Ande and I turned the corner on
Nepkoztarsasag Utca, Avenue of The Republic, toward the Heroes
Plaza. Billowy clouds punctuated a clear warm Budapest morning.
We were clad in black except for identical swatches of Hungarian
red, white and green on our jacket lapels. Margit had performed
the honors, completing the ensemble with a thin ribbon of
mourning black around each tricolor. With my set was a pin
of Nagy Imre; with his a button marked FIDESZ for one of the
countrys leading opposition groups. In Andes finest
English he turned to me and said, This day is history.
had arrived tight on the platform at Keleti Station five days
before this long overdue service for Hungarys unforgotten
dead. Hailing a cab outside the grandiose Eiffel-designed
train terminal, my first stop was the Orszaghaz Borozo, a
medieval wine cellar in a section of Budapest dating back
1,000 years. My expatriate Hungarian roommate in Boston assured
me this was an excellent spot to view patrons enjoying a nationalist
song or two. What better place, I thought, to begin my look
at arguably East Europes most independent state, a state
on the verge of breaking out.
were changing here. And changing fast. Last year the Communist
Party ousted the late Janos Kadar from its top leadership
post, a position he held with Soviet backing since the failed
1956 uprising. Kadar was replaced with a centrist who in turn
has been largely stripped of power in favor of party reformers.
Moreover, agreements are in place to hold parliamentary elections
this year or next. In the spring tens of thousands marched
peacefully in the formerly discouraged commemoration of the
important 1848 revolution. Attendance at the governments
official ceremonies paled by comparison.
now the Hungarian Socialist Workers Party had lifted its ban
on public recognition of June 16our big dayfor
former Prime Minister Nagy Imre. It was Nagy who led the short-lived
1956 uprising which Soviet tanks and soldiers smashed in days
against virtually unarmed civilians. In the aftermath, Nagy
and four colleagues were arrested, condemned in a show trial
and hung an old Hungarian tradition on June
16, 1958. Their remains were tossed into an unmarked grave
known only to party officials. Thirty-one years after their
demise Nagy and his followers would finally receive a public
funeral. It was this event that brought me here.
of these recent doings was widespread in the Western press,
and I was not one to overlook it or the opportunities they
offered. Poland which only days before my arrival held
the first open elections in East Europe since the late 1940s
and Hungary were permanently altering the blocs
status quo. These changes already outpaced their inspiration
in the Soviet Union, President Mikhail S. Gorbachevs
perestroika and glasnost. From where I stood, the unprecedented
nature of Nagys funeral lay in the wide field of reactions,
albeit risky ones, presented to Hungarian society; from open,
unfettered rage at its Communist Party and the Russians to
dignified reverence for a national legend. To say this country
of 10.6 million people faced an uncertain future was an understatement.
immediate future lay in the hands of 23-year-old university
student Kiss Endre. Endre, Ande for short, is an old friend
of my friend and roommate Miko Sandor. Sandor contacted Ande
as I formulated my plans in Boston, and he graciously agreed
to be my host at his mid-town three-room flat. Ande shared
the tastefully appointed quarters at 54 Rozsa Ferenc with
his grandmother Margit. We met that Sunday evening after sampling
the ample treasures of Orszaghaz Borozo. Unfortunately I dont
recall whether or not I was the only one singing. And I learned
my first in-country Hungarian word, egeszsegere. Cheers!
through Thursday I spent viewing the sites, taking in clubs,
hanging with Andes friends and relatives, eating and
drinking well. Anything but conventional, I came to Budapest
with an idea of observing the recent happenings through the
eyes of ordinary people, not someone like government officials
or whatnot who might tell me what I could get myself.
Thursday Nagys ceremony dominated the evening newscasts.
Communities throughout the country were openly remembering
the dead of 56. One spot highlighted Sopron, the prime
ministers hometown. Ande and Margit watched the coverage
intently. Near the end of the broadcast Ande went into the
kitchen while Margit walked over to the tall bureau near my
chair. Reaching high she didnt look at me or say a word.
Her hand came down with a single match and I looked to the
evening and Friday, supporters of the revolution lit window
candles in memory of the casualties. Margit already had a
candle atop a decorated base in the appropriate spot. I knew
her intentions the second I heard the matchbox rattle. Margit
sauntered purposefully to the candle; the wick caught and
she turned to face the kitchen. Ande walked in and his grandmother
motioned to the new flame. He looked at me and smiled.
the street fighting three decades ago Margit kept inside,
protecting her two children. Ande translated in broken English
and conversational German that she remembered the time well,
especially the sight of a ruined Red Army tank. When I asked
what she thought of The Party, a strong right foot booted
a crisp arc as if kicking it out the door. Still, an appearance
of calm determination graced Margits face in her brief
and personal ceremony. I saw no lasting bitterness or rage.
was shortly after 10:30 Friday morning as we entered the Heroes
Plaza in our formal black among a growing throng of pedestrians.
Jesus! Look at all these people. This sure is history,
I declared to no one as we crossed Dozsa Gyorgy Avenue near
the Yugoslavian Embassy. Now I got excited. The plaza side
in front of the specially decorated Art Gallery building was
packed with thousands.
attention went to center square where scores of people were
on and around the bronze horsemounted Magyar chieftains at
the base of the tall Millennium Monument. The spectacle of
these people, their colors and flags created a jumble of life
in marked contrast to the long black shroud draped around
the monuments single column rising above them.
here!, Ande shouted, gesturing to one of a handful of
crane-like camera booms dotting the plaza. I scrambled up
the truck-size base with Andes help to get photos of
the overall crowd. What I saw was massive. The scene reminded
me of pre-massacre photos of Tiananmen Square.
long, elevated stage for the international press corps made
it difficult for people on the ground to see the coffins laying
in state among the remodeled Gallery steps. Nagy Imres
coffin, however, was centered and raised above the others:
Gimes Miklos, Szilagyi Jozsef, Losonczy Geza, Maleter Pal,
and a coffin representing all the other dead. A huge burnished
gold receptacle cradled a memorial flame while lit torch stands
needled the aisles between the remains. Above and to the right
of this pageantry hung a long white triangular banner sporting
a circular hole at its widest end. The hole had been scorched
by fire. I took this to be a symbolic link to the revolutionary
flags of 56 when rebels cut out the circular hammer
and sickle insignia superimposed on the red, white and green
by the Communist takeover.
entire dais, building columns and classic portico were covered
in black. All over Budapest black flags and the national colors
flew side by side on schools, office and residential buildings.
Finished, I got off the boom and we walked closer.
banners and flags of all ages waved in the breeze among the
crowd. A few bore names of towns. One foreign banner was very
conspicuous, SOLIDARNOSC. Solidarity there confirmed to me
that this intimately national funeral held a lot of import
to the rest of East Europe.
12:30 p.m. our plaza along with the nation observed a moment
of silence for the Prime Minister. Nearly an hour of speeches
followed. Shortly before, I spoke with two Hungarians who
knew English. I asked 31-year-old teacher Feher Judit if she
ever thought a day like this was possible: No. No, I
did not even dare to hope, to think of it a year ago. No one,
I think. Then quite a few things changed.
professional man in his mid- to late-thirties told me he attended
a far different Nagy commemoration in 1988: I was at
Szabadsag Square exactly one year ago. It was illegal and
police came, and they hit people with, as we call them, Kadar
the assembled people were free to remember and listen. Through
it all they remained attentive and for the most part reserved.
At midpoint, however, everyone burst into the Magyar Himnusz,
the national anthemn. ISTEN ALDMEG A MAGYART! God
Bless the Hungarians! This moment was a big reason I
came; to experience the collectively voiced aspirations of
a united people.
sang with little visible emotion though I detected a strong
inner pride. HOZREA VIG ESZTENDOT! Bring them
a Happier New Year! I saw a lot of emotion on many faces.
One woman behind me sang with a conviction I cannot forget.
We also sang a religious hymn with similar results in this
officially atheist nation.
later there was an announcement and Ande took my hand. Then
the entire plaza joined together, and we began to recite names,
names of the revolutions dead. Concentrating on Andes
voice I struggled to do my best. When it was over, he said
to me Never again. Never again.
Imre! Ande declared, motioning with his head to the
stage as a scratchy voice came over the loudspeaker. It was
a recording of the Prime Ministers radio broadcast to
the nation four days into the uprising. The plea to his countrymen
included the now sadly foreboding words Bring back the
trust of the people. Dont let brothers blood run
in the country.
Victor, speaker of FIDESZ, The Alliance of Young Democrats,
gave the final speech. His oration received the greatest applause.
Whether it was Orbans words or Andes thoughts,
he translated Soviets out! Did he mean bazd meg
(expletive) the Soviets? No, Ande replied, only
Soviets out. A hard speech. Very hard!
funerals public wake ended after Orban. Soon Nagy and
the others were taken to private graveside services at Rakoskereszturi
Cemetery. Both plaza and cemetery services were broadcast
live on state television.
led me from the plaza back down Nepkoztarsasag Utca. People
jammed the sidewalks as we made our way home. I went up on
a raised area to get a better view and snap off some last
photos. A moving sea of humanity is the only way to describe
it. Radio Budapest estimated the crowd at 250,000.
at the flat Ande and I had a bite to eat before retiring to
his room. The clock showed almost 2:00 but the day seemed
hours older. Margit had the television turned loud to the
burial ceremonies that lasted until early evening.
came up with a bottle of white wine and poured out two glasses.
We raised our drinks for a toast. Nagy Imre! Ande
said. Egeszsegere! I replied.
in Quimby Magazine, 1989.
Photo by LJM.