Ferenc Novák
Class-alien work battalion
The autumn air in October 1956 was filled with anticipation in the barracks of Unit 4055 of the work battalion in Komló. We had nearly completed our two years of compulsory military service in the coal mines and were eagerly looking forward to returning to civilian life. There were changes on the outside too; a process of fermentation that started after Stalin's death was accelerating with calls for radical reforms in the communist regime, voiced by intellectuals inside as well as outside the party. Overall, a sense of excitement pervaded the place.

Our unit was largely made up of “class alien” elements: we were the sons of former government officials, military officers, well-to-do farmers and other middle-class families who were deemed unreliable in the eyes of the communist regime and therefore not to be trusted with weapons. Some of us had already personally known the heavy hand of the regime, having been imprisoned or, as in my own case, deported. Being of like background, there was a sense of real camaraderie that made our life there bearable.

Changes in the air
By the year 1956 our treatment by our officers had markedly improved. The sometimes brutal treatment of earlier years gave way to a more civilized, almost respectful attitude, as if they sensed that their power was eroding. No longer did they call us enemies of the working class. The emphasis was now on our contribution to the building of socialism.

By and large, we were aware of the changes in the political atmosphere in the country. Those of us who were able to visit their families brought back news when they returned from leave.

On the 17th or 18th of October one member of our unit - named Szegedi who happened to be from Szeged - brought back news of an extraordinary meeting of students at the university, demanding, among other things, the right to form a new student organization independent of communist party control. The answer to that was a midnight raid on the dormitories by the secret police, during which several students were badly beaten up.

There were also rumors of a planned march of students in Budapest on Monday, October 22, demanding that Parliament pass laws aimed at economic and political reforms. The idea of an unauthorized march seemed so absurd, I decided that I had to witness it. I got a three-day pass and traveled to Budapest on Saturday.

Monday afternoon I took my Soviet-made Zorkij camera and went to the Parliament building, waiting for the historic event. The hours passed and nothing happened. When darkness fell, I rushed to the railroad terminal to catch my overnight train back to Komló.

Listening to the radio
The next day, on the 23rd I was on guard duty at the camp gate. In the evening we were listening to the radio broadcasting the speech of Ernõ Gerõ, the new party chief just back from Yugoslavia where he met Tito, trying to patch up differences between the two communist countries. We expected him to sound a conciliatory note regarding the political and economic reforms demanded by party members and intellectuals. Instead, he strongly denounced the reformers and called for closer alignment with the Soviet Union.

Not much later we heard in the radio that “hooligan elements” started shooting at various points in the city. A curfew was announced. We were not sure what happened, but were rooting for the insurgents. Daily thereafter, we followed the events as broadcast in the radio.

In the camp, the days went uneventfully. In the town the newly formed revolutionary councils took over control after the communist functionaries and secret police ran away or went into hiding. There was a general strike, so the mines were idle. Our officers were clueless, not knowing which side to take. One day a group of armed students from the University of Pécs showed up and disarmed the officers. Each company selected one officer to lead us into battle if necessary - and if we were supplied with arms - and we sent the rest home.

Bored of being idle during those tumultuous times, we sent a delegation to General Maléter who was in charge of the working battalions, requesting that he either authorize us to disband or send us arms and direct us to where we may be needed. His answer was for us to stay put and await further orders.

At dawn on November 4 we awoke at the distress call broadcast by Imre Nagy over the radio announcing that the Soviet troops attacked Budapest. We could hardly believe our ears. That meant the collapse of all our dreams. Our despair knew no bounds.

Csepel truck
Our first thought was to go home, to find out if our families were safe, then to leave the country, because we couldn't face the prospect of the return of a regime we thought was gone forever. One of us, who knew how to drive, got hold of a Csepel truck, into which about 20 of us piled and took off heading north, toward where most of us lived. We were careful to avoid the main roads where we might have encountered Russian troops. One by one we dropped off our companions as we reached the vicinity of their hometowns, until we reached Lipót, our northernmost point, the home of our driver.

At that point there were only two of us left, László Bitó (later famous eye specialist and medical researcher in the USA, and eventually noted writer and publicist in Hungary) and myself. Of the two of us, I had driven a tractor once, so I became the driver. Someone helped me put the shift in third gear while others gave the truck a push, since the starter didn't work. We started with a lurch and I managed to keep the truck going in the same gear, afraid to do anything that might cause the engine to stall. Burning the clutch all the way, we started on our way toward Budapest.

At Gyõr, our luck ran out. As we reached the crest of a high bridge, we saw a group of Russian soldiers at the other end. With difficulty I managed to stop the truck and we were waved off. In halting Russian, we tried to explain that we were unarmed and trying to get home, not to fight. They were apparently fresh troops unfamiliar with the location and were clearly under the impression that they were at the Suez Canal, expecting to encounter American troops. Shortly they transported us to the local headquarters of the Hungarian secret police, and locked us up in the basement jail. There were already several other servicemen in neighboring cells. We were sure that our next destination would be somewhere in Siberia.

Negotiated release
Luckily, an officer from the local Hungarian barracks appeared who somehow negotiated the release of his men. At this point we started shaking our cell door demanding that we, too, be released. The officer at first didn't believe that we were also soldiers because our uniform was different from that of the regular units. Eventually he understood and took us with him also. We were relieved to be able to sleep in the relative safety of a Hungarian barracks.

Our release demonstrated a strange situation in those days. While some Hungarian army units were effectively fighting the Russians, others were locked up in their barracks and maintained a state of neutrality with the tacit or express understanding of the Russians. Perhaps the latter was the situation in Gyõr at the time of our little adventure.

Next day we managed to get on one of the sporadically running trains and got as far as Komárom. There, learning from our earlier experience, we took no chance and went directly to the local garrison to spend the night. The following morning we caught a train that took us all the way to Budapest. This time we were traveling by day, and were able to observe Russian soldiers dug in along the railroad tracks, apparently in combat readiness.

Exactly a week after starting I arrived home in Budaõrs. I found everyone safe and sound. My parents' joy didn't last long when I told them about my decision to leave Hungary. Next morning my brother Péter and I trekked to the Kelenföld railroad station where we met László Bitó, his brother József, his fiancée and her parents and together boarded a train bound for western Hungary. We rode that train as far as we dared, then continued on foot, reaching Austria by way of the bridge at Andau, made famous in James Michener's novel. The time was 10 pm on November 12, 1956.

On December 15, the seven of us arrived at the Camp Kilmer refugee camp in New Jersey.


Ferenc Novák
Born in 1934, he was deported with his family in 1951 and served in a work battalion from 1954 to 1956. In the United States he attended Princeton University, receiving a BSE degree in Electrical Engineering in 1961. In 1996 he retired after a 33-year career with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. He is married, has four children and lives in Short Hills, NJ.