Skip to main content

The Greatest Gift

April 2024
2min read

When the picture of Hungarian immigrants arriving in America ran in the magazine a year ago, several readers wrote in to ask why they had evidently flown here on the President’s private plane. We helplessly replied that we had no idea. Now we know.

In the last February/March issue your story “What Should We Teach Our Children About American History?” included a photograph showing a group standing in front of an airplane. “Old impulse, new vehicle,” read the caption. “Immigrants arrive from Hungary on Christmas Day, 1956.” I recognized the scene at once. The man waving his cap is my father, John Hegedus; my mother, Ilona, is standing just beyond his elbow with my two brothers, Joe and George, in front of her. To her right is my sister Maria and, in front of her, my sister Susie. I am the girl holding two packages just to Maria’s right. The airplane, the Columbine , belongs to President Eisenhower, and what follows is my father’s account of how we came to be aboard it.

We arrived in Munich about 4:00 A.M. , December 21, five weeks after we had fled across the Hungarian border to Austria—following the Russian invasion of our country. There were buses waiting to transport us to a nearby U.S. Army post, where we were interviewed as to which countries in the world we wished to emigrate to. Then we were taken to a huge mess hall and fed breakfast. We were overwhelmed. There was a large, gleaming kitchen with more food than we had ever seen. We could have all we wanted of whatever we wanted: ham, sausage, eggs, bread, fresh fruit, milk—being served by black American soldiers in tall white hats.

The evening of December 24, 1956, our names were called. We were overjoyed. A bus was ready for us and three other families to board. None of us had any idea what lay ahead. We drove off to the airport, and there we found that all the buses that had left earlier that afternoon still had their passengers on board. None of the refugees were allowed to get off until our bus arrived. We saw many highranking American military officers, Red Cross nurses, and a crowd of press writers and photographers, all apparently waiting for us. Photographers took our pictures, and we were congratulated by many officers and dignitaries.

Then it was revealed to us that our four families were indeed honored because we had been chosen to journey to the United States on President Elsenhower’s personal plane.

Soon a beautiful, four-engine, silver airplane appeared and glided down to a landing. We could see the emblem on its side as it taxied toward us, and we learned it was President Eisenhower’s favorite flower, the columbine. After a number of dignitaries had given speeches and wished us luck, we said our good-byes to the other refugees and boarded the plane, late on Christmas Eve.

The inside of the presidential plane was beautiful, with linen-covered tables, plush carpeting, and even a Christmas tree for the children, with presents underneath. Every refugee on board received one, and the captain came back and personally handed out gifts to each of the children. The nicest Christmas present we could have ever had was to be able to leave a life of poverty to be heading for a new life and opportunity in the United States. As the engines started and we rolled down the runway, we were scared and excited at the same time. None of us had been in an airplane before, but we were all looking forward to our trip.

We arrived in New York some time after 5:00 A.M. The other planes that had left Germany just after our flight were already on the ground. Again, there were many reporters and photographers. Our pictures were taken, then all the passengers boarded buses and we were driven to Camp Kilmer, New Jersey.

There we were taken into a movie theater, where a major greeted us and told us how we had been fortunate enough to fly to the United States on the presidential airplane. The Columbine had been transporting Prime Minister Nehru of India to London, and as it was already in Europe, it had been sent on to Munich for us. The major explained this was unusual because the presidential plane was reserved for the President, Vice President, and American and international high dignitaries. He told us it was unlikely that ordinary people would ever fly on it again. During the flight the captain had us each sign the guest book on board. There, below the signature of Nehru, are our signatures: four ordinary Hungarian families.

—Clara Koeniger lives in Chugiak, Alaska.

We hope you enjoy our work.

Please support this magazine of trusted historical writing, now in its 75th year, and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.

Donate