The anticipated bombing had not happened, though we waited, fearful. Our only information came from the capital in daily radio announcements. Russian tanks had moved in on Budapest and the citzenry there were engaged in an unequal battle for control; the brief freedom, illusory, had not been bolstered by outsider Western powers. Once the balance of power shifted back to the communists and the Russians, it was only a matter of few days for the armies to complete the mopping up of pockets of resistance in the smaller towns and cities. Our town would fall the day after the capital was recaptured, so Apu (Father) explained to us girls. We were to be well prepared for the restrictions imposed on our movements by martial law, and Apu detailed what form those restrictions would take.
So we listened to the radio as though to an augur which would predict our immediate fate. On a dark November evening we gathered around the radio and listened to a report that Budapest had been recaptured by the Russian Army. Apu’s face darkened, he clamped his large hands together as if they were two halves of a vise. Anyu (Mother) sat, tense, rigid in the large green armchair; her knitting fingers, nervous and stiff, made staccatto movements. Ildiko, curled around Anyu’s side, leaned her sad face against Anyu’s sleeve and stroked her upper arm. I went to the window overlooking Stalin Utca and gazed at the delicate sprinkling of snow falling slowly in the halo of the streetlamp.
Apu fiddled with the radio settings to find the local station. An announcement, terse, repeated several times, stated that a rally would take place at 8 pm at the town hall. Here decisions would be made as to how best respond, united, to the anticipated arrival of Russian troops the following morning. All concerned citizens were to attend this important meeting.
Apu stood up and ordered, “We must all get ready and go! Get your coats, boots, watchcaps and gloves on. It will be a long, cold meeting.” Anyu placed her knitting down on her lap. “Why do you have to go so early? The rally doesn’t start until 8 o’clock.” she said. “Well, there are a lot of hot-headed people here who will agitate the crowd to violent resistance, which is useless and will get a lot of people killed. Then the repercussions will be increased brutal treatment of town people. I need to talk with the more rational folks to prevent such thoughtless reactions on our part.” insisted Apu.
Ildiko and I scooted out to the foyer and began to put on our winter gear. Apu came and put on his shapka, overcoat and gloves. We stood around warming up and waited for Anyu to arrive. She did not come, and we waited for a longish time. Apu opened the door to the salon and called out, “Rozsa, we are dressed and ready. Hurry up! The girls are getting hot in their outdoor clothes.” No reply, silence. “Rozsa, let’s get going, we are waiting! What are you up to?” he asked.
Anyu slowly walked into the foyer to join us. She made no motions to get her winter coat on, and just stood wringing her hands. “I am not coming!” she announced, emphatic, “you take the girls and go.” Apu’s face turned an angry dark red under the edge of his shapka. “Whatever decision is made tonight by the crowd will influence what happens to all of us tomorrow. There has to be a balance of reasonable opinion there, to ensure a safe outcome for our town” Apu calmly reasoned. “It has nothing to do with me, and I am not coming!” retorted Anyu in a panicky voice. “You girls, don’t let your Father make any speeches to the crowd. If he does that tonight, the Russians will hang him as a traitor!” She walked back into the salon, slamming the door behind her. Ildiko looked confused, I know I was confused and Apu appeared frustrated. We left the apartment, silent, trudged down the four flights of stairs and went out into the crisp, lightly dusting snow of the evening.
On Stalin Utca were groups of people walking in the direction of the town hall. There were no cars on the street (few people in our town owned private vehicles), just bundled-up people of all ages headed to the same destination. Ildiko, older than me by a couple of years walked, sedately, on Apu’s right. I skipped beside him on his left, because of the cold, and he grasped me by the nape of the neck, but did not scold me. All the way to town hall, Ildiko begged and pleaded with him to not speak in public. “What will happen to us all if the Russians hang you, Apu?”she questioned him. Apu reassured her that he had ways of avoiding such an eventuality. Along our walk he explained that it was an individual’s duty to share a considered opinion with others, so that the best possible group decision could be made. He also told us that he cared not only for us, his family, but also for many other people and if he could convince powerful persons in the town to make the right decision in regards to how best respond to the anticipated arrival of Russian troops, we would all be spared the horror of reprisals.
I skipped along beside Apu, listening to Ildiko’s anxious questions and entreaties and his reasonable and reassuring replies to her. He said he would not lose us in the crowd, and that if he spoke to them he would be truthful, calm and speak from the heart. I believed and trusted Apu, thus felt no apprehension in being with him this evening. I sensed and heard Ildiko’s worry and decided that I would hold her hand and not let go, while we were waiting around listening to the many discussions that would take place.
We arrived at the town hall to find a massive crowd gathered and buzzing in the open square in front. Apu led us through the mass of people to the front of the building and guided us up the wide staircase to the front door. Spotlights lit up the square and blanched the many faces to be seen there; they looked like an assembly of ghostly heads gazing, very still, toward the parapet above the town hall’s main doors. Makeshift Hungarian flags, without the communist insignia, hung limp at the parapet’s corners. Snow dusted down, a finely speckled curtain.
Apu guided us upstairs and left us with a group of women and children, none of whom we recognized, and asked that we remain with them during the speechmaking that was to follow. He joined a group of older men, most of whom he seemed to know, on the parapet. There was a microphone and spotlights directed at the podium where the speakers were to orate from to the crowd below. Suddenly, a man walked up to the microphone and announced the singing of the national anthem “Isten Elti A Magyart”, then began to sing in a wonderful tenor voice. The crowd followed in song. At the end an eerie silence descended on the square, all movement seemed to cease and it felt like the whole mass was holding their breath all at the same time.
The acting mayor greeted the crowd with the news from a village nearby to the East of us. The Russian tanks had arrived there and had encamped outside the village. The Russian troops had travelled with their families in tow and had demanded that the village provide milk for the soldiers’ children. There was not enough milk in the village and the demand had been made for milk to be brought from our town to give to the Russians. Would our town accede to this order, or would the citizens resist?
Several younger speakers exhorted the crowd to organize armed resistance to the Russian arrival to take control of our town. Under no circumstance should we provide any aid to our opressors; in fact we should battle to repel them. More reasonable orators argued against armed resistance as being futile; we did not have the resources with which to engage in a pitched battle. The discussion carried on for a long time, and a clear direction to take seemed elusive. Apu came back to check on Ildiko and me, to make sure we were not too cold. Ildiko hung onto his arm and begged, “Please , Apu, don’t talk to the crowd, I am so afraid for you if you speak out!” She began to cry, and I hugged her and wiped the tears from her cheeks with my woolen glove. Apu put his arms around us and said quietly “I will talk, but listen carefully to what I will say to the people here. No Russians will hang me for what I am about to tell the crowd. Sometimes one must speak!” He left us and walked to the podium.
“How many of you brought your children to this rally tonight? I brought my two – they are back there listening to all that we are saying here. I would be very angry if my children needed milk, were hungry, and were prevented from having what they needed. This anger would cause me to do everything in my power to force a resolution for my children’s needs, and even push me toward greater violence in reprisal actions against the group of people who increased my children’s discomfort. The Russian soldiers are men like us, their feelings toward their families is exactly the same as our own. The families who accompany these soldiers are not doing this voluntarily, the children in their encampment are innocents, hungry like our own children. Send the milk, then maybe the soldiers will be more lenient and kindly toward our own families, once the power has shifted. We would be foolish to resist such armed might, and would be fools to anger the individuals comprising it.” He walked away from the microphone and stood back with the group who had already spoken.
I was clutching Ildiko’s hand. She was agitated, weeping and shivering. “I know Apu will be punished for this!”she sobbed, ” I should have done something to prevent him from speaking. Anyu will be so disappointed with me for not looking out for him.” I threw my arms around her, hugged her and stood there with her until Apu came to lead us homeward. In my heart I knew Apu was right, I just could not find the words to convince Ildiko of this.
The three of us walked home in the gently falling snow. Ildiko was weeping, Apu was silent and had his arm about her shoulders. I skipped along, feeling very safe and convinced of Apu’s wisdom. The outcome of the rally was to collect milk in our town and take it to the Russian encampment for their children. There was to be no armed resistance to the takeover. Sometime tomorrow morning the tanks would rumble and grind into town and hunker down, menacing, on our snowy streets and boulevards.