Stroking parents' skulls to salve their own scars

Carrying a Secret in My Heart... Children of the Victims of the Reprisals after the Hungarian Revolution in 1956
July 23, 2004

Images of the abortive 1956 Hungarian revolution against Soviet rule still excite a sense of euphoria in the West. It is sustained, in part, by the extraordinary success of the many individuals among the 200,000 refugees from that brave and ruined country who were received at the time with generous educational and liberal employment opportunities. Neither the revolutionaries who came west in search of freedom, as well as fame and fortune, nor their fellows who stayed put, often to tend vulnerable families, had much fear of retribution because they did not think they had done anything wrong. They were very mistaken.

The reprisals meted out at home by the Communists were swift, savage and sustained. These included the summary execution of 229 patriots and the imprisonment of more than 20,000 others by the Hungarian puppet government established by the Soviets after the 12-day revolution. In addition, various forms of intrusive police surveillance were extended for years to tens of thousands of other families merely suspected by the authorities of having revolutionary sympathies.

Such intimidation fell especially hard on the children of the victimised families, who were barred from secondary and higher education, thrust into poverty and degrading manual labour and stigmatised by friends and society.

These children took the brunt of the collective punishment intended to convince the nation that freedom was but a Western mirage and that fame and fortune were attainable only within the ranks of the Communist establishment.

Today, the revolutionaries are honoured as national heroes. But the scars of the punishment to which the victimised families were subjected still disfigure the lives of their children, who have now reached middle age.

Carrying a Secret in My Heart... is probably the only scholarly analysis available in English on the effect of the policy of retribution and the attendant social and economic devastation on the psyches and subsequent educational and career opportunities of the children. The book - the result of a research programme at the oral history archive, the Institute for the History of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution - digests material obtained in 42 interviews. This enormous volume of material had its origins in the 1980s in a still-illegal series of round-table conversations with participants in the revolution. The idea was to counter the authorities' attempts at erasing or falsifying society's collective memories of the revolution. This has preserved for the nation a precious piece of historical heritage.

The interviews describe some mothers of orphaned families who sought escape in alcoholism or illness. Psychosomatic symptoms such as stammering, stomach ulcers, sleeplessness and heart conditions became common even among their children. Older children had to care for younger siblings while parents were treated in hospital. "On many occasions when my mum was in hospital, we three children were left alone and I had to look after the little ones," says one interviewee. "Then I got an ulcer."

Research fellows Zsuzsanna Körösi and Adrienne Molnár approach their material with great sensitivity and compassion from a historio-sociological, socio-psychological and psychological perspective.

They have produced a very readable and sometimes even passionate account that should grip the attention of historians, political scientists, sociologists and psychologists, as well as the general public.

Körösi was born nine years after the revolution, Molnár shortly before. A third scholar closely involved in the work was Gertrud Hoffmann, an educational psychologist and a victim of Nazi as well as Communist persecution. She died before the book was finished, and it is dedicated to her memory. The publisher, Central European University Press, is worth mentioning, too, since it is not yet well known in the English-speaking world. The press, established a decade ago in the aftermath of the fall of Communism, publishes books on the political philosophy and practices of an open society, legal studies, nationalism, human rights, conflict resolution, gender studies, economics, medieval studies, literature and international relations. It operates by the standards of western university presses. Its books are produced regionally and sold internationally.

Early in the normalisation process in 1989, children of the families victimised by the Communists joined some illustrious visiting Western émigrés at a mass memorial service to mark the 34th anniversary of the execution of Imre Nagy, the revolutionary Prime Minister. The venue was Budapest's Heroes' Square, the site of a rally in 1956 when the revolution erupted on a heady October evening with the toppling of a Stalin monolith.

Speaking of this occasion in 1989, the interviewees recall an overwhelming feeling of "closure" at the memorial service, and also much pain. "I was so moved and happy, and at the same time bitter, because the old memories had come to the surface," one says. "I found it hard to bear the whole thing. I even had a mild heart attack afterwards."

In general, the healing process has been painful. Permission to exhume the victims' bodies from a mass grave was granted in 1988 as part of the public exoneration campaign. Some interviewees fondled the skulls of their parents without repulsion and found the experience soothing. Some declined the offer of exhumation for fear that the grave would not yield the right body.

But most chose to leave the remains undisturbed because they accepted a newly planted national garden of remembrance as a dignified resting place for the dead. This decision also expressed a sense of emotional identification with the revolution, after years of abuse, and with the other executed convicts.

There are nine short chapters in the book, a bibliography, detailed biographies of the interviewees, their childhood poems and sketches produced for their missing parents, and farewell letters from condemned prisoners to their families. The material is grouped according to dominant themes. These include the effects of the reprisals on communications within the families of victims; the stigmatisation and related changes experienced in their economic and social status; the often-surprising reactions of relatives and friends; the practical problems encountered by the children as they attempted to pursue their studies and to assimilate into society as normal adolescents; the challenge of sudden poverty and increased family responsibilities facing the children; and confrontations with those parents who did eventually return from prison.

The translators, Rachel Hideg and János Hideg, are to be congratulated for rendering the rich Hungarian vernacular of some of the interviewees into easy colloquial English.

Thomas Ország-Land is a poet and foreign correspondent who covers Eastern Europe from Budapest. He was on the staff of The Hungarian Independent during the 1956 revolution.

Carrying a Secret in My Heart... Children of the Victims of the Reprisals after the Hungarian Revolution in 1956: An Oral History

Author - Zsuzsanna Körösi and Adrienne Molnár
Publisher - Central European University Press
Pages - 195
Price - £25.95
ISBN - 963 9241 55 5

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