An eyewitness account: October 1956, Part II

It seems that we are back at 1956 as a result of our discussion about the Orbán government’s removal of Imre Nagy from the national pantheon. I wanted to answer some of the comments, but TypePad decided that the owner of the blog is not allowed to post any comments. I do hope that they will come up with some solution to the problem that has been persistent ever since yesterday.

In my last note on the subject I described the constant bombardment we were under for days on end–the lack of food, heat, and electricity, but I forgot to tell about a memorable night alone in that huge building that used to house the Pannonia Hotel. At one point a rumor was circulating that the Soviets had had enough of the continuous fighting and that they will bomb the city. Total panic set in and we were ordered to move down to the cellar. So, the mattresses that had been dragged out from the rooms to the corridors were now moved underground. As soon as I saw the place I had uneasy feelings. Dirt floor, low ceilings with seemingly miles and miles of gas pipes. Eventually we settled down when I felt something hard under my seat. What on earth is this? It was a rucksack and in the rucksack was a hand grenade. That was the last straw as far as I was concerned. I announced that I don’t know what the others are doing, but I’m going upstairs and sleep in my own bed. If I have to die, it will be much better on the third floor than in the cellar.

Rákóczi út 5 — In 1956 Ilona Zrínyi Kollégium

As soon as I started going up on the majestic staircase my courage began to wane, but eventually I reached my room. It was an eerie feeling to be alone in this huge building, and I must say that I was a bit scared. However, I fell asleep soon enough and slept soundly. The same couldn’t be said of those, including my roommate, who sat all night in the cellar and staggered up to their rooms the next morning.

Throughout this first week we were in total darkness about the overall situation. There were occasional announcements on the radio calling on people to put down their arms but no one listened. At last, on Sunday (October 28) morning we heard that at the Law School, not too far from us, some kind of political gathering was taking place. A friend of mine, Teri K., and I set out to look around. The information turned out to be correct: the Revolutionary Committee of the Hungarian Intelligentsia (Magyar Értelmiség Forradalmi Bizottsága) was being launched. The committee was a kind of umbrella organization for some of the most important oppositional groups, like the Writers’ Association (Írószövetség), the Petőfi Circle (Petőfi Kör), and the  Revolutionary Committee of University Students (Egyetemi Forradalmi Diákbizottság). The big lecture hall was full of people. We happened upon a planning session about what the opposition should do under the circumstances. I remember most vividly Géza Losonczy’s speech complaining about the lack of resoluteness on the part of Imre Nagy. Losonczy died in prison at the end of 1957. Apparently, he went on a hunger strike. He was scheduled to stand trial, but he died when his jailers carelessly pushed a feeding tube down his windpipe. He was one of those who were reburied on June 16, 1989, alongside Imre Nagy.

It was here that I learned that the day before the Revolutionary Committee of University Students had been formed in the building of the Faculty of Arts under the leadership of István Pozsár and János Varga. Pozsár was a teaching assistant at the time and János Varga, assistant dean. I knew Varga well because he was the boyfriend of a student in my dormitory. So, as soon as we heard about the existence of the revolutionary student committee, we set out to visit the group at the Faculty of Arts–that is, our own university. In no time we received membership cards stating that we were acting in the name of the Revolutionary Student Committee. Half an hour later we were sent with two other students to Győr to negotiate with the revolutionary council of the city. In the intervening years I forgot the names of the other two students, but since then I found out while reading a book about the revolution at ELTE’s Faculty of Arts that one of them was Béla Pomogáts, today a literary historian dealing mostly with Hungarian literature in the neighboring countries.

The two boys went to talk to Attila Szigethy, who was the leader of the revolutionaries in Győr. (Szigethy committed suicide in February 1957 before his case reached the courts.) Teri and I ended up at the Győr Radio Station where we gave an interview about the situation in Hungary. In the interview we gave a very optimistic description of the developments in Budapest. After all, in the early afternoon Imre Nagy had announced the end of one-party rule. What of course we didn’t know was that it was at about this time that some of participants in the street fights attacked the party headquarters on Köztársaság tér (today, after Mayor István Tarlós’s street-naming spree, II. János Pál tér) and lynched several people.

The next day we were ordered to go to Pécs. On the one hand, our committee wanted to get in touch with the students at Pécs and, on the other, we were supposed to talk with the workers of the coal mines scattered around the city. We were supposed to convince them to return to work and support the Imre Nagy government. One reason I was eager to go to Pécs was because I hadn’t been able to get in touch with my parents since the outbreak of the revolution. So, Teri and I showed up at my parents’ apartment to my parents’ great relief and joy. We had the luxury of a bath and a nice dinner. After almost a whole week of very limited opportunities to eat and clean ourselves these were welcome events.

To be continued.

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Paul
Guest

Thanks, Éva. Looking forward to the continuation.

Member

I just love to read this. That young girl thrown into this unexpected turmoil. The fears, doubts and cockiness so well portrayed. I love it because it shows that these “young” people did not go into this to become heros or celebrities. They had no idea how big or how small the outcome will be, but then they just rolled with it.
It is incredible that how many people try to ride the long lasting wave of the effects of the uprising. Safely from their own secure positions three decades later took advantage of the “trademark’ of ’56. Now that it does not serve their purpose any longer, they try to dispose it and undermine it. In a few weeks the scum of that revolution will be lifted up as heros. Anyone and everyone who have had anything to do with the communists in the past or in the present and anyone who is a liberal today will be erased from the history books who hae had anything to do . Orban rewrites history Back to the Future style.

GW
Guest

These posts are very valuable, Eva, particularly with the current efforts to rewrite the history of ’56. The authentic words of witnesses to history become very precious.
“…on Köztársaság tér (today, after Mayor István Tarlós’s street-naming spree, II. János Pál tér…”
The efforts of the current government to remove all traces of republicanism from Hungary, from the constitution to street names, are astonishing. In this case, JP II may well, in the public imagination, deserve a place of his own, but certainly not in the place reserved for honoring the Republic.

Member
I apologize, but i would like to carry over the Imre Nagy conversation here. As I have mentioned above, Orban and his comrades are working hard to rewrite history. THey are adding and taking away facts, trying to destroy evidences. Orban, Pozsgay, Szuros, Kover Schmitt involvement with the communist party were very in-depth. If any of them think that Imre Nagy is not qualified to be remembered as a Hungarian hero because he started out as a communist, under what grounds are any of these hypocrites can even face Hungarians? Imre Nagy made a choice to give his life for Hungary, instead of blending in to a branch of the communist movement he did not agree with any further. The freedom and independence of Hungary was more important to him, then climbing the party latter for the expense of Hungarians. Orban, Pozsgay, Szuros and Kover willingly participated in the repression (they claim happened in Hungary up to 1989). I am sure many of the Hungarian posters are familiar with the term “kader jelentes”. I am not sure exactly how to translate “kader”. Cadre? Anyway when someone was applying for an important position, especially for a political position, beside his own… Read more »
Paul
Guest

The forint recovered quite spectacularly today – back to where it was after the IMF false dawn of few days ago.
Anyone know why?

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Paul: “The forint recovered quite spectacularly today – back to where it was after the IMF false dawn of few days ago. Anyone know why?”
It has nothing to do with Hungary but by central banks of several countries (USA, Canada, Australia, Switzerland among others) to provide liquidity to Europe. Plus the US figures were great today.

Ron
Guest

Eva/Paul: Here is the article in Portfolio.hu
http://www.portfolio.hu/en/fx/hungary_forint_firms_to_1-week_high_vs_eur.23359.html
For me, in a surprise move, Tamas Fellegi is now leader of the negotiation with IMF and not Matolcsy.
A few days ago, some Fidesz members mentioned that Matolcsy should stay on for the negotiations with IMF. So it seems to me he will be letting go soon.

Member

Tamas Fellegi.. an other opresed Hungarian under Orban’s wings, who had to suffer under the communism. Just a few years after Kover finally was allowed with his fellow Hungarians to visit the West, In 1985 Fellegi acquired a scholarship to Harvard University. This was four years before the changes. The times according to Orban and Kover were hard on those who did not serve the communist dictators. Poor Fellegi, it must of been so hard for him to arrange to leave Hungary as I am sure he was one of the great opposition member who spoke up against communism.

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

some1: “Just a few years after Kover finally was allowed with his fellow Hungarians to visit the West, In 1985 Fellegi acquired a scholarship to Harvard University.”
And that’s not all. Two years later he returned to the United States and studied and worked at the University of Connecticut where he got a Ph.D.
UConn is not exactly Harvard but Rudi Tőkés, a Hungarian political scientist, was a professor there. I assume he helped Fellegi to be accepted by UConn as a graduate student. Although getting a Ph.D. there wasn’t a great feat!

Kirsten
Guest

When reading Eva’s account I was thinking that 1968 does not play a major role in current Czech politics either. By 1992 definitely it was clear that these changes will go way beyond 1968 and therefore the Prague Spring was not the an inspiration for the changes (eg with the argument that this was reform communism = ‘bad’). Also the key players have not been honoured prominently. I think there is not even a Dubcek street in Prague. I hope that I gather more information on that by the time Eva writes part III.

Paul
Guest
Kirsten – wasn’t Dubcek honoured in some way when communism finally fell there? I seem to remember quite a fuss being made of him. Although I’m too young to remember 56, I can clearly recall the Prague Spring. The sixties seemed such a time of hope and change, and nothing seemed impossible. So when things started to change in Czechoslovakia, it felt inevitable that they would succeed. So it was a huge shock when the tanks moved in, and it marked my generation for life. The earlier generation had seen the Sovietisation of Eastern Europe, so I suppose assumed what had been done could be undone one day. But for us, after 68 (and learning about 56), it seemed that there was no hope. I remember arguing that the Berlin Wall was permanent and we had better get used to two Germanies – it wasn’t going to change. !989/90 was a huge shock, what had seemed so completely permanent collapsed almost overnight. One minute people were being shot for trying to get over the Wall, the next they were walking through it. I still have moments when I can’t believe that I am married to a Hungarian and can travel… Read more »
Kirsten
Guest

I saw now that he was awarded in 2003 (10 years after his death) the highest order of the Czech Republic. There is one square in Bratislava/Pozsony named after him, but none in the Czech Republic. I think that Imre Nagy has been honoured more (at least until now). Also, the 21 August is not even an “important day” (the non-working days that are nevertheless considered important, such as a day that commemorates the show trials), far from the day off that Hungarians enjoy on 23 October. I have not thought about the significance of 1968 for today’s Czech Republic until I read the debate here about Imre Nagy. Only the arguments why 1956 should be downplayed have reminded me of something that I heard already :-), as they have been advanced also with respect to 1968. Certainly you will hear that it is not ‘decent’ to vote even for the social democrats (not a successor party to the Communist party), no matter how corrupt the alternatives. That is also similar. But now I want to know and I will try to find out more.

Kirsten
Guest

…workdays that are nevertheless considered important…

Paul
Guest

I’m sure I can remember a very old (and rather ill looking) Dubcek being welcomed onto a platform somewhere and being cheered by the crowds. And I’m sure this was fairly early on in events.

Wondercat
Guest

Prof Balogh, I mistrust the permanence of electronic media. Verba volant, and so on.
I hope that your memoirs are set down somewhere in ink on paper. Scripta manent. Et scripta memoria vestra thesauri.

Paul
Guest

Well, thankfully my memory proves more reliable than usual – this is from Wikipedia:
“During the Velvet Revolution of 1989, he supported the Public against Violence (VPN) and the Civic Forum. On the night of 24 November, Dubček appeared with Václav Havel on a balcony overlooking Wenceslas Square, He was greeted with uproarious applause from the throngs of protesters below, embraced as a symbol of democratic freedom. He disappointed the crowd somewhat by calling for pruning out what was wrong with Communism. By this time, however, the demonstrators in Prague wanted nothing to do with Communism of any sort. Later that night, Dubček was on stage with Havel at the Laterna Magika theater, the headquarters of Civic Forum, when the entire leadership of the Communist Party resigned–in effect, ending Communist rule in Czechoslovakia.[3]
Dubček was elected Chairman of the Federal Assembly (Czecho-Slovak Parliament) on 28 December 1989, and re-elected in 1990 and 1992.”
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexander_Dub%C4%8Dek

Kirsten
Guest

Yes, this is true, he was also president of the parliament until 1991 but I meant afterwards. The speech of OV in 1989 also did not point to any particular criticism. I was thinking about how the interpretation has evolved and what I meant is that somehow (which is what I would like to find out) during the past 15 years, 1968 has been eclipsed in the Czech political life, (most likely) with arguments that are similar to those read here.

Paul
Guest
Kirsten – now I see what you mean. You are right, the same has happened in both countries. But for very different reasons. In the CR I think this was a natural process of moving away from the communist past. In 1989 the Velvet Revolution was seen, at least in part, in terms of completing the unfinished business of 1968. But, these days it is seen as the beginning of an entirely new process – the movement away from Communism towards a modern Western, capitalist state. In 89 Dubcek was seen as very much a part of what was going on, but by now he is seen as part of the old Communist days. Which, on reflection, I think is actually the correct perspective. As with Nagy, he has to be seen in the context of his time – a time when an absolute breakaway from Communism would have been unthinkable to two such long-serving (and sincere) members of the party. Curiously, in Hungary the same thing didn’t happen. Probably because of the differences between the two ‘revolutions’ and the very different fate of the two leaders. There has always been a minority anti-Nagy view, but, until recently, he has… Read more »
Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Wondercat: “Prof Balogh, I mistrust the permanence of electronic media. Verba volant, and so on. I hope that your memoirs are set down somewhere in ink on paper. Scripta manent. Et scripta memoria vestra thesauri.”
I have a longer Hungarian version I wrote at the request of an internet acquaintance who wanted to honor his mother.
I didn’t print it out but I could. Plus I can always give it to the 56 Institute that is if Viktor Orbán doesn’t close its doors permanently.

Paul
Guest
Is there a good history of 56 in English – can anyone recommend one? So far, I haven’t found one, so I’ve had to make the best of the chapters dealing with this topic in various general histories, articles in Hungarian Quarterly, etc (and, of course, the excellent pieces on this blog). The result is a ‘history’ that is far from complete and is, in places, contradictory. As an example of what I mean, despite years of reading everything I can find on 56, I’ve learnt quite a lot of stuff that was entirely new to me – and gained a new perspective – just from reading this blog over the last few months. Oddly, the book that’s most impressed me as a history of 56 so far is by an Englishman who wasn’t there, and is not actually supposed to be a ‘normal’ history! The book in question is Bob Dent’s ‘Budapest 56 – Locations of Drama’, and I recommend it to anyone who wants a non-partisan view of what happened (or might have happened!). What Dent sets out to do is to take each of the main locations of action in Budapest in 56 (for example the Corvin… Read more »
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