Daily Mail, 19 October 1996
For the first time TV brought revolution straight into British living rooms. But my father watched the slaughter with his own eyes. We had to escape
FORTY years ago next week, in a brave but tragically doomed rebellion against the communist totalitarianism of the Soviet Union the people of Hungary took to the streets. Here MONICA PORTER tells how the event changed her family’s life for ever.
ON OCTOBER 23, 1956, the rebellion which had long been brewing in Hungary finally erupted on the streets of Budapest. We lived in a quiet, residential quarter of the capital, and two days later, anxious to know what was happening, my father joined a mass demonstration in the centre of town. Within hours, he returned home, pale and shaken. What he had witnessed was horrifying, and would radically alter the course of our lives. He sank into an armchair, and in a voice cracked with emotion told my mother what had happened.
It was a warm, sunny day. Deceptively tranquil. The huge crowd had gathered in the square before the neo-Gothic Parliament, hoping to hear an address by Imre Nagy – the liberal communist politician who, as the inspiration behind the uprising, was nothing less than a national hero.
The Russian Army had dispatched several tanks into the midst of the men, women and children, whose numbers had swollen to some 20,000 – my father among them.
To defuse the tension, some of them clambered onto the tanks and befriended their crews, talking to them in broken, school-learnt Russian. They tied Hungarian flags to the tanks’ radio antennae.
Soon the soldiers were climbing out into the autumn sunshine and, in an unprecedented show of fraternisation which delighted the crowd, behaved in an equally friendly and informal manner. There was an infectious mood of optimism. and my father was elated. On an impulse, he decided to phone my mother and tell her what was going on.
Weaving through the mass of people, he made his way to a booth outside the imposing Ministry of Agriculture, opposite the parliament.
In those days, you needed a token to use a public phone, and my father searched his pockets for one. At last, he found one among the coins. But he never had time to use it. For at that moment, without warning, the exhilaration of the crowd turned to sheer terror.
From high up on the roofs of the surrounding buildings. members of the AVO – Hungary’s hated secret police – had observed with growing distaste the events unfolding in the square. Now they opened fire randomly with their machine guns, mowing down scores of people – including several children and three Soviet soldiers.
Bewildered, and furious at the unprovoked attack, the rest of the soldiers leapt back into their tanks and returned fire . . . into the innocent throng. Panic broke out as people tried to flee the square in which they were trapped. At point-blank range the tanks’ firepower blasted bodies apart. Within minutes, the square was empty but for hundreds of corpses and scattered limbs.
My father saw the massacre from the phone booth, the token still clutched between his fingers. Then, sick with shock and despair, he escaped down a side street and made for home.
When he’d finished telling his gruesome tale he rested his head in his hands. What kind of future do we have in this country?’ he sighed wearily. But the question was merely rhetorical. My mother, fearing the worst began to cry. They’d both had about as much as they could take.
It all started with their harrowing experiences in World War II.
MY MOTHER was nearly executed twice. First by the Gestapo for sheltering Jewish friends in her home, and afterwards – in an ironic twist – by Jewish partisans who accused her of being a collaborator. (In fact, she would one day be honoured as a Righteous Gentile by the Israelis.)
My father was conscripted into the labour battalions sent to the Eastern Front to assist the Germans in their doomed fight against the Russians. They were treated so brutally that, of 50,000 labour servicemen, 42,000 perished. He ended up in a Russian POW camp. where all around him men were dying of typhus.
When those traumas were over. their lives should have become easier. But that first decade after the war was dark and perilous. Since the communist takeover of 1948, Hungary had been in the grip of a totalitarian regime sponsored by Moscow.
For my parents, this posed a serious problem as neither had the slightest inclination to join the Party. Persecution, show trials, people disappearing in the night . . . it was like the Nazis all over again. My parents wanted only to be left in peace to get on with their lives and their work. But shunning the communists was a bad career move.
My mother, Vali Racz, was a popular singer and film actress. But her cardinal sin was to have been famous in the early Forties, and anyone who had flourished in pre-communist times was automatically suspect. Branded a ‘class enemy’, she was effectively barred from the profession.
My father, Peter Halasz, was a writer whose first novel was published when he was just 19. He went on to write stage and radio plays, and to become a noted journalist. But after 1948, one by one the non-Party newspapers and magazines were closed down.
In 1950, he took a job as scriptwriter for the state film studio, where he once had to rewrite a screenplay ten times before it was approved by ministry officials.
The comrades, considering his work to fall far short of the requirements of Marxism-Leninism, sent him for six months to a residential school of political indoctrination.
Life in Hungary had become a surreal nightmare.
Then, with Stalin’s death in 1953, there was change in the air. His successor, Khrushchev, brought in a slightly more relaxed style of leadership. He replaced Hungary’s ruthless dictator, Matyas Rakosi with Imre Nagy – a moderate whose promise of humanising reforms gave people their first breath of hope.
Nagy immediately ordered a sweeping amnesty for political prisoners. Thousands were freed, including many who had been tortured into signing false confessions as ‘enemies of the State’ during Rakosi’s purges. When their horrific stories became known, there was widespread outrage and revulsion.
In 1955, worried that things were getting out of control, Khrushchev expelled Nagy from office and put another of his henchmen in power. But it was too late – the fuse had been lit. Anger grew until, by the autumn of 1956, everyone from factory workers and farmers, to journalists and academics, was opposed to the regime, and no longer afraid to say so. On October 23, a group of students demanding democracy attempted to be heard over the radio.
When they were suppressed by the police, the nation’s pent-up rage exploded at last into open revolt. The following day, by popular demand, Nagy was re-installed as premier. The newly-emboldened nation demanded fundamental change: free elections, free speech, an uncensored Press. And withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact.
I was only four years old then. My memory of the Revolution is a quirky one. Wandering across the garden of a neighbour’s house one day during a lull in the fighting, I found myself facing a group of Russian soldiers relaxing beside their tank.
They saw me and smiled, then beckoned me over. I approached them shyly. One of them bent down and pinched my cheek. Another reached into his pocket, pulled out a few Russian coins and gave them to me. A moment later, happy and excited, I ran home and showed them to my mother. She was furious and told me not to go near them again.
I knew nothing of the desperate struggle for freedom which lasted a scant 12 days before the dreams were shattered, of the Molotov cocktails and ingenious tank traps, the youngsters of ten and 12 who battled bravely in the streets, and the round-up of the AVO men, upon whom the freedom-fighters exacted a terrible revenge. Decades later, I heard that crackly recording of the last – frantic and futile – plea for Western help broadcast on Hungarian radio as the nation was being crushed. It is often played in documentaries about 1956, and always catches me in the throat.
For a few days the uprising seemed victorious. The Soviets entered into ‘negotiations’ with their captive republic. Meanwhile their tanks and troops steadily occupied every part of the country. Then, on November 4, the Red Army attack began in earnest. Thousands were killed and thousands more were imprisoned or disappeared into the Soviet gulag.
Imre Nagy was arrested and later executed. Yet another puppet government, headed by Janos Kadar, was set up by the Kremlin. And as soon as the nation had been subjugated once more, the Party condemned the ‘fascist counter-revolution’. It was a lie my father couldn’t swallow.
In the immediate aftermath of the uprising, it was relatively easy to cross the border into Austria. The watch-towers were unmanned, as most of the guards had joined the revolutionaries, and it would be several weeks before the barbed wire and landmines were in place and the country became a vast prison.
Between mid-November and early January, 200,000 people flooded through to freedom. For my parents, it was a painful parting. Family, friends and a comfortable home would all have to be left behind. As we could take only two small cases with us, my six-year-old brother and I were dressed in as many layers of clothing as we could wear and still walk.
Before we left, my mother retrieved the cache of $70 which had lain hidden between the boards of the rabbit hutch in our garden – the remains of her earnings as a cabaret singer in the summer of 1945. In those post-war days it was worth a fortune. But now it was a paltry sum with which to start a new life in the West.
On November 28, my family boarded a train bound for the Austrian border. It was a slow journey which took all day. My brother sat patiently, looking out of the window. But I grew grumpier by the hour. Tired, and uncomfortable in my assorted pullovers, the whole business was wearing me out. ‘Why don’t we just go home?’ I kept moaning.
But we no longer had a home.
At the border the train could go no further, so we all got out. It was night-time now. With the other refugees, we had to make our way across the stretch of no-man’s-land.
Some walked. A kind-hearted farmer, perhaps taking pity on us, gave us a lift in the back of his creaky old truck. We bumped along in the dark. Suddenly, we arrived at the Austrian border.
By a stroke of luck, my parents met a friend there. Every night he came to meet the new arrivals. He drove us to Vienna with him.
In December, we entered the Korneuburg refugee camp, bursting by now with the proverbial huddled masses. Then, as part of the massive airlift code-named Operation Mercy, the U.S. Army flew us from their military base in Munich to another camp in New Jersey. There we were ‘processed’ as immigrants. Our new life in America had begun.
Growing up in New York, my ethnic background was of little concern to me. I yearned to be the all American kid, with my bobby socks and pony tail. Who wanted a surname that no one could pronounce and parents who answered the phone in heavy accents?
I didn’t appreciate how difficult things must have been for my parents, who’d lost the identities they had worked hard to establish in their homeland.
My mother, once highly acclaimed, became an anonymous housewife. And although my father continued to write, and won a large following of émigré Hungarians around the world, his works were banned in his own country.
I moved to Britain 26 years ago – a second emigration, as it turned out. In my 20s and living in London, my dramatic beginnings were the subject of many dinner party conversations.
Just about every British person now aged between 50 and 60 recalls the Hungarian Uprising as the first world event to have made a deep and lasting impact. The reason is simple. It coincided with the time when most British families acquired their first TV sets. They saw it happening in their sitting rooms in black and-white images of horror.
My own interest in my roots developed in the Eighties when I began to visit Hungary as a journalist. I wanted to discover how much of a Magyar I still was. I wrote two books on Hungarian themes, and forged close links with friends and relatives there.
I little thought I would live to see the fall of communism in Hungary. When it finally crumbled in 1989, my parents’ lives changed again. After more than three decades as ‘non-persons’, they were openly celebrated once more.
And me? Well, I can’t honestly say I dwell very often on my Hungarian-ness. Britain is my home and I belong here, not least because I have two English children. But that’s not to suggest that what happened in Hungary 40 years ago plays no part in my thinking.
On the contrary, the legacy of 1956 is enduring. For it has endowed me with two powerful sentiments: a passion for freedom and fierce pride in a nation which – for one shining moment in history – showed the world the meaning of human spirit.