Crossing the bridge to the free world

The bridge at Andau, a small wooden expanse, stands right on the Austro-Hungarian border that crosses the Einserkanal, a minor river in the Hanság region of Western Hungary. Following the 1956 Revolution, 200 thousand people left Hungary by crossing the borders temporarily open to the West. During those days, this bridge, which was only seven meters long and two meters wide, served as the crossing point for many and came to symbolize freedom around the world.

Prior to World War II, the bridge was used solely by local farmers. The first time refugees crossed it was in 1947-1948, when Hungary’s German minority was expelled as part of the postwar resettlement of peoples in the communist countries. Following the crushing of the 1956 Revolution, approximately 70 thousand Hungarians fled via or near the bridge, which was blown up by Soviet troops on the morning of November 21, 1956 in an attempt to stop or slow the tide.

To reach the bridge, people had to survive grueling conditions while crossing the Hánság marshes, but once they made it across, they received shelter and help from the others, people who shared with them everything they could, though they themselves had little.

One of the most famous series of images was taken by the photographer Ata Kandó with Violette Cornelius and focused on refugee families. Curated into a book, the collection was published for the first time in Hungarian in 1999 with the title Édes hazám, Isten veled (“Godspeed, my dear country”). In the photographs, we can see exhausted children who were unable to continue and are carried by their parents. Following a successful crossing, the photos then showed the children sleeping, sitting in their mothers’ laps or even managing to play despite the circumstances. The book was first published outside of Hungary in time for Christmas 1956 and the proceeds were donated to help the refugees. A poem was printed on the cover:

Gyenge violának eltörött a szára,
Az én bánatomnak nincs vigasztalása.
Süvít a szél Késmárk felett.
Édes hazám Isten veled.

The stem of the weak violet has broken,
My sorrow has no consolation.
The wind whistles over Késmárk,
Godspeed, my dear country.

This account by Ferenc Felkai, one of the lads of Pest, also sheds light on what it was like to have to flee the country:

“The Austrian people living along the borders organized a rescue service: they would light campfires from hay 500 meters from the border, so that us refugees would know what direction to head in. Austrian farmers voluntarily came to the fires with tractors every hour and took us to a small school in Pamhagen where we could stay. Many thousands of Hungarian refugees arrived to Austria after mid-November and in December. The Austrians along the border extended a helping hand and took us in, but the number of refugees made things quite difficult. We were provided with a temporary place to stay in the elementary school of Pamhagen, a small village, where we slept on the floor. They gave us blankets and we were able to clean ourselves in the school. In the morning we left so that the school could resume teaching, and we received something to eat. I looked at the Austrian children arriving to school, many of them on bikes, and one of them showed us a small combination lock. It was the first time I’d ever seen something like it.” (source)

Ferenc Felkai went on to emigrate to Canada. Years later, in 1998, he took his son Dávid to see where he had been as a refugee. “On the new bridge at Andau, the border was only a short gate with a small lock and no border guard in sight. Dávid, who at the time was eight years old, asked if he could cross the border to Austria. I raised Dávid over the gate and set him down, at which point he exclaimed ‘I’ve been to Austria too!’”

Truly amazing that such a small bridge, known only to the locals until the revolution unfolded, would play such an important role for tens of thousands fleeing to the West. The Bridge at Andau literally became the bridge to freedom.

Eszter Zsófia Tóth