This is that part of the year, when it is time to remind the world, remind
our fellow Americans (by writing letters to our local papers) that the
down-payment for the peace dividend, resulting from the collapse of
Communism, was paid for in Hungarian blood 39 years ago. That memory is our
national treasure, we should, we must protect it.
Mine is a lucky generation: we were there, we have seen the miracle.
We have known the children who faced down the tanks. For us this is not
history, it is a piece of our lives, an event that changed us and changed the
Yes, I know that none of this is new. I know that this topic is not
"in", that today we are more interested in party politics, privatization,
debt payment and the like. But I also know that reform must be rooted in
spiritual renewal, in faith and solidarity. So we must recall the days, when
the nation was a family, when our spirits were unconquerable, when we dared
to dream. We must remember those who paid an advance in blood to secure a
better future for all of mankind and never asked anything in return. This is
why I am writing about the Davids who mortally wounded the Goliath of tyranny
This recollection starts on the 21st of October, 1956:
Dedicated to the memories of
Istvan Angyal, Janos Danner
and the heroic children
(* This is not a history book, it probably contains
errors in both facts and identities. Yet real names
are used and actual events are described, based on
the fading memory of one, who in 1956,
was a 20 year old student.)
The yellow number 47 tram was screeching as it made the
ninety degree turn onto Freedom bridge. It took only 3 or 4 long steps to
reach the last car and to jump onto it. The ticket collector, a big busted
blond women, is right there on the dirty back platform: No standing on the
stairs! Please come up to the platform. - she says to the young man standing
next to me. He moves up, I stay on the stairs. I know that being 187
centimeters (6'-2 ), I am tall enough for her to think that I am already up.
I must be 6 inches taller than the average Hungari an. That is just about the
height of one step. I was right, the ticket collector did not bother me.
It was 3:58 PM when I caught the tram on \ll i Street and decided to
jump off between stops, right in front of the Kinizsi sports field. I am good
at this: One has to jump backwards, to reduce the forward speed relative to
the pavement at landing, but one has to do that, while facing forward. When
your shoes hit the pavement, you better run like hell, otherwise you will
still fall on your face. I guess I can jump off at a speed of 40 miles per
hour or so.
I quickly change into my slightly dirty red and white jumping outfit
and put on my nailed and rather stinking jumping shoes in the equally smelly
changing room. I liked my red athletic tricots, because they made my skinny
upper body look more muscular. The jumping competition has already started.
The bar is already at 130 centimeters. When I check in, uncle Jani (in
Hungarian the familiar address for an older man is bacsi which can be
loosely translated as uncle), the coach gives me an annoyed bark: Hey, are
you another one of those conceited prima donnas? You don't even show up until
we pass 130? Or was it Agnes? I act as if I did not hear him and concentrate
on bending, stretching and loosening my muscles, which are already loose from
the hot bath. I was surprised that he remembered Agnes. Uncle Jani did not
see my 15 years old, green eyed little girl friend more than once or twice,
as she was waiting for me after training. So how can he remem ber?
When I get in line, the bar is at 140. There are two jumpers ahead of
me. The first is a spectacled, redheaded fellow, he took off his glasses, ran
directly at the bar and jumped head first, in the newly fashionable rolling
style. He clears. The next jumper, a tall, blond guy, uses the same scissor
technique as I, except that he pushes off from his left foot and therefore
approaches the bar from the right. He also clears. Now it is my turn. I run
at the bar from the left, kick off when I am almost completely under it, feel
a good lift and then my left knee hits the bar. Number 29, second try! -
yells the judge while I am spitting out the sand, which I swallowed upon
I cleared 140 on the second try and that made me less nervous. At 150,
I cleared the bar on the first attempt and by a good margin. Not bad number
29! - mumbled the judge. Out of the 50 or so jumpers, about half of us have
cleared 150. My best jump ever was 155, but today I feel particularly good. I
clear 155 in the company of about 10 others. At 160 I got a bit scared. I
never jumped that height before. The bar was as tall as my Mother or Agnes.
That is high! I missed twice at 160 and then on the third try cleared it
like a bird. Wow! This felt good! There are only six of us left. Now, people
start gathering around the jumping area. There is the blond little runner,
Marika, the bride of Gyuszi Perr. She is so vibrant, so full of energy. (Who
would think that in two weeks she will be dyeing in my arms.) Attila is also
watching, it feels good to be the center of attention. It gives me energy and
At 165 I am the fourth to jump. The first cleared, the next two missed.
Now it is my turn. I start further back than ever before, pick up as much
speed as I know how and then take three very long steps and on the last step,
kick off with all my might. I was rising, the bar came closer and closer, now
it is at eye level, now I am looking down at it, now my left leg is over, now
my bottom, my right leg; I cleared it! I can't believe it! It was so easy, so
simple and natural. For a moment they are all looking at me. Marika comes
over and says: Just like a field frog! and pushes her index finger into my
I start taking off my jumping shoes, but uncle Jani stops me: Don't
you want to try for 170? If you clear, you get a medal! How do you know
that? - I ask. Come on! I know everybody here. Gulyas will win at 180,
Kovacs will clear 175 and either you or Varga will take the bronze at 170.
Well, it will be Varga! - I reply. For me 165 is just fine. Besides, we
have no bread at home and its my job to bring some for dinner. Bread on
Sunday? - muses uncle Jani. Yeh, the Baros Kvzirt is open until 6, so I
have to run!
When one is 20 and did not eat since morning, the smell of freshly
baked bread is kind of special. The two kilogram (4.4 pounds) loaf costs 6.80
Forints. Memi gave me 10 for the bread and I had 2 of my own. The ticket to
Gellirt was 4.60, so now I don't have enough money to call Agnes. This is
bad! I still have 10 minutes until the train leaves for Kerepes, so I could
tell her about clearing 165 and we could make plans to see The Women of
Selistye , this Italian movie, tomorrow. The movie starts at 4 PM. Her
classes are probably over by then. Of course I don't have money for the movie
tickets either, but tomorrow is the 22nd of October, so I can try to get my
November stipend. That is 140 Forints. God, that is a lot of money. I would
While waiting for the 6:24 train, and while thinking about tomorrow,
my hand, almost without my knowledge, peels off a bit of the crust of the
bread. Wow! It is so good. Now a bigger piece. Now some of the warm, steaming
inside. I keep picking at the loaf while waiting for the train. I continue
doing that during the 50 minute ride to Kerepes. There is an other 20 minute
walk to our house. Its almost 8 PM by the time I get home, half of the loaf
As I open the creaking iron gate, Bukucs, my young German shepherd runs
to me at full speed. She is just crazy about me, nobody loves me like that! I
don't know why I deserve this? Is it my smell? Is this my reward for keeping
my cleansing urges under control? She is rubbing her nose to my knee, she
can't stop the licking and the jumping. Is she trying to remind me that it
has been some time, since I went with her (only with her!), for a full day in
the woods, picking mush rooms, watching birds? Is she trying to make a point?
The light is on in the kitchen. As I step through the door, Andris
starts yelling: Vcsi ate the bread! Vcsi ate the bread! Andris is four
years younger than I, he is a skinny cry baby, but still calls me Vcsi ,
which means little brother . I got this name before Andris was born, when I
had only an older brother, Piter. So at that time I was the little brother:
Vcsi. In the corner of the kitchen, Aptyi is talking excitedly with two of
our neighbors. Their hats are on, half empty wine glasses are in their hands
and I hear the mispronounced name: Eisenhoffer over and over again, but I
am not paying much attention. Memi takes the bread: For tomorrow's
sandwiches! - she says, and gives me a bowl of steaming hot bean soup, but
no bread. Piter is reading in the next room and Nagymemi (my mother's mother)
is just leaving, going slowly back to her room. As always, she has her winter
I cleared 165! - I say to no one in particular. The conversation
stops for a few seconds, Aptyi looks at me proudly, Memi is searching the
markings on the door post, where the heights of the family are dated, to see
how high is 165 centimeters? The only one who is really impressed is Andris.
My foot - he says - you did not! Now, that is a real compliment!
After dinner, I throw my drafting board on the kitchen table and start
working on the ball bearing design that I have to hand in tomorrow. I already
drew the outlines in light pencil, what is left is to ink it over. I am using
pitch black India ink and a razor blade to scrape out the slightest mistakes.
Appear ance is everything to professor Vvrvs - I say to Andris, - he does
not care, if the balls are cubical as long as the drawing is neat.
While I am still working, the neighbors start saying their elaborate
good nights. Some say, that Hungarians say good by and stay, but this is a
slight exaggeration, they eventually do leave, it just takes longer for them
than for anybody else on this planet. Then, when Memi is done with cleaning
up, she too goes to bed. Aptyi checks on the animals before following Memi to
their bedroom. It is well after midnight, Andris and Piter are snoring, when
I finally roll up the drawing and hit the bed myself.
Memi tries to wake me at 6 AM and again at 6:15 AM. There is no heat in
the house, the bathroom is dreadful, so who wants to get up? The toilet does
not flush, the hot water is cold and everybody wants to get in there at the
same time. Aptyi is long gone. I dress quickly.
My sandals are cold for October, but I am certainly not going to wear
out my beautiful new csukas. Csuka is the name for the shoes with two inch
thick synthetic rubber soles. I spent all my earnings of last summer to buy
my csuka and an equally smart purple corduroy jacket. I never had new shoes
before. So I will wear the sandals, my jampec (teddy-boy) pants, which are so
tight below the knee that I need a zipper to get into them and I will
certainly wear my tailor made, purple corduroy jacket, which I spent 8 weeks
of wages on. It is my first and only tailor made jacket. It gives me broad
shoulders and a muscular, dashing look. It also gives Agnes an armpit to nest
in as we walk. That armpit was made just for her and she loves it. She looks
up from there with a mischievous twinkle in her eye, while contemplating
whether she should trip me or if an unexpected shove with her little tush
I leave the house at 6:35 AM, the train leaves at 6:52 and I need 20
minutes to get to the station, so I am running. I pass Iva Ordassy, an other
beauty I am in love with (without her knowledge.) She is on her way to the
Teachers College. She is catching the 7:02 local. I am in trouble! So I run
like a gazelle. Running is not easy with the ball bearing drawing and the
books I am carrying. It is 6:51 AM, when I get to the top of the hill, I see
the train coming in. I am still some 500 meters from the station. I run like
my life depended on it. I have an other 300 meters to go when the train
stops. I am 200 meters when the last passenger gets on. I am 100 meters when
the train starts again. I see Tibi Bakonyi keeping the door open on the last
car. The train is already picking up speed when I grab the handle with my
right hand. It yanks me forward and I fly up onto the stairs. The drawing and
books are safe under my left arm. I made it.
Tibi is my friend. He pretends to be cool and aloof. His pitch black
hair is always neatly combed. He also owns an authentic Pelican fountain-pen.
His father was one of the Regent's guards. He lost his right leg during the
fighting, when the German SS occupied the palace some 12 years ago. Tibi's
father, uncle Aladar, hates all occupiers, including our present ones, the
Russians. Tibi is playing tarot. Tarot is the aristocrat of card games, it
compares to bridge like Connecticut compares to New Jersey. It is also the
card game of the opposition, any and all oppositions. There is no such thing
as a conformist tarot player.
My Mother's first love, Janos Melocco was a tarot player. Later he
became a reporter for a Catholic paper. When uncle Janos found out that the
Communists have drugged Mind szenty, the Catholic Primate, in order to make
him confess to his crimes , and tried to report on that, he was arrested
The delicate Communist method of notifying his wife, aunt Dora, was to
send her a package, containing his clothing and a printed form. The form
stated that his hanging is a state secret, not to be discussed with anyone.
(In Hungarian, the familiar term for an older lady is nini . I'm using aunt,
as an approximate translation.) Otherwise, there was no explanation, nothing.
Some respect for human life!
When Aptyi learned of this package, and after he did his colorful
cursing, which could go on for 15-20 minutes, without repeating a single
profanity, he started attending the Catho lic(!) mass, in the only church of
our village. He was no Catholic, he disliked both organized religion and the
sanctimo nious Catholic priests. He attended in protest. He attended, so that
at the end of the sermon, his voice could shake the windows as he sung the
National Anthem. That was the only place where the anthem, - this
reactionary, counter-revolution ary and chauvinistic relic of the past, - was
tolerated. Outside, you could only sing about the heroic Soviet people and
their leading role in the heroic struggle for peace.
When the train gets in, I do my usual running and streetcar jumping to
be on time for my first class at the Technical University. I scale the many
stairs, of this majestic jewel of Hungarian architecture on the banks of the
Danube, two at a time. My first class is Machine Design 302.
This is one of the most boring subjects which a junior of mechanical
engineering has to endure. I turn in the india ink drawing and settle down
next to Attila Lipcsey. If I knew about india ink when I applied for
university admission, I would have tried for music school! - says Attila.
Good for you! My father rented 50 acres in Kerepes, so we became kulaks
(wealthy peasants, whom the Communists considered as enemies.) We class
enemies , had no choice. With the X-category stamped in my identity papers, I
was grateful to be admitted anywhere. I mumble and start reading the sports
paper, which is reporting on yesterday's athletic competition. Yeah, Varga
took the bronze - I say out loudly. Vvrvs stops in mid-sentence and some 200
heads turn toward me, so I shut up.
At lunch time, on the way to the cafeteria, we stop at the scholarship
office. I am lucky, my favorite administrator is there. She is a Communist
party activist or something, but in spite of all that, she is still a good
woman. I tell her that I am penniless and would like to get my November
scholarship. But this is only the 22nd of October! - she says. Yes, but
Agnes and I would like to see this Italian movie, the Women of Selistye and
today is the last day they are showing it! - I plead. I know that the Women
of Selistye is an Italian movie! - she says defensively, implying that not
all party secretaries are complete morons. I do not debate the point, just
continue pleading. You know, Agnes is only 15, for her, seeing this movie is
very important. Besides, the national economy is not going to collapse if I
get my 140 Forint stipend 4 days early. Now, will it?
She smiles, opens the safe, counts out 140 Forints and as she hands it
over, says: You know about the meeting in the Aula at 2 PM. Be there, it is
going to be a very important meeting! An other one of those important ones?
What is it this time? Are we intensifying the fight for peace or reestab
lishing our eternal friendship with Albania? - I ask. No, this is important!
It is about Poland and Poznan. Her face is serious, so I shut up and back
out of her office.
I call Agnes from the cafeteria. She is home for lunch, this is a good
time to call. I can hear that she is jumping up and down while we are talking
on the phone. She wanted to see this movie very badly and now her mouth is
running at twice the speed of her brain. This is good: she is so happy! It
was worth fighting to get the money. So I will see you at the Bastya movie
house at 4 PM sweetheart? Yes, sure, definitely, absolutely, certainly and
in addition also assuredly. I will be there even if mini-Gypsies are falling
from the sky! - she gabbles in her usual calm and understated way.
During lunch I learn from Men (his real name is Gyuri Egry and his
nick name Men refers to a person who gets to places, a person who is with
it ), that there was a meeting last Saturday in the city of Szeged where the
students established an independent student organization, the League of
Hungarian University and College Student Associations (abbreviated as MEFESZ
in Hungarian). Men is also a junior in mechanical engineering, an inch or
two taller than me, he has a long, always smiling horse-face, walks like a
camel (side-to-side), with his toes turned in, he is a basketball player and
a real good friend. During last summer's military training, we both marched
in the front row of our platoon in tennis shoes, because the army did not
have big enough boots for us. (I suspect, that the reason why the Russians
did not occupy Scandinavia was that the Red Army lacked their shoe sizes.)
Are you coming to this meeting at 2 PM ? - I ask him. Yeah. It can't hurt
- he says. It can hurt me, if I miss the movie at 4 PM. Agnes will never
forgive me! So what? You leave at 3:30 PM. End of discussion! -declares
Gyuri the Men , and I agree. (After the Revolution Men ended up as the
director of a cereal factory in Peru.)
After lunch, we decide (Attila an I) to visit the Gellirt
Department. The mountain of Saint Gellirt is on the banks of the Danube in
the middle of Budapest. Gellirt became a saint when the Hungarians got tired
of listening to the preachings of this Italian priest, and threw him off
these cliffs, some 1000 years ago. I love to walk on this hill, in the middle
of this beautiful city. I understand that the only city with similar beauty
is Rio de Janeiro.
Attila does not understand why I like to visit the Cliff Chapel, this
church, in one of the caves, and I don't tell him. My Mother, as a teenager,
spent a whole night in this chapel, praying, when she was afraid to go home,
because she was 30 minutes late for her curfew. That tells you something
about my Grandfather, this tough little Austro-Hungarian colonel who in 1915
succeeded in beating the shit out of the Serbs for killing Francis Ferdinand
and right after that, set down to translate Mallarmi, Rimbaud and Verlaine.