January 27, 2017
Many of you know that my Dad, Gergely “Greg” Szabo, came to the US in 1957 via the Hungarian Revolution. He died in 1994.
When I was kid, my Dad told me a “sanitized” version of his part in the uprising, which now, no matter how much more of the truth I know, still is hard to shove out of my brain. It was essentially factual, but he simplified the players for me, his child, growing up in the Cold War. The bad guys were Russians, rather than the murkier realities of Hungarian socialism and local players. He also left out a lot of detail, gory and otherwise. Back then, in the late 1960s, no one knew the letters PTSD. I just knew that he never talked about what happened, or much about his life before Oklahoma.
My recollected childhood version:
“I was an agriculture teacher and military-skills officer (like ROTC) at a small college in Mosonmagyarovar, a town in Western Hungary, 10 miles to Austria and 14 miles to Czechoslovakia. I and many of my students took part in the demonstrations against the Soviet-backed leaders in town. And when the Russians showed up to take back the town, I was the highest-ranking officer around. They wanted me to come down to the City Square and sign over the town. But a student told me: Don’t go…in other towns they’ve shot the guy who signs over the town.
“So I told them, let me go back to the college (which was in an old castle) and wash, and I’ll put on my uniform. Then I’ll meet you there.
“Instead, I borrowed a bicycle and left — and eventually crossed the border with other Hungarians. I remember listening outside a farmhouse in the dark: trying to tell if the farmers inside were speaking German or Czech. When we heard German, we knew we were in Austria and could ask for help and asylum.”
Over the years, more bits of information came out — such as that he crossed into Austria on the Bridge at Andau. James Michener wrote a nonfiction book about this, as 70,000 Hungarians crossed over a small footbridge until the Russians blew it up in November of 1956.
When I was getting married, my Dad told my future spouse much more of the whole story. I think he finally felt the need to tell someone he had no history with, who wouldn’t judge:
“One evening my father in law pulled me aside and told me a story about the day he escaped the Russian invasion of his town in Hungary. Russian tanks rolled through the streets, crushing anything and anyone in their path. He said it was a bloodbath.
“In the chaos, a student told him he had to leave immediately. Because he was a teacher and the student militia leader at the university, he would be taken to the town square and shot. He took the student’s bicycle and fled with only the clothes on his back.”
Since Hungary remained a satellite of the Soviet Union until the 1990s, information about the 1956 Revolution from within Hungary was sparse. Particularly about the events on October 26, 1956 in Mosonmagyarovar, that I learned this week is called the “Mosonmagyarovar Volley.”
It’s a bit shocking to learn that your Dad was involved in an event that has a name.
Thanks to the Internet, various Hungarian websites and Google Translate, I can now fill in some of the gaps, and find new ones. The translations are computer-derived, so they’re not perfect. I’ve tried to check/edit individual sentences for readability where possible on this post.
The massacre happened in a field near a barracks, where at least 51 people were killed and many more wounded by machine gun and grenade attack. Students, factory workers and townspeople were mowed down as they approached a barracks — after they have pulled down the Red Communist Stars from the tops of civil buildings, and off their uniforms and caps. The city police have joined them — releasing 6 political prisoners from the town jail.
While reading the additional information sources, imagine my surprise to find my Dad’s name, and a bit of later court testimony from a student named Laszlo Musitz:
“Before they arrived at District Court, the crowd parted. There were some who allege that a man on a bike stood and suggested that the students go wash, and the rest of the crowd, to the barracks.”
“Accusation: One of the most active participant in the counter-revolution events. Incited against the Communists. Several times he went out in Austria. He participated in the disarmament of border guards and acquired weapons. He participated in arrests as well. In October 26, 1956 demonstrations he was the one who was on top of a bus reading the counter-revolutionary demands out to the crowd.”
Laszlo Musitz answer on the accusation:
“Gergely Szabo was next assigned to lieutenant. … The command was always a direct free lieutenant. It looked as if he Gergely Szabo had been lieutenant aide. No incitement against the Communists, Bokor Gyula asked nicely for the key and then locked the staff room and handed the keys over to Lieutenant Gergely Szabo.
(Szabo) promptly arrested K. Joseph Papp (Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Committee Secretary in Mosonmagyaróvár). This was the first arrest. There was never outside Austria. In 1945, he was out, they scored a very painful experience. On the morning of the 26th was outside the barracks and was not involved in disarmament. Someone in the crowd gave him The 16 Points (national student policy demands) to read, so they know the students are fighting in Budapest. He read it to the crowd.
After the reading, he (Szabo) goes to join the crowd marching to the barracks.”
Whoa…I keep thinking of my sanitized story: the bike, and ‘going to wash.’ And that, as the “highest-ranking officer,” he put the local party boss under arrest, which would make him a target once the uprising failed.
I know that my Dad’s room was in the Ovar (the old castle) — but what was his relationship to the barracks and the munitions stores? As the ranking lieutenant, is that what Laszlo Musitz was referring to: he got the keys? To keep them safe? So many questions and no answers.
Like that Kurosawa film, Rashomon, where all the characters experience the same event from different perspectives, I suddenly feel unmoored. The life Greg Szabo led, when he was still Gergely Szabo, has always been an abstract thing, but now one event — the event that changed everything for him — comes into more focus.
On that one day, October 26, 1956, my 26-year-old future Dad went from teaching at a small vocational college to leaving his homeland, and not able to go back for 25 years — until the Hungarian government agreed to not pursue “desertion of duty” charges against the many army officers who abandoned their posts.
I’ve seen the old castle at Mosonmagyarovar when I was an ignorant, unenlightened college sophomore. I wish I could go back and ask my Dad the important questions…one of which is:
“How did you know what to do, and that was the time to do it?”
From history we read about long-simmering issues that suddenly go to a boil. In our country, the issue of slavery stewed and festered for decades. Compromises made by people both reasonable and unreasonable, before finally coming to a head. Unexpected events happen and people rush into the breach. I can’t help but overlay in my mind a government, reduced from democracy to oligarchy, and how long it will take for people to reset, and restore a representative democracy. I read this quote recently from President Millard Fillmore on one of the many compromises over Slavery:
“May God save the country, for it is evident that the people will not.”
For all the armchair John Birch, alt-right sympathizers who have never been on the forward end of conflict, or whose parents have never faced the wrong end of a gun barrel, or never read any history of the world before modern times: it’s time to get educated before you find yourself on the wrong side of history. God willing, the pendulum will swing back, my friends.
As we can see here, history is not always made by big people with names…but by lots of regular, little people who refuse to accept the party line, misinformation, and “alternative facts.” And we may not know their contributions for 50 years.
Update 3/14/17: Over the weekend (at a gymnastics meet naturally) I talked with my Mom about this. She said that on a later trip they went back to Mosonmagyarovar and looked for one of Dad’s old friends. He was in the hospital, but they talked to his wife about the Volley. Without understanding all of the Hungarian, the gist my Mom got from it was that the wife was saying essentially “THAT WAS YOU?” to which my Dad responded Yes.