‘I want to tell you about my first day in London. Many years have passed since, but I can still remember clearly what I saw and felt on that day when I arrived from the camp.’
– The opening to Refuge England, 1959
Vas was born in Budapest in Hungary in 1931. He came to England with his wife Rosalie and their baby son following the failure of the uprising against the Soviets in 1956. A Jew in Budapest during the Holocaust, his family survived due to acquiring Swedish passports while living in the ghetto.
He initially worked in menial cleaning jobs before finding work at the British Film Institute (BFI), where he found funding for his first film, Refuge England, through the BFI Experimental Film Fund.
The 27-minute film, first shown in 1959, relates the day in the life of a refugee from Hungary who arrives in London with nothing but an address. Unable to speak English, he experiences the extraordinary everyday of the city as he seeks a refuge. Fusing documentary and fiction, the film recounted Robert’s first days in the UK, and foreshadowed a series of complex political films he made from 1964.
Robert Vas saw his artistic mission as being to remind and warn, primarily of the abuses of power, which lent his work to controversy. He remained committed to documentary and made a seminal series of films for the BBC. Films of note include:
- The Golden Years of Alexander Korda (1968), the first serious study of the Hungarian filmmaker who did so much to establish a viable British film industry
- The Issue Should Be Avoided (1971), a dramatised investigation of the Katyn Forest massacre during World War Two
- Stalin (1973), A three-hour biography of Stalin
- A study of the General Strike, Nine Days in ’26 (1974)
- My Homeland (1976), a celebration of Hungarian culture and the 1956 Rising
‘Vas was allowed a remarkable degree of freedom to make what he wanted, though his controversially non-establishment view of the General Strike – Nine Days in ’26 (1974) was postponed because of an oncoming General Election, and requests for repeat showings have fallen on deaf ears. He had planned to make films about the ‘Gulag Archipelago’ and the wartime bombing of Dresden before his untimely death in April 1978.’
– Excerpt from the BFI Screenonline.
From 1945 Hungary was controlled by the Communist regime in Moscow. When Stalin died in 1953 people in the Eastern Bloc thought it might lead to greater freedom, but by 1956 they could see this wasn’t the case.
In October that year students and workers took to the streets of Budapest (the capital of Hungary ) and issued their Sixteen Points which included personal freedom, more food, the removal of the secret police and the removal of Russian control. In November the Moscow government sent in tanks to regain control and around 30,000 people were killed. The revolution had failed. A further 200,000 fled to the West in fear of Soviet reprisals.
Throughout the 1950s new arrivals came to the UK from the colonies and commonwealth countries such as the Caribbean, India and Pakistan. The war was an important catalyst for migration as large numbers of people were uprooted from their homes in Europe and the Empire. Immigration policy was relatively welcoming, and asylum seekers were protected by the newly created 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. This bound the UK to consider all asylum applications made in the UK, though not to give someone permission to travel to the UK specifically to claim asylum.