Wearing a ribbon with the Hungarian flag’s red, white and green colors attached to his lapel, Albert Futo sang a hymn in his native tongue with the St. Mary of Victories Church choir in St. Louis Friday morning.
For Futo, this special Mass commemorating the 60th anniversary of Hungary’s uprising against the Soviet Union has personal significance.
As a resistance fighter in the 1956 revolution stationed in Budapest, Futo remembers waking up to Soviet tanks on Nov. 4 of that year.
"We woke up in the morning, 3:30 or 4 o'clock and heard the rumbling of all the tanks coming back, and they were spreading all over the country," he said.
Like tens of thousands of his countrymen, Futo crossed into neighboring Austria and later moved to the United States "because of the freedom."
Futo's fellow choir member Klara Schwarcz of St. Louis was overwhelmed by the event.
“Very emotional,” she said, through tears. “Here in America you feel like you are home.”
Futo, Schwarcz and the other choir members closed the mass by singing the Hungarian national anthem, along with about three dozen others in the pews of St. Mary’s. The church historically served German immigrants in St. Louis, before welcoming Hungarian refugees following the failed revolution.
Also in attendance was a special guest: Dr. Gene Megyesy, special cabinet advisor to the Prime Minister of Hungary.
Megyesy, who fled the country when he was only 11 years old, said he wanted to remember those "who sacrificed for freedom and independence for the country," but also the beginning of the end of Soviet control.
"It's tragic, but it also was the first crack in the Iron Curtain and the wall that closed off Hungary and Hungarians from their roots in Europe," he said. "Many of the Hungarians here, including myself, were refugees who found a new home in the U.S. after 1956. We are also grateful to the United States who accepted us and gave us a new home after we escaped from communism."
Megyesy, who now lives in Denver, was invited to the St. Louis event by the St. Louis-based Cardinal Mindszenty Foundation. The foundation was started in 1958 by Eleanor Schlafly, her brother Ed Schlafly and his late wife and conservative icon Phyllis Schlafly to fight communism.
It takes its name from the Hungarian leader who, also 60 years ago to the day, sought refuge in an American embassy in Budapest. Cardinal Mindszenty would stay there for 15 years and later visited St. Louis in the 1970s.
The group’s Ed Martin said the event also gave people a chance to learn more about modern Hungary after the fall of communism, thanks to a short lecture by Megyesy.
“The Hungarian people are celebrating a kind of rebirth,” Martin said. “It’s only 30 years old for them; it’s like springtime. It’s a reminder to Americans how different other cultures are and their histories are.”
During his talk, Megyesy discussed current challenges facing Hungary, including changing religious observance as well as the European refugee crisis.
He said any comparison between how Hungarian refugees in 1956 were treated and how Hungary is treating refugees currently is “not an appropriate comparison.”
“We adapted to this culture, we learned the language, we adjusted to the way of life here, and I think that is the distinction to be clearly made between what is happening now,” he said.
He also said only a few thousand of the refugees coming to Hungary’s borders are from the conflict in Syria; the rest are economic migrants.
“We were not economic migrants at the time,” he said. “We had family members who were either executed, who were being persecuted, whose property was being confiscated and who escaped form a true dictatorship.”
Megyesy also said he supported Hungary’s right to secure its borders and maintain its “homogenous” culture, while people should follow proper immigration procedures.
“We stood in line, we were vetted – that is, they checked us politically during the Cold War when the United States and other countries were interested in receiving communist refugees,” he said. “The countries decided whom they admitted and who they did not.”
Megyesy also noted that the 1956 revolution wasn’t the only time Hungarians fought for its independence. An earlier revolution occurred in 1848, and four years later, the leader of that movement came to St. Louis to meet with early Hungarian immigrants.
“That reminds me that freedom is to be protected and each generation has to bring sacrifices for freedom,” he said. “Particularly since we’re only four days away from the election, we have an obligation to voice our opinion and go vote, because that is part of our exercise of our right and it is necessary for us to defend our freedom through the process we have available in democracies.”
Megyesy said it was “good to see Hungarian is spoken here in St. Louis,” but others noted the Hungarian community is growing smaller. St. Mary’s is seeing dwindling numbers, according to media spokesman Jim Hooper.
"We are very few numbers now, you can hardly see any Hungarians here," he said. "We're dying out."
He said that's why an event like this, preserving the memories of Hungary's fight for freedom, means so much.
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