Gabor Boritt | Background & Need | Approach, Structure & Style | Themes | Letter From Gabor Boritt | Director's Statement | Links

Background & Need

Gabor Boritt has always known war. Today he is a world-renowned historian with sixteen books, translations in five languages, numerous awards, honorary degrees and invitations to lecture in locations ranging from the Nobel Institute to the White House. His thick Hungarian accent sheds light on a surprising topic: Lincoln, the Civil War and American identity. This immigrant has advised the likes of Mario Cuomo, Charlton Heston, Peter Jennings, Sandra Day O’Connor, Jack Kemp, Colin Powell, William Rehnquist, Karl Rove and Elie Wiesel. The President of Colombia, Alvaro Uribe Velez, whose country has suffered from civil war for a generation, tramped the Gettysburg battlefield with Boritt and spent long hours at the historian’s farm talking about Lincoln’s path to peace.

Budapest to Gettysburg: One man’s new birth of freedom explores the life and work of Dr. Gabor Boritt. This documentary looks at the connection between his coming-of-age under history’s greatest villains, and his rising to become an expert on one of its greatest heroes. Gabor, whose family was torn apart by the perilous tides of history, has not looked back. “All my life I’ve tried to avoid looking at painful things,” he says. “I’m not sure they make you stronger; I think they make you weaker.” While the historian has shunned his own tumultuous history, he has become an expert on the most brutal period of U.S. history. He can tell, with exacting detail, the intricacies of the greatest battles ever fought on American soil, yet he has never visited the gas chambers at Auschwitz where his own grandfather perished. He knows every step of Lincoln’s life, yet Gabor cannot remember the street on which a Soviet tank nearly killed him. As his son captures it on film, the historian will discover his story.

Residents of Budapest on the frozen Danube in the winter of 1944-45.

Gabor's Story

Gabor was born in Budapest, Hungary, at the start of World War II. The Nazis forced his family to live in a single room in a hospital on the ghetto’s edge. Here he played upon bloodstained floors. As his father helped lead resistance against the Nazis, his grandfather’s family was deported from the countryside and murdered in Auschwitz. By the end of the war, Budapest was in ruins and Hungary in Stalin’s grip. In the years that followed, Gabor’s mother died, his father and brother were imprisoned, and he was sent to an orphanage. In 1956, sixteen-year-old Gabor joined the Hungarian Revolution. He remembers the initial euphoria, “We thought it was a whole new world. Anything was possible.” Days later, 3,000 Soviet tanks crushed those possibilities. Gabor and his sister Judith headed for the Austrian border. In darkness, they hiked through wooded hills. They came to a no-man’s-land guarded by watchtowers with machine guns. Freedom lay on the other side. Together, they started running.

A young boy watches Soviet tanks as they pass by the former site of a Stalin statue in 1956.
After months at an Austrian refugee camp, Gabor came to America, with one dollar in his pocket. He arrived in the “dirtiest city” he had ever seen: New York. Told that America is “out west,” Gabor headed to South Dakota. He wanted to learn English, and picked up a free booklet of Abraham Lincoln’s writings. Captivated by Lincoln’s mastery of the language, and his rise frompoverty to the Presidency, Gabor began studying American history and earned a Ph.D. As an immigrant, he felt obliged to go to Vietnam, where he taught soldiers about the American Civil War. In 1978, he published his first book, Lincoln and the Economics of the American Dream. A 1995 survey of leading experts by The Civil War Timeslists it as one of the ten most important books ever written about the 16th President. It placed at the center of Lincoln’s outlook what Gabor called “the right to rise.”
In 1981, he came to Gettysburg College. He founded the prestigious Civil War Institute and the school created for him the nation’s first fully funded chair for the study of the Civil War. He helped create the $50,000 Lincoln Prize, widely considered the most coveted award for the study of American history. He also helped create the Gilder-Lehrman Institute, which is rapidly becoming a leader in improving the teaching of history in schools. He serves on the boards of the Gettysburg National Battlefield Museum Foundation and the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission, appointed by Congress. And he continues teaching. Together with his wife Liz, he raised three sons. They live in an 18th-century farmhouse on the edge of the battlefield which they restored with their own hands. It served as both a stop on the Underground Railroad and as a Confederate hospital. Bloodstains are still visible on the aged plank floors. As it tells the story of a life, Budapest to Gettysburg will shed light on a man raised under tyranny, who becomes an expert on a symbol of democracy. At one level, this is the story of so many immigrants still coming to America, hoping for a better life. At another, it explores the creative process of the historian and what Gabor calls the “awesome responsibility” of bringing his background to a unique understanding of the American experience. Ultimately, it will be a journey of discovery as a father and son uncover a powerful history that has shaped their lives.

Today, Americans find themselves in the tumultuous wake of 9/11, simultaneously showing increased resolve and growing confusion about what America means. This is not the first time we have faced strife driven by religion, ideology or conflicting views of history. In such times, we Americans have traditionally turned to our history for both strength and clarity.

In our current unsettled era, Gabor’s story, interwoven with U.S. history, reveals something settling about America. It is a story that illustrates the enduring ideals of our nation. After 9/11, the first trip many leading figures from the White House took was to Gettysburg. Here, Gabor guided them on the battlefield and, over two days, talked history with them. Budapest to Gettysburg, too, will help Americans continue to make sense of their own history and of the world around them.

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