25 January 2017

’56: From the Streets to the States – Hungarian and American Poets View the ’56 Revolution

freedom for the future by payment of the dead”

Neil Bradford Olson, “To Hungary, that America Might Explain”


In 1956 after eight years of dictatorial Russian-imposed Communism, one in ten Hungarians had been imprisoned, sent to a concentration camp or executed. As a result virtually every family in the country knew of some relation of theirs who had suffered terribly at the hands of the regime. Most people would also say that such suffering happened “without cause” or “unfairly”. A prime example is a young poet, Tibor Tollas who, after studying at the Hungarian Military Academy, went on active duty in the Second World War rising through the ranks to become a lieutenant in the Military Police. Dedicated to his profession he remained in the armed forces after the war ended and even after the Soviet occupation. In 1947 he was arrested on trumped- up charges and sentenced to ten years in prison. Freed in the ’56 Revolution he later escaped to Germany. His ten stanza poem, “They’ve Walled up Every Window” juxtaposes stanzas describing conditions in his Communist prison and quoting the hypocritical lies of politicians about freedom – the stanzas reprinted here – with stanzas picturing the joys of freedom outside prison.



Tibor Tollas


Of life outside, only this gleam was left,

a tiny patch of stars, a glimpse of sun,

in daily gloom, within dark walls bereft,

we watched the vent for this as day was done.

They stole this streak of sunlight’s lesser twin,

they’ve walled up every window tight with tin.


Our ten mouths gasping for the missing air,

ten of us lie, in one close kennel pent,

as fish-gills on the bank might gasp despair.

To eat the food, which stinks of excrement,

our stomachs lack the power to begin –

they’ve walled up every window tight with tin.


We probe in darkness toward the velvet skies

as if within a coffin we were nailed,

we only touch our rugs and agonise

or feel our hands by vermin-hosts assailed.

We once caressed the sunlight, like soft skin –

they’ve walled up every window tight with tin.


The radios shout hoarsely of new deals,

of freedom and of justice due to man.

But here my tortured body only feels

the million lashes of foul Moscow’s plan.

From Vác to Peking all the slaves make din:

Beware! Beware! Or through the entire world

they’ll wall up every window tight with tin.”

Translated by Watson Kirkconnell


Such conditions known to almost everyone when added to the poor living conditions and the stark imposition of Communist ideology created a country seething with anger, with rumblings and grumblings everywhere. Young people, especially, saw only a bleak future and a destroyed nation. University students had drawn up a series of 16 demands they were going to present to the Communist dictators as the culmination of demonstrations planned for 23 October 1956 in Debrecen, Szeged and Budapest. Those demonstrations were scheduled, roughly, first in Debrecen, then in Szeged and in Budapest.

In Debrecen the demonstration, led by Kossuth University (now the University of Debrecen) students, began with a march down one of the main streets leading to the city centre. Expectations changed greatly when the students found themselves joined by workers who were also fed up with the police state. The demonstration grew and grew – crowds filled the street. As the students, workers and many others outraged by what had happened to their country and their own lives marched down that main thoroughfare they had to pass by the headquarters of the police. Suddenly from the top of that building shots rang out! Several marchers were hit and a Debrecen student lay dead on the street. He was the first of hundreds of ’56 Revolutionary casualties.

In Budapest as part of the demonstration famed actor Imre Sinkovits read out the students’ 16 demands that included free elections by secret ballot, the “immediate withdrawal of Soviet troops”, a free press, and even the removal of the statue of Stalin – to be toppled that night by the students themselves. He also read out Sándor Petőfi’s famous poem, “National Song” that had been instrumental in recruiting people to revolt against the Habsburg Empire in 1848 and which now for a second time became a clarion call to revolution:



Sándor Petőfi


Rise up, Magyar, the country calls!

It’s “now or never”, what fate befalls. …

Shall we live as slaves or free men?

That’s the question – choose your “Amen”!

God of Hungarians, we swear unto Thee,

We swear unto Thee – that slaves we shall no longer be!

Translated by Ádám Makkai

While some students were hacking away at Stalin, others went once more to the national radio building and a
delegation went inside to ask that their 16 demands be read over the air. The delegation was detained”. State police (officially the ÁVH but always pronounced ah-vo) fired shots into the crowd from inside the building with one student dead and many other casualties. The city and later most of the country exploded and the ’56 Revolution against the dictatorship and police state had begun.

Hungarian writers in general and poets in particular have long been the keepers of value, the preservers of Hungarian national identity – of what it means to be Hungarian – and they did this under the Ottoman Conquest, the Habsburg Empire, the Nazi regime, and then under the Russian-installed and propped-up Communist dictatorship. When, for example, the ’56 Revolution appeared to have stabilised, a revolutionary newspaper appeared with the innocuous name of Irodalmi Újság [The Literary Gazette] with two of its four pages or fully one-half of its space devoted to poetry. One of those poems was, of course, Petőfi’s “National Song” given pride of place in the upper left hand corner of the first page. Also featured was a long, 183 line version of perhaps the most famous unpublished, pre-revolutionary poem, “One Sentence about Tyranny” by Gyula Illyés. A poem so dangerous that it could never be published during the poet’s lifetime and only appeared in its complete 200-line version in 1987! The poet dictated from memory those 183 lines and accidentally left out 17.



Gyula Illyés


Where tyranny exists

that tyranny exists

not only in the barrel of the gun

not only in the cells of a prison

not just in the interrogation block

or the small hours of the clock

the guard’s bark and his fists

the tyranny exists

not just in the billowing black fetor

of the closing speech of the prosecutor,

in the “justified use of force”

the prisoners’ dull morse

not merely in the cool postscript

of the expected verdict

there’s tyranny

not just in the crisp military


order to “Stand!” and the numb

instruction “Fire!”, the roll of the drum,

in the last twitch

of the corpse in the ditch


tyranny supplies

the standing ovation, the loud

hurrahs and chanting of the crowd

at the conference, the songs

Translated by George Szirtes


not just the interrogation,

it’s in the declaration,

in the rapturous moan,

like the fly in the wine,


because even in your dreams

you’re not alone, it’s even

in the marriage bed, and earlier

in the desire,


because what you think lovely

he’s had already; it’s he

who lay with you in bed

when you thought you loved,

* * *

like moles in the sun, we walk

blind in the pitch-dark,

as restless in the closet

as we are in the desert;

because where there’s tyranny

everything’s vanity,

song, like this one faithful,

any art at all,


because from the beginning

he’s been standing at your grave,

it’s he who says who you’ve been,

even your dust serves him.

Translated by Bruce Belind and Mária Kőrösy


it’s he who says who you’ve been, / even your dust serves him.” This loss of personality, individuality, and self-worth captured in these chilling lines by Illyés suggests not just the omnipresence of tyranny but by implication the huge resentment engendered by the dictatorship with its massive secret police spy- network against which the people revolted.

As the Revolution spread throughout Hungary, word of this uprising against the Soviet Empire also travelled around the world. In the United States poets responded to the words and images of the Revolution. For instance, Robert Bagg, a New England poet who at the time of the uprising was still in college, saw clearly both an underlying cause in the “obscene feet” and fists pounding on a door in the middle of the night resulting in someone being dragged away for interrogation and eventual execution together with the excitement generated by the revolution and the great danger it posed to those involved.



Robert Bagg

Terror, that week, occurred in the open.

For once, no obscene feet on the stairway,

Then overlapping knocking by two men,

Capture, dragging off to a long delay.


No cells of petty questions and bed bugs

Before being shot no chronic nervousness.

Instead, rapid excitement: machine-gun slugs

Knocked at his jacket and spat at her dress.


Many young men and women were, indeed, machine-gunned down by the Russian Army. Yet, as the contemporary Hungarian poet, Géza Szőcs describes them in “Prayer for the Fallen Heroes”, they appear as idealistic but true heroes leading the battle against Russian tanks and soldiers “with a carbine on the shoulder and / Classroom notes in their pockets” (Translated by Paul Sohar).

Those young people and their parents paid a terrible price for their heroic efforts as American poet and distinguished translator, John Ciardi captured in his poem, “After the Street Fighting”:


After the street fighting their tanks pull back for the night

And the women come turning the dead over, hunched and swaying


Then one by one they stiffen human; their faces

lean sidewise and down with the eyes sagged over

and the mouths ripped. The bread falls from their hands,

always the same. They kneel

by the mud of the corpse as if by living water.


Hungarian military units refused to obey when ordered to put down this rebellion and when a general joined the students he brought with him many soldiers. Russian tanks and Russian soldiers against a citizens’ army with their puny weapons – small wonder the casualties were so high. Yet there were several truly heroic, if unlikely and often brief success stories, such as that of Attila Gérecz the young poet who single-handedly knocked out first one and then a second Russian tank only to be killed by a third.




During the revolution, Radio Free Europe – the propaganda arm of the CIA – was steadily broadcasting instructions on how to fight the Russians, while keeping up a steady drum beat of “Fight on! Help is on the way!! Do not give up. We are coming! Help is on the way! NATO will help. Help is on the way!! The UN will help. Help is on the way!!” And so forth. All broadcast in Hungarian. The father of a friend of mine hearing these broadcasts and believing strongly in the Revolution decided to go out into the street and join the fighting ready to do whatever he could to help it succeed. But before leaving his house he accidentally turned the radio dial to the Armed Forces Radio Network which broadcast in English to American troops stationed across Europe. He knew English so was shocked to hear an announcer say: “Today Secretary of State John Foster Dulles assured Chairman Khrushchev that the US would not intervene in Hungary.” So he closed the door and stayed indoors. This absolutely unfounded hope in US intervention perpetrated so irresponsibly by Radio Free Europe was caught by the distinguished American poet, Donald Hall in a poem written three years later:



Donald Hall


The Hungarians watched

The sky for the white silk

They expected to drop

Like apple blossoms.

No one arrived, and the sun

Stayed in its own home.


No troops were parachuted into Hungary to rescue the beleaguered students, workers and others. Instead, they were left on their own to confront the Russian tanks and the soon-to-be hordes of the Red Army.

This predicament and the United States’ failure to live up to expectations is the subject of St Louis poet, John Knoepfle’s excellent poem, “The Hungarian Revolution”:


He is dead in the street.


The machine gunner

Can go home now,

Secure on a mountain of silver.


We were watching

Great stone hands on our knees.

The Russian gunner having done his job for a price far beyond the 30 pieces of silver Judas received for betraying Jesus, can return to his home unlike the revolutionary lying dead. Meantime the United States merely looks on like some granite statue whose “great stone hands” rest idly “on our knees”.

The most famous and the most credible American poet, however, proved to be e. e. cummings who had believed so strongly in individual freedom that when the First World War was declared he volunteered to drive ambulances long before the United States became involved. Arrested by the French on suspicion of espionage, cummings was interned in a Prisoner of War camp. He later wrote what is probably the best POW book by an American, The Enormous Room. Cummings’ poem, “Thanksgiving 1956” begins with an unusual but highly appropriate image of the USSR as “a monstering horror”! – a non-person or in cummings’ unique vocabulary “a which that walks like a who”; that is, a mechanical being (a which) that pretends to be human (a who). For only true human beings, that is, free autonomous individuals can be called “who”.



e. e. cummings


a monstering horror swallows

this unworld me by you

as the god of our fathers’ fathers bows

to a which that walks like a who


but the voice-with-a-smile of democracy

announces night & day

all poor little peoples that want to be free

just trust in the u s a”


suddenly uprose hungary

and she gave a terrible cry

no slave’s unlife shall murder me

for i will freely die”


she cried so high Thermopylae

heard her and marathon

and all prehuman history

and finally the Un


be quiet little hungary

and do as you are bid

a good kind bear is angary

we fear for the quo pro quid”


uncle sam shrugs his pretty

pink shoulders you know how

and he twitches a liberal titty

and lisps “i’m busy right now”


so rah-rah-rah democracy

let’s all be thankful as hell

and bury the statue of liberty

because it begins to smell


Cummings was so incensed by the United States’ failure to intervene in Hungary, because of being “busy right now” with Suez and other world crises, that he included this poem in all his readings after 1956. Cummings was not impressed by the Power Politics argument that the Suez Canal was more valuable than individual human rights. Instead he celebrates here as in all his poetry the free individual who refuses the “slave’s unlife” and risks death in fighting for liberty. The last stanza of the poem is cummings at his satiric best as the rhymes “hell” and “smell” reinforce the stanza’s emphasis on America’s hypocrisy, for the USA had betrayed its founding principle of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for everyone and not just for a few.

The Russians were themselves divided on how to react and how to handle the situation but with the US giving them a green light, the tanks previously, if temporarily, parked at the border of Hungary simply turned around and headed for Budapest. They stopped on the way long enough to put down the student rebellion in Debrecen. They lined many tanks up facing the university’s beautiful main building but the students were no longer there having been warned by the workers in time for them to disappear out the unguarded back door. Afterwards, the tanks rolled on to smash the rebellion in the capital.



György (George) Gömöri


At this stage we suspect and yet should know

There’s no way back. The papers paint a bleak

Deserted city where sporadic rifles

Rattle against a snow swaddled night.

Translated by George Szirtes

Or as another Hungarian poet, János Pilinszky lamented in “The Desert of Love” using a deceptively homey metaphor:


And hope

Is like a tin cup toppled in the straw.

Translated by Ted Hughes and János Csokits


The cup full of hope is, like the ’56 Revolution, knocked down, emptied, abandoned. Or as American satirist and poet Leslie Woolf Hedley put it in “Postscript: Hungary”:


Now for us the winds wail and swim away

Like the newspapers sinking deep into the Danube.


At least one American writer, William T. Moynihan reflected on the fortunate situation of his children when contrasted with those who were under thirty and made up half of the 2,500 who died in those two weeks.. This was truly a student-led revolution. But first, Moynihan ponders on the emotional state of a ’56 refugee who must have been furious that the Russians thwarted another Hungarian revolution as they had previously helped out the Habsburgs when the 1848 Revolution against the Habsburg Monarchy had succeeded. Unable to practice his profession in the US, he took what job he could get where his anger fuels his work:



William T. Moynihan


And I could still remember

The fox-thin lawyer who fought and fled

To fold thirty-five cartons

A minute in a Bridgeport factory


At the heart of After the Deaths of Maleter and Nagy”, however, lies Moynihan’s vivid portrait of his children’s life in a loving home as juxtaposed to that of the young revolutionaries in a squalid cold jail. Moynihan’s children are, he realises, safe, loved and cared for. Whereas those “children”, the Revolution’s fighters were rounded up afterward by Russian soldiers and/or Hungarian police, thrown in jail where they were left under rotten conditions to await “trial”. In those cases where the child was legally underage and therefore could not be tried as an adult and sentenced to death, János Kádár, the Russian-installed Hungarian dictator or “tetrarch” kept them locked up “in the iron winepress” until their eighteenth birthday when they were put on trial and sentenced to hang.


That October the autumn sun

Bound my children in warm

Muscatel mornings and at noon

There was the smell of clean varnish

And firm apples, while with St Stephen

In Budapest the children fermented

In the iron winepress of the tetrarch.


Other poets, such as Louisiana’s Paris Leary, echoed Moynihan’s concern for the children jailed or wounded, killed or executed, linking their fate to the United States’ failure to support the revolution when needed. Now – months and years later – there is “nothing to be done”.



Paris Leary

It means nothing, you can do

nothing, it has no relevance

to what you almost once believed in.


Forget it, Sunday afternoons

or listening to records with friends.

Never relent in your task

of forgetting it – when suddenly

in the supermarket a child cries,

do not be tempted to remember

the cries of children against the tanks;

do not look up. You can do

nothing, it means nothing, nothing.

A damning indictment by Leary of what he perceives as the United States’ indifference towards the great sacrifices of and by the young.

One of the best American poems on ’56, “To Hungary, that America Might Explain” by the almost unknown writer Neil B. Olson, focused not on America’s failures, but on the great sacrifices Hungarians from all walks of life and age groups – but predominantly the young – paid and how even the ultimate sacrifice of their lives which, says the poet, should have proved “the proper payment of national pain” was not enough:




Lost hearts, and the none-too-small

Sacrifices; would that words could gather you all

Back from silent graves, that America might explain

How your promised freedom has been denied

After the proper payment of national pain

And total individual price.


But this “proper payment” seen in the “silent graves” neither guarantees a good result nor does it ensure that good will triumph.

But perhaps the most bitter American poetic lines occur in Leary’s powerful “Budapest” where he compares America asleep in its isolation to dead men of our time”. Their inaction has inflicted a “sixth wound” in addition to the traditional five wounds of Jesus. So he sarcastically asserts that:


we need the sleepers, the new heroes

of isolation and withdrawal,

who cannot feel the sixth wound

bleeding across Europe,

turning careful newsprint bloody,

streaming unstaunched through young tears –

we need dead men for our time.

That last line, “we need dead men for our time”, although distinctly different from cummings’ concluding satiric couplet: “and bury the statue of liberty / Because it begins to smell” proves just as memorable and as powerful in its simple stark statement.



Foremost among the Americans who acted to aid the thousands of Hungarian refugees who fled after the Russian tanks streamed across the country and the Russian Army with its overwhelming fire-power and man power re-occupied the cities and countryside, was Elvis Presley. Appearing on the “Ed Sullivan Show” in January 1957 Presley through Sullivan issued a plea for donations to the Hungarian Relief Fund established to aid Hungarian refugees. A variety programme, “The Ed Sullivan Show” was the most popular hour on American Sunday night television. Sullivan paid Elvis double the usual fee which proved well worth the price as 55 million people tuned in to watch young Elvis who was only 21! The television network broadcasting the programme insisted, however, that cameramen could only show Presley from the waist up. The result was that those in the studio saw and reacted to his famous gyrations which had earned him the nickname of “Elvis the Pelvis” but the folks at home did not. Sullivan and Presley had quarrelled earlier because Elvis had promised his mother, Gladys Presley that he would do a gospel song on TV which Sullivan adamantly opposed, but Elvis and his contract won out. So on his last appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” Elvis backed up by The Jordanaires,1 a well-known gospel acapella group, performed “Peace in the Valley”, a gentle, haunting Black gospel song that he dedicated to the plight of Hungarian refugees. Originally composed in 1937 by “the father of black gospel music”, Thomas A. Dorsey, for the great Mahalia Jackson, “Peace in the Valley” certainly was appropriate to describe the plight of the Hungarian refugees while at the same time offering a hope of a better day after this dark night. (Elvis’s version differs from Dorsey’s original composition. The lyrics below are those sung by Elvis, but the song should be credited to Dorsey.2)



Thomas A. Dorsey (Elvis Presley’s version)


Oh well, I’m tired and so weary

But I must go alone

Till the Lord comes and calls, calls me away, oh yes

Well the morning’s so bright

And the lamp is alight

And the night, the night is as black as the sea, oh yes

There will be peace in the valley for me someday

There will be peace in the valley for me O Lord I pray

There will be no sadness, no sorrow

No trouble, trouble I see

There will be peace in the valley for me, for me


But Presley went further than simply singing a black gospel song for suffering Hungarians that Sunday evening as he on-air solicited money for “Hungarian Relief”. The commonly agreed upon number of refugees fleeing the Soviet re-occupation of Hungary was 150,000–200,000 of which the US would eventually settle about 35,000. Elvis’s plea and his subsequent show in California for Hungarian Relief raised $5,830,000 to help refugees. That sum is the equivalent of 50,600,000 in 2015 dollars. In 2011 on the 55th anniversary of the ’56 Revolution Elvis Presley was posthumously made an Honorary Citizen of Budapest and had a Budapest square named after him, “Elvis Presley Tér” near the Buda-side head of Margit Bridge.

Yet the guilt remained accruing from America’s false, impossible-to-fulfil- promises made again and again by politicians many of them in high places and repeatedly broadcast over Radio Free Europe. Neil Bradford Olson in “To Hungary, that America Might Explain” stressed the high price paid by the predominantly young revolutionaries. Olsen’s poem ends with a vision that includes the famous ’56 battle flag with its hammer and sickle ripped out together with the restored Kossuth Coat of Arms which was part of the pre-Communist Hungarian national coat of arms that the Communists had forbidden people to display under threat of prison or worse:


I see the tools of human reapers torn out

Of bloody banners, the shield of Kossuth towering

Again over the City, bones of Magyar warriors moaning

Under ancient mounds; portraits of retribution there,

Ahead, destruction without pity for the tyrant soldier,

This freedom for the future, by the payment of the dead.


John F. Kennedy, then the junior senator from Massachusetts, understood the courage it took to make this “payment of the dead”. Kennedy had just published his bestseller, Profiles in Courage the previous year that would win a Pulitzer Prize in 1957. He had researched, studied and written about people in difficult sometimes almost impossible – situations who nonetheless rose to the occasion and courageously did what they thought had to be done. For Kennedy, the ’56 Hungaryan Revolution was just such an occasion:

23 October 1956 is a day that will live forever in the annals of free men and nations. It was a day of courage, conscience and triumph. No other day since history began has shown more clearly the eternal unquenchability of man’s desire to be free, whatever the odds against success, whatever the sacrifice required.


Kennedy believed that the freedom for which those ’56 Revolution Hungarians sacrificed themselves could not be suppressed forever but would sooner or later win out – a sentiment condensed and sharpened in Olson’s great line: “This freedom for the future, by the payment of the dead.”



1 The Jordanaires had played a show in Memphis in 1955 where they sang “Peace in the Valley”. Elvis was also featured on that show and afterward told them that if he ever got a contract with a major record company, he would like them to back him. In 1956 they became his backup group of choice for recordings, Vegas shows and TV, including the Ed Sullivan Show.

2 Like many songs loved, sung and misremembered over the years, what Elvis sang was far from the original gospel song that Thomas Dorsey composed for Mahalia Jackson.



Thomas A. Dorsey


I’m tired and weary

But I must go along

Till the Lord comes and calls me away, oh Lord


Well the morning is bright

And the Lamb is the light

And the night is as fair as the day


Oh, there will be peace in the valley for me, for me

There will be peace in the valley for me, O Lord, I pray

No more sadness, no more sadness, no more trouble there’ll be

There will be peace in the valley for me, for me






Bagg, Robert. “Budapest, 1956: Caption for a Wirephoto”. Tollas, Gloria, 224–27.

Ciardi, John. “After the Street Fighting”. Tollas, Gloria, 204–208.

cummings, e. e. “Thanksgiving 1956”. Tollas, Gloria, 198–201.

Dávidházi, Péter, et al, eds. The Lost Rider. Budapest: Corvina, 1997.

Gömöri, György (George). “Christmas 1956”. Trans. George Szirtes. Quest, II: 493.

Hall, Donald. “For the Third Anniversary”.Tollas, Gloria, 214–17.

Hedley, Leslie Woolf. “Postscript: Hungary”. Tollas, Gloria, 252–55.

Illyés, Gyula. “A Sentence about Tyranny”. Trans. George Szirtes. Dávidházi, Rider, 274–85.

---. “One Sentence on Tyranny”. Translated by Bruce Belind and Mária Kőrösy. Homeland in the Heights: An Anthology of Post-World War II Hungarian Poetry. Csilla Bertha, ed. Budapest: Eötvös József Könyvkiadó, 2000, 29–34.

Kennedy, John F. “23 October 1956”. Hungary Today. Hungary Today.hu/news/memorium. Accessed 21 Oct. 2016.

Knoepfle, John. “The Hungarian Revolution”. Tollas, Gloria, 202–203.

Leary, Paris. “Budapest”. Tollas, Gloria, 228–31.

Makkai, Ádám, ed. In Quest of the Miracle Stag: The Poetry of Hungary. Vol. I–II. Chicago: Atlantis- Centaur, 1996, 2003.

Moynihan, William T. “After the Deaths of Maleter and Nagy”. Tollas, Gloria, 236–39.

Olson, Neil Bradford. “To Hungary, that America Might Explain”. Tollas, Gloria, 238–43.

Petőfi, Sándor. “National Song”. Trans. Ádám Makkai. Quest I, 319–20.

Pilinszky, János. “ The Desert of Love”. Trans. Ted Hughes and János Csokits. Dávidházi, Rider,


Szőcs, Géza. “Prayer for the Fallen Heroes”. Trans. Paul Sohar. Unpub. Mss. Tollas, Tibor, ed. Gloria Victis. Lakitelek: Antológia Kiadó, 2003.

---. “They’ve Walled up every Window”. Trans. Watson Kirkconnell. Quest II, 119–21.

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