George Koller Remembers 1956

I just received this from Csaba by email, and thought it was worth sharing here.

On October 23rd, 1956 I went to school as usual, but there was a certain excitement in the air. The teachers didn’t seem like their heart was in the lessons and everyone seemed preoccupied. During recess, the other ten-year olds and myself were whispering about a big demonstration planned for the afternoon. Students from all the Universities were going to march in solidarity with the people of Poland, who challenged the iron-clad rule of their (and our) Soviet oppressors.

I went to my piano lesson after school, but my teacher had his belted trench coat on with rolled up newspapers stuffed into its pockets and he said that we have to cancel the lesson. He was off to the demonstration. I went home and told my brother, who was three years older. He said–and his words still ring in my ears fifty years later–“Great things will happen because of this in our nation’s history.”

My brother’s words were prophetic. The demonstration grew from just students, to office workers, factory workers, housewives, and off-duty soldiers. That night they went to the radio station to request that the list of demands they formulated be broadcast to the nation. Instead, the secret police hiding in the building fired on the crowd, killing numerous men, women, even some adolescents. The crowd became angry and marched over to the nearest army barracks. They asked the soldiers to give them guns, so they could fire back at the secret police. The soldiers handed their guns out through the open windows and the crowd rushed back to the radio station.

This was how the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 started. For a little while, it seemed that the rebels were winning. The radio admitted that for ten years all they broadcast was lies, lies, nothing but lies. We put our radios on our window sills. People danced joyously in the street below. They cut the hated communist symbol from the centre of the flags that they were waving. The red, white, and green flag with the hole in the middle became an enduring symbol of a brave people’s defiance of oppression. The huge statue of Stalin was toppled. We were all drunk with freedom.

Then at dawn on November 4th the Soviet armed forces launched a full scale attack on Budapest using aerial bombing, heavy artillery, and ground troops. Our neighbourhood was soon demolished. We hid in the basement. An unexploded four-foot shell went in the window of the apartment above ours, came through our ceiling, crashed through my sister’s doll wardrobe and the credenza where we kept our good dishes, went through our floor and came to a rest on a pile of rubble in the doorway of the building.

Ironically, some doll’s dresses were strewn haphazardly around this weapon of destruction, and a crystal champagne glass lay on its side, unbroken, at the tip of the shell. When the Russian soldiers reached our building, the superintendent, who spoke a few words of Russian, tried to explain to them that this was dangerous and they should do something about it. They laughed and spit on the unexploded shell and one of them kicked it with his boot. We shuddered as we watched from a distance.

Then a Soviet tank stood kitty corner from our second floor window, with its gun barrel aimed directly at us. It was there for days. Our windows were all broken by this time so we slept in the kitchen, which faced the courtyard and was the only warm room in the apartment.

30,000 Hungarians were killed in Budapest alone and tens of thousands were imprisoned or deported to the Soviet Union as punishment. 200,000 of us decided to pack up and leave. Our escape is yet another story, but I can assure you that I remember all these events as vividly today, as I witnessed them 50 years ago.

It was pure living History.

George, who was known as Csaba as a ten-year old.


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