Posted on Wednesday June 21, 2006
Recording a break for freedom
AMERICAN filmmakers Steven Fischer and Craig Herron are making an animated film out of the story of Ede (Edward) Hilbert, a ‘56 refugee who has lived the greater part of his life, together with his wife Judit (Judith), in the United States. The film is based on Ede’s drawings from the time, as the then 29-year old documented the events of their escape from Hungary in a sketchbook.
Fischer, who was Emmy-nominated for his 2000 animated film Silence of Falling Leaves, about Polish Prisoners of War murdered in World War II, is the co-writer, producer and director of Ede’s story, titled Freedom Dance.
But it was Herron who first got to know Hilbert as both were teaching at the Jewish Community Center in Baltimore, Maryland. Through Herron, Fischer met the cartoonist, who showed the film maker some of his work. They came upon Hilbert’s cartoon journal and Fischer immediately thought it made for a fascinating story. When he discovered they had a two year window before the 50th anniversary of the Revolution, they jumped into production.
With that anniversary fast approaching, various forms of commemorations are taking shape, from the official visit of American President George W Bush today (Thursday, June 22), to the erection of a memorial on Felvonulási tér, in the place of the Stalin statue, demolished in the revolution on Oct 23, 1956. Whether Fischer and Herron’s halfhour animation will be part of local commemorations in Budapest is a moot point, as the production is in need of endorsements, but the producers are looking for ways to have screenings in Hungary too.
Hilbert started out as an ordinary boy with big dreams of coming to America. Perhaps at that age he meant Hollywood, rather than Baltimore, his current residence, as the young Hilbert had appeared as a child actor in several movies, including Az új földesúr (The New Landlord), an 1935-movie by Béla Gaál (who, among other things, founded the Madách Theater in 1918).
But it is more likely that Hilbert was inspired by the success stories of his uncle George Lang, who went to the United States in 1946, and made a name for himself as “the man who invents restaurants,” as Fortune magazine put it.
After the change of the political regime, Lang ran Hungary’s one-time grand restaurant the Gundel. However, back in the ‘50s, with the Soviets in Hungary and the borders to the west sealed off, Hilbert saw no chance to realize his dreams of living in his idealized land of the free.
When demonstrations started in Budapest, on Oct 23, 1956, Hilbert, a cartoonist, was living with his new wife Judit in a small apartment near the Danube.
They were frightened by the upheaval and uncertainty of the uprising. Like many others, they too had suffered the humiliation of occupation, but felt helpless and frustrated against the powerful Soviet Union. But among the chaos of the Revolution, while others people were fighting for Hungary, he saw his chance to leave the country. Temporarily hospitalized in the States, his account was written down by Fischer, who visited him regularly.
“The opportunity to escape came quick. A friend of a friend, a truck driver with regular deliveries to the Austrian border, could take the Hilberts towards a small border town where an acquaintance of his, a farmer employed in the dangerous business of bribing Soviet border guards, was promising safe passage to unoccupied Austria. “Carrying only what they could on their backs, the Hilberts began their adventure and were smuggled amongst crated apples, standing uncomfortably for eight hours, fearful of capture at every Soviet check point,” wrote Fischer.
Thus began the adventure of Ede and Judit, or Edward and Judy. The journey took four months by truck, by foot, by bus, by train, and by boat, and covered more than 500 miles, while the couple was living hand-to-mouth and off the good nature of benevolent strangers.
“In their four months as refugees, the Hilberts survived being shot at by a tank; and they barely escaped discovery by Soviet checkpoint guards [there were five escapees hidden in the back of the truck: the Hilberts and their friend with his wife and five-year old daughter]. “At one stop, while armed guards searched around the exterior of the truck, the little girl started coughing. Hands and coats were quickly placed over the girl’s mouth to muffle the noise. She was forced to stay in this position until the truck was on its way again. “On the road they slept in a horse stable and a cow pen; endured a violent ocean voyage; and they were robbed of what little money and possessions they had, including their newly fashioned gold wedding rings,” wrote Fischer. In Vienna, the couple received a welcome respite. They arrived on Dec 6, St Nicholas Day. Vienna glowed with festive lights, holiday decorations, and smiling faces – a pleasant contrast to the dreary destitution and fighting of bloodstained Budapest. The Austrian government, accustomed now to receiving the travel-weary from its eastern neighbor, greeted the luckier refugees with gift baskets overflowing with apples, nuts, candy, and chocolates. After all, it was Christmas. It was here, in Vienna, housed in the gymnasium of an elementary school with dozens of refugees, that , almost like Art Spiegelman, Hilbert began sketching their escape story, an amazing collection of cartoons. Once in America, Hilbert started his new life by building displays for department store windows. He also worked as a news cameraman, animator, and cartoonist, and eventually he started his own company, providing a variety of services such as cabinet and furniture making and mural painting.
It was in the 1990s that he finally found his niche: he created audio animatronic characters for amusement parks, restaurants and museums. An innovative man, he even built his own computers to operate the creatures. “His endurance and optimism is remarkable,” wrote Fischer.
“I believe it is this energy that propelled and guided him during his escape in ‘56. What makes Edward and Judy such a perfect match is that they share this perspective and these qualities.”
The Hilbert’s escape story has also been chosen for publication in a book due out later in the summer, Fischer explained. Titled 56 Stories, the volume collects 56 stories from 56 survivors of the revolution. Included in the publication will be some of the cartoons from the journal Edward kept during the escape.