The dark, damp cellar was a tight fit for the unnerved, huddling residents of our Budapest apartment building at 55 Wesselenyi Utca in the dull grayness of late October-November 1956.
Enveloped in silence occasionally broken by hushed conversation, clusters of family units sat or stood within their invisibly drawn circles, each set of anxious eyes turning inward to meet uneasy thoughts of apprehension and uncertainty.
I kept my gaze on my dad, Apu, and grandma Mamu, and pressed into Anyu, my mum, whose presence was my ever-safe haven.
After spending hours in the dingy dimness, whenever one of the neighbors gave the all clear and the four of us climbed up two flights of stone steps, I smelled the waft of fear and felt its clutches as we entered our first floor apartment.
The large main room sat forlornly in cold lifelessness, its large window remarkably intact after the shooting and fighting in the street below, although shattered glass littered the parquet floor of my parents’ adjacent bedroom.
Our words remained subdued, our home no longer a safe private shelter but a crushable box which afforded scant protection from the Russian tanks, which for days rumbled along city streets, their menacing guns operated by unseen hands in armored turrets taking indiscriminate aim.
Dust, debris and destruction emptied the streets of people, and time seesawed between the cramped cheerless basement and our joyless apartment which offered no comfort.
My parents gravitated to the bulky radio sitting squat on its small table in their bedroom, an inanimate Jekyll and Hyde which during my childhood years provided happy hours of children’s song and story time, but also programs of serious talk often arousing tension in my parents, which they sought to hide but so snapped the air that I could feel its sharp edges.
On that radio I had heard when I was younger the voice of Stalin, without knowing what he represented, but sensing enough to feel fear and dread. I don’t recall whether I connected the solemn humorless voice to the triangular blue neck-scarf which a couple of years later I dutifully donned at school, or to its red version which I eagerly waited to be old enough to wear as a third-grade young pioneer.
AS I grew older, I pieced together bare facts.
By 1948, communists controlled by the Soviet Union gained total power over Hungary under the leadership of Matyas Rakosi, who became a symbol of tyranny and oppression and presided over the imprisonment of hundreds of thousands of Hungarians, many deaths and the devastation of the nation’s economy.
Stalin died in 1953; in early 1956 Nikita Khrushchev condemned Stalin’s crimes. In July of that year Rakosi resigned. His rival, Imre Nagy, a name that more favorably echoed in my childhood, became a dominant figure supported by groups of students, journalists and workers who openly criticized the government and demanded reforms, including free elections, dissolution of the Hungarian secret police, and withdrawal of Soviet troops from Hungary.
On October 23, 1956, a large throng of university students marched through Budapest and entered the radio building to broadcast their demands. Protesters outside were fired on by the secret police – the dreaded AVH which my child’s psyche learned osmotically to fear – and violence erupted in the city, as the government collapsed while virtually all Hungarians unified in the anti-Soviet and pro-liberty effort.
The next day Soviet tanks and troops invaded the city, but the Hungarians stood them off, and new leader Nagy freed political prisoners and declared Hungary to be an independent nation.
However, on November 4, a second and harsher Soviet invasion virtually destroyed downtown Budapest and, within six days, crushed the uprising, installed a new government under Janos Kadar, and sent Nagy and others to the gallows.
In less than three weeks thousands of Hungarians and many Soviets were killed; and within a brief period when it was possible, if risky, to do so, some 250,000 people fled the country in the largest wave of refugees in Europe’s post-World War II history.
My parents and I were three of them.
THE HUNGARIAN Revolution’s short weeks of unrest and turmoil were filled with a flurry of urgent whispers between my parents, while Apu had many muted phone calls which I could tell meant he was in the thick of organizing something important.
One eventful November day grandma Mamu hugged me fiercely outside our building, thrust in my hand my favorite doll dressed in new clothes she had just stitched, and remained sadly alone on the pavement as I squeezed into the tiny back seat of our Fiat Topolino behind my parents, a small black lacquered suitcase no bigger than a carry-on bag our only luggage beside me. (Owning a car, even a small one, was a big deal in communist Hungary, no doubt enabled by my father’s professional and party standing.) As we drove off, Anyu’s stifled sobs were a painful farewell to her mum, Mamu.
I was told we were going to Mosonmagyarovar, a town less than a two-hour drive away and 20 km. from the Austrian border, to visit my dad’s Aunt Rizus as we had done many times before.
The mood was heavy, the trip momentous in a way I couldn’t then know. My parents were tense and wary, on the lookout for Soviet-controlled state defense forces and Hungarian soldiers who might pull us up – and from memory, did – to question our purpose on the road.
A legitimate visit to family with whatever papers we needed got us through, to a bittersweet, brief reunion with Aunt Rizus, whose husband and only child had been murdered in Auschwitz a mere 12 years earlier. We spent a night or perhaps more in her homely cottage, earnest adult voices lulling me to sleep in the evening, even while I would anxiously beckon my mum to hold my hand.
Over the next day or so more than a dozen men and women and one child, Andris, a boy a year younger than me, loosely assembled in the vicinity of the house.
Apart from the boy and his parents, the group included a popular middle-aged pianist everyone called by his surname and his sickly, sour wife; a young couple, Eva and Miklos, who had left their baby girl behind with a grandmother, as it was risky to travel with an infant who may cry when silence was necessary, and who expected to be able to send for the child once they were safely at their destination (it took more than a painful six years for the girl to join her parents, and in adulthood she tragically died by suicide); a man in his 30s and his obsessive, doting mum who whenever she couldn’t see her son would call out, “Tommy, say something!” to check he was all right.
The common thread: they all knew, or knew someone who knew, my fearless dad, and in prior murmured secret conversations agreed that under his leadership they would escape Hungary in a move to freedom.
In the dark of evening, our group, bundled up in thick coats and hats and with a single small bag per family, silently and solemnly clambered onto a trailer of hay bales pulled by a tractor whose enterprising farmer driver had acquired a lucrative side job ferrying fleeing Hungarians to the Austrian border.
Next to the driver sat my dad, like a contemporary Moses leading his group out of bondage, carrying not a staff or rod but a sharp hunting knife (which today lies hidden under a pile of clothes in our cupboard) and which, so I heard later, he flashed under the driver’s nose in case the farmer had any ideas of betraying us and not keeping the bargain of safe transport for payment.
Under an impenetrable moonless sky the tractor pulled us over deserted farmland, stopping more than once when uniformed men of unknown intent loomed ahead of us. Then my dad, sometimes with one or two other men, would alight with a supply of cigarettes or alcohol or watches, and after interminable anxious minutes when we hardly dared breathe, our men climbed back up and we continued on. All in stillness and quiet, the only words occasionally whispered theatrically, “Tommy, say something!”
Not too long after, we were told to climb down, as we would walk the rest of the way, and were instructed, especially the two children, to stay absolutely quiet.
Thus we continued on foot toward the border, cross-country, avoiding roads, paths and barbed wire. One foot in front of the other, eyes down, one hand gripping Anyu’s, the other clutching my doll, the black weight of the winter sky matching the somber heft of tension and fear within.
It wasn’t a long walk, maybe a kilometer or three, but each minute felt extended and magnified by the sharp awareness that every incremental step and advance of time could bring our undoing. Thankfully it didn’t, and under my dad’s ever-watchful eye our group safely reached and walked across a small bridge over a little waterway which formed part of the border with Austria.
We stepped off that bridge in Austria with suddenly lightened steps, as my child’s mind intuitively discerned we were safely where my parents wanted us to be, even though I knew not where that was. I sensed, too, the shedding of an unwanted fear-riddled skin which was replaced by a newly unfamiliar sensation of being free of danger yet insecure, which, too, I later understood as the lost and differently crushing feeling, even when fleeting, of statelessness and displacement as homeless refugees.
From the bridge we continued walking 9 km. until reaching the village of Andau, where in a brightly lit square in the dark of night we were received with much hospitality by villagers, and by representatives of the Joint Distribution Committee, which would feature prominently over subsequent weeks in helping my parents and me with basic survival and eventually, three months later, to reach our next destination, Melbourne.
But that’s another story.
THE BRIDGE near Andau was the escape route for some 70,000 Hungarians who fled during and immediately after the revolution. On November 21, 1956, the bridge was blown up by Soviet troops.
The Hungarian Revolution inspired people in many communist countries to fight for freedom, which in Hungary was achieved with the fall of communism in 1989.
The writer was a lawyer in Melbourne before she and her husband, Joe, made aliyah in 2015 to join their children. From the Immigrant Absorption Ministry representative who met Anna and Joe at the airport on the day they landed in Israel and who happened to be Hungarian, to the first electrician they tasked with a home job who also turned out to be Hungarian, to their next-door neighbor in Jerusalem who is Romanian-Hungarian, they have incredibly and unexpectedly continued to cross paths with Hungarians in Israel.