As a second year student at the Technical University in Budapest in October 1956, I worked for the Revolutionary Student Committee in the student dormitory where I lived. I also became a member of the National Guard. Though I was not a freedom fighter, like so many others, I also had remarkable experiences which rekindle uplifting memories on the 60th anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution.
Looking back, I feel strongly about three important aspects of the 1956 Revolution, which are worth sharing with today’s generation: first, university students played a major role in the revolt, especially in the run-up to its eruption; second, university students acquired an extraordinary prestige in the country; and third, there was extraordinary solidarity among the Hungarian people.
First, Hungarian students had had a long tradition since 1848 of addressing national issues. Then, youth leaders forcefully voiced demands for reforms to the Habsburg monarch. Nearly a hundred years later, in 1944, some students, but to my knowledge not many, were involved in acts of resistance against the occupying forces of Nazi Germany and their enthusiastic Hungarian followers, the Arrow Cross Party. After the Second World War, students were at the forefront founding democratic organisations which were soon stifled by the Communists. In the ensuing period of Stalinism, the smallest sign of disloyalty to the dictatorship was crushed with an iron fist.
After Stalin’s death in March 1953, students in Hungary were less intimidated than other segments of society, partly because they had only very limited personal responsibilities. Stirring among students only heightened after the 20th Party Congress held in Moscow in late February 1956, where First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalin’s murders and personality cult. At the university, we were stunned when, only a month into the spring semester, it was announced that in Marxism- Leninism class we would drop the history of the Soviet Communist (Bolshevik) Party, because the material had to be re-evaluated. So, second year students turned to dialectic materialistic philosophy, which was normally a fifth year subject – a leap from Marx back to Hegel. An odd Communist practice played out in public once again: the past needed to be reconstructed.
The impact of the 20th Party Congress needs to be looked at in light of the fact that by the mid-1950s about 70 per cent of university students were from worker and peasant families, being the first generation to get a higher education. Some of them were even Communist Party members, clad in fancy leather coats, moving about with self-confidence, often in a rush to important meetings. These students, more than anyone else, were deeply affected by the denunciation of Stalin, the revered (and feared) “genius of the world’s proletariat” and “father of the Hungarian working class”. Faith and trust in the movement that had made them were shaken. Their parents’ toiling to meet the quota of compulsory delivery of produce from their small lots of land or to make ends meet on the meagre wages paid in factories laid bare the harsh reality of sacrifices demanded by Stalin’s party in the name of socialism. Unsurprisingly, those students were the first to stand up for reform and change in 1956.
Brewing tension in the country grew stronger in the summer of 1956, as the Petőfi Circle, where students also participated, called for open debates on increasingly sensitive reform issues. As tens of thousands of students returned to school in September, a critical mass of troubled and inquisitive young minds driven by a thirst for the truth was gathering.
At the reburial on 6 October of László Rajk, a prominent Communist who was murdered in a show trial in 1949, leading Party intellectuals and political leaders made solemn commitments in their eulogies: Never Again! Little did they know that in less than two years fellow Communists would be executed again, including the head of the revolutionary government, Imre Nagy who put patriotism and democratic reforms above disciplined allegiance to the Party. After the Rajk burial, thousands of disenchanted Communists and sympathisers marched from the cemetery to the centre of town, demonstrating at Batthyány’s memorial and reciting poetry.
On 16 October, students at Szeged University set up MEFESZ, a democratic student organisation originally established in 1945, but dissolved by the Communists by 1948, when its leaders were jailed. Such a daring act by Szeged students put great pressure on the official youth organisation DISZ (“Dolgozó Ifjúság Szövetsége” – Worker Youth’s Association), which was, in fact, the youth league of the Hungarian Workers’ (Communist) Party. To pre-empt other challenging initiatives like the one they faced at Szeged, the DISZ called general meetings at all universities for 22 October.
The most fateful meeting in the country took place at the Technical University in Budapest. I was among more than 2,000 people in the Aula, when the meeting started and two of the founders of the Szeged MEFESZ who came to Budapest asked to speak. The crowd demanded to hear them. DISZ leaders did not know how to handle a meeting where everyone could speak up freely, instead of following a strict script for who would say what, and when. Challenged by the “anarchy” of such a free meeting, DISZ leaders, the University Party Secretariat and staff of the Marxism-Leninism Department left the Aula.
After listening to Tamás Kiss from Szeged, MEFESZ was also established at the Technical University meeting by exclamation of the participants. During the debate, a civil engineering student, András Bálint raised a daring question: why were Soviet troops still stationed in Hungary? In a second or two, the Aula was reverberating by the chant of some 2,000 people: “Ruszkik haza!” – Russians go home! This was a decisive moment and most probably one of the detonators of the revolt. It was a public outburst on a highly sensitive issue at a prominent institution in the capital, which seemed almost improbable after more than ten years of Soviet occupation.
By midnight the meeting ended, the demands of the students were formulated in 14 Points: not a single one of those related to student or college life issues (by next morning there were also 16 Points, essentially demanding the same). Each one of the points addressed political, social and economic concerns of the country. The 14 and 16 Points were more widely disseminated than demands drafted at other universities. On 23 October, all Budapest university students marched in sympathy for Polish workers, virtually all of them gathering at the statue of General Józef Bem, a Polish hero in the Hungarian uprising against the Habsburgs in 1848–49. Later, demonstrators moved to Parliament, from where students led part of the crowd to the radio station on Bródy Sándor Street. They demanded broadcasting of the 14 Points. After some scuffling, the security guards at the radio station responded with fire. A young woman was shot in front of the radio building, where she died shortly afterwards. The revolution was born, and fierce fighting ensued.
The responsible and restrained conduct by students throughout the fomenting period in 1956, the drafting of demands in the 14 and 16 Points at the Technical University, as well as in the statements of other universities, and their dignified march to the Bem statue on 23 October, had won them the sympathy and trust of the population. The extraordinary prestige of the students was manifest in countless instances.
A few examples I witnessed, included: in the morning of 23 October, the bus conductor asked for a copy of the 14 Points instead of the fare; while we marched to the Bem statue in the afternoon, older pedestrians here and there waived with their handkerchiefs and I detected tears in the eyes of some of them; the 14 or 16 Points were widely accepted by the people as a common platform for their demands, which directly led to the outbreak of the revolution.
People turned with confidence to the Revolutionary Student Committee in our student dormitory at 17 Bartók Béla Road. The Kelenföld Railway Station called the student house for transporting and distributing among the people a wagon full of aid packages which arrived from the West. Since we had no means of transport, this episode prompted me to go down to Bartók Béla Road in front of our student dormitory, stop the first truck and recruit the driver to work for our Committee. He was happy to help, though he cautioned that we needed gasoline. We received it from the barracks across the street, though after a few days, I needed to sign a slip of paper every time we tanked. We had no idea that the establishment was the country’s centre of military intelligence… Someone called our Committee from Móricz Zsigmond Circle to rush over there, in order to save an ÁVH [secret police] officer from being lynched by an angry crowd. Three of us went over, cooled down the hot heads and walked the suspect back to our dorm, where he was interrogated. Later, we transferred him to the central police station in Pest… An evening call came from Sasadi Road and reported that two neighbours went at each other, one of them was suspected to be an ÁVH officer. We drove out to the scene and found that none of them was from the secret service, they just had terribly bad neighbourly relations. Both of them heeded our advice, after we scolded them that at a time of national peril they should stop fighting, and instead use their energies to support the cause of the revolution and us… When a man was shot in a line in front of the bakery on Bartók Béla Road (probably by an ÁVH sniper from a roof), the people rushed him to our student dorm and asked for emergency assistance. He was carried to our building on planks, unconsciously breathing and slowly bleeding from a hole in his forehead. We drove him to the nearest hospital. Such signs of strong confidence shown in the Student Revolutionary Committee reflected the prestige students had gained among the people.
As fighting continued, Budapest became paralysed and the number of wounded rose. Provision of essential services became critical not only for those in dire need, but for the whole capital. Only extraordinary solidarity could mobilise the massive assistance required.
We were running out of food at the dormitory, but the kitchen personnel took initiatives to get essential provisions. Some of them even contacted relatives and friends in the countryside to feed us. It enabled students to stay in the dorm and keep together in Budapest, which was essential for the work of the Revolutionary Student Committees and soon for the National Guard.
The nearby bakery on Bartók Béla Road was reducing the quantity of bread they made, introducing a self-imposed rationing to stretch the flour they had until they were able to get replenishment from the countryside. There were long lines for bread, but their responsible action assured that everyone could at least have some bread.
Trucks showed up from the villages delivering flour, vegetables and potatoes free of charge. The produce sent to our dormitory was distributed to folks in the neighbourhood, and we tried to be as equitable and helpful as possible. A student carried home provisions for a young mother who showed up with two very small children. No one asked whether she had a husband or where he was – he could be fighting somewhere.
It is common knowledge that money was collected in crates on the sidewalk at more important intersections in the city for families who lost someone. Remarkably, the money was piling up, but no one touched it. Store windows were broken in the fights, but all merchandise remained there for long days.
Personnel volunteered to work all hours, taking initiatives of their own to schedule shifts at establishments providing essential services. This was seen at bakeries, essential food stores and hospitals, as well as truck drivers and the regular police who did their best to help. Not to mention workers in public services, like water, gas and electricity. For those familiar with 1956 stories much of the above has become commonplace in accounts of those fateful days. But they have not ceased to be manifestations of an extraordinary solidarity in Hungarian society, what the well-known historian and classic scholar, Károly Kerényi called the “moral high voltage of the barricades” which pervaded Hungarian society during the revolt. But, inevitably, such a brave attitude could not be sustained for long, as he reminded us in 1959 in one of his thoughtful lectures for refugee students. Kerényi was intimately familiar with all the Greek gods, thus he knew something about human nature! (His The Gods of the Greeks was published by Penguin Books in paperback in the 1950s.)
Personally, I took away from those fateful twelve days an improbable experience: strong bonding with strangers I had never met, with whom, I was certain, I shared the same goals, and that we all knew that we belonged together. This uplifting sentiment accompanied me throughout my life, first as a refugee, then as a citizen of my adopted country, and after 1990 as a restored Hungarian citizen.
A closing vignette: crossing Bakáts Square with a colleague, we saw a Soviet tank in front of the church. Suddenly, it fired into the church tower. Even before the tank began to manoeuvre, we ran to Ráday Street toward Boráros Square. At one of the building entrances, several people sought safety from stray bullets and were huddling at the gate. As we passed by, a fellow shouted out loud: don’t shoot, there are people here! Black humour has not failed Hungarians even in the middle of the revolt.
As we made it to Boráros Square, a man approached us, asking whether we were students and whether we had some food already. He invited us to have a bite in his apartment that also served as his office. He was the building’s janitor – member of a by now extinct species: the “házmesters” of Budapest. His gesture, I must say, stunned me more than the firing by the Soviet tank. Janitors were, indeed, a peculiar group, many of whom informed the Arrow Cross thugs hunting for Jews in 1944, only to become dependable informers of the Communists within a year after the war. This Boráros Square “házmester” broke ranks with the largely negative stereotype of his ilk. We shall never know his reasons for showing such decency and compassion, though we know his act was out of character with the Budapest “házmester”. In general, people supporting the revolutionary demands in 1956 were driven morally, thinking patriotically and acting with courage. Understandably, some of them were not clean-cut revolutionaries without a past, in contrast to young students or the youths fighting on the streets. But those days it mattered little whence one had come; what was important was where one was heading. That is why the gesture of that “házmester” symbolised for me the exceptional solidarity among Hungarians during the 1956 Revolution.