Memories of '56 remain sharp in Hungary today
ON Nov. 4, 1956, Soviet troops backed by tanks stormed into the Hungarian capital, crushing the most daring and direct challenge ever to communist rule. Although suicide squads lobbed Molotov cocktails, paving stones, even sticks at the invaders, sheer numbers and firepower allowed the Soviets to put in power a government headed by Janos Kadar.Skip to next paragraph
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Three decades later, Budapest appears peaceful and prosperous. Well-dressed shoppers and Western tourists fill the streets where Hungarian patriots as young as 13 were cut down by automatic fire.
Mr. Kadar, once called the ``butcher of Budapest,'' remains in power, widely recognized as the popular leader of the most liberal regime in Eastern Europe.
But despite some more openness, Hungary continues to have trouble confronting its own recent past. Five personal histories of contemporary Hungary explain why:
Imre Mecs. On Nov. 4, 1956, a tank shot woke Mr. Mecs. His family's ceiling began to crumble. After helping his parents and two sisters to the cellar, he headed out onto the streets. For the next two weeks, he coordinated student resistance, distributing pamphlets and passing messages. In early 1957, he was arrested. Along with four fellow students leaders, he was sentenced to death. His friends were hanged. Altogether, between 130 and 500 rebels, including Prime Minister Imre Nagy, were hanged between 1956 and 1958. Because he had not used a weapon, Mecs was spared and released from prison in an amnesty in 1962.
Now, at 53, he is a goateed, stocky, successful electronics engineer. With his wife and son, he lives in a luxurious apartment in the Buda hills.
``We fought to get the Russians out, to restore our country's independence,'' he says. ``In comparison to other East European countries, we may live a little better. But people are resigned, apathetic.''
He remains bitter. On All Saints' Day (Nov. 1), he brought flowers and a candle to a remote corner of the huge Rakoskeresztur cemetery. In Section 301, in unmarked graves overgrown by wild poppies and weeds, Mecs believes, his executed comrades were buried. He had hoped that the government would use the 30th anniversary to have the bodies reburied in family plots.
Instead, as soon as he arrived and this reporter greeted him, three men in leather jackets rushed up from their car parked in the nearby woods. One flashed a police badge. They took the identity cards of Mecs and his wife, along with the passport and press card of the two American reporters who were present. They said a new decree issued last week forbade flowers to be placed in this part of the cemetery on All Saints' Day.
They confiscated film and a page of notes from the reporters. After checking the identity documents, they returned them and told everyone to leave.
``Some liberalism,'' muttered Mecs, as he drove away. ``You can't even place flowers over your friends' graves.''
Janos Molnar. In 1956, Mr. Molnar and his family lived next to a secret-police station. On Nov. 3, rebels banged on his door and demanded that he give information about where the policemen were hiding. Molnar, a local party member, refused. ``They were lynching people,'' he says of the rebels. ``I was frightened for my life.''
When Soviet tanks arrived the next morning, he rejoiced. Returning to his work as a history teacher in a Communist Party academy, he rose through the ranks to become vice-minister for education in 1980. A large, balding man of 58, he is now director of the Communist Party Institute of Contemporary History. He occupies a large office in a building near parliament, scene of the heaviest fighting.