By Annette Mann

Today is the 50th anniversary of the defeat of the Hungarian Revolution. I’ve spent a lot of time in the past month and a half learning about and reflecting upon these events and I thought I would take a few moments to recap my experiences.

I began this quest by attending an all day symposium at USC Annenberg Library, where the guest speaker, among others was Erich Lessing. Erich Lessing is probably one of the most intelligent, articulate and artistic people I have ever had the pleasure to meet. He is about 75 years old and somewhat weak in body. He sat during his talk. But there’s nothing frail or failing about his mind. He was a photographer, stationed in Europe when the Hungarian Revolution began. He headed to Budapest, as did many other photographers and journalists, to get the story. He had amazing access to the top leaders and took hundreds of photos memorializing the revolution. About three hundred of his photos are available on the internet (if you are interested, just google his name and Hungarian Revolution and it will take you there) There’s currently a photo exhibit of about 30 of his photos at the Annenberg Library, which will continue to be exhibited until December.

It was from Erich Lessing that I learned about the global political situation in October 1956. He spoke about the Suez Canal Crisis (October 29, 1956) and how that drew attention away from the Hungarian Revolt, thereby emboldening Kruschev to crush the rebellion. He spoke about the elections in the US (November 4, 1956 – the day Russian military might descended upon Budapest) and how the timing of that election drew focus away from Hungary, emboldening Kruschev to crush the rebellion. He spoke about the 1956 Olympics held in Australia during the time when the revolution was taking place. He recounted the drama that unfolded when the final water polo game was between Hungary and Russia. “The pool turned from blue to red during the course of that competition”, he told us. It was an unusually physically violent match. He told us about the Hungarian Olympic atheletes who tried to defect. Some succeeded. They were aided by the Australians. Most were threatened with harm to their families if they did not return, and so they did return reluctantly to Hungary.

Interestingly, most of the 40-50 attendees were “56ers” and their families and friends. One man brought his wife, children and grandchildren. There were very few USC students in the audience.

After the presentation, there was a luncheon. At that time, I had a chance to speak with some of the attendees, and we shared experiences.

I also saw a couple of Hungarian movies in the past month. UCLA screened “Szerelem” (“Love”), a Hungarian movie set in Budapest in 1956. It was a very dreary movie which did not further my understanding. I bought a DVD of a short film, entitled “No Greater Love”. This movie, which recounts the escape of one family from Hungary to Austria, felt like deja vu. It so accurately captured the terrain and the crossing at the border. Interestingly, I found out, watching the editor’s cut that it was filmed entirely in Indiana.

I also did a fair amount of reading. I read a great deal on the internet. I reread James Michener’s “Bridge at Andau” which he wrote in 1957 about the Hungarian refugees, I love Michener, but this book is not one of his best.

I attended the 50th Anniversary Commemoration of the Hungarian Revolution at the Freedom Fighter’s Memorial, which is located in Mac Arthur Park in Los Angeles. There were about 300 people there, mostly older Hungarians. The program consisted of reading of various proclamations. Most of it was in Hungarian. It was boring and I was very disappointed.

By coincidence, while at the Griffith Park Observatory, I met a young man who was born in the same hospital in Debrecen, Hungary (there’s only one hospital in Debrecen) where I was born. He competed for Hungary in gymnastics in the Olympics. We talked briefly about post ’56 contemporary life in Hungary.

The final event about the Revolution that I planned on attending came yesterday. It was a lecture at UCLA by Professor Charles Gati. Professor Gati teaches at Johns Hopkins University. He has authored and coauthored about two dozen books dealing with Eastern Europe. He was senior adviser with the Policy Planning Staff of the U. S. Department of State. He was also a Hungarian Freedom Fighter, who subsequently fled from Hungary towards the end of the Revolution. His most recent book, “Failed Illusions” (2006) has been translated into several languages. It holds the unique distinction of having been on the Hungarian best-seller list for several weeks, quite an unusual achievement for a textbook on political history.

He gave a very interesting talk. He disputed that Hungary’s revolution failed because of external political events. His theory is that Hungary lost because the revolutionaries being young and exuberant, wanted too much, and failed to negotiate a compromise with Kruschev. The Hungarian hero, Imre Nagy, who became Hungary’s leader during the Revolution, was a failure, according to Professor Gati, because he could not moderate the rebels. He also theorized that Hungary lost because of the execution of 20 AVO at Freedom’s Square by the rebels. AVO were the military police in Hungary and responsible for terrible atrocities against Hungarians. During the five day period when Soviets withdrew from Budapest, there was a public lynching and the bodies of these AVO were left hanging for several days. It was widely reported by Life Magazine, and other magazines around the world. Kruschev could not let this act of vengance go unanswered. He needed to crush this rebellion to prevent other sattellite countries from following Hungary’s example.

After his talk, he took questions from the audience. The audience consisted entirely of older Hungarians, most of whom were 56ers. A couple of the men in the audience had participated in and/or witnessed the lynchings and were quite vocal in disagreeing with Professor Gati about his negative interpretation of the consequences of those lynchings. They were defending their participation in the lynchings.

After this discussion, we were invited to move to another room for a book signing and reception. The room was small for our size group and people crowded in moving to the snack table and/or to the book signing table.

But, between snacking and book buying, something very interesting was happening. People were sharing their own experiences. I met several people that afternoon and we exchanged memories. When my family left Hungary, we escaped with about 10 people in our group. I met a man who told me that when he left, he was a teenager travelling alone. He also went by train to a small village close to the border. The train was packed with several hundred people who were sandwiched together tightly. He said all these people got off the train late in the afternoon at the same place. The train was met by a farmer who, for money, offered to guide them to Austria. They waited until nightfall and then walked about 40 kilometers to the Canal. The canal was frozen and there were wooden planks which created a flimsy bridge. Hundreds of people were making the trek across these wooden planks to Austria. The planks were icy and slippery and several people fell into the icy water. An armed Hungarian soldier appeared as they were attempting this crossing and an argument broke out between the Hungarian soldier and the farmer turned guide. Interestingly, it was the Hungarian soldier criticizing the farmer for having taken money to guide people to the border! Unlike my experience of being taken to a nearby farmhouse, there were buses that awaited the refugees on the Austrian side and people were thus transported directly to Vienna.

I struck up a conversation with another woman and somewhere in the course of our dialogue, Bet Tzedek entered our conversation. She told me that her daughter had done her law school internship at Bet Tzedek over the past summer. I said I probably knew her daughter because I was volunteering there at the same time. As we continued to talk, it turned out that her daughter and I had worked together on the Hungarian Holocaust Restitution Program. Her daughter, Esther, whom I do know very well, was the only other volunteer at Bet Tzedek who spoke Hungarian. At Bet Tzedek, I had drafted a form that would accompany each application. That form needed to be translated into Hungarian. I did not have the language skills to do that and neither did Esther. So, Esther took it home to her mother to do the translation. Her mother and I had thus collaborated on the same form without knowing each other..

Time was passing quickly and people began to leave. I’m usually the last to leave a party, and this day was no exception. Eventually, the only ones left were Professor Gati, a couple of UCLA professors, who were his hosts and myself. At that point, I asked the question that I had wanted to ask during his presentation, but felt it was too personal to broach in a public setting. I really wanted to hear about his personal experiences.

He was very gracious and told me that at the time, he was 19 years old and a college student. He had participated in the formentation of the revolution. When it became apparent that the revolution was not going to succeed, he talked with his parents and they all agreed that it was too dangerous for him to remain in Hungary. It was planned that he would leave the following morning. His parents felt they were too old for the journey and they decided to remain. The following morning, he dressed in several layers and packed a few personal momentos. He and his parents gathered for a final farewell. His mother was crying. His father tried to hold back the tears, but failed. They all embraced and then he opened the door. He said that as he left his parent’s apartment that morning, he was walking backwards. He was walking backwards because he wanted to see his parents for as long as he could and he wanted them to be able to see him as long as they could.
Listening to him, the emotion of separation became so real to me that I got choked up. Seeing my eyes grow glossy, he got a lump in his throat. Here we were two perfect strangers, sipping sparkling cider and munching on tortilla chips in a classroom at UCLA , caught up in a moment of painful realization. He described his journey as “going from uncertainty to uncertainty”. I think that moment taught me more about the meaning of the revolution than all the lectures I had attended.

His story had a happy ending. He succeeded in escaping. He eventually came to the United States, and has dedicated much of his life to the study of the politicis of Eastern Europe. He married, has five children and had several happy reunions with his parents in the years that followed.

My search for an adult’s comprehension of these events of my chldhood have been satisfied. I think I gained insight into the big picture, but more importantly, through my interaction with Professor Gati, I experienced an emotional reality that was beyond my knowing at age 6 in Hungary.