Young foot soldier of the Revolution
|In the fall of 1956 I was a second-year student at the Petõfi High School of Buda. In those days we did not talk much about politics. It was maybe because we brought our political views from home and the politics beyond that - even in school - was just communist junk that we were trying to ignore. The Writers' Association and the Petõfi Circle were far beyond our interest. The only place I noticed some changes was the newspaper called Free Youth (Szabad Ifjúság). This was the weekly of the communist youth association (DISZ). It was the only newspaper we could read on issues teenagers were interested in. In the fall of 1956 the newspaper was definitely opening toward Western culture. At that time I had already been an enthusiastic jazz fan. Every evening I listened to the 45-minute jazz program of the Voice of America. I was happy to suddenly read positive articles on Louis Armstrong and the rather new rock-and roll, e.g. Elvis Presley which was also of my interest at that time.
So the Revolution was totally unexpected for me. Hereinafter I am not going much into the details of the events of October and November of 1956. On the one hand, they have already been told by many, more competently and authentically. On the other hand, because my role in the events was scarcely more than a face in the crowd. So, I am going to deal mostly with those events that are of some special individual or general interest.
In the afternoon of 23 October, 1956, I sat down with a big sigh to do my homework in the apartment of our family in Attila Street (it had a view of the Vérmezõ park, opposite the Déli railway station). I was a smart kid, so the school, set to the average (or low) intelligence, made me immensely bored. Although I was reading books voraciously - good literature but trash as well - I did not feel any challenge to excel at school. As I was writing my homework, I looked up and saw that a group of 20-30 people with our national flags were marching through the Vérmezõ from left to right, namely towards Széll Kálmán Square. I was surprised, although I had already known that some kind of a peaceful demonstration had been planned. In those days I could get distracted from homework even by a sparrow flying by the window, so I quickly jumped up and ran downstairs to see what was going on. I wasn't suspecting that by the time I would return home, I would become a (tiny) part of world history.
The gathering storm
We were heading toward Bem Square. Somewhere on our way I came across my classmate, Béla Leisz and we spent a few hours together. On Bem Square there was already a large crowd. What happened there has been told by many. When the soldiers displayed the Hungarian flag on the barracks behind the Bem statue (the building used to be the MDF headquarters in the early 90's), people broke out in a huge cheer. And now a side comment: I think, usually there is not enough awareness about how splendidly the Hungarian Army and the common, so called blue-uniformed police performed during the Revolution. The peasant boys of the Army did not hesitate even for a moment which side to join in this fight. The same applied to the regular police. They were mainly prole bumpkins who kept intimidating the civilians as it was expected of them. But when they had to make this decision, they knew exactly where to stand. I saw blue-uniformed policemen patrolling in the streets as members of the National Guard many times during the Revolution, but no one gave them a dirty look.
One more thing about Bem Square: sometimes there is a confusion about who recited the poem Nemzeti dal (National Song) there. It was Ferenc Bessenyei. Our other great actor, Imre Sinkovits, later an unforgettable friend of mine, wrote his name - not the last time -into the glorious pages of Hungarian history at the Petõfi statue.
At the Parliament
From here we went to the Parliament. This is a well-known story, too. What I remember clearly is how astonished I was that when the crowd was already repeatedly shouting: Russkies, go home!, Out with the Russians!, and Imre Nagy appeared on the balcony of the Parliament, calling us Comrades!. Then the crowd, as if it had been trained to do it, shouted back as one: We are not comrades! So I thought: Is he really that dumb? Doesn't he understand what this is all about? Of course Imre Nagy has to be put in his place. There was no one else. The least beastly Moscovite was demanded by the crowd, because they did not know of anyone else. And Imre Nagy was not prepared at all to lead such a revolutionary movement, he was swept along by the events. As a matter of fact, in this situation even a Winston Churchill would not have been able to avert the predictable brutal Soviet retribution. To the end of his life Imre Nagy identified with the Revolution. If he had behaved in a cowardly fashion, like others, very likely he could have saved his neck. He chose otherwise. Although I do not think much of his life, as a good Christian, I believe that he redeemed himself with his martyrdom and I bow deeply before his memory.
One more thing I remember from Kossuth Square: at some point the ÁVH goons, or who else, turned off the street lights supposing that we would be frightened in the darkness. We enjoyed an early October evening. The people in the crowd set fire to their newspapers almost simultaneously and these lit up the square for a few minutes. It was heartwarming to see so many issues of the communist daily burning.
To the Radio!
In the meanwhile the red working class got in motion. When somebody issued the word: To the Radio!, dozens of the then standard Csepel trucks appeared. (It must have been the evil CIA who organized it so well!) I was sitting on the front right fender of one of the first Csepels and kept holding hands tightly with the guy sitting on the left fender. Otherwise we would have fallen off, maybe under the wheels. People were sitting on the top of the driving cab as well, and I remember the driver shouting at them to keep their feet apart because he could not see the road. One of the most memorable moment to me, albeit very small, happened during this drive. We were driving along today's Károly Boulevard toward the Radio. I think the Csepel I was sitting on was close to the front of the procession. Ahead of us, there was an old couple standing at a streetcar stop. By their appearance and their attitude they looked to me like old style gentlefolk, to the communists they were probably just old reactionaries. As we were approaching them, a truckful of howling beasts, the man was looking at us with open disgust. What is this damned communist circus again? - he probably thought. Then, as we got closer, the old gentleman realized that we were shouting: Russians go home! and We want freedom!, etc., and in a second a heavenly joy spread over his face. He almost started to jump up and down as he was waving to us with both hands. This small highlight is one of the most important memories that I have of 1956, showing what it was all about.
When we arrived to the Radio there had already been a huge crowd there. From the Múzeum Boulevard we could hardly get into Bródy Sándor Street. By that time the ÁVH soldiers had already been shooting tear-gas grenades. It was the first time of my life that I tasted tear gas. The second time occurred at Columbia University in 1971-72, during the anti-Vietnam demonstrations. Then, of course, I had fights only with the Ho-Ho-Ho-Shi-Minh-type hippies. At the Radio, even the Army joined in. Dozens of young soldiers were arriving, probably from the nearby Kilian barracks. They were hugging stacks of rifles, like brushwood, 6-8 together. I thought I would take one home for later use, but on second thought, I realized that it would have given the willies to my Mother. Than the bullets started their odd patter. I was holed up in a streetcar on Múzeum Boulevard opposite to Bródy Sándor Street, and we were definitely taking incoming fire.
I started to feel terribly guilty because of my Mother. My parents were divorced by then and I lived with my Mother and my little sister. I knew that my Mother was in a fright. She was convinced that where the biggest mess in the city was, that's where her little son would be. And she was right. By that time the shooting could be heard all over the town, even on the other side of the Danube, in Buda. I also thought that to die a hero's death would be a bit premature. This battle is not going to end here, at the Radio. One more thing: according to my Christian belief, the heroes killed there, such as István Hegedûs, the great pentathlete, are sitting at the right of the Lord. May their memory be blessed!
So I went home to reassure my mother, but I was pushing her to let me go back. She agreed only if she came with me. We did reach Kálvin Square, but there was no going further from that point, unless I wanted to drag my mother into the middle of the shootings.
Grounded for a day, then roaming all over town
For October 23 I got my reward: I was ordered not to leave our apartment. I could have snuck out, but my Mother, besides all her love and tenderness, knew exactly how to use an iron fist with her beloved son, if needed. By the 25th the fights stopped, so after a long begging my mother let me out to look around in town. I was strictly ordered to be back at a specific hour of early afternoon. This may have saved my life.
In my curiosity I covered enormous distances that day. Of course, there was no public transportation. I visited my father who then lived in Visegrádi Street. At that time, opposite to the Nyugati railway station - at the place of the underpass that is in front of the present department store, there was a row of bazaar shops with the notorious Ilkovics bar at the end - I saw dead corpses for the first time in my life. One of them was that of an elderly gentleman who even had his hat on and was shot in the middle of his forehead. The other was a young soldier who was sitting peacefully on the entrance stair of a shop, leaning to the wall. The bullet went through his chin and then his throat. I hope it does not sound too morbid, but I could not tear myself away from the sight of this young soldier. I couldn't possibly understand that this good-looking, presumably peasant boy who must have lived, hoped and loved and certainly risked his life 1 or 2 days ago, could just pass away so easily. It was extremely hard to leave that place, though I said my prayers for both of them.
Downtown I passed the Gorkij bookstore. The store, which had been promoting the Soviet culture, was now burnt out. Books and records were thrown in the street. I am not a fan of burning books and records at all, but the Sovietskaya cultura much deserved this. I think the same of the lynching of the ÁVH's murderous thugs, that was committed on Köztársaság Square. My guiding principle on this is that in a revolution, the system being overthrown reaps the fruits of its own bestiality. They've asked for it! Nothing happened on Köztársaság Square that came close to the brutality of the previous Rákosi regime. I accept the lynching that happened there, approve of them even today. I was not there, though.
On my way home I joined a peaceful demonstration near Károly Boulevard. It was an unarmed procession to the Parliament. I walked with them a few hundred meters, but then I remembered my mother's strict order, so I headed home. Once again, this was Thursday, the 25th. Later on Kossuth Square this demonstration was strafed with machine guns by the ÁVH, killing some 110 people. If I had stayed with them, I might have gotten a bullet in my butt, not to mention worse places.
About Radio Free Europe
Then almost 10 days passed without any fights and we thought that everything would be all right. We were listening to the broadcasts of Radio Free Europe and hoped. Now I would like to tell off a rather generally accepted lie. Radio Free Europe never instigated anyone to fight with weapons. They gave advice, encouragement, but only to the effect that we should not be fooled by the communists, and should not give up what we already achieved that far. Anybody who says otherwise is either ignorant, or a liar. What else could they have said then from Munich? People, don't be silly. Go home and lay down the arms. The nice Soviets will come back and everything will be all right?? Who would have believed this bunk? To my opinion it is a profound disesteem of the heroes of '56 to state that the reason they took up arms was that they were fooled by Radio Free Europe. Well, one more thing is that I naively believed, together with many others, in a possible U.S. intervention. The fact that it did not occur doesn't show how cynical and deceptive the U.S was. It only shows how ignorant and uninformed we were.
During my 12-year service in the U.S. Senate, one of my most difficult tasks was to explain to my homeland compatriots what a small spot Hungary is on the map of world politics. To expect the U.S. to risk another world war for this small real estate was nonsense. The Red Army stayed in the country all along, although there was a temporary ceasefire. After the revolution the U.S. sent us tons of aid, tinned food, cheese, chocolate, even chewing gum and cigarettes (I smoked Chesterfields and Camels for the first time in my life, although later I wisely gave that up). I could get dressed partly from the clothes they sent. The U.S. welcomed the tens of thousands of refugees from Hungary with love, jobs, and scholarships. Anyone who expected more than that, e.g. a U.S. invasion, had no idea of the realities of world politics.
The battle of Vérmezõ
Early Sunday morning, November 4th, we were awakened by cannonfire. Although we had heard Nagy Imre's dramatic radio address, replayed a hundred times since then, we soon realized that we had to seek shelter in the basement of our building. Vérmezõ turned into a battlefield. Some 8-10 Soviet tanks camped out there. There was infantry too; they were cowering behind the tanks. Their presence had two reasons. In the huge postal service building over Széll Kálmán Square freedom fighters had taken up positions. On the other side, the Soviets streaming in from Alkotás Street received a drastic welcome from the ramparts of the Castle Hill, above us. Two of my friends excelled at this fight, Öcsi and Dódi Kolompár. They were sons of a gypsy family who a few years before had moved to a flat in Logodi Street, above Attila Street on the hill. They had 4-5 brothers or sisters. Öcsi and Dódi were 2-3 years older than me. This is a big gap at this age, so we weren't really close. Anyway, they were extremely friendly fellows who never made their apparent physical power felt. They fought heroically among the freedom fighters of the Castle Hill area, which taught me a new lesson. Namely, that the trustworthy and honest patriotic gypsy is just as good a Hungarian brother of mine as anybody else meeting this description. The Kolompár brothers were given heavy prison sentences. The last time I saw their mother was in 1957, when we were in line in the yard of the prison of Markó Street to pass in cleaning packages. I was there for my father, who was also jailed there at that time.
During the battle of Vérmezõ, the liberating Red Army set our clothing closet on fire by a phosphorous incendiary bullet, shooting through the apartment next to ours. I always wanted to ask Nikita Sergeyevich Khruschev why that was necessary, but I never had a chance. Fortunately, we were regularly patrolling in the house so the fire was soon noticed and put out. By then all of our winter clothes, coats, scarves, hats had been burnt and become useless. The burnt smell had been biting our noses for months, even after cleaning up the ruins. Also at night, when the gunfire largely ceased, we were peeking out at the Russkies. We saw that this rabble called the Red Army broke into all the shops around Alkotás Street, on the other side of Vérmezõ. They broke into the sweet-shop (liqueurs), the flower shop, the bar (of course!) and even the stationery store. The one shop they did not touch was selling watches and jewelry. Obviously they couldn't read the sign-board and the employees had previously taken out every giveaway item from the store windows, so the place looked rather poor and shoddy. Also it may have had better locks.
Ceasefire and breadline
In the morning of November 7th we woke up to total silence. The Soviets seemed to have ordered a ceasefire in honor of the Great October Socialist Revolution. Along with 2-3 men we decided to get some bread. Somehow we learned that the bakery at the corner of Kékgolyó and Ráth György Streets was working. I did not dare to tell my mother that I was leaving, I just sent word to her to the basement that I left for bread. We did not dare to cross Vérmezõ because of the Soviets. We rather got around it toward Krisztina Boulevard. I was really scared that we would get shot, but fortunately we managed to reach the bakery. There was already a very long line standing there, almost half of Buda. We had to stand in line for almost 8 hours, but we passed the time talking. I went home triumphantly carrying two loaves of bread, 2-kilo each, still warm, under my arms.. Although I think my Mother was much more happy to see me than the bread. I gave a half kilo each to two friendly families, but I did not even think of sharing the rest. Just let your stomachs rumble. I was the one risking my skin, and waiting for 8 hours, - I thought.
Lastly, I want to recall one more episode. In the days of November, the city was still occupied physically by the Soviets. By the Nyugati railway station at a street identity check a Soviet soldier gave my father a giant kick with his boot, where it hurts the most. Though he did not live far from there, he could hardly drag himself home, almost crawling. After that, for several days I went to his place in Visegrádi Street by bicycle to start the fire in his stove, to get him food, etc. One day I was riding home along Szent István Boulevard toward the Margaret Bridge. By that time a few of the buses were running, but not the streetcars because the rails had been torn up. I was passing by a crowded bus, on the back stair of which the actor Imre Sinkovits was standing. At that time the back platforms of the buses were still open. One could travel on the steps if the bus was too crowded. At both sides of the bridgehead Soviet tanks were posted. On our side a Soviet soldier was standing in front of the tank. As the bus got there - I was about 5 meters behind them - Imre delivered a huge spit to the Russki's feet. The Russki never batted an eyelid. He might have thought that in Hungary too, this was the way of greeting each other. Of course, at that time I did not know Imre personally, but many years later I shared this story with him at his great pleasure.
In 1957, in my high school, I joined an anti-communist conspiracy and later I spent time in prison. I hesitated whether to write up that story or the one above, and I chose the latter. That's because the previous one had already been written several times, e.g. in an excellent, long interview with me and five of my co-conspirators in the March 11, 2006 issue of Magyar Nemzet. The interview entitled A Népköztársaság nevében
can be found in Hungarian on the Internet. It was written by István Stefka. I cannot add much to that.