The hunched old man waved me down from the yard of the museum and haltingly stumbled towards me. We had just gotten on the road after a short break, but how could I ignore such a genuine effort to interact with us? Pete and I turned back. We met the man at his gate. Though his blue eyes sparkled with the intensity of a clear mind, we assumed someone so ancient wouldn’t be able to speak English. Pete communicated with him in German. He eagerly pressed Pete with questions about our trip. We noticed he seemed to fill in German words he didn’t know with English ones. Before we could ask if he spoke English as well, he ordered us to wait “funf minute”.
He retreated slowly but hurriedly into his house, which was next to a building la bled “56 os Muzeum”. Tanks and artillery pieces crowded the lawn. I realised that this must be a museum commemorating the 1956 uprising in Hungary against the occupying Russians. When our friend hobbled back and gave us a bag of sweets, I thanked him and couldn’t help asking, “Were you in the revolution?” His eyes glimmered and he motioned us inside the compound. “Give me ten minutes,” he said. We had apparently convinced him that we were actually English speakers. Nakia and Drew had already biked off. Pete and I exchanged glances. This opportunity seemed too goo to pass up.
Gergely (or Edmond) Pongratz not only participated in the revolution, but helped lead it. He first showed us a huge artillery piece. He retreated behind a bush, ordering “Now watch!” He pulled a rope behind the bush that was attached to the firing lever of the weapon. The Hungarian rebels used this method to fire captured canon back at the Russians from a safe distance. The Hungarians, while superior in numbers, were completely outgunned by the Russians. Almost all of their weapons were captured from the enemy.
He took us inside the small museum. A huge map of Europe covered on entire wall. A gun case displaying period weapons, photographs and various artifacts from the revolution completed the collection. Gergely demonstrated with youthful enthusiasm how Hungarians had used Molotov cocktails to disable tanks as they tried to suppress the rebellion.
Like all of the Eastern Bloc, Hungary found itself occupied by Russian troops after they had pushed out the Germans at the end of World War II. Hungary went straight from Nazi domination to Soviet control when the Russian soldiers failed to withdraw and installed a puppet regime. Hungary had to pay a huge war debt to Russia and fulfill strict quotas for goods demanded by the Soviet. History says it was frustration from this situation boiled over into a revolt in October of 1956.
I asked Edmund why he decided to fight the Russians and pro-Soviet forces. “They wanted to make everything Russian,” explained Edmund, “our agriculture, our economy, our culture. We wanted to be free.” Hungary was free, for a while. The October rebellion effectively neutralized Russian power in Hungary. “In their archives,” gloated Edmund, “they say we beat the shit out of them.”
Unfortunately, Russia had reinforcements. After a short period of freedom, Hungarian defenders were crushed by more than a doyen Russian armored divisions, and the USSR managed to maintain control over the country until union itself dissolved from the inside.
The Museum doesn’t cover the aftermath of the failed rebellion. Instead, it focuses on the spirit of independence and heroism demonstrated by rebels. That is perhaps the most important part of the story. Edmund proved that he can focus on the most important things in other areas, too. “Some people might look at you and say ‘Who are those monks with big beards?’ But I look at you and know you’re good guys.” We left with a bag full of sweets and confidence that not everyone will judge us based on our beards. We also gained a better understanding of Hungarian History and the human capacity for valor. Thanks, Edmund!