Toppling of the Stalin statue
I was not into politics
As a student of steel structures in my final year at the Eötvös Loránt Technical School, I was not interested in politics. I knew what you could and could not say outside the home, and adhering to these rules, I became the school's cultural attaché. I was focused on the theater and the film world and spent all my free time buying theater tickets and distributing them to the students and teachers at the school. Often I took the entire school, all twelve grades at once, (during school hours, of course,) to the Tátra Movie house for special films. The theater was only a few hundred meters from the school. School itself did not interest me, but that was the only school that accepted me since my father had been intelligentsia.
I hadn't heard of any plans ahead of time; neither had any of my brothers. At home everything was fine and I kept busy with school and the theater. On October 23rd I went to school and the day passed without incident. In the afternoon I went to the Opera House to account for some tickets and pick up new ones. When I came out of the opera's administrative office it could have been about four o'clock. Suddenly, I saw a paper pasted on the exterior wall of the Opera House. I stopped to see what it said. To my greatest surprise, it was the typewritten 12 (that's how I remember it) points of the students. Several times I looked around to see who might catch me reading these words. I was overwhelmed by wonder, something like, this can happen in this country? I read it four, five times and just shook my head, almost in fear. I started toward home in Soroksár, and on the outer Ring Road I climbed onto the back step of the trolley, balancing on one leg. When the trolley passed the National Theater, I saw a gathering of people in the square behind it. I jumped off the train as it was moving to go and see what was happening.
In the midst of the crowd
In the small square in front of the department store there stood a statue. From that statue's pedestal college students were reciting patriotic poems and reading aloud the same 12 points that I had read on the Opera wall. At this point I, too, got mixed in with the growing crowd. I listened and cheered the proceedings. There, in those minutes, we decided to go and topple Stalin's statue. The statue was the symbol of the hatred of the Russians and the Communists; we believed then that its toppling would be Communism's toppling (it's possible that this same idea occurred to others elsewhere.) Arm in arm with complete strangers and with a great clamor, we started toward the inner Ring Road, from there onto Kossuth Lajos Street toward the park. Because there were so many of us, and the crowd was increasing minute by minute, we had to walk in the street because the sidewalks were too narrow. Since we were blocking the trucks from getting through, the drivers asked us with great curiosity what was going on. When we told them our mission, they joined in the spirit and immediately offered to drive us in their trucks. In many many trucks, loaded with people, we arrived at Heroes' Square. There the crowd grew and grew and grew. It was as if the same thing had happened in many parts of the city, (I just know where I was) the crowd just grew and grew.
Our plan sounded good, but making it happen was not child's play. Just climbing onto the giant hulk of a statue was hard enough, let alone moving it. But we were a young, clever, determined crowd and we did not know the word impossible. We needed a solution to carry out our plan. It turned out to be good that all the trucks that had brought us here were there, so that we could be used them place of our hands. Hanging on the back of one truck was a long length of cable, which seemed ideal. Since the statue was so big that it was impossible to climb to its shoulder, we had to throw a lasso onto his head, and climb up that rope in order to tie the cable around his neck. At that is how it happened. Now we tied these cables to several different trucks and tried to pull him off his pedestal, but the statue did not budge. Four, five trucks still could not move him; their wheels just spun. First we all tried climbing onto the trucks for weight, but that yielded no results, plus it was too dangerous and we didn't want to cause bodily harm to anyone. One of our biggest problems was how to keep the crowd at a distance, out of harm's way. There were so many of us and everyone wanted to help, but we could only accomplish something if we proceeded thoughtfully and carefully.
So the wheels were spinning, and we were getting nowhere. One boy says that close to here they are doing road construction and there are lots of cobblestones there. In minutes they loaded up four trucks, but we feared that the rubber would strip off the tires under the huge weight. Now the tires would definitely not be spinning. We began to tie the cables behind the loaded trucks. Our biggest problem was still persuading the crowd to stand back, so that there would be room for the trucks to move, and if the cable snapped, someone could be killed. Finally, somehow we made enough room and the truck engaged on our signal. And now! Pull down the despised, hulking portrait, strangled with metal cable. Over and over, Now! Pull! Watch out! But the statue did not even shudder. The cables snapped one after the other and we, in our anger and powerlessness stood on the verge of tears. We encouraged each other, man has put it there, so man can take it down. We had to be smarter. One of the boys who went to Technical School, like me, said his school was relatively close and they had some welding torches. Immediately he left with five other boys and in a short time returned with the equipment. The crowd was excited that we were persevering, and instead of thinning out it just kept growing. Much help was offered, there were many of us with substantial knowledge either from school or factory work, so within minutes we had cut the statue under his knees and again the greatest problem was holding back the eager crowd. No one there was foreman or line-worker, student or teacher. There everyone was equal and everyone wanted to help. That's how it happened; we succeeded in getting the crowd backed up and then the trucks succeeding in pulling down the now weakened statue amidst a great roar of crunching and snapping.
Perhaps the greatest moment of joy in my life, up to that point at least, was when that universally hated symbol fell with a tremendous clamor and then lay there as if dead. Ritualistically we climbed on top of if; feeling as if we had just toppled all of communism. We swam in joy and embraced one another. I turned to a uniformed policeman, whose pistol was hanging, holstered, at his side and asked perhaps cynically, but really more amicably What do you think of this? If you think about it, he could have pulled out his pistol and there would have been a bloodbath, with his own blood included. But far from that, he said Well, son, it's about time that bandit came down from there. And besides, even if I wanted to, what could I do against all these people?
To the Radio
Time was passing quickly. Since four o'clock when I jumped off the trolley, I felt as if I had lived an entire life there at Heroes' Square. It could have been close to ten o'clock when we heard the news that the AVO was firing on the crowd at the Radio. This meant that there was 'trouble' there as well, and that matters were taking a serious turn in ways I couldn't have dreamed of a few hours before. We all agreed to go to the Radio and see what was happening.
The crowd took up the entire width of Andrássy Avenue and there in the crowd I met one of my teachers from the technical school (he was the shop teacher; if only he knew how his teaching had come in handy during the last few hours). I said to him Sir, what are you doing here? He said, Son, things here are getting serious. Since the AVO is shooting at the Radio, we must respond. To my great surprise he said, Before going to the Radio, I have to stop at home and get something that I'll be needing. He didn't say it but I understood he was going home to get a weapon to take to the Radio. That's when I saw him last; I don't know what happened to him since. What he told me filled me with fear, since I knew what a serious crime it was in our people's democracy for someone to own a weapon.
I remembered that my job in the family as youngest boy and being rather small was hiding my brothers' yearly-cleaned and oiled guns underneath the eaves of the hay loft. No grown adult could fit in there and thus would not be found in the event of a house search. So I said to myself, things here are definitely getting serious. I was moving with the big crown toward the Radio, and when I got there I heard the gunshots and saw that there were already some dead. We had no weapons, we just stood and shouted angrily that these rat Avosok are hiding behind walls as they shoot into the crowd. I went out to the Museum Street and saw that they had called out the army, and young soldiers were marching with bayonets at the ends of their guns.
We ran to them in disbelief and said, What are you doing, surely you can't think of firing at your brothers and parents here? One young soldier replied, Of course we're not firing; they drove us out here to scare the people. We don't even have ammo, and besides, if you find me some civilian clothes I'll come and join you. I took off my sweater and gave it to him. He took off his uniform jacket, threw it in a bush in the garden of the National Museum, put on my sweater and joined our group.
It was getting very late and I remembered how much my poor mother worried about me, especially since I was supposed to be home between five and six. I found a phone and called home, and just as I suspected, I got a long lecture from my mother, and she ordered me to go home immediately. Well, it took a long time but by the middle of the night I made it home.
The Tanks are Coming
On October 24th I awoke to the news that the Russian troops were heading for Pest and that they were advancing right through our neighborhood of Soroksár on their way to the city. Well, somehow, we had to stop them. Several of us got together in the main square, and brainstormed about how we could stop the Russian troops from entering the city, at least through Soroksár. Thinking about it now and for some time, I realize how naïve we were, but then we felt that whatever it was, we had to do whatever we could.
We decided to build a barricade in the middle of the street, but one so big that the tanks couldn't cross it. We started grabbing anything we could find and piling it in the middle of the street. There were stones, bricks, sofas, sewing machine, doorjambs, wagons (in working condition and not) and anything else you can imagine finding in a house in Soroksár. We thought that since there was a ditch on one side of the street and the rail tracks on the other, we could stop the Russians. We were proud of ourselves when we looked at the mountain that we had built in a couple of hours.
And the Russians did come, but with such a rumbling from the tank tracks that we heard them long before we saw them. We hid in the bushes and the ditches and waited. Dear Lord, what would happen now? They came closer and closer, your ears could hardly stand the noise. We watched as the trucks that were leading the convoy stopped at the ditch, but the tanks came from behind and went around the barrier by going onto the train tracks and simply returning to the road on the other side, and simply went on, creating a road for the trucks. In our anger and humiliation we jumped out of our hiding places and threw whatever we could get our hands on at the tanks. We had no weapons, but even if we had they wouldn't have made a mark on those tanks.
As soon as the tank convoy passed, the soldiers began arriving by truckfuls and we started pelting them with half bricks and fist-sized rocks. We had broken a good few windows before the soldiers started firing at us and they didn't stop firing until they crossed the main square of Soroksár. We all tried to take cover wherever we could. I lay flat by the sidewalk and just prayed that I make it through this alive. A half a meter away there was a small tree and I inched myself over to it so that I could put my head behind it, thinking that if my body is shot up at least my head won't be. The 15-20 minutes I spent there was the longest wait of my life. When the Russians left and we got up, sadly we found lots of dead among us. When I got up, I looked in the gate of the house right next to me, and found the body of one of my classmate's 11 or 12 year old little brother. He received a shot in the head with by a dum-dum bullet, because the poor little kid's brain matter was splattered all over the gateway. I went home very sad that we could not hold back the Russians, and instead they killed and wounded our neighbors. But these were among the first Russian troops to enter the city and perhaps these were among the ones that perished, burned in their tanks or shot at Corvin Köz, because they were the Russian troops over whom we, Kids of Pest, were victorious in October 1956.
May 27, 1996 - Tucson, Arizona
Youngest of the renowned six Pongrátz brothers who fought in Corvin Köz, he was 17 when he left Hungary. He currently resides in Phoenix, Arizona, and is blessed with fours sons, a daughter, and nine grandchildren. He raised his children as a businessman, but in the last ten years has been sponsoring performers and artists from Hungary. He has organized over a hundred concerts for American, Canadian, and Austrialian Hungarians; he enjoys the company of Hungarians worldwide.