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Chapter 2

The Revolution

The 23rd of October seemed to be another beautiful early autumn morning and day for us - a gloriously sunny and refreshingly cool day after a hot summer. We had all (and probably most of the people of Budapest and across the country) read about the students' points in the morning papers. Everybody was talking about it and the planned march.

A group of students and I were on our way home after finishing work at the shop where we had to work in the afternoon after finishing at the school's workshop. It was not really work - we were new students learning the fineries of being 'Optical Mechanics', cutting, grinding and fitting prescription glasses into frames.

The 'OFOTÉRT' shop was practically opposite the 'Nyugati' Railway Station. All five of us students lived at the same Colleges (Boarding hostel for students) on 'Kossúth tér' (Kossúth Square), opposite the Parliament buildings.

On the way home we had to cross 'Bajcsy Zsilinszky' út (Bajcsy Zsilinszky Road). There seemed to be a lot of people everywhere, the footpaths were full - students, their professors, workers, office workers and it seemed most of the population of Budapest were marching along the wide boulevard. Many people were also at the windows of the multi story buildings lining the wide street.

All day, going to school, during school hours and at the workshops, all the conversation was about the meeting of students, friends and others at the University the night before. I was there with some of my friends and during the lively meeting, the students' demands and the newspaper articles were discussed, as well as the planned march to present the 'points' of demands to the Government.

Gyurka, Feri, and I were at the meeting the previous night at the University. The meeting was in 'solidarity' of the good people of Poland and especially of Poznam and Warsaw. The heavily armed Soviets were encircling their Capital to suppress their struggle for freedom and independence and keeping an eye on any sign of demonstrations or 'insurrection'.

At our University the '16 Points' of the students, adopted mostly from the 'Petõfi Kõr' (Petõfi Circle), (Petõfi is our greatly respected poet from the 1848 Hungarian Revolution) and the 'Writers' Alliance', were read out, approved and openly circulated.

The University's large Aula and the rest of the buildings, balconies and stairs were overflowing with mainly students and many other people, professors, university staff, and a good cross section of Budapest's interested people. There were many outside on the streets too. The large number that turned up just could not all get in. Wades of stenciled copies of the '16 points' were distributed to read it and pass it on.

A meeting and a march of 'solidarity' were planned for next afternoon. It was decided the best place would be at 'General Ben's' monument, because of the very obvious Polish connection. 'General Ben' was a very well known, respected General - with a hero's status - of Polish origin in the Hungarian army during the 1848-9 Revolution and freedom fight.

There were many speeches and discussions at the meeting and the mood was very electrified. The '16 Points' or parts of it were circulated earlier in Budapest. It originated as far as I know from the 'Writers' Alliance'.

(There was a precedent for the "16 Points" in our history. Preceding the 1848 Hungarian Revolution, there was a 12 Point demand presented to the authorities. In those years Hungary was ruled by the Austrian Habsburgs from Vienna.)

The meeting and the following march were unanimously approved. Most of the people at the meeting were ready to march on the night. The march was first declined, approved, then declined, then approved again by the Ministry of Interior and the hated ÁVH (Állam Védelmi Hatóság, or National Security Authority. To put it plainly, the hated-by-the Hungarians, and not so secret, Secret Police, or ÁVÓ, as they were commonly known).

On the twenty-third there were many meetings, as the marches went from the University to the Ben Statue and meeting with another group at the Petõfi Statue.

The Meeting at the Petõfi Statue
(Click to enlarge)

Five of us, Feri, Gyurka, Zoli, Sanyi, and I did not know whether the meeting and the march was on or not but we had to turn up at our workshop anyway. We did not really have the same freedom of attending or not as students from the University.

It was nice to see the marching throng of people coming towards us and towards the Nyugati Railway Station. Earlier, they had met at the Petõfi Statue, marched over to the Ben statue, and marched across the city towards the Parliament buildings.

The marching people seemed very orderly and singing old, well-known patriotic songs. One amazing thing drew our immediate attention in awe: from practically every window along the line of multi-story buildings people were hanging out the Hungarian flag with the middle missing.

The Hungarian Flag with the communist crest cut out

I could not see any red flags showing as usual when the flags went out during previous communist occasions. They had cut out the repulsive communist emblem from the middle and the amazing thing was that no one told anyone to do it - it was a spontaneous feeling and gesture on everybody's part.

The University students met earlier that afternoon at the 'Bem Apó's Statue (A respectful nickname for the much adored Polish hero and 'honorary Hungarian'). The meeting was in sympathy with the Polish people, who had a short-lived revolt against the Soviet occupation in June and as I mentioned earlier, their Capital Warsaw was encircled by the Soviets at that particular time.

They were marching to the Parliament building to present their 'Sixteen Point' petition to the Government.

We were rather scared and reluctant at this time, knowing what some of our family had to go through over the years, what the ÁVH usually did with the slightest opposition or dissent to the oppressive regime. I was scared and was very reluctant to get too much involved, although my whole heart and soul was with the students and the marchers as a whole. I hated the regime, which I pictured as the Soviet's puppet, which destroyed my father's and, consequentially, our whole family's life.

My father had been arrested many times and hounded by them over the years. He and our whole family were made to move regularly because of his previous position, especially for being a former Hussar Captain, with a 'Lipot Rend' (A fairly rare and high ranking Hungarian/Austrian or Austro-Hungarian military award).

The 'kitelepités' or displacing people and whole families was the communist regime's way to move people around who they presumed that they could not trust, so they could not make friends or 'organise' any opposition to the regime. The stronger, more formidable a repressive regime looks from the outside, the more paranoid it is on the inside.

Feri, Zoli, and Sanyi wanted to join the marchers, but we all decided to hurry back to the hostel for a quick dinner and join the marchers in front of our hostel (which was facing the Parliament buildings, where the marchers were heading anyway).

By the time we got to our hostel, the whole Kossúth Lajos Square was full of people. Suddenly, spontaneously, all five of us changed our minds and wanted to be fully involved with the students, the people of Budapest, and their petitions.

Loudspeakers were put out on the balcony of the Parliament Building and there were people talking to the people in the square while some people in the square had hand-held loudhailers too. The gathering in the square was asking for Imre Nagy, it was he that they wanted to talk with. They were also asking for Cardinal Mindszenty's release from prison. The large assembly of people were very peaceful and orderly and were all asking for their demands in quiet unison.

The people on the balcony said that it may take an hour or two to get Nagy here as he was somewhere down in the Lake Balaton area but they will get him here as soon as they can. They also promised the immediate release of Cardinal Mindszenty.

I remember that Ernõ Gerõ, and probably András Hegedüs was there as well and a few others of lesser importance. Gerõ and some others had just returned from Yugoslavia some time during the day. Some went inside, others came out. The atmosphere in the square was quite electric and I had never seen anything like it, though I had seen a lot of large marches and gatherings before. We had to march as a school, and practically everybody had to turn out for the big Communist gatherings, like 1st of May, ('Labour Day'), the 7th of November (The Anniversary of Soviet revolution) and some other Communist holidays or occasions.

After about one and half hours, a buzz went around the people in the square to take the petition straight to the Radio Station in Bródy Sándor útca (Street) and read it out on the radio so the whole country can learn about the students '16 Points' demands and today's events.

I was some of the people that went straight to the Radio Station and by this time, things were going differently in other parts of Budapest, although the large crowd in Kossúth Lajos tér (Square) remained peaceful, singing patriotic old songs, asking and waiting for Imre Nagy. On the way to the Radio Station, I saw that all the trams had stopped everywhere; many looked just abandoned in the middle of the streets.

The closer we got to the Radio Station, the more cars and trucks I saw turned over and burning. They were used, and now abandoned, by the ÁVÓ's reinforcements that tried to take over the town and save the situation. We got there very quickly, and Feri and I went in with about twenty other young University students. Most of them seemed to be in a group and I saw the petition in their hands. At the door they were greeted by some officials, but after a few minutes they were allowed to go upstairs to the studio floor. They were talking to some sound technicians who came out to greet them.

One of them was about to ring his superior upstairs and two or three of us went upstairs (Igazgatói Iróda) to the Director's Office, with a high ranking officer. He was not in the ÁVÓ's uniform, but seemed to talk to them all the time. He and some of the students talked to the woman in the office, but although she seemed to agree, in the end she would not agree to the '16 Points' being read out over the air.

When the ÁVÓ's hiding upstairs or who had got upstairs through the back entrance and from enjoining buildings, started coming down the stairs shooting, using their 'Davaj-lant', a Soviet type submachine gun, the students and I rushed downstairs as it seemed futile to argue holding a revered piece of paper against machine guns. The officer talked to some of the ÁVÓ's officers and I never saw him again.

I lost Feri, Gyurka, Zoli, and Sanyi on the way out and when I got to the gate, the street was full of people and the sound of shooting from upstairs and across the street. In a few seconds, the sound was coming from all over either side of the street, across the road and from the rooftops. I was slowly pushed towards the Muzeum körút (Museum Ring Road) and it was when I was near the Museum garden on the corner of Bródy Sándor útca (Bródy Sándor Street) and Polláck Mihály tér (Polláck Mihály Square) when I saw the teargas canisters being fired in all directions, including towards where I was. The teargas and it's effect was very strong on and around the Bródy Sándor Street, Polláck Mihály Square, the Museum gardens and on the Muzeum körút (Museum Ring Road).

This was the 'coalface' of the uprising. Since the 20th Congress of Soviet Communist Party and Khrushchev's denunciation of Stalin and his 'personal cult', the Hungarian Communist Party made some cosmetic changes as well. Rákosi shifted sideways. They exhumed and reburied Rajk and his 'Gang'. There was a slight relaxation of the terror exercised over the country previously and a small feeling of freedom in the air. Although no one could put it in words or define it, it was felt instinctively inside by most of the Hungarians.

I remember getting back to the hostel at nights prior to the 23rd and we used to walk along the corridors, sort of singing and speaking "Exhamukálták Rajkot és bandáját. Making up the first word for some meaning but mainly for the sound of it, more or less meaning 'exhumed László Rajk and the other people that were accused, implicated and executed with him.

Universities had discussion groups formed, small groups of the intellectuals, literary clubs where humanitarian, freedom of expression and similar ideas were discussed. The groups usually had some historical patriotic hero's name, such as 'Kossúth' or 'Petõfi' or similar, Circle, Club or Group.

After WWII, Hungarians were promised agrarian reform, nationalisation of factories, businesses, all private property, - a classless society, - where everything was owned by the people for the people and run by the people, including the governing bodies, locally and nation wide. Of course in practice it did not work. It did not work in Russia and it did not work in Hungary or any one of other communist countries, behind or beyond the Iron Curtain. Just one ruling class was replaced with another, and they were fighting between themselves even more ferociously then the capitalists for power.

Here at the Radio Station and in front of the Parliament Buildings the masses were peacefully demonstrating, singing, and asking to be heard, asking for basic human rights, freedom, and democracy. The authoritarian ÁVÓ were doing their best with machine guns to oppress the people and their basic demands.

There were many other groups in Budapest at this time gathering at other places, doing other things, like the cutting down Stalin's Statue, near the 'Hösök tere' (Heroe's Square) which was later dragged to Blaha Lujza tér (Blaha Lujza Square) in city centre, of which we only learnt later.

Suddenly it dawned on me and probably thousands of the other good people of Budapest that there was no way back any more.

A slightly taller and well-built man came out from the Radio Station with me, slowly walked back with me, (taking a reluctant look backwards every now and then) towards the Ring Road. Neither of us talked very much to each other due to the choking effect from the teargas and profusely running, stinging eyes. While slowly walking backwards, we watched with horror and disbelief as the once peaceful street turned into a battleground and bloodbath.

Inside, I did not feel scared at all. I suppose that I, like everybody else, was hyped-up by the night's happenings. Even so I could not see any reason or way I could fight bare handed against machine guns and teargas. I thought "I will slowly back away, save myself for another day, another battle".

The man beside me, who seemed to be beside me since we left the radio building, and I were exchanged a few words about our thoughts and comments of the happenings on the way to the corner. I can not remember his name, but we seemed to think and do very much the same for the next few hours.

He seemed to have an air of authority and leadership about him and was easy to talk with. I shall call him 'Big John', not because of his build since he was not much bigger than I was, in his thirties or forties, well educated, experienced and 'streetwise'. I gave him the name because he seemed to be the man of the moment as it turned out in the following few hours.

When we reached the Ring Road corner, we stopped, and looking back at the massacre we had left behind a mere hundred odd meters away at and around the radio station.

We were talking to each other, each without knowing much about the other. Then 'Big John' said something about getting some kind of transport and going and getting some arms to fight back against the murderous ÁVÓ. There were many people around us, many talking enthusiastically about the night, the 'Points', the demands, what everybody seemed to fully, ardently embrace by now.

We quickly walked the short distance to the Rákóczi út (Rákóczi Road) and the Ring Road corner. A couple minutes later a large truck was coming our way. A few of us acted in unison hailing down the fortuitously passing heavy truck. The truck driver was very sympathetic and was very willing to get involved, driving our small group wherever we wanted to go.

'Big John' seemed to be the leader by default. He had taken over and appeared to be the spokesman and leader of the group. There were only a few of us on the back of the truck at the beginning, but it quickly filled up so that soon, there was no room left for anybody else.

After some discussion, 'Big John' suggested we should pull up at the Herzi tér (Herzi Tivadar Square) to get some idea or news about what was happening. No one knew what was going on, and 'Big John', and most of us as well, wanted some time to reflect on the happenings around us and also to have some time in a quiet place to decide what we want to or were going to do.

During this time, he mentioned a few times to the group that they would be better off asking for János Kádár instead of Imre Nagy. He might be more acceptable to the ruling communists than Nagy. He went on that they were both Communists, they both held high office in previous administrations, but János Kádár was denounced, arrested and later tortured by the ÁVÓ. 'Big John' described some of the torture Kádár had to endure. He said that they tortured him to 'confess' to things he had never done, like so many others at the Communist's 'Show Trials' to scare the officials and the general public into obedience and submission.

One of the means of torture he described was that they inserted a glass tube in Kádár's penis and then they broke the glass tube inside. Kádár was one of the lucky ones, he survived, they did not execute him, and as history will show, he became Hungary's leader after the brutal crushing of the uprising for thirty odd years.

At the beginning of his regime there were a lot of recriminations, retaliation, imprisonment, and executions, including the execution of Imre Nagy, other leaders and people in any way involved during the few days of 'Free Hungary', before the Soviets intervention to crush the successful uprising. In the later years of his regime the oppression was relaxed to quite a large extent compared to other communist regimes.

At Herzi Square it looked like everybody wanted to volunteer to join the fighting. Everybody felt the same, that we had turned the corner, there was no other way but to fight ÁVÓ, the regime that turned on us and was found repulsive by most Hungarians.

We all agreed, after 'Big John' suggested it, to go and get some guns - to even the odds for us 'freedom fighters'. Until now, the ÁVÓ was fighting against an unarmed, peacefully demonstrating people.

The same reverence for the events taking place characterised the whole revolution. There was no looting or burning at the start or in the days that followed.

The now full truck load of 'volunteers', at someone's suggestion, decided to go to Csepel Sziget (Csepel Island, the heavy industrial centre of Budapest as well as Hungary) to get some arms. 'Big John' said that they make arms there and if we could not get any from the factory, there are a lot of clubs and factory militia depots using and storing armaments for club or militia exercises.

It was probably getting around 11 o'clock or so by then and arriving at Csepel Sziget, many of the factories seemed to be closed, although most factories were on an eight hour a shift, three shifts a day, non-stop basis. Most of the workers were most likely at Pest for the march and the meeting at the Parliament buildings or other parts of the Capital where demonstrations were happening.

The Radio was another place where many thousands of people turned up during the night and was really the touchstone for the peaceful demonstration to turn into a Revolution.

There were also many thousands of people cutting down and defacing communism's most hated symbol, the Stalin statue. The monument stood in the place of an old church, just outside of the centre of the Capital (Rákosi's ordered the demolishing of the church to build the statue).

The statue was cut down and dragged many kilometres away to the centre of the town, in front of the 'Nemzeti Szinház' (National Theatre), on Rákoczi Road. I only heard about it later, and saw it for myself, lying on its side in the middle of the road a few days later. After crushing the Revolution the Kádár regime demolished the National Theatre too.

Despite the lack of activity in the industrial district, it did not take very long to get plenty of guns, submachine guns and ammunition. After driving around at Csepel for only a few minutes, 'Big John' found a factory and talked to an old man who seemed to be a night watchman and in charge of the factory. The guard seemed very co-operative and willing, showing us to a place across the road full of weapons and ammunition and opening it up for us.

Everybody on the truck got a gun of their choice and ammunition and a 'few' spare ones. We went over to Buda to defend the Déli (Southern) Railway Station, mainly from incoming Soviets. We heard by now that most Soviet troops stationed in Hungary had orders to move in and crush the Revolution. The ÁVÓ's where shooting everywhere especially on the Pest side by now.

A few minutes after stopping outside the Déli Railway Station and getting off the truck without our guns, the word went around that the

ÁVÓs were everywhere and were shooting at everybody. Very quickly, everybody got armed and the spirit of fighting began in earnest. A very short time later I got shot in the foot from one of the roofs.

I was very disappointed and wanted to stay and fight if we had to. I did not feel any pain and I was ready to fight back. I felt singled out and I did not feel like missing any of the forthcoming action.

Someone went to the nearby telephone (amazingly, among all that chaos that engulfed the earlier peaceful Capital, the phone and the ambulance services were still working) to call an ambulance. Not long after, a civilian car turned up and whisked me to hospital which at the time was fairly quiet.

That was soon to be changed, however. Many casualties arrived during the night including a young boy of about 16 years with a dum-dum bullet tearing his stomach and abdomen apart, placed in the bed beside me. The dumdum bullet was outlawed in most of Europe at the time, but the ÁVÓ resorted to its use.

The spirit of the revolution was strongly felt everywhere, including the Hospital. I received an immediate and very thorough examination and attention to my wound. It felt like they were treating me like a hero. The wound was quite minor compared to the ones I saw in the ward then and coming in later on.
At the beginning, I did not even know which hospital I was in. It was not until later that I found out it was the Szent János (Saint John) Hospital. I had been there before, although I did not remember at the time, not as a patient but as a visitor. My sister, Vanda, used to work here in the crèche a few years before and I visited her a few times. As it happened, the 23rd and the following day all had close associations with Vanda. I spent the 1954-5 school year with her and her husband in the building I was shot in front of. I was attending the old 'Szent Imre Gimnázium' (Saint Emery High School) on Villányi út (Villányi Road).

One of the Hospital staff must have recognised either me or my name and rang her during the night. Vanda turned up during the day to take me to their new place on Széna tér (Széna Square).

After greeting me and the customary kisses she told me that 'everything is forgiven'. I was not very pleased with that, as I could not remember what there was to forgive. It was nice to see her though, and nice of her to get me out of the hospital. I think she probably meant to be a little patronising and she was proud of me. I was her hero of the day - I like to hope so.

As it turned out we went from the relative peace and quiet of the hospital to one of the epicentre of the coming fierce battles.

I spent the rest of the day and night at their place, not knowing but certainly hearing and feeling the battle that was going on during the night around us. The fighting was very heavy during the night. The whole building was shaking, walls were cracking, windows were breaking, and the furniture was moving all night with the heavy tank and artillery battle that was going on just nearby. Széna Square and Moszkva Square were where some of the fiercest battles took place during those days as I found out later. The Soviets and ÁVÓ were using their heavy artillery and tanks against the poorly-armed freedom fighters.

The radio was churning out loads of misinformation, denials, and often appealing for calm. In between they played classical music, like Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and the like all the time between when the fighting started and the ensuing days, with the few exceptions being when Nagy talked to the Nation. Even Gerö tried to talk to the Nation once or twice, but no one took him very seriously, they all had heard his kind of double talk and drivel for years before.

I was very upset and disappointed about the turn of events, I wanted to be on the streets and defending the city, the country and mainly the Revolution's ideas and spirit, especially against the ÁVÓ's and now the Soviet Army's tanks of terrorism.

I spent the next day at Vanda's place listening to the radio and wondering what was being filtered through the radio and what was really happening in Budapest and other parts of the country. We heard news and rumours about meetings and demonstration in most part of the country.

We also heard rumours that many units of the Hungarian and Soviet armies were laying down their arms and also that the ÁVÓs were shooting at people in Budapest by the Parliament or somewhere and other places in the country. I, and I suppose many other people, didn't know what to believe and what not to.

I could not sit around any more, so early the next morning I went back to the streets without a weapon to start with, hopping around on my now sore, wounded foot. Most of the Hungarian Army was fighting on the freedom fighters' side by now or had laid down their arms. Only the dreaded ÁVÓ and the Soviets remained, but they had training and heavy artillery on their side.

Even that was changing as more and more Soviets surrendered or were fighting on the side of the Budapest people. Many of their tanks were all over the streets, burnt out and abandoned after the fighters, many of them young children, risked their lives throwing 'Molotov cocktails' at the heavy, cumbersome tanks in the narrow streets of Budapest.

Often they were easy targets: A few young kids running into the narrow side streets were quickly and often diligently followed by the heavy tanks, only to be ambushed and torched by other young children. Some were as young as eight or ten years old, with their bottle of petrol and using their handkerchief as a wick, lighting the cloth and throwing it at the mighty, foreign oppressors' heavy tank. This resulted in many of them exploding in a huge fireball, while the 'mighty' Soviet Army's elite tank-men clambering out with their uniforms alight looking like human torches.

The streets of Budapest were devastated, an unrecognisable mess. At the beginning, the tanks were roaming up and down on the ring roads and other main roads shooting at will. Most of these streets had large apartment houses, many of them six stories high.

The following day (Friday the 26th of October), Budapest was calm. Most of the Soviets, the ÁVÓ and the Hungarian Army had surrendered, laid down their arms, or were withdrawn. Although there was sporadic fighting in Budapest and around the country for now and the next day, we were going to have a few days of euphoria, peace and celebration for winning our dream and aspirations of peace and independence.

Scenes from the 1956 Hungarian Revolution in Budapest.
(Click to enlarge)

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The 1956 Hungarian Revolution (My story)

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1996-2007 Erwin Bernhardt

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