Wednesday, July 8, 2009

A Memorable Evening with General Bela Kiraly

I knew it had to happen at some point soon, but reading of the death of Bela Kiraly, my former history professor at Brooklyn College, in today's NY Times. was still a shock despite the fact Kiraly was 97. As the obit points out he was an historic figure in Hungary.

As a member of the Hungarian army, he was forced to fight with the Nazi collaborators in Hungry, thought the Times points out "he had tried to join the Russian side in the war rather than serve with Hungary’s fascist forces, but was unable to do so. During the war, Mr. Kiraly commanded a battalion of 400 Jewish slave laborers at the Ukrainian front. Disobeying orders from his superiors, as The Jerusalem Post wrote in 1993, he “put the 400 men under his command into Hungarian uniforms and treated them humanely.” For his actions, he was honored in 1993 as a Righteous Gentile by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial authority in Jerusalem."

As a general, he was sentenced to a Stalinist death camp in 1951 for 5 years before being freed just as the Hungarian Revolution was breaking out in October, 1956. He was in a hospital room recuperating when he was asked to lead the forces opposing the Soviets, escaping to Vienna after the Soviet invasion.

He came to America, with some support from the CIA, which used the Hungarian ex-pat community to keep the resistance movement alive. He got his degree in history and started teaching at Brooklyn College in 1964, where I was a history major. He was one of the best college teachers I and many of others ever had.

Bringing an old world charm along with his military bearing, Kiraly made an instant mark on the students and other professors at Brooklyn College when he arrived. Not knowing anything about him, I registered for his 20th Century European history course and had my eyes opened to many new facets of history.

While one would expect Kiraly's experiences to make him a virulent anti-communist (he certainly was an anti-Stalinist), he allowed us to see all sides and make our own judgements. This approach was different from the American born teachers, also anti-communist, but didactic about it. Brooklyn College, which had been a hotbed of radicalism in the 30's was purged by the reactionary president Harry Gideonse. Kiraly brought a sense of balance to the issues.

Unfortunately, I never was able to take his legendary military history course, one of the big regrets of my academic life, but did take a research seminar with him in the spring of 1966. We used to meet every two weeks in his small apartment down the block from the campus. It was my final course before graduating and I produced an 80 page paper on the relationship between the Soviet Union and the Eastern European nations in the Soviet block.

I was teaching computer courses at Brooklyn College in the late 80's and early 90's and one of the history professors told me he had gone back for the first time since 1956 and was, surprisingly, elected to the new parliament.

My wife and I had a unique view of this history when we visited Budapest in October, 1956 a few days before the 50th anniversary of the revolution. With a big celebration with representatives from around the world expected, there were massive protests going on around Parliament, which sits on the Pest side of the Danube and is modeled on the British Parliament building in London.

I was curious about Kiraly but found no information on the computer in the hotel and had just about given up hope.

We were buying some pottery in a shop on the Danube on the Buda side where the owner, George Krall, spoke perfect English and had visited the states many times. I mentioned Kiraly and he said he knew of him and thought he was still alive. Just at that moment, an elderly gentleman was entering the building and George said he had served under Kiraly and called him over. He said that Kiraly was still alive and doing well and lived in Budapest. George began to call all the people named Bela Kiraly in the phone book and sure enough we reached him.

He didn't remember me but asked if I would like to come over to his house for a visit that evening. "Who is with you," he asked? "My wife," I said. "Bring the voman," he ordered. And bring the voman I did. And as you can see in the picture, he still had an eye for the ladies. He certainly charmed my wife.

The cab ride was about an hour on the outskirts of the city. We were ushered into the living room by Kiraly's nephew (I believe) and there he was standing, as straight as ever. The same charm, mesmerizing us, he proceeded to give us a two hour history lesson on every aspect of the Hungarian revolution, his time in the death camp, his escape and many of his experiences in the states. It would take pages to recall it all, but the most vivid was his accounts of the negotiations he engaged in with the Soviets, especially Yuri Anropov the Soviet ambassador who was the key to suppressing the revolution. Kiraly has one of the 12 hot line numbers and was privy to much information.

Kiraly's hero was Imre Nagy, the Hungarian leader, who was executed not long after the revolution, and his eyes misted just a bit when talking about Nagy. Kiraly swore he would not set foot in Hungary again until Nagy was given an honored place of burial and so it was done.

I asked him what he thought of the current demos, from what I read, expecting he might offer them some support since the party in power they were criticizing had communist influences. "They are right wing agitators," he said, "not trying to make the situation more democratic. Democracy is what is important." And that was the essence of Bela Kiraly. Neither pro or anti communist, but pro-democracy. (He should see the UFT.)

He was part of the committee settign up the 50th annivesay party and was going to play a major role in the celebration on

We could have listened all night, but at some point, feeling guilty we were taking up the time of this great man and concerned about keeping him up, I said something about leaving. "Am I boring you," he barked at me? The spell was broken. But he handed over a stack of books he had written, some of them autographed by him.

One of the most memorable evenings we ever had.

I'll post more photos from the trip at Facebook or Norms notes soon.







Your story about knowing, studying with and then remeeting Bela Kiraly so many decades later is one of the MOST affecting pieces that has ever appeared on Ed Notes.

How beautifully and touchingly you conveyed your relationship with this great man and Twentieth century Icon for Democracy and War Hero.

Bela Kiraly comes from a long line of bigger than life heroes I no longer see in this world.

I also could speak of some of the great Heroes I was privileged to study under and know well, on an intimate basis over the past decades. But those stories should be reserved for another time and place.

For the immediate "now" Bela Kiraly, courageous General, Humanitarian, member of the "Righteous Among Nations" at Yad Vashem, and Friend to you and so many tens of thousands of others for almost a full Century- this is the time to honor and remember this remarkable Human Being.

I envy your having known this Man. Would that I and all your readers might also have been so fortunate.

Perhaps part of why you are who you are is due and thanks to having been so blessed to have spent time in his very Special company.

May you carry on in your own life the values he so deeply instilled in you, Norm. And may he now Rest in Peace with the Angels forever.

ed notes online said...

Thanks David for the comment. I wish I had a video camera that night. He said some amazing stuff, including things about Vietnam that were shocking. If I were smart I would have gone back to Budapest and spend a day with him and a camera. It would have made a wonderful film.

Steven Fodor said...

I may add some thoughts as I have read his two biograpgies, one titled "Erre nincs ige"

I have discovered him after searching for literature on the unique statesman Ferenc Deak.

As Kiraly wrote a study on Deak, I continued the discovery of Kiraly.

He seems to be a gifted, moral, intellectual and always modest person.

What is great in him? He saved Budapest from chaos and blood bath in October 1956. How can an officer restore security to a large city in only 3 days? It was one of the greatest military achievements probably in history.

His scholarship was also exceptional. A modest detective of bad times, and an unprejudiced historian in Kiraly could be the basis of a violence free Hungary.

Hungarian leaders can not follow such noble views, and remain still priests of violence.

Kiraly, and statesman Deak showed the road to decency.

All of us should follow their violence free concepts.