Family days and Events in the Fifties…
Family days in Tom’s extended family had started before the war as enjoyable social events, but increasingly became times for sharing anxiety and problems caused by increasing persecution of Jews. After the holocaust, they then became a means of rebuilding a strong sense of family of those who survived. During the dark years of the communist era these family get-togethers were a time of mutual support, of sharing problems and giving advice, of debating the subtle political changes in the regime and generating some hope amidst the gloom. These events in extended Hungarian families continued throughout the Kádár era and even into the transition period which followed the collapse of communism in 1989-91. Tom’s direct memories were of the gatherings of the early to mid 1950s:
Everyone tried to make sure that we children had a good time, with special cakes and sweets, usually made by great-aunt Manci, my grandmother’s younger sister. We played games, while the adults were deep in conversation. The oldest of us was my second cousin Éva, two years older than me. I was next in age, my three cousins Jani, Andi and Juli (all children of my aunt Juci) were all younger as was my second cousin Kati. Her sister Marika and my other two second cousins András and Isti were all born in the early 50s. Éva made up some exciting ‘murder in the dark’ type of games, which involved hiding in cupboards and getting into some mischief.
There were occasional raised voices. It was often Éva’s mother Magda who was in some trouble. Like my mother, she had lost her husband in the holocaust in one of the ‘death marches’ and she never regained any kind of equilibrium. Her life seemed to go from one crisis to another. My grandfather Ármin (who was generally regarded as the ‘head of the family’) was always ready with advice, which Magda was not ready to receive. It was often my great-uncle Feri (Ármin’s younger brother) whose mild-mannered voice acted to mediate and bring calm to the proceedings. He was a much respected architect whose advice was sought by many. Workplace problems were discussed, ways of getting round food shortages, childcare issues and, of course, politics. Most of the family were generally inclined to be liberal and tending towards socialist ideas, which dominated amongst the Jewish middle class.
Anti-semitism was generally linked to the old right-wing nationalism and the horrors of the holocaust were inflicted by the fascists. The Soviet Red Army, while bringing its own atrocities in some areas, meant liberation for the remnants of our family. So there was initially a lot of tolerance towards the proclaimed aims of the communist regime. The disillusion and the realisation of the total loss of freedom and the fear brought by the dictatorship of the Rákosi era dawned on members of the family at different rates.
Following the ‘turning point’ year of 1949, it only remained for the Hungarian Communists to apply some cosmetic surgery on the face of the Stalinist system to invest their de facto rule with a thin gloss of constitutionality. The rumps of the remaining parties, largely consisting of Communist fellow-travellers, merged with the Hungarian Workers’ Party (MDP) in the Hungarian Independence-Popular Front and undertook to submit to the decisions of its national board led by Rákosi as President, Dobi and Erdei as deputies and Rajk as General Secretary. They also pledged themselves to the leading role of the MDP in the construction of socialism. Those who espoused alternative programmes were denounced as enemies of the Hungarian people, rather than being seen as any sort of ‘loyal opposition’. Predictably, on 15 May, 96 per cent of the electors voted for the candidates of the Popular Front, of whom more than seventy per cent were communists.
Shortly after the creation of the Popular Front, organised opponents of monolithic communist rule either evaporated or were forced into compliance through general repression. Within a week, the Democratic People’s Party dissolved itself and Cardinal Mindszenty was brought to court on fabricated charges of espionage and subversion. Having struck at the two pillars of the Catholic Church, landed property and youth education, the Communists had, early on, evoked the wrath of the militant prelate who was determined not only to defend religious liberty but also to preserve many of the Church’s anachronistic privileges. Now they turned on him as the head of what they termed the clerical reaction of 1947-49. He was sentenced to life imprisonment on the basis of an extorted confession. Despite this, there was no break in the adherence of ordinary Catholics to their Church, but its power to openly resist did decline sharply decline, as became evident on 5 September 1949 obligatory religious instruction was abolished, and circumstances were made unfavourable for parents sending their children to optional classes. By 1952, only a quarter of elementary school pupils took them.
Religion was rarely discussed in the extended Leimdörfer family, either, as it was such a sensitive subject among many surviving Jewish families. Most of the family remained Jewish, but only practised at the time of festivals, while Edit (Tom’s mother), aunt Juci and her husband Gyuri became committed Christians in the Reformed (Calvinist) Church following their conversion. Tom recalls his mother’s distress over the recurring rift this decision had created in the family:
The only time I saw my mother in tears at a family day was when her right to bring me up as a Christian was being questioned. It was my grandmother Sári who smoothed out that particular row. Although we might have been playing, Éva and I heard what was going on in the adult conversation. Occasionally, when they noticed us listening, the conversation would switch to German. All the adults spoke fluent German, but only ever used it in these circumstances.
One of Tom’s more distant relatives had been in the French resistance during the war (having been a student at Grenoble university) and was the only one of the family who was actually a member of the Communist Party. As a sideline from his office job, he made up a game called Five Year Plan, which became available in the shops to replace the banned Capitali (a Hungarian version of Monopoly). As a ‘western communist’ he was, no doubt, in just as much danger from the secret police and the ‘Muscovites’ who were leading the party, as were the other members of the family. Even the seventy-one member Central Committee of the party was dwarfed in its significance by the Political Committee which met every week; even within this body, the ‘Muscovites’ formed an ‘inner circle’ within which the ‘triumvirate’ of Rákosi, Gerő and Farkas reigned supreme, with Rákosi surrounded by a personality cult second only in its dimensions, within the Communist bloc, to that of Stalin himself.
If any complex financial questions arose, the family turned to Pali (Hédi’s father, my grandmother’s younger brother) who was an accountant. Pali had another daughter, Márti, who had Down’s syndrome. She was a much-loved and nurtured member of the family:
We children adored her as she always played with us and always had a warm smile and a hug for us. She joined in with our games and clearly enjoyed playing with our toys. She was well-known in her neighbourhood and could do some shopping for her parents as well as helping at home. Márti was not the only member of the family with a disability. My young second cousin Kati had a genetic disorder resulting in very restricted growth and associated mobility problems in later life. However, she was bright, always even-tempered, went through mainstream school and university, took a doctorate and became a very competent and respected accountant.
Sixteen members of the extended family had died in the holocaust, but those who survived remained close to each other through thick and thin, notwithstanding any strains of religious, economic, political or philosophical differences. The dark years were hard for everyone, but when anyone was in acute hardship, there was always help. If things got difficult at home for anyone, there was always a listening ear. Tom recalls an occasion when, aged about nine, he ran away from home:
I forget the reason, but Mami and I had a row and she took to her periodic silent phase. I took the 49 tram, then changed to the 11 and arrived at my aunt Juci and uncle Gyuri’s flat. The adults had a quiet word, decided I might as well stay the night, play with my cousins, and start next day as if nothing had happened. It worked, I guess we just needed some ’space’ from each other. Juci and Gyuri’s home was a lovely flat and I always liked going there. They were always very busy, both working full-time and with three young children, but they always had time for me. Jani, Andi and Juli liked having me around and regarded me as an older brother. Their paternal grandmother, Ilonka mama, lived with them, helped with household chores and quietly fussed around us. Feeling at home in their family in Budapest laid the foundation for my crucial years as a teenage orphan in London, but surrounded by a loving family.
In the period after the war, throughout the 1940s and even through to 1956, the cultural scene in Budapest remained vibrant, with a vigorous and colourful press at first, in which all the trends that survived the war-time crucible represented themselves with excellent periodicals. There were renowned musical and theatrical performances and a host of films which represented the highest standards of international cinematography. For Tom, this creative atmosphere was a central part of his upbringing:
Music was very important in our lives. It was my mother’s great source of comfort and it became one of the strongest bonds between us, though occasionally also a source of strain. I grew up listening to classical music on the radio and started going to concerts, the opera and the ballet at an early age. Tickets were cheap for everyone and sometimes even free for us, once Mami started to work for the Hungarian Philharmonia, the state bureau which organised all major musical events in the country and distributed all tickets. Its offices were just opposite the sumptuous classical building of the Opera House.
My parents were concert goers during their courtship and the short married life they had together before the war tore them apart. Mami now just had me and she started taking me to concerts and the opera at what might be considered a very early age. Works deemed suitable for children, like Tchaikovsky’s ‘Nutcracker’ ballet, Massine’s ‘La Boutique Fantastique’, and Engelbert Humperdinck’s ‘Hansel and Gretel’ I saw before the age of six. I was not yet eight when I saw ‘Carmen’ at the Opera in a mesmerising performance… Apart from the two opera houses of the capital (the classical Opera House and the more modern Erkel Theatre), there were outdoor performances in the summer. The outdoor theatre was near the zoo and occasionally a hapless tenor or soprano had to compete with some noisy peacocks or other nocturnally vocal animals.
There were a lot of excellent Hungarian musicians of international renown, who were not able to travel to the west. With visiting artists from the other communist countries, the quality of performances was always high… After Stalin’s death, when the regime became relatively less repressive, the first western artist to visit was the great Yehudi Menuhin. He played both the Beethoven and the Mendelssohn violin concertos in the same concert, one each side of the interval. Mami managed to get three tickets. She and her best friend Gitta (my friend Dani’s mother) were both looking forward to the concert as a high point of the year. Dani and I were to share the third ticket. He played the violin, so he had first choice and chose the Beethoven (which is longer). I was satisfied, because the Mendelssohn was my favourite, having been told that it had been one of my father’s best loved pieces of music. In any case, we could each listen to the other half outside the door. It was a magical performance and the four of us talked about nothing else for weeks.
Tom, all dressed up for a night at the opera
Nagy’s New Course & Rákosi’s Return:
It is no wonder that Hungarians received the news of Stalin’s death on 5 March 1953 with almost unanimous relief. Gyula Kodolányi recalls how in school the next day they had to stand for a minute. Most of his friends bent their heads down, he remembers, not in mourning, but to hide glances of outright joy. Life on the streets was also commanded to halt for minutes of silence, but the attitude of the adults was similar, except for a few hysterical party members sobbing theatrically on the departure of their demigod.
As the new Soviet leadership recognised the possibility of peaceful co-existence with the West, this resulted in their recognition of the wider crisis which existed throughout their Empire in general, and Hungary in particular. Mátyás Rákosi, who was also Premier since 1952 and thought that things would return to normal once the power struggle in the Kremlin was over, was summoned to Moscow in the middle of June. In the presence of a party and state delegation he was reprimanded in a humiliating fashion by Lavrentiy Beria and the other Soviet leaders, who brutally dismissed him before his comrades for developing a personality cult and presiding over the collapse of the absurdly centralised Hungarian economy (due to policies implemented on their own demands, it has to be recognised, including the senseless industrialisation and forcible collectivisation of agriculture) and appalling living standards. At the same time, Beria announced that Imre Nagy, present in Moscow as Deputy Prime Minister, would be the new leader of Communist Hungary. Nagy had fallen into disfavour in 1949, due to his dissent over the issue of collectivisation, and although he had gradually returned to the leadership of the party, he had managed to remain untainted by the terror. However, the ‘cadres’ in Budapest remained perplexed, since Rákosi had retained the party secretaryship, and it was therefore difficult for them to predict whether the Soviet leadership in the future would favour him or Nagy. Nevertheless, in the twenty-one months that followed, the Nagy government implemented significant corrections, justifying the description of the period as the new course. Nagy moved energetically to proclaim his policies for the new course on 4 July 1953. Kodolányi, then aged twelve, remembers walking home on a blazing hot evening in Budapest, in which all the windows were open to let in a cooling breeze:
… from every window Imre Nagy’s maiden speech as Prime Minister resounded forth from radios, often from radio sets placed on the window sills. It was a somewhat rasping but pleasant and unobtrusive voice, with intimate overtones of his native dialect of southwest Hungary… the unbelievable happened after so many years of Communism: a human voice speaking in Parliament, to real human beings. A Hungarian to fellow Hungarians. Morally and intellectually, Communism fell in Hungary at that moment – although in the world of power it remained here to pester us for another 37 years, an obtrusive carcass.
Imre Nagy may have been unaware of the full immense effect on the nation of the speech and his voice. He found his way to the hearts of the people, and at this moment already his road to martyrdom was fatally decided…
At the earlier meeting of the party central committee on 27-28 June, Nagy had already stated that, in his view, Hungary had become a police state, and its government a shadow government in the service of the Communist Party. He demanded that the Party had to resort to ‘self-criticism’. In his historic Parliament speech, he promised the restoration of legality, the curbing of police power and the bringing of the ÁVH back under the control of the Interior Ministry. He promised a partial amnesty for political prisoners, the stopping of deportations and forced labour, and greater tolerance for religion. He also promised a sharp rise in living standards and the restructuring of the economy. This would involve the abolition of costly development priorities in heavy industry, the restructuring of agricultural policy, the easing of burdens on the peasantry and the granting of their right to return to individual farming. His most urgent and important reforms were all codified in Parliament within a month. The effect was an immediate, immense sense of relief in society as hope, self-confidence and creativity emerged in all walks of life, despite the resistance which lurked in many pockets of Stalinist power. Too many people in positions of influence had been involved in the excesses of the Rákosi régime. Although the refreshing breeze of a new freedom of speech swept through the country, and the sins of Stalinist past were discussed widely, passions were kept in check.
However, partly owing to the power struggle ongoing in the Kremlin itself, the Soviet leadership became increasingly convinced that Nagy’s New Course was progressing too fast and dangerously. In early 1955 it decided that Rákosi had to be brought back to power. In January Nagy was censured by Khrushchev, who had displaced Malenkov, for the ‘radicalism’ of the reforms and ordered to correct the ‘mistakes’. His subsequent illness was used by Rákosi to prepare charges of right-wing deviation and nationalist tendencies against him and to arrange for his dismissal (18 April). Initially, Nagy’s replacement was András Hegedűs, a young man whom Rákosi and Gerő hoped to manipulate. However, Rákosi had not learnt the lessons of his fall from ‘grace’ and came back with the intention to take personal revenge in the spring of 1955, even though, by then, Stalinism had become a dirty word throughout the Soviet Empire. Another wave of forcible collectivisation of agriculture and a sharp increase in the number of political prisoners were among the most visible signs of re-Stalinisation. Nagy was ousted from the Hungarian Communist Party and withdrew from public life, but wrote memoranda defending the Marxist-Leninist basis of his reforms. He was supported by a large group of reformist intellectuals and revisionist Communist politicians, who still regarded him as their true leader. Tension continued to run high, so that the Soviets felt driven to interfere for a second time. The Twentieth Congress of the Soviet Communist Party in February 1956 indicated that the Kremlin now deemed the use of widespread terror to maintain the pace of the armaments race as unaffordable. Although Rákosi claimed, on his return, that the ‘secret speech’ had confirmed that no further steps were necessary to restore socialist legitimacy, the illicit listeners to it in central and western Europe knew that it put the seal on the policy of de-Stalinisation, the toleration of different national paths to Communism and the peaceful co-existence of the two world systems.
Catalysts of the Uprising:
On 21 July 1956 Rákosi was finally deposed and sent into exile in central Asia. But instead of bringing back Imre Nagy, Mikoyan appointed Rákosi’s hard-line henchman Ernő Gerő as Prime Minister, a grave miscalculation as it turned out. It was mistakenly believed in the Kremlin that by dropping Rákosi things would return to normal, but his replacement by another veteran Stalinist did nothing to satisfy either the opposition in the Hungarian Communist Party or the Yugoslav Communists, whose voice had started to matter again following the reconciliation between Moscow and Belgrade. It is clear from the 1991 account of the then British Ambassador to Budapest, Peter Unwin, that by the time of Mikoyan’s deposing of Rákosi on 17 July 1956, only Nagy had any chance of replacing him successfully as both party secretary and prime minister. But although Nagy was once again becoming a figure of influence, he was not only no longer prime minister, but was still out of office and suspended from the Party indefinitely. In appointing Gerő, Mikoyan missed the chance to make a clean break with the Rákosi régime. Gerő was an experienced, hard-working apparatchik who had been close to Rákosi since their days in exile in Moscow during the war. Although less hated than his erstwhile boss, he was equally discredited among his colleagues in Budapest. He also lacked the flexibility and skill of Rákosi.
If Mikoyan had chosen Nagy in July, he would have given him the chance to create a position like Gomulka’s in Poland, strong enough both to resist both popular Hungarian and Soviet pressure. But the Kremlin remained distrustful of Gomulka’s efforts to come to terms with its own people and did not want to replicate these conditions in Hungary almost simultaneously. As a result, Nagy’s return to power was delayed for three vital months during the summer and early autumn of ’56, months which were also wasted by Gerő. Many Hungarians concluded that in replacing Rákosi with Gerő, the Soviets had made no decisive change in substance, even fearing that Rákosi might reappear yet again. All the old régime’s critics were equally convinced that real change could only be brought about by the return of Imre Nagy. Mikoyan kept in touch with Nagy, concluding that, should Gerő fail to establish his authority as a loyal Soviet subordinate, he would still have time to turn to the insubordinate and unrepentant Nagy.
During August and September the rehabilitation of political prisoners continued and there was no attempt made to silence the reformists clamouring for liberalisation and freedom of the press. Their success depended on their ability to stay ‘within bounds’, to gain popular control of peripheral spheres of national life, but not to threaten the central core of orthodox party power. Gerő remained reluctant to give Nagy a platform for renewed political activity. Yet the former prime minister was also a Bolshevik of nearly forty years’ standing and, as such, the one individual who could unite the nation and most of the party. Yet at the same time Gerő ignored the various unofficial promptings from Nagy, refusing to take action against him and his associates. When Nagy applied in writing for readmission to the Party on 4 October, he specifically accepted democratic centralism, in other words the right of the Party to discipline him, and Gerő’s leadership, despite the outrage of his friends. Gerő took nine days to respond to the application, making the strained atmosphere between the two camps even worse.
Discredited party functionaries were exposed in the press and the Petöfi Circle continued with its debates on burning issues like economic policy, the condition of agriculture and educational reform. After discussing the matter with Moscow, Gerő finally agreed to Nagy’s readmission. He was finally re-adopted by the party a week after the reburial of Rajk on 6 October, which turned into a 100,000-strong peaceful demonstration against the crimes of Stalinism. A delegation of Hungarian leaders visited Belgrade, and, by the time they returned, matters had already slipped beyond the party’s control. What had begun as a struggle between revisionist and orthodox Communists, set off by and adjusting to changes in Moscow, had turned into growing ferment among the intelligentsia and become a full-scale anti-Soviet revolution.
Following the reburial and rehabilitation of László Rajk and the victims of the purges of 1949, on 6th and 13th October, the newspapers carried the decision of the Political Committee to readmit Nagy to party membership. His Chair at the university and his membership of the Academy of Sciences were restored soon after, but there was no word of a return to public office. Demands for reform continued to spread and the country was soon ablaze with debate and discussion groups, which became local ‘parliaments’. But both sides seemed to back away from confrontation while events in Belgrade and Warsaw took their course. Events in Budapest were shaping as Nagy had predicted they would, with the nation facing crisis. He was close to power. The British Minister in Budapest reported on 18 October that…
Nagy’s star appears firmly in the ascendant and I am reliably informed that it is only a question of time before he obtains high office.
As he relaxed on a short break at Lake Balaton, there was tumult throughout the country. Besides Budapest, students were calling for marches and demonstrations in Miskolc, Szeged, Pécs and Sopron. The news of the Polish success in the showdown with Khrushchev on 19 November intoxicated them and excited mass meetings began by passing resolutions in support of Poland and ended in the formulation of demands for reform in Hungary.
The origins and causes of the events of 1956 are often viewed through the prism of more recent attempts of central-eastern European states to wriggle free from the overarching and all-pervasive control of Soviet communism. However, whilst we may conclude that the 1956 Hungarian Uprising was an anti-Soviet revolution, based on contemporary and eye-witness accounts, there is a wealth of evidence to suggest that it was not intrinsically anti-Communist, despite the justifications used by apologists for the Kádár régime which followed. Like many of the subsequent rebellions, even that of East Germany in 1989, both the leadership and the bulk of their followers were committed communists, or Marxist-Leninists, seeking reform and revision of the system, not its total overthrow. In her detailed and well-informed analysis of the Hungarian Revolution, Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt wrote in 1957:
This was a true event whose stature will not depend upon victory or defeat: its greatness is secure in the tragedy it enacted. What happened in Hungary happened nowhere else, and the twelve days of the revolution contained more history than the twelve years since the Red Army had ‘liberated’ the country from Nazi domination.
This was certainly the case, although, as we have seen, the twelve previous years were hardly uneventful. However, anyone who has lived through one of the accelerations of history which have happened in Europe in more recent years may have some idea of the sense of headiness engendered at that time. Arendt marvelled at the way in which the Revolution was initiated by the prime objects of indoctrination, the “over-privileged” of the Communist system: left-wing intellectuals, university students, workers; the Communist avant-garde: their motive was neither their own nor their fellow-citizens’ material misery, but exclusively Freedom and Truth”. This was, she concluded, an ultimate affirmation that human nature is unchangeable, that nihilism will be futile, that… yearning for freedom and truth will rise out of man’s heart and mind forever. What, for her, was also remarkable, was that, given the atmosphere and the lines drawn by early October 1956, there was no civil war. For the Hungarian army, the interior police and most of the Marxist-Leninist régime and its cadres, those lines were quickly swept away by the tide of events. Only the Ávó remained loyal to the hard-line Stalinist cause.
The eye-witness evidence of Sándor Kopácsi, the Budapest Police chief, and Béla Király, the commander-in-chief of the Hungarian National Guard, both committed communists, of itself provides sufficient evidence that the Revolution was not an anti-Communist counter-revolution. More recently than their accounts, a memorandum of István Bibó, a Minister of State in the Nagy government of 1956 has been translated into English. Bibó was not a Communist, having been delegated by the re-established National Peasant Party, re-named The Petöfi Party. Between January and April 1957 he wrote down his thoughts for world leaders and delivered his memorandum to the US Embassy. He was later arrested along with Árpád Göncz and others and tried for treason and conspiracy. Although given the death sentence, he was released in 1963 under the general amnesty negotiated by the US and the Vatican with the Kádár régime. In the memorandum, his contemporary interpretation of the causes of the Uprising comes across even more clearly than those of Kopácsi and Király, who were caught up in its events:
In a word, the Hungarian action of the Soviet Union, which had been meant to avoid surrendering a position, has only dealt a blow to the position of communism… … the movements in Hungary, Poland and other Communist countries have most amply demonstrated that there is a genuine and active demand for the reality of freedom and its most developed techniques… These movements have proved that the demand for change is not limited to the victims of the one-party régime, it indeed came forth from those the single-party system brought up, its youths; there need be no worry that they would lead to the restoration of outdated social and political forms… The Hungarian Revolution and the popular movements of Eastern Europe mean that the Western world can and should follow a policy line that is neither aggressive nor informed by power considerations but is more active and enterprising and aims not to impose its economic and social system on others but step by step seeks to win East European countries and finally the Soviet Union over to Western techniques of freedom and the shared political morality in which it is grounded.
The fact that this was written in hiding and smuggled out of the country lends a certain poignancy to Bibó’s perspective, since it is not influenced by the western surroundings of exile in North America. I have dealt elsewhere with the events and outcomes of this spontaneous national uprising, as the UN Special Committee described it in 1957. What is clear from the reading of the available evidence about its causes is that Kádár’s propaganda that it was inspired and led by fascists, anti-Semites, reactionaries and imperialists, echoing, strongly at first, all the way down to the recent sixtieth anniversary, no longer has any place in the national discourse.
Bartók Béla Boulevard elementary school Class 8a, spring 1956
Tom is third from left in the middle row, Dani in front row extreme right
Form teacher Benedek Bölöni (Béni bácsi)
Hungarian Review, November 2016, Vol VII, No. 6.
László Kontler (2009), A History of Hungary. Budapest: Atlantisz Publishing House.
Tom Leimdofer’s Family Memoirs, unpublished (including photos).