Hungary’s future will depend on its citizens, but who will those citizens be? What will be their mindset, who will teach them, how will they remember our past? Outside Hungary’s borders, about five million people live throughout the world, who are Hungarians or have a Hungarian ancestry. Hungarians, due to their history, have settled across the globe and will likely continue to do so in today’s mobile world. Therefore, it may be called a “worldwide” nation. I am certain that today’s youth and future generations, sooner or later, will be interested in their roots, the history of their family and Hungary.
We Hungarians should be proud of our past; one of the unquestionable pinnacles of the country’s history was the 1956 Revolution and freedom fight, an example for the whole world. During the Hungarian Revolution of 23 October, the impossible happened: a small nation shook the foundations of the Communist world.
How can one explain this Revolution in which most participants were aware that they were potentially putting their lives at risk? In retrospect, one may reasonably question whether the revolutionaries acted rationally when they confronted a superpower. In all certainty, this was not the case. It is interesting how Nobel Laureate François Mauriac, the French novelist and member of the Académie française, assessed the historical achievement of a Revolution: “When the stronger side is systematically inhumane, then perhaps the course of history is set by the will of the weaker.” Indeed, the young students and people from all walks of life from across the country were brave enough to fight against the Communist regime and a global superpower.
The uprising was initiated by students, who were soon joined by workers, soldiers, ordinary people and intellectuals, as the whole nation united. The 1956 events in Poland, where workers revolted against the government in Poznań and other cities, was instrumental in motivating the Hungarian students to also articulate their demands in sixteen points. On 23 October, after the students heard that the Hungarian Writers’ Union wanted to express solidarity with the movements in Poland, they marched from the Technical University of Budapest to lay a wreath at the statue of Polish General Bem, a hero of the Hungarian Revolution of 1848. Then the crowd marched to the Parliament building and peacefully demonstrated. At 8:00 in the evening, the Hungarian state radio broadcast the speech of the First Secretary of the Communist Party, Ernő Gerő, in which he condemned the demands of the crowd. Later that evening, at the building of the Hungarian Radio, the State Secret Police (ÁVH) opened fire on the protesters, who asked their demands to be broadcast. The Revolution thus began, and days of victory followed.
Besides spontaneously organised fighting groups all over the city, the National Guard was established under the command of General Béla Király, and the uprising started to succeed against the ÁVH and the Soviet troops. Thousands of Revolutionary and Workers’ Councils were established, and a ceasefire was declared. The Soviet troops withdrew from Budapest and other cities, and went back to their countryside garrisons. The new coalition government, headed by Prime Minister Imre Nagy, declared the country’s neutrality, and announced Hungary’s withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact. While Soviet diplomats were still in talks with Hungarian officials about the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Hungary, the second Russian intervention was launched on 4 November. Relying on troops stationed in Hungary and new units, the Soviet Army began crushing the uprising with 200,000 troops and over 1,000 tanks. The New York Times, in a front page story, reported the following on 7 November 1956: “Stubborn Hungarian revolutionary forces are continuing to fight the Soviet Army in Budapest… Women and children were said to be fighting alongside the men in a house-to-house struggle…”
The uprising was finally brutally crushed. Casualties and losses were very high among both Soviet forces (722 killed, 1251 wounded) and Hungarian freedom fighters (3,000 killed, 13,000 wounded). In addition, many civilians lost their lives during the fighting. About 200,000 people left Hungary as refugees and were welcomed by countries across the globe, where they became productive and grateful citizens in their second homelands. These Hungarian refugees informed and galvanised world opinion against the totalitarian Soviet system.
The Soviet-installed Kádár government took cruel revenge: mass arrests, executions and denunciations continued for years thereafter. 350 Hungarians were executed – more than in Germany in the aftermath of the Second World War – thousands were sent to forced labour camps and 13,000 were imprisoned. In 1958, Imre Nagy, the Prime Minister of the Revolution, was executed together with Pál Maléter, the military leader of the uprising, and journalist Miklós Gimes.
Senator John F. Kennedy, later President of the United States, commented on the anniversary of the uprising as follows: “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.”
Not only Boris Pasternak and François Mauriac, but other European intellectuals were also shocked, having learned what happened in Hungary. Albert Camus wrote in “The Blood of the Hungarians” on 23 October 1957: “In Europe’s isolation today, we have only one way of being true to Hungary, and that is never to betray, among ourselves and everywhere, what the Hungarian heroes died for, never to condone, among ourselves and everywhere, even indirectly, those who killed them.” While sixty years can provide enough distance from the Revolution to contemplate, at the same time we are still close enough to 1956 to recognise that there are events in history which must be evaluated not just rationally, but also on a deeply personal level.
The Soviet Army had been stationed in the country “temporarily”, but finally withdrew in 1991, restoring sovereignty and freedom for which the revolutionaries had fought.
The writings appearing here are the personal stories of some members of the Friends of Hungary community. These are their personal or their parents’ or friends’ remembrances, which they are sharing in order to commemorate the heroic events of the 1956 Revolution and freedom fight.
SPRING IN POLAND – AUTUMN IN HUNGARY Károly Kapronczay
The international political situation that existed after the First World War was repeated after 1945: the situation of Poland, deemed to be a winner, was no easier than that of Hungary, a loser. Under total Soviet military occupation, the Polish never forgot that hundreds of thousands of Polish soldiers had fought on fronts in and outside of Poland during the Second World War; they never forgot that the Soviet Army – in alliance with Germany – had attacked Poland on 17 September 1939. Stalin never had any liking for the Polish, therefore he pursued deceptive politics also in respect of the émigré Polish government in London. The memory of the Katyń massacre that had killed the élite of the Polish Army was very much alive among the Polish. The burden of resistance in Poland against the Germans fell on the Home Army that followed the politics of the Polish government in London, while the People’s Guard that corresponded to Moscow’s intentions was a negligible force in comparison. As a result of the battle of Stalingrad in the spring of 1943, the European military situation changed and made the future state of Poland a central strategic issue for the allied countries. Stalin did not intend the Polish government in London to play any role. The generalissimo recognised the National Council headed by Polish Communists as the representative for the Polish, and wanted to shift the entire Polish state towards the west. This meant putting a significant portion of the historical state of Poland under Soviet supervision, with purely Polish territories annexed to the Soviet Union, while he envisaged and implemented a Soviet-type regime in the “new” Poland. In fact, the fate of Poland’s eastern borders and political setup had already been decided before the Teheran Conference. The disclosure of this fact was postponed upon a request from President Roosevelt.
Stalin recognised the pro-Moscow Polish Liberation Committee, set up in Chelm on 21 July 1944, as the official Polish government; the Committee started to organise the new administration without delay, cruelly eradicated representatives of the civic groups and units of the Home Army with the help of the Soviet Army, and let the Warsaw uprising against German occupation be crushed (August 1944). A Polish Army of some 100,000 forces took part in the operations against Berlin along with the Soviet Army, and even the Reichstag building in the heart of the German capital was seized by Polish forces, but the flag denoting victory was posted by a Soviet soldier. The Polish state created in the wake of the Paris Peace Treaty that concluded the Second World War was also to Stalin’s taste, leaving a deep disappointment in the hearts of the Polish; what is more, the Soviet-friendly Polish government saw enemies everywhere, and prisons were filled with “Londoners”. In addition to rebuilding the country and constructing a “Socialist” system, the new Polish regime had the task of breaking the resistance of the Polish people. Nationalisation was carried out, but collectivisation in agriculture was not completed, and the strong Catholicism that was conjoined with patriotic feelings among the Poles could not be quashed either.
The methods were similar to those used to persecute the clergy in Hungary, though the Polish government dared not touch religious orders and, moreover, could not limit their activities. In 1955, after state security agencies confiscated the painting of the Madonna from Częstochowa but left its ornate Baroque frame in place, Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński, held under house arrest from 1951 to 1956, organised nationwide Marian processions, in which empty picture frames were carried at the front of the crowds.
The war left behind marks of horrible destruction, and all the Polish shared in the work and the poverty that went along with rebuilding the country, regardless of political views. Moreover, they found it hard to bear that the governing power suspected enemies in every bush, keeping in fear those who took part in the reconstruction. The pro-Soviet government relied primarily on the left- wing Polish emigrants who lived in the Soviet Union; for instance, Konstantin Rokossovsky, one of the highest-ranking commanders of the Soviet Army, became Poland’s Minister of Defence, sent to Poland by the Soviet government in 1949.
In the early 1950s, similar events took place in the other Socialist countries as well. Proceeding along the same scenario, right-wing parties were eliminated and left-wing parties were united, with “Stalin’s best disciples” heading each country – Bolesław Bierut in Poland, Mátyás Rákosi in Hungary – whereas the leading groups of Communist parties and countries were regularly decimated on charges of “right-wing nationalistic deviation and revisionism” in order to purge them from those who dared show the slightest departure from the “main trend” of the party. The leadership of the satellite states was caught unaware by Stalin’s death [in 1953]. Naturally, the changes in the Soviet Union had an impact on the Socialist countries that followed the Stalinist model, and demands for a change burst out with elementary force, albeit with some delay in timing. The security systems built up kept the existing regimes “reigned in”, but demonstrations in Czechoslovakia and the armed revolt in the German Democratic Republic were warning signs. It should also be borne in mind that – primarily as a result of Moscow’s efforts – everything happened the same way in each of the Socialist countries. The bringing down of civic movements, the building up of state power, the complete restructuring of society all took place in a uniform way, accompanied by bloody retaliation, imprisonment and physical destruction of the people who belonged to the former state apparatus. This uniform “thinking” characterised the crisis that emerged in the wake of Stalin’s death. The factions of the Communist Party in each country wanted to liquidate one another in internal fights, rather than wanting to help with their society’s problems. In Hungary, Mátyás Rákosi was followed by Imre Nagy as Prime Minister; in Poland, the great survivor, Social Democrat Józef Cyrankiewicz became Prime Minister in October 1953; the party leadership discarded many of its people, and minor restructuring took place in the administrative apparatus. Living conditions started to improve, investment efforts were facilitated, and a large number of political prisoners were released. This was followed by the rehabilitation of László Rajk and of other victims of show trials in Hungary, and the release of Władysław Gomułka in Poland. In Hungary, the burden on the peasants was eased, whereas in Poland – where the kolkhoz movement was a failure – village people were harassed continuously. Several large investment projects were stopped in both countries, which did not solve economic difficulties. Within the Communist parties, the slogan for renewal was “restoring the Leninist norms of party life”, and in Poland, censorship was mitigated and intellectual life was allowed greater freedom, given that there was no hope for making major economic changes.
During the last days of the 20th Congress, Bierut died in Moscow; following his wishes, Edward Ochab became party leader for a while, but he was unable to keep events under control. The subject matter of the dispute concerned the legitimation for the regime in the future and the conservation of power. The conservatives, the so-called “Natolin” faction (the party and government élite lived in Natolin near Warsaw), responsible for the “errors and excesses” committed between 1948 and 1955 were on the one side, and the “Puławska” faction was on the other. (The latter was named after Puławska Street where the government buildings were located.) The Natolin faction wished to carry out some internal reforms that were strongly anti-intelligentsia and openly anti-Semitic. The Puławska faction wished to reform economic control and censorship, and believed it was necessary to introduce some individual freedom rights and make party life more democratic. The “centralist” group, concerned by the heated public mood and the threat of a revolution, stood between the two factions. Naturally, the battle went on behind the scenes, while groups outside the party formulated economic and social demands, and required compensation for the offences suffered from the regime. The weekly Po Prostu [Advance] became their mouthpiece. In addition to the rehabilitation of the persecuted members of the Home Army, they also demanded a break with Moscow and the setting up of an independent Polish state. The situation grew very tense indeed, and the workers’ revolt in Poznań represented a turning point in the Polish crisis.
Early in the morning on 28 June 1956, a strike started at the Stalin Works in Poznań: workers marched in the streets and set out towards the city centre.
The march was joined by workers from other factories, and they wanted to submit their demands to the city municipality and party committee. The local leaders refused to speak to them. Meanwhile, a group of demonstrators entered public buildings and attacked prisons. The demonstration escalated into a revolt. In the afternoon, four divisions of the garrison, some ten thousand troops, were deployed, along with four hundred tanks and armoured vehicles ordered to enter the city. The uprising was squashed in 24 hours; seventy civilians and eight troops were killed in the fight, and over one hundred people were wounded. 196 of the 250 people arrested were workers. In a radio address, Prime Minister Cyrankiewicz spoke of an “imperialist conspiracy”, and the party leadership demonstrated fear rather than triumph over victory. Gomułka was included in the party leadership, and former party leaders who were officially still labelled “revisionists” were released from prison. Nevertheless, emotions did not subside, and more and more calls and demands were formulated in public institutions and factories. The Polish society’s feelings were best demonstrated by the procession of Jasna Góra on 26 August, where the millions of people attending the Marian procession organised by Cardinal Wyszyński demanded changes. The academic year was going to start in the first days of September, and Poland’s state leadership knew it would be unable to subdue several millions of university students. Government and party officials were replaced in waves, and the “Bierut branch” in effect disappeared from power.
How did the Hungarian intelligentsia and society, also drifting towards revolutionary changes, learn about this? Starting from the late 1940s, Moscow “cast an alert eye” on relations between Hungary and Poland. Much to their luck, the Polish and the Hungarian press reported only on the “victorious achievements of building Socialism” in the other country, and simple citizens were not allowed to maintain direct contact. The only direct contact was by way of trips organised for delegations consisting of reliable comrades to each other’s country. Events in Poland could be heard about on Radio Free Europe’s news, and the Hungarian daily Szabad Nép [Free people] occasionally published brief reports on events in Warsaw. News on Poland indeed travelled as fast as lightning through word of mouth, and newspaper readers excelled at reading between the lines. In Budapest, demands for a revolutionary change accelerated after László Rajk’s burial (6 October 1956); the appeals became increasingly loud for Hungarians to “follow the Polish way”. This gained particular significance after yet additional changes in official positions in Poland, and after reporting on 13 October 1956 that Gomułka also attended the meeting of the LEMP’s (Poland’s Communist Party’s) Political Committee but omitting the proposal to make him First Secretary. In the days that followed, the conservative wing of Poland’s Communist Party spoke of a situation similar to a “state of war”, and even managed to arrange that Nikita Khrushchev unexpectedly land in Warsaw on 19 October 1956 at the head of a Soviet military and political delegation. At the time when this was reported, it was also disclosed that a sizeable Soviet military unit was marching towards Warsaw. These troops commanded by Marshal Rokossovsky came to support the government and were preparing for battle, while units of the Internal Security Corps – under the command of recently released General Wacław Komar – were marching to defend Warsaw.
Khrushchev’s original intention was to remove the “reformers”, but during the negotiations that lasted throughout the day, Gomułka managed to convince him that the Polish situation would be better stabilised if personal changes were made, this being the only option to channel the tensions. The Soviet party leader relented, and left Warsaw – along with his entire delegation – that very night. The next day, Gomułka held a programme address that highlighted changes, including the mitigation of economic controls, and the creation of relations between Poland and the Soviet Union built on equal rights; the “Natolin” faction was expelled from the new party leadership. Gomułka put the enthusiasm to good use, the local Stalinist leaders were swept out in the massive rallies organised one after another, but the position of the new party leadership and government remained unstable in Poland.
This was why a solidarity demonstration was organised by university students to support Poland’s reforms in Budapest on 23 October 1956. The march led to the statue of Bem, then set out towards the Parliament to submit the demands of the Hungarian youth. The Hungarian revolution and armed revolt that broke out contributed to stabilising the situation in Poland: while trying to resolve the Suez crisis, the Soviet party and military leadership focused on bringing down the Hungarian Revolution. They acknowledged that the new Polish government’s measures were intended to satisfy the demands of the masses, and the “October turn” in Poland was a spectacular break with Stalinism.
For a few weeks, Gomułka spoke in favour of Hungary’s revolution, but then his enthusiasm – whether genuine or not – abated. Instead of him, it was the people of Poland who gave inestimable financial and moral aid to the Hungarian Revolution. They sent a significant quantity of medications, blood, and then construction materials to restore Budapest’s ruins. In comparison with the aid coming from other countries, the help received from Poland was the most considerable.
After the first partial successes, the Polish were disappointed with Gomułka’s economic programmes: the impetus was lost, and everyday life was overcome by the old problems. Unable to resolve the economic crisis starting in the mid-1960s, Gomułka started to say that certain goods should be given up in order to secure a better future. The Polish people referred to this “solution” as “coarse cotton Communism”. Gomułka’s rule came to an end on 19 December 1970 with his forced resignation, brought about by the workers of the Lenin Shipyard in Gdańsk, who revolted because of the substantial price increases. By a twist of fate, Władysław Gomułka’s reign was marked by a workers’ riot both at its start and at its end; just like his predecessors, he was also unable to do anything in order to bring the Communist regime to “flourish”.
“WHEN THE IMPOSSIBLE SEEMED POSSIBLE”
It all started so innocently on a beautiful sunny 23 October, back then in 1956. I was a fourteen-year-old student at József Attila Secondary School in Budapest, whose classmates excitedly whispered the forbidden word “demonstration”. And soon we all set forth to march with university students chanting in support of the recent strikes of workers of Poznań, Poland.
Before the day was over, I would experience things I had never dreamed of. Carried along by a swelling crowd from Buda to Pest, climbing up on one of the lions by the Parliament steps, I shouted and cried in disbelief along with tens of thousands of Hungarians. Never did a crowd recite our patriotic poems, or shouted demands for freedom, nor sang the poignant prayer, our Hungarian National Anthem, the way we did that night!
Although in the days that followed I am sure I must have felt fear, what I remember most is a state of constant excitement and hope, shared by family and friends, that a new life of freedom would be possible after all. When political prisoners, among them Cardinal Mindszenty, were set free by the freedom fighters, we reacted with the joy of gaining justice at last! Even as rumours spread on 29 and 30 October that the Soviets would surely retaliate, most of us fervently believed, that “the West”, that faraway, magically benevolent force, could not possibly let Hungary down and would certainly come to our help, if needed. And finally, I remember a crushing sense of hopelessness, when on 4 November, thousands of Soviet tanks and troops re-invaded Hungary, and in a matter of days destroyed what had seemed a possible dream only days before. But so many unforgettable things happened between these two dates!
When I got home from the initial demonstration of 23 October, instead of being reprimanded by my parents for being so late, I found them huddled around Radio Free Europe’s late news, trying to catch every word through the usual government static. Only the following morning would we learn that the hated Hungarian ÁVH (State Security) shot into a crowd of demonstrators that had marched on from the Parliament to the Hungarian Radio. Thus, what had been a spontaneous and peaceful demonstration turned into a bloody revolution overnight.
The days following 23 October seemed to fly. Rumours spread quickly about violent confrontations between freedom fighters and either Hungarian Secret Police forces or Soviet soldiers in various parts of Budapest. In a matter of days Hungarian army recruits and officers deserted in droves to side with the freedom fighters. My sister Nóra and I heard about friends and schoolmates who disappeared only to turn up in one of the most dangerous areas of fighting, Moszkva and Széna Squares, or the Kilián Military Barracks.
Witnesses to history, a lot happened right before our eyes. Our third-storey apartment overlooked the busy transportation hub of Móricz Zsigmond Circle, a transfer point between buses and tramways. We could watch Communist symbols toppled, and Hungarian flags hanging from nearby balconies with the hammer and sickle ripped out of the middle. Across the street from us there was the 11th District administrative building. One day, a young freedom fighter, whom we had earlier observed throwing Molotov cocktails at the steady stream of Soviet tanks turning into our street, climbed from the building’s balcony to the roof to pull off the hated red star. We watched in horror as he lost his balance in the effort, and fell with the star to the pavement below.
Each day our Father left for work with the Hungarian National Bank’s Revolutionary Committee. After making us promise that we would stay at home and be careful, my Mother, a pharmacist, went off to her job in the neighbourhood pharmacy, right on Móricz Zsigmond Circle. It was she who had the closest contact with the young freedom fighters. They often came for alcohol, cotton and bottles to make Molotov cocktails. Later, many were carried in when injured, and laid down behind the counter, as their friends went out to the Circle to continue fighting.
Since few Hungarian families, including our own, were allowed to have telephones, we relied on the newly freed radio and visitors for the latest news. When the first independent paper, Igazság [Truth] was printed, it was sold out in moments. So we waited in long lines in the street to read the single copy posted on the nearest kiosk, and ran home to carry the news to our grandparents, who also lived with us. For several days we joined impromptu brigades of all ages working in a chain to pull up the paving stones in our street for building barricades against Soviet tanks. Even our Grandfather came to help, although later he sadly admitted he could never really bring himself to believe that “David would defeat Goliath”.
In the early 1950s, the hated food-rationing cards had caused unending lines to form in front of every store. In 1956, there was widespread destruction of shops in our neighbourhood, so obtaining everyday necessities for our family of six became a real challenge. While many store-windows were broken, no one took their contents. Makeshift boxes filled with contributions for the Revolution’s victims remained untouched. Hand-made signs proclaimed: “Help us honour our dead by keeping our Revolution pure!” And everyone acted accordingly.
In the mornings, my sister Nóra and I rushed out to the nearby Bartók Béla Street, where farmers from the countryside had brought fresh bread and other food items to a large but orderly crowd. In the afternoons I lay for hours on our third-storey balcony floor, and peered down between the columns to see the frightening sight of open bed trucks speeding by, filled with wounded, perhaps already dead freedom fighters.
When All Saints’ Day came on 1 November, lines of women dressed in black marched in silent mourning for their fallen sons and husbands. That evening Móricz Zsigmond Circle, as all of Budapest, was bathed in the soft glow of thousands of candles as the city remembered its dead.
The Soviet retribution against the Revolution came in the form of an armada of tanks that rumbled into Budapest from Romania and the Soviet Union on the dawn of 4 November. When they entered our neighbourhood, there was fierce but short-lived resistance on Móricz Zsigmond Circle. Along with many neighbours we took refuge in the underground shelter that had last been used at the end of the Second World War, when the Soviets had been besieging Budapest. As we were listening to what seemed like relentless shelling outside, there was no way of knowing whether our own building had been hit by Soviet tanks or not. Eventually, we were greatly relieved to see it had not been destroyed.
By mid-November, although pockets of resistance remained both in Budapest and in the countryside, everyone was forced to realise that the Revolution’s defeat was inevitable. When military resistance became impossible, Hungarians called for strikes across the country. But arrests began immediately, the new Communist government rapidly consolidated its control, and families, including ours, began to discuss the frightening possibility of escaping to the West. Each and every evening, whispered conversations took place, and family members came furtively to say hurried good-byes. A curfew was strictly enforced, and anyone in the streets after 8 p.m. could be arrested, or even shot.
In the end, my parents reluctantly decided we would leave Hungary to escape persecution and to provide a chance for higher education for my sister and me. As “politically undesirable elements” we would not have been accepted at any Hungarian university. Keeping our plans secret and saying goodbye to my beloved grandparents were the hardest part for me. With the help of my future brother- in-law, Károly Szabó and a good friend of his, my Father and I left Budapest on the morning of 22 November in a “borrowed” taxicab. My Mother and sister would only escape a week later, under much more difficult circumstances.
Although our papers provided us with a flimsy excuse for travelling to a plant- protection site, we did not need them, as we encountered little resistance. At several roadblocks we handed over bottles of liquor as we made our way toward the border town of Mosonszentjános, where two people took away our cab as soon as they saw us. We hid at the local shoemaker’s house until nightfall, when he started leading a larger group of us across the border. With spotlights scanning the fields where we walked, we dropped to the ground at regular intervals to await the safety of darkness. Soon we saw lights and a group of smiling Austrians in cars and trucks, waving us towards them. We could hardly believe we had reached Austria. The next day we sent the agreed-upon coded radio message of our safe arrival to our family.
I was soon ensconced in a beautiful home in Vienna of my Father’s childhood friend from Szentgotthárd. Suddenly, I was living in what seemed a life of utter luxury. I could have all the unfamiliar but delicious oranges and bananas I wanted. A uniformed maid served me hot chocolate in bed, and soon I was taken to a “clothing centre” where I was able to pick out a beautiful “grown-up” skirt from a huge clothing pile. But the best of all was getting to see Gone with the Wind, my favourite story. Although the film was in German, I needed no translation, for it was Aunt Lola, the grandmother of my best friend, Márta, who had translated the book into Hungarian, and I had all the important scenes memorised.
Soon our family had to decide where we would live. With invitations from relatives in both South Africa and the United States, my Father, who favoured the former choice, was voted down by the three of us who chose the legendary “America”. After weeklong stays in refugee camps in Austria and Germany, we flew on a military transport plane to New York, and were taken to Camp Kilmer in New Jersey. Our sponsor-relatives, Kati and Ferenc Kovács, soon came and took us to their home in Silver Spring, Maryland, just in time to watch President Eisenhower’s second inauguration. I remember wondering why such a kind- looking man had not come to the aid of the Hungarian freedom fighters.
I finished my high school and university studies in Maryland, and after marrying my husband, John, embarked on a life of many corporate moves. We first returned to Hungary in the 1970s, when our daughters, Kriszta and Andrea, finally met their great-grandparents. We made many trips back, and with my sister and her husband paid some early and somewhat scary visits to Transylvania too. In the 1980s we started supporting the work of the Hungarian Human Rights Foundation. In 1990, after the fall of Communism, I was one of the founders, the first President, and eventually the Chairman of the Hungarian American Coalition. I got my Hungarian citizenship back in 1993, and since then have gone to Hungary, and to the neighbouring countries where Hungarian minorities live, to work on various Coalition projects several times each year.
What does this all mean? It took me many years to realise what a significant, life-defining experience the 1956 Revolution was. The ideals, the courage, the sacrifice Hungarians willingly made then to gain their freedom began a process that continued in Prague, then in Poland, and culminated only in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall. But it must be remembered that 60 years ago, it was those young Hungarian freedom fighters who first gave the ultimate sacrifice to show the world the true and terrible face of Communism. Many of the 200,000 Hungarians who left their homeland for the West felt responsible for keeping the flame of freedom alive, until Hungary became free again.
The privilege of living through those unforgettable days has inspired a deep commitment on our part to pass on to our children what love of freedom meant then, in 1956, and what we must do today to make sure that all Hungarians, including members of historical Hungarian communities in the Carpathian Basin have the right to live free, productive and satisfying lives.
“WE WILL DEFINITELY GO BACK HOME”
In the twelfth year of our exile, we were thunderstruck by the bold stance of youngsters in Budapest against Soviet oppression and the Communist government serving them. We, children at the time, could hardly understand what was really going on; but we experienced a tense excitement and perceived that it was about something crucial which might fully transform our lives.
My parents, my grandparents and I (aged one) set out for the West in 1944, following the retreating defence troops, and finally took shelter at a small Bavarian homestead. This is where we survived the hardships of the first years of exile. There were hardly any job opportunities, and foodstuffs were only available in return for tickets. We picked sorrel, raspberries, and mushrooms, living from hand to mouth for years, secluded from the world. We perceived the deep sorrow of our parents from deep sighs or suppressed crying.
My older brother and I were admitted as elementary schoolchildren to the Hungarian “school” of a refugee camp beside Passau. The wind blew through the planks of barracks, we slept on straw pallets, and water in the wash basin got frozen in the winter. Our teachers were well-meaning men and women and army officers; no one asked whether they had a teacher’s qualification. This is where I learnt the ABC poem and the elements of arithmetic. In the evenings, we would sing folk songs, and that we will definitely go back home!
As the number of pupils increased, we had to find a new shelter. In 1954, we ended up in Bauschlott, a village near Stuttgart, in a formerly elegant, but by then dilapidated mansion. We really loved Father Szaniszló Ambrus, headmaster of the school, just like our teachers who did their job selflessly, perhaps without any remuneration. It is still a mystery for me how it was managed to arrange daily food for 150 young boys and girls, but sometimes a load of coal or firewood was received, or a delegation arrived from the Netherlands or Sweden, providing powdered milk, cheese, tinned food and flour; and we, to express our gratitude, would sing the national anthem of the country concerned.
It was here, in the Bauschlott boarding school, that we got news about the 1956 Revolution. As a thirteen-year-old, I could hardly understand what was going on in our remote homeland, but we were overwhelmed by the excitement and enthusiasm of our elders: we felt that something astoundingly elevating must be happening. Students and teachers together, full of anxiety, we listened to the rasping voice of the radio. The news was about fight, victories of our people, and Russian withdrawal. We were full of joy, pondering about our parents coming to take us away from here and leaving for home to Hungary! Studying was out of the question during those unforgettable days.
Then, from one moment to another, the picture got dark. News were about cannon shots, ruins, people wounded, casualties and a flood of refugees, and we just could not comprehend why the “world” failed to provide assistance. What the Americans were waiting for as they would be able to defeat the Russians in the blink of an eye? And how is it possible that more mention is made of the Suez Canal than of Budapest, although the gun battle was raging on the banks of the Danube?
Some of the older ones decided to go home to fight. They actually started off to the nearby American barracks to get guns. There they were given a kind pat on the back and were sent home. Two of them failed to come back, we never saw them again. Did they reach their destination?
Gradually, news about Hungary became rare, then withered away completely. In a general state of despondency, it was difficult to start school again: everybody was pondering over serious issues. When we plagued with questions our poor old history teacher, Elemér Inácsi Papp, he would only cushion his head on his arm and weep.
After the Christmas holidays, the life of the school radically changed overnight. The first “heroes of the war of independence” arrived, whom we greatly admired and respected. They were followed by more and more people, grammar school students and younger children from working-class families alike. The German authorities took notice of the school and directed youngsters here, most of them arriving without parents. These tremendous loads were hardly borne by the scanty facilities available. Classes increased excessively, losing their homogeneous skill levels: it was difficult for teachers to assess how to tackle this change of assignments, right in the middle of the school year. Then new, qualified teachers also arrived, who were probably more professional, but we still longed for the return of that homely atmosphere based on respecting and assisting one another, which used to characterise our life before. We, the “old ones” felt that we had surely lost something. But the change occurred primarily in our hearts as we – both children and adults – realised that our wish that we will definitely go back home… now stood at an astronomical distance.
The wave of sympathy following the suppression of the fight for freedom had reached our school as well. There was a procession of delegations. Used furniture and food donations were received en masse; the health status of students was surveyed. Shortly afterwards, the ancient historical castle building of the Benedictine monastery located in the village of Kastl near Nuremberg was offered by the Bavarian state, which was occupied by us after a full-scale refurbishment in 1958. By this time, the number of students had approached three hundred, and the school of beggars developed into a state-financed grammar school with halls of residence, providing bilingual education and regular German maturity certification recognised by all universities in the free world. The Hungarian Grammar School of Burg-Kastl operated until 2006 and provided opportunities for some 25–30 students a year to continue their studies. Its heritage, including graduation tableaux, has been preserved by Lakitelek Community College.
(The present edited excerpts have been selected by Hungarian Review from My Revolution – Recollections, 1956. Budapest: Friends of Hungary, 2016.)
* Edith Lauer’s story edited by Hungarian Review was originally published in 56 Stories, collected and edited by Andrea Lauer Rice and Edith K. Lauer, Kortárs Publishers, 2006.