An eyewitness account: October 23, 1956, Part I

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.

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Paul
Guest

“Thus I was actively involved in the organization of the planned demonstration.”
So, Éva, it was all your fault!
Thanks for a very interesting (and honest) post. I’m looking forward to part 2.
It does rather put today’s demo in perspective though – “Ordinary passers-by joined and the crowd became enormous”. Obviously, despite all that OV has done and our knowledge of what he is planning, the ordinary Budapesti is still not concerned that much.

Thomas Gabor
Guest

Your story brought back a lots of memories. I was one of the engineering student. You are right, we marched on the Buda side to the Parlamment. In any case with some of my fellow students I ended up at the police station close to the Keleti Rail Road Station as a “Nemzet Or ” We got guns and did policy duties, picking up political suspects and so on. My father was jailed, I thought this was my revolution. Than the anti-semitism started. My “partner” reasured me that after “we get rid of the russians we are going to elliminate the jews”. I put my gun down, went home and two days later we escaped through the Austrian border. As far as I am concerned they can take their revolution and stick it.

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Thomas Gabor: “My “partner” reasured me that after “we get rid of the russians we are going to elliminate the jews”.
I was maybe lucky but I haven’t encountered any anti-Semitic remarks in Budapest but I heard some among refugees in Austria.

Ron
Guest

I like history, and especially personal accounts. The revolution of 1956 is not my revolution. When I came to Hungary I did not know too much about this.
When I came to Hungary I end up with a group of “old” guys. Some of them Dutch/Hungarians.
Three of them I get to know a little bit more. All of them left Hungary at the age 15-16. All of them had a father, who had a small business, like tailor, shoemaker and who were a prisoner earlier.
All of their parents told to their sons and daughters to leave the country. And most of these sons and daughters never saw their parent(s) back alive. All of them made an impressive career outside of Hungary.
What they told me, as to how it started, the same I see now going on. It started in 1948 and took 8 years before a revolution. Hopefully we do not need a revolution nor it will 8 years to restore what once was.

Paul
Guest

You are going to need both, Ron. At least.
I hope I’m wrong, but how else are you (we) going to get rid of OV?

Kata
Guest

Thanks for sharing your first person account of ’56, Eva. I was pleasantly surprised at finding this on your site today.
I used to pass by Rakoczi ut and Muzeum korut a lot (as my Grandmother used to live in Karolyi kert). I never knew there was a dormitory at the corner across Astoria. Is the building still there as far as you know in pretty much the same shape? I think some of the buildings still have the marks of the bullet shots but perhaps not too many of them (the bullet holes) have remained.
I’m also looking forward to reading part 2!
I haven’t checked your earlier posts, but is this the first time you have recounted this here?

Peter
Guest

Like Thomas Gabor, I was also part of the Engineering University contingent. The previous night, on the 22nd, we met in the large auditorium at the school and it was there that the demonstration was decided.
I also marched to Bem-ter and to the Parliament. Later, as I walked home, I had to go around to the Baross utca, as there was fighting at the Radio. Later joined the Guard at the quickly reorganized Smallholders Party, nearby the Professor’s dormitory. Left Budapest after the party secretary at the university told me: “Aradi. you don’t have a future here!”
My encounter with antisemitism came in the Salzburg refugee camp: Resident Hungarians were waiting with sticks and stones for the busses carrying us, the people who would spend two weeks in quarantine before leaving for the US. They yelled “Let us get to the dirty Jews!” Only about 5% of our goup was Jewish. Austrian police kept the two groups separate and the Jews in the transit group were offered rooms in a separate lager that was under 24 hour guards. That is when I decided that my trip to North America will be a one-way flight.

Member

I loved your post!
I was born years after this but in the 15th district, where I grew up I still remember the bullet holes on the walls. We saw them every day going to school in the 70s. My father was sentenced for 6 years. He was a medical student in Szeged. He was released sooner with amnesty and spent his last days in the slammer with Ivan Darvas. Stories …
I can’t wait for part 2! I already got the popcorn …
I think the events of the revolution got abused so much since 56, especially since 1990. So many lies, fake heroes emerged. It would be so nice to hear real memories and clean it from the dirt and see it as it really was. ANd to move on …

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Mutt, Indeed, all those fake heroes. They are in the thousands. Rather disgusting.
Another thing that annoys me. The speeches politicians come up with it. Hard to tell which is the most outlandish. But here is one from Viktor Orbán himself: “What is good in our lives today, including freedom, belonging to Europe, the possibility to return to our Christian roots, all these were created for us by 56.”
He seems to have forgotten that the revolution failed. As for our Christian roots we were all outraged at Mindszenty’s speech and had some forebodings about the possibility of the almighty Catholic church of pre-1945 years trying to come back.

Ron
Guest

Eva: 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.
It was before my time, but that corner was a beautiful one, dominated by the Nemzetiszinhaz (demolished in 1965). I saw some pictures. I believe this dormitory is still there (yellow bricks I remember).
Currently, it is shadow of the past, with an ugly, but effective and efficient, glass office building occupying the old theater’s place.

M
Guest

If you are interested in anti-Semitism and the Hungarian Revolution, watch this documentary: http://bit.ly/nsl9LJ

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Rákóczi út 5 is the address. The building used to be an elegant hotel (Pannonia Szálló) in the nineteenth century with a café on the first floor that was very fashionable in those days. At the very corner of Múzeum körút and Rákóczi út was the first National Theater which burned down in 1944. In 1956 it was an empty lot that left our building totally unprotected from the Soviet tanks’ fire.
I tried to find a good picture of the building on the Internet but I was unsuccessful. I have a very bad black and white picture from the Budapest Lexikon. One can see my room on the second floor with a balcony on the right. It was through this room that most of the damage was received to the building.

Member

@Eva This is the building:
http://epiteszforum.hu/node/15879

Pete H.
Guest

Thank you all for the great stories! These first hand accounts really bring the history to life. So sad, but not surprised, to learn of the antisemitism of that period.

Member
Am I the only one who finds Orban’s comment “the possibility to return to our Christian roots, all these were created for us by 56.” highly offensive? THis guy mocked (big time) any religious values in parliament and outside for decades. He uses religion (just like he uses anyone around him) to his own benefit and NOT to benefit HUngary or Hungarians. Someone should mention to this dimwit that many people did not get involved in the revolution (that he has probably just read about as his father certainly was not fighting the communists) for the exact reasons THomas Gabor very well explained above. Most of the people had the right intention when started to march and rebel, but very fast it turned into a riot and as such it attracted all kinds, who felt empowered and tried to turn this nobel event into something else. I do see ’56 as something very important in Hungarian history for better and for worse. It showed again the best and the worst of HUngarians. Anti-semitism was there, as they did not only call for the retribution on communists but on retribution on the Jews. I am wondering when Orban speaks about this… Read more »
Guest

Some 1 “Am I the only one who finds Oran’s comment ‘the possibility to return to our Christian roots, all these were created for us by 56.’ highly offensive?”
I absolutely agree with you: anytime, anyone emphasizes one religion over others, I become very suspicious: whether it’s the Kingdon of Saudi Arabia, Israel or the PM of Hungary. I hesitate to speak up as I have no Hungarian blood and my affiliation is one of friendship. And, having watched the documentary suggested by M, the statement by Orban is even more chilling.

Kirsten
Guest

I liked the post very much and the comments, too. I thought (naively) that this period has more or less an undisputed interpretation, and now I read that it is too a source of discord. I look very much forward to reading Part 2.

Kirsten
Guest

Paul, reading that in 1956 anti-semitism resurfaced quickly in some areas for me only confirms that getting rid of OV is important but in order to make sure that it is replaced by “democracy”, much more needs to be accomplished.

Paul
Guest

Many thanks to M for the link to the video. Very moving and very depressing.
This is a side to 56 I was totally unaware of and it has tainted the whole episode for me. Until now I had thought of 56 as the one thing Hungarians could be truly proud of.

Paul
Guest

Kirsten – I agree totally, but there isn’t the time for such niceties. If OV isn’t somehow removed before 2014, it will take revolution to get rid of him afterwards.
And a revolution that, I fear, will make 56 look like a tea party.

Kata
Guest

@M A most poignant film. It is also very interesting since, as far as I know, there has been less material available about the history of the Jewry in the Eastern ‘periphery’ of Hungary. From now on I will keep a different mental image when I hear the name of, or (maybe) visit Hajdunanas.

Kata
Guest

@Matt Damon Thanks for digging that photo out. What an absolutely stunning building! Was that the dormitory where professor Balogh used to stay as a student in ’56?

Odin's lost eye
Guest
My experiences of October/November 1956 are very different . On the 24th October. We were ‘seniors’ routed out of our bunks just before the end of the ‘Middle Watch’4.00 AM. We were told to wear any Civilian clothes we had and pack the rest. We were off (by train) no breakfast. I arrived in Lowestoft about 8 that night. Still we were given no food or drink. We were told to bed down a warehouse, but it was locked. The key holder had gone home. All the stuff we were to issued with, was locked in there as well. We wandered about the dockside looking for shelter from the rain. About 1 ‘O’ Clock in the morning an irate P.O. was shouting my name so I reported to him. He asked me where my kit was so I showed him my case. Where is the stuff they issued to you? I showed him the locked warehouse. The P.O. vanished into a small hut and there was a row. About 10 minutes later a Commander appeared with an old car. Heard briefly the story asked me for my ID which he put in his pocket and we got in the car… Read more »
Member

@Odin I love it!! Part #2?

DeakMasLettVolna
Guest

There was a bad outburst of WWII type antisemitism in October 1956. Perhaps, the major culprits were the Hungarians living in West Germany, and working got Radio Free Europe.
The biggest compliment can be given to Bela Kiraly, who restored order in Budapest, and disarmed most criminals.

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