Siege of the Radio Building
|On the evening of October 23, 1956, I was having coffee and plum brandy with my mother and her friend Erzsike Sárkány at Ruszwurm Café. The sun had set. The lighting in the coffeehouse was a subdued yellow, and people were immersed in quiet conversations. Everybody had a flyer in hand. The heading on the top of the flyers-The 16 Points-recalled the 12 points that had led to revolution against the Hapsburgs in 1848, while the first point read: We demand the immediate withdrawal of Soviet troops from Hungary in accordance with the peace treaty.
I finished my pipe, we sipped the last of our coffee and brandy, and the three of us walked outside to Fisherman's Bastion. Looking across the Danube toward Pest, around the Parliament building we saw a reddish light that projected up toward the clouds. We descended Castle Hill, walked through the Tunnel, and crossed the Chain Bridge. Walking along Stalin Avenue, we reached Lövölde Square.
Someone told us that a crowd was trying to topple the statue of Stalin. My mother and I felt compelled to witness this. Parting from Erzsike, we hurried on in the now complete darkness, across Gorkij Avenue and by the trade union headquarters. The large red star that only hours earlier had still risen above the façade of the building was now torn down and shredded. The alley was crammed with groups of people, all focused on the statue of Stalin. Ladders leaned up against the monstrous body. From a distance the people climbing the ladders seemed like small figures, ants on a tree trunk. Suddenly welding torches lit up the colossal bronze sculpture. The welders wrestled with the massive mass of metal. Winch vehicles wound steel cables around the statue and tried to wrest the gigantic figure from its base. The statue reared for a moment, and then the wire ropes snapped. The ladders were put back in place and the welders resumed. This time they decided to use their torches at the point where Stalin's breeches met his boots.
An hour might have passed while we stood there, but nobody stirred. Military trucks occasionally passed by filled with civilians, mostly young workers from various factories. Once the welders had finished their work and descended, the long ladders were removed, the trucks with their winches headed off toward the dark corners of the square. The crowd was quiet, the searchlights lit up the gigantic figure from every direction. The wire ropes were taut; the sculpture reared again and then began to slowly bend until it crashed onto the pavement. The crowd cried out in exultation.
TO THE RADIO BUILDING
Suddenly a line of trucks turned in from Gorkij Avenue. The ÁVO is shooting at the Radio! Let's go to the Radio! shouted the people on the trucks. I bid goodnight to my mother and walked across Rökk Szilárd Street, where my paternal grandparents had once lived. Splinters of glass, crushed shards crackled beneath my feet. A crowd crisscrossed in front of Szabad Nép's printing shop, gaping at the ransacked interior. The street lamps were off and the street became dark. I reached Sándor Street, where people were walking in single file, pressed up against the wall. Now only the moon gave off a meager light, creating silhouettes of people as they passed by. Two tanks were maneuvering in the center of the road. They came to a halt, their hatches opened, and the head of a soldier appeared in each.
Why aren't you firing? asked a man from the crowd.
We don't have any ammo, answered one of the drivers.
Can't you break the wall? asked another voice.
No, we can't, answered the soldier.
They were referring to a wall of the Hungarian Radio building. The tank crew climbed out. One of the tank drivers opened up his tunic and wiped his sweaty forehead with an oily hand. The noise of crackling firearms became stronger. The soldiers climbed back into their tanks and drove slowly forward toward the station. A few young boys with rifles were using the tanks for cover. Where did you get your guns? a streetcar conductor asked them. The police gave us their guns. We told them that we needed them more than they did, but it's not enough. We can't shoot the Radio's walls with rifles. They have too many hand grenades.
Just a week before as I was riding my box tricycle down Sándor Street in front of the Radio building I had noticed a truck parked in front of the Studio. A group of ÁVH (Secret Police) was carrying boxes of ammunition from the truck into the building. That evening at our usual family get-together at my Aunt Blanka's flat, I mentioned this strange sight-ammunition crates being taken into the Studio? Apparently the ÁVH had had more foresight this time around (or a premonition) than Governor Miklós Horthy had had 12 years earlier on October 15. For it was at the Radio that Horthy in 1944 had read his armistice proclamation and where after his departure one lone policeman had found himself defenseless against Skorzeny's approaching storm troopers, firing until his ammunition ran out and then taking his leave through the rear exit.
AMIDST THE FIGHTING
Now, as I stood there watching, an explosion shook the air and lit up the façade of the Radio building. Later I learned that Januci Thierry and a few other friends of mine were the ones shooting from the building opposite at the ÁVH unit. The firing intensified, illuminating our surroundings. A few teenage boys came running down the road, in my direction, keeping close to the wall. Another group scurried in from the firing line. Stopping beside me, two of the boys traded ammunition as if they were swapping stamps. One with a Tommy gun had only rifle shells. After finishing their exchange, they turned and hastily retreated in the direction from where they had come.
Drained, I sat down on the windowsill of a dairy shop. A young man sat down beside me. Suddenly a bullet whizzed by right between the two of us, followed by another. They're shooting from the attic! someone shouted. It's coming from this house! Half a dozen boys rushed up the stairs above the shop, followed by me and my new companion. On the fourth floor, someone yelled, There are Secret Police officers in the closet! That explained the bundle of ÁVO uniforms that had been thrown out of the windows a short while earlier-the Secret Police had been changing into civilian clothes.
The sound of firing died down. Now we could hear shots coming from the Radio building, but there was very little return fire. Why can't someone bring us ammunition? called out one man in the crowd.
There are no vehicles to bring it in, replied another.
There are trucks all around! somebody protested.
There are, responded a young man, but they're all shot up.
FINDING A TRUCK
Let's look! I heard my voice say, much to my own surprise. A small group of us went in search of a functioning vehicle. In Mária Street we came upon a truck with a flat tire. The young man from the dairy store climbed up into the truck's flatbed and found a spare inside. He dropped it down onto the street. We searched for tools and replaced the tire-another first for me. A driver was found and a few boys jumped onto the back of the truck, which now took off for the lamp factory, which everyone knew was stocked with munitions. The lamp factory, or lámpa gyár in Hungarian, was the subject of various jokes, including a play on its name; everyone referred to it as the little lamp factory, using the diminutive form lámpuska- puska meaning gun. As the truck took its leave, I wiped my oily hand on a wall.
An ambulance appeared. Medics came back with their stretchers. On one of them lay a body, motionless, soaked in blood. On another a man was being carried with a bandaged leg, likewise bloody, yet he was holding onto his rifle for dear life. At the corner of Mária Street he jumped off the stretcher, cursed in Gypsy, and hobbled back in the direction of the Radio. The stretcher bearers looked after him, dumbfounded for a moment. Then they lit up a pair of cigarettes.
A window on the ground floor of an apartment opened, and a radio was placed on its sill. A person in pajamas briefed the bystanders. The announcer says, he related, that the government demands a ceasefire. Those who have firearms should put them down in front of building entrances. Nearby a man was handing out flyers with the headline Imre Nagy for Prime Minister. A worker ran over from Mária Street, asking for volunteers-a group of ÁVO members had been captured and needed to be guarded. None of us had a rifle or ammunition, though.
AMMUNITION AT DAWN
It was early dawn and I was getting cold. To warm myself up I walked over to Mikszáth Kálmán Square, where a group of people had been anticipating an attempted breakout from the Studio by the ÁVO. I spent my entire night here, said one man. I feel totally useless. I returned to Sándor Street, feeling somewhat the same.
I could hear the noise of a motor coming from the direction of Sándor Square. The gathering dispersed, ducking into doorways and looking for cover. Now what? was the general anxious reaction of the crowd. But instead of Russian tanks or ÁVO members, a truck was approaching with a majestic slowness, shining its bright lights on the road ahead. From the back of the truck a young boy shouted, We brought ammo! People ran out of their hiding places. The truck turned off its headlights, was put into reverse, and crawled into a safer spot. Then crates of ammunition were unloaded. A chain was formed on the street and the crates were passed from one pair of hands to another. Within about 10 minutes the whole truck had been unloaded. The rattling of machine guns could be heard coming from the top floor of the building opposite the Radio.
The dim light of dawn began to spread slowly over the street. By then some people had gone home, but the more enduring had stuck around for further developments, and as day broke the crowd grew. A few of us walked up to the corner of Szentkirályi Street. There was a brisk exchange of fire. The defenders of the Radio were being kept engaged by Thierry's brigade on the opposite side of the street from them, distracting their attention from the happenings right below.
The side of the Radio building was covered in scaffolding left over from some earlier construction work. A few young boys with machine guns hanging from their necks and pick-axes in their hands began to climb the scaffold. At the height of the top floor they set about chiseling an opening in the wall. By then the secret service personnel had withdrawn to the other side of the courtyard and the exchange of fire on the street front had slowly abated.
A long line of trucks now appeared at the end of Sándor Street. They carried infantry men, armed to the T and wearing steel helmets. Soldiers stood in the backs of the military trucks and aimed Maxim machine guns that rested on the roofs of the trucks' cabs ahead. Then the line of trucks came to a halt. The crowd surrounded the vehicles. The women tried to pull the soldiers off the trucks. Most of the soldiers were poker-faced. A few seemed nervous or had smirks on their faces. Some of them looked on at the crowd stunned. What are they thinking? wondered aloud a woman who was standing near me. The soldiers should help the boys, remarked one of the medics. Another woman yelled at the soldiers, urging them to join the fighters against the ÁVH. You could take the Radio in no time, she shouted.
The captain of the column ordered the soldiers to park the trucks at Szentkirályi Street. Once the trucks had stopped, the soldiers jumped down and were given the command at ease. Soon the soldiers were surrounded by women and children urging them to take part in the fight alongside their countrymen. Nevertheless these young cadets of the Officer's Training Corps of Tatabánya stood by their vehicles stoically, with their weapons and haversacks still on the trucks, kept under control by their commander.
INTO THE RADIO COURTYARD
The gunsmoke and dust were suffocating. Now we the bystanders were only a few steps from the main entrance of the Radio. Most of my companions were armed. There was some sporadic shooting to and fro. When the firing stopped we-about 50 of us-emitted some sort of a war cry and ran across the dark and cool doorway into the courtyard. Even though I was scared I was swept away by the fever of the moment and kept on running across beneath the archway. It occurred to me that if someone were to drop a hand grenade in the midst of us from above, it would be a massacre, but this was only a fleeting thought.
The glass roof of the courtyard had been shot to pieces and shattered glass covered the ground ankle high. On the left of the courtyard stood a burnt-out truck loaded with ammunition crates; I took a detour around it. Along the way I noticed blood stains mixed in the mud. We also came upon the bodies of fallen ÁVO officers. I passed by a young lieutenant lying on his back, his open blue eyes gazing upward at the sky. A streak of blood seeped out of his mouth. His hat lay a few feet away.
Another group of young boys ran into the stairwell. A middle-aged man climbed on top of the burnt-out truck and shouted to the boys. Gather up all the guns and ammunition. We will need them! On the right side of the courtyard a group of people emerged from the stairwell. Most of them were civilian employees of the Radio-among them Szepesi, the well-known announcer and sports broadcaster. At the head of the group was an ÁVO captain wearing the green epaulettes of the border guards. He was an outright evil-looking man. One of the boys approached him and said, Comrade Captain, please remove the red star from your hat! Even though it was spoken politely, the words were uttered in a firm voice. I didn't hear the reply of the officer, but I saw the face of the boy turn red in anger and the next thing I knew he gave the captain a tremendous slap. The officer's hat and glasses flew off.
FIRE FROM ABOVE
At that very moment all hell broke loose. We were fired upon from the roof, from the attic. We dashed for cover. I ran back toward the entrance and ducked into a room facing the street. Only once I was hiding inside the room did I realize that it had at one time been the office of my father, publisher of Rádió Élet, (Radio Life) the Radio's weekly magazine. Here, as a young boy and a teenager, I had frequently visited him. The last time I had been here, sirens had chased us down into the air raid shelter. Now, as I stood in front of his former desk, I imagined him behind the desk, adding up columns of figures with his ubiquitous Waterman fountain pen.
Two other boys had come into the room behind me and were hidden behind the door and a chest of drawers. I recognized one of them as the son of the eminent poet L_rinc Szabó. The windows had iron bars, the entrance was blocked. We were trapped like mice. The other fellow tried to load a flair pistol, hammering a shell into it with great effort. I was scared to death. I didn't want to become a victim of friendly fire. The three of us waited for the noise to abate and then we slowly ventured out.
The shooting had stopped. The stairwell had become an anthill. Wounded ÁVO men were being carried down from the top floor on stretchers. Next the able, unharmed ÁVO personnel were ushered out amid a teeming crowd that surrounded them and shook their fists at the bewildered captives. In the meantime a young man removed the flag with the red star from the façade of the Radio and replaced it with one from which the emblem of Communism had been cut out. Suddenly a feeling of sleepiness overwhelmed me. With a desire also for a warm cup of tea, I decided to go home.
On Sándor Street I passed a line of burnt-out vehicles. On Múzeum Boulevard the yellow streetcars stood motionless, some of them on their sides. As I turned left onto the boulevard I caught sight of a group of Russian soldiers standing by their armored cars in a long line extending into Kálvin Square. A few steps ahead of me two Russians lifted up one of their wounded comrades. By the looks of it, his bandaged knee had probably been shot straight through. They lifted him up and placed him into their armored car. At the same moment an unarmed civilian was walking by parallel to them. As if to even the score, one of the officers turned around and shot him in the temple. The man collapsed and rolled along the ground for a few minutes until the corner of Múzeum Street. There he stood up, covered his ears with his hands, and began to run. Blood spurted out of his head. He had barely run five yards before he fell headlong onto the ground.
Witnessing this bloody scene, I sped across the boulevard and headed toward Kecskémeti Street. There a group of civilians and Hungarian soldiers had formed a crowd, watching the Russians on the other side. A second group of Hungarian soldiers stood at the corner of Magyar Street. These were artillery men, equipped with light mortars, radio trucks, and field guns. The rank and file had a somber look on their faces.
I turned into Váci Street, and in a few minutes had reached my flat in Dimitrov Square. The apartment was quiet. The tenants must have gone somewhere to listen to Radio Free Europe. Radio Budapest told its listeners that the uprising had been crushed and urged those who were still fighting to lay down their arms immediately. Mentally I tried to recapitulate the events of the previous day. Then, exhausted, I dozed off.
He arrived in New York Harbor aboard the USS Marine Carp on January 16, 1957. After earning a master's degree in library science at Columbia University, he became director of the Briarcliff Manor Public Library. He married Edit Novak, with whom he raised four children in Chappaqua, New York, where he and his wife still reside. This account is an excerpt from Farkas' memoirs The Story of My Life, which he hopes to eventually publish.