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In Today's Migrant Crisis, Echoes Of Hungary's Troubled Past

Hungary has received tens of thousands of Syrian refugees and other migrants in recent weeks, as people cross Europe by train, bus and foot in pursuit of safety and prosperity in wealthy northern countries. The main train station in the Hungarian capital, Budapest, was the scene of chaos last week after authorities briefly barred migrants from boarding trains bound for Austria.

But this isn't Hungary's first experience with migration. This country of 10 million in central Europe has its own troubled history of war and exile. Nearly 60 years ago, it was Hungarians who were clamoring for spots on trains to Austria.

Hungary was allied with Nazi Germany during World War II. More than half a million Hungarian Jews perished. Just a decade later, a quarter-million Hungarians fled their country after the failed Hungarian Revolution of 1956, a short-lived uprising against Soviet control.

Robert Bekesi lived through it all, and is now lending a hand in the current crisis.

One of thousands of Hungarian volunteers, Bekesi has spent the past week ferrying donated clothes and food to desperate travelers. He left his van idling in a no-parking zone Monday in Budapest while he loaded supplies into the back — bottled water, fruit, sleeping bags. He was preparing to drive it all out to an overcrowded migrant detention center near the Serbian border.

"Because now there are 6,000 people without food, without water, without blankets," Bekesi says, referring to the number of weekend arrivals of refugees and migrants streaming across Hungary's border with Serbia.

They've managed to get through, despite a huge security barrier Hungary has been constructing along its frontier. The vast majority of migrants and refugees who arrive in Hungary come in through Serbia and don't want to stay; most are trying to reach Germany.

Hungarian authorities have begun busing them to this new migrant reception center, some two hours' drive from Budapest, rather than allowing them to reach the capital on their own. But the center is so full, thousands of migrants are sleeping in a cornfield nearby.

Bekesi is a sprightly 75 years old, and he knows what it's like to be uprooted — starting with World War II.

"I was 5 years old, in a German concentration camp with my family. My father died in the camp," he recalls. "That was a historical time — and now it is a historical time as well."

Bekesi is a Hungarian Jew who survived Hungary's alliance with the Nazis. Nearly two-thirds of Hungary's Jews did not.

Then, a decade later, the teenage Bekesi was forced to flee his home. In 1956, his family lived near the Hungarian Radio building in Budapest, where the first shots of the Hungarian Revolution were fired.

"And I, from the windows, looked [down at] the shooting. One of the main streets in Budapest was burning, [and] a Russian tank [was there] — I saw with my own eyes," Bekesi says. "Then one of my uncles came to take me on a motorcycle to the countryside."

Bekesi and his family fled Budapest as Soviet tanks rolled into the city. Some 250,000 Hungarians left the country — traveling by train and on foot to the Austrian border.

Now those same railroads are full of people from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan seeking refuge in Europe.

Still, Bekesi says such scenes of refugees packing trains and crossing borders are sometimes too much for him.

"Some nights I don't sleep. It's not possible to realize this situation [is now happening] in Hungary," he says. "It's more parallel [to] my childhood."

Bekesi has been handing out water and blankets all week. He talks about meeting one particular boy, an 11-year-old Syrian refugee, who had a panic attack at a migrant reception facility Bekesi was visiting.

"I held him in my arms," the 75-year-old Holocaust survivor says. "And then ... I thought, 'What is the reality of this?' "

He breaks down. He says he saw himself, some 70 years ago — liberated from war but having suffered immensely.

And with that, Bekesi dives back into the crowd of volunteers, hoists up a big plastic bag of donated clothes — and lugs it off to his van, heading to the refugees.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.