The 1956 Hungarian Revolution
Snow covered most of the countryside and rushed past me as I looked out the bus window - it appeared picture perfect. Looking at the ever-changing sight made me realise, as it happened many times before, how beautiful the Hungarian countryside was, particularly at this time of the year.
It was in the middle of January 1956 as I was sitting in the bus, looking out of the windows on my way back to Ózd, back to my hostel, and back to school the next day.
The bus ride took over five hours, giving me plenty of time to think about the past, present, but more importantly about my future. Little did I know or anticipate my, or for that matter, my country's, future in the coming months.
Our examinations would be starting some time in May or June and they would be the Hungarian equivalent of School Certificate, University Entrance and Bursary Examinations. Our "elementary school" system was for eight years; it was compulsory and free. Finishing the eight years of classes with reasonable results you could attend a 'Gimnázium', the equivalent of 'High School' for four years. That also used to be free, with extra state aid for living expenses if you qualified (practically everyone qualified, though). At the end of the four years you sat one examination to qualify to enter University or any other tertiary education of your choice. In those days in Hungary, politics played a major part in everything in your life, including your education.
If you came from a peasant or working class environment or background, you were given an extra 'leg up' and encouragement to study and succeed. Other cases, such as mine, had to work 'extra hard' to keep level or better myself and university studies were practically out of the question. I was already forewarned that regardless of being a 'gifted' student, it was very unlikely that I will be allowed a 'University Entrance' pass, whether I deserved it or not.
Sitting in the bus, my opportunities, or rather the lack of opportunities, were rushing in and out of focus in my mind. I had less than six months to decide what I was going to do and also to find out whether the warnings were acted on or not. I did not entertain the slightest hope of the warnings not being acted upon.
Even the hostel Principal, who was a good friend of mine and encouraged me at the beginning, slowly turned against me under pressure. I often wondered how, remembering his warm greetings and words - which surprised me some of the times - things could have changed so much. I am sure I didn't give him any reason for it.
I did not like the communist regime or system, but I never went out of my way to advertise the fact, or even confide to anybody about it, especially during my school years. It was not a healthy thing to do in those days. The regime was totally intolerant and in charge of your life and well being - as is a well known fact.
Of course, I did not come up with any ideas or solutions to my dilemma during the five hours or more bus ride.
The hostel, which was similar to a boarding school, had no school attached although we all went to the same 'High School'.
The fourth year students like me had special privileges; we were in charge of all the younger ones. Each room or dormitory had six students, one of them being a 'senior' one. After my return, although I was left in charge of my dormitory or room, gradually many of my other privileges were taken away. I was not invited or allowed to 'seniors' meetings or consultations with the other 'seniors' or the Principal and Deputy Principals. Each of the three floors had a teacher or Deputy Principal in overall charge. Again it was a political decision, and I felt slighted, but had to accept it.
At school, similar occurrences took place. As the school year was winding up or down, whichever way we like to look at it, we concentrated more on going over the curriculum than doing any new subjects. It was revision time, and many in my class received the final exam papers from previous years as samples to help with the revision. I was left out with the excuse that they had run out of them. In those days we did not have the convenience of photo copying either. I do not really know whether it would have been any help to me anyway. The cast was set: I had to fail one way or another. Several of my friends in my class let me take their papers home for a day or two; even they thought I 'did not get a fair crack of the whip'.
The end of the school year arrived sooner than I anticipated, as often happens. With the end came the usual ceremonies.
The finishing classes usually walk through the school, visiting all the class rooms, getting presents from the other classes and finish up in the Hall or yard to speeches and award presentations (It's called the "Ballagás" or 'slow ambling around' in Hungarian).
Our examinations were not quite finished as yet at this time. A few days later we also had a 'social night' or party with drinks and music and the 'whole works' to celebrate our matriculation.
I had a drink or two more than I should have and I remember walking back to my hostel engaged in a rather agitated discussion with my Geometry teacher.
I did like him and his subject. He was around sixty years old, we were walking rather slowly and my hostel was many kilometres away, we had plenty of time to talk. He was an extremely likeable sort of chap and during our walk we tried to find or argue about the way we would solve all the world's problems. It was a vivid discussion and he aired a few brilliant ideas and because I was well lubricated, at times we did get into some heated arguments. Even today I still think some of the arguments he put forward would have won the day if I wasn't in a combative mood and often tried to disagree with him (humorously though).
He had my respect; he was from the 'old school' and knew what he was talking about. During our discussion, he apologised for my treatment even though he was never responsible for any of it personally. He was one teacher that knew his subject, his methods were 'user friendly', clear and easily understandable and was a very likeable person. In the course of our discussion he told me that even he was asked if he can fail me, and he just simply refused, risking his imminent pension by doing so. According to his own words, "I can not fail him, he is my best student."
Of course I felt very honoured hearing this from him.
I was failed in my Hungarian Language studies, my strongest and best subject and the prerequisite to any further studies at a university or other tertiary studies.
After our Examinations, I had to go to Miskolc a few days later to re-sit the exams.
My parents lived at Szécsény at the time and were working at Királd, about 15 kilometres from Ózd.
On my way to Miskolc I had to change trains at Fűzesabony and lo-and-behold, who do I had to bump into while changing trains? My mother, who was changing trains on her way to Királd. Poor soul, with tears in her eyes she asked me a thousand and one questions. What was I doing here? Where am I going? How am I? And nine hundred ninety eight other similar questions. There I was, broke - my mother did give me some money though I believe she did not have much for herself. How do I tell my mother I had failed my vital exam, and am now on my way to re-sit it again? I had to tell her and I did, which made her cry even more. Seeing my mother, talking to her and watching her cry is another one of those memories from 1956 that will be with me for the rest of my life. Now writing this, the picture came back more intense than many times previously and brought tears to my own eyes.
I did get to Miskolc and sat the exams successfully, which was not the point really and did not surprise anybody, least of all me. I had to be failed in a critical subject, and the records were to show it so that no University would accept me for their regular courses. (I could study at night at my own expense, without state support for living expenses and other such financial aid.)
All travel was free for students on buses and railways, but I still had to eat and I was a long way from home and my hostel.
A nice man I was talking with on the train mentioned that he often went to the hospital to donate blood and received 20 forint for every 'deci' (10 ml) he donated.
Remembering his conversation after the exams, I made my way to the nearby hospital to donate some of my blood so I could get something to eat.
The Matron, listening to my eagerness to donate blood, curtly told me they do not buy blood, so there went my dinner. Miskolc is a very nice place, but by then I had just about had enough of it.
The idyllic summer months of school holidays slowly ebbed away as I helped my mother and father at Királd.
I was getting ready to move to Budapest to enrol for my studies as autumn approached.
After long deliberations and many inquiries I managed to choose a clean trade of optical mechanics (making and repairing reading glasses) that I found acceptable. They were ready to take me on for my full time studies at the Technical Institute (Budapest Fõvárosi Tanács Iparcikk Kereskedelmi Tanuló Iskola) program in an Optical Fitter's course. I was employed and worked some hours every week at the Ofotért shop, opposite the Nyugati (Western) Railway Station. (The shop still existed in its original site and set-up in 2003.) It was, I suppose, very similar to an apprenticeship in New Zealand. I worked for the firm when there was no school or practical class during shop hours (Monday to Friday 9am-5pm) for regular wages.
I was also accepted for night classes at the Budapest Technical University (Eötvös Loránt Müszaki Egyetem), studying part time for a degree in Electrical Engineering.
The days in early September were, as usual, sunny, balmy late summer weather, the beginning of autumn - the beginning of the new school year all over Hungary.
Summer came and went. September came around and most schools or educational institutions started their new academic year.
Graduation and re-sitting of the Hungarian Studies Examinations were now only a distant memory.
On one of the first days of my studies at the Technical Institute, I met and fell head-over-heels in love with Anikó.
I was on my way to my first lecture and running a little late, I asked the good looking Anikó passing by for directions. Instantly something like a gentle electric shock went through my whole body as she offered to show me there. She told me that she had just passed the lecture theatre I was looking for and escorted me there. The first few words between us were real chemistry and I felt instantly that I had to see her again. I quickly asked for her name and where her lectures were held so that the next break I could rush to meet her again and to my pleasant surprise, I could feel the warmth and forthcoming of her obliging replies and acceptance of my forwardness.
Fortunately my 'love at first sight' and attention was reciprocated by Anikó.
I was absolutely besotted by her. Anikó's friendly manner, her youth and especially her very feminine body with her larger than average breast truly entranced me.
Since we first met, we were enchanted by each other and by each other's company and were going out of our way to see each other every possible moment. We always met between lectures and after lectures. I always met and took her to the university and escorted her home after our lectures. At times we sat for hours in parks, or on the shores of the Danube, doing what young lovers do best, kissing, cuddling and daydreaming, always wishing time would stand still and the moments of joy and tenderness would last for ever.
On Saturdays we would go to the pictures, sometimes seeing more than one movie a day (we both enjoyed movies). After the pictures I took Anikó home, spending long times on the tram or trolleybus rides, back and forth, as it was free for students, always sitting in the back at the theatre and trolleybuses, enjoying each other's company.
I visited Anikó's mother and older sister to introduce myself and ask for permission to take Anikó out to the movies and get her mother's approval to see her and let me take her out in the future.
I knew from the beginning that I had to do this for our future's sake, but I have always been very shy and I dreaded the moment for days, sometimes shaking with nervousness just thinking about it, as it seemed so important. I was wondering about all the questions I was going to be asked. I felt quiet anxious and apprehensive because of my shyness and lack of experience in similar situations.
We were quickly running down the stairs two at the time, holding hands, feeling very happy and delighted after my interview and grilling. The meeting with Mrs. Totterer turned out to be a very nice experience, something very different from what I ever imagined. Mrs. Totterer, in her late fifties, was an experienced wise 'old' lady and quickly put me and Anikó, - sitting beside me, full of as much anxiety as I was - at ease. We all had a good understanding of each other very presently. I got her approval to see and take Anikó out any time. There were a few common sense rules, like telling in advance where we were going, keeping reasonable hours and not neglecting our studies. Apart from that, we could see each other whenever we liked.
I felt very happy with myself. I had started my studies at the Technical Institute as well as at the University, I found a very beautiful girlfriend, I was settling down and I was very pleased with the hostel I was staying at. There were only twenty-four of us and we all seemed very friendly and easy to get on with each other. I was quite pleased to be back in my beloved Budapest after the few years living on and off down country, where the Communists forced my parents to live. I felt on the top of the world and very lucky. At last things seemed to be going my way in my life.
I had to take Anikó home by midnight. That left an hour or an hour and half for us after the pictures finished. As usual we caught a trolley bus to Anikó's place, but instead of getting off at her place we kept going to the terminal, which was on Hungaria Ring Road. The trolley bus was empty by the time we got there. We were sitting in the back seats, hugging, cuddling, and kissing each other very passionately. I looked at the bus driver a few times, but he did not seem to pay any attention, he seemed very understanding and turned a blind eye to us and our obvious enjoyment of each other.
We were outside Anikó's place a few minutes before midnight, kissed each other good night in a long, closely embracing kiss and I caught one of the last trolleys back home. I was surprised and angry for the time seemed to rush away so fast every time I was with Anikó.
Often after our lectures we went down to the Dunapart Sétány and sat there for a long time just to watch the boats and life going past in front of our eyes, watching birds feeding on fish. Sitting there quietly watching, holding each other's hand, talking and enjoying each other's company.
Many times we walked up Gellért Hegy, the large hill beside the Danube, close to their University, with its many spiraling walkways. The large hill was very domineering - so big, so overwhelming beside the busy streets and the river. The city sights, the life rushing past at our feet was very entertaining to watch. Boats, bridges, big buildings, buses, trams, cars and people rushing everywhere, going about their usual business.
Anikó and I spent every spare minute with each other and we were very happy in each others company. It was early days at the University and there was not much studying to do yet. We were just happy to familiarise ourselves with the University, finding places, making friends and seeing each other as often as we could.
I could have jumped over the moon when Anikó told me that her group was planning a picnic for next Saturday at Zugliget. That was at one of the nice parts of the Buda Hills. In the summer the people of Budapest used these picturesque hills and valleys for picnics, walking around the sparsely populated and many bush clad mountains. In winter we used it for skiing and other winter sports and recreations like sledding.
The group and I sat around having something to eat, and Anikó and I sat with them enjoying the food and their company for a while and like many others, went to walk around in the nice sunny day after about half an hour.
We walked around the 'Olympic Ski High Jump', exploring it in awe and admiring its sheer size. We spent the rest of the day walking in and out of the bush trying to get lost or out of sight of the others so that we could have a few 'private' minutes together. There was not a soul in sight most of the time. The place seemed enormous and there was a lot to be explored. Slowly we made our way over to Hüvösvölgy, and down to Lipótmezö. By now it was late afternoon and we were fairly tired so we caught a bus to take us back to civilisation.
I had never been up this way and was taken back a little bit when I saw the road called Lipótmezö and soon the Institute itself. The Hungarians often referred to Lipótmezö as the mental institute where someone not quite in control of their faculties belongs to.
It was about 8 o'clock that evening by the time I took Anikó home. We were very happy, tired and hungry. I stayed for dinner and then went home to my hostel after arranging to come and pick her up next morning to go to the Basilica for Mass.
The next few days and weeks passed very fast, and
we saw each other as much as we could, doing what we
were doing best, enjoying each others company and presence.
Then the day came, the day of the revolution, which
shattered our established routine, the happiness
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