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From Revolution To Rapprochement

Hungary--Hungarians atop a Soviet tank outside parliament during the Hungarian Uprising, Budapest 1956.

Former Hungarian Service deputy director recounts perilous escape from Hungary during the 1956 uprising and his work for Radio Free Europe.

“We have to go,” Laszlo Kasza's brother wrote to him in a letter in November, 1956. Hungary was in the last throes of its failed revolution, the uprising having been crushed by the armies of the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact. The brothers were children of politically “undesirable” parents, and knew the revolt’s defeat would be followed by mass denunciations and arrests.

Kasza was reluctant to leave behind his mother, who was ill and depleted after surviving four years in prison for refusing to denounce her husband. A veteran of the Hungarian army, which had fought with the Axis powers in World War II, he had fled in 1947 fearing arrest by the Soviet occupiers. Kasza describes his father as a nationalist, but one who deplored Nazism and tried to help his Jewish friends hide when the deportations began.

In his book Hungarian Borderlands, author Frank Schubert describes Kazsa’s hasty escape. He “took his mother’s advice, his toothbrush, and two pork chops between slabs of fat-smeared bread and set out for the West.”

On the night of November 28, 1956, with nothing but a crumpled map to guide them, Kazsa, along with a group of other people desperate to escape, began walking towards the Austrian border.

“We were stopped by Hungarian border guards, but they were willing to let us continue as long as we let them unburden us of our money and valuables,” Kasza remembers.

Germany--Former RFE/RL Hungarian Service broadcaster Laszlo Kasza in Munich. Undated.
Germany--Former RFE/RL Hungarian Service broadcaster Laszlo Kasza in Munich. Undated.

Like tens of thousands of other Hungarians in the tumultuous weeks prior, Kasza successfully crossed the border into Austria. He then joined his father in exile in Munich, where he studied economics and journalism at Munich University. After graduation, he cut his teeth reporting for the German daily Suddeutsche Zeitung, and then won a two-year traineeship with the Hungarian Service of Radio Free Europe (RFE, later RFE/RL). When the stint ended, he was hired as a radio broadcaster, and over his 30-year career with the company he would wear the hats of editor, producer, and deputy service director when broadcasting to Hungary ended in 1993.

Kasza was one of the Service's most popular journalists. He is most well-known for his analytical current affairs programs No Comment, and Wavelength of Tomorrow. Much of his reporting on domestic issues inside Hungary was sourced from samizdat publications smuggled out of the country for him by Western journalists who were able to pass through the Iron curtain safely. Exiles faced imprisonment for crossing, if they returned home at all.

“I met [leading Hungarian dissident] Miklos Haraszti in Berlin in 1981. The dissidents got exit visas quickly because the regime hoped they would stay in the West,” recalled Kasza. “I asked him how I could help the opposition, and he said by reporting on it. They wanted more publicity because it protected them.”

Kazakhstan--Former OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Miklos Haraszti at the Eurasian Media Forum in Almaty, 2010.
Kazakhstan--Former OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Miklos Haraszti at the Eurasian Media Forum in Almaty, 2010.

Kasza also reported on the dissident movements in Czechoslovakia and Poland, as he believed it was important to let Hungarians know about opposition activities taking place in neighboring countries in the Soviet orbit.

“Kasza was specialized on the dissident scene in Eastern Europe,” wrote Arpad Szoczi in his book Timisoara: The Real Story behind the Romanian Revolution. “He also felt it was important to report on the 2.5 million Hungarians spread over Romania, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and the USSR.”

In particular, his reports on Hungarian minorities in Romania are credited with contributing to the downfall of Communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu.

“In the predominantly Hungarian counties of Romania, Ceausescu was sending Hungarians away and resettling Romanians there, and the Hungarian language university was closed,” said Kasza. In order to draw attention to these events, he aired samizdat sermons recounting the forced relocations and other abuses written by the persecuted ethnic Hungarian pastor Laszlo Tokes.

“And the revolution against Ceaucescu started from there,” said Kasza.

Hungary Now

When asked about the current state of the media in Hungary, Kasza says the trend over the last few years has been retrograde.

“Nowadays in Hungary you have a state-run press again,” he said. “There is one independent TV station and two newspapers, but they are condemned to a slow death.”

Nevertheless, Kasza remains hopeful for his country, saying that one of the greatest lessons he took away from his three decades with RFE/RL was the power of reconciliation. After the communists were defeated in Hungary, Kasza had the chance to interview Andras Hegedus, who had served in various ministerial posts during the 1950s when Kasza’s mother was in prison. When he informed Hegedus that his mother had been jailed while he was in power, Kasza says he expressed extreme remorse and a desire to meet her. At first she was angry and balked at the idea, but later resolved to forgive him.

“And they met,” said Kasza. “Two old people, from two absolutely different worlds. Both cried and exchanged a kiss, and then went their separate ways in peace.”

--Emily Thompson. Interview with Laszlo Kasza conducted in German and translated by Rick Pinard.