A 6-year old remembers

Today, we visited the home where Pete Berty grew up in Budapest. Pete has told me stories of his time in Hungary and his family’s escape. There was one in particular that really grabbed me. I asked if he would consider sharing it in this blog. Luckily, he was excited to do so. Here it is. Hold onto your seat.

“I once witnessed, and had a small part in, a strike against the Russian oppressor. Well, it was a minor blow in the midst of a much larger, bloodier, and deadlier effort to throw off the Soviet yoke. This occurred during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, when I was only 6 years old.

At the time, I was living with my parents, siblings, and my father’s younger brother in Budapest at 15 Kelenhegyi út on Gellért Hill (Gellérthegy) on the Buda side of the Danube, which is hilly.

Lower yellow circle is Pete’s building. Upper yellow circle is the Liberty Statue.
Pete at the house gate in 2015

At the top of Gellért Hill is the Citadel that was built after the suppression of the Hungarian Revolution of 1848. After WWII, Hungary’s “Liberty Statue” (Szabadság szobor) was erected at the east end of the Citadel, overlooking the city.

Pete and Ellen on Liberty Bridge with the Liberty Statue on Gellért Hill behind them

The Soviets had kicked out the Nazis, but they were crude, narrow-minded, oppressive, and thoroughly without scruples. So, it was “Out of the frying pan, and into the fire.” The addition of a statue of a Soviet soldier at the base of the Liberty Monument, along with the inscription, “To the memory of the liberating Soviet heroes [erected by] the grateful Hungarian people [in] 1945”, made it particularly galling.

The revolution had started on October 23, and toward the end of October—after about a week of fighting—there was a kind of calm because the occupying Soviet forces had been withdrawn. However, fresh forces returned on November 4, after which fighting continued for a while, but the cause was lost.

During the five or six days of calm, my uncle heard that something important was going to happen at the Liberty Monument. He invited my two brothers (ages 8 and 10) and me to go with him to see. My mother reluctantly agreed. (She was taking care of my 2-year-old sister, and was pregnant; my father was out of town for the entire period of the revolution.)

We walked from our apartment house up to the Citadel and found a crowd around the Liberation Monument. A man climbed onto the shoulder of the Soviet soldier’s statue, hung a cable around its neck, and recited the words of the Hungarian National Song, which included the refrain, “We vow, that we won’t be slaves any longer!” (The lyrics were written at the start of the Hungarian Revolution of 1848 against the Austrians, but now, once again, the Hungarians were being bullied by outsiders.) The crowd roared and enthusiastically attempted to pull down the statue.

At first, they couldn’t do it. But the statue came down after acetylene torches were used to cut it off at the top of the boots. Before it fell, we were told to get down behind a low wall. From there, I remember hearing a tremendous boom. I don’t know if they also used explosives, or if it was just the impact of the statue hitting the stone pavement, but it was loud.

Then the statue was cut into small pieces that people could carry away. My brothers and I got a piece of the left ear and two smaller chunks. When we got home and showed my mother, she went pale. She was still in the “oppression mindset.” Even though the Soviets had withdrawn and the secret police had been disbanded (and many of them killed), she still feared that the snitches in the building would report on us.

She immediately ordered us to go out back to an empty lot and bury the fragments. My mother was right to be afraid, because of course, the brutal Soviets returned. Nevertheless, we didn’t get into any trouble.

What we, that is, the crowd achieved was that the entire statue disappeared (except the boots that I later learned had been filled with cement). Therefore, there was no material that could be gathered and melted to make a new statue. Nonetheless, sometime later, a replacement statue was installed. See Lady On The Hill: Budapest’s ‘Liberty Monument’ At 75 for photos of the statue in place and the boots that remained.

After the political system changed in 1989-1990, the statues and monuments that weren’t destroyed were moved to Memento Park (Szoborpark) south of Budapest.

The replacement statue in Memento Park. The person nearby gives a sense of its size.

One observer noted that, with the fence around the park, it’s as if the disgraced statues are in a prison yard murmuring among themselves. The statues may be corralled, but the Russians aren’t. Given what they’re doing to Ukraine now, it’s obvious that the Russians haven’t changed a bit.”

Thank you, Pete, for sharing your vivid eyewitness recount!

Pete told me there are still bullet holes from World War II in the wall of the apartment building where he grew up. In Bucha, Ukraine, where Russians brutally massacred civilians, Ivanka Siolkowsky, a volunteer, started painting flowers around bullet holes in fences. She wasn’t sure what reaction people would have, but her artwork caught on, transforming something terrible into something a little joyful.

© 2022 Lynnea C Salvo


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