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Vasilis Vasilas' new book explores Hungarian history

The historian's latest work When Freedom Beckons: The Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and the Jewish Hungarian Journey to Australia will be launched this month

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Hungarian Jews being deported to Auschwitz by the Hungarian Gendarmerie in 1944. Photo: Digital Collections

20 October 2017

Sydney high school teacher, historian and prolific author Vasilis Vasilas has announced his latest offering When Freedom Beckons: The Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and the Jewish Hungarian Journey to Australia will be launched at the Sydney Jewish Museum by the University of Sydney's Dr Michael Abrahams-Sprod tomorrow.

Vasilas has already published numerous titles that explore and document the personal narratives of individuals in the Greek, Estonian, and Ukrainian communities. Now he has taken inspiration from the 60th anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution, turning his attention to the stories of the Hungarian community.

As with most projects that have caught the historian's interest, the initial idea has continued to evolve and morph into something different taking a Jewish Hungarian angle.

"There was a continual flow of interested participants and it got to the point where I was acquiring enough Jewish Hungarian stories to decide this will be a Jewish Hungarian book," Vasilas told Neos Kosmos.

While he expects some questions to arise around his decision to separate the story of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and its consequences, and focusing on the Hungarian Jewish community, he points out the distinctive nature of Hungary's Jewish story.

"During my introductory talks with my friend, colleague and mentor, Dr Abrahams-Sprod, he emphasised how many Jewish Hungarians would have exclaimed 'not again with the uncertainty and chaos of the 1956 Revolution'," he recalls, and interpreted this to mean that all Hungarians suffered under communist Hungary.

"All Hungarians, who risked their lives to desperately flee across the border to freedom, experienced the loss of homeland, the loss of assets, property, savings and freedom with the Sovietisation of Hungary in the late 1940s," he says.

But the members of the Hungarian Jewish community experienced loss to a different degree, including the indescribable loss of everything and everyone with the Shoah (Holocaust), as well as all the anti-Semitic policies leading up to it.

"Fast forward only 11 years after the conclusion of the Second World War, which is only half a generation, it was the Jewish Hungarian Holocaust survivors who would have felt the trauma during the Hungarian Revolution to say, 'not again!' They subsequently saw the Hungarian Revolution as an opportunity to flee Hungary. Some of the stories recount the anti-Semitism Jewish refugees experienced in Austrian refugee camps and on ships journeying to Australia," he reveals.

Historian Vasilis Vasilas.

One interesting Greek connection to When Freedom Beckons is an interview with Jules Forgacs, who played for the Hungarian football team MTK and the Hungarian B National football team; in Australia, the former footballer played for Sydney Hakoah and for the Pan Hellenic Soccer Club (1962) for a year. Forgacs' football experiences with Pan Hellenic are featured in Vasilas' previous book, The Giant Who Never Awoke.

When it came to compiling the project, Vasilas notes that members of the Jewish community made the process much easier, namely Dr Abrahams-Sprod who was instrumental with contacts and had wonderful connections across the Jewish-Hungarian community, many of whom have since become good friends of his.

The historian was also particularly humbled by the support of Ervin Katz and his family who paid for the printing costs of Vasilas' publication. Inspired by such acts of kindness, Vasilas has decide to donate all proceeds from the sale of the book to the Sydney Jewish Museum.

Vasilas has a long history with the Jewish community, having helped them organise a meeting between the Hellenic Council of NSW and the Jewish Board of Deputies back in 1995.

'When Freedom Beckons' will be launched on Sunday 22 October at 2.00 pm. For information or to RSVP, email rsvp@sjm.com.au

* Billy Cotsis is the author of the 'Many Faces of Hellenic Culture'.

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