Sparked by Technical University students, continued worldwide
|In October 1956, I was a second-year student of civil engineering at the Technical University in Budapest. Coming from one of the country's eastern cities, I lived in a dormitory available to our university's students on nearby Bartók Béla street.
After all college students returned from summer vacation, the mood in Budapest was changing fast. At the reburial of a communist hero, László Rajk, who became a victim of the purges in 1949-1953, things were getting out of control. Many students participated in the 100,000-strong crowd in the cemetery.
After the MEFESZ -- a democratic student organization, set up in 1946 - was re-established at the Szeged University on October 16, 1956, a large meeting was called by DISZ, the official communist youth organization, at our university on October 22. This meeting, one could say, with hindsight, became a fateful event among several developments in those days which led inevitably to the outbreak of the revolution. I was in attendance in the Aula at this mass meeting, together with a couple of thousand other students.
Three very significant things happened at that assembly, which ran from 2:30 pm to nearly midnight. It was the first meeting in memory where questions were not pre-arranged slogans glorifying the regime, but where - because of the insistence of the crowd - everyone was allowed to speak, and raise questions. As a result, the two students from Szeged who came to share their thoughts with us about their new initiative, were able to address the audience freely - by then, the party secretary and staff of the Marxism-Leninism Department long left the place, because they could not stomach the anarchy they had never expected to face and did not know how to deal with. The meeting decided by acclamation that the Technical University, too, would set up a chapter of MEFESZ.
During the questions, a stuttering colleague raised a very daring question: Why are Soviet troops still stationed in the country? He lived in my dorm, and was a fourth year student of civil engineering: András Bálint. In the stunning silence, everyone looked at their neighbor with the customary suspicion: what does he or she think? Will I be denounced? But then, in a couple of seconds, as a groundswell, the whole audience started to chant with full force: Ruszkik, haza! - Russians, go home! This phrase that had not been uttered in public for eleven years, now reverberated in the most prestigious halls of the university, and of the capital. From such a radical manifestation of the demands, there was no return to the DISZ-days.
In the remainder of the night, the famous 16 points, summarizing the students' demands, were adopted, and it was decided that the next day we would all march in a silent demonstration to the statue of General Bem, a Polish hero of the 1948 freedom fight in Hungary against the Habsburg dynasty - to show our sympathy with the workers of Poznan, in Poland. There was also serious unrest there, and the news had reached all neighboring countries rather quickly.
We all left the Aula dead tired, but went back to our dorm to type dozens of copies of the 16 points for distribution on the streets next morning. The director of the dorm, a party member, was helpful in allowing us to use the typewriter, providing paper and carbon papers for the late night shift
Next morning, we went down to the street and posted the 16 points on trees, with thumbtacks. I got on the streetcar on Bartók Béla street, and the conductor said: please, don't pay, just give me a copy of the students' declaration
the city was becoming a beehive, with excitement and expectations.
In the afternoon of that fateful day, October 23rd, I marched to the Bem statue with thousands of others. From there, we went to the Parliament building, where the crowd demanded Imre Nagy - perhaps the only genuinely popular communist in the country. Well over a 100,000 people assembled there, and some of us were burning the party daily, the Szabad Nép - Free People -- on the square, until he showed up. But he was too timid, addressed us as comrades, and people hissed and booed. He then said: My fellow compatriots and while we were not fully satisfied with what he had to say, we left the square with a sense of hope.
But it did not last long. That night, by that time, fighting had broken out, first at the Radio, where students wanted to have the 16 points broadcast, but were rejected, the giant Stalin statue was brought down, and the fight began to spread to other locations in town. I got as close to the Radio as the corner of the National Museum, where people were already ducking from strafing by secret police, trying to keep everyone out from the Radio. The revolution began before our eyes.
Two days into the fighting in town, I was going to the Pest side with the head of the Revolutionary Student Committee of our dorm. We took the Petõfi bridge, the only one the Russians allowed civilians to use, heading for another dorm on Szentkirályi street, to get in touch with other students, with whom further coordination on our positions was essential. Making our way on streets, we arrived at Bakáts Square, and saw a Soviet tank in front of the church. We tried to cross the square when a sudden thunder scared us stiff, and down we went to the ground: the tank shot into one of the church towers. We ran for dear life, reached the corner of the closest side street, and because we heard the tank moving, we kept running. Typical of the black humor of those days, as we ran by a large gate, a young fellow screamed with full voice: Don't shoot, you have people here! We stopped only at Boráros Square, at the bridge we came from.
As we were passing by one of the buildings on the square, a middle aged man turned to us and asked: Are you students, have you eaten anything today? Please come in the building to safety, and I'll give you some food. You know, I am the caretaker of the building. I was more stunned than by the firing of the tank. It had been well known that most of the dreaded caretakers (házmester) of buildings in Budapest were informers of the Hungarian Nazi party in 1944, and after the war they switched their allegiance to their new communist bosses.
This story, to me, is only one of many examples, but an excellent one, of the solidarity that was born among Hungarians in 1956, in the capital, in rural villages, and cities all over the country; in the streets, at workplaces, in shops, in hospitals, bakeries, and I could go on listing every venue, where more than a couple of persons congregated. Solidarity with everyone, none of whom we knew.
Like high voltage electricity, something nearly supernatural stirred people's hearts, minds and consciousness. And we were all aware of it. I have known nothing more uplifting in my life than those shared feelings with strangers.
Revolutionary Student Committee and National Guard
By the fourth day, fighting still continued, and I started to work with the Revolutionary Student Committee in the dorm. Care shipments were arriving from the West, and some reached the Kelenföld railway station in Buda, which is not far from our university. The national railways called the Student Committee to fix the problem - take the stuff from the wagons and help distribute the contents among the population.
Well, we needed a truck. I went down to the street in front of our dorm, and stopped a truck. The middle-aged driver nodded when I asked him, Do you want to work for the Revolutionary Student Committee? He was a jovial man, with a free expression on his face. He seemed happy to be able to do something, though he cautioned, kids, without gasoline, we won't be able to do a thing. With the head of our Committee, I went over to the military barracks across the street, and we asked them for fuel on behalf of the revolutionary students. The commander agreed. Our driver got gasoline daily, but one morning, when he was on his way to the city of Gyõr in western Hungary, to bring back a shipment of aid, they refused to fill up his tank. I rushed across the street, asked for the commandant, and reminded him of our agreement, and that the fuel was needed to keep the revolutionary students going, to enable them to discharge their duty. They said fine, but from then on, I had to sign a receipt every time we tanked. And we tanked more often, because in the next couple of days, I got the Committee a small bus, a sedan and ten new motorbikes - the latter from a nearby police station, where we requisitioned the bikes in the name of the Revolutionary Student Committee, and I proudly signed papers acknowledging their patriotic assistance by giving us the brand new bikes. To put it more simply, I signed a receipt for the new motorbikes and gave it to the police chief.
Our motorized Committee became more efficient in assisting the newly formed National Guards, and responding to requests from the population. One day, when we were already armed members of the National Guard, our Committee got a call from a family on Sasadi street at night, to help make peace between two neighbors, one of whom was suspected to have been a member of the secret police and a man to fear. We got into our car and out we went to the scene. It turned out, none of them was secret police, but they had a nasty relationship as neighbors, and luckily they trusted the admonitions of the revolutionary students to bring their issues to closure in such difficult times, when everyone had to focus on greater causes. Both thanked us.
While I felt proud of my modest contributions to the Committee's work, after November 4, it wasn't lost on me that I had to assess the potential consequences of my activities undertaken as an enthusiastic revolutionary.
Fighting with words
By mid November, it became evident the revolution was lost. Not only the street fights, but also the lengthy demands of the students, which were fully supported by the whole society, but were not going to be met. Instead, we heard more and more of reprisals and arrests, and an air of bitter disillusionment began to replace the heady days of the victorious revolution. Yet there was still a great number of people, including students, who were ready fight with words, to uphold the ideals of the revolution.
Those of us who left the country in November, as I did, were proven right, if not by the end of that month, then in January, but, at the latest, in April 1957, when the MEFESZ was absorbed into the new state apparatus, and KISZ - the Young Communist League took over, under the watchful eyes of the party. And a few students were executed and the jails were filling up.
I arrived in the US on January 17 in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Soon I was up in Boston, and started washing dishes in an exclusive place on Commonwealth Avenue: the Algonquin Club. It still stands there today, a well kept grey building, with its old pristine atmosphere. After I was interviewed for a scholarship to Harvard College in April 1957, I did not last much longer at the club - to the chagrin of the Hungarian boss of the pantry department, who had been a postal clerk since days of the Monarchy until the end of WW II. I left for an English course, so I could enter and stay in school in the fall semester.
But, while washing dishes, I had time to work with Béla Lipták, Mártha Szacsvay, Ede Németi and others in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to prepare the first congress of Hungarian students in the United States, to be held at the University of Chicago in June. I became an incorporating founder of the Association of Hungarian Students in the United States, and the next year, they elected Gyula Nyíri as vice president of the organization - who happened to be myself, with an alias, not to provoke the authorities back in Hungary, because of my parents.
Dedication to the ideals
Work for the student association was almost a full time activity, going to the office late night to dictate letters, write circular notes to members, fix the mailing list, stencil copies for distribution, etc. How we did it is beyond me. But we made things happen, with an unfailing dedication. We were not interested in getting a car or spending time with roommates, and college colleagues. We continued to work for the ideals of 1956. One of my best friends who is no longer with us, was asked: How do you students live? He answered with a question in jest: Is this life? But, we had our convictions, and did our own thing.
In the 1958-1959 school year, when I was acting president of the association, together with György Olgyay, we ran day-to-day affairs over the whole year, and then with many others organized our annual congress in Athens, Ohio in June. A delegation to our congress from the Union of Free Hungarian Students that was the apex of all 56 student organizations in fourteen countries, working out of Geneva, Switzerland, asked me if I wanted to run for president in the fall. After consulting about a leave of absence with my Senior Tutor at Kirkland House, Professor St. Claire, I told János Szokolóczy that I would accept.
Hungarian students worldwide
The next year and a half was one of the most fascinating periods of my life - seen not only then, but even from today. I was elected president of the UFHS, with the full backing of my predecessor, Géza Mihályi, in Donaueschingen, a small town at the source of the Danube river, on October 21, 1959. It would be difficult even to sum up here, how much the Hungarian refugee students achieved through their organizations in three continents in 1957-1966, and beyond then as individuals. My book on the history of the Hungarian student movement abroad fills 240 pages (Tanulmányúton - az emigráns magyar diákmozgalom 1956 után, published in Hungarian by Századvég and the 56-Institute in 1992) and it does not even touch in detail on all the activities carried on in the various member organizations. It is the account of a witness, but written as a study, rather than a personal recollection in narrative style for light reading.
The UFHS later took the name MEFESZ, and represented the main demands of 1956, withdrawal of Soviet troops, free elections, democracy, and social justice for all, and helped unmask the bloody reprisals after November 4, and Soviet occupation of the country. Our organization, representing some 7,000 students, was repeatedly invited as a fraternal observer to the International Student Conferences between 1957-1965, where national student unions from up to 70 countries were represented. In pressing for a resolution on the plight of Hungarian students, I cautioned some skeptic student leaders from third world countries at the 1960 International Student Conference in Klosters, Switzerland, that Hungarian students had known more than one form of dictatorship in the 20th century, and were committed democrats. We were not only recognized, but the Conference sent a cable to Hungary's leaders, demanding to free the ailing István Bíbó from jail.
Our aim was also to represent the interests of refugee students at all kinds of forums, where decisions were made about scholarships and student aid. The paramount goal was to ensure that as many students as possible completed their education, as soon as possible. We owed this to ourselves and to Hungary. Having arrived in the West with a serious intellectual deficit, we promoted gatherings of fellow students in many countries to listen to outstanding Hungarian and local intellectuals on current topics, and Hungarian history and culture - to fill the gap, left by our one sided education back home in the 50s.
Looking back from a distance of fifty years, I savor the fruits of a privileged destiny: I belong, together with thousands of other Hungarians, to a generation the ardent wishes of whose youth have been fulfilled: Hungary is a sovereign, democratic country. We just need to help those now who can improve the quality of Hungarian democracy, to reap the full benefits of the country's integration into western structures.
After leaving Hungary in 1956, he completed his studies at Harvard College and MIT. He served as president of the worldwide organization of Hungarian émigré students and later supported a number of Hungarian-American organizations. He spent eight years in developing countries with an international consulting firm, and worked at the World Bank for over 29 years. He has been a board member of the Hungarian American Coalition, continues international consulting, and writes on public issues in Hungary. He divides his time between Budapest and Washington, DC.