Lipták Béla: Birth of MEFESZ and the Sixteen Points
Attila and I settled down in the gallery of the aula, the large assembly hall of the Technical University. The aula was ornate, its walls covered in marble. Surrounding the hall was a corridor where stood the busts of famous former professors, university presidents—whom we called rectors—and Nobel laureates such as Leo Szilárd, the developer of the first nuclear reactor; John von Neumann, the father of the computer; and Theodore von Kármán, the founder of missile aerodynamics.
As Attila noticed me inspecting the busts, he commented, "Did you know that many of them were Jews?" Then he added, "Just like the majority of Rákosi's government and of the ÁVH officers."
"A talented people!" I said sarcastically.
That day there must have been a couple of thousand students in the aula, but none of us was really paying much attention to what was going on. One could hear this constant murmur in the hall. It was like any other meeting in the Communist world. They talked at us, and our only defense against that was to not listen.
Below our gallery, on the main floor of the aula, the two rectors of the dual university, László Gillemot and Tibor Cholnoky, were at the microphone. With them were some professors, the Communist Party secretary, lesser Party officials, and the leaders of the Communist Youth Organization, the DISZ. It was the DISZ that had convened the meeting. In their uniform of blue jackets, white shirts, and red neckties, the leaders of the DISZ looked like a special breed of penguins or booby birds. Their purpose for calling the meeting was to preempt the spread of MEFESZ, the new non-Communist student association. Since the recent formation of MEFESZ in the city of Szeged, suddenly the DISZ seemed to care a lot about us. They talked about special train passes for students, cheaper textbooks, and better food and housing. We did not speak up. We never did. It was their show, and we let them do all the talking.
And talk they did. I was scraping the corrosion off my "gold" ring, which had cost me thirty-six forints and must have had some copper in its heritage, because it was turning green. I was spitting on it, rubbing it, and was just beginning to make some progress when I felt Attila's elbow in my side. He was pointing down to the speakers' platform, where there was some commotion. The murmur in the aula stopped. Now there was total silence. In startled curiosity the dozing students were beginning to wake up. We were sitting up and starting to pay attention. Now you could hear a pin drop. Then, from the middle of the tumult at the microphone, a voice rose: "I represent the MEFESZ of Szeged! I want to speak!"
It was unprecedented! Extraordinary! The air was thick with tension. We did not know who had spoken, did not understand what was happening. All we could see was that the DISZ penguins were shoving a small fellow away from the microphone. He was a student like us, and he was talking, gesticulating, but we heard nothing—the blue-jacketed DISZ had pushed him all the way to the wall.
Then the Party secretary, Mrs. Orbán, came to the microphone and admonished us, "You have only one duty! Your duty is to study!" She was almost screaming. "You don't want the MEFESZ of Szeged! You don't want any ideas from Szeged!" I could not imagine why Szeged was suddenly such a bad place. I did not particularly care what she was saying but I was hypnotized by this minihero, this crazy little guy from Szeged.
My mind raced on: I do not understand him. I do not understand what he wants. Is he out of his mind? Does he not know that he will be kicked out of the university? Not only that, he will also be thrown in jail—that is, right after they beat the shit out of him. Does he not understand that we are nobodies, that our collective name is "Shut Up"? Does he not understand that he is nothing, that I am nothing, that we have no say in anything? Does he not understand that the microphone is only for the Party collaborators and nobody, but nobody, else talks into it? Does he not know that even the penguins dare only read their prepared statements? And that even then they wait until they are told that it is their turn to read?
Attila muttered my own racing thoughts when he said, "I just don't get it!" Then we saw the members of the military department, the only people who possessed arms at the university, marching onto the speaker's platform, and we got very quiet. You could have cut the tension with a knife. My throat was dry, my breath bated. All eyes were on the officers. Then suddenly, from a distance, we heard a voice. It was that of a fifth-year architecture student, a blond, very tall young man by the name of Jancsi Danner. He yelled, "Let him speak!"
My heart stopped. Nothing like this had ever happened since the Red Army had occupied Hungary. I stared at Jancsi. His ears were red, his mouth was trembling, but he did not blink; he faced the bewildered and frightened stares of two thousand students.
"God, he has lost his marbles!" I said.
In the meantime a new and angry sort of murmur was building up, replacing the previously astonished silence, and now, a few rows in front of us, Laci Zsindely, a classmate of mine, hesitantly started to clap. It was then that the miracle occurred.
First one, then two, then four or five students joined in, and suddenly this sparse clapping turned into a hurricane, a burst of thunderous applause the likes of which I had never heard. I saw Attila clapping like a madman as he shouted to me, "Applaud or I will never speak to you again!"
I had never seen anything like it. As some of the students stood up, the ovation continued, and the Party officials around the microphone became nervous, surprised, angry—and just a bit uncertain. I had never seen them uncertain. That was something new. My flesh was creeping, and I was clapping as though my life depended on it, as if I were out of my mind. And during all this my mind was racing. Is this possible? Can we actually have a say? Can we contradict them like this, directly to their faces? Is it possible that I matter, that what I think matters? Is it possible that I do not have to hold my tongue all the time? Is it possible that I am not alone?
Now, it was total chaos. The Party secretary ran to the telephone. The rest of her penguins were white as sheets. The hands of the officers of the military department had moved to the guns on their belts while the chief of DISZ kept screaming into the microphone. And then, through all the pandemonium and over the thunderous applause, we heard his voice once more: "I represent the MEFESZ of Szeged! Allow me to speak!"
Now I really felt hypnotized. I stood up and began walking toward that voice and saw Attila doing the same thing. From other directions, another twenty, then thirty, students were also starting to move toward the voice. This was all completely spontaneous. We walked without knowing who was walking with us. We were drawn toward the speaker's stand, toward the angry but scared penguins, who had encircled the boy from MEFESZ. The circle thinned as we got closer and we just started pushing the whole group toward the microphone. I saw my hand rise, reaching for one of the fat penguins. And I saw my wristwatch indicating that it was 3:40 P.M. My God, the movie! flashed through my mind. But then I saw the microphone. Five more meters and we would have it! I pushed with all my might. The DISZ resistance faltered. Now, Jancsi Danner grabbed the microphone and proclaimed, "I ask the representative of the students of Szeged to speak!"
There was a deafening ovation that took quite a while to taper off until there was total silence. I saw the six-foot-four Jancsi Danner reaching down to his waist as he gave the microphone to the diminutive delegate from Szeged. I just stood in the protective ring around him, and my eyes filled with tears as he started to speak in a strong voice: "Fellow students! Hungarians!"
I saw the flash of cameras. I saw strangers rushing to the telephones. Floodlights started to glare and film cameras begun to buzz. And the little fellow from Szeged was oblivious to it all as he started to speak: "Once again, the wind of freedom is blowing in from Poland. The Polish exchange students at our university are asking for our support. Russian troops are surrounding Warsaw, but the Polish army is also encircling the Russians. The city of Poznan is also free, but surrounded. Poland is showing the way and is asking for our solidarity. We will not let them down! We, the students of Szeged, have decided to follow the Poles in establishing our independent student organization, the MEFESZ. Please join us. Please do not believe the lies. Please form your own MEFESZ!"
At that point he seemed confused. His voice faltered. And then, haltingly, without a tune, he started to mumble the words of our forbidden hymn, the hymn most hated by the Communists: our national anthem. This anthem had not been heard in public for nearly a decade; one could sing it only in church, after the mass. This anthem that stood for the things the Communists most despised: God, country, and liberty. The anthem that we call our national prayer, the anthem that a Hungarian can sing only while standing at attention.
The great chandelier of the aula trembled and the windows shook as we sang our hearts out. As we finished we were all weeping. And during those couple of minutes of singing, a miracle occurred in that great hall. We were not the same people we had been a few minutes earlier. We, these tearful kids still standing at attention in that great hall, we had been reborn. We had stopped being scared. And therefore we were free!
It was sometime around five o'clock when, by acclamation, we decided to form our own branch of the MEFESZ. The Party officials and the DISZ penguins were still near the speaker's platform, but now we had the microphone, and it was up to us to decide who would use it and we did not stop anybody from speaking. If the students liked what a speaker was saying, they would clap, if they did not, their silence spoke for them.
The first few speakers concentrated on student matters. One suggested that we should also learn English, French, and German instead of only Russian. Another proposed that the subject of Marxism-Leninism no longer be compulsory. In the meantime, people started to arrive from other universities and factories. Through some magic, which I still do not understand, by this time the whole city knew that something unusual was happening at the Technical University. The speeches became more and more passionate and fiery, the demands broader in scope and more radical.
I was completely euphoric. I was really starting to believe that I mattered, that what I thought, what we the students thought, made a difference, that our future was in our own hands. These few minutes transformed the students of this university into true patriots. If that sounds maudlin, I am sorry; I cannot help it. All I know is that it felt great and that my life suddenly had a purpose. All I wanted to do was to serve, to be part of this struggle that would make my countrymen free, proud, and happy.
But fear and self-doubt followed the euphoria. I knew that zeal and enthusiasm were no substitute for experience. I was afraid that we might do something stupid. How would we know what were the right things to do?
Almost as if he were answering me, I heard the next speaker introduce himself. "I am József Szilágyi." He was an adult evening student and a follower of the Reform Communist politician Imre Nagy. I listened to him very closely.2 "What you are doing is not illegal! The Hungarian Constitution gives you the right to free speech and the right to petition your government. It is not only your right, it is your duty to articulate your concerns. And it is the duty of the government to respond to your concerns!"
After Szilágyi, a writer named Péter Kuczka took the microphone. "The Party secretary of your university was lying to you. Your duty today is not to return to your studies. You have a higher duty today. The workers of Poznan are on strike. Warsaw is surrounded by tanks. Today you must show your solidarity. You must support the Polish workers. You must support those people who are fighting for all of us."
By then we started scribbling down the demands that the assembled students approved by acclamation of the assembly. We wrote on regular notebook pages. The students doing the scribbling included Ede Némethy, Iván Szabó, Jancsi Danner, Bandi Nemcsik, Imi Mécs, and several others. We were trying to follow the example of the last Hungarian revolution, the example of those who, in 1848, condensed the demands of the nation into twelve concise points. It must have been about 7:00 P.M. when a shy student with a bad stutter came to the microphone. His stammer made his already quiet voice barely audible. With tremendous effort he squeezed out: "C-c-could th-th-the R-r-russians l-l-leave?"
The response was indescribable. First there was deathly silence, and then the thousands of people in the aula rose to their feet with an ovation that seemed to go on forever. We just could not believe it! Finally! Finally somebody dared to ask the question that was on all our minds, but nobody had the courage to say it out loud. And then, mixed with the applause but slowly drowning it out, a rallying cry grew until it was deafening: "Russkis go home! Russkis go home!"
For the last hour I simply stood at the microphone with those who helped to clear the way for the student from Szeged to speak. Off to our right were the Party officials, the DISZ people, and one of the rectors of the university, Tibor Cholnoky. The officers of the military department were standing behind them. They seemed to be just as astonished as the rest of us. Finally, the Party secretary strode to the microphone. Her tone was ominous. She told us that the meeting was closed, that anybody who remained would be participating in an illegal gathering, and that the penalty for that was expulsion. After that, she abruptly marched out, followed by the DISZ and other Party officials. The representatives of the press also left; only one newspaper reporter, a redheaded young man from the paper Szabad Ifjuság (Free Youth) dared to stay.
To our surprise, though, the officers of the Military Department and their commander, Colonel Marián, Rector Cholnoky, and a few of the professors also remained. Maybe even more remarkable was the fact that in spite of the expulsion threat, none of the students were leaving.
Now a new speaker took the microphone: "Let us take our demands to the radio," he suggested. One of our young assistant professors, István Jankovich, was the owner of a tiny Italian car, a Topolino, and he offered to take a delegation to the radio station to find out if they would broadcast our demands. The station was just on the other side of the Danube (see map). The time must have been about nine o'clock. When they returned, they reported that the censors at the radio were willing to broadcast our demands in a news bulletin, but only if we deleted the most critical demands dealing with the Russians, Poland, free elections, freedom of the press, and the formation of a new government under Imre Nagy. Instead of bargaining with the censors, our delegation simply returned to the university.
In the meantime, trucks with workers' delegations were arriving from the factories of Budapest, and the mood in the aula was turning angrier. By ten o'clock I had already eaten all of the bread crumbs I could find in the pockets of both my trousers and my corduroy jacket. Gone, long gone, was even the memory of the boiled kale I had had for lunch when another speaker came to the microphone and suggested that we march on the radio station right away. He wanted all of us to go—all three or four thousand of us. "They refused a delegation of three. See what they do with a delegation of three thousand?"
The acclamation that followed seemed to obviate the need for any debate. It seemed that we were going to march on the radio station right away. We were collecting our things and getting ready to leave when the officers of the military department, whom we had almost forgotten and who until now stood quietly at the wall, started walking toward the microphone. Everything stopped. All eyes turned on the commander and department head, Colonel Marián. He was a short, dark man of about thirty-five. Naturally, he was a Communist, and he was also Jewish, as were many people who were in positions of authority at that time. It seemed that just as the German occupiers picked mostly German Hungarians to run the country for them, the Russians had chosen mostly Jewish Hungarians. But Marián was a Reform Communist like Imre Nagy. He was no traitor, and certainly not a fanatic. Marián was a farmer's son from Transylvania, the part of Romania that was taken from Hungary after World War I. In Transylvania the Jews were fully integrated into Hungarian society. There, it made no difference if you were a Jewish Hungarian or a Calvinist one.
Still, as István Marián walked to the microphone I did not know what to expect. As I lowered the microphone to match his five-foot-something stature, I was silently praying to God: "Don't let him call us comrades! Anything but comrades!" Marián's first words were: "My sons!" About half the students were female, but we still felt that he used the right address—in fact, the only possible address. He continued, "My life is not more valuable than yours. I, too, am first a Hungarian, and everything else comes only after that. But I am older and I know this regime better than you do. I will not allow you to walk into an ÁVH trap in the dark of the night. No, we will march in the daylight tomorrow and we will march after having obtained the proper permits. We will not break any laws. And if we do a good job tonight, tomorrow the whole capital will march with us. And then I will lead you!"
I was so relieved! This was what I was waiting for; this was what I needed. I needed the guidance of someone who knew what needed to be done—someone who was both smart and brave—someone I could trust. In that moment I decided that I would stick with Colonel Marián.
It was about eleven o'clock when our small group at the microphone decided to let the meeting continue without us. We asked Bandi Nemcsik to take our demands to Iván Sándor, the editor of our paper, A Jöv_ Mérnöke (The Engineer of the Future). Iván had both the guts and the shrewdness to get the demands printed by next morning. Then we went to our rector, Tibor Cholnoky, and asked his permission to reproduce the fourteen demands using the stencil duplicators of the university. He refused. He would not dare take the responsibility for something like that.
We did not know what to do. The demands and the announcement of tomorrow's demonstration had to be duplicated, but how would we do it? At that point a young blonde assistant professor of chemistry said, "Listen, I can show you where the stencil room is, and if you force the door open I can teach you how to operate it. I have been using those copiers to reproduce my homework assignments and tests."
We knew that Kati was young and beautiful. Now we learned that she was also brave. She and I became instant friends; I trusted her the same way I trusted the colonel. We called her Kati Sz_ke because she was so blonde—sz_ke in Hungarian means blonde—but her real name was Kati Nemes. It took two minutes to break the lock. Kati Sz_ke, Ede Némethy, Jancsi Danner, and a few others and I got started on the job of reproducing the demands.
There was a telephone in the room, so I called Ágnes. It was Ágnes's half-sister, Judit, who answered my call. "No, she will not speak to you! No, I know she will not! She locked herself in her room and has been crying all evening. How could you do such a thing?" I stammered something about the meeting, about protecting the microphone and copying the demands. But as I listened to myself, it all sounded so stupid, made no sense at all. I felt terrible. I begged Judit to explain to Ágnes, I tried to convince her that this meeting today had been something special, but it was no use.
When I finally hung up, Attila asked, "What happened?"
"Nothing, nothing," I replied, but very, very quietly.
It was near midnight when the demands and the announcement of next day's demonstration were finally printed. I went back to the aula, passed out a few copies, and kept a dozen or so for myself. The meeting was still going on. All agreed that during the night we would spread the news of the demonstration. Gyuszi Perr had a motorcycle, so he and his bride Marika—the runner at the previous day's athletic competition—would take the announcement to Csepel, the largest industrial complex in Hungary. I, in turn, would alert the Agricultural University of Gödöll_, where my brother Péter was a student. I would be back by 7:00 A.M. to act as one of the MEFESZ guards at the gates of the university. Everybody had an assignment. There was not much time left for sleep that night.
It was close to 1:00 A.M. when I left the university. I caught the completely empty No. 49 tram, but there was no connection on Rákóczi Street, so I ran all the way to the East Railroad train station. The train was just starting to pull out, but I managed to jump on, dripping with sweat. The train was unheated, and I knew I would have to thank my beautiful corduroy jacket if I did not catch a cold.
Later, walking to our house, I was greeted by every dog in the village of Kerepes. What a concert! Next, Bukucs was jumping all over me. It was past 2:00 A.M. on that Tuesday, the twenty-third of October. I tried to open the creaking kitchen door quietly. Memi had left my supper on the stove, and I started eating from the stew pan. Then I heard some stirring in the bedrooms, so I quickly got a plate and continued stuffing myself with slightly improved manners. Memi appeared in her bathrobe, then Aptyi in his nighttime beret, which warmed his balding scalp. Eventually Péter and Andris also joined us. I told them about the meeting and read out loud our demands and the announcement of the demonstration.
So there I was, announcing that we demand this and we demand that. Memi's expression was one of fear—fear that her son had gone mad. Andris, who had just awakened, first thought that I was telling about a dream I had had. Aptyi's eyes were wet. He knew. During the German occupation, when he heard the Nazi salute, "Victory or death!" he would mutter under his breath, "To you, definitely death!" And now, a few years later, whenever he heard the Communist salute, "Freedom!" he always muttered, "Yes, we could use some!" Next I handed over the stenciled copies of our announcements to Péter. He took them, but warned me: "Tomorrow there will be no demonstrations, there will be arrests!" As Péter spoke I saw a flashback, I saw the scared kid from Szeged; I heard the trembling voice of Jancsi Danner as he yelled, "Let him speak!" I also saw Colonel Marián as he slowly walked to the speaker's stand, waited for me to lower the microphone, and then started by saying, "My sons!"
So I retorted, "No, Péter, you are wrong, and Stalin was wrong when he asked, 'How many divisions does the Pope have?' No divisions can destroy our ideals. It is axiomatic that occupied colonies must eventually liberate themselves, that societies built on lies must self-destruct. But we do not deserve freedom if we do not help ourselves. These are not my words, but those of President Eisenhower. He said them when he proclaimed the doctrine of self-liberation. So if we get into a jam with the Communists, I am sure the Americans will help!"
Peter only scoffed, "Sure. They would help themselves to our oil if we had any. How stupid can you get? It was Eisenhower's predecessor, Roosevelt, who gave Hungary to Stalin in the first place. We were his birthday gift at Yalta. So whom are you kidding? The rich don't give a damn about ideals. The only thing they care about is getting richer!" But I did not agree. "Come on, Peter. Rich people have a conscience too. Americans conceived the Marshall plan, and there were American volunteers fighting Franco in Spain. Americans, too, have a heart. They also like to sleep at night. Besides, we are not asking the Americans for anything! Tomorrow, there will be no clashes with anybody. What we will be holding is a peaceful demonstration with a legal permit. And our demonstration will be led by a Communist colonel!"
I went to bed at about 3:00 A.M. but was up by 5:00 to catch the 6:02 train.