Memories of another war

A Soviet tank in Budapest to help quell the 1956 Hungarian uprising; photo from Fortepan, under Creative Commons 3.0

Memories that haunt my dreams

The Ukraine-Russia war is causing a lot of people insomnia. Seeing the killing of civilians, the devastation caused to houses, the homes of ordinary families is a nightmare. Most people feel horror seeing on TV the destruction of hospitals treating vulnerable sick children and pregnant women. But for me the scenes bring back memories I had buried deep down. 

In previous articles I have described how and why I became a child refugee. I hinted at the destruction of the 1956 revolution. Around 2,000 Hungarians and 700 Russians died in the three weeks of fighting. My real father came to visit our flat where I lived with my mother and stepfather** with a rifle on his shoulder and put a few hand grenades onto the dining table.

He said, “I am hungry. We are on Castle Hill defending the city and I haven’t eaten or slept in two days”. My mother had just cooked a large pot of a Hungarian peasant dish of potatoes with noodles. Food was scarce and we could not be fussy. My father ate most of the content of the pot, and told my mother that we were winning. Hungary would be free soon.

Hungarian Parliament
View from Castle Hill across the Danube River to Parliament

War divides families

Seeing Ukrainian women refugees saying goodbye to the men going back to fight reminded me that I didn’t see my real father again for nearly eight years, when my family was first able to visit Hungary after our flight in December 1956. He had refused to flee the country as he hoped there would be another opportunity to free Hungary. He underwent terrible torture like cigarette stubs on the back of his hands. They wanted to know all the names of the group who had held Budapest Castle. He was a very stubborn man.

My father lived long enough to see the Iron Curtain fall but was too unwell to enjoy the newly afforded freedoms. He died of a stroke in 1991. His wife told me many stories about their life under USSR rule. She blamed his early death on the pressure of living in an autocratic country. The authorities did not allow himto work in his profession as a biochemist. He was kept in a junior position all his life. He was a broken man.

Defending our homeland

I don’t want to dwell too much into the politics of the 1950s and what caused the revolution. I plan to write about that in a future article. The revolution started when a shot was fired into an unarmed crowd. Students had been demonstrating for democratic principles. Poland had just had a similar student demonstration and Hungary and Poland had close links through history. Neighbouring Austria was set free of their Russian occupation in 1955. Hungarians felt that they deserved their freedom too.

The current bravery of the Ukrainians reminds me of the determination of the Hungarian population in 1956 to get their country back. Young and old, men and women took up weapons. A weapons factory opened their gates and distributed arms. The Hungarian army joined the revolutionaries. One heard of 15-year-olds throwing Molotov Cocktails as tanks started rolling into Budapest. Peasants came to the city to fight and also to bring food to the hungry population.

Appeal to the world

The desperate calls for a no fly zone by Ukraine reminds me of the radio messages I heard Hungarian radio broadcast to the West. “Budapest calling. Russians are overrunning our country. Help us!” But, sadly the world was busy with the Suez Crisis and, like now, nobody wanted a war with Russia.

Hungary calls for help.

I remember, I remember

When I see families fleeing into cellars to escape from the bombing of their houses, memories of my childhood experiences flood back. As an eight year old, I was very confused and often scared. All I knew was that I had to go to the dark cellar when a siren was heard. And that there were constant loud noises which made my baby brother cry.

Sometimes we children were put into the bathtub with blankets around us. They told us that was the safest spot in our flat. I felt fear in the air. And we were often hungry. We had to eat dumplings for around ten days, for breakfast, lunch and supper. Mother told us we only had flour and lard in the house.

When that ran out, mother went out to try and find us some food. My stepfather tried to hold her back but she said it was safer for her to go out and he had to stay to protect us. He had a pistol he knew how to use. Mother came back after a long time during which my stepfather was pacing up and down in the hallway. She was limping. A bullet had scraped her leg and she was bleeding. Luckily it was only a flesh wound. She had found some rice and onions and we ate meals made from that.

When the fighting stopped and we went out into the street, it was full of rubble. And in the middle of the street there was a bundle, which turned out to be a body with a Hungarian flag covering it. My mother didn’t want me to go there but I pulled her along. There was a loaf of bread and a note on the top of the flag:

“Here lies a heroine. A mother, shot dead by Russian soldiers as she left her home to find some bread for her children.”

Standing firm against the invader

The revolution held out for about three weeks, partly for the same reason that Ukraine is not totally overrun yet. Firstly, the Russian soldiers were not really keen on fighting the Budapest population. Many laid down their arms. Some had been living in Hungary for several years as the occupying force. They weren’t there to fight.

I haven’t found any record of this, but my mother told me that the new Russian battalions whose purpose was to beat down the revolution sought out the deserters and supposedly ran them over with their tanks. Just as there is a rumour that the Russian soldiers in Ukraine face death if they refuse to fight. Nothing would astonish me.

As always, there are no winners in war. Just misery and grief. The EU was set up to avoid war in Europe. The West, US and NATO countries are watching with horror as war crimes and crimes against humanity are committed. It seems we were too complacent. A horrendous dilemma as described in Mike’s article:

**Note on my complicated family situation, since it might lead to confusion: in my article about our flight to Vienna I describe how my father, a musician, joined my mother and siblings separately. That should have read ‘stepfather’. But he is the one I called father, as he married my mother when I was 18 months old. My real father mentioned above stayed in Hungary and sadly played no more role in my life.