I fled to the UK in 1956. This is not the welcome I remember - Refugee Council
July 28, 2016

I fled to the UK in 1956. This is not the welcome I remember

George Szirtes is a multi- award winning Hungarian poet and translator. He fled to the UK in the 1956 aged 8. His mother had survived two concentration camps and was desperate to protect her children from persecution.

I didn’t start writing poems until I was in 6th form at school in the UK. My parents had wanted me to be a doctor. I had always done really well at school, my parents called me ‘a precocious little thing’. Suddenly, when I was about 16 or 17, my school performance started to trail off. I struggled to pass my science A-Levels and failed to get into medical school.

It was only later I suspected it might be down to unaddressed trauma.

I grew up in the Hungary of the 1950s.My family and I fled when I was 8 years-old. We walked across the border, clandestinely, as we see refugees today crossing in the other direction.

We, with many others, walked to a temporary refugee camp Austria.

One day, they came around and said “Anyone who wants to go to England, come now.”

Grateful and desperate for sanctuary, we set off for Britain.  

It was November 29th, my 8th birthday.

After a number of days in a disused army camp, we were sent to vacant boarding houses in Westgate-on –Sea, where my father got a job helping to translate for the refugees, and also worked in construction. Back then, refugees could get loans to put down a deposit on a house. My father worked hard, and soon we moved to our own house in North-West London.

Being forced from our homes was incredibly hard on my family. My brother, who was four and a half when we crossed the border secretly into Austria one night, didn’t open his mouth to say a word until 3 months after we arrived safely in the UK. At four years old, he was deeply traumatised by our displacement.

My mother was a woman who knew persecution. My mother survived two concentration camps in her youth, and lost her entire family. She was desperate to protect her children. She never told us she was Jewish and maintained throughout her life that she suffered because she was politically on the left. We had always known my father was Jewish. I now know she was afraid of her own history.

During our childhood in Hungary, my mother had been a press photographer. She was outgoing, gregarious and attractive. But with the displacement came social isolation and depression. The battles with health conditions and operations finally took their toll. In 1975, when I was in my 20s, she took her own life.

I perused art school and there I spent 5 years painting. This is where I met my wife. This is also where I met the poet, Martin Bell, who was incredibly encouraging. He read and discussed my poems with me, eventually introducing me to the man at Faber who would publish my first book of poetry.

I first returned to Budapest in 1984. I was following the story of my mother that she would never tell during her life.

I was knocked out by Budapest and became utterly absorbed. I hadn’t spoken Hungarian for 28 years. My parents left the language behind along with their home and professions when we were forced to flee.

In August 2015, I returned to Budapest again. This time, rather than people desperately fleeing, they were desperate to enter. At Keleti station in the centre of Budapest I went to visit the refugees who had been forced to make it a temporary home. I felt incredible pity. I saw mostly young families, with nothing but the clothes on their backs, sleeping on the cold stone floors with their babies and small children. Responsible citizens of Budapest listened to them, brought them food and offered them facilities for washing.

This didn’t bring back memories for me. It is not how we were treated. This is not the sanctuary I remember. When we arrived in England, Hungarian refugees were given a great deal of sympathy. Individual British people and the state were incredibly supportive – they were receiving a lot of desperate people from a range of backgrounds, who ultimately had a lot to offer the nation. It was nothing like what we are witnessing now.

Britain’s reaction to the present crisis is craven. My position is humane – I am with the refugees. I remember the generosity shown to us, and believe Britain should remember its previous generosity now.