The Shadow of a Smile
By Kati Marton
The first time I saw deep joy on my father's face – the kind that comes from within and which is a child's most reassuring signal from a parent – was on Oct. 23, 1956. It was at Bem Square, on the right bank of the Danube, where thousands of students, a sprinkling of workers and even some young soldiers still in uniform had spontaneously gathered to hear the students' list of demands for reform by Hungary's Communist government.
I was holding tight to his hand when a woman appeared on the balcony of the Foreign Ministry, which faces the square, and waved the Hungarian tricolor. The hated Soviet hammer and sickle had been cut from the center. Thus was the symbol of the Hungarian revolution (and so many others still to come) born. When someone in the growing crowd brazenly shouted, “Ruszki haza!” – “Russians go home” – the revolution had its slogan, as well.
I had no notion during those 10 days, from Oct. 23 to Nov. 4, that I was experiencing history; the excitement felt very personal to me. I was a small child, just recently reunited with my parents, political prisoners freed by the state. My mother, Ilona, and my father, Endre, correspondents for the American wire services United Press and Associated Press, respectively, had, until their arrest on trumped-up espionage charges in early 1955, covered the major political trials of Stalinist Hungary. Almost two years in the secret police's fortress on Budapest's main boulevard had turned my father's hair gray and lined my mother's face. We were thrilled to be a family again, but prison had left more than surface marks.
My mother was in London, on her first passport since World War II, when the revolution began; it would be several days before she made it home, via Vienna. I did not see much more of my father as he followed the first day's explosive events and struggled to keep the world informed of them.
At home, late that evening, I heard him dictate to the only telephone operator he could rouse, a woman in Belgrade. “Stalin's giant statue was toppled in Budapest tonight,” he said before the line went dead. Dialing furiously, he found an old friend in Prague to whom he dictated the rest of his report about the vain struggle by university students to pull down the bronze colossus in Heroes Square. They finally succeeded after workers arrived with blowtorches, creating another powerful symbol of the uprising. My father's article was on front pages around the world the next morning.
In the following days, bloodshed and violence drowned the city's festive mood. My father was in Parliament Square when a Soviet tank began firing into the unarmed crowd. He hit the ground during the massacre, which took hundreds of lives. On Friday, Oct. 26, the front page of The New York Times carried his report, headlined “Soviet Tank Fires on the Unarmed – Peaceful Marchers, Bearing Only Hungarian Flag, Are Mowed Down in Budapest.”
The article was accompanied by a note from the editors: 'This dispatch from Endre Marton, The Associated Press correspondent … was the first direct word from The Associated Press bureau in Budapest since Tuesday night.” The world was now paying attention to Hungary.
In those feverish days, we could not know that Moscow had dispatched guns bigger than the ones my father was writing about: the Communist Party bigwigs Yuri Andropov, Mikhail Suslov and Anastas Mikoyan had arrived in Budapest, determined to reverse the freedom fighters' fragile triumph. While the adults around me dreamed of freedom, I sleeplessly waited for my parents to come home each night. How could I know that in faraway Washington, when the State Department spokesman was asked for the American response to reports that new Soviet troops had entered Hungary, he replied, “I know of none.”
At dawn on Sunday, Nov. 4, when my father woke my sister and me and said we must quickly get dressed, we could hear tank guns in the distance. In his memoirs, my father described his two small girls, “looking at us without tears, without signs of panic, without asking unnecessary questions, like two little soldiers waiting for instructions.” Having grown up in Communist Hungary, the children of enemies of the state, we were veterans.
My parents still dialed relentlessly, searching for an operator awake somewhere in Europe to alert the world that this was it: the first armed uprising against Communism was about to be extinguished. Somehow, they found a line and dictated their sad dispatch. Then we were bundled into our little Volkswagen, headed for the temporary sanctuary of the American Legation. As we rolled off the Chain Bridge, we could see tanks in the rearview mirror.
A dark, brooding figure occupied a corner of the legation air raid shelter: Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty. Freed by the rebels from life imprisonment on Oct. 30, he was already a prisoner again. A few nights later, the cardinal summoned my sister, mother and me for an impromptu Mass he offered in the American legate's office he would occupy for nearly two decades to come. “Through you,” the cardinal told us, “I bless every Hungarian woman and child.”
By Nov. 10, the wounded city was quiet; Soviet forces were again in control. Two hundred thousand Hungarians fled across the still-open borders, but my parents stayed on, filing daily dispatches of the passive resistance and ensuing general strike (which my mother helped to organize). As I watched my father slip out of the legation's safety to cover the Soviets' house-to-house hunt for freedom fighters, I feared I would lose him again.
After about 10 days at the legation, we returned home. But there were growing signs my parents would be arrested again. Reluctantly, they began to plan our flight.
I have never known the full details of our escape. In late January, as we crossed the Austro-Hungarian border, Tom Rogers, the American diplomat who drove us, returned to my parents the adoption papers they had signed, which would have made my sister and me his wards in case of their re-arrest.
Much later, I learned that President Dwight D. Eisenhower had declared: “Budapest is no longer merely the name of a city. Henceforth it is a new and shining symbol of man's yearning to be free.” I only knew it was no longer my home. Nor would I ever again experience the excitement of those days when the world was suddenly open to a thousand possibilities – and when I briefly saw my father smile his purest smile.
Kati Marton is the author of “The Great Escape: Nine Jews Who Fled Hitler and Changed the World.”
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