Dear '56 Association!
The invitation published in the October issue of Új Magyarország [New Hungary] moved me to write down the story of the most uplifting umpteen days of my life, in order to dredge up the moral capital that has been deeply buried (both literally and figuratively speaking) for several decades, so that as a last reserve it may assist me in my protracted and often seemingly hopeless struggle for regime change.
Just as I worried needlessly after ‘56 that I would one day be called to account for what I went through that October, I now see that my hopes of anyone considering me worthy of a pat on the back after Imre Nagy’s re-interment were similarly in vain.
Because I was neither a “hero”, nor a martyr, nor a politician; just a simple foot soldier of the uprising.
I took part in a winning and a losing battle, but neither was followed by ecstatic embracing, and neither made me stand out from the nameless crowd of revolutionaries.
The losing battle was the last, in Móricz Zsigmond Square, and it carried the accelerating pace of events almost inevitably towards the tragic conclusion.
The 23rd of October was passed in enthusiastic rubber-necking. I let myself be carried along by the crowd, until dusk overtook me just as the Stalin statue was toppled.
The next day, perhaps in response to a call put out on the radio, but also out of patriotic zeal, I went to donate blood at Karolina Road, then went to work as a stretcher bearer for the Tétényi Road Hospital. In a Csepel truck padded all around with mattresses, we traversed the city, seeking out the scenes of fighting. This was how I came to witness the massacre in front of the parliament building, among others. This was also where I met for the last time with Kati Magyar, a friend from school and college, who soon afterwards was killed with similar brutality, gunned down while transporting the wounded. (Later I met their parents and promised to make Kati’s gravestone, but regrettably I haven’t managed to honour that promise to this day.)
Perhaps it was on the night of the same day that I picked up two armed freedom fighters with a few crates of hand grenades at Széna Square, reminding them that this sort of thing gives the secret police an excuse to fire on cars displaying the red cross.
On the 27th, as the fighting had died down there seemed to be no sense in spending the night crowded together on the floor in the passages of the hospital’s basement, and Father Béla Körmendi, who took care of everything – nursed, buried and provided spiritual solace day and night – sent me home for some rest.
The next morning, awaking ready for action, I talked my Greek friend Andreas Papachristos, a sculpture student about to graduate, who was lounging around bored with a few of his friends in the hall of residence, to come and have a look around the city.
It occurred to me that during my stint as a stretcher-bearer I’d got to know one of the famed “Corvin” fighters, who’d invited me to joint them. We set off in that direction, and fortunately surviving a round of machine gun fire directed at us at knee height (in Úttörő Square?), we arrived at the Corvin Cinema. While I hesitantly tried to find my acquaintance, a truck stopped and people started unloading its cargo of weapons.
I acquired a brand new long-barrelled rifle and a pistol, while my friend got a shorter-barrelled carbine. Thus armed, in a soldier’s cape and my already broken-in driver’s fur coat, we blended in easily with the revolutionaries lounging and taking care of their weapons in the cinema building. Between the rows of seats we were picking up tips from the others on how to strip down, load and use the weapons, when somebody offered me a Soviet PPSh-41 machine gun with a drum magazine in exchange for my pistol. I grabbed the opportunity, and gave my rifle to Andreas who, it turned out later, didn’t cut such a good deal.
I remember a cellar (Práter Street or the hall of residence?), where we tried out our newly acquired weapons – without witnesses – by firing them into coal.
For the first (?) or second time, we awoke with stiff limbs in the ground floor stalls (row 15?) of the Corvin Cinema, and wandered hungrily to the cellar of the Práter Street school, where an armed fighter coming the other way told us (a messenger cometh..) that there was a scrap in Köztársaság Square. Forgetting everything, hungry for action and glory (?) we set off immediately, but by the time we got there on foot the battle was already in full swing. A little subdued now – and bearing in mind that this would be our baptism of fire, and that the cartridge jammed in the rifle after every shot and had to be teased out with a cleaning rod – we chose our battle station with care. We deployed ourselves in the stairwell of the school diagonally opposite the party headquarters, at a height (second or third floor?) from which we could see the revolutionaries on the roof of the Erkel Theatre. We fired at the first-floor windows of the party headquarters that faced us, continuously, until the noise of battle died down. When the resistance ceased, we too formed a group in front of the entrance, but we didn’t have the inclination (guts?) to go inside and take prisoners.
We told Feri (?) – who, as commander of the small squad (of miners?) camping in the ground-floor stalls, had implicitly taken us under his wing, and who was the only person we knew here in Köztársaság Square – that we were hungry, and set off for the Corvin. We left the square with mixed feelings; having had our first taste of civic vengeance, we felt none of the ecstasy and glory of victory.
The next, quiet couple of days spent in the Corvin Cinema were given over to cleaning our weapons, politicising and exchanging banter with a sympathetic Gypsy girl camped out in the first-floor circle. And of course, to the photographing of prominent heroes, who the foreign reporters tried to immortalise while parading them up and down with a variety of weapons. I even said to Feri, who was posing at the entrance to Corvin Close with a machine gun, that this would turn out badly. Everyone knew that the match wasn’t over, and the enemy wouldn’t give up so easily.
That’s why on 1 November we – in and around row 15 – greeted with suspicion the immaculately uniformed officers who lined up on the stage, and announced that we would be divided up into military units. Our section commander was Captain Török, who wrote down our names and addresses (?) in order to fill out the national guard identity cards.
The next day, after educating us on the rights and obligations of the national guardsman, they handed out the identity cards and sent us home saying that we were at peace, and were needed at home, in our own neighbourhoods, to maintain order.
We talked of treachery, but as evening drew near, ragged and dirty, we set off for our comfortable beds in the halls of residence. While crossing Liberty Bridge, to test our newly acquired powers we tried to stop a car, but in fright the driver put his foot down and drove off. I shot twice into the air at this disregarding of my status, and that marked the end of my law enforcement activities once and for all.
Returning to the halls of residence, we had hardly got warm when a delegation arrived to tell us that a secret service agent was hiding in the building of number x Ménesi Road, and we should go and arrest him. We got to our feet, but by the time we arrived at the building all our zeal had gone, and eagerly accepting the news that the secret policeman wasn’t in, we went home relieved.
In the hall of residence, we moved from the upstairs dormitory to the two-bed sick room on the ground floor (a privilege that we retained until we graduated), and lay down to sleep with our weapons in our hands. In the morning we awoke to see Russian soldiers below our windows, carrying mortars up the hill towards the Citadel. Ready to shoot, we looked for cover, but then everything went quiet. We were hungry, and the kitchen was on the other side of Somlói Road, in the girls’ hall of residence. Papachristos decided to go for food on his own (because we heard some suspicious noise) carrying two grenades, and I’d cover him from the terrace with my machine gun. He had barely stepped out of the gate, when 10 Russian soldiers had him surrounded within moments. Seeing their superiority of numbers, luckily I didn’t open fire, although later he told me they found the hand grenades immediately, and because of this they locked him up in the Citadel. During the morning, three uniformed Hungarian soldiers sneaked into the hall of residence. They had escaped from the signals garrison in Villányi Road, which had already been taken by the Russians, and they wanted to find some civilian clothes so they could continue their escape. From my dazzling wardrobe in the hall of residence, I managed to provide all three of them with outer clothing. One of them said he believed Móricz Zsigmond Square was still holding out; the revolutionaries were building a barricade, and he’d be willing to go with me. We cautiously crept down the hill, him in front without a weapon, and me following an appropriate distance behind, concealing the machine gun under my driver’s fur coat. We reached the bottom without any incident, and after a brief reconnaissance (the barricade didn’t look at all secure), we took up a position in the first (?) or second (?) floor apartment, with a balcony, over a shop on the corner of Villányi Road and Bártok Béla Road, with several other unknown revolutionaries.
The neighbours said the flat belonged to a senior doctor who had fled to the west, and apart from its thick walls and robust balcony ornaments it had another attractive feature: it was well stocked with alcohol. Along the whole length of the bookshelves, hidden behind the times, was an endless row of the most varied drinks.
And I certainly needed a little rum, at least a splash of it in the tea that one of the building’s kind lady residents brought occasionally as a cure for my sore throat.
In the long hours of waiting, we prepared for battle. We intended to raise the balcony’s ramparts using cobble stones, and everybody approved of my suggestion that we put the basalt blocks into fruit crates to contain any shards of shrapnel.
I don’t know exactly when it happened, but the enormous explosion and rumbling with which the several-story building barely 100 metres away from us collapsed in on itself certainly seemed like the precursor of an elemental attack. We tried to guess whether the catastrophe had been caused by an ammunition dump, a flying bomb, or perhaps a mortar. (The others had found out that the Russians were already in the Citadel.)
So the night passed without any problems, and the next day we went to face the inevitable battle with greater self-assurance. The barricade was still standing, and behind it were some revolutionaries in civilian clothes with what might have been some fairly heavy-duty anti-tank weapons, and in the cover of an abandoned food stand was a long-barrelled anti-aircraft (?) gun with a uniformed crew (who were joined by my comrade-in-arms, who had accompanied me down the hill). Our sense of security was further bolstered by the tank parked in the mouth of Hunffy Street, among whose crew I also saw a civilian.
But nevertheless, despite all the physical and mental preparation, it was shocking when, around dawn (?), the tanks arrived with a far-off growl. They were lined up for as far as I could see, and, travelling slowly, they fired constantly. It was getting dark now, and you could see the bright shooting slits, and the fireworks mingled with flames that indicated hits on the food stand and the barricade. After firing off a few rounds the anti-aircraft (?) gun was silenced forever, buried under the flames and splinters of the food stand. The barricade also seemed to be swept away by a rain of fire. We took it in turns to leap out onto the balcony and let off a silo with the intention of impeding the advance of the foot soldiers; but we saw nobody alive on the street, and the tanks paid no attention to us. Perhaps one or two volleys of machine gun fire whistled past the balcony, because back inside there was talk of how lucky I was, being left-handed, as more of my body remained in cover when I fired than the others (although none of us were injured).
Soon the Hungarian tank, standing farther back, was also hit; and the rattling of the hand weapons was now only rarely interrupted by a larger explosion. The substantive resistance ceased, but the Russians still didn’t come any closer. It appeared certain that the tanks in the front were damaged, so myself and Zoli (?) – a student of agricultural engineering, from the hall of residence in Ménesi Road – decided to go forwards and somehow blow up the ones behind them too. Well loaded up with hand grenades we struggled through a few houses (I remember cellars, and a really high fence) and were just about to peek out through the upstairs window of a stairwell, to see if we were above the tanks, when we heard the clinking of weapons and Russian speech from the ground floor.
We had the answer to the pressing question: the infantry wouldn’t attack in the street, but was going from house to house, as we had tried to do, mopping up the resistance. We made our way back as fast as we could via that neck-breaking route, with the news that the Russians were on our tail. It only took a few moments for our small group to realise that we were in a tight spot. We were the only resistance unit left on this street front, so for us there was nowhere left to retreat to.
Zoli (?) and I fled, leaving our weapons (and my trusty driver’s fur coat) behind. On the way it occurred to me that I’d written my name in chalk on the magazine of my machine gun, so I wouldn’t confuse it with another one that was always getting jammed. This bothered me for a long time, but the betraying mark was probably rubbed off in battle, because in the end it never put anyone on my trail.
Andreas Papachristos also turned up shortly, and in relief I listened to the story of his adventure in the Citadel. I found his hidden rifle and, wrapped up in his military cloak – perhaps together with his national guard identity card – we buried it in the neighbouring vacant lot. If they haven’t built a house on it since then, it must still be there.
I’m a born optimist, but I have to admit that I buried my hopes together with the gun. The rumours that a wounded major in the Tétényi Road Hospital was organising the resistance proved to be false, and the parcels sent to us by name every month as a distant message from the revolution (full of coffee, cocoa and other useless items) ended up with the caretaker of the hall of residence.
Now it was only the enthusiasm of the recent past that warmed our hearts, the respect mixed with love that surrounded us in our isolated little community, the handful of homeless workers and students of the vacated hall of residence.
This special treatment (we enjoyed the comfort of the two-bed sick room until we graduated) gave us a false sense of security, and it never even crossed my mind to emigrate. Not even when a resident of the building next door, a teacher at the technical university, summoned me and warned that he’d seen me walking around with a weapon, and there would be consequences. Although I emerged from the debate believing that I had succeeded in persuading him of the moral rectitude of my actions, it is true that I did not avoid the consequences. The fact that these were not as cruel as the punishments meted out to many other revolutionaries, as I eventually got away without any physical retribution, is due to the following, concurrent factors:
- Andreas was a Greek emigrant and the son of a communist martyr (which is also how he easily managed to get out of the Russian prison in the Citadel), who only got mixed up in the events because of his friendship with me, and because it seemed like a cool thing to do. A friend of his father, Memos Makris, used his influence as a government commissioner to hush up the affair, which was embarrassing to him, and thus he exempted both of us – albeit in differing extents – from punishment. In return, however, because after all I had my friend to thank for my freedom, I kept silent about it to the end, out of solidarity, even when it became fashionable in opposition circles to flaunt your 1956 credentials.
- In the narrow social circle consisting mainly of artists, in which I existed in relative isolation, without relatives or parents, informing wasn’t the done thing. Those (teachers, schoolmates, today renowned artists) who totally sympathised with me in the days of zeal, later, during the period of consolidation, disassociated themselves from me and from everything that reminded them of ‘56.
- In the places that I had frequented back then, nobody had known me. In the Tétényi Road Hospital only Kati Magyar and Reverend Körmendi knew my name, and in the Corvin Cinema I only gave my details to Captain Török to fill out my national guardsman’s identity card, and the letters inscribed on the magazine of my machine gun must have been quickly erased, from memory too.
Budapest, 29 October 1991