Sixty years after confronting totalitarianism, Gyula Kiss still clings to his rebellious roots.
It was in 1956 that Kiss and thousands of other Hungarians rose up against their communist oppressors.
“We stood up for something we believed in was right. I’ve always done that,” said Kiss, who is now a Coldstream councillor and often a lone voice on a variety of issues such as the water utility.
At the time the Hungarian Revolution broke out Oct. 23, 1956, Kiss was a 20-year-old in Vac and a third-year forestry student.
Peaceful protests began in the streets across the country.
“After living under the regime for so many years, we didn’t have any freedom,” said Kiss.
“We felt oppression from Russia and their representatives in Hungary. People knocked on doors in the middle of the night and you may never be seen again.”
However, conditions soon escalated and on Nov. 4, Soviet troops invaded the country.
The level of violence became clear to Kiss as he accompanied trucks with food and medical aid to Budapest.
“Street cars were shot up and buildings. People were carrying guns,” he said.
Among those to eventually take up arms was Kiss, who packed a Tommy gun as students attempted to stop Soviet tanks. But as the tanks arrived, some gave up their weapons and others fled, including Kiss.
Back at the university in Sopron, an emergency meeting of students and professors led to the next steps. Primarily, they went to Austria.
Little time was given to what they were leaving behind.
“We didn’t think much about family. We were more concerned about the people crushed during the revolution,” he said.
There was also the reality that if caught, many students would wind up in jail.
“You don’t think of it at the time. It was an exhilarating two weeks and we thought we were winning,” said Kiss. “But when it was crushed, it was very difficult.”
With the students idle in Austria, a dean sent out letters to a variety of countries in the hopes of the students continuing their education. In the end, an offer came from the University of B.C.’s forestry program.
“We thought Canada was further away from Russia and there’s lots of forest,” said Kiss.
More than 200 faculty and students from Hungary’s school of forestry arrived and they established the Sopron division of the faculty of forestry at the University of B.C.
Landing in Vancouver in 1957, Kiss experienced a mixed reception.
“The (UBC) students came out to receive us at the airport. They were generally quite accommodating. But if you were on a bus and spoke Hungarian to each other, some people resented it. They would say, ‘Speak English,’” he said.
Kiss ultimately graduated from UBC in 1959 and went on to pursue a 30-year career in the B.C. Forest Service, including establishing the research station in Vernon.
He also raised a family and became involved in his community, serving a term as mayor of Coldstream.
Sixty years later, Kiss can’t help but reflect on what happened on the streets of Hungary.
“It (revolution) was a crushing defeat for us but being more selfish, it changed my life,” he said of his move to Canada.
“I came out here with $5 and one set of clothes — nothing else. I had no relatives.”
Hungarian Cultural Week was recently held in B.C. and it acknowledged the contributions Hungarian refugees have made to the province. More than 37,000 Hungarians emigrated to Canada after the revolution.