On January 6, 2010, when Pongrácz Ödön was laid to rest next to his brother Gergely, in the chapel in Kiskunmajsa, I was one of more than a thousand people present, mostly Hungarians from all parts of the country and from many parts of the world. He was the oldest of six brothers who became part of the history of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956.
Not long, perhaps a few months earlier, I last saw Ödön alive when at my brother’s home in Budapest the three of us got together once more to talk about, what else, the Hungarian Revolution. Suddenly, he in a way changed the subject and asked me: ”Have you started writing down what you saw during those days? It’s not important what you did or did not do, but very important to record what you saw, because eyewitnesses are the best source for future generations to learn the truth!”
On the 61st anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, I pay my respects to Pongrácz Ödön by recording here what I witnessed at the start, on October 23rd, 1956.
At age 20 I worked during the day and attended classes in the evening at the Bánki Donát Technicum (now back to its original name, Technologia) located in the center of Budapest. I could not enroll daytime because of political reasons (I was classified a class alien).
It took about an hour, taking two trams, from work to school. At the end of the first tram, near Marx Square (now back to Nyugati Tér), as I was walking, before reaching the connection, I noticed a small crowd gathered around a young man reading aloud from a typewritten poster on the wall. I stopped and listened. When he finished, I started reading it again from the beginning for the next crowd -- and myself. It was the 16 points that we had heard about that the students at the Budapest Technichal University put together, ”What the people of Hungary want”. As we learned later, there were different versions of this document, some 12, some 14 and 16 points. The first one was initiated at Szeged University only a couple of days earlier.
The actual model for it was a similarly titled document of the Revolution of 1848. The list was quite daring, demanding things like end of one party rule, free elections, the end of the Soviet occupation, fredom of the press, etc.
As I moved on to get to the school, I began to think back whether it was really true what I did, what I’d read? Not long before this, one could get into serious trouble writing, posting, even reading things like those 16 points. But in the last few weeks, maybe months, we could read in some newspapers, especially the one published weekly by the Writers' Guild, articles touching political no-nos. Still, it all seemed unreal. In Poland, a similar movement started at about the same time. Students, workers demanded changes. Some of their demands were like ours. At a student meeting at the Technical University the night before, they decided to stage a sympathy demonstration in support of the Polish students and workers. That scheduled demonstration would take place at the statue of General Joseph Bem, a native of Poland, but also a hero of the Hungarian revolutionary War of Independence of 1848-49. Of course, a permit was needed for this, recently still an unheard of event. As we’d heard from the radio during the day, this permit was given, then revoked, but later given again.
Most of my clasmates arrived that day earlier than usual. We exchanged news, what any of us knew of the day’s developments.
This way we learned that after the sympathy demonstration at the Bem statue, the people there, by then a much larger and growing crowd, began to move across the Margaret Bridge to Kossuth Square in front of the Parliament. The news of this new, extended demonstration spread like wildfire. Other students, factory and office workers at the end of the day’s work began to join the others. While the original event was preplanned, organized, what followed was totally spontaneous. We discussed, then voted whether we, the whole class, should go together and join the demonstration. The vote was 21 for, 1 against. Leaving the one behind, we started to leave and at five o’clock, five minutes before the first evening class was to begin. We were at the door of the building. There, coming in was one of our favorite professors, quite surprised at seeing us leaving. He asked where we were going? We told him. Without any hesitation he said: ”Wait a couple of minutes, I’ll go with you”. And he did.
The distance to the Parliament was over an hour's walk. We all got some newspapers, the latest editions, along the way, hoping to learn fresh news.
As we were getting closer to our destination, we saw more and more people coming from all directions. Once we arrived, there was already a very large crowd at Kossuth Square. We could not get very close to the Parliament, but if we came half an hour later, we probably would have ended up in one of the side streets. Days later in newspapers, years, decades later in numerous books I’ve read quite divergent estimates of the number of people at this event. They were between 150,000 to over 500,000. All I can say is that there were a lot of us there.
Still hearing more news from one another, we learned that the top man of the Communist gang at that time running -- ruining -- the county, Ernő Gerő, not long ago a close ally of by then demoted and hated Mátyás Rákosi, had a short speech broadcast on radio, calling this demonstration, among other things, ”a collection of fascist hooligans”. Following his broadcast, all street lights on the Square and around were turned off, it became pitch dark. They must had wanted to scare the people. But it did not work. Immediately someone rolled up a page of a newspaper, making a torch and lit it. Everyone followed, doing the same thing. Since most of us had newspapers, the whole area became illuminated by these ”torches”. Then someone shouted: ”Turn off the star, too!” Suddenly, every one, a chorus of hundreds of thousands shouted in unison the same thing. It did not take long for the miracle to come: The giant, ugly red star on top of the beautiful Parliament building went dark! To this day, I’ve never heard a bigger applause than the one that followed that miracle. Until then, our professor who had come with us did not say much. But seeing what had just happened, he said: ”Fellows, I did not think I would live to see this! This time even I will applaud!” Then he first wiped his tears and joined the rest of us in applauding. To me, that red star going dark became almost as great a symbol of the Revolution as what we soon after learned of: pulling down the statue of Stalin!
Then the lights came back on.
Soon it was announced from one of the open windows with a microphone that someone wanted to talk to us. Then he, a lesser known politician, came to the microphone and started with: ”Comrades!” That word was as popular as the red star. He could not continue, was shouted down with ”We are not comrades!” Then he disappeared.
There were no speakers, speeches from any of the demonstrators, just repeated shouts that ”We want Imre Nagy!” He was probably the only Communist who, because of his record, a lot of Hungarians liked. In 1945, he was supervising the land distribution of large holdings to peasants who had nothing. Then in 1953, he became Prime Minister and eased a lot of the hated rules and regulations, released some – but not all -- political prisoners. However, a year and a half later, the hardliners came back and he was ousted. But the people remembered and wanted him back, hoping that he would accept and act on those 16 (12 or 14) points and move the country in the right direction.
Not long after that it was announced that Imre Nagy was contacted and was on his way. That was welcome news, received a long applause. We all waited more patiently. When he arrived, he too, started with ”Comrades!” He was halted with the same reaction. But he signaled to wait. And he continued with ”My friends!” He followed with a basically meaningless, short speech. (Many of us were wondering whether he had a gun held to his back when he spoke.) He said hewould study the situation and would inform the people later. I don’t remember how late it was by then, or how the next thing came about, but I do remember that before we all started to leave, there was a general agreement that from the next day on, we would all go on strike until a new government would be in office and would start to implement those points.
A few of us going home in the same direction walked together for awhile. There were no trams running so we had a long walk home. As we walked in the middle of the Nagykörút, one of the normally busiest roads, there was a woman, maybe 30 years old, coming in the opposite direction, still trying to shout the words; her voice was already hoarse but she was still spreading the message: ”They pulled down Stalin’s statue! They pulled down Stalin’s statue!” Another one of those unbelievable things that happened that day. Of course, this was just the beginning of a series of unbelievable things to come.
As we walked, we saw in more and more windows the national flag unfurled, with a large hole in the middle, the hated Communist symbol cut out.
Walking on, we heard about confrontations at the Radio Headquarters. The AVO members inside shot at the people outside. They wanted to get in and have those points broadcast, but they were not allowed to enter. As we learned next day, there were casualties, including deaths there. This is where the demonstration changed into a revolution.
It was after midnight when I arrived home.
This is the end of what one eyewitness saw in Budapest on October 23, 1956, the first of those glorious few days, full of beautiful, memorable and also some tragic events. Listing here in detail all that followed would fill a lot more than what fits into a short article.
Lászlo Oroszlány is retired and lives in Pennsylvania.