Memories of '56
|Although I've been planning to write my memories for years, something always prevented me from doing so. Now that I'm determined to fulfill my plan, I must state up front that I'm not writing history; instead, I am writing the memories of a 21-year-old.
I gained the accurate historical data from the volumes of: The Hungarian Revolution and Freedom-fight - Domestic Radio Broadcasts - Hungarian Events, October 23 - November 9, 1956.
In 1956, I worked at the Laboratory Equipment Manufacturer on Szvetana Street, as a glass-blower. The factory was located in Budapest IX (Ninth) District, which later became the center of the battlefield of the revolution.
A few days before the Revolution, the Secretary of the unit's DISz (youth organization of the Hungarian Communist Party) called a meeting, to address their concerns that in other sections of the factory, several young people had withdrawn from the organization and returned their membership books. Their plan backfired; and once we heard this news, we too returned our membership books, one and all.
On October 23, the radio was blaring throughout the factory. At about 1:00 p.m. the Minister of the Interior, László Piros issued a directive. In order to maintain public order, the Ministry of the Interior will not permit any public street rallies and or demonstrations, until further notice.
Work came to a standstill and we decided to join the student demonstration. We left by bus or streetcar, heading toward the statue of Bem, in Buda. In a nearby store we received tricolor rosettes that we pinned to our lapels.
While crossing the Kossuth Bridge, we heard shouts from the crowd on Kossuth Square in front of the Parliament buildings: Down with Ger_ and Ger_ resign!
With two of my pals, Tibi (Tibor) Arany and Sanyi (Sándor) Török, we were elbowing our way toward the Parliament buildings' stairs, from where we watched and listened to volunteer speakers; one of them was Pinocchio, the FTC's (Ferencvárosi Torna Club (District IX Athletic Club) tower diver, László Újvári.
As the crowd grew bolder, they were heard shouting new slogans. We don't want Stalin's soldiers... Imre Nagy into the Government... Russkies go home.
We only got scared when the crowd prepared to charge the iron gates and the heavy oak doors to the Parliament buildings. We suspected that ÁVO units were behind the wooden doors, thus we would have been in line for the first burst of machinegun volleys.
Someone remarked that a delegation had entered the Parliament building demanding that the electricity be turned off to the huge red star atop the cupola. Suddenly, the entire square went dark. They turned off the street lights, thinking that the crowd would disperse. Instead, someone lit a copy of the day's Szabad Nép (a communist daily paper) and in no time, almost everyone held the same makeshift torch.
Slowly, the crowd dispersed. Some went to the radio station, others to the Stalin statue. We were heading toward Bajcsy Zsilinszky Road.
En route we saw a woman waiving a Lyukas Zászló (the Hungarian tricolor with the communist crest cut out) from a balcony. On Stalin Road, people were knocking off the hated Russian street signs. Nearing Rákoczi Road, we heard gun-fire; from the Western Railway Station, we heard the rumbling of tanks. People were running in every direction, some shouting that the ÁVO had fired into the unarmed crowds at the radio station. Buses were racing by, carrying wounded to distant hospitals.
It was well after midnight when I arrived home. My mother was crying as she embraced me and my father had a relieved smile on his face. He had been released from Recsk, Rákosi's forced labor camp, in 1953, where he had spent three years for no reason at all - no crime was committed and there had been no conviction in any court of law.
The next morning, Radio Kossuth announced, Counter-revolutionary, reactionary elements launched attacks against public buildings and attacked security forces. In the interest of restoring order, all public assemblies, gatherings and demonstrations are forbidden until further notice. Shortly thereafter they added the following: We call on the people of Budapest not to be on the streets until 9:00 a.m. while the mopping up of the looting counter-revolutionary groups is still on-going, unless absolutely necessary.
My father and I looked at each other. We had nothing important to do. At 8:45 a.m. the government announced martial law. At 9:00 a.m. they announced that the Soviet Military was invited into Budapest.
On October 25, my father and I left for work. Bus Route #5 from Pasarét went as far as Roosevelt Square, where the bus driver announced he'd not drive any further; Gun-fire was heard from every direction. Father and I continued on foot.
No sooner had we reached Üll_i Road, when armed youth blocked our way asking for our identification papers. In peaceful times we would have sent them to a warmer climate however; they were armed, so we produced our personal IDs. They asked where we were headed. When we told them, one of them assured us that we would never get there, while another one raised his rifle and aimed at someone running along the other side of the road. Don't shoot! shouted another one, claiming the runner was one of them.
We were allowed to leave. My father looked at me and said: You see, my son, this is revolution
We later found out that while we were being held up for ID check, one of the revolution's most horrible blood baths occurred at the Parliament buildings. To date, no one has been held responsible for this massacre.
(The book: Kossuth Square, 1956 by András K_ and Lambert J. Nagy, puts the number of murdered at 75 and the injured at 284. A placard in a 2002 photo refers to 300 murdered and, in his biography, Sándor Rácz claims there were 700 people murdered in that barrage of machinegun fire).
The Pasaret Militia
At Pasarét, an ad hoc group was formed. Some of them had acquired weapons and the young men were patrolling the area wearing tricolor armbands. Shooting occurred only once in this neck-of-the-woods, when the units of the Pet_fi Polytechnic Academy set a trap for the trucks and buses that were bringing in miners from Tatabánya. Among them was József Bocskay, who today is the President of the World Federation of Freedom Fighters in Budapest. The firefight left many injured and killed.
During the first five or six days of the Revolution, police services ceased to exist. This was one of the reasons that we established the Pasarét Militia, after October 28. This unit went to Széna Square at first, met with Uncle Szabó, asking him for IDs and weapons. At the Headquarters at F_ Street, Gábor Pénzes was named commander. The poor soul could not have foreseen the consequences of his appointment. After the failure of the revolution, the blood-thirsty ÁVO was looking for scapegoats. Barely twenty years old, Penzes was constantly harassed, arrested several times, and eventually took his own life. His murderer was the vindictive Kádár-regime.
The Pasarét Militia set up its Headquarters in the Franciscan Church. Since I lived quite a distance from the Pasarét Square, I never stood watch at night. I heard from others that they frequently stopped Imre Nagy's car, as he was being driven home for a shower or for clean clothes at the nearby Orso Street. Nagy appeared to be pleased with the way the Militia worked even in this quiet residential area of Budapest.
The Militia provided the area's security, which included everyone, even the communist regime's supporters and their favorites.
On November 4, at about 5:30 in the morning, Free Kossuth Radio Budapest announced that Imre Nagy, the President of the Council of Ministers of the Hungarian People's Republic would address the people of Hungary. Nagy delivered the following message: The Soviet forces launched an attack against our capital city in the early morning hours of today, with the obvious intention of overthrowing the democratic Hungarian Government. Our forces are fighting back; the government is in its place. I make this known to the people of the country and to the world at large.
Just before 8:00 a.m., Gyula Háy read a notice from the Association of Hungarian Writers, calling on the Free World: Help Hungary! Help the Hungarian people! Help us! Help us! Help us!
Shortly there after, the Free Kossuth Radio Budapest went off the air. My father was frantically searching for another station. He found one that was still broadcasting but the reception was very poor. The gist of the message was from Ferenc Münich, announcing the he, Antal Apró, János Kádár and István Kossa initiated the formation of the Hungarian Revolutionary Workers-Peasant Government. This is the end! uttered my father quietly. The intensity of the fighting throughout the city abated with every passing day. The Soviets were back and with them appeared the Kádár-hussars, wearing Soviet Military style jackets called pufajka.
In a matter of days it became obvious that the revolution had been defeated.
On November 10, I visited the factory. They were giving us advances on future production quotas. There I met István Cseri, who decided to flee the country for America. When I asked him why, he offered his assessment of the situation. Listen! It was always good in America; it will always be good in America. Here it was always shit, and there always be shit.
I don't believe that anybody else could have defined Hungary's 20th Century more succinctly. I decided that I would also leave for the West. Of my friends, Gyuri Hirschler, Pista Ili, Sanyi Török, Laci Vajda, Pista Szeg_ and Tibi Forján had already left. When I learned that Pista Fekete and Árpi Tóth had also left, I decided to leave at 6:00 a.m. the next morning. I told my parents that as soon as I made it to Austria, I would send a message via Radio Free Europe, saying: Putti üzeni Pasarétre, hogy kovad a gyapot. I presume that the ÁVO, monitoring these transmissions, suspected some conspiracy in the making, based on the coded message.
Arriving at Gy_r, I was met by my father's fellow Recsk inmate. The recently freed inmates were a cohesive group, and I was treated like family. They told me that the Soviets had sealed off the border around Hegyeshalom and Mosonmagyaróvár however; around Sopron the border was still open. In Sopron, I was introduced to a Catholic priest, whose family members also suffered at the Recsk forced labor camp. Organizing the group was Dr.Sándor Szentirmai's responsibility. It was imperative that he crossed the border for he had become a secretary to Cardinal József Mindszenty at the end of October.
The border area had been filled with mines again but the border guards marked their location with emblems of skull and bones. Arriving at the border, we came across a watch tower that, fortunately, was not manned at the time. We started walking over a freshly raked path until we were held up by a couple of Austrian gendarmeries. Our guide collected his fee and turned back to help the next group to safety.
After a few days in an Eisenstadt (formerly Kismarton) refugee camp, we left for France.
Translated by: Alex Erdélyi for Scarlett Antaloczy book of compilations, FREEDOM '56.
Born on August 20, 1935, Harmath graduated from the Toldy Ferenc High School in Buda in 1953 and went on to get the professional certificate of glass manufacturer at the Laboratory Equipment Factory. On October 2, 1956, he crossed the border and entered into Austria. From there he went first to France then Vancouver, Canada. Married in 1958, his son was born in 1959, in Montreal. In 1963, he arrived in Chicago and has lived there ever since. He has worked as a journalist from the mid '70s when he started working for the Chicago és környéke (Chicago and Vicinity) weekly, edited by his friend, István Fekete. In 1990, the weekly (founded in 1905), merged into the Kanadai-Amerikai Magyarság (Canadian Hungarians), published in Toronto where he had been writing his weekly column Chicagói krónika (Chronicle of Chicago) for 16 years.