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Memories of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956

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Memories of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956

The sheer joy of freedom

My memories of the wonderful Hungarian Revolution of 1956? My God! Complete
liberation, boundless joy! A holiday of the spirit never experienced before
or since. A oneness with everyone, strangers hugging each other in
incredulous relief everywhere, the stifling oppression that has bent every
shoulder for a decade suddenly lifted, gone, all gone! On my way home from
the afternoon shift from work, where everything went on as normal, the scene
I met seemed surreal. I rode the street car full of celebrating children on Grand Ring Road and watched as their teacher, her face full of joy, participated in their singing of a long-forbidden patriotic song that somehow every child knew, herself as giddy as her pupils. They have been riding the line from end to end and back. Their school function was long finished but nobody wanted to go home. They wanted to participate in this wonder. They waved a flag, the national tricolor – with the hated communist
symbol already cut out from its middle – that someone had given them. They cheered as they spotted a flat-bed truck, one of many, loaded with workers, shouting in
unison the number one slogan of the revolution: Out with the Russians! Out
with the communists! Before the workers were out of earshot they switched to
“General strike!” It was incredible. The very workers whom the communists,
the so-called Hungarian Workers’ Party, were claiming to represent were
openly revealing the communists as liars. Suddenly the communists were left
exposed for who they really were: the instruments of Soviet oppression.
These workers wanted the communists cut out of the fabric of Hungarian
society as their hated symbol had been cut out from the fabric of the flag.
To be a Hungarian in those days was the most wonderful thing in the world.

We are freedom fighters, not thieves

On the East side of Grand Ring Road, near Rakoczy Square, a block or two away from Budapest’s famed Corvin Alley, the seat of the resistance, the jewelry store had a display window, its glass shattered by bullets. Behind the iron bars – but within easy reach – lay several gold watches and a wide assortment of jewelry among the shattered glass. Over a period of three days (and nights), I myself have walked past that window many times, my eyes always drawn to that window but never stopping to look beyond seeing that the display window was still full, everything was there as before. Hundreds of others also walked by and, in that part of the town, many of those would have been desperately poor. Yet the display remained untouched, as if it had been closely guarded all along. In a way, it was. Somebody did reach through the iron bars into the display all right, but not to take anything out. When I finally did stop by the window to have a closer look I noticed that someone had placed a hand-written note inside. It read: “We are freedom fighters, not thieves.” That note sufficed to guard the store window for days. Later, when the communists tried to smear the revolution by calling us hooligans, I always remembered that window with pride. Fifty years later, I still do.

Snowballing events

Ordinary people had done extraordinary things during the revolution. In a situation where everything is out of balance a person with a solid ground to stand on could move mountains. A single act of courage from a teenager could trigger a snowballing chain of events. The young Hungarian soldier peering at me from behind the huge oaken door through a peephole was obviously scared. A large, threatening crowd had gathered on the square, demanding the soldiers yield the cache of weapons rumored to be inside. The young soldier I faced said there was nothing there. They had been ordered to guard the building, that’s all. I made him an offer he could not refuse. Let two of us in to have a look, and we’ll confirm what he is saying to the crowd and the crowd shall disperse. He let us in.
No sooner was I inside, the soldier asked me if I would talk to his commander on the phone. An hour later I was among a crowd of young officers in their barracks. I found them agitated, pacing like caged lions in the walled courtyard, talking among themselves excitedly. They were dying to find out what was happening in the streets. They thronged tightly around me. No audience I ever had clung on my every word like this before or since. A few minutes later I was sitting alone with the commanding general in his office. He was more subdued but no less interested in my news than his officers. My report of what the Russians were doing to the city visibly angered him. He wanted to know what I thought he could do. I asked him what he had done about the AVH, the communist state’s most visible terror establishment whose main barracks were next door to his. He told me that all the officers there had fled, leaving only a sergeant in charge and a regiment of scared conscripts, mostly peasant boys from the villages, who suddenly found that their uniform which inspired fear and hatred before, now only made them targets. The general assured me that his own men were over there now, guarding their weapons stores. “And the conscripts’ own arms?” I asked.
“They still have them.”
I said: “I am not a general but I would not put my men in that situation. Supposing an officer returned and assumed command. How long would it take him to retake control of the stores? What might happen to the men you ordered to guard them?”
His reply astounded me. Would I ride over with him and order the sergeant to disarm his men? I would, I said, but would he have a few trucks ready so that we could get the conscripts to load the weapons onto them? We were fighting the Russians with our bare hands on the streets, I explained. We needed weapons.
The general would. An hour later the deeds were done. The barracks were disarmed, the AVH conscripts instructed to get into their civvies and go home. When the weapons were dispersed the trucks joined the many others headed to the countryside to bring food to the capital. The general joined the resistance with his tanks. All I had to do then was sign the official order form the AVO sergeant asked me to sign. All I had to do a few weeks later was to leave my parents, my siblings, my relatives, my childhood sweetheart, my country, and my language behind.

Kids against tanks

Molotov cocktails and grenades at the ready, we were peering out of the third storey window of the old brick apartment building across from Rakoczy Square on Great Ring Road, watching the approaching tank. It was coming with surprising speed, its turret turning from side to side as it fired indiscriminately into the apartments it passed on either side. When it got close we stayed out of sight but when we heard it approach
under our window we threw everything we had readied at it. To our surprise and fright, we heard it stop. When I peered out I saw that it had spun around and was facing the other way, its turret turned towards the square. Encouraged, we threw several more Molotov cocktails until we hit bulls eye and killed the engine. To our surprise, the tank fired no more. Instead, it straightened its turret and lowered its big gun barrel. It was the international sign of surrender, but we did not know. We kept the fire burning over its engine. As I watched from the window, people I did not know surrounded the quiet tank. A young teenager climbed onto the tank and tried to open the hatch on the turret. I heard sporadic rifle fire and I saw some sparks fly off the turret as the bullets hit. The young fellow on the turret swore and yelled to stop the shooting. By this time he was joined by another, carrying a grenade, telling the other to get off because he was going to blow the hatch open. We were yelling at these kids to get off the tank but they ignored us. The young soldier beside me could stand it no longer.
“I’ve got to go down there and get these stupid kids off the tank!”
I stayed at the window. By this time the square started to fill with the curious. The tank was still. I could see that a small bonfire was burning at the back of it. The soldier managed to intervene before the kid set off the grenade, but now I noticed another soldier, a Russian one, sticking his head out from under the front of the tank.
My soldier and several others, already gathered around the tank, noticed it too. As
he reached for the arm of the Russian to pull him out, I felt my blood freeze. The Russian had produced a grenade, pulled the pin with his teeth and now he was holding it in his fist between my comrade’s legs. I managed to yell out his name in a voice I did not recognize, but he was already running. Subsequently the Russian, followed by
another, emerged from under the tank, threw several grenades in all directions as they started running along the sidewalk. Half a block away one of them was cut down, but I saw that the soldier who climbed out first managed to duck inside a gate further down the road. Nobody followed him. I hope he is telling the story to his grand children as I am telling it here. He was a brave young man and smart, too. Later we learned that these soldiers had no idea where they were. Some thought that the Danube was the Suez Canal.

Magnificent grief

Imagine a large European capital city in a November night with the lights turned out in an unforced blackout. As the tall buildings stretched higher into the dark, lighted candles started flickering at first in some of the windows, then soon in all of them. They burned all night. It was a magnificent gesture and a wonderful sight. It was the eve of “the Day of the Dead” in Hungary, traditionally celebrated by taking flowers to, and lighting a candle on the graves of family members. By lighting a candle in their own homes, Hungarians were accepting the death of our mostly young fighters as a death of a family member. The sight and the message were equally moving. Hungarians are famous for infighting. It was this inner division that allowed the Russians to rule. But in that October of 1956 city and countryside, workers and peasants, young and old stood together in joy and in grief as one people. The sight I remember of my home town on that night is unforgettable but it is the bonding of the nation at that historic moment that is more unforgettable still.
Comic relief

I lived in an outlying suburb of Budapest but spent the first days of the revolution downtown where the action was, before the thought of my mother’s worry weighed on me enough to make my way home in a commandeered factory truck. I could not phone home. Nobody had a phone in our working class neighborhood as no worker or peasant ever had a phone in “the Hungarian workers’ and peasants’ state.” While my mother rushed to prepare something warm for the driver and for me to eat, my neighborhood friends showed up to exchange resistance stories.
It seems that they got hold of a small howitzer and, as one of the main arterial roads to Budapest ran through our suburb, they set up this howitzer strategically in the yard of the roadside elementary school, waiting for a column of tanks to appear. But nobody knew how to operate it, so when a column did appear and as it drew near, the kids thought it best to save the gun by rolling it behind the building and out of sight. They managed to save the gun several times in this way, until they found an old veteran who knew what to do. Under his direction they readied the gun and aimed it. The veteran told them to wait until he gave the signal to fire. He wanted results so he held back on giving his order until the first tank was close enough for a direct hit. However, he waited too long. As the deadly tanks came really close, his inexperienced young crew had lost its nerve and so when he finally yelled “Fire!” – there was nobody there. The lead tank came by and, turning its turret on it and firing from very close range, disabled the howitzer with a single shot without even bothering to slow down. Further down the road was a different story. There the column was halted for more than an hour – by a bucket. The kids managed to string a bucket hanging from a long rope over some electric wires that spanned the road at a railway crossing. They had no explosives so they put a brick into the bucket to weigh it down. Hiding behind a large brick factory wall and some roadside buildings, they could see the road while they manipulated the bucket. The lead tank detected the movement of the bucket on its approach and stopped. The column stopped behind it. The lead tank crept forward a little. The bucket descended a little. There was a long wait as the tank waited for orders from high command on how to proceed. What it received in the end was a very high command order. Following that order the tank fired many rounds with its cannon at the bucket that was now moving like a yo-yo. The column did not move on until the bucket was hit some considerable time later, producing a puff of brick dust.

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