As told by the bestselling author
The Bridge at Andau. “It was about the most inconsequential bridge in Europe, but by an accident of history it became, for a few flaming weeks, one of the most important bridges in the world.” The American bestselling author James A. Michener published his account of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, with its dramatic and uplifting moments, in January 1957 and named his book after the rickety footbridge at the Austro-Hungarian border that came to symbolize the last station on the path to freedom for tens of thousands. Michener, primarily known for his literary fiction, was famous for writing Tales of the South Pacific, Hawaii and Return to Paradise. For Hungarians, however, it was his trip to the Austro-Hungarian border that had a lasting impact.
The Bridge at Andau is almost an anthology of sorts featuring different characters for each chapter who were all presented with invented names. The reason for this was so that the secret police would not be able to identify them or their loved ones. One such example is “József Tóth”, which is about as common of a name in Hungary as Bill Smith is in America. He’s described as a handsome young male and was the composite of three real individuals whose stories were combined to present the hero from Budapest’s Kőbánya district whose family suffered at the hands of the secret police.
Among those Michener spoke to, some were quite young. Nonetheless, their stories of the oppression and hopelessness felt under the dictatorship that led to the revolution are excellently written and quite emotional. Those who headed West did so in the hopes of finding a better future. As Michener describes it, prior to the revolution, everyday life was controlled by the Rákosi regime, and it was as if George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 had become reality. The chapter on the secret police explains in detail how they terrorized the people and goes a long way towards explaining why they had become so despised over the years.
Everyone that Michener encountered shared a desire to live in the free world away from the depressed, gray and scared country that the Soviet invasion left in its wake. Michener’s characters also introduce us to the world of Hungarian industry under communism, as well as the Kilián Barracks which played a pivotal role during the revolution. Fates and stories are intertwined to illustrate the years leading up to the revolution and the weeks afterward at the border.
While reading the book, we begin to feel as if we’re there among the 200,000 refugees, and we can understand their feelings and what it meant to cross that bridge, as well as what it meant if someone did not succeed. Those who made it across found themselves in the West with its wonders and opportunities that we take for granted, but for those who didn’t make it across, at best it was a return to an oppressive regime, or worse if they had been active during the revolution. That chasm between the two worlds that the bridge crossed was enormous, which is why crossing it was so important.
Eszter Zsófia Tóth