Zugliget parish remembers its East German refugees

18th August 2009, Comments 0 comments

On August 14, 1989, after a call for help from the West German embassy, Father Kozma, now 69, opened the first humanitarian camp for East German refugees waiting to flee to Austria, on the grounds of his church.

Budapest -- Twenty years after East German refugees arrived en masse in Budapest in a bid to escape to the West, a parish priest who sheltered them remembers their fear.

"They pitched their tents in public parks and parked their caravans in streets... they camped in front of the West German embassy," Father Imre Kozma, then parish priest in the leafy Budapest suburb of Zugliget, told AFP.

On August 14, 1989, after a call for help from the West German embassy, Father Kozma, now 69, opened the first humanitarian camp for East German refugees waiting to flee to Austria, on the grounds of his church.

"There was an atmosphere of utter insecurity among the refugees," Kozma recalled.

"They were afraid even of each other, not knowing who might be an agent of the Stasi (the infamous East German secret service)."

Kozma's bold move was not without risk but his motives and those of his 700-800 volunteers were purely humanitarian, he insisted.

"We knew nothing of the ongoing political negotiations... but I was encouraged by feeling that the Hungarian politicians were on our side," Kozma said.

Some 1,200 people at a time stayed in his camp, sleeping in large white tents and on the floor of the church.

With new arrivals, two other camps opened up in the Buda hills, hosting 6,000-7,000 people in total.

The surrounding area was dotted by Trabants, abandoned by their owners who had escaped westwards, Kozma remembered.

Meanwhile, the East German consul set up a caravan in front of the Zugliget church to convince his compatriots to return home.

But Kozma recalled: "The refugees just stared at the caravan."

The priest's mission took on a political dimension when a few days after he had opened the camp, the West German embassy asked if it could set up shop in the church to issue passports to those heading for the Austrian border.

The embassy had closed temporarily on August 14, unable to handle the flood of visa applications from East Germans wishing to emigrate.

"I called [German Chancellor] Helmut Kohl," Kozma said.

"He called me back a few hours later and told me: 'I talked to Gorbachev, who said Hungarians are good people'," implying that the Soviet leader would look the other way.

On August 19, some 600 East Germans fled across to Austria during the now famous Paneuropean Picnic. Thousands more followed after Hungary threw open its border on September 11.

This was the second time, after the 1956 anti-Soviet revolution, that Hungary shaped the history of the 20th century, Kozma noted.

AFP/Expatica

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