Fazekas family marks significant weekend
Nevada forward not the only one with a historical milestone
By Tyrus W. Cobb '62 (political science)
Nick Fazekas broke the Wolf Pack men's basketball career scoring record Nov. 18. The feat would not have been possible if his Hungarian grandfather hadn’t found a way to survive, first, imprisonment in a Soviet gulag and then the chaos that followed the Hungarian Revolution. That crushed uprising occurred 50 years ago this month.
In November 1956 Soviet tanks roared into Hungary and crushed the spontaneous revolution that had sprung up in opposition to Moscow’s domination of that country. The rebellion had erupted across the country the month before, as students, workers and soldiers rose up to demand the overthrow of the Soviet-installed puppet government and the implementation of far-reaching political and social reforms. One participant in that short-lived rebellion, Albert Fazekas, escaped after the Soviet invasion, made his way to the United States, and therein lies a very interesting connection to Nevada.
Albert Fazekas was born in 1925 in Satmar, Romania, into a Hungarian family living in what was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire prior to World War I. When the fascists seized power in Romania in 1940, the Fazekas family moved to Hungary. However, as the Nazi tide swept over central Europe, Budapest also fell under the Hitler’s sway and the new Hungarian government of Admiral Horthy aligned itself with Berlin.
Young Albert was drafted into the Hungarian army as a teenager, and assigned to work in the coal mines, and then in the defense industry where he worked as a machinist manufacturing armaments for the army. It all came to a crashing end in 1945 as Soviet forces overwhelmed the Axis on the Eastern Front, and “liberated” Hungary.
Twenty-year old Albert Fazekas was captured by the Soviet forces, and shipped back to the USSR, where he was placed in a forced labor camp near Nizhnyy Novgorod. As a prisoner of war, Fazekas experienced 3 ½ years of deprivation and hard labor in Joseph Stalin’s “Gulag”, depicted with harsh realism in Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch. Ironically, Fazekas and Solzhenitsyn were in the Gulag at the same time.
Fazekas attempted an escape to avoid probable execution, but was caught and returned to the Gulag. After experiencing severe injuries in the camp system, including burning his leg with gasoline, Fazekas was released by the Soviets in 1948. He was allowed to return to Hungary, which was by now considered a reliable ally of the USSR. Although he now spoke Romanian, Hungarian, German and Russian, Albert made the politically fatal mistake of refusing to join the Communist Party. He was “exiled” to the remote town of Kazinc Barcika, where he resumed his old trade as a machinist in the armaments industry, this time making weapons for the Warsaw Pact forces. Despite refusing to join the Party, he rose to become the supervisor of the machine shop there. He married, and by 1956, he and his wife, Elizabeth, witnessed the birth of their first son, Steven.
Albert Fazekas's employee ID card from the munitions
plant in Hungary where he worked in 1956.
Then came the fateful events of October and November, 1956. Sparked by unrest in Poland, Hungarian students and workers rose up in massive demonstrations against the Soviet occupation and the puppet regime Moscow had established in Budapest. They succeeded in toppling the regime, and in bringing Imre Nagy temporarily to power. Nagy was a somewhat reluctant leader of what soon became a true, widespread revolution. Nagy, earlier a reliable pro-Moscow Communist, became a national hero when he openly called for a multi-party state to replace the Communist dictatorship and announced that Hungary would withdraw from the Warsaw Pact.
The Soviet leadership vacillated in its response, initially endorsing the reforms and embracing Nagy. But the ruling Presidium of the Communist Party quickly reversed itself, and on November 4 directed Soviet and other Pact armies to crush the rebellion, which they did. Often armed with little more than farm tools and Molotov cocktails, the Hungarian rebels were little match for the Soviet tanks, and the revolution was extinguished. Some estimates place the number killed as high as 100,000.
Typical of the spontaneous nature of the uprising, workers in Fazekas’ factory heeded their Marxist training and decided they “had nothing to lose but their chains”. They organized, and elected Albert Fazekas as Chairman of their “workers collective”, who then proceeded to lead the factory workers onto the field of battle. In their naÏve enthusiasm, Fazekas and his band promptly arrested the local Hungarian KGB (the “AVO”), the top policemen, and the leadership of the Communist Party! That brave foray didn’t last long--when Soviet tanks roared into Hungary, Fazekas was at the top of those wanted by the Russian occupiers and the new puppet government of Janos Kadar.
Many Hungarians felt betrayed by the United States, which had encouraged the rebellion and seemed to promise assistance if the citizens rose up against the Soviets. In fact, the exhortations broadcast over Radio Free Europe, reflecting President Eisenhower’s campaign promises to “liberate” Eastern Europe from the Soviet yoke, were hollow. When the moment of truth arrived, the West was unwilling to risk World War III over this glorious, inspirational, but seemingly insignificant event. Maybe so, but the Hungarian Revolution proved to be the first crack in the Soviet empire, which finally came crashing down 35 years later.
The Americans did assist, however, in helping the revolutionaries escape to the West. Albert Fazekas, with his now pregnant wife and young son in tow, initially hid in the forests, before crossing the border into Austria (by bribing Hungarian border guards and swimming across a lake.). U.S. authorities picked up the family and sent them on to a camp near Munich, Germany. Within a few days the family was flown to Camp Kilmer, New Jersey.
At Camp Kilmer, Fazekas was told that there was a need for skilled machinists in Colorado, wherever that was. The officials gave Fazekas $5 for each member of his family and sent them on a train to Chicago, and then to Denver. Arriving without any money, not speaking the language, and in this strange land, the Fazekas family was adopted by the St. Pius Roman Catholic Church.
Ultimately Albert Fazekas found a job as a machinist in Denver, at the “Farmers Tool & Supply”. His wife soon gave birth to a second son, Joe, and later to a daughter, Lisa. Albert unfortunately lost his wife in 1994 to Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Albert was accorded a special honor in 1991 by the first free, post-Soviet era Hungarian government for his bravery and dedication during the 1956 uprising. Fazekas bears no ill will toward the U.S. for its encouragement of the Revolution and subsequent decision not to intervene. World War III was too much to risk over Hungary, he says. Fazekas also credits both Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev for their roles in ending the Cold War.
Joe’s son, Nick Fazekas, became a star high school basketball player in Arvada, Colo., and now is the Wolf Pack men's basketball scoring leader with 1,880 points. Nick’s trek to the University is a familiar one, but less well known is the series of events that started with the crushing of the Hungarian revolution 50 years ago this month, and brought young Albert Fazekas and his family to the United States.
Ty Cobb, chief executive officer of the Northern Nevada Network, is the former special assistant to President Reagan for national security affairs (1983-89).