In October 1956, The Young College Age Citizens Of Budapest Hungary Begin A Revolution To Rid Their Country Of A Communist Regime. Benci Benedeck, His Wife Irene, And Their Four Children Become A Part Of That Revolution By Leading Friends, And Neighbors Through A Treacherous Escape To Austria.
The World Will Know Of The Thousands That Died, Begging For Freedom From A Government Void Of Any Compassion For Human Life. Headlines In Newspapers Call The Revolution, "The Rape Of Budapest."
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Budapest, Hungary, 10/1956
In Hungary, a small country of ten million citizens, Irene Benedek listened intently to Radio Free Europe while she nourished her smoking habit with the light of another cigarette. Next to her, on an ornate oak desk left behind by her gone but not forgotten father, her equally habitual black coffee cooled on the desk where her ashtray resided. A fiercely protective mother, Irene wanted her children nearby always, with the stipulation that they remain quiet while she listened to the radio. Today her four young children quietly played jacks at her feet. To do otherwise would only infuriate their mother, who was already filled with tension and fury, brought on by the communist government threats to suppress the radical youth who were resisting the laws that existed since they over-took the Hungarian government during World War Two.
Her husband, Benci, better known as Ben, whom she at met while she was a student at the same University where Ben taught. He was a handsome, charming man, with the most brilliant blue eyes that Irene had ever seen. The fact that he had a two year-old daughter only enhanced his appeal to her. In those days (1945), Irene had only two ambitions in life, to be an accountant, and a mother, she adored children.
Over the years Benci's accomplisments in the sport of fencing had earned him the title of Fencing Coach at Budapest University. A gifted fencing master, he had amassed an impressive assortment of awards, earning him a celebrity status in Hungary, and was considered to have reached the supreme height of athletic ability one could achieve. Due to his triumphs, the Benedeks lived a comfortable life, better than most, but still, in a Communist-ruled country, they were far from wealthy.
Only four months ago she heard on Radio Free Europe that citizens of Polish workers in Poznan was put down by the government with scores of protesters killed and wounded. Responding to popular demand, in October nineteen-fifty-six, the government negotiated trade concessions and troop reductions with the Soviet government. After a few tense days of negotiations, on October nineteenth the Soviets finally gave in to Gomulka's reformist demands. News of the concessions won by the poles, known as Polish October, inspired many Hungarians to hope for similar concessions for Hungary and these sentiments contributed significantly to the highly charged political climate that prevailed in the second half of October nineteen-fifty-six. Irene, intensely proud of her country, felt certain that Hungary would have an even greater victory than Poland had acquired.
The desk was the only reminder of her father, an expert art connoisseur who had left to evaluate some works of art that had been commissioned by the Russians. It wasn't a surprise assignment; he had gone to Russia on business many times in previous years. But this time was different; his letters had stopped coming after six months, and their letters to him inquiring when he would come home were never answered. Irene and her mother knew in their hearts that after almost a three-year absence, he was never coming home. They never tried to investigate his where abouts, in a communist run country, there is nobody in authority you can trust; Nobody who would acknowledge any information.
Irene was desperate to learn more about what was happening in Poland, listening for any tip-off that may help Budapest. Instead, she heard the announcer warn this was only the beginning of a diabolical plan to remind Poland, and Hungary, not to fight the Soviet armies. This confirmed Irene's worst nightmare: that Russian tanks were headed for Budapest next.
For children in nineteen-fifty-six Hungary, life was far different than what children in America were experiencing. While they were enjoying real news, not propaganda, children delighted in the antics of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, as well as other programs in black and white, in Hungary there were no such luxuries. The citizens had only Radio Free Europe to supply them with accurate and honest broadcasting. At the same time, posters all over the city fed the public ridiculous propaganda such as, Work for your government and we will all be rich, the Communist government believed the Hungarian population were gullible enough to accept such lies as truth. The youth were not that naïve.
Irene knew better too, as did thousands of other citizens. Because of Radio Free Europe a broadcasting organization that provided news, information, and analysis to countries in Eastern Europe, the citizens were able to see through the masquerade the communist thought they were tolerating, since World War Two. Until now there had never been any sign of opposition. Irene and Ben's generation, and the one before them, had the intuition to know that to fight the communist, would be a fatal mistake for the whole country. Radio Free Europe had become their only open window to what was going on not only within their borders, but outside as well. The station was dedicated to telling the truth about what was happening behind the iron curtain in countries such as Poland, Hungary, and Romania, was organized by the west to provide information, to contrast the lies and innuendos broadcast to the them daily.
The political unrest in Hungary tightened like a vise. Enveloping her country like a noose hanging over the head of its intended victim. Nobody, was sure if a last-minute reprieve would come. In Irene's mind, she thought USA intervention would be their only hope. But one thing was certain: anxiety in Hungary rose every day.
Why were they doing this? Irene tried to make some sense of it, but trying to figure out the rationale of an occupying force that had proved to be an enemy with no conscience was futile. Why tanks now? Irene pondered. She and every other Hungarian had lived with communism since World War II, its existence evident in their daily lives from the red flags that adorned every building, school, and government office to the shortage of food all over the city, reminding them who was running their country. But why tanks? Irene asked herself. This is not a time of war; the world, for the most part, is at peace. What Irene didn't know, and what Radio Free Europe couldn't tell her, was that the youth of Hungary, who were in their teens and early twenties, didn't always obey the suppressive laws and way of life. The goal of the communist was to get the youth on their side by recruiting them to join the Communist party. They would start indoctrinating the very young, seven and eight-year-olds, fabricating tales of their glorious government. Promises of wealth and prosperity, all bogus, were promised if they committed to a government that would take care of their every need and live the life of a true communist.
The Soviets could see that their party was not swelling with new members. In fact, many of the youth were not joining, or worse, they were beginning to show signs of rebellion, which was the ultimate insult.
Because of the impending invasion, Irene had chosen to remain hidden in her home for the past two weeks, fearing not only for her own life, but also the lives of her family. Though Benci was still commuting to his job at the university, Irene refused to take the chance of any harm coming to her children. However, due to her self-imposed isolation, she wasn't sure how inflamed the climate in the city was; Ben was not telling her much in an effort to shield her from the crisis that was unfolding. All it needed was a spark to ignite warfare in the streets. The threat of reprisals haunted every Hungarian. When violence and fear surround a society, it scars every soul it touch.
Her children, Mara eleven, Andow six, Vera eight, and Gari four, were in more danger than she could ever imagine. She turned her attention from the radio for a minute to glance at her children, so precious and safe here with her, they were the glue that bonded the six of them as a family, and gave her reason to hope for a better future.
On this day, Irene, a woman of intelligence and beauty, had her dark brown hair pulled back into a bun. A lock of hair that refused to cooperate tickled her face when it fell to her cheek, forcing her to brush the guilty wisp of hair with the back of her hand. The days of her beauty routines had been abandoned a long time ago. Caring for her four children had become her top priority in life. But despite no evidence of any makeup or hair styling, her beauty was still evident.
Benci sat in his cramped office at the university, thinking of recent events in the news. He was trying to organize files of his students' progress during the past month, with minor success. Concentration on students' fencing abilities had taken a backseat to the political atmosphere that threatened to swallow their way of life.
Convinced that to continue this bogus attempt at organization was futile, he gave up the charade, gathered up the unfinished graphs, and placed them into his file cabinet. He promised himself he would finish another day.
He thought about his wife and children at home, wondering how he'd protect them, and like Irene, he too wondered why this was happening in the first place. There is no war, these are peaceful times, and what do they want now? Ben tried to rationalize an explanation, but none would come.
What Radio Free Europe was not telling the citizens, or was unable to fathom themselves, was that the Soviet Union was not willing to accept a state of neutrality, which the Hungarians wanted. What the Soviets didn't want was any sign of independence from the Hungarians. Just as they had in Poland, they were ready to remind the citizens who was in charge.
While Benci finished organizing his office for the next day's work, he became aware of voices, lots of them. He instinctively moved to his open doorway. Someone ran past him at a rapid pace, too quick for Ben to ask what was happening. Then, a second later, he saw them coming from the same direction the previous runner had gone. This time, though, it was an angry mob of students coming toward him. They shook their fists in the air, some wielding pipes as weapons, and they held lots of fire bombs. Benci recognized the bombs from his days in the Hungarian army; known as Molotov cocktails, these bottles were filled to the top with gasoline and then corked with a rag. Once ignited, the bomb could be thrown at its target and, on impact, would explode into flames of intense destruction.
"What are you doing? Megallini! Megallini! (Stop! Stop!)" Benci pleaded as he waved his arms furiously to get their attention.
"Professor Benedek, we can't allow this to go on. The AVH (Allam Vedelmi Hatosag State Protecting Organization), better known as AVO, are everywhere. We can't trust even our own friends or relatives anymore because of them. We are marching in support of our Polish neighbors, who just fought the Soviets so gallantly. So, when the tanks come, we're prepared to fight to the death if necessary, and we will win!"
"First," Ben said to the young man, "how are you going to know who is AVO? They blend in with the rest of us, and yes, I agree, they have infiltrated every aspect of our lives, but to fight them — and the Soviet army — is suicide!"
By now, most of the crowd had moved on. Only this young man and two companions had remained to debate what would be the consequences of their actions. "We can't let them take away our lives any longer!"
"What are you talking about? Hungary hasn't known total freedom for forty years, long before any of you were born. Where is this sudden cry for freedom coming from?"
"From our parent's, who have told us stories of how great Hungary used to be", explained one of the young men. He was tall, and thin, with blond hair and Ben guessed him to be no older than eighteen.
Another echoed the same sentiment but went farther. Extending his hand to Ben, he introduced himself. "My name is Lazlo Galas, and I live in the same building as you."
"Oh, yes," Ben acknowledged, returning his handshake, "I thought you looked familiar."
Without waiting for another response from Ben, Lazlo immediately told Ben his story.
"A friend of mine saw his mother being carted out of their home for simply stating at a friend's house the previous night how she despised the Russian flag that flew from every building in Budapest. She then said how she dreamed of the day the Hungarian flag would fly high and proud again. That was three days ago. My friend has no idea of where she is or if he'll ever see her alive again. Now do you understand what we're fighting for?"
"Of course, I wish for the same freedoms you speak of, but not against an enemy as strong as Russia."
"Then you're a coward," Lazlo stated.
Not a man to ever back down from his opponents, Ben countered, "I am not a coward, but a proud Hungarian who has a lot more sense than you ever will."
Lazlo was persistent. "Well, prove it and join us!"
"I can't. I have a wife and four children to think of. Who will take care of them if anything happens to me?"
Lazlo gave Benci a long, hard look. He couldn't comprehend where Ben was coming from. After all, Lazlo thought, aren't we all dependent on someone? "I have my family to think of also. That's why we're fighting, so our loved ones can have a better life."
Before Benci could think of an appropriate response, Lazlo directed his comrades, "Let's go!" There was no point in arguing with Benci any longer; he was a man who clearly refused to see their point of view
As soon as they left, Ben hurried back into his office and went to the only window he had, which, fortunately, faced the front of the building. What he saw sent a chill up his spine. Gathering below was a massive crowd of hundreds of young men and women who were passing firebombs to each other in preparation for battle.
Ben quickly decided to gather his coat and briefcase, being sure to grab his passport and any other vital documents that had his name on them. If the worst happened, Ben didn't want any evidence for the AVO to know that he was a faculty member. The AVO needed no added incentive to arrest him; being an ex-military man as well as a celebrity, the arrest of Benci Benedek would be a real prize.
Once he was out on the street, he could see the crowd, which now consisted of not only students, but men, women, and children of all ages, were moving toward the radio station, an enclave of several buildings.
The electricity in the air propelled him to get home as fast as he could. Something was happening; that, Benci was sure of. Have the students gained knowledge of some news I am not aware of yet? Ben thought as he raced towards his home. On that bright, crisp October afternoon, everything seemed normal. People were attending to their usual routines: children walked hand in hand with adults, mothers were seen pushing carriages, and some men were in business suits. Others, in work clothes, walked with no urgency. Many joined the march, their swelling in numbers, clogged the streets of Budapest as cars and buses tried to navigate the thoroughfares around the civil protestors. Benci quickened his pace, anxious to get home to Irene and the children. Funny thing, he noticed he was the only pedestrian running that day.
The Communist-controlled government demanded that the demonstrators cease their march or there would be consequences to pay, but the crowd of hundreds refused to abandon their cause. Instead, they posted their demands all over the city for the AVO to see and then proceeded to the radio station so they could tell the nation what they were demanding and to let the world know that they were willing to die for the freedoms the Western world already had.
The Beginning of the End
Benci reached his home, a fifth-floor apartment on Molnar Street, one of the nicer parts of the city. The brick building, had beautiful floral carvings over the doorway leading to an imitation marble floor in the vestibule, so brilliantly shiny it reflected your image when you looked down. The children loved to run and slide on the floor no matter how many times Irene would admonish them not to. She was certain that their playful antics would one day cause injury whenever they came in or left the building.
There were elevators in the lobby that worked sporadically. Today, fortunately for Ben, one elevator worked. He was winded from the run home, and he dreaded the thought of having to climb five flights of stairs. At forty-six, he wasn't in as good shape as he had been when he'd married Irene ten years ago.
Still short of breath when he entered his apartment, he could see immediately that something was troubling Irene. She was pacing the floor and rubbing her hands.
Excerpted from "Goodbye Danube"
Copyright © 2018 Rosemary Ryan Imregi.
Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse.
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