[DEBATE] : My Hungarian revolution
grinker at mweb.co.za
Thu Oct 19 19:31:10 BST 2006
My Hungarian revolution
What it was like to be a nine-year old 'class enemy' when Soviet tanks
rolled into Budapest to crush the 1956 Hungarian uprising.
I was nine years old when fighting broke out in Budapest in October 1956. At
the time I naively thought that the uprising against the Hungarian regime
and its Soviet masters was the most important event in the world. It wasn't,
but it did mark a crucial chapter in the disintegration of Stalinism.
The events of 1956 were a turning point in the fate of the Soviet empire and
its sympathisers in the West. More than any other event, the Hungarian
revolution served to discredit the Soviet Union and the international
Communist movement. Millions of people who were sympathetic to the Soviet
cause reacted with horror to the sight of Red Army tanks crushing a popular
workers' uprising in Budapest. Western communist parties suffered a serious
loss of members and many never recovered from the shock. Inadvertently, the
revolution served as a catalyst for deepening divisions within the official
Communist movement and accelerated the coming Sino-Soviet split.
It is hard to overestimate the loss of legitimacy suffered by the Stalinists
in 1956. Until the Hungarian revolution the official Communist movement
enjoyed considerable cultural authority amongst the Western intelligentsia,
as young artists and intellectuals were influenced by communist politics and
ideas. After 1956, large sections of progressive opinion became estranged
from the official Communist movement. And when young people rebelled in the
1960s they were no less critical of Moscow than of Washington. That after
1956 the Soviet leadership ceased to inspire the younger generations was one
of the main accomplishments of the Hungarian October. There were of course
other influences that contributed to this development, but after the
crushing of a movement of students and workers it became impossible for
Moscow to retain its radical credentials.
My revolution began in a steaming kitchen, where the mother of my best
friend Gabi had just cooked the family duck. In ritualistic fashion all of
us children lined up to receive our ration of dripping on garlic toast. I
have never forgotten the Proustian moment as I took in the aroma of the
crackling and the garlic, only to be rudely interrupted by loud shouts
coming from the street. We could not believe our eyes when we looked out of
the window. There were thousands of people singing and shouting and
thoroughly enjoying themselves. Uncharacteristically we forgot about our
treat. Within a couple of minutes I had learned a new word - 'demonstration',
and as Gabi and I ran into the procession I think we sensed that our lives
would never be the same again. This was late afternoon, 23 October 1956, and
the Hungarian revolution was about to erupt.
I grew up in a family intensely hostile to Hungary's Stalinist regime. My
father Laszlo was denounced as a 'class enemy', and in 1948 he had been
arrested and interned for five months. His crime was to be a self-employed
watchmaker and a member of the populist Smallholders Party. In 1955 he spent
another nine weeks in jail. The suspicion directed at my dad extended to the
whole family. As a result my sister Judith was prohibited from going to
university. Although she graduated from high school with top scores in 1955,
she was informed that she was a 'class alien' and therefore not deemed
suitable for higher education. Thwarted from realising her ambition to
become a doctor, Judith became involved with clandestine anti-government
student groups that emerged in Budapest in early 1956.
>From an early age I was instructed to watch my steps and to beware of the
Communists. Suspicion towards the enemy even extended to my relations with
other children. At school I instinctively knew to be wary of mixing with the
children of Communist Party members. All my childhood friends knew that they
had to watch their words. We loved sharing crude anti-Communist jokes among
ourselves, but we also understood that we could get our families and us into
serious trouble if we were overheard by the wrong people.
Until the outbreak of the revolution, my most daring and exciting experience
was to accompany my dad on his expeditions to an underground bookshop. At
this time publications were heavily censored. Many pre-war books had been
taken off library shelves, and the reading of politically incorrect texts
was discouraged. One of our acquaintances, an octogenarian former bookseller
called Jancsi, had turned his apartment into an illegal bookshop. To create
space for the thousands of books piled up in his flat, Jansci got rid of
most of his furniture. For me this strange musty smelling place was an
enchanted world. I loved listening to the animated discussions as customers
debated the merits of this or that book. This was a special place where a
child's imagination could run riot without fearing official retribution. It
was here that I discovered the Hungarian translations of Wild West stories
written by the German author Karl May, and developed a boyhood fascination
with the American frontier. I sometimes think that everyone who entered
Jancsi's literary den left a different person.
For my family reading served as a form of defiance. My father, along with
thousands of other Hungarians, sought to get his hands on uncensored foreign
newspapers and reading material. In early 1956 groups of Hungarian
dissidents and intellectuals began to publish underground newssheets. It was
at this time that my sister stopped coming home after work in the evenings.
Relatives asked 'is it a love affair'? My dad winked and proudly declared
that 'she is at a meeting'. Something was clearly stirring. And gradually
people were becoming more open about stating their views in public. That is
why when the revolution broke out we were not entirely surprised.
It began as a student demonstration of solidarity with striking workers in
Poland. Before the day was out the people of Budapest were demanding the
resignation of the Stalinist Government and the withdrawal of Soviet troops
from Hungary. How did it feel? I still recall the powerful sense of
exhilaration that swept people into the street, filled with excitement,
confidence, hope and above all the feeling that just about anything was
possible. I usually got told off when I returned home late but on the 23rd
my family was far too preoccupied with the unfolding events to care too much
about my misdemeanour. I was nine and a half but on that night and the weeks
to follow I did not feel like a child.
We lived on Museum Boulevard, opposite the National Museum and just a couple
of blocks away from the Magyar Radio building, where people gathered in the
evening to demand that their 16 Points should be transmitted to the nation.
My sister and I had barely left our house to join the crowd before we heard
the sound of machine gun fire. Suddenly the carnival-like atmosphere that
prevailed throughout the day disappeared, and my neighbourhood began to
resemble a war zone. During the next couple of days it was difficult to
figure out what was happening. Almost overnight thousands of civilians
acquired arms and battles raged between them and the AVO - the secret
police. Teenagers armed with Molotov cocktails and rifles were often in the
forefront of attacking Soviet tanks patrolling the streets. My most shocking
moment during that week occurred on Saturday 27 October. Walking with my
father, we saw a crowd standing around the corpse of a young freedom fighter
who was lying on the pavement just off Calvin Square. My father covered my
eyes with his hands and ordered me to move on. In retrospect I think he was
more disturbed by this young man's death than I was.
The 20,000 Russian troops and their 1000 tanks that occupied Budapest failed
to prevent the collapse of the Stalinist regime. On Sunday 28 October, a
ceasefire was arranged and Moscow announced that it would pull out its
troops from Hungary. On that day I was allowed to go to my local playground.
But instead of playing, my gang of friends stood around discussing what we
had seen of the revolution. Sporadic fighting still continued and we swapped
stories about what was going on. We all had strong views about the meaning
of these momentous events but agreed that from here onwards our lives would
During the following week I saw little of my sister and father. My sister
got involved with a group of medical students who were helping to
co-ordinate emergency services. My father became a member of the Workers'
Council of the 5th District of Budapest and devoted his time to organising
the delivery and distribution of bread in our neighbourhood. Our friends
gave him the nickname Mr Kenyeres - bread man. On Sunday 4 November I went
to the park and joined my friends in a game of football. That was the last
time I saw them. I did not know at the time but on that morning a massive
force of Soviet troops invaded Hungary. Within a week they succeeded in
crushing the revolution.
During the week following the Russian invasion everyone seemed to be glued
to their radio listening to Radio Free Europe, waiting to hear if the West
would come to our rescue. However, soon it became evident that there was no
knight in shining armour ready to help us. As euphoria gave way to
demoralisation my sister took the initiative and declared that we could no
longer stay in our home. We all knew that she was right, fearing that it was
only a matter of time before my father would be arrested by the newly
installed puppet regime. We did not tell anyone that we were going to flee
to the West. And we left everything behind.
On the night of 21 November the four of us crossed the border to Austria.
Between us we carried two sacks, a small suitcase and a lot of dreams. My
sister was certain that she would become a surgeon. My mother looked forward
to a life where she did not have to worry about someone knocking on our door
in the middle of the night. My dad talked ceaselessly about all the books he
was going to read. And I was preparing to meet my first cowboy. As we
watched the stars in the black Austrian sky, the family was ready for the
adventures to come. And to this day I derive strength and hope from the
experience of October 1956.
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