From Revolutionist to Bishop

2017. október 21., szombat

Zoltán Szűcs still misses his two friends who he lost in 1956 when he took part in the revolution as a theologian 61 years ago. He first immigrated to Austria and then to America where he completed his theological studies. He served as a pastor for his entire life and also served as a bishop of the Church District of a Hungarian Reformed Community in the US, the Calvin Synod of the United Church of Christ, for two terms. Later, he bought an apartment in Hungary to hold onto a piece of his country. 


My heart is in Hungary and my home is in America, says Zoltán Szűcs whose wife, children, and grandchildren live overseas. The bishop emeritus adds: „Who loves his country with full of heart, he or she can only live without it under pressure.” This pressure has repeatedly had a say in the life of Szűcs Zoltán.

As a child, Szűcs Zoltán had to move from the Highland of Hungary (now Slovakia) with his family because of the Slovak-Hungarian population exchange and had to live in a railway wagon. He was a sophomore at the Reformed Seminary in Budapest when the revolution of 1956 broke out. He joined the crowd and was injured during crossfire at the building of the Hungarian Radio; today, the bullet is still in his thigh. Two of his classmates from the Seminary, Lajos Herczeg and István Magócsi, took him to the hospital. A few days after they visited him in the hospital, they went back to the Seminary. After their return, the dean, László Pap, did not allow them to go back to the streets; however, this did not stop these two friends as they left the safety of the Seminary to help a woman when a Russian tank opened fire on them. They died with Red Cross armbands. When there was no hope for the revolution, he had to escape; he was already beyond the Hungarian border when he was sentenced to life imprisonment.

Several seminary students were wounded in the street fights in 1956. Ferenc Batka, student of the Theological Academy in Sárospatak, was killed in the fusillade at the Parliament on 25 October and two other martyrs, István Magócsi and Lajos Herczegh from the seminary in Budapest, were killed a short distance from the seminary gates. A memorial plaque in the courtyard of the Károli Gáspár Seminary in Budapest honors the two students' memories. According to witnesses, they were killed while out buying bread for the college's kitchen. More than 3,000 people were killed in the revolution's fighting, among them 720 Soviets. Thousands were sentenced to prison in the reprisals, but the true long-term effect of the uprising was the resulting Hungarian emigration, considered a new "brain drain" – more than 200,000 people left the country, mainly young people.

“We were exceptionally well-received”

He went to Austria, then to the United States of America where on his 3rd day he was already working on a road construction. He only had African-American colleagues who mocked him for his accent. The owner of the company asked the opinion leader: „Did you speak about racism?” After this, they did not bother him anymore.

At that time he lived with a couple that were without a child, and they treated him as their son; the head of the family also mentioned him in his will. Not much later, Zoltán Szűcs applied for admission for theology without his previous study records and after being accepted with simply a list of subjects he had taken in Hungary and Austria, he started to study theology again. Just a few years later, he graduated with a Theological Diploma from Princeton, having learned theology in three languages, Hungarian, German, and English. He was nominated multiple times as bishop, but he finally accepted the nomination after the forth time, when he was elected as Bishop of the Calvin Synod of the United Church of Christ (UCC), one of the Hungarian Diaspora churches in the United States. Among the conferences of the UCC, this was the only one that was not a territorially organized conference, but instead based on nationality. It consists of more than 60 Hungarian-speaking congregation in Florida, Chicago, California, and New York; the last two cities being more than 4000 km away from each other.

A handful of the country

Since he had fled the country, he finally returned Hungary in 1967, with an American diplomacy passport. Knowing his story, the UCC let him come with a church delegation. After the change in regime, he returned to Hungary for a longer period of time when he taught at the Károli Gáspár University of the RCH and at the János Selye University in Révkomárom (Komárno) in Slovakia. On March 15, 2011, he was rewarded the Officer's Cross of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Hungary for his service to the Hungarians living overseas, his pastoral and tutoring services, as well as a recognition of his walk in life.  He believes it is significant because Hungarian political power had once sentenced him to life imprisonment, and now it says: "Well done my son, you did it well". Today, he returns home to Hungary once or twice a year when he goes to worship at the Reformed Congregation in Pasarét or to Kalvin Square in Budapest. He bought an apartment in Hungary because he wanted to have a handful of the country where no one can take away from him. 

In celebration of the 60th anniversary, last year, the British Embassy created a website to explore the event through the first-person accounts of those on the ground. It gives insight to the events of the 1956 Revolution through the perspective of the Head of Legation, British members of his team at the Legation, and local Hungarian contacts as well.To explore the full timeline, you can visit the Embassy’s 1956 Revolution website here.

Written by Márk Hegedűs

Translation by Györgyi Csiba

Photo by Csilla Kapás

Originally published in Reformátusok Lapja 

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