HUNGARY, 1949-1956


Autobiography Index

So this is what happened in 1949, and we continued to worry. I moved into Erzsi's room at ÁVI, it was easy to commute to work from there, as it was just across the street. There was a lot of polarography work in addition to the normal routine, and I managed to publish my first article on the topic already in 1952.

Unfortunately there were complications. Two "well-wishers" appeared in connection with the Rajk trials: Lajos Varga and Béla Serény, both doctors and colleagues at OKI. They spoke up at a Party meeting, calling attention to the fact that I had also returned from Switzerland, maybe I was also a traitor. They know nothing else about me, they added, but it was their duty to the Party to say something. Lajos Varga had been Medical Officer in the town of Gödöllő during the War, under László Endre, the County Magistrate who, as a prominent member of the Arrow Cross Party (the Hungarian Nazi party) had an important role in the deportation of Jews, and was as a result convicted and executed as a war criminal after 1945. On the other hand, Béla Serény, who worked in the bacteriology section at OKI, was Jewish and looked like a reasonable person at first. In the end I was convoked to the Budapest District IX Party Committee, where Comrade Várterész, also a physician, questioned me at length, particularly about my contacts, but he looked sympathetic, and in the end I suffered nothing worse than worry. By chance I encountered Béla Serény much later while hiking in the Buda hills in 1966 - when I tried to approach him, he turned and hurried away. He must have recalled our "pleasant" past.

Meanwhile Erzsi continued to work at ÁVI, where one of her colleagues was a man called Péter Szilágyi. He was the ideology instructor, and he spent a lot of time interrogating the village girls attending the nursing school about their habits, in particular whether they attended church. When this turned out to be the case, he would have individual sessions with them, emphasizing what a reactionary thing it was to go to church. The girls complained, wept, Erzsi tried to intervene but to no avail. We shall meet this "gentleman" later on again.

In line with her real interests, however, Erzsi returned to her studies, and started to attend night university classes in Hungarian literature and, later on, in librarianship. ÁVI had meanwhile moved from its premises at OKI, but we retained our rooms there, for we had nowhere else to live. Once Erzsi had finished a certain number of courses she was given a new job: to teach a course aimed at circus clowns and artists. These were young people who had grown up in travelling circus troupes and had not had proper schooling, even though they were intelligent and very funny. Erzsi truly enjoyed these two years, and both of us were highly entertained by her experiences.

We had our two children during this time: Gábor, born in 1950, and Erzsébet Mária (nicknamed Mari, later Liz), born in 1955.

Erzsi got another position, in the Hungarian National Library this time, which was housed in the National Museum at the time. She worked as a reference librarian - a job she really loved. Many well-known writers, such as György Moldova, Ferenc Karinthy and István Örkény, were among her regular customers.

After the birth of our second child we finally managed to obtain a proper apartment of our own. This became possible probably because otherwise we would not have been prepared to move out of our rooms in what had been part of the nursing school, and where OKI wanted to install a laboratory. Therefore we were allocated an apartment in the new housing development in the 14th District of Budapest, off Kerepesi út, a major highway leading east from Budapest. The apartment, all of 57 sq.m. (about 500 sq.ft.), consisted of three small rooms, an entrance hall, bathroom and kitchen. There was no central heating or hot water supply, even though the building was brand new.

Then came the 1956 Hungarian revolution. On 23 October (the key day of the Revolution), Erzsi took part in a demonstration together with many of her colleagues, after which she went home. As for myself, in the evening I participated in the last-ever meeting of the Petőfi Circle, held at the University, just behind the National Museum. This is where the "doctors' debate" happened, including a speech by my friend Laci Magos. Nearby, on Museum Street, was the Hungarian Radio building, in front of which a large crowd gathered. Eventually the crowd was dispersed by the Army shooting at it. This was the true beginning of the 1956 uprising in Budapest. Somebody actually came over to the meeting at the university asking us to join the uprising in front of the Radio building. No-one did, however, in part because we had no weapons.

I left the meeting around midnight. The streetcars (trams) did not run any more, some had already been turned over on the street, so that I had to walk up Rákóczi Road all the way to the Eastern Railway Station - many shop windows had already been broken. Fortunately the suburban HÉV trains were still running from the station, so that I was able to take one home, where I arrived around 2 am. Erzsi was already asleep, and knew nothing about what had happened.

Next day streetcars did not run at all, and the telephones did not work either. Shops nearby still had some food, but for bread I had to walk to a city bakery well over a mile away, where I was able to buy four 2-kg loaves after lengthy queuing, of which three I handed over to neighbours once I arrived home. For three days we did not leave the apartment, after which order was more or less re-established and we were able to return to work. Then on 2 November came the Soviet counter-attack, they bombarded the city from near our apartment block in fact, so that yet again we were forced to stay indoors for a few days.

Before the revolution, at the beginning of 1956, the Communist Party had started to lose its authority because of the activities of the Petőfi Circle and similar groups. Party cells at the workplace tried to reverse this trend by involving people who were not politically compromised. Against my wishes I was elected Party Secretary at the Institute. When the small office assigned to the Party Secretary was handed over to me, I asked the safe to be opened - and it was empty. I asked where I could find the list of members, as well as the "personal comments" and other documents that accompanied it. I was told that everything had been handed over to the District Party Headquarters. Therefore I was not able to do what I wanted: to hand over all confidential documents to the people they concerned.  After this the ÉTI Party Cell was completely inactive until 23 October.

After the unsuccessful Revolution the Hungarian Workers' Party (MDP, this was the official name of the Communist Party) made the mistake of dissolving itself and re-form as the Hungarian Socialist Workers' Party (MSzMP). Members of the old party were requested to join the new party, but the majority did not do so, and neither did I. This is how I turned from being a Party Secretary into a non-member. Naturally, Erzsi did not join either. Before 1956 it had not been possible to leave the Party, but after the Revolution it became possible to refuse to join it. This had its consequences of course, but one's work or job could not be taken away because of such a refusal. It took me four years to get a passport enabling me to travel abroad again.