Recollections of the 1956 Revolution*
“IF THE RUSSIANS RETURN, WE ARE GOING TO FIGHT”
“Student meeting! Tonight at 7.00 p.m. at the latest, we want to respond to the call of the Budapest university students. Let’s make a free, truly democratic, independent university life! Everybody should come!”
Szeged, 16 October 19561
“JOIN US! Let’s make MEFESZ nationwide! Fellow student! It is about you, it is your interests that are at stake. United we are strong. JOIN MEFESZ!!
MEFESZ of Szeged
Szeged, 17 October 19562
“There is a storm in Szeged, a cleansing storm”, Budapest university students proclaimed around the middle of October 1956.
Because the miracle started here, in Szeged. […]
What does a twelve-and-a-half-year-old, no longer a child, know about tyranny and freedom? Nearly everything. His consciousness awakes and comes to life. As a child, he was also a link of the chain, knew how to answer to strangers, teachers or police officers. He knew why adults fell quiet when he entered; he felt and saw the meaning of the fear in their eyes.
Then, the cleansing storm started. The nation awoke, telling its tyrant and the whole world that it had had enough; yes, “a people said it had had enough”. The nation, thought to be a child, became a giant; the adolescent became an adult in a matter of days. Do his memories belong to him or the well-known frames of the films? – Who knows…?
The mood at the student assemblies at Auditorium Maximum; the strange adult students with their shiny eyes and strong voices; the grip of the teacher growing strong with joy and excitement on his son’s hand as they walk down Petőfi Sándor Avenue; the photo of 23 October of the Kossuth statue at Klauzál Square; the nervous faces of soldiers pretending to be resolute around Széchenyi Square; then gunshots and running at Takaréktár Street on 26 October. And the cry: “We have someone dead!” Then, the soldier in front of the City Hall with his submachine gun, and a strange man in a windbreaker.
Silence followed the revolution, but 1956 – though much later and too late – was victorious. The story of these twelve days determined our whole life, our existence, our way of thinking and our political conviction.
Many could feel this. Christine Lagarde, my former law firm partner and today the Managing Director of the IMF, wrote these lines in my book of memories among others: “We have a lot in common: 1956 is a year that was critical for both of us. It determined your political commitment. It showed me the light of day.” This is why I still have the memories of each and every day of those few weeks, each and every important and less important event. When on 24 October, we ran from school to nearby Kossuth Lajos Avenue, where the endless row of Soviet armoured vehicles was rushing along with a deafening roar; when two days later, on 26 October, we ran along Takaréktár Street with my friend Pál Lippai (nicknamed Latyak, later to become Mayor of Szeged delegated by Fidesz between 1990 and 1994), though this time not driven by curiosity but by the massive firing from soldiers a few metres from us. Then, a few days later, at the Soviet monument on Széchenyi Square, a man dressed in dungarees, handed us his heavy hammer on our request, encouraging us children to take part in destroying the monument as well. We took home a few pieces of marble and metal, which I then hid under the coal in the coal shed in the yard. (We moved from there over 50 years ago; the pieces may still be lying there.)
But there were other problems with objects. On 29 October, the majority of the armed forces left the city. However, news arrived that the Russians would return. If they did, we were going to fight, and we needed weapons to do so. This was how we saw things, a dozen of barely-adolescent boys in the Móraváros district, and this was why we – Jázmin, Kefe, Mogyoró and others – set out for the military barracks, reputed to be empty, on a late October afternoon. The eldest of us was around 16, the youngest 11. This latter – his name was Szilárd – was the tiniest; the only one who fit in through the narrow window on the side wall of the barracks. We stood outside, encouraging and urging him on, and had no way of knowing if anybody had remained in the building after all. Eventually Szilárd climbed out, but found no weapons. He brought along some ammunition, however, which we distributed in a brotherly – or, rather, equal – manner. When we asked him about weapons, he showed up a single gas mask. We did not want to pick a fight over it, and I do not know who got hold of it in the end. We had plenty of ammunition anyway; it was not difficult to come by. I stored my stash in the kitchen.
The Russians indeed came back; the tanks rattled and squealed along Kossuth Lajos Avenue day and night. There was no fight, and the tanks appeared on Széchenyi Square a few days later as well. I clearly remember the soldiers’ faces: they looked different from the ones seen in October.
A few months later, my mother woke me up in fright one night: “The police are in the house. They are taking Mr Pusztai away and might come here too!” In our great fright, all we could do was to flush gun and submachine gun ammunition down the toilet. This was anything but wise. In a few days, the drains got clogged, the yard had to be dug up, and the janitor, of course, called the police. Nothing happened for a while, only I and my mother knew about what happened, and we hoped there would be no way of determining where the ammunition came from.
When, in May 1957, my father returned from a few days spent at the police station – I had never seen him grow a beard either before or after – he told us that on one occasion, the police officer remarked that certain ammunition could not have come from any place other than our home. My father denied this and protested with total firmness. He had every right to do so, because he had no idea about the military barracks, the ammunition and how it was made to disappear. Fortunately, I was not the one to take home the gas mask.
1 Source: László Bálint, A forradalom virradata. A szegedi MEFESZ története, 1956 [The dawn of Revolution. The story of the Szeged MEFESZ, 1956], Szeged: Bába Kiadó, 2008, p. 90.
2 Ibid., p. 116.
3 Excerpts from my address delivered at a commemoration ceremony held by the Society of Political Prisoners of Szeged and the Assembly of Csongrád County in Szeged on 23 October 2007. The full text of the address can be found in Mi és a világ. Írások 2002–2010 [We and the world. Writings, 2002–2010], published in 2015.
“OUR WORLD WAS TURNED UPSIDE DOWN”
Sir George Radda
I could never imagine my life without a university education but as the Communist regime evolved this seemed an increasingly likely scenario. It was to be expected that coming from a middle-class family and educated in a Benedictine school, unless we joined the Communist Party, every obstacle would be put up against being admitted. One route was, however, a possibility. If I were to finish my secondary school education with top marks in every subject every year and in the final examination, even this evil system would not keep me out. Fortunately drawing did not count as an intellectual subject that you had to get top marks for and I was admitted to enter for Chemistry at Eötvös University in 1955. Mind you, chemistry was a pragmatic choice for me as ideally I wanted to become a literary critic. As a schoolboy I wrote articles, one of which was even published in a national journal, on analysing the poetry of several well-known and some lesser-known Hungarian poets. But to study literature you had to accept that only Marxist and Leninist writing had any meaning and you were not even allowed to have access to any other “decadent” Western art. So I decided that I would have to study something where Communist ideology did not play a significant part. I considered mathematics, after all, in my last year at school I won a national competition in this subject, but in the end, I opted for chemistry as I thought that in the long run this would give me a better chance for employment.
I enjoyed my first year at university; chemistry turned out to be interesting and I made many friends, the closest of whom was Miklós, who was very clever and was top of the University class so I had to accept second place. This made me work even harder although Miklós and I went to concerts together and there was no jealousy or even rivalry between us. We were very good friends. Being liberated from the doctrinaire Benedictine constraints I also discovered that girls could be fun. I met a lovely person whose mother worked in the box office with one of the major orchestras in Budapest and she could always get us tickets for concerts or even the Hungarian Opera House. Hence I became a passionate opera fan, and Ági and I attended many performances, sometimes as often as once a week.
The only downside was that as university students we were also members of the armed forces and received military training where we learned to fire rifles and had to go to army camps during the vacations. During my first long vacation, I was trained as an anti-aircraft gunner and by the end I became a junior officer.
The uncertainties of the regime and the constant fear that at any moment we could get a knock on the door in the middle of the night from the Secret Police (the ÁVH) that might take us away never to be seen again, shaped our daily lives. I had a room in a flat belonging to some friends of my parents and there I learned about jazz from my landlord. In the evenings I listened to the radio from one of the forbidden Western stations, with the volume turned right down lest someone heard and reported my anti-Communist activities. This kind of fear about the future also meant that most of my classmates either got married or engaged very early on. By the beginning of my second year I too got engaged to Ági.
So my second year at university started as before, attending classes, practices, military training and compulsory Russian lessons until 23 October 1956, when our world was turned upside down. Following some changes in the Communist system in Poland, Hungarian students began a peaceful demonstration on that day to support their goal of gaining independence. The demonstration escalated into pulling down Stalin’s statue and the Secret Police tried to control the crowds by shooting at them. The students broke into the University’s weapon stores and fighting started. By about midnight the demonstrators occupied the radio station and began to broadcast patriotic music and news bulletins. Within two days the government was overthrown and a new government was formed under Imre Nagy as Prime Minister. This was possible because members of the Hungarian Army supported the new government and were prepared to fight the Russians who withdrew from the city. There was much excitement at our newly found freedom. Students were jubilant and marched around with Hungarian flags, drove in trucks, and the whole nation was getting ready for a new life. The lawmakers started to draw up a new legal system and the universities began to think about reforms. People were happy and stopped and talked to strangers in the streets. I remember meeting someone who was very frightened and wanted to make friends and I somehow sensed that this was because he was a member of the Secret Police and he realised that in the changed system he would have to pay the price for all the atrocities and murders that they were responsible for.
And then on 1 November came the dreadful news over the radio that a very large contingent of Russian forces led by hundreds of tanks and heavy artillery entered Hungary and were approaching the capital. On 3 November, the Defence Minister in charge of the Hungarian Army headed a delegation to meet the Soviet Army generals about withdrawing their troops. It was a trick and the Russians arrested the delegation and on 4 November entered the city of Budapest. Soon we heard heavy gunfire and the radio urged people to take cover in cellars and bunkers. Imre Nagy made a passionate appeal on the radio to “the nation and the whole world” in a famous broadcast which we listened to huddled together in a small cellar in our apartment block with babies crying, children being puzzled by what was going on and parents and adults being very apprehensive. We all hoped that somehow the West would come to our aid, but not knowing at the time that the Suez Crisis and the uprising in Egypt were more important to them. The Hungarian Army was trying to fight the invading troops, but they were totally overwhelmed. Revolutionaries were throwing “Molotov cocktails” (petrol bombs) to try to stop the tanks. We stayed in the cellar overnight and when in the morning I went up to my bedroom, I saw a gaping hole in the wall where the tanks had fired from the square in front of our house. Defiantly I walked across the square in between the tanks with the Russians watching my every move, since a lot of us had no food (including many children) and went to the nearby bakery to collect some bread. Later that day, with some students we walked to the university avoiding all the dead bodies in the streets, covered with lime, and watched a group removing a Russian flag from the top of the building. As the flag dropped, the tanks opened fire and several students fell from the roof, while we on the ground scattered to avoid the bullets. This went on for several days. The mass slaughter of students on Parliament Square by the surrounding tanks a day later hit us all. We were very close and had to run across the famous Chain Bridge to the other side of the Danube, while trying to avoid the hail of bullets. That was my lasting and last recollection of Budapest, and when I returned 20 years later I needed to get that memory out of my system.
By 10 November the Revolution had been crushed with thousands of Hungarians killed and Prime Minister Nagy was arrested to be executed two years later. The Communist government was reinstated and hundreds of thousands of Hungarians began to flee the country. There was not much time to make the choice between staying in the brutal new regime and escaping. I decided there was no future in Hungary and rang my parents to tell them of my plans. My father encouraged me but insisted that I should take my sister and little brother with me. My parents would not leave; as my father said, “at our age there is no point trying to start a new life in a world unknown to us”. Somehow I had to get from Budapest to Győr where the rest of my family was and I managed to get to the railway station only to find that within half an hour I could expect a freight train to leave towards Győr. From a phone box I rang my fiancée to find out if she would join me. Not surprisingly she declined (she had a mother but no father and would not leave her). That was the last time I had contact with her and to this day I have no idea what happened to her.
The usual two-hour train journey took all day, having to change from one train to several others, hiding in the cattle wagons. That evening the family worked out a plan. The three children, with me in charge, would take a taxi to Sopron, a town close to the Austrian border pretending to do some shopping, with money in my pocket. When there, we would try and see how it might be possible to cross the border. We were hoping that the locals would have information that might help us. We had nothing with us other than a briefcase with a German dictionary and a clean shirt. We did not get to Sopron as some guards stopped us and interrogated us while standing against a wall with our hands up. Eventually they told us to turn back and we did so. A few kilometres on the way back, the taxi driver took a turn into a small village. He had some friends there. They agreed to hide us in the hay of a horse-drawn carriage and take us through the fields as close to the border as they dared. When the carriage stopped the farmer pointed to the river: “Austria is on the other side and you either swim (it was a cold November winter) or somehow try to avoid the guards on the bridge, good luck.” It was then that I probably took the biggest gamble of my life. I took my brother and sister by the hand and walked up to the soldiers guarding the bridge. I pulled the wadge of Hungarian notes out of my pocket and said to the soldiers, “if we are on the other side of the bridge we will have no use for this money”. They took the money and we walked across to freedom. As I said earlier, I was a member of the Army while a university student and therefore technically a “deserter” so the soldiers had every right to shoot.
From a distance the Austrian border guards were waving us in the direction of a makeshift camp in a barn with straw mattresses. Exhausted we spent a night there. With no money and no possessions, the next morning we knew we somehow had to get to Vienna, some sixty kilometres away, where my father gave us a contact to a Benedictine monk from my old school in Pannonhalma. In a small priory in Vienna, he kept a small amount of money for my father as payment for some work he had done for them. At the camp I started to talk to a man who turned out to be from Vienna. Luckily my German was quite reasonable, and he told me that there was a bus we could take. Since I explained that we had a little money in Vienna, he lent us the bus-fare. He wrote down his address in Vienna as I insisted that we would pay him back.
Father Vilmos was very kind; we knew him well, and we could stay in the Benedictine Priory as long as we needed. With the money he gave us we first found the address of our trusting lender of money and repaid the loan. With the rest we bought three cheap suitcases and some very basic clothing for each of us. Vienna had many organisations and individuals helping Hungarian refugees of all ages and kinds. We met a businessman who had a factory near Innsbruck and he offered to look after my little brother as part of his family and see him through his schooling. He was the first to leave Vienna. My sister bumped into some older friends of our parents who had also escaped about the same time as us and they had connections in Belgium. They suggested to her that she might like to go with them and the next day she left. Having discharged my duties as the “nominal head of the family in exile”, I was ready to plan my own future. I was obviously looking for a university place somewhere and met an Italian group that offered me a scholarship to Padova University. I was fluent in Italian and was very grateful for the offer but I really wanted to go to an English-language university, as I wanted to learn English, realising that if I were to become a scientist this would be essential. I had Canada in mind, or perhaps England. Wondering around the streets of Vienna, you kept falling over reporters who wanted to hear your story and ambitions. When I mentioned an English-language university to one of them, he took out a piece of paper and wrote down an address for me saying, “there are two professors from Oxford University there who are interviewing potential students who might want to go to England”. I distinctly remember climbing up two floors on a narrow, winding staircase to a small room where two white-haired gentlemen were sitting at a table with a chair on the other side (later I learned who they were: one was a specialist in Eastern Europe and the other from Oriel College, both of whom I met in Oxford in subsequent years). They waved me to take a seat and we began talking in German. They tried to find out what I knew and did at university and after about an hour’s conversation they said: “There is a plane leaving for London tomorrow evening, would you like to be on it?” Without hesitation I said yes.
Twenty-four hours later, at around midnight, I found myself with a bunch of other Hungarian students at Blackbushe Airport. As I learned fifty years later, these flights had been chartered by the British Red Cross and they had flown 7,000 Hungarians to this RAF airfield in two months. The flight was exciting not only because it was my first time on an airplane (I think it was a Vanguard with propellers and it stopped in Stuttgart to refuel) but also because we were going to an unknown land. I knew very little about England. As we approached our destination, the yellow lights of London, the row of identical-looking houses and this remote airfield with a tin hut were our first impressions. The students were taken to a London hotel for the night, the Lancaster Gate Hotel, and some were bussed to Oxford a day later, staying in the Youth Hostel in Jack Straws Lane.
I arrived at Blackbushe on 27 November 1956, and in the first few days of December some students were interviewed by different Oxford Colleges; others were sent to various other universities elsewhere in the country. I was fortunate to be among the ones who stayed in Oxford and had a memorable interview at Merton College. The Chemistry Tutor only spoke English and I could manage several languages except English. Therefore the Periodic Table was our common language and somehow I managed to convince this wise Tutor that I knew enough chemistry to join the first year students in the second term, provided I learned English between 6 December and 15 January when I would have to start my studies. On 15 January, 80 days after the revolution I was ready to attend lectures, tutorials and write weekly essays in English. How I got there is another story.
“RUSSIAN SOLDIERS MOVED INTO THE CORVIN CINEMA”
The fiercest armed battles in the 1956 Revolution and freedom fight were fought in Corvin köz (Corvin Alley). A multitude of memorial plaques, some of them bordering on the realm of legends, refer to heroic acts by the insurgents. But little is known about the people who lived there and were, sometimes involuntarily, involved in the events. In fact, some of them sacrificed even their lives.
Around 10 p.m. on 23 October, remote gunfire could be heard. My mother prayed with me for my sister, who had left for a demonstration as a student of the Budapest University of Medicine, to get home safe and sound. My father was being treated in the Cardiological Hospital in Balatonfüred.
4 Corvin Alley (then named Kisfaludy Alley) was in the middle of the buildings built around the movie theatre in a semi-circular shape. The residents were interesting. My parents had moved in back in 1933. In the early 1950s, my father was fired from his job at the Ministry of Finance. Initially we lived on the salary my mother made as a teacher in the Ónodi Street primary school in Pesterzsébet. Some of the apartments overlooked the cinema building, others faced Práter Street. There were two internal courtyards around the dual corridors in the middle. The residents were on good terms with one another, whether they were Jewish, Christians, workers, or a colonel in the pre-war Horthy regime. The children played together in the courtyard or the nearby park.
Across the courtyard lived Uncle Kari, who was forcefully relocated in 1953 because of his position as a colonel in the pre-war Horthy system. I once visited them in their new home near the River Tisza. His wife, Aunt Luci, gave me delicious food. To the left of us lived Ágnes U., a teacher who had studied in the secondary grammar school for girls on Andrássy Road, where my great- grandfather Ferenc Révy had worked as director at the end of the 19th century. I often visited Aunt Ágnes – she always gave me something to play with. She was a Jew who had hidden in our apartment during the German occupation.
Our right-side neighbour was a lady we called “Mrs Little”. She lived there with her son Pityu and her second husband. Pityu was a cool guy, a few years older than me, but we hung out together, along with all the boys in the neighbourhood. Mrs Little wore high-heel shoes, not stiletto heels but wedges. She worked as a women’s tailor; they were considered quite well-off and even had a piano. I went over to their place to practice music because Mr M., our teacher, wanted to flunk me. We had no money for anything but a xylophone, and I could not really learn solfeggio on that.
Across from our apartment, on the third floor lived Klári F., a red-haired, white- skinned, beautiful girl. Her father was a photojournalist with the National News Agency. They had one of the two privately owned cars in Corvin Alley. On Sundays, we looked out of the window in envy as the F. family went on an excursion in their Volkswagen. Klári’s brother Péter was a ballet dancer in the Opera, together with Viktor Róna.
Anikó and her family lived down on the mezzanine floor on the other side. Her grandfather had a small flour shop, and we often heard her grandmother shout: “Anikó, come home!” Only Aunt Irma shouted even louder. She was a caretaker living next to the laundry room in the attic. Everybody was afraid of her. Anikó’s grandparents had also been forcefully relocated.
On the fifth floor above us lived Bernát and Olga L., who had a cleaning shop in Népszínház Street. Their grandson András V. was around 13 years old; he often joined our group. Judit Sz. lived on the third floor across us. She was another nice-looking girl who sometimes called me in to play with her. In the apartment on the first floor above the doorway lived Gyula Kramolin, director of the clinic on Péterffy Street, and his wife. They were around 60 and had no children. Everybody was fretting about being relocated and having to leave their homes.
I remember that men from the secret police passed our door several times, reading the sign with my father’s name on it: G. Z., certified royal Hungarian auditor. My father was proud to have worked in the Ministry of Finance. He kept a book, Ossendowski’s Lenin, on his big, beautiful desk so that he could claim to read it if and when the henchmen rang our doorbell. In fact, Ossendowski was an anti- Communist who wrote rather unflattering things about Lenin.
Across from us on the second floor lived Dodó. His father was a driver at the secret police. Still, he belonged to our company, just like Jóska T., whose mother was a worker. Above us, in the left-side corner, on the fifth floor lived aunt Ari. She ran a watch shop on Üllői Street and had two daughters. The younger one, Zsuzsa F., was about 15 or 16 in 1956. Klári F., Zsuzsa F. and myself often played that we were husband, wife and child. Aunt Ari had a man courting her: a tall, well-built, bald gentleman who often had dinner there. Aunt Ari called him Bones.
In the apartment on the right side of the mezzanine floor lived Mrs Oszkár P. and Géza A. They were not relocated even though they must have been very rich, still possessing some beautiful antique furniture. My mother and I sometimes went down to visit them, and they gave me candy.
The days after 23 October 1956 were hectic. After an adventurous journey, my father got home from Balatonfüred. The momentary silence was broken by students from Pesterzsébet who had come to fight. They rang our doorbell because they recognised my mother’s name. They asked for glass jars which they filled with petrol and threw down from the roof at the approaching Russian tanks. My mother called a few students by name because several of them had attended the school in Ónodi Street. We watched excitedly from our windows as the fighters withdrew behind the inner corner of the circle formed by the houses, while an anti-tank cannon in front of the movie theatre was used to destroy Russian tanks that crossed the Boráros Bridge on their way to József Boulevard. Later, it was uplifting to see the insurgents climb onto the flat roof of the cinema building and stand on the billboard to put up the Hungarian flag with a hole in it. Doctor Kramolin and his family probably left for the West in the first days of the Revolution, and Pál Maléter (Defence Minister of the revolutionary government) moved with his men into the Kramolins’ apartment above the gate. Corvin Alley and our building were, from a military perspective, much easier to defend than the Kilián Barracks, which had thick walls but stood in an open space.
The fighting that resumed on 4 November came ominously close to Corvin Alley. Initially we were in the dual corridor, but when the windows were broken in, we went down to the cellar. About 80 people crowded in a big, long room that was normally used to store wood. Occasional machine gun flare was visible through a small ventilation shaft in the top corner. We, the children started to play cards at one end of the room. This was interrupted by fists banging on the wall of the neighbouring room. It was one of the boys who had come over because their cellar exit had caved in. He was carrying a suitcase. Later, one of the insurgents came in and said that the Russian commanders knew that the leaders of the Revolution operated from our building, so the house would be under artillery fire from Gellért Hill. The cellar was not safe either because the insurgents stored 9,000 kilograms of ammunition in the designated bomb shelter. We had to flee after the neighbouring building caught fire. Some said that the main water faucet at the door should be opened because there was a fire in our building as well. Károly R., Klári’s father, ran out and was shot to death by a Russian soldier. He was 37 and left his wife and two children behind. Bones met the same fate, along with one of the local residents whom I did not know.
The other side of the building faced Práter Street. There was no gate there, but only a book warehouse on the ground floor. I remember wading across hundreds of volumes of Stendhal’s The Red and the Black. Led by my sister, we jumped out of the mezzanine window onto Práter Street. When there was a pause in the gunfire, we ran across the street and banged on the door of the opposite building. My mother had with her some chestnut puree wrapped in cellophane. She had made it in the evening of the 23rd to celebrate my sister’s return home. It served as precious food when we lived on a pile of wood in one of the houses on Kisfaludy Street for days. We went from building to building for about two weeks, and then ended up in my godfather’s apartment on Közraktár Street, where we lived until the spring when our home was renovated. All the apartments next to ours had collapsed down to the ground floor; only one wall had remained unscathed underneath my father’s room.
The next period was eventful. Our school on Práter Street had been hit as well, so we went to Jázmin Street School for several months. Due to the lack of space, classes were shortened to 25 minutes. Some of us were sent to a home supported by the Red Cross in Városkút, led by the mother of a classmate of mine, Laci K. Our apartment in Corvin Alley was hardly accessible for a while; Russian soldiers moved into the Corvin Cinema, and when my mother and I sometimes went to see how the renovation was progressing, she pointed towards our apartment and told the Russian guard: “ya zhiwyu tut” (“I live here”).
My father died of cancer in 1961. I attended the German class of the Eötvös Secondary School at that time. Once I travelled to East Germany. I lived with a pen-friend named Manfred close to Dresden for a few weeks. His grandfather had an old P70 car, and they took me to see Sanssouci Palace in Potsdam. On the way there, the grandpa proudly said that the motorway had been built by Hitler. Later, in the sixth year of my university studies, I went to Halle for surgery practice, and my new friends visited me at 4 Corvin Alley.
After graduation, I worked in the field of anatomy, which was very close to my specialisation. Actually I wanted to be a neurologist, but Professor Pál Juhász, director of the Clinic of Neurology, said “Comrade Záborszky, you’ll get a job if you join the Party”. I was only the 62nd on the rank of doctors of the People’s Republic. I worked with Professor Palkovits in the Szentágothai Institute’s student circle; party membership was not required for a job in that institute, so I spent unforgettable years with this brilliant professor.
But my relationship with the authorities and building caretakers was not good. After graduation, in 1970, two days before my planned travel to East Germany, a “gentleman” wearing plain clothes visited me and took away my passport. Later, following several appeals, I got a resolution stating that “his travel abroad would violate public interest”. When Professor Wolff visited me in 1976 after a few months-long study trip to the Max Planck Institute in Göttingen, our caretaker crashed his Trabant into his Passat parked in Corvin Alley. Poor Wolff had trouble with the authorities because they did not want to let him leave the country in the damaged car. It may have been the same caretaker who reported to the police after my university studies that I had West German visitors, when in fact I only had East German friends back then.
For a few years after graduation then I had no passport. So I decided to write to the secretariat of Prime Minister Kádár and return the golden ring of the People’s Republic that I had got from Ferenc Erdei, member of the Presidential Council, on the day of graduating as a doctor. In response to that, they summoned me in the Interior Ministry building on Rudas László Street and said that they would “wipe my slate clean”. And in fact they did let me travel to Yugoslavia soon, in 1971. I went there with Szilvia M. and her parents. In 1973, I was allowed to work at the famous University of Würzburg for a year. Then again, the Interior Ministry’s officer delegated to the Budapest University visited me before leaving, and asked me to gather intelligence about a large American military base in Würzburg. Naturally, I declined. One reason why I was allowed to travel to West Germany could have been that Szilvia’s father, a doctor at the National Bank of Hungary, maintained a good relationship with the deputy governor there, who could have put in a few good words for me with the competent authorities.
In the 1970s, when I worked in the Szentágothai Institute, I had little time to meet with the residents of the building. Klári F. married Gyuri, a famous water polo player; once, when I was on night duty, I was called out to their place, but they had moved away to Sallai Imre Street. Zsuzsa F. and Péter F. married in America.
Once, towards the end of the 1970s, Professor Szentágothai called me into his room and said: “Look, Laci, you are not a favourite of the university’s political leaders, but I still proposed to send you for a short study trip to the Soviet Union, and a longer one to America.” That is how I spent two weeks in an institute of the Yerevan Academy of Sciences. And when I was invited to the Faculty of Neurology in Charlottesville, Virginia, I travelled there with a letter of recommendation from Professor Szentágothai. I have been working in the United States ever since, researching elemental neural structures related to Alzheimer’s disease. When visiting my mother in the 1980s, I often met Jóska T.’s mother in the corridor. My mother died in 1993.
“MIKLÓS, YOU SHOULD CHANGE YOUR IDEOLOGY”
I was born in 1936. After finishing secondary school, I started to study law at the University of Szeged in 1954. I was the only “class alien” among the students that year, because my parents owned land. But Imre Nagy was still Prime Minister at that time, so the terror had been eased. Still, when it turned out that I went to church every day, an assistant lecturer and Communist party member summoned me and gave the friendly advice: “Miklós, you should change your ideology.” I could not have done that even if I had wanted to because the Revolution started.
The main events leading to the Revolution took place in Budapest, but the first explicitly independent (non-Communist) organisation was established in Szeged. On 14 October, some 70 of us founded the Federation of Hungarian University and College Associations (FHUCA). I was present at that meeting and delivered a speech. My portrait, along with those of all the others, is there on the monument behind the building of the university. But the young colleagues no longer recognise me.
On the morning of 23 October, there was an FHUCA meeting at the faculty, where I gave a short speech and asked my fellow students not to demonstrate and give the police an opportunity to intervene. Nevertheless, I was there in the crowd that walked peacefully along the promenade that afternoon. Suddenly, a middle- aged man wearing a leather jacket stopped beside me, said something, and gave me a kick so savage that I collapsed. Then I stood up and just ran away. Without any ideological debate, I must confess.
For a few days, we did not know what was going on elsewhere in the country. We were stupid enough to listen to the Hungarian Radio, which reported every second hour that the insurgents had surrendered. Finally, we understood what was going on, and the Revolution started in Szeged too. The worst memory I have is of a young worker falling to the ground after a fusillade by the secret police. We found a doctor. I remember him bending down to find out whether the youngster was still breathing. I cannot forget the sadness in his face when he raised his head and looked at the dead man’s mother.
On the following day, people started to remove the symbols of Communist rule in Szeged. I was in the office of the university president with a delegation of students. The president was Dezső Baróti, a professor of French literature. (A few weeks before the Revolution, when the previous political pressure had eased somewhat, he was allowed to invite the French ambassador to Szeged. They had lunch in the Fishermen’s Inn. Baróti was arrested after the Revolution, and asked in court what information he had disclosed to the French diplomat while walking on the bank of the River Tisza at lunchtime. Baróti answered laughing: “The ambassador bent close to me and asked: ‘Where is the toilet?’ Back then, all we had was an outhouse, so I said that it was customary for first visitors to the river to urinate into the Tisza.” Finally, Baróti was sentenced to one year of imprisonment for espionage.)
A crowd gathered outside and demanded that the red star be taken off the university building. Two strong lads lifted me up and held me out of the window so that I could tell the people outside that the fire brigade was underway to remove the symbol. For a few days afterwards, the atmosphere was perfect: there was order, peace and especially hope. And when Imre Nagy formed a coalition government, I thought that the Revolution had won. But in the evening of 3 November, I met a boy who had heard from a border guard on the phone that the Russians had started to cross the border. Already on the following morning tanks drove through Szeged. The commander of the revolutionary National Guards, Lieutenant Barna Lazur, convened the men he found and gave them weapons, noting that those who were unwilling to fight could leave without feeling bad about it. I was very scared but I definitely did not want to be considered a coward. So I filled my briefcase with hand grenades and went home. My landlady asked what I was carrying. I said, “hand grenades and bombs”. “Jesus Christ! Where will you keep that stuff?” “Under my bed.”
But as it turned out, I did not use the weapons. Somebody from our group of friends took them away. Order was restored, but we still tried to resist, for example by disseminating leaflets inciting against the system. The leaflet titled “Letter to (Prime Minister) János Kádár” was my work. Finally we were caught because one of us had laid his hands on a bulky type-written book listing all the agents of the secret police. Actually, it was volume two with the data of the spies recruited outside Budapest. My task was to assess the data about churches. Most of the agents, usually priests but also secular people, were blackmailed and threatened; they tried to prevaricate and avoid disclosing useful information. There was one vicar who mustered up the courage to say that his conscience did not allow him to work for the secret police. “We propose to transfer him to the Protestants”, his contact at the secret police wrote.
Unfortunately, the Kádár government gained power. In early January 1957, I took part in the last FHUCA meeting in Budapest. But as time went by, I saw more and more moustached “students” over 40 years wearing leather coats. So I and the other youngsters did a disappearing act. Two weeks later, when the semester started, I travelled to Szolnok by train. An acquaintance was waiting for me at the station. A friend from the police had warned me that I, along with others, was to be jailed. So I had little choice but to flee. The Austrian border was blocked already; there was no other place left but Yugoslavia. So I went to my friend Feri Kiefer (now a world-renowned linguist) who was a primary school teacher in Soltvadkert back then. Feri, who had also come from Baja, wrote a letter ostensibly by my “fiancée” waiting for me in Baja. I used that letter to get to Kiskunhalas, where everybody who wanted to change trains with a Budapest address in their ID booklet was returned to the capital. We were interrogated one by one by a rather simple sergeant. “Where are you headed?” “To Baja”, I said. “What for?” he asked. “My fiancée is waiting for me there.” “Isn’t it Belgrade where your fiancée is waiting for you?” Bluffing was the only option. I looked at the sergeant with the wounded eyes of offended virtue. “Why do you doubt my words?” The bloke cast his eyes down in shame and let me, but nobody else, go.
So I arrived in Baja where I met Mátyás Zomborcsevics under rather adventurous circumstances. Matyi had been a pilot in the reconnaissance services; the Russians shot down his plane in 1944. He was taken to Serbia and got a life sentence for espionage. He was released after Stalin’s death and returned home to Gara, the village he had been raised in, close to the Yugoslav border. He worked as an interpreter in the Soviet barracks by day, and smuggled people to Yugoslavia by night. Myself included. When I left for the border, I had a prayer book with me, a thick volume by a mystic German author from the Middle Ages, as well as books by Petőfi and Madách. I had only one shirt but thought I would get clothes in Yugoslavia. But I was wrong about that. After a long nocturnal march, we arrived in Tito’s country, where I went on to spend three and a half months in various refugee camps. Nobody hurt me but the food was not great, and we were afraid that the Yugoslav Communists would send us back.
Finally I got a visa for France. After 10 days in the barracks of a town in the east of France, I went to Paris. Everything was beautiful there, from the Sorbonne to the Louvre. But like most refugees, I kept dreaming at night that I got back to Hungary somehow, and could not return to Paris. This dream came three times a week in the beginning. Then twice, then less and less frequently. In the end, it was gone for good. That was the healing.
“YOU HAD TO SAY NOVI SAD INSTEAD OF ÚJVIDÉK”
During the Revolution days, I could not even be considered a “yellow-beaked” journalist, as the first time I crossed the threshold of the only Hungarian daily in Délvidék, Magyar Szó, was on 1 July. But no journalistic vein was needed to sense that something momentous was in the air in Hungary. What I remember from that period are the events concerning the writers’ association. At that time, I knew none of the members of the association personally, but I kept count of several among them based on their writings. These were László Németh, Péter Veres and Áron Tamási among others, but there were too many to list them all here.
I was exactly twenty years old, not long out of grammar school, entering a completely strange, yet not entirely unknown medium by accepting a job at the paper. I already knew the staff from the stories of their disrepute. Even of the poet László Gál I only knew that we had to learn his poorest, propagandistic poems at school. “The enthusiastic crowd is building a bridge / They work night and day / Tomorrow, a train will cross that bridge / and Marshall Tito will come to our place.” Later on, when I had made friends with the highly respected poet, he repeated to me on numberless occasions: “My dear brother, this is not the horse I wanted.”
The group of journalists who had already made a career also included József Szerencsés, from the village where I was born. According to my father he had assumed the role of crown witness of prosecution in the action against my renowned pastor, the vicar Gyula Vondra, although that educated priest had even been Jóska’s mentor a good decade earlier, when he was sent to school with the support of the Temerin congregation and Vondra was the principal of the Újvidék pupils’ hall. My father actually warned me of the newspaper office environment, when I told him I applied for the job announced for interns to the editorial office. “They will mis-educate you there!” Finally, however, it was exactly Pastor Vondra who helped me overcome the barriers raised by my father. “Let the child go, Matyi!” he told my father. “Had St Paul lived today, he would also become a journalist.”
As for the atmosphere prevailing at the office, let me report one of my experiences. The Hungarian football team, world-famous at that time, visited Beograd after a long time. Laci Tóth, a townsfellow of mine who was hired to the editorial board at the same time as I, worked on the sports section. It was his job to listen to Szepesi’s sports reporting, and I did the same, driven by curiosity. Section manager L. G. came in unexpectedly. He noticed from our open reactions that we wanted the Hungarian team to win. L .G. suddenly shouted at us: “Yes, you little shits. Who do we cheer for?!”
As for the relationship of the two countries, this is the memory I recall. I think it was in September that at Horgos the editorial boards of Magyar Szó, Újvidéki Rádió – at that time, you had to say Novi Sad instead of Újvidék – and 7 Nap organised a camping event lasting several days for young journalists and writers in the Kárász Mansion. As I remember, we usually did nothing special, only talked among ourselves. However two of our excursions are worth recalling. One was a simple visit to a local village. With the permission of the local police, we could visit the northern edge of the village to take a look at the border crossing located some 1.5 km from it. Our local guide, the youth leader of the village – probably a youth called Mándi – made us promise with great earnestness that we would not go closer to the frontier than the distance set by him as he had to act as our “guarantor” to the police. We stopped on the asphalt road before the last house. We could actually make out the border barrier and a building of some kind. That is where we could cross over to Hungary! Wishful thinking! But something else was also discernible, or maybe only to me. There were patches of grass extending over several square metres on several spots on the asphalt road. The curse I learned at home, in Temerin, came to my mind: Let the grass take over your courtyard! Which country was hit harder by the grass taking over the frontier road that fell into disuse?
My other experience dates from our Palics hiking. Palics is less than 20 km from Horgos, it was easy to travel there for dinner. A visiting Hungarian trade union delegation was also having dinner there when we arrived. This was something unprecedented for almost a decade: an official Hungarian trade union delegation in Yugoslavia! It was obviously the introduction to the visit of the party and state delegation that coincided with the breakout of the Revolution at home. We happened to occupy neighbouring tables. The trade union people were already past most of their dinner, drinking their wine, and we soon caught up with them. Accidentally, I met some of them in the bathroom. Ignoring the protocol, we engaged in an animated discussion. There were embraces, arms flung around each other and then, later on, already in the restaurant, toasts and glasses lifted again and again. Some of us were intoxicated. And then I committed something I am still ashamed of. I berated those whom I had treated as my new buddies before. I called them to account for the politics of the Hungarian state, playing up their incapacity to pursue independent policies: a few years earlier, they had flattered the Germans and now the Russians. I did not think for a moment that we, Hungarians, from Délvidék, had to thank the Hungarians fraternising with the Germans for the re-annexation in 1941 that we accepted with great jubilation. And thank Tito, our beloved leader, for the bloodshed committed against us.
Then came the Revolution. We all trembled for Hungary. Deep down I worried that they would set up workers’ councils similar to ours, which we had enough experience to thoroughly disapprove of by then. The council sessions were strictly about what our omnipotent party ordered and permitted. The board of the workers’ council at Forum Publishers, for instance, wrote off the loss of the Publishers’ club receiving the province leaders debauching there quarter after quarter.
From the time of the outbreak of the armed struggle, Mátyás Apró, special correspondent of the editorial board, commuted between Budapest and Újvidék, and recounted his shocking experiences from time to time; he spoke of the behaviour of the Hungarian insurgents and the crowd, the dead bodies he saw in the streets. He expressed no opinion; everyone had to wait for the top party leadership to tell us what our opinion should be. Of course, we had no idea what happened on the Isle of Brioni, at the Tito–Khrushchev meeting, maybe we did not release any news of that at all. As a matter of fact, it was only decades later that we learned anything meaningful about the event from the memoir of Veljko Mićunović, former Yugoslav ambassador to Moscow. That is when we understood also the roots of Kádár’s servile attitude to Tito. At the Brioni talks, Khrushchev proposed Ferenc Münnich as first man of Hungary, whereas Tito – arguing that Münnich’s Moscow education was common knowledge, whereas Kádár was obviously a Hungarian from the home country who had even been imprisoned by Rákosi – thought it more adequate to place the latter on the “throne” with the help of the Soviet Army.
The opinion of the Yugoslav Communists was revealed when Tito evaluated the Revolution in Pula, to the Army officers. The essential message was that a counter-revolution had taken place in Hungary. This made us understand that it was all over in the mother country. It was obvious not only from the assessments of the politicians, but also from the start, soon after, of the retaliation measures and the fact that collectivisation, halted for a short time, would continue. But it was also obvious from the way the revolutionaries arriving to us were treated in Yugoslavia, in the refugee camps. The camps were not made permanent in the Hungarian environment – the one in Horgos, for example, was relocated quite quickly. The refugees were taken to Bosnia and Slovenia to prevent them from mixing with us Hungarians there. We had no idea to what extent they were screened during the many hearings and interrogations, and how many of them were sent back.
*The present edited excerpts have been selected by Hungarian Review from My Revolution – Recollections, 1956. Budapest: Friends of Hungary, 2016.