|Péter A. Soltész
They never did give the shooter up
I had my summer vacation in the Tokaj region at my uncle's farm in the summer of 1956 with nary a thought or whisper of anything brewing in the country. Coming back to the big city in September, I was getting settled in to restart my studies in Budapest. On October 23rd 1956, however, even to a young 10-year old observer, it became very obvious that something significant was taking place. We lived across from Eötvös Loránd Science University in Budapest located on the Pest side. A large group of university students and others congregated at the university plaza on that evening with Hungarian flags and placards stating some protest messages. Generally things were fermenting. I heard that they were all walking down to the Kossuth Radio station several blocks away from us to demand that their basic demands points of rights be broadcast on the radio station. By the next day, there were more and more people with Hungarian flags that had their Red Star and the Hammer & Sickle cut out. By now the Hungarian flag contained nothing but the horizontal colors of Red, White and Green stripes with a big hole in the middle. The people demanded basic freedoms and the removal of the current government and the removal of the Soviet occupying troops.
On one of the side streets adjacent to the university was an army barrack with Hungarian troops, many of who were also university students. Soon they were convinced that they needed to join the movement and guns and ammunition were apparently obtained there as well as from elsewhere.
Things got pretty noisy after a few days with lots of gunfire, and most people who were not directly involved were staying low. Soon I heard that Imre Nagy was selected as the new head of the party and that Rákosi had to step down. Things appeared to quiet down during the next weeks. People started to show the new flags and pins with the Kossuth címer (emblem). There were periodic gunfights on the street, one close to my home. In this case a man started shooting randomly at anyone moving (he was drunk) and someone took him out. They found documents on him indicating that he was a member of the secret police (AVO) and a paper from the interior ministry indicating that they would receive a very significant special bonus if they put down the uprising.
Looking for Berlin and the Elbe river
Demands by the new government for political recognition went unheeded in the West. On November 4th all hell broke loose in Budapest. Heavy artillery fire, airplanes flying by, bombing in certain areas and the extremely loud reverberating sound of cannon fire from the top of Szabadság Hegy (freedom mountain) located on the Buda side could be heard. I found out that the Russians claimed to withdraw their troops; however, just the opposite happened. I heard locally that about 10 armored divisions were let loose on Hungary from Russia to crush the revolution. They took over Budapest among other areas of the country. Several of the invading troops were engaged in conversation. I overheard that some came from the far-eastern sections of Russia and they spoke little Russian. Surprisingly, they were looking for Berlin. They were explaining to us that they were in Germany and what we knew to be the Danube River is the Elbe River and that they were here to fight the Germans. Many of them seemed to be Mongolians rather than the white Russians. In fact, earlier, most of the white Russians who were stationed in Hungary basically did not fight us once they understood what was going on. It took some explaining and map showing to convince some of them that they were in fact in Hungary and not Germany and that we were Hungarians, not Germans. After that they seemed to become a bit more civil and perhaps appeased.
By now there were many tanks on the streets of Budapest and often firing at things they did not like. For those who haven't been to Budapest, many of the buildings are made of very large blocks of stone on the outside. Many shots had to be fired to do serious damage to a building. The Molotov cocktail became quite popular and the elder students and folks with the wherewithal did periodically lop one against some tanks. Complete war zones were set up with Russians and communist guards on one side and revolutionaries on the other. I often saw makeshift ambulances with large white sheets and a painted red cross on them whizzing by to take the wounded.
Things got pretty difficult for many of us in the city as most of the foodstuff gets brought in from the country and none was really coming in. Some food aid did arrive from the Austrians and the Danes (and I am sure others) and I even got a few cans of milk concentrate in cans and some chocolates. The magnitude of the problems still facing Hungary did not fully register to me.
The West did start to respond a bit by calling on the Russians to withdraw. But with the Suez crisis also in hand, the USA and the West failed to act properly and come to the aid of the Hungarians. The Russians upon hearing that a UN inspection team would be coming to Budapest, imported tons of plate glass to replace the broken windows from all the machine-gun and tank firings. I never saw so much glass in my life. There was a cease-fire called and the Russians in the tank turrets were all pale white because once in a while a potshot took them out and due to the fact that they were officially not allowed to fire their guns.
Nevertheless, after Imre Nagy was executed the overwhelming odds forced many Hungarians to reconsider. During the early part of the revolution many folks had their Grundig short wave radios tuned to western radio stations like Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Free Europe (RFE). It was, of course, still illegal to listen to those stations, so it had to be done quietly. They edged on the Hungarians that help was coming, but none came. I am still bitter about the failed foreign policies of America that failed to support the new government. Communist Hungary and the Iron Curtain would have fallen that much sooner.
Initially, many of the Communists escaped by going to the west, where they were welcomed as freedom fighters. It took the western governments many weeks to catch on and then they started to filter the people coming from Hungary. .
Passive resistance at home
Things got tough for many Hungarians. With the additional Russians on hand and now in control, anyone even remotely associated with the revolution got threatened or worse. Resistance was still there. There was a place on Kálvin Tér where someone managed to write in big, bold highly visible letters Ruszki Go Home! The response was that a several tanks came and tried to erase the slogan by shooting at the building. They were obviously angry! After some sanity was talked into them by stating that there were people living in there , they stopped. Luckily the building survived, as did most of the slogan.
Military convoys and armed soldiers with machine-guns walked in pairs on streets, especially in troubled areas to keep the peace. Such was the case in early December at University Plaza. During an afternoon some students tried to blow up one of those convoys by throwing some explosives at them. However, it misfired. Soon a whole bunch of the large tanks showed up, surrounded the university, and a real firefight erupted. We all had to go into the underground basement for protection. This firefight lasted for hours, as I recall.
I was in the fifth grade at the time and the study of two languages was then a requirement. One of the languages was the mandatory Russian while other was a choice. I happen to make whole sets of Cyrillic alphabet flash cards to aid my study of Russian. For some unknown reason, I decided to place both Russian and Hungarian flags with my Cyrillic alphabet that said, Welcome in my room.
Searching for a shooter
After the firefight was over, the Russians banged on the main gated door and the superintendent of the building had to open the gate. The Russians came in quite angry and demanded to see who was in charge of the school in our building. We had a Typing and Shorthand school in the building not related to the university. The Russians were yelling skola skola (school - in Hungarian it is iskola). They kept asking who was in charge and who had the keys. Well my mother was, and so she was forcibly yanked out of the basement. Luckily there were several people there who spoke fluent Russian and interpreted. It was explained to us that one of their lieutenants was shot dead and that the shot came from our building. We kept explaining that everyone was here in the sub basement, scared, and that no one was there.
They stuck a machine-gun in my mother's back and I was terrified, as I am sure she was, along with our neighbors. They forced her to open all the school doors and they searched all of the premises. The Russian captain was explaining that the tables and the chairs in the school in our building were moved this way and close to the window and that someone was shooting from within through the windows during the firefight. He was not going to leave until he found the shooter and whoever could shed light on the subject. We all knew what that meant! They continued to press the machine-gun into my mother's back while questions were raised and answered. Meanwhile one of the neighbors held me back as much as he could, as I was really worried and crying about my mom. They eventually got a tour of our apartment and kept poking her with the machine-gun, having found no one to blame. It was at this time when they came into my room and saw the little Russian and Hungarian flags with the Cyrillic word Welcome. One soldier pointed it out to the Mongol pointing the machine-gun into my mother's side and said something to him. This was the first time that the machine-gun was taken out of my mom's back. This episode was very traumatic for me, but thank God it passed without any apparent repercussions.
Another couple of days later, when things calmed down, kids being kids, we played outside on the street as much as possible. Across the street, we happened to see one of our neighbors, an old lady in her 70's, walking close to one of those garbage containers typically found in Budapest. Apparently it had a stash of unexploded bullets and as it just happens she was there at the time that it ignited from a tossed cigarette butt. The bullets started to explode making a lot noise and flew every which way. The old lady almost died, as she had no clue which direction she should run and hide. We, of course, thought this was really funny and laughed quite aloud at this scene from behind the big wooden doors of our building.
Pretty soon thereafter the secret police arrived demanding to see us by name. Apparently one of the students in our school, with whom we refused to play, had reported us as being seen laughing. The AVO wanted to take us downtown but the neighbors surrounded them and insisted that they leave us alone. They left, but stated that their investigation was not over and that they would be back.
Decision to go
Meanwhile, one of my uncles came to us one late evening and stated that he had managed to go to Austria and leave his son there. He had come back for his wife and daughter in-law. He explained that he would take us across the border if we were interested. Soon the decision was made to go. Certain items were given to a special friend; the kind you could trust with your life, and I recall taking my good violin to their house. A letter was written to indicate to my mom's workplace that we went to a wedding in the western part of Hungary and that she would be a few days late. Another letter was also written that was to be delivered in a week that my mom broke her leg and could not come back for about another week if our friend did not hear from us. We thought this would cover our collective behinds so they wouldn't look for us. During this timeframe everyone had to carry identification cards known as the passport at all times. It had your name, workplace, birthplace, etc. in it. So at any point any police or soldier could demand to see where you belonged. On the big day in December, we went to the Déli Pályaudvar (Southern Railway Station) to take a train to Sopron, a major city closest to the Austrian border. My uncle showed up at the station and stated that his wife had a nervous breakdown and that he could not leave her so he was not coming. However, he insisted that his daughter-in-law come with us and that he would follow us in a week or so.
He also suggested that we meet up with his friend who already knew the track and that he would guide us. We stayed in a hotel overnight and early in the morning we were going to leave. Unbeknown to us at that time, my uncle's friend and wife did not want to risk taking a whole crew. So they dumped us. We said that wherever you go, we would follow. This cat and mouse game lasted for a while but they managed to lose us. We knew that by taking the trolley line to the end, the border was only a few kilometers away. So we decided to continue on our own. Soon while we were walking on the road; a horse and buggy with two guys came up next to us. The driver said, hey you guys leaving the country? Who, we? No, we are just out for an afternoon stroll. Yeah sure, he said, well in about another kilometer that way you will run into the Russian camp and they will surely catch you. He said, my friend here could take you across. We realized that there was no other choice so we accepted their offer. We started to go into the woods. Soon it got to be dusk. After a while he said that this is as far as he could take us, because if they catch him here he would be shot. We could surely claim that we were really lost or something.
He now wanted to collect his fee. We gave him lots of cash money and some gold jewelry. He gave us directions indicating that we were only about 1 to 1.5 kilometers from the border and that we could go across an unmonitored wooden bridge and be in Austria. Well it was sure getting late and really cold. We are walking on a very hard (frozen) surface. There were woods on one side and a clearing on the other. All of a sudden, I heard what sounded like a car. I told them that I heard something, but they did not listen to me. I had to start crying before my mom believed me. By this time I could periodically see lights coming toward us. We had only a few seconds to meld with the bushes next to the road as an all-terrain military vehicle zipped past us. Wow, that was close! We then decided to go into the woods for safety, as it was a moonlit night. Again, I heard some sounds and we quickly ducked and held our breath. We heard Russian soldiers talking and smoking their cigarettes. One of them threw his cigarette butt in our direction. Now we were terrified. Luckily, they left. We finally figured out that either our guide was sending us to the Russian barracks or he was dyslexic. We decided to reverse his lefts with rights and continued on our way. It must have been midnight when we found this nice road-like section that was unpaved yet freshly raked and we were wondering what would they be planting in the middle of December.
We decided to walk on this for maybe another half an hour. On our right we saw some railroad ties stacked and finally we were so exhausted and cold that we decided to climb on top of one to rest and perhaps sleep a bit. My mom gave me some rum, as I was really very cold. They threw all kinds of clothes and coats and sweaters on top of me. Next, I remember being awakened by shhhhh! I opened my eyes and I saw this light on top of us. The light then moved and was later turned off. Back to sleep again when I was again awakened by one of the friends: Hey, I found some flags just down there, red-white-red, we must be at the border. So all right but which side are we on, as I don't remember going over a bridge. Soon one of the women suggests that we walk parallel to the flags until we figure out where we are. Then someone else says, yeah, but they can shoot at us from either side so what do we do then? Well, we better go across and see what there is to see. We went up this hill about a few hundred yards. Dawn was just breaking out. I noticed this electric utility pole with Achtung Hoch Spannung (Warning - High Voltage) I said well, we must be in Austria 'cause that is in German! A few seconds later, a man with a horsedrawn carriage happens to come by. He addresses us in Hungarian. It's all right you are on the good side, you are in Austria. Then he says where did you come from? We say well back there, behind us. He says well you better take a look! By now there is enough light to see that there was a guardhouse only a few hundred yards from where we were sleeping on the railroad ties. There was a changing of the guards just taking place. He said they would have seen you for sure! He said he would take us to the nearest post office where they pick up refugees. Soon a postal bus arrived and we were told to get on there. I was somewhat nauseous and threw up my food from my earlier attempts at eating. The bus driver was really nice about it. He actually stopped the bus and cleaned it up. He then ran into some store and got me a bar of chocolate (gee, just what I needed then, I felt so sick). However, I will never forget that nice gesture. We then wound up in a large castle converted into a camp and staging area for Hungarian refugees. Soon all strange kids became instant friends and we went exploring this great castle that was located in Eisenstadt.
We were there for about a week when they sorted people into groups. Families with and without children and single people were sent on to different camps. It took us two years of various camps and schools before we finally got our visas for the big trip to fly over the ocean to come to America. I still remember that old propeller-driven 4-engine DC-6B airplane that took us from Munich, Germany, to Shannon, Ireland, then over to Gander, Newfoundland, then to New York. Arriving into New York was a really bumpy ride at the time. My mother was at the window and she kept saying oh look Peter. those houses look like little matchboxes. It took us 18 hours of flying to get across to the States.
After we were safely out of Hungary I found out that there was a person in the attic that fired the shot that killed the Russian lieutenant, but no one would give him up.
Péter A. Soltész
Now the President of PAS-COM, Inc. a company consults for international clients in telecommunications, computers and high technology matters including related litigation consulting. He has held several senior executive positions with various high tech and wireless communications companies. He holds degrees in electrical engineering from New York University and the City University of New York. He is currently the Secretary and member of the Board of Directors of the Hungarian American Coalition in Washington, DC.