A COLLECTION OF STORIES ABOUT PEOPLE AND LIFE EXPERIENCES
A COLLECTION OF STORIES ABOUT PEOPLE AND LIFE EXPERIENCES
For tens of millions of people far away, it was an epic news story -- heroic men and women trying to stop oppressive government in their own country and the Soviet Union's control of their nation.
But for my family and me, the 1956 revolution in Hungary was very close and also personal.
We were living in Budapest, the lovely Hungarian capital divided by the Danube River. Although I was only 10 then, I was old enough to understand some of the events that were generating international headlines and to realize at times that some of the developments were taking place -- almost literally -- around a corner from our residence.
So even now, more than six decades later, I have enduring memories with vivid images of the widespread chaos –- including many stores shuttered, schools closed and primary transportation paralyzed. I doubt if I’ll ever forget.
The uprising, which began October 23, became the most significant threat to communism and Soviet dominance in Eastern Europe since the end of World War II, when the “Red Army” took control of Hungary and other countries after Germany’s Nazi forces had been driven out.
We could sense the impact of it quickly. And a little more than two weeks after the rebellion started, Soviet troops and tanks were deployed to crush it –- defeating young Hungarian freedom fighters and regular soldiers who were outgunned and outnumbered..
The revolt began as a protest by students, with thousands of them marching peacefully through central Budapest and demanding major political and economic reforms. The crowd continued to grow, and was said to be about 200,000 after it got to the national Parliament building.
There was plenty to put on a list of major problems.
Our economy was in bad shape. Decent jobs and housing were hard to get. Living standards in general had been declining. Educational and religious institutions were being politicized. The protest was one more reason for the authorities to anticipate trouble.
As tensions increased, Soviet military units were stationed in parts of Budapest and tanks were positioned outside the huge Parliament building. Eventually, there were violent confrontations between soldiers and protesters.
Shots were fired
Some students were killed.
As news of these incidents spread, the protesters gained support from numerous workers, writers, artists and other sympathizers across the country. Under pressure, the repressive national government collapsed.
When a new government emerged and promised to hold free elections, it appeared that Soviet soldiers were being pulled back -- and that led to a period of relative calm.
But officials in Moscow decided to shift their policy, and on Nov. 4 a much larger Soviet force invaded Budapest. The move was denounced at the United Nations and elsewhere. Although the United States was critical, it took no action.
Then, yet another Hungarian government was created— this one under longtime Communist party leader Janos Kadar. He switched sides and decided to back the Kremlin.
Despite Kadar's stance, resistance to the Soviet invaders was significant and was strongest in areas of Budapest. It grew to involve about 15,000 freedom fighters.
But they were unable to match the Soviet power. On Nov. 11, the last of them surrendered. By that time, historians say more than 2,500 Hungarians were killed, 700 Soviet troops were dead and as many as 200,000 Hungarians fled as refugees.
In Budapest, we watched as the next months brought civilian and military investigations, mass arrests, secret trials and execution of some past officials, including former Prime Minister Imre Nagy.
My family was not active politically, but I recall how we would listen to Radio Free Europe reports -- broadcast in Hungarian language. The American-sponsored operation was carrying news about military and political activities.
Sometimes there were open appeals to Hungarians to fight the Soviet units. It was sharp contrast to Communist government radio stations, which for the most part were broadcasting propaganda.
We lived within walking distance of the Elizabeth Bridge, in the very center of Budapest. One of my own alarming experiences occurred after I found several shiny machine gun bullets on the street close to our apartment building, courtesy of the rebels or the Soviet soldiers. I took one of the bullets home without thinking much more about it.
But a few days later, I heard a radio report that communist soldiers were searching apartments in our area, trying to find freedom fighters. That broadcast said any residents found with weapons or ammunition would be shot dead, right there and then.
I immediately began a search for the machine gun bullet, looking all over the apartment. Unable to find it, I feared for my life. Luckily, none of the soldiers came to our place.
In the aftermath of the unsuccessful revolution, we could do nothing but watch with dismay as Soviet troop levels in Hungary increased within a year and our government leaders signed a treaty allowing the Soviet Union to have a permanent presence in our land.
Our family fortunately was permitted to leave Hungary in 1964 and we came to the United States, settling down in Cleveland, Ohio. My mother and father already had some relatives living there.
My parents told me their primary reason for going to the United States was to be sure that I'd have a chance to live in a free country. After my graduation from a high school in Cleveland, I was able to attend college and then have a career as a journalist.
For 22 years, I was a reporter, editor and bureau chief for United Press International, which incidentally won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the Hungarian revolution. I also spent 12 years working for Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty on the English language Central News desk.
So I guess you could say that I went full circle after being a witness to the revolution in Hungary as a child –- and I never imagined having such a great career while I listened to news broadcasts during those historic days in Budapest.
Frank Csongos is now retired and living in a northern Virginia suburb of Washington, DC
By the time the rebellion was over, the estimated death toll for Hungarians exceeded 2,500 and was about 700 for Soviet troops. In addition, there is evidence that as many as 200,000 Hungarians fled as refugees.