It will be quite a challenge to give a succinct yet sufficiently detailed summary of the events of those days. As I mentioned already on this blog, I was a third-year university student in the Faculty of Arts of ELTE in 1956. I lived in the university’s dormitory for women located at the corner of Rákóczi út and Múzeum körút right across from the Astoria Hotel.
Anyone familiar with the history of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 knows that one of the hottest spots in Pest was exactly that corner where the Soviet tanks appeared at 5:00 a.m. on October 24. We were also very close to the building that housed Magyar Rádió where the actual armed conflict between the security forces and the demonstrators began.
I was the first democratically elected student leader of the dormitory. Prior to the spring of 1956 the party had appointed someone, but by then the students were becoming restless and voiced all sorts of demands, including the democratic election of student leaders. The authorities tried to appease us and agreed. Thus I was actively involved in the organization of the planned demonstration. The day before I went from room to room inviting people to attend the gathering that was supposed to be a sympathy demonstration for the Poles who were trying to loosen their ties to Moscow.
In typical Hungarian fashion, not even the students of different universities could agree on a common plan. We wanted to have a demonstration with slogans and posters while the engineers were afraid to voice their demands. Instead, they marched in silence on the practically deserted Buda bank of the Danube. We went through busy downtown Pest. I have to laugh every time I hear that the brave engineering students started the revolution. Oh no, they walked from the Technical University to Bem tér. That’s all they did on October 23.
After some hesitation we got the okay from the Ministry of Interior and began walking ten in a row arm-in-arm so no strangers could join us. By the time we got to Nagykörút it was close to impossible to keep our neat rows. Ordinary passers-by joined and the crowd became enormous. By the time we crossed the Danube (at Margit híd) flags appeared in windows with the Rákosi coat-of-arms cut out. Our destination was Bem tér where there was a military barracks full of soldiers hanging out of the windows. The crowd started shouting and demanding that they take off the Russian-type top called “gimnastiorka.” And they gladly obliged. For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about here is picture of the Russian military shirt.
After the meeting at Bem tér the crowd moved on to the parliament. What we wanted to accomplish at the parliament most likely no one knew. A tremendous crowd gathered there. We just waited and waited demanding Imre Nagy while the people inside didn’t know what on earth to do. At one point they turned off the street lights hoping that the total darkness would discourage the demonstrators. It didn’t. People set their Szabad Nép, the party paper, on fire. It was quite a sight. After perhaps an hour or even more Imre Nagy appeared and began “Comrades!” Then came the since famous answer from the crowd: “we are not comrades.” After a few soothing words the crowd was ready to leave. Obviously, Imre Nagy had a tremendous reputation.
As we were walking back to the university on Váci utca a motorcyclist was coming from the other direction who shouted: “They are shooting at the Radio Station.” We didn’t believe it. One of us, László Márton, today one of the people who established the Magyar Demokratikus Charta, yelled back: “Provocation!” Well, it wasn’t.
Until I got back to the dormitory I didn’t have any idea that armed conflict was already under way. I was in the building when I first heard a gun being fired not terribly far away. From the local radio you couldn’t learn anything. In the whole dormitory there was only one radio which was good enough to listen to foreign broadcasts and suddenly we were all listening to Radio Free Europe, Voice of America, and BBC trying to find out what was going on. I must say that they were pretty accurate when they reported that the Soviet troops had left their barracks somewhere outside of Budapest and that they were expected to arrive in the capital around 5 a.m.
Indeed, they arrived in the middle of the intersection facing Rákóczi út and every time a faint gunshot could be heard nearby they began to fire. I have no idea idea at whom or what they were shooting. I have the feeling that they themselves didn’t know it either. They shot aimlessly. Often not exactly straight and in such cases our building, the first on the right, was hit. The Soviets managed to shoot out the whole second floor of the building facing Rákóczi út. The noise was so incredible that one didn’t know whether it was our building that was hit or not. We could be sure only when plaster was falling all over. Meanwhile we managed to empty the front rooms and set up mattreses on the floor in the safe corridors facing the adjacent building. Eventually we had no electricity and we just sat in the dark corridor fearing for our lives.
I might add that the dormitory had no eating facilities and therefore we had no food for about three or four days, not until the fighting subsided somewhat and some of us managed to get to the university’s cafeteria where the staff was feeding all comers. I will never forget. They served cabbage and tomato (paradicsomos káposzta) without any meat, of course, but I can assure everybody that it was one of the best meals of my life, before or since.
The dormitory was full of all sorts of people who were caught in the crossfire and were unable to get home. We even had some wounded people whom we dragged into the building. And there were quite a few dead people right in front of our building. We were in total shock partly because of our own precarious situation and partly because we felt responsible for the consequences of the peaceful demonstration we had started. We were worried sick about the outcome of what was going on in front of our eyes while we knew very little about what was going on in the rest of the country.
This went on until October 28, Sunday, when it was safe enough to look around in the city. This was when my active political participation began. But that story is for another day.