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Budapest, 1942-44: A Child Survivor of the Holocaust.   Leave a comment

Every Picture Tells a Story:

Tom Leimdörfer was born in Budapest, seventy-five years ago this year, on 15 October 1942.  In Tom’s case, this is a milestone which is certainly well-worth celebrating. After all, in the mere fifteen years between his birth and mine, he had already survived the Holocaust and had endured two Soviet invasions of Hungary, his native land, a revolution, a counter-revolution and a hair-raising escape as a refugee across the Austrian border. He had also, as a young teenager, adapted to the very different language and culture of his adopted country, England. Tom has kept and carefully recorded the family’s archives and stories from these fifteen years, perhaps most importantly in respect of the first three, for which he has, of course, few direct memories of his own. As the older Holocaust survivors gradually pass on, the role of these younger ones in transmitting the experiences of this time will, no doubt, become increasingly important. In Tom’s case, as in many, the photographs and artefacts which they cherish provide the emblematic sources around which the transmitted stories and information are woven. In the initial part of this chapter, I have left Tom’s words as his own, indicated by the use of italics.

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A picture I treasure is taken on balcony. It was almost certainly the flat belonging to my great uncle Feri and great aunt Manci. Feri was my grandfather (Dádi) Ármin’s younger brother and Manci was Sári mama’s younger sister. Two brothers married two sisters and to make matters even more bizarre, they were cousins (once removed). I expect it was Feri who took the picture on one of their family days. The five people in the picture look happy, even though war clouds were gathering and laws restricting basic human rights for Jews were in the process of enactment. It was the spring of 1939. The photo shows my grandparents (Sári mama and Dádi) and my aunt Juci aged 16. The other two smiling figures are my parents. My father (András Leimdörfer) is in uniform, looking lovingly at my mother (Edit) and having his arms around her. They were married about six months before. My father is in his proper army uniform, with three stars on the lapels.  Two years later that was exchanged for the plain uniform of the Jewish (unarmed) forced labour unit serving with the Hungarian army. He was first sent to Transylvania in the autumn of 1941. His brief few months back home resulted in my conception. In June 1942, he was off to the Russian front, never to return. The war and the bitter winter took his life in February 1943 but the family only learnt the facts four years later.

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On the same page in the old album are two more pictures of my parents. One (above) relaxing, reclining on a grassy slope in summer (1939 or 1940), though looking far too smartly dressed for such a pose. The other (right) is taken in December 1938 in Venice outside St. Mark’s Cathedral, surrounded by pigeons and snow. It was their brief honeymoon in the last winter of peace in Europe.

The father I never knew was a very good-looking and bright young man. Known as Bandi to his family, he had an Economics degree from high school in St. Gallen in Switzerland and a doctorate from the University of Szeged in southern Hungary. It was the effect of the law known as ‘numerus clausus’ (restricting the percentage of Jewish entrance to universities in Hungary) that led to his going to Switzerland for his first degree. There he formed strong friendship with three other young Hungarian Jews. One of these, Pál Katona, was head of the BBC’s Hungarian broadcast section for many years. The second, Fritz Fischer, emigrated to America. The third and his closest friend was Gyuri Schustek, who was to play a significant role in my life as well.

My parents met on the social round of the Jewish middle class in Budapest. My mother’s elder brother (also called András and also known as Bandi) was the same age as my father and also an economics graduate as well as a first class tennis player. So one day, probably at a party, Bandi Lakatos introduced his younger sister Edit to Bandi Leimdörfer who promptly fell in love with her. Their months of courtship included outings to the Buda hills and rowing on the Danube, which they both loved. Their special friends Gyuri (Schustek) and Lonci (or Ilona) were also planning to get married. My father was nearly 27 and my mother nearly 23 when they married in December 1938. Unusually, everyone wore black at their wedding as my father’s grandmother had died just before. With the increasing anti-Semitism at home and uncertainties of a possible war, they decided to delay having any children and concentrate on setting up a life for themselves in their pleasant flat in the quiet Zsombolyai street in the suburb of Kelenföld. It was also conveniently near my grandfather’s timber yard and the office of their firm of Leimdörfer & Révész, where my father also worked.

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So back to the pictures in the album. There is a small photo of a group of Jewish forced labour unit workers in the deep snow along the banks of the River Don, not far from the city of Voronezh. There is another of my father on top of tank in the snow. After much internal political strife, Hungary entered the war on the German side in June 1941 in exchange for the return of part of the territories lost after the first World War. The 2nd Hungarian Army, sent to the Russian front in the late spring of 1942, included ‘disposable’ elements like the unarmed Jewish labour brigades, conscripted socialists and trade unionists as well as parts of the professional army from all over Hungary (‘to spread the sacrifice’). Their job was to hold the Red Army on the banks of the river Don (over 2000 km from their homeland) while the battle of Stalingrad was raging. On the 12th January 1943, in the depth of the bitterest winter with temperatures of –20 to –30 degrees, the Soviet Army attacked and broke through. They took over 25,000 prisoners within days. The food supplies were scarce and a typhoid epidemic broke out. My father died of typhoid in February 1943, five months before his 31st birthday. A Jewish doctor was there, one of his brigade, and he was released in the summer of 1947. When he arrived in Budapest, he informed my mother and my father’s parents. Till then, they hoped in vain. Only one-third of the army of 200,000 returned. Hungary then refused to send any more troops to help the German cause.

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The next pictures are those taken of me as a tiny baby. Plenty were taken and sent to the front for my father. There is the one in the hospital bed with my mother, just after I was born on the 15 October 1942. Then there are some professionally taken pictures. The one in sepia by a firm called ‘Mosoly Album’ (album of smiles) shows a cheeky nine weeks old doing a press-up a sticking out his tongue. It was the last picture to reach my father and he wrote back with joy. The other baby pictures were taken in hope of sending them to the prisoner of war camp, but there was no news and no way of communication. I am amazed at the quality of these pictures, taken at a time of war. One of the photos shows me holding a bottle and drinking from it, looking up with wide eyes. This picture appeared in a magazine, sent by the photographer. I wonder if the editor realised that he was publishing the picture of Jewish baby! If so, he was taking a risk.

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One poignant picture, taken in the spring 1944, shows me sitting on a chair with a toy lorry on my knee. It is the identical pose as a picture taken of my father when he was a little boy. Clearly my mother was thinking of him when she had that taken of me. At the same time, there is a photo with me clutching a large panda. I was told it was my favourite toy – and it has its story.

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One of my older pictures shows a strikingly elegant and beautiful woman in her thirties. Born Zelma Breuer, my maternal grandmother was the object of admiration both in her home town of Szécsény in northern Hungary and in her social circles in Budapest, where she lived most of her married life. My mother got her beauty from her and the two of them were very close. There is a lovely picture of the two of them, arms round each other in the garden in Szécsény. My mother’s father was a lot older than her mother. Grandfather Aladár Lakatos worked his way up in the Post Office in Budapest to the rank of a senior civil servant. He had changed his name from Pollitzer in order to feel more fully integrated. When the laws forbidding Jews from holding such senior posts came into effect, he was nearing retirement age. So his dismissal was in the form of early retirement. Zelma’s ageing parents still lived in Szécsény, so they decided to retire there, selling the flat in Budapest and buying a substantial brick house next door to the old Breuers wattle house. With increasing threat to the Jewish population, they thought they would be safer in a quiet town where the Breuers were well-known and well liked. How wrong they were! When my father did not return from the front in 1943, they urged my mother to join them. The air was also healthier for small child, they said. My mother decided to stay in her own flat in Buda and to stay close to her husband’s family. Whatever her reasons were, it saved our lives.

The Growing Shadow of the Eagle:

To give some broader context to these early years of Hungary’s war into which Tom was born, I have been reading Anna Porter’s book, Kasztner’s Train, which, in dealing with the controversial ‘hero’ of the Holocaust, also provides the most comprehensive information about the situation in the Jewish communities of Budapest and Hungary during the war. In January 1942, Hungarian military units executed more than three thousand civilians in the recently occupied part of Yugoslavia, including 140 children, who, according to one of the commanding officers, could grow up to be enemies. Joel Brand, Rezső Kasztner’s colleague, found out that close to a third of those murdered had been Jews. The thin pretext that they were likely to have joined the Serb partisans was no more than a nod to the government authorities who had demanded an explanation. The flood of refugees into Hungary now included Jews from the Délvidék, or southern lands, as Hungarians referred to lands which had once been part of Hungary until the Treaty of Trianon awarded them to Yugoslavia. The new arrivals had terrible tales of mass executions: people had been shoved into the icy waters of the Danube, and the men in charge of this so-called military expedition continued the killings even after they received orders to stop.

By the early summer of 1942, Baron Fülöp von Freudiger of the Budapest Orthodox Jewish congregation had received a letter from a little-known Orthodox rabbi in Bratislava, Slovakia. It was a cry for help, mostly financial, but also for advice on how to deal with the Jewish Agency on the survival of the surviving Jews of Slovakia. Deportations had begun on 26 March 1942, with a transport of girls aged sixteen and older. The Germans had already deported 52,000 Slovak Jews by the summer and Rabbi Weissmandel, together with a woman called Gizi Fleischmann, had founded a Working Group as an offshoot of the local Jewish Council, with the sole object of saving the remaining Jews in Slovakia. In subsequent meetings with Wisliceny, a Nazi officer, the Working Group became convinced that some of the Nazis could be bribed to leave the Jews at home. It also realised that this could, potentially, be extended to the other occupied countries in Europe. Weissmandel called it the Europa Plan, a means by which further deportations could be stopped. Rezső Kasztner and Joel Brand, working for the Va’ada, the Zionist organisation, from still sovereign Hungary were unconvinced: Hitler would not, they said, tolerate any Jews in Europe. But Kasztner agreed that fewer barriers would be put in the way of Jewish emigration, provided it was paid for, and quickly. The rabbi’s Europa Plan sounded very much like the Europa Plan devised by Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, which had earlier allowed large-scale emigration from Germany to Palestine, until it had encountered stiff opposition from the Arabs and had led to the imposition of harsh quotas by the British.

In December 1942, Sam Springmann, a leading Zionist in Budapest, received a message from the Jewish Agency office in Istanbul that the Refugee Rescue Committee should prepare to receive a visit from Oskar Schindler who would tell them, directly, about those regions of Eastern Europe occupied by the Wehrmacht. Schindler endured two days of uncomfortable travel in a freight car filled with Nazi newspapers to arrive in Budapest. He talked of the atrocities in Kraków and the remaining ghetto, the hunger in Lodz and of the freight trains leaving Warsaw full of Jews whose final destination was not labour camps, as they had assumed, but vernichtungslager, extermination camps. In the midst of this stupid war, he said, the Nazis were using the railway system, expensive engineering, and an untold number of guards and bureaucrats whose sole purpose was to apply scientific methods of murdering large numbers of people. Once they became inmates, there was no hope of reaching or rescuing them. Kasztner did not believe that adverse publicity would deter the Germans from further atrocities, but public opinion might delay some of their plans, and delay was good. With luck, the war would end before the annihilation of the Jews was realised.

By this time, but unbeknown to the Va’ada leaders in Budapest, most of the politicians in Europe already knew about the disaster which was befalling the Jews. During October and November 1942, more than 600,000 Jews had already been deported to Auschwitz, including 106,000 from Holland and 77,000 from France. Newspapers in the United Kingdom, as well as in the United States and Palestine, carried reports, some firsthand, from traveling diplomats, businessmen, and refugees, that the Germans were systematically murdering the European Jews. But anyone who followed these news stories assumed that the German’ resolve to annihilate the Jews would likely be slowed down by defeats on the battlefields. Stephen Wise, Budapest-born president of the American Jewish Congress, had announced at the end of November that two million Jews had already been exterminated and that Nazi policy was to exterminate them all, using mass killing centres in Poland. In hindsight, it is surprising that the extermination camps were not better anticipated.

Oskar Schindler’s firsthand information was a warning that the use of extermination camps could spread to the whole population of Poland and Slovakia, but Rezső Kasztner and the Aid and Rescue Committee still hoped that the ghettos would remain as sources for local labour. They knew of several camps, such as Dachau and Bergen-Belsen, where the treatment, though harsh, could be relieved by a supply of food parcels, clothing and bribes. The couriers reported the starvation and the rounding up of work gangs, but not the extermination camps. As Schindler’s story circulated to the different Jewish groups in Budapest, it initiated an immediate if limited response. Fülöp von Freudiger called for more generous donations to help the Orthodox Jews in Poland.The leader of the Reformed Jewish Community in the city, Samuel Stern, remained confident, however, that these terrible stories were isolated incidents. His group was busy providing financial assistance for recently impoverished intellectuals who could no longer work in their professions because of the Hungarian exclusionary laws. Stern did not want to listen to horror stories about systematic murder. Such facilities were impossible to imagine. He told Kasztner that in the months to come we may be left without our money and comforts, but we shall survive. The very idea of vernichtungslager, of extermination, seemed improbable. Why would the Germans sacrifice men, transportation and scarce resources to murder unarmed civilians with no means to defend themselves?

The Times in London reported from Paris that four thousand Jewish children had been deported to a Nazi concentration camp, while in the House of Commons, British PM Winston Churchill gave a scating adddress that was broadcast by the BBC and heard throughout Budapest. Referring to the mass deportation of Jews from France, he claimed that this tragedy illustrates… the utter degradation of the Nazi nature and theme. Meanwhile, Jewish organisations in Budapest continued to provide learned lectures in their well-appointed halls on every conceivable subject except the one which might have concerned them most, the ongoing fate of the Jews in Germany, Austria, France, Poland and Slovakia, and what it meant for the Jews of Hungary. Two million Polish Jews had already disappeared without a trace.

In January 1943 the Second Hungarian Army was destroyed in the Battle of Voronezh. The losses were terrible: 40,000 dead, 35,000 wounded, 60,000 taken prisoner by the Soviets. The news was played down by the media and the politicians. In Budapest, news of the disaster was only available by listening to the BBC’s Hungarian broadcasts, or to the Soviet broadcasts. Under the premiership of Miklós Kállay, Hungary’s industries continued to thrive, supplying the German army with raw materials. Mines were busy, agricultural production was in full flow and the manufacture of armaments, military uniforms and buttons kept most people employed and earning good wages. Kállay’s personal antipathy towards further anti-Jewish laws lent credence to Samuel Stern’s belief that it cannot happen here.

By the summer of 1943, rumours were circulating among Budapest’s cafés of an armistice agreement with Britain and the United States. Kállay’s emissaries to Istanbul and other neutral capitals had been fishing for acceptable terms. Kállay even went to see Mussolini in Rome to propose a new alliance of Italy, Hungary, Romania and Greece against Hitler. Mussolini declined, and it soon became obvious to ministers in Budapest that the Germans would soon have to terminate these breakaway plans.

Samuel Stern knew in advance about Regent Horthy’s meeting with Hitler in late April 1943. He had been at Horthy’s official residence in Buda Castle playing cards, when the call came from Hitler’s headquarters inviting Horthy to Schloss Klessheim. Horthy was too frightened to decline the invitation, although he detested the ‘uncultured’ German leader. Hitler ranted about Kállay’s clumsy overtures to the British. As a show of loyalty, he demanded another Hungarian army at the front. Horthy stood his ground. He would not agree to sending Hungarian troops to the Balkans, nor to further extreme measures against the Jews. Hitler, his hands clenched behind his back, screamed and marched about. Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister attended the dinner that followed, and wrote in his diary that Horthy’s humanitarian attitude regarding The Jewish Question convinced the Führer that all the rubbish of small nations still existing in Europe must be liquidated as soon as possible. 

Meanwhile, terrible stories were circulating in Budapest about the actions of Hungary’s soldiers as they returned from the front with the Soviet Union. In late April 1943, retreating Hungarian soldiers in the Ukraine ordered eight hundred sick men from the Jewish labour force into a hospital shed and then set fire to it. Officers commanded the soldiers to shoot anyone who tried to escape from the flames. Neither the Hungarian press nor the Hungarian Jewish newspaper reported these deaths. Instead, the pro-Nazi press increased its vitriolic attacks on Jewish influence at home, persisting blaming food shortages on the Jews, who were falsely accused of hoarding lard, sugar and flour, engaging in black market activities, and reaping enormous war profits from the industries they controlled. That summer, Oskar Schindler returned to Budapest, bringing letters to be forwarded to Istanbul for the relatives of his Jews. He gave a detailed report of the situation in Poland and of the possibilities of rescue and escape from the ghettos.

In a letter she wrote to the Jewish Agency in Istanbul, dated 10 May 1943, Gizi Fleischmann reported from Bratislava:

Over a million Jews have been resettled from Poland. Hundreds of thousands have lost their lives due to starvation, disease, cold and many more have fallen victim to violence. The reports state that the corpses are used for chemical raw materials.

She did not know that by that time 2.5 million of Poland’s Jews were already dead. On 16 May, members of the Hungarian Rescue Committee gathered around their radios and toasted the Warsaw ghetto’s last heroic stand. On 11 June, Reichsführer ss Himmler ordered the liquidation of all Polish ghettos. By 5 September she wrote to the American Joint Distribution Committee’s representative in Geneva that we know today that Sobibór, Treblinka, Belzec and Auschwitz are annihilation camps. Later that month, Fleischmann traveled to Budapest, where she visited the offices of both Komoly and Kasztner. Both had already seen copies of her correspondence, as had Samuel Stern, but his group met her case for funding with colossal indifference. They made it clear that they thought her allegations about the fate of the Polish and Slovak Jews were preposterous. She also informed Kasztner that Dieter Wisliceny, the ss man in charge of the deportations from Slovakia, had told her of a dinner he had attended on Swabian Hill with a senior functionary from the Hungarian prime minister’s office. They had discussed the extermination of the Hungarian Jews. After her visit, Kasztner wrote to Nathan Schwalb of the Hechalutz, the international Zionist youth movement:

The gas chambers in Poland have already consumed the bodies of more than half a million Jews. There are horrible, unbelievable photographs of starving children, of dead, emaciated bodies on the streets of the Warsaw ghetto.

Kasztner raised the money for Gizi Fleischmann to offer a bribe to Wisliceny in exchange for the lives of the remaining Slovak Jews. Whether it contributed to the two-year hiatus in murdering the Slovak Jews is still disputed, but there is no doubt that Fleischmann and Rabbi Weissmandel believed it had.

The late autumn of 1943 was spectacular with its bright colours: the old chestnut trees along the Danube turning crimson and rich sienna browns, the oranges of the dogwood trees rising up Gellert Hill. Musicians still played in the outdoor cafés and young women paraded in their winter furs. Late in the evenings there was frost in the air. Throughout that autumn and winter, many inside the Hungarian government sought ways of quitting the war and starting negotiations with the Allies. On 24 January, 1944, the chief of the Hungarian general staff met with Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel and suggested that Hungarian forces might withdraw from the Eastern Front. The Germans had been aware of Hungary’s vacillations about the war, its fear of Allied attacks, and its appeal to the British not to bomb  Hungary while it was reassessing its position. Several more Hungarian emissaries had approached both British and American agencies, including the OSS in Turkey, and offered separate peace agreements. Of course, Hitler had got to know about all these overtures, and had called Kállay a swine for his double-dealing.

Admiral Horthy followed suit within a month in a formal letter to Hitler, suggesting the withdrawal of the Hungarian troops to aid in the defence of the Carpathians. The soldiers would perform better if they were defending their homeland, he said. He also stressed his anxiety about Budapest, asking that German troops not be stationed too close to the capital, since they would attract heavy air-raids. Hitler thought Horthy’s plan was as ridiculous as the old man himself, and summoned him to Schloss Klessheim again for a meeting on 17 March 1944, a Friday. Hitler insisted that Jewish influence in Hungary had to cease, and that the German Army would occupy the country to ensure this happened. If Horthy did not agree to the occupation, or if he ordered resistance, Germany would launch a full-scale invasion, enlisting the support of the surrounding axis allies, leading to a dismemberment of Hungary back to its Trianon Treaty borders. This was Horthy’s worst nightmare, so he agreed to the occupation and the replacement of Kállay with a prime minister more to Hitler’s liking. The Admiral could remain as Regent, nominally in charge, but with a German Reich plenipotentiary in charge. Horthy also agreed to supply a hundred thousand Jewish workers to work in the armaments industry under Albert Speer.

Over the winter months of 1943-44, many of the labour camps had become death sentences for the underfed and poorly clothed Jews. In some Hungarian army labour units the brutality meted out to Jews was comparable to Nazi tactics in occupied Poland. In one division, sergeants doused Jews with water and cheered as their victims turned into ice sculptures. In another camp, officers ordered men in the work detail to climb trees and shout I am a dirty Jew as they leapt from branch to branch, the officers taking pot-shots at them. Of the fifty thousand men in the labour companies, only about seven thousand survived.

Secondary Source:

Anna Porter (2007), Kasztner’s Train: The True Story of an Unknown Hero of the Holocaust. London: Constable.

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The Twin Crises Autumn of 1956: Suez and Hungary (part two).   1 comment

Overlapping Occurrences – Poland & Hungary:

In my first post on this theme, I commented on a new book by Alex von Tunzelmann on the two key global events of 1956, the Suez Crisis and the Soviet Invasion of Hungary to put down its popular Uprising. In this post I will consider the relationships between the events in Poland of June-October 1956, and what happened consequentially in Hungary on 23rd-24th October. In connection with the Uprising in Budapest, I rely on eye-witness evidence from Tamás (Tom Leimdorfer), published here for the first time.

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Above: Black Thursday, 28 June 1956. Polish strikers carried a banner reading “We are Hungry”.
Troops and tanks of the Polish army opened fire on the demonstrators;
dozens were killed and hundreds wounded

When the events of 23rd – 25th October unfolded in Hungary, they were as much a surprise to Washington and the world as were the subsequent events in the Middle East, but perhaps not such a surprise in Moscow, where Khrushchev’s politburo was already very suspicion of US involvement in both regional ‘theatres’. Although there were home-grown causes of Hungarian discontent, the sudden revolutionary ‘milieu’ in the country really grew out of parallel developments in Poland, where it had been clear that the situation was unstable after 28 June that year when workers in Poznan, one of the main industrial centres, had gone on strike against government-imposed wage-cuts and harsh working conditions. These soon snowballed into protests against the Polish government  and, on what became known as Black Thursday, it sent two divisions of its Army, with three hundred tanks, to put down the protests, bloodily. Seventy-four strikers were killed and about three hundred wounded. Order was restored, for the time being at least. However, it was clear to Soviet Premier Bulganin and Marshal Zhukov, both strong supporters of Khrushchev supporters on the Central Committee, that things in Warsaw needed sorting out. When they arrived there, they proclaimed that the strikes had been provoked by ‘imperialist agitators’ from the West.

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The Polish Communist Party reformers wanted to restore its popular former General Secretary, Wladyslaw Gomulka to power. He was one of those East European Communists who, like Imre Nagy in Hungary, sincerely believed that there could and should be different versions of socialism after 1945, and had spoken in favour of Tito’s independent policies in 1948. When Stalin had imposed his hard line on Eastern Europe in 1951, Gomulka had been expelled from the party and imprisoned. He had been released just two months before the strikes erupted in Poznan, and was something of a national hero. At first the Soviets resisted his return to leadership, but slowly a compromise was reached by which Gomulka would be readmitted to power, but orthodox hard-liners would also be left in charge alongside him. The Soviets were torn between taking a hard line themselves, as Stalin would have done, and allowing their satellites some degree of independence, as Khrushchev himself had signalled would be the case following his denunciation of Stalin at the Twentieth Party Congress in February. Predictably, the compromise arrangements they worked out in Warsaw soon failed to work, leading to further discontent. Hopes for change had been raised, and now had to be met or directly confronted. The Polish leaders were invited to Moscow but refused to go. Khrushchev flew to Warsaw himself on 19 October, but because no warning had been given of his arrival, his aircraft was ‘bounced’ by Polish war planes as it approached the city. Shaking his fists as he emerged onto the tarmac, he spoke loudly of the ‘treachery’ of the Polish leaders. On the same day, Russian troops across Poland left their garrisons. In Warsaw, Soviet units took up ‘secret’ positions as the party leaders met, demonstrating that the Soviet leaders were prepared for military intervention in Poland and/or elsewhere in Eastern Europe. During the heated exchanges, Gomulka was informed that Soviet tanks were advancing on Warsaw, and immediately demanded that these forces be pulled back. After some hesitation, Khrushchev called a halt to the troop movement.

Khrushchev realised that he had miscalculated badly. Across Poland, people came out onto the streets to demonstrate against the Soviet presence.  He conceded that Gomulka could become first secretary of the Polish Communist Party. For his part, Gomulka agreed to preserve the party organisation, and, crucially, that Poland would remain a loyal member of the newly-formed Warsaw Pact. The Kremlin was willing to allow its satellites a degree of national self-determination, but only if their leaderships showed loyalty to Moscow in matters of collective security. After the showdown in Warsaw, tensions died down, since the Poles now had a more popular leader who was able to make some welcome economic concessions.

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By then, however, the Polish demonstrators had lit a touchpaper in Hungary, where, on 23 October, students in Budapest, following the lead of their colleagues in Szeged, had already begun demonstrations in sympathy with their Polish counterparts. What began as student demonstrations soon developed into the most serious challenge yet to Soviet rule in Eastern Europe. Approximately twenty thousand protesters convened around the statue of József Bem, a national hero of both Hungary and Poland. They issued their ‘Sixteen Points’ which included personal freedom, more food, the removal of the Hungarian secret police and of Russian Army control. After the students read their proclamation, the crowd chanted the ‘National Song’ composed by the national poet Sándor Petöfi, standing at his statue. By this, they ‘swore no longer to be slaves’. Spontaneously, the crowds began cutting out and taking down the symbols of Soviet Communism from their flags and buildings. The crowd quickly grew as the demonstrators marched through the centre of the city to the Parliament House. Tom Leimdorfer, aged fourteen, had just begun attending a grammar school in central Budapest and could see the demonstrators from his apartment’s windows:

On my way home, it was obvious that the city was in turmoil. The student demonstration was far greater than anyone had expected. Their demands for total freedom of speech, free elections and the withdrawal of Soviet troops had been read out near the symbolic statue of the poet Sándor Petőfi whose rousing poem marked the start of the 1848 revolution against Habsburg rule and the statue of the Polish General Bem, who sided with that revolution. It was a banned demonstration, but the police did not intervene. As the day wore on, office and factory workers joined the crowd, which surged past our house as we were having our meal. Home from work, my mother told me what she heard in her office. To my amazement, she raised no objection to my demands to join the crowd on Parliament Square, which was less than 100 metres from our house. She wanted to stay by the radio to hear what the politicians were saying.

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Some demonstrators decided to carry out one of their demands, the removal of Stalin’s thirty foot high statue, which had been erected in 1951 on the site of the Marianum church, demolished to make room for it. By mid-evening, the statue had been toppled, though its boots were impossible to shift from their concrete plinth. Meanwhile, a student delegation, entering the radio building to try to broadcast their demands, was detained by the ÁVH (secret police). When the delegation’s release was demanded by the demonstrators outside, they were shot at through the windows of the building. One student died and was wrapped in the national flag and born over the heads of the crowd. As an eye-witness in the crowds, Tom recalled these events as follows:

The next few hours were spent with the crowd filling the vast square and demanding the resignation of the government. Twice I ran back home to hear if any of the demands had been met. Far from it, the government statement only angered the crowd. Hungarian flags appeared with the communist emblem cut out. 

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At the same time, as in Poland, the search was now on for a new leader of the Communist Party who could restore confidence in the nation’s leadership. The man who looked most likely to play the part of a Hungarian Gomulka was Imre Nagy, who had been Prime Minister until purged in 1955. He had only been readmitted to the party two weeks beforehand, but soon became the rebels’ chosen figurehead, though, according to a Daily Express writer, the vast majority of the crowds were as anti-Communist as they were anti-Soviet, as Tom Leimdorfer also testifies:

We demanded to hear Imre Nagy, the moderate communist who had been deposed by hardliners. He appeared late in the evening on the balcony of the Parliament and started by addressing the crowd as ‘comrades’, but responded to hostile shouts by calling us ‘citizens’. It was not a rousing speech and few would have guessed the courageous role he was to play in the revolution, which led to his execution two years later. Eventually, as the night drew on, I went home unaware that the first shots of the revolution had already been fired at the Radio building.

On 24 October, just as Gomulka was telling a mass meeting in Warsaw that the Soviet troops were returning to barracks, the ÁVH continued to fire at the demonstrators in Budapest. Tom Leimdorfer recalls how he was prevented from going to school by the all-too-real danger on the streets:

Next day, I was up at the crack of dawn for my 7 am extra Latin lesson. As I rushed down the stairs, Mami yelled to call me back. Jenő bácsi (father of András) phoned to tell us not to go out if we don’t want to be shot. Minutes later the noise of sporadic gunfire was all too clear. For the next few days we were right in the centre of the storm.

Tom describes how that first full day of the revolution was also one of total confusion:

We were constantly on the phone to family and friends, sharing news, reacting to what we were hearing on the radio. Anyone who managed to get news via the BBC World Service or Radio Free Europe (both of which were often jammed and barely audible) would quickly ring round. It was clear that there were Soviet tanks on the streets and some military jets overhead. Occasional sounds of explosions could be heard, but also periods of eerie silence. We just stayed in our flat.

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On the radio, the government announcement came that the Politburo had appointed Imre Nagy to be Prime Minister. However, Gerő stayed as Party First Secretary, the man with the real power. The new Politburo was mixture of old style Stalinists and moderates of the Nagy era. At the same time, martial law was declared and it was stated that the Soviet troops were on the street ‘at the request of the government’. Disorder and violence spread throughout both the capital and the provincial towns throughout the day. Thousands organised themselves into people’s militias, battling both the ÁVH and the Soviet troops. Tom’s family and friends wondered where the revolutionary fighters got their weapons. Later they heard that it was from the units of the Hungarian Army. Already on that first day, some Russian tanks were immobilised using improvised ‘Molotov cocktails’.

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What was especially disturbing for both governments was that some of the Soviet troops, having been stationed in Hungary for more than a decade, were openly fraternising with the workers on the streets. in addition, many Hungarian army units seemed shaky in their support for the régime. Nagy called for an immediate end to the fighting, offering an amnesty for all those participating in the uprising, also promising political and economic reform. Meanwhile, Érnö Gérő called on Yuri Andropov, the Soviet Ambassador to Hungary, to help restore order. Andropov relayed the message to Moscow, and Khrushchev spoke directly to Gérő by phone, agreeing to send in more troops the following day.

(to be continued…)

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