Together in spite of the distance
As a recently married, recent college graduate, I experienced the intellectual and emotional atmosphere that preceded the events of October 23, 1956, while working at an architectural design firm in Budapest.
I was affected by the popular spirit which had been ever more audaciously challenging the strictures of the dictatorship. Finally, a demonstration of solidarity with the strike in Poland was planned for the afternoon of October 23, beginning at the Technical University. I joined the protesters, who proceeded along the banks of the Danube toward the statue of Joseph Bem at Bem Square. Onlookers cheered us on from their apartment windows. They started to hang flags from their windows, then everyone started cutting out the Communist symbols from the middle of the flag - creating the hole in the flag, which was to become a defining symbol of the 1956 revolution.
Enthusiastic crowds of people were arriving at the Bem Statue from every direction, and soon filled the entire square. Several cars equipped with loudspeakers underscored the fact that this demonstration had indeed been planned. - I later returned home. The next day I learned from the radio, and later witnessed personally, that the people's uprising had turned into an armed battle.
In the days and weeks following October 23, I split my time between Budapest-Vadosfa (where my widowed mother and younger brother lived) and the city of Gyor. I did not take part in any of the fighting, but I was present, together with my wife, at many of the historic events.
From tyranny to national unity
Hungary's situation during the period before 1956 was best expressed in Gyula Illyés' poem One Sentence on Tyranny (written in 1950, but suppressed by censors). The poem illustrates the basic condition of the human being who lives under tyranny: he is completely at the mercy of the state. The poem expressed the recognition that when the state extends its unlimited powers over every sphere of human life, then life becomes unbearable; such a system robs the individual and the nation of its human dignity, and deprives them of their their conscious self, their very identity.
On October 23, 1956, the Hungarian nation rose up against this totalitarian tyranny. The people's bitterness had grown and festered in the sufferings of a betrayed, defenseless, oppressed nation over the course of a long decade. The revolution was preceded by the deportation, punishment, or forced relocation of half a million innocent people, as well as internment camps, lists of undesirable people, show trials and secret police terror.
This revolution expressed the common will of a whole nation, not just a social segment of dispossessed or disadvantaged people. The entire nation, as one, rose up against the system which left no room for individual human will or dignity, but placed every individual at the total mercy of the state.
This common national will
Within a few days, this will of the people had coalesced into a comprehensive declaration of the basic principles of a modern European way of life: individual freedoms, national sovereignty, political neutrality, self-government, democracy and a multi-party system of governance. These demands expressed the Hungarian people's complete national unity.
The revolutionary government was a government of the nation; the government followed the will of the people. It was only during the days of the revolution that the Prime Minister showed himself worthy of representing the nation. On November 2, our most esteemed writers lauded the miraculous achievement of the nation lifting itself up (in the words of Laszlo Nemeth), achieving the greatest and first victorious revolution in its history (Tibor Dery), as Hungarians became the guiding star of the human race (Istvan Orkeny). But then came the dawn of November 4, when a brief radio statement by the Prime Minister announced the national tragedy:
Today, at dawn, the Soviet forces launched an attack against our capital city, with the evident intent of toppling the lawful Hungarian democratic government. This was the great tragic moment in our history; the destiny of a small country abandoned to its fate.
Seeing the hopelessness of the situation, on December 1 my wife and I decided to take advantage of offers of help in fleeing the country. An acquaintance of ours, who lived in Mosonmagyaróvár (near the Austrian border), brought us by motorbike, one by one, to a villager whose backyard was just a few meters from the border. With the guidance of this man, who held a 6-foot stick in front of him to detect any trip mines, we set off. The border was already being resealed, and we had to drop to the ground every time a reconnaissance rocket lit the sky. We had reached a place that had no distinguishing characteristics when our leader announced that we were now in Austria. There we stood, the starry sky above, completely unsure of what to do next. We then got on board a tractor which took us to a Red Cross station set up in an Austrian village restaurant.
We got through our first days in Austria with our spirits completely depleted by having experienced the revolution and its subsequent destruction. Sometimes we were housed on mattresses in YMCA gymnasiums with a hundred other refugees; at other times in recently vacated Soviet barracks, or in a corridor of a train station with our winter coats for blankets. Our days passed in the total insecurity which comes with homelessness and the feeling of being cast out. The lethargy of these days was only slowly lifted by a glimmer of hope for some solution, a measure of stability. With the sponsorship of the World Lutheran Association, in the final days of December we arrived in America, the country of our choice, and a few days later we started our new lives in Cleveland.
Even at such a great distance, I could not accept the thought that I had left my home. Constant reference to our temporary situation gave us a way to psychologically accept the current situation. While looking for work, I met another Hungarian refugee, who had left Hungary in 1945 and had already lived in the U.S. for 6 years. I asked him, I guess you'll be going home, too, as soon as things settle down? His negative response depressed me for days, for I felt that he had consciously given up everything, and was lost to the nation. The everyday pressures of making a living, of having to adjust to a new language and professional expectations, helped me get through this period.
As the years passed, we looked for practical ways to remain a part of the Hungarian nation despite the physical distance. In our erstwhile homeland, the tremendous experiences of the revolution and its goals had never been abandoned; they became a force for national unity during the subsequent decades of occupation. And ever more openly, Hungarians continued to express their demands for justice. For a time, these expressions of freedom could only take the form of poetic metaphor and coded speech. The call for justice, condemned to silence, nevertheless made itself heard in a variety of ways.
The fate of our community: a spiritual homeland
We in the West took advantage of the possibility to openly honor the revolution and its ideals. Gloria victis! Glory to the victims! - we could say it, and we engraved it on memorials to the revolution. I became an active member and leader of the Hungarian Community of Friends, a group which sought to foster a spiritual and intellectual community of and for Hungarians dispersed outside of Hungary. As speakers and friends, we invited guests from Hungary those who continued to stand for the ideals of the revolution, for honor and decency.
We first returned to Hungary on a family visit in 1968, then several more times during the Communist era. The double crossing gates at the border, barbed-wire fence and the armed soldier watching us from the guard tower all remained throughout the years, but the surveillance which dogged us during our first visit, during which agents were pressed to report on any negative statements we were making, lessened over the years. During these decades, we realized that we were no longer preparing to return home; instead, we were building up a spiritual homeland around us. This homeland is not a function of the political system that happens to be in power in Hungary; it is a form of our individual and community fate here in the U.S., which is nourished by Hungarian intellectual and cultural values. In other words, it is an expression of national identity whereby we, as carriers of Hungarian language, history and culture, are part of the collective Hungarian nation, no matter where we live. Part and parcel of this identity are individual commitment and a principled way of life.
1989: Are we living up to the possibilities and responsibilities of freedom?
Since October 23, 1989, the Republic of Hungary too has had the opportunity to live up to the ideals and values of the 1956 revolution. Our ties to the homeland are open and unrestricted. Now, in addition to a spiritual connection fostered over the decades, I have additional opportunities for community- and nation-building work as Hungary's Honorary Consul in Cleveland. Often, however, it seems that our behavior is unworthy of our hard-won freedom. It seems that our Hungarian penchant for bickering and back-biting have come to the fore. Yet a common national cause can only come about if we agree on basic things. This requires adherence to moral principles, the capacity for objective analysis, and actions which will bear up under the scrutiny of history. To achieve this, let take as our example the common will, the unifying determination which forged the Hungarian people into a nation during the days of the revolution and national freedom fight in 1956. Let this be our life's goal as we approach the 50th anniversary of October 23, 1956.
Architect and Honorary Consul of the Republic of Hungary in Cleveland. For years, he has been a leading member of the Hungarian Community of Friends, which organizes the annual Itt-Ott conference of Hungarian scholars and leading cultural personalities. His daughters and grandchildren all speak Hungarian.