A documentary film by
Filmed in Hungary and the United States between 1988 and 1996 Troop 214 is a personal odyssey of exile and return. Music, pageantry, and clashing ideologies mark this historical exploration of two competing youth organizations—Hungarian Scouts and Communist Pioneers, and their cultures. Troop 214 deploys interviews and archival footage to trace the history of scouting in Hungary from its origins before World War I, through suppression and exile after 1948, to the legal return of Scouts to Hungary in 1989. It is a journey with unusual twists and turns.
In 1948 the Communist government of Hungary banned Scouting and replaced it with the Young Pioneers. With membership compulsory, three generations of Hungarian children were raised as Pioneers. The Scouts survived only underground and in exile. One Scout leader in Hungary describes losing everything to the Pioneers. Another takes us to the woods where his Scout troop met in secret until they were caught in 1961.
Archival footage of Pioneer activities document visits to Hungary by Ho Chi Minh and Fidel Castro's son. A lavish 1961 film about the Pioneer Railroad operated by children is juxtaposed with footage of a Pioneer Railroad nostalgia event in 1995.
But the fate of the Pioneers was linked to that of the one-party state. An interview with Károly Grósz, Hungary’s last hardline Communist prime minister, reveals his surprising role in the legal return of scouting to Hungary in 1988.
Throughout the period of Communist rule in Hungary (1948-1989) the traditions of Hungarian scouting survived among exiles in Western Europe, the Americas, and in Australia. Today there are still over a dozen troops of Hungarian Scouts active in the United States alone. For nearly 50 years scouting provided Hungarian émigré communities with a way to preserve their cultural heritage and transmit it to their children.
Producer/director George Csicsery was a member of a troop of ethnic Hungarian Scouts in Derby, New York during the late 1950s. The 45 boys in the troop lived together in a boarding home run by the Piarist Fathers—a teaching order of Catholic priests, most recent immigrants from Europe. At Derby they created a Hungarian enclave in the American midwest. The Hungarian Scouts at Derby were also known as Troop 214 of the Boy Scouts of America.
In 1988 as Communist dictatorships began to collapse throughout the Soviet empire, Hungary’s last hard-line Communist prime minister, Károly Grósz, visited the United States on a goodwill mission. In New Jersey he met Gábor Bodnár, president of the U.S. chapter of the Hungarian Scout Association. Grósz admitted to Bodnár that it was a mistake for the Communists to ban scouting, because scouting promotes moral and ethical values among youth. Grósz admitted that he had been a Scout once himself. Then the two men discovered that they had belonged to the same Scout troop before World War II. Both Bodnár and Grósz describe this moment of recognition in the film. Grósz promptly rescinded the ban on scouting.
Troop 214 documents the return of scouting to Hungary in 1989, juxtaposing footage from the St. Stephen’s Day procession of 1989 in Budapest with that of 1924. The Scouts were honor guards at both. The film addresses the difficulties faced by elderly Scout leaders as they rebuild the Scout movement in a country where it had been forced underground for over a generation.
With their cold war mission accomplished the Hungarian Scouts in Exteris, the organization of Hungarian Scouts outside Hungary, had to re-define their own mission. Scenes filmed at a camp in Fillmore, New York in 1995 and 1996 show Hungarian children—most born in the U.S. and Canada—struggling to master a language and culture that is already foreign to them.
Meanwhile in Hungary, the Pioneers also faced an uncertain future. Their numbers dropping from over a million, when membership was compulsory, to 70,000 in 1994, they searched for a new identity. One of the film's most telling sequences presents a 1995 Pioneer Railroaders reunion where elderly members of the movement revisit the train they had helped to inaugurate in 1948.
© 2004- George Csicsery