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Hungary Escapes the Shadow of the Soviet Union

For those trapped in Eastern Europe in the 20th century, the horrors of World War II were supplanted by the rigors of oppression that was life behind the Iron Curtain. Lawrence Cohen, who was in Budapest from 1991-94, discusses the plight of Jews and Hungarians’ reaction — especially when it came to statuary — when the Soviets eventually withdrew from Hungary on June 30, 1991. 

Read about the Prague Spring, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the Velvet Revolution.


Jewish Survivors

COHEN:  During World War II, Hungary had its own fascist group called the Arrow Cross. They were the Nazis of Hungary and were extremely vicious. German troops occupied the country in March 1944 and began rounding up Jews from the countryside. By summer most had already been shipped to Auschwitz.

In October 1944 Hungary’s leader Admiral Horthy lost his battle of wits with the Arrow Cross and was deposed. In its brief chaotic reign, the group utilized vicious anti-Semitism to conduct the final Jewish round-ups around Budapest. This was near the end of the war, Hungary was near collapse. Soviet forces were approaching Budapest. Yet, the Arrow Cross continued to slaughter tens of thousands of Jews and non-Jews and facilitated the transport to the death camps of thousands of others. Arrow Cross members bound three Jews together, shot the middle one in the head, and tossed the trio into the Danube. It was a gruesome picture.

Survivor stories abounded in Budapest. There was the story of a Jewish fencer who was kept on because of his fencing skills. One contact told me about his father, a Jewish officer in the Hungarian army. When the Germans entered Budapest in 1944, he survived by keeping close to the Germans. He spent his days in the thermal baths at the Gellert Hotel, hobnobbing with the German officers. Because his demeanor was so distinguished, the Germans never suspected he was Jewish. He survived the war.

People survived by hiding. Many were saved by [Swedish diplomat Raoul] Wallenberg, Swiss Consul Carl Lutz, and others. But elsewhere in Hungary, in the provinces, in Greater Hungary across the border in Ukraine and Transylvania, Romania, Jews who survived were few and far between. It was very difficult to hide.

In addition, the population had little awareness of what was happening. Neither the Jews nor the Hungarian citizenry knew about the death camps. The sweep through Hungary occurred so quickly. The Hungarian gendarmerie collaborated with the SS and the Gestapo. They did a pretty thorough job…. 

Hungary after the Withdrawal of Soviet Troops

The last Soviet soldier departed Hungarian soil on June 30, 1991. The Hungarians declared a national holiday. What does that tell you about Hungarian feelings? The Hungarians despised the Russians. I suspect many Russian soldiers were unenthusiastic about their pending return to the USSR. Russian soldiers sold everything they owned: their watches, their helmets, clothing, even hats — you could pick up these items up for a song. When the Soviet soldiers departed, they took everything not nailed down, and most everything that was! They pulled wire out of the walls; they took the ceramic toilets; they took light fixtures. When the Hungarians gained access to these bases, nothing but the shells of buildings were left.

There was a deep antipathy between the Hungarians and the Soviets. The Hungarians just wanted to be rid of the Russians. “Just leave and do not let the door hit you in the face when you walk out.” The Russians felt that they deserved some respect. They constructed the buildings, bombproof airplane hangars, runways and everything else. “It’s worth compensation.” When arguing for financial compensation, the Russians neglected to focus on the environmental degradation that they committed. Unexpended ordinance littered free fire zones. Much had been buried. The fuel carelessly dumped onto the soil was just one example of the degradation.

But I will say one thing about the Russians. They left colorful artwork commemorating pilots, cosmonauts, soldiers, etc., on the walls of the buildings. I would be sorry to see the paintings destroyed.

When the Russians pulled out, then Hungary really broke free from the East Bloc. I will provide two linguistic anecdotes. I often asked Hungarian about their language skills. “What languages do you speak?” Many claimed some German, almost as many said they understood some English. I asked, “Did you not study Russian?” All answered in the affirmative, for twelve years from grade school on up. “Well, if you studied Russian so long, then you must have learned it.” I almost always received the same answer. “I may have studied it but I never learned it!” I suspect most Hungarians knew more Russian than they wanted to admit. Russian was forced down their throats.

A popular theme in Hungarian literature and movies concerned this issue. At the time of the collapse of the Berlin Wall, Russian language teachers permeated Hungary. Russian language instruction was a profession like any other and seemed to offer good job security. Russian was a required course from primary school all the way through gymnasium, through secondary school. Thousands of Hungarians were Russian language teachers. Then the communist East Bloc collapsed. Guess what? No one wanted to study Russian anymore. According to the plot of the story, the unemployable Russian teachers decided they would become English teachers! Too bad, few knew much English. They would be learning English themselves. The joke was that the new English teachers would be one or two lessons ahead of their students. There was more than an ounce of truth in that tale. The Hungarians are nothing if not smart. They are sharp, highly educated and very motivated. If they want to learn a language, they would learn it….

When I arrived in Budapest, as I mentioned, the city streets still retained the names given during the communist regime. The primary Budapest boulevards included Lenin korut, People’s Democratic Republic Boulevard, all this stuff. Hungarians immediately started to refer to the pre-communist street names, back to the Hapsburg names. Lenin korut became Terez korut, People’s Democratic Republic simply became Republic boulevard. That is all well and good if you are a native Budapesti. But I utilized a street map printed before the change. It was a challenge to navigate the streets.

Perhaps more dramatic was the public attitude about monuments. When I arrived in Budapest, the city was pimpled with Soviet, Marxist monuments. There were monuments to the great heroic people’s struggle against whatever; monuments to the liberation of the city; monuments to famous Hungarian communists; monuments to this Marxist philosopher or that writer; monuments to Marx. I suspect there were monuments to monuments! The Hungarians decided swiftly that the communist-era monuments had to be removed. In 1991 an effort was launched to relocate the communist era monuments, except for the one that I mentioned in front of the American embassy. What do you do with all these monuments? Again, this is before e-bay.

The enormous Soviet memorial on the citadel commemorating the city’s liberation is impossible to move and risky to destroy. Statues and statuary are another matter. All were relocated. Hungarians are pragmatic people. Perhaps one day, the joke went, the communists might return. Thus, it is not a good idea to destroy these statues. If the communists come back, their statues will already be available! The Hungarian people would not have to expend money to create new ones. That was the joke.

The relocated Marxist statuary was placed in a field on the edge of the XXII Kerulet [district], at the far south-western end of the city. A wall was built around the monuments and the area turned into a nice park with walkways and benches. I do not remember whether a fee was charged to enter. I called it “Jurassic Park;” at the time Jurassic Park had just come out in the movies. It was a statuary garden from the communist period, hopefully, just as extinct as the dinosaurs.

While we are on the topic of statuary, I will relate a couple of additional statuary stories. As I mentioned, outside the U.S. embassy at Szabadsag ter [Liberty Square] is a monument put up by the Russians to commemorate their liberation of Budapest in 1945. Nearby is a statue to an obscure American general, Harry Hill Bandholtz. At the end of World War I, General Bandholtz was on the Inter-Allied Control Commission which supervised the disengagement of Romanian troops from a prostrate Hungary. When Romanian soldiers sought to loot the national museum, General Bandholtz stood on the museum steps and used bluster to prevent the sack of the museum. The statue was erected in 1936. In the late 1940s it was removed for “repair.” The “general” was rediscovered in a warehouse in the 1980s. The statue placed in its original position on Szabadsag ter just before President Bush visited the city in July 1989. There Bandholtz stands in his World War uniform.

Immediately after World War II, a memorial was erected to Raoul Wallenberg next to the parliament building. This was during that interim period before the communists took full control over Hungary. Thinking back, it was quite amazing that a monument to Raoul Wallenberg could have been placed in Budapest right after the war. The Russians were still there in full force. But the government had not yet reverted to its future Stalinist version. The life-size monument shows a man with a raised club in his right hand and his left hand clutching a hissing snake by the neck. The Soviets certainly did not appreciate this monument. One night, probably 1948 when tensions were high, the statue was removed by the Hungarian KGB. It eventually was placed in front of a pharmaceutical factory in Debrecen, in eastern Hungary. Given the Hippocratic Oath, it made sense that slaying a snake might refer to pharmaceuticals. On a 1992 visit to Debrecen I saw the monument. A recent memorial stone to Wallenberg had been placed next to the monument. A few fresh wreaths sat in front. For 40 years, I am sure few people had any clue what was the monument’s original meaning.

Ambassador Charlie Thomas knew its story. He pressed Hungarian authorities to return it to Budapest and place it in its original location. The pharmaceutical factory did not like that idea. They probably had gotten used to it. The

GOH [government of Hungary] resisted moving the monument. Another memorial to Wallenberg had subsequently been dedicated on the Buda side. Only one monument in the city could commemorate or memorialize any individual.

In my experience, few countries were as convulsed about statues and symbols as Hungary. These stories provide insight into the psyche of the Hungarians, what they thought about communism and the Soviets. Elsewhere in the former East Bloc, Albania, Romania or Bulgaria, communist-era statues were pulled down and destroyed. The Hungarians did not do it that way. They had a completely different, perhaps more pragmatic strategy. Whoever procured the statuary was probably out to make a buck. The depth of popular hatred towards the Russians was unfathomable. In the early 1990s, the long pent-up emotions from ’56 were able to come out. In October 1956 it looked briefly that the Hungarian revolution might succeed. Then on November 4 the Russian tanks crushed the revolt. Thousands of Hungarians died. Some buildings in Budapest still have bullet holes which are not from World War II.