Behind the Headlines 30 Years After the Hungarian Revolution

Thirty years ago, on November 4, 1956, some 200,000 Hungarians began fleeing their country after Soviet tanks smashed the 13-day revolution against Stalinist oppression. No fewer than 20,000 of the refugees were Jews, representing about a fifth of the Hungarian Jews who had survived the Nazi Holocaust a decade earlier.

Paradoxically, though, many of those against whom the revolution was directed were themselves Jews. Matyas Rakosi, Hungary’s tyrannical dictator, was one of a Jewish foursome who ran its affairs. His colleagues were Erno Gero, the economic overlord; Mihaly Farkas, in charge of security; and Jozsef Revai, the chief cultural commissar.

Nine of the 25 members of the Hungarian Communist Party’s first Central Committee were Jews, most of whom had spent the war in Moscow and re-entered Hungary in the wake of the victorious Red Army.

The hated political police, against whom the revolution vented much of its wrath, was commanded by Gabor Peter, former tailor, and included many other Jews among its commanders.

ANTI-ZIONISM WAS NOT A CENTRAL ISSUE

It was these people who had staged the Stalinist show trials in Hungary. But in the Hungarian trials, anti-Zionism did not assume as much central importance as, for example, in Czechoslovakia, where it was used to incriminate many Jewish Communists who had, in fact, been fierce anti-Zionism.

Yet even in Hungary, the Jewish issue was never far in the background. When the Kremlin was urging the unpopular Rakosi to step down prior to the revolution, Lavrenti Beria, the Soviet security boss, told him:

“Listen to me, Rakosi. We know that there have been in Hungary, apart from its own rulers, Turkish sultans, Austrian emperors, Tartar khans, and Polish princes. But, as far as we know, Hungary has never had a Jewish king. You can be sure that we won’t allow it.”

Imre Nagy, the stop-gap Premier whom the Russians executed once the uprising was crushed, was chosen for his post largely because he was not Jewish.

When hard-line communist rule was brutally restored under Janos Kadar, the Hungarian government tried to discredit the revolution by denouncing it as anti-Semitic. But even though the uprising did have anti-Jewish overtones, it did not last long enough for pogroms to break out. Whether they would have occurred is another matter.

JEWS ON BOTH SIDES OF THE BARRICADES

Nor should it be forgotten that Jews were on both sides of the barricades. Two of the nine leaders of the October uprising were of Jewish origin. One, Miklos Gimes, was executed in June 1958 together with Imre Nagy and Gen. Maleter, the Defense Minister of the Revolution.

Paul Lendvai, a Jewish journalist who fled after the uprising, later wrote in a book on anti-Semitism in post-war Europe that Hungary was a haven of relaxation and an island of security for the fully assimilated Jewry, not only in theory but also in practice.

In the 30 years which have elapsed, Hungary has been far less antagonistic to Israel or Zionism than the Soviet Union or other Soviet bloc countries. Although Budapest cut diplomatic relations with Israel in 1967, there is a considerable volume of tourist traffic between them and visa restrictions have recently been waived.

Anti-Semitism still exists at various levels, as it does in most countries. One Hungarian diplomat was reportedly asked to divorce his Jewish wife if he wanted a foreign posting. Hungarian film makers hesitate to deal with the Holocaust in their productions.

Yet Budapest boasts the only rabbinical training academy in the Soviet bloc, numerous synagogues, kosher butcher shops, and several other Jewish facilities. The Hungarian government together with the World Jewish Congress, recently funded the refurbishment of the Jewish Museum, adjacent to the birthplace of Theodor Herzl, founder of political Zionism.

In its official events to mark the 40th anniversary of the end of World War II, the Hungarian government also associated itself last year with somber commemorations of the martyrdom of 600,000 Hungarian Jews.

NEXT STORY