I’m making this film now because earlier in my life I made a huge mistake. As a television journalist based in New York, I was responsible for covering major international news. But while I was so wrapped up in my ‘real’ job, I managed to miss one of the biggest stories in my own backyard, a compelling tale of personal bravery and the struggle against tyranny – my own father’s.
When it comes to my father, known by most everyone as “Pige,” nothing has ever been simple. The story of his past in Hungary is not a straightforward one, mainly because he was the only one telling it, at least while we were growing up in the U.S. He also had quite a dramatic flare; he was known to exaggerate a story for effect, and his approach to names, dates and specific detail was liberal, to say the least. He was entertaining, and when you’re funny, specifics bog you down. Children loved him, but as an adult you were never quite sure how much of the facts he was embellishing.
So apart from the oft-repeated stories like his cousin dying at the wheel of the jeep, placing dinner plates face-down on the streets so that the Russian tanks would think they were mines, tossing Molotov cocktails at the tanks and so on, we didn’t know the who/what/where/when of his story, just the overarching and undeniable why: to get rid of the Soviets. We did not know who he fought with, where he fought, what battles he took part in – just that he was in the thick of it like so many other average men and women who were enraged enough at the Communist leadership to take up arms against it.
The painful reality behind this film project is just this: if you subtract the intriguing anecdotes and heroic slogans of my father’s ‘56 story, we have no idea what he did, exactly. I mean, I’ve always believed him, and my sister has always believed him—in fact my mother has always believed him even though she divorced him over 25 years ago – but that’s not a reliable account to tell my own children, who are already asking questions, and the oldest is not yet five.
While other 56’ers have written memoirs about what happened and what they did -- all very heroic or tragic or both -- my dad never really spoke in detail and never published a word. By the time I realized that one of the biggest stories lurking in my neighborhood could be my own dad, he was diagnosed with cancer in 2002. He passed away within 6 months, not living long enough to see my second daughter and Eszti’s fourth being born – never mind getting his ‘56 story down on paper or film.
He left this world so suddenly, and so early at age 73, that his personal belongings, his life, his thoughts, pictures, and his story were left in total disarray. And so were we.
If he were still here, I know what my father would say about this documentary and about my musings in general: “Reka: if you listen to me, you’ll do whatever you please.” – that’s what he always said. We always knew that he loved and supported us, but he wasn’t focused on his own legend, and ultimately, the follow-up and follow-through were not his style either. He was more dramatic in deeds than words, more action than armchair intellectualizing. He was the type who woke up in the middle of the night, mid-sleep, kneeling by the side of his bed, shooting over his mattress at the enemy. He taught us to do the same, in real life, if and when necessary.
His message, minus the details of his own role, was loud and clear: when someone takes your freedom away and humiliates your nation, you don’t sit by idly. You act.
My goal in making this film was to find out exactly what my father’s story was – what he did in 1956 as a ‘freedom fighter.’ I set out to document the specifics of a story that we always assumed was true; what I learned was that finding out the truth, especially after 50 years, is not easy. The truth is rarely conclusive, and it’s certainly not what I expected – all of this in a country that bares only a resemblance to the one my parent’s left in 1956, the one they taught us to call “home.”
Director, Journey Home