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The tour ended in mid-March back in San Francisco, after some 8,000 miles and 59 cities. It had more than paid for itself, leaving a surplus of $10,000 ($80,000 today) for refugee relief. The younger athletes sifted through college scholarship offers; the others had jobs lined up. Each of them had a small grubstake from saving per diems, as well as possessions collected during a shopping spree in a department store, where each was invited to fill a suitcase with anything but jewelry. "Most of us wanted to go to California," Nagy Wachter remembers. "California had a magic."
Before they scattered, the Hungarians returned to the top of the Mark Hopkins. My God, Takach thought as he looked out over the bay, we have seen so much of the world.
SIT DOWN with a surviving '56er today, and you're sure to hear a rhapsody about San Francisco in its brilliant winter light, but you're also likely to hear of nightmares. Over the past 55 years Magay and Hernek, Gerlach and Schmid-Shapiro have all dreamed that they're back in Hungary and can't get out.
The flop sweat is only temporary, for life in the U.S. has been strikingly good for the defectors. Nearly all who stayed have prospered. How they made their way in the new world roughly conforms to their disciplines. Most of the fencers and gymnasts—sensible, calculating, mindful of balance—capitalized on those college scholarships, and many earned science and engineering degrees. The swimmers and divers tended to jump right into the figurative pool. Accustomed to the stray elbow, the water polo players took their dunkings and bobbed back up. "It's lucky we were so young," says swimmer Katherine Szoke Domyan, who's still married to water polo player Arpad Domyan. "Young people can do anything. Or so I discovered when I wasn't so young anymore."
At that time International Olympic Committee rules prevented most athletes from competing for a second country, and that ended further Olympic hopes for almost all of the Hungarian defectors. "I thought I was going to conquer the world," says Tabori. "It turns out the world conquered me." But most of those for whom a sports career was paramount had not defected, and eight on the Freedom Tour shortly went back to Hungary. When they arrived, "the only thing people kept asking was, Why the hell did you come back?" said runner Istvan Roszavolgyi, who returned directly from Melbourne. (He died in January 2012.)
The truth, however, is that Hungarians enjoyed relatively more liberties under the so-called Goulash Communism of the 1960s and '70s, when their country was allowed to become what was described as "the merriest barracks in the prison camp," because Moscow feared more unrest. That's one reason defectors' relatives back home suffered few reprisals. Another is the sheer number of people, athletes or not, who fled. "Take 250,000 and multiply it by three or four or five relatives who stayed behind," Takach explained, "and it would have been impractical to persecute them all."
Soon after Ordogh Zimsen's defection, her mother was summoned to the sports ministry to provide an explanation. Ilona Ordogh went on the offensive: "Yes, and where is my daughter? I put her in your care, and you didn't bring her back to me!" The bureaucrats didn't have much of a response.
Once defectors earned U.S. citizenship, they could go back to visit their families, for the Hungarian government honored the passports of U.S. tourists. Meanwhile aging parents often received permission to visit the U.S., and several permanently joined their children. "Once you reached retirement age, you just sucked up a pension," explained Zador, who brought his parents over in the late '50s. After several months of complaining about laid-back attitudes and disrespectful children, they returned to Budapest. Within days—"after dealing again with no hot water," their son says, "and lugging blocks of ice to the refrigerator on the fourth floor"—they begged him to take them back, promising never to complain again. They spent the rest of their lives in California.
In 2006 the makers of Freedom's Fury arranged a water polo reunion in Budapest for eight Hungarians and four of the vanquished Soviets. Outwardly, bonhomie prevailed. "They were pawns just like we were," Zador said of the Soviets. But Zador detected a chill from Karpati and Jeney, his teammates who left the tour early. "Karpati and I had been very close," he says. "Same with Jeney. I'd have loved for them to say, 'Come, see my home, see how I live.' I wanted to find out what it'd been like in Hungary. They came to all the scheduled events, but then they'd leave."
But most of those who returned to live out politically ambiguous lives in Hungary carried the spirit of '56 with them. Before leaving Melbourne, Jeney took the pre-Communist flag with the black mourning stripe that had flown over the Hungarians' compound and hid it in the casing of one of the team's canoes. He squirreled it away in his home for more than 30 years. Today the flag is on display at a Budapest primary school.