadors that I very much appreciate working with is the women ambassadors. We have an amazing group of women ambassadors — wonderful people. It’s incredible, but you immediately become friends. It’s not just a professional relationship; we have an extra dimension to our meetings. We very often invite special guests from our countries or Americans, and only invite the women ambassadors for them. And it’s a special opportunity. There is a very strong collegiality and that’s really helpful and also visible from the outside.
I come from a country where we don’t feel that there is discrimination against women. This is democracy, of course. There is not explicit or implicit distinction. Under communism of course, we had the two workers in the family model. Men and women were working the same for the last 70 or 80 years. I was never of the opinion that the situation was worse in Hungary than it would be anywhere else in Europe for women.
But I do believe that for a woman to get to the same social prestige or acknowledgement, for some reason you still have to work harder.
That’s interestingly similar between my country and a lot of the Western European women ambassador experiences. Despite the lack of discrimination against women, you still feel that there is some extra work that you have to put in to get to the same level of professional acknowledgement. That’s why I think it’s a special group for all of us women ambassadors because we all understand this extra that we all have to put into this. We all appreciate that and there is an extra strength in the friendliness of the relationship because of this.
We believe that because we have gone through this we would really like to be mentors for our younger colleagues. To help them, to go forward. Obviously we have gone a lot further on this road than where our mothers were. So within a generation you can see a difference. And I can see ahead as well and I want these women who are young and talented to learn from my experience, not having to go through the experience, but to have a faster track, and to have a good chance. So I very much encourage young women to come and work with me, either as interns or as colleagues. I want them to be on board.
Q: Along those lines, what advice would you give to young women that are starting out in their careers?
First, you have to believe in your dreams. Develop very high dreams and very high goals, because that’s where it starts — when you set what you want to reach. We shouldn’t satisfy ourselves with mediocre things. The highest dream you have is the one that should lead you. And that’s very important.
The other very important thing that I experienced is that you have to be really persistent, ready for the difficulties, and not give up. There will be a lot of difficulties along the road for sure. No one can expect a life without difficulties, but if the difficulties derange the direction or distort your goals, then it’s a problem. We have to expect the difficulties to be there along the road and we have to understand that the way we go about them is what matters, not that there are difficulties.
We have this very funny way of expressing how to prepare yourself for difficulties in the Hungarian attitude, which is often called pessimistic, that I heard from my mother, “Pessimism will never disappoint you.” I think it’s true, but it also helps you in a funny way, and you keep laughing at the difficulties. It dissolves tension and helps put everything in the right perspective. My colleagues, when they first didn’t know me and we had some difficult news coming in, I started laughing, and they were like, “what’s this?” But I believe that that is what you really are here for.
We’re not here for the easy successes. We’re here for meeting the difficulties and solving them.
I think that is the mission of everyone in foreign policy, and everyone in international relations, security policy. We have to understand the realities and try to develop the answers.
And third, look for a partner. In professional life too, you need to find partners to think together with. But I very much believe that also in my personal life, for me, life is only complete with my family. It’s something that I treasure very much, but that also means that you have to always be flexible enough to understand that two people together are very different from one person on its own. With all the nice and important positives there are always things you have to give up or think over or understand more than you would if you didn’t want the other person to stay with you or if you didn’t want to stay with the other person. It requires a lot more energy, but it’s worth it.
Q: Over the next month the embassy will be hosting a series of events to honor the 60th anniversary of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution and Freedom Fight. What does this mean to you personally?
My whole childhood I was brought up on 1956 and on the stories that I heard from my family members. Every family discussion ever since I remember was a little bit about personal issues, school, work, and then about ’56. I remember going to sleep at the age of 6 or 7 and every night before going to sleep thinking, “What would I have done if I had been there? Would I have had the courage?” This belief of the ’56-ers in the values was the standard you set for yourself.
One of our family stories is that of my grandfather, who supported the revolution. He was a train station head — he was the leading person there — and when he saw train loads of military ammunition that the Russians were sending to their troops, he stopped them and wouldn’t let them get to the Soviet troops. When he saw the trains that were sent by the Hungarian countryside people wanting to support the revolutionaries and were sending food from the countryside, he helped those trains to quickly get to their destinations.
In the spring of 1957, a few months after the revolution when it was all put down, there was a second effort in March that they tried to revolt again in the Soviet Union. He was part of this, and as part of this second effort that was put down, he was imprisoned. He was taken into these Hungarian KGB prisons one evening and his wife could visit him the day after. When the family went in they wouldn’t recognize him; because of the night’s beatings his hair grew completely white overnight, and he was suffering so many internal problems that after a few weeks he was released from prison, but even after several operations that had to be done, he passed away. It was all going back to this one night. And my mother couldn’t go to university because of her father. She was blacklisted. And she doesn’t have a university degree because of this. She had a happy life after, but still, you had to see the pressure of the communist regime.
Another powerful story of 1956 I keep remembering is that of my father. He was a medical university student in ’56 in Budapest and took part in the demonstrations. He tells us that after the first few days after the fighting and the Soviet tanks were withdrawing, there were few days of relative calm in the city, but nothing was open. He wanted to visit his sisters and see how they were doing so he had to walk because no public transportation was operational. As he took a very quiet street, he saw an elderly lady with two heavy bags walking there, so he hurried up to help her and as he almost caught up with her to ask for the two bags, he heard this piercing noise over his shoulder and the lady collapsed in front of him. He first didn’t understand what happened, so he pulled her into a gate and tried to help her, also as a medical student, but she died right there. It was only then that he realized that it was a sniper of the Hungarian KGB. They were spread around in the city and they were randomly shooting at young men who they believed to be revolutionaries — every young man was suspicious. They were shooting randomly from rooftops and this bullet was designed for him, not the old lady — they just missed him by a little and hit her.
Most Hungarian families have stories like this and it’s a very personal connection to ’56 and the values of ’56. Those who don’t, that was the dividing line for a long time in our society — how you relate to ’56 and how you think about it. Now it’s more a uniting factor because we all think very highly of the values of democracy and freedom, which the ‘56-ers were fighting for.
As I go around the U.S and I meet Hungarian Americans, ‘56-ers, who had to leave their country because of their involvement in the freedom fight, I hear deeply moving stories and it’s really very, very powerful to see them. So for me to have the chance of celebrating the 60th anniversary together with these people here in the United States is a special gift of life. It’s something very unique. The first internal meeting that I had when I arrived with my team here 1.5 years ago was that we’re starting to prepare for the ’56 celebration. So please come and join us!
We want to honor the heroes of 1956 but we also would like to express our appreciation and honor the Americans and decision-makers who were welcoming these Hungarians and giving them a second life and second home. It’s a very special year and for me as a person brought up on these ideals. The first people I met when I first got here in 1993 with the Fulbright fellowship were the heroes of 1956, the street fighters. For me to be with them at that time, and meeting more and more of them, you can never be thankful enough that they are here, and that they stood up for our values. I’m always deeply impressed by how much values mean in life.
Q: Hungary has come a long way since then. If you share one thing about present-day Hungary with Americans, what would it be?
That we are a small but very talented nation that feels strongly about values, freedom, and democracy. And that we are very solid in our friendships and alliances that we feel strongly about.
This story is part of the @EUintheUS “Ambassador Spotlight Series,” featuring in-depth, personal interviews with ambassadors from the European Union’s 28 member states. Follow our publication and stay tuned for the next story.