A Flesh and Bone Martyr of the 20th Century

Zoltán Szobonya was a 45-year-old lawyer in a small town in southern Hungary when the uprising against the dictatorial communist regime broke out in Budapest, on 23 October 1956. During the 13 days of the revolution he tried to re-establish a democratic multi-party political system in the region, while making sure that revenge against the former oppressors would not taint the hitherto unblemished revolution. After the uprising was crushed he was chosen to be the scapegoat in the show trial of that particular region. His sentence was a warning to the people not to go against the regime; after two years of imprisonment, he was executed early in the morning of 29 September 1958. He left behind a 34 year old wife and three daughters: Csilla (age 7), Emőke (age 5) and Tünde (age 3.) One of his daughters, Emőke, is my mother.

I was born in 1989, the year Communist regime ended in Hungary. After 33 years the causes of the 1956 revolution were legitimised as a justified reaction to a system of terror. It was the same year my grandfather’s remains were exhumed from an unmarked grave to be reburied at the Heroes Cemetery as part of his historical rehabilitation. My mother told me that on the evening before the burial she was holding me in her arms wondering what would happen to her three children should the still unstable government order its troops to shoot into the crowd. My generation is a link between Communist and westernised Hungary; it is important to understand our roots in order to build a healthy future.

My grandfather was born into an upper-middle class, noble family in southern Hungary. By the time he met with my grandmother, at the age of 32, he was a well- respected lawyer in Jánoshalma, a city in the southeast of the country. The family legend claims that when my grandfather saw my, then 18 year old, granny performing in a local play in the neighbouring town he decided on the spot to marry her. Despite the fourteen years of age difference, which was not unusual for 1942, whenever I read my grandparents’ letters I am convinced that their marriage was between equals, devoted to each other. In one of his letters he wrote: “I am always at home with you in my mind. It is bewildering how ardently I love you.” Marrying in the middle of war meant that they would not see each other for five years, as my grandfather fell into Soviet captivity and was not able to return until 1947. This was the first act of a series of trials and tribulations.

In 1948, bringing the post-war democratisation process to an end, the Communist Party took over in Hungary, throwing the already destitute country into further despair. Copying the Stalinist regime of the Soviet Union, the Hungarian Communist Party started a forceful industrialisation of the country, which was heavily dependent on its agriculture. With the help of the emerging State Security Authority (ÁVH) the party ordered independent farmers (kuláks) to hand over their grains and goods to be exported so that the money could be used for building the steel industry. This caused frequent bread, flour and meat shortages: in short, the country was starving.

My grandfather helped independent farmers to keep their grains hidden, by drafting legal documents hiding their properties. This way he was able to save more than 350 families from the government’s forced relocation projects that were carried out by the secret police. He was unable however to save himself from the same fate, and was forced to leave his family in 1952 for a year and a half and move to another part of the country with other individuals deemed “undesirable” by the state. The official reason for his sentence was that “he purchased a bigger pig than allowed by the law”. This was the reality of 1950s Hungary: starvation, secret police, forced resettlement, lies fabricated into legal justice. No wonder that when the Revolution broke out people were enthusiastic to join in.

My grandfather was the secretary of the Revolutionary Council in the southern region. In the revolutionary declaration they claimed: “we don’t want to resuscitate the ancien régime – the exploitive rule of capitalism and the upper classes. But we no longer wish to live under tyranny of the proletariat.” While my grandfather stood up against the official government, he did everything in order to avoid showdowns in his town. And when some people wanted to lynch the members of the secret police for the terror they caused, he said: “Let us shake hands! Let our action not be led by revenge! There are not many of us Hungarians left and every one of us is needed for what is to come.” His pacifism was not rewarded when the Soviet army crushed the uprising. He was arrested then sentenced to death by hanging. When he was offered a pardon in exchange for his collaboration he refused, saying: “Better to die in honour than to live in dishonesty.” His message to my mother and my aunts was: “Always remember, my little babies that you were born Hungarians and I only ask one thing from you: never say lies about others. Only the truth and nothing but the truth!” When his belongings were returned to my grandmother, in his eyeglass case a photograph of his three daughters was found, with only three words on the back: “This was my everything.” More than likely he did not want to become a hero. He probably only wished to grow old with my grandmother on his side and to see his three daughters grow up. But seeing as his country was in dire need to regain its lost freedom he promised himself that he will not hide and silently agree with suffocating tyranny. In his final letter to my grandmother he wrote: “Resigned to my fate I wait for absolution. This is Hungarian destiny and I am proud that God deemed me deserving of this destiny.”

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