A Journey Home – With Question Marks Personal Quest Uncovers 1956 History, Mystery

(Hungarian Internet film portal: www.magyar.film.hu)

by Dénes Balázs
(Translation by Katica Avvakumovits)

October 17, 2005

Réka Pigniczky and her sister Eszter are Hungarian-Americans who have spent repeated stints in Hungary since the 1990’s. Last year, they began a documentary film project to uncover their father’s revolutionary activities in 1956, to tell the story of how he emigrated, and to separate the reality from the legends that surrounded their father, known as “Pige”. For the film’s creators, Journey Home is also the last stop on a long journey of self-discovery. Réka Pigniczky currently lives and works in Budapest.

In the Storm of a Revolution

“In 1956, László “Pige” Pigniczky was 26 years old, a master sergeant in the Hungarian army,” we read on the film’s website. “When the revolution broke out on October 23, 1956, he had already spent six months in military prison for “illegal organizing.”
According to his own account, he broke out of prison once the fighting began, hopped into a jeep, grabbed some weapons, and plunged into the fray against the Soviet tanks in Budapest.”

After the revolution was crushed, Pige escaped over the border to Yugoslavia in 1957; he eventually ended up the United States. “There he settled down, never again boarding a ship or airplane, never traveling more than a few states away from his home in Pennsylvania. After nearly 50 years, my father is coming home for the first – and last – time to Hungary. For his own funeral in Szőreg.”

This happened in 2003.

László Pigniczky’s daughters were born in the U.S. As first-generation Hungarian- Americans, the revolution always played a big role in the family’s life and in the children’s everyday upbringing. Their parents took an active part in organizing the annual commemorations of October 23 in Philadelphia.

Who was our father?

“Our father had very definite views on the revolution, and he raised us with these beliefs. At times, it was embarrassing to be Hungarian; at other times, it was a source of pride. For example, at school it was hard to be called Réka Pigniczky instead of, say, Sarah Miller. But at least I could say, at the height of the Cold War, that my father was a revolutionary who fought against the Soviets. And, in time, the pride won out.”

At the same time, everyday life as a refugee in the U.S. does not always fit the stereotype rags-to-riches story. For most Hungarians in exile, the change of homeland and the all-pervading uncertainty about making a living required enormous adjustments.

Réka Pigniczky is a journalist, working in Budapest for Associated Press Television News. The fact that she does not like questions to go unanswered is a kind of “occupational hazard.” “Though I am the daughter of a ’56-er, I still didn’t know: what, exactly, happened to my father during the revolution?”

The primary impulse behind the film is the fact that something important happened to their father in 1956. This is what the girls wanted to discuss with their father, but the conversation never took place, due to his death two years ago, and so the questions remained unanswered: what happened to László Pigniczky during the revolution, and the following years, and what changed his life so radically? These questions came to the forefront as they prepared for the funeral. “It was very strange to bring his remains back to Hungary, to the little town of Szőreg, when he himself never returned during his lifetime.”

“At least he wasn’t a member of the Secret Police!”

The first six months of the documentary process can be written off as a failure. “For the first half year, we found no information whatsoever pertaining to our father’s revolutionary activities. In fact, we got more and more indications that his role in the events was not as major as he had made it out to be. Again and again, it turned out that he showed up someplace, told stories, and moved on. In February, one of our friends tried to cheer us up, saying we ought to be happy: at least we didn’t find out that our father was in the secret police, at least he wasn’t a spy.”

At this point, the family documentary nearly stalled. However, János M. Rainer, Director of the 1956 Institute, pointed the girls to László Eörsi. Eörsi is a historian whose research focuses on the various armed batallions of the revolution. He’s published several books on the subject, and had concrete data to provide.

Réka Pigniczky was surprised to realize that people in Hungary often have a different view of 1956 than the majority of émigré Hungarians. “They [the emigres] consider the revolution as an event of unquestioned heroism, in which everyone who fought against the regime was a hero. Here in Hungary, people take a more nuanced view; or else, in many cases, they have no views at all.”

It is also common, in Hungary, to shape one’s view of the revolution in terms of political interests. Many of the participants in the revolution are still alive. “We tried to be objective in presenting the events – we relied on several different historians to provide their interpretations. With Journey Home, we were attempting to build bridges.”

“And it was surprising, and upsetting, that in some quarters people still refer to 1956 as a counterrevolution. Whereas we, growing up in the States, were under the impression that the entire nation was infused by a “divine madness”, in which a lot of people risked everything they had for freedom and to end Soviet occupation. Yes, the 1956 revolution was a spontaneous outbreak, and all manner of people joined in, so not every revolutionary action was sufficiently planned or well-executed. No revolution is totally “pure,” but the important thing is that the entire nation rose up in pursuit of a single goal. This should be reason enough to consider the events without constraining them into ideological categories.”

Talking about the Divine Madness

The director believes that the younger generation should be able to gain a clear view of the revolution, since they were not directly involved in the events. “Who is the film aimed at? Good question! We didn’t want the film to remain merely a personal story; we wanted viewers to recognize themselves, to feel that they, too, would be able to make a similar movie about their own families.” Journey Home is being produced in the Hungarian language, but the producers are already considering making a version with an English narration, not just subtitles.

Journey Home is a documentary essay filmed with a mini-DV and a low budget – a few million Forints. “My sister and I aimed to make a fact-based, investigative documentary. I narrate the tale of our journey in the first person. At this point, Journey Home is about 80% done. I’m still researching in various Budapest archives, trying to find out what happened to our father in November and December of 1956, before he escaped over the border to Yugoslavia. It would be nice to present the film at this year’s Film Festival, but there are still a few loose ends that I want to follow up, a few more witnesses I’d like to interview.”

The film is expected to be completed by January 2006, and the producers hope to present it to audiences in the Hungarian-American community, as well as in Hungary. They’d also like to have the film shown on PBS, the American public broadcasting channel.

A Journey Home – With Question Marks Personal Quest Uncovers 1956 History, Mystery