Some Commemorate to Remember, Some Remember to Forget

1956, Revolution and national holiday

On October 23, Hungarians commemorate the heroic revolt of the ‘people’ in 1956 against the Hungarian-Communist rule backed by the Soviet Union.

The revolt, which did enter the annals of history as the Revolution, had been crushed by Soviet tanks on November 4.  János Kádár was installed by Soviet party bosses as the new gauleiter; and thereafter, for almost a decade, the dark days of the Kadar regime loomed over this country.  In the weeks following the defeat of the revolt, more than 200,000 Hungarians left the country, mainly through Austria, to the many host countries that received the Hungarian ‘freedom fighters’ and simple refugees with open arms.  The Communist leader of the short-lived new Government, Imre Nagy, was tried for treason and hanged in June 1958.

I am at loss when I want to tell my foreign audience what specifically Hungarians do to commemorate this day.  Around 1989 and 1990 it was relatively clear – a revolt by the people against a brutal and oppressive regime.  Since then, the memory is fragmented.  This would be fine, as truth is fragmented in our world; however, the message of the 1956 Revolution is increasingly tailored to contemporary political agendas.


Recently, when Russia comes across as a decent supplier of oil and gas, the ugly historic record with Russia and the Soviet Union has been forgotten in the narrative of present-day Hungarian leadership and its supporters.  In sharp contrast to prior years, this year Viktor Orbán will not appear in public at a carefully orchestrated public demonstration in Budapest.  His spin doctors have not yet invented a new narrative for a Russian friendly message for October 23.

The ‘people’ who do not buy this nasty propaganda and just want to remember the many colors of the revolt, resort to simply recollecting their own private stories.  So does my fellow editor Sándor in his unique post and podcast.

I have my own stories of those chilly October days.  I was 5 years old, at the beginning of childhood.  Half the age of Sándor in 1956.  Our Buda house was far from the battles and violent skirmishes, but not so distant that we could be spared from congregating in a cellar apartment from day three or four of the eleven-day revolution.

We spent the first days in one room of our apartment.  My father was on the streets, he delivered the university students’ pleas for reform to Communist Party headquarters where he was injured on his leg by the shards of a hand grenade.  He was treated in hospital for a few days.  I recall the Hungarian Radio’s program on October 23, there was little news, if any; mostly Beethoven’s Egmont Overture was played for hours.  For many Hungarians the revolt is still associated with this musical experience.  When we had just had enough of Egmont, I would ask for playing a vinyl record which, on the A side, had Isaak Dunayevsky’s light composition that I still call Red Poppy.

The children of six families spent a few days in a cellar apartment which served as an air raid shelter.  We loved those shelter days, as no one asked us to stick to our daily routine.  We had limited facilities for cooking, even fewer supplies, but somehow, we found a small cookstove on which red bean and leftover goose leg was prepared as cholent.  I have not had any better cholent since those days.  We played a bit, talked a lot, and there are odd erotic experiences from those nights that come out of the dark cellar of my memory.  The only thing I can say after all these years is that something happened.  So, I would often call these days the best times of my childhood.

My father came home in the last days of October; he decisively turned his back to his Communist years, and then the drab years of the Kadar era began.

From “darkness at noon” before 1956, Hungary entered the era of drab greyness day and night.

András Hanák

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