Records of the Union of Free Hungarian Students – Julius Várallyay’s collection, 1957-1967
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Name of collection
Records of the Union of Free Hungarian Students – Julius Várallyay’s collection, 1957-1967
Manuscript Department of 1956 Research Institute, Budapest
Provenance and cultural activities
As is well known, university students played a major role in the Hungarian revolution of 1956. They were active in the preparatory groundwork through their efforts to focus critical attention on the Stalinist system and expose the public to their ideas through a series of passionate debates. They participated in the organisation of the peaceful solidarity march on October 23 with the Polish workers’ and students’ movement. They then participated in the uprising itself and the defensive struggle against the invasion of Soviet tanks, during which they also organised revolutionary bodies. And last but not least, they maintained the spirit of resistance by holding a general strike and adopting other means of resistance after the revolution had been brutally suppressed. It is not at all surprising that the Hungarian students’ participation in public debates and actions remained strong even in exile, after thousands of them had been forced to leave their homeland in late 1956 and early 1957 and forced to choose a place of asylum in one of the 35 possible host countries on 5 different continents.
The first efforts to establish a Hungarian émigré student movement began as soon as a critical mass of students arrived in the refugee camps. On December 4 1956, a student relief office was opened in Vienna, and the earliest proto-form of UFHS was established as the Alliance of Hungarian Refugee Students. In mid-January 1957, this coordinative office settled in Leuven (Louvain), Belgium. Two weeks later, it was moved to Cologne, Germany, but by this time, Hungarian refugee students were busy setting up organizations in many other West European and countries and countries overseas. The founding assembly of the Union of Free Hungarian Students was finally held in Vaduz, Lichtenstein on Pentecost 1957, and the founding act was solemnly proclaimed in the Chancellors’ Hall of the Grand Principality. Compared to this highly exclusive historical setting, which was generously offered to the exiled students by a member of ruling dynasty with Hungarian origins, the first public appeal of UFHS sounds quite modest, though not without revolutionary resolve:
“Fellow students in Hungary! We, as Hungarian students who were forced to leave their homeland, decided to establish a joint alliance in order to unite thousands of students living in 14 countries worldwide. Let us address you first from our Founding Assembly. We do not want to represent You, but rather to serve You and our Homeland. We are fully aware of the fact that the storm has not passed yet, and we are lucky to have found asylum. Thus, we can have only the second word, after you. We also know that our freedom gives us more obligations. Therefore, we promise to work for the future freedom of Hungary with all our efforts, talents, and abilities. (…) We wish to give a voice to your silenced just case, and we will never forget our comrades fallen in the fights or executed. However distant we may be, in spirit we remain together with you.”
Most of the members of the Hungarian émigré student organization, which in 1961 was renamed MEFESZ, kept this promise for more than a decade, and one may well say, for the rest of their lives. Their noble-minded movement, with its true patriotic and democratic engagement, managed to gain much sympathy and support worldwide for the ideas and the achievements of the Hungarian revolution, which had been so violently suppressed. In the brave spirit of a freedom which had briefly been won, they continued protesting against the reprisals in Hungary and the dishonest accusations made by the Soviet police state, which had been put in power through violence. Thus, they managed to preserve many of the revolutionary values: social justice, solidarity, and civil courage, and not only among themselves, but also in many communities of the Western Hungarian diaspora.
This young and ambitious new émigré generation, which was warmly received all over the “free world,” was given an exceptional chance to start a new life. This is palpable in the various expressions of their sense of group identity and their perception of their mission as intellectuals. As Gyula Várallyay, an ex-president of UFHS, argued half a century later, “Our aim was to represent the interests of refugee students in all kinds of forums, where decisions were made about scholarships and student aid. The paramount goal was to ensure that as many students as possible completed their education as quickly as possible. We owed this to ourselves and to Hungary. Having arrived in the West at a serious intellectual disadvantage, we promoted gatherings of fellow students in many countries to listen to outstanding Hungarian and local intellectuals speak on current topics and Hungarian history and culture, to fill the gap left by our one-sided education back home in the 1950s.”
As is clearly shown by the activities and documents of UFHS, which were preserved by Várallyay for more than a half century in his private collection, the members of the one-time émigré student movement took their ongoing intellectual and political self-education very seriously, much as they did their studies and their intense efforts to learn languages. The member associations of the Union organized by host countries and local groups of émigré students ran many programs on their own, and they also actively took part in local student life and events at the university. The bulletin of “International Secretary,” the central office of UFHS located in Geneva, and other Hungarian émigré student papers published in five languages (Hungarian, English, German, French, and Spanish) all over the world frequently reported on self-organized conferences, study weeks, and literary and art competitions, and in Várallyay’s archival UHFS collection, one also finds well-written original essays and studies published in anthologies by the one-time student authors.
The émigré students were nevertheless involved in a quest for their political ideas and identification. “What political position could émigré students in our day adopt?” This question was repeatedly raised in debates organized by the UFHS. As for the Hungarian issues, a certain moral and political consensus prevailed for quite a long time. (Petitions were and protests were held worldwide against, for instance, the death sentence of Ilona Tóth, a medical student who provided care for people involved in the fighting in 1956, the execution of Imre Nagy and other revolutionary leaders in June 1958, the imprisonment of István Bibó, a political thinker and historian and the last minister to remain in his office in Parliament after the second soviet military invasion, the closing of the Hungarian university in Tǎrgu Mureş, or Marosvásárhely, Romania, etc.) There was very little disagreement concerning concepts like the virtues of a multi-party system, referendums, federalism, self-government, autonomy, and minority rights, which were subjects of debate in the free forums of UFHS, which was entitled “The School of Democracy.” However, the émigré students seemed to be rather divided when issues were put on agenda like the “the political heritage of 1956,” “neutrality,” “socialist democracy,” “the third road” (as an alternative to both capitalism and socialism), the mission of the post-colonial third world, and the outcome of the Cold War rivalry.
This is hardly surprising, since during these early years young refugees were exposed to far too many controversial influences, and neither the Union nor its members were entirely independent, as some documents in the collections and Várallyay’s monographs on the UFHS reveal. he individual grants and aid provided for refugee students were in the best case paid for by the national student or alumni associations of the host country, as was the case in Switzerland. In other cases, assistance was financed by the university itself, a wealthy private or state sponsor (e.g. the Fulbright Foundation the Ford Foundation, or the Rockefeller Foundation), or the International Rescue Committee. However, the operational costs of UHFS and its Geneva office were almost entirely financed from the start by the Paris office of the Free Europe Committee, a cultural propaganda fund of the CIA, in fact rather reluctantly and with less and less money by the mid-1960s. This was particularly true when it came to light that the leading positions of UFHS had been captured by a left-wing group of students, including at least five agents of the Hungarian communist counter-intelligence service.
This was not the only reason, however, that the Union, after having been in operation for ten years, was dissolved in early 1967. By that time, most of the émigré students of 1956 had managed to finish their studies, and given the East-West thaw and the policy of détente, this kind of Cold War propaganda warfare through a range of cultural initiatives had become obsolete. However, the scandalous infiltration of the UHSF centre could not discredit and put an end to the entire Hungarian émigré student movement. Some of its strong networks in Austria, Germany, and North America survived for many more years, and in other places they were transformed into alumni associations, or the one-time student activists formed an ambitious new generation of intellectual elites, which took over or created dozens of old and new émigré fora and cultural organizations and kept them running successfully until 1989 or even up to the present day (for instance, the Európa Club in Vienna, the Mikes Kelemen Kör in Holland, Magyar Műhely in Paris, the Szepsi-Csombor Kör in London, the Bessenyei Kör in New Brunswick, the Katolikus Magyar Egyetemi Mozgalom, Dies Academicus in Geneva, the Európai Protestáns Magyar Szabadegyetem, Pax Romana etc.)
The materials in the Várallyay Collection, which span a period of some 60 years, offer a wealth of insights into the troublesome later fate of the younger generation of 1956 Hungarian refugees, their restless search for a collective identity, and their repeated efforts to document their efforts. The collector himself, though he had been a devoted activist of MEFESZ-UFHS in late 1956 and early 1957 both in Hungary and the West, had the good fortune of being granted asylum by the US quite early, and as a Harvard student, for three years he did not have much chance to follow the worldwide network of the émigré Hungarian student movement in the Western diaspora. However, in the Fall of 1959, he was elected president of the UFHS, and postponed his studies for one year at Harvard University, and before he would take the lead of the International Secretary in Geneva, he went on a trip all over Western Europe to visit most of the member organizations of the Hungarian émigré students’ association. During his active and successful term as president, he started systematically to collect some sources on the inner workings of UFHS (e.g. the minutes of Congress, public debates, letters, press clippings, etc.), but as soon as he returned to the US in early 1961, he had to bring an end to this kind of activity. By the time the émigré student movement found itself in crisis in the mid-1960s, eventually falling apart by early 1967, Gyula Várallyay as a young and ambitious engineer was busy working on projects in South America and elsewhere in third world countries.
In 1986, he decided to write the chronicle of UFHS in a historical monograph, and he asked his one-time fellow-students in a circular to provide him with further archival records on their organization. “As time passes, we forget more and more, yet our wish to remember remains nevertheless strong. Furthermore, as far as our precious past activities are concerned, we also feel the need to record them.”
In fact the ambitions of the émigré student movement to document their endeavours became evident quite early. As Várallyay reminded his one-time fellow-students in his circular, the 1964 UFHS Congress held a resolution by instructing the International Secretariat (the central representation of the student movement in Geneva) to document the history of the organization with the help of the leaders of all national member associations. The request for help was well-received. Some three dozen one-time fellow-activists of the UFHS from all over the world provided Várallyay with valuable data and documents for his monograph, which he finally finished in the Fall of 1988. However, the book was only published after the democratic changes in 1992. It was published in two parallel editions, one in Hungary, another in the West, both in Hungarian with the title Tanulmányúton (On Study Tour). In the acknowledgement, Várallyay clearly notes who the main contributors to the collection were, for instance, László Papp, the ex-president of the American member-association, who, Várallyay remarks, “donated nearly 8 kilos of archival papers to me.”Finally, there was a third period in the history of Várallyay Collection during which valuable new acquisitions were made. This was the period from 1992 until the publication of Várallyay’s second book, Tévúton (Gone Astray) in 2011. Várallyay kept studying the history of UFHS-MEFESZ after his first book had been published in order to find out why the émigré student movement had ended so disgracefully and what had become of the documents produced during its last two years of operation. Várallyay also wanted to know how deeply the Hungarian secret services had infiltrated the student movement, so he submitted a request to the ÁBTL (the Hungarian State Security Archives) asking for all available secret files related to the UFHS-MEFESZ. The result was bitterly surprising: hundreds of pages of archival files, secret reports, agents’ instructions, etc were found in the Budapest Archives, all proving that the movement was under the strict control of the Hungarian Communist Secret Police. Várallyay felt it was his duty to write this dark side of the story of the movement and to publish the relevant documents. The last two folders (N9 and N10) of his Collection contain copies of secret agency documents, documents concerning the critical reception of his second book, and his correspondence with a one-time student leader who, it turned out, had been an agent who had returned to and settled in Hungary in 1965.
Description of content
The Várallyay Collection contains paper-based records of the Hungarian émigré student movement UHFS-MEFESZ 1957-1967 in 10 folders (1.2 linear metres)
Its content and main types of sources are the following:
The minutes of yearly Congresses of UHFS-MEFESZ
Correspondence and the monthly information bulletins circulated by the Geneva office worldwide (“International Secretary”)
Documents from press conferences and press releases. Newspaper clippings.
Student papers and books published by the Geneva office and the member organizations of the Union
Documents concerning public debates, conferences, and presentations organized by the Union.
Copies of Hungarian Secret Police files related to the activities of UHFS-MEFESZ
Books published by Gyula Várallyay and reviews of his books.
The 16 member organizations of UHFS-MEFESZ and the North-American and German student associations are documented in the greatest detail in the Várallyay Collection by their series of papers and newspapers.
In late 2017, Gyula Várallyay donated his family historical collection, including documents and more than 1,000 archival photos covering a period of a century (1868-1967), to the Szabolcs-Szatmár-Bereg County Archives located in Nyíregyháza, the city of his birth, in eastern Hungary.
- grey literature (regular archival documents such as brochures, bulletins, leaflets, reports, intelligence files, records, working papers, meeting minutes): 1000-
Geographical scope of recent operation
Date of founding
Place of founding
Cambridge, United States of America
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Creator(s) of content
Important events in the history of the collection
- completely open to the public
Author(s) of this page
- Nóvé, Béla
Várallyay, Gyula - Julius -, interview by available, No data, October 23, 2016. COURAGE Registry Oral History Collection
Várallyay, Gyula - Julius -, interview by Pigniczky, Réka, October 22, 2016. COURAGE Registry Oral History Collection