A new anniversary: The Hungarian October

A fascinating collection of documents is available online thanks to the work of the Open Society Archives and the Hungarian National Library (Széchényi Könyvtár). The collection was named after its rescuer, Claire de Héderváry (or Héderváry Klára), an employee of the UN for thirty years. In 1957 January-February when important and less important Hungarian refugees arrived in the West, the United Nations General Assembly established the Special Committee on the Problem of Hungary for the purpose of investigating Hungary's 1956 Revolution, the subsequent Soviet military intervention, and the circumstances and events that led to the installation of the government of János Kádár. This committee was unofficially called the Committee of Five because five countries were asked to delegate members: Australia, Denmark, Ceylon, Tunisia and Uruguay.

I doubt that there were too many Hungarian employees of the United Nations in those days and Claire de Héderváry, who had lived abroad since 1933, first in Brussels and later in New York, suddenly became an indispensable person at UN headquarters. Her work with the Committee was critical because the members decided to conduct hearings with Hungarian refugees, most of whom didn't speak any other language but Hungarian. Even if they knew some English, their knowledge of the language wasn't good enough to give testimony in it. The interviews were held in New York, Geneva, Rome, Vienna, and London. Most of the interviewees refused to give their names, fearing retribution against relatives in Hungary, but some important names are known: Anna Kéthly, head of the Hungarian Social Democratic Party; Béla Király, leader of the Hungarian National Guard; József Kővágó, mayor of Budapest; Pál Ignotus, writer; György Pálóczi Horváth, writer and essayist; and Éva Szörényi, actress, just to mention a few. The testimonies were translated into English, transcribed, and are now available on the website of the Open Society Archives.

Klára Héderváry is solely responsible for the survival of these documents because it was customary to toss out documents that weren't deemed of utmost importance after awhile. But Ms Héderváry kept the documents, amounting to twenty-four liquor boxes, in her office and when she retired she was allowed to take them along as her private possession. At the time Ms Héderváry lived in a very small apartment where there was simply not enough space for twenty-four large boxes, and therefore she deposited them for safe keeping at the Hoover Institution in Palo Alto, California. After the change of regime she made arrangements for the material to be housed in the Hungarian National Library.

Open Society Archives (OSA) came into being after George Soros acquired the archives of Radio Free Europe and transferred them to the newly established Central European University in Budapest. OSA is collecting, preserving, and making accessible documents relating to recent history. By now OSA has 7,000 linear meters of records divided into three main groups: (1) Communism, the Cold War, and Their Afterlife; (2) Human Rights; and (3) Soros Foundations Network and the Central European University. As a joint effort of the National Library and OSA seventy-seven hours of oral testimony were digitized. According to the chief archivist of OSA "it was a terribly difficut job." Lately researchers have been occupying themselves trying to identify the unnamed witnesses.

These hearings helped the western powers understand the Hungarian situation, not just events that occurred during the revolution but more importantly the reasons for the outbreak of the uprising. Most of the interviews I looked at go into some detail about the underlying causes. As we know, western intelligence in Hungary was very poor and although on-the-spot observers had an inkling that something was brewing, foreign observers were unaware of the mood in Hungary. I wonder what on earth the foreign embassies did in those days. How was it possible that the diplomats noticed nothing about the intellectual revolt that was obvious just by reading the daily press? Perhaps they simply couldn't fathom such an admittedly unexpected event as armed fighting on the streets of Budapest. Some studies are available on US foreign policy during this period and some interesting articles are also available, even in English, at the website of the 1956-Intézet.

Yesterday there was a round table discussion about the Héderváry Collection's significance with Ms Héderváry (age 90) present. There is an interesting sidenote to the story. In 1971 a play was written entitled "A magyar kérdés" (The Hungarian question) about the Committee of Five; given the date of its production one can imagine what it was like. Apparently, it was nothing but a propaganda piece with no little falsification of history. For example, Héderváry was portrayed as a woman of ill repute. It was none other than Cecília Esztergályos, the well known and respected actress, who played Héderváry. Esztergályos was also invited to the conference but not surprisingly she excused herself. No mention of this role can be found on her website.

It is certainly worth one's while to take a look at some of these testimonies. I found them fascinating.