Gyorgy Jekelfalussy Piller has gone down in history as one of the most successful competitors and coaches. If his name is unfamiliar, let me give you a brief run-down. He competed for Hungary in the 1928 Olympics on the Foil Team and reached the semi-finals, although Piller himself did not fence that well. His main weapon was the sabre, and he began his dominant performance in 1930, winning the individual World Championships, repeating in 1931, and winning the individual Olympics in 1932 in Los Angeles. He was also on all three of the gold-medal winning Hungarian teams each of those years. In 1933, he began coaching and no longer competed in the individual championships, although he remained on the team winning two more successive World Championship Team Gold medals in 1933 and 1934. By 1935, he was focused entirely on coaching. As such, he was one of the many coaches who lead the Hungarian sabremen to a level of domination unrivaled in sport, as far as I know. From 1928 to 1956, they won the individual and team gold medal in every World Championship and Olympic event they participated in.
At the end of that run, we come to 1956, which was a year of turmoil in Hungary. Even as Piller’s team was preparing for the Olympics in Melbourne, the country threw out the Communist government and declared itself independent of the Soviet hegemony. Upon the team’s arrival in Australia, they learned that the revolution had been crushed and Soviet tanks had driven into Budapest to restore the Communists to power. This forced every member of the Hungarian Olympic contingent, athlete, coach or official, to consider the question of whether to return to Hungary or seek opportunity elsewhere. Almost half of the delegation decided to defect. Among them were three of the gold medal winning sabre team – and their coach, Gyorgy Piller. And, since these four had chosen to come to the United States on a plane flight courtesy of the then-new magazine Sports Illustrated, Piller Americanized his name to “George Piller”.
Upon arrival in the US, after interviews and TV appearances, including the Ed Sullivan Show, Piller and the other Hungarian athletes embarked on a cross-country tour, again sponsored by Sports Illustrated.
The cover of the program distributed at the various stops across the nation.
Dan Magay prepares to fence during the Freedom Tour’s stop in Norwalk, Conn.
The tour began in New York and traveled west across the nation. Sports Illustrated had a number of feature articles during the tour, and local papers also covered the travels and travails of the athletes. The final stop on the tour was San Francisco, the first American city they had landed in after leaving Melbourne.
The invitation card, advertising the arrival of the Freedom Tour athletes in San Francisco.
The list of participants for San Francisco.
Upon completion of the tour, Piller made it known that San Francisco was the city he would most like to settle in. The Hungarian community, realizing their great fortune in Piller’s deciding to stay, gathered the resources to found a fencing club in which he could teach. As that was happening, the fencing community, too, was at work to make a place for Piller.
The invitation to the reception for Piller.
Erich Funke-d’Egnuff, as he had done for Hans Halberstadt in 1940, offered up space for Piller in his salle until Piller could get settled into the building the Hungarian community was working on. In addition to meeting Piller, fencers had been encouraged to give in a more concrete manner, as the below letter from March to Charles Selberg indicates.
So donations to get Piller to San Francisco may well have begun prior to his decision to stay.
Piller’s team went to Nationals in 1957 and took Gold and Bronze in the individual sabre and Gold in team sabre. Meanwhile, the Pannonia Athletic Club was founded and Piller became head coach at what was probably one of the fastest growing clubs ever.
Daniel Magay and George Piller.
Piller in between Carol Reid and Roberta Meyer.
Piller with Lois and Charlie Selberg.
Piller teaching at a YMCA.
Piller in 1958
Piller also taught at Cal Berkeley. Here he is surrounded by his team that included Olympic Gold Medalist Daniel Magay, 2nd from right.
Sadly, Piller’s time in San Francisco was cut tragically short by cancer of the throat, which took his life in1960.
The Pannonia club continued to produce excellent fencers after losing Piller. Another excellent Hungarian maestro, Ferenc Marki, coached there, among others. Pannonia held tournaments in Piller’s honor for many, many years, the winners getting an opportunity to attend the annual Hungarian Ball to be presented to the Hungarian community.