Hungarian Revolution: The day the tanks rolled in
Sunday marked the 60th anniversary of the beginning of the Hungarian Revolution – an event that had a profound effect on one side of my family.
My mother Ilona, who was 21 at time and working as an operator in the international telephone exchange in Budapest, was among the 200,000 refugees who fled Hungary in 1956. “It is strange – in some ways it doesn’t feel like sixty years ago at all,” she says. “It is so far away in historical terms but emotionally it doesn’t seem to be – it feels like yesterday in many ways, in terms of the things you experienced personally.”
And what she experienced was traumatic and difficult, involving, as for many others, fearing for her life and the tearing apart of her family. In the weeks leading up to my mother’s flight, along with her older sister Elizabeth 23, an air traffic controller, and her younger brother George, a high school student aged just 18, Hungary, then part of the Communist Eastern Bloc, had been through a turbulent period. What began as a peaceful pro-democracy protest had escalated into a full-blown uprising.
On the afternoon of October 23, a group of around 20,000 protesters, emboldened by the resignation of the Prime Minister Matyas Rakosi, a puppet of the Soviet Union, gathered under the statue of General Bem, a hero of Hungary’s 1848 War of Independence. It was a quiet and orderly demonstration calling for political reform. A manifesto was read out, the banned National Anthem was sung and the crowd then walked towards the Parliament Building. On the way, a delegation of students entered the Radio Building, hoping to broadcast their demands for reform and greater freedom. They were detained by the State Secret Police and when the protesters demanded their release, officers fired shots into the crowd, sparking violence and disorder throughout the city. In the following days militia groups formed and they became involved in armed skirmishes with the police and Soviet troops.
My mother remembers walking to and from work while bullets flew past her yet despite the fear and upheaval, she says, there was tremendous optimism. With the subsequent fall of the government and the establishment of a new one under reformer Imre Nagy, by the end of October it appeared that Hungary was on the verge of becoming an independent democratic Republic. Having grown up under a repressive Communist regime, my mother recalls those few weeks as a time of overriding hope imbued with a burgeoning sense of freedom. Sadly it was to come to an abrupt end. On November 4 the Russians returned to Budapest in force, determined to crush any resistance – 2,500 Hungarian civilians were killed as a result. “They shot everyone and everything in sight,” says my mother. “They arrested Imre Nagy and denounced him as a traitor. We knew then that it was over.”
It was at this point that my uncle George, who had been very actively involved in the uprising, decided he couldn’t stay and began making plans to leave the country. He had been among a large group of protestors who pulled down Stalin’s statue in Heroes Square and he had witnessed others executing members of the state police. He feared the occupying forces would seek retribution.
He was right to be afraid – the Soviet reprisals were swift and brutal. In the weeks and months following the suppression of the uprising around 26,000 people were put on trial, 13,000 were imprisoned and an estimated 350 were executed. George fled with two school-friends. “They were so young, just children really,” says my mother. As the uprising had been conducted predominantly by a younger generation, students in particular, they were among many teenagers fleeing for their lives.
“It’s not easy to convey the situation in which we found ourselves,” says my mother. “In a place where there is turmoil everybody is experiencing heightened feelings of anxiety, fear and hope – and then when the whole system disintegrates, you have to make a decision.” George’s departure had a devastating effect. “The family was shattered – we didn’t know for months whether he was alive or dead.” When the opportunity arose for my mother and aunt to escape with the help of a friend whose family had a house near the Austrian border, they made the difficult decision to go, leaving behind their parents and 11-year-old brother Joseph.
The sisters wore two sets of clothing and packed as many of their belongings as they could into a small bag so as not to draw attention to themselves, then travelled by train to Szombathely where their friend’s relatives put them in touch with someone who could take them to a safe house next to the border. They walked miles through the snow, then stayed overnight in an outhouse awaiting a safe time to cross. “I have never been so cold in my life before or since,” says my mother. “I tried to sleep but I really thought I was going to freeze to death.” At 5am they were awoken by the guide who took them to a section of no-man’s land between Austria and Hungary and instructed them to crawl silently across. Once the red and white border pole was in sight they would know they were safe. They were picked up by Austrian border guards who had significantly increased their numbers in order to rescue fleeing Hungarians. “They saved our lives – they were such genuinely good-hearted people.”
My mother and aunt had no real idea where they would end up – their first priority was to get to a place of safety and then try and find out where their brother was. They spent several months in three different Austrian refugee camps during which time they learnt through the Red Cross that George, like many other Hungarian youngsters, had found his way to Scotland and was working in a mine in Falkirk. “Our family was so close; for him to be out on his own must have been very hard, but he was with his friends, so he was lucky and they were warmly welcomed and looked after by the Scottish mining community.” Once my mother and aunt received their papers to be transported to the UK, the three siblings were reunited at a refugee camp in Staffordshire. “We were there for quite a few months; the homesickness was horrendous at first, it was almost physical, but it gradually began to fade.” They later moved to London where they quickly found work and a place to live and where my mother eventually met and married my English father.
For my mother, and others like her, memories of 1956 are rendered all the more potent by the current global humanitarian crisis with distressing stories and images of refugees appearing in the media on a daily basis. “It is so tragic, especially when you see children and youngsters on their own,” she says. “Unless you have actually fled for your life I think it’s difficult to really understand what it means to be a refugee – the horror and the hardship. It’s not a decision you take lightly.”