Armed women revolutionaries in 1956

“If girls could have been soldiers, I’m certain I would have been one… I was always a tomboy, I had a younger brother, and I always played with boys. Number Wars [a variant of Capture the Flag where players wear numbers on their heads that if called out correctly knocks them out of the game] was my favorite; I never liked playing with dolls.”

This was how a woman fighter recalled her childhood. The women who played active roles in the revolutionary groups behaved like soldiers: they had weapons that they fired, they made and threw Molotov cocktails at tanks, collected ammunition and stood watch. In their recollections, these women revolutionaries speak of themselves as being of equal rank to the men. “To them I was just like one of the other guys. I was another comrade-in-arms,” another woman revolutionary emphasized.

Six women were executed during the reprisals following the 1956 revolution. The majority of them had fought in armed groups, as did those who received life or 15-year prison sentences. The women who found themselves in the sights of the criminal authorities did not receive any leniency on account of their gender.

What kind of backgrounds did these women have? Why did they also feel compelled to take up arms and that their place was on the barricades?

The women who participated in the fighting were primarily young and had been raised by the state or came from large families, who could only overcome these disadvantages with great difficulty (if at all) upon starting their independent lives. They worked government jobs, perhaps as an assistant in a factory. Starting a family also ended in failure for many, and their children wound up in state care. Perhaps these women felt that the revolution gave them the opportunity to do something that would provide them with more opportunities in life. “I did not possess any conscious revolutionary spirit when I went there. Of course, had I been so satisfied with my life, if I had really loved what I had, then I probably would not have wound up on the barricades,” Mária Wittner recalled, who was sentenced to life in prison for her part in the revolution and would go on to serve two terms in parliament following the system change.

Mária Wittner’s friend Katalin Sticker (1932 – 1959) did not know her father and was given to an orphanage by her mother as a young child, who took her back at the age of 13 and taught her to sew. She did not stay at home for long, and left to become an apprentice. Sticker later worked as a winder and cleaner, and was employed by a light factory until her arrest. On October 24th, 1956, she left for work but joined the protesters on Margaret Bridge. Sticker met Wittner in Corvin Lane, with whom she tended to the injured. Her role in the fighting is uncertain, but she was definitely a part of those policing the area. Following the capture of the party headquarters at Köztársaság Square, she participated in the search for the secret prisons, firing her machine gun into one of the openings discovered in the basement. On November 7, Sticker escaped to Austria and continued on to Switzerland. Having met her fiancé during the revolution, she returned in January 1957 trusting that she would be amnestied. Instead, Sticker was arrested on June 25th and executed in February 1959.

Mária Wittner is the most famous woman to have participated in the revolution, who in numerous interviews and in her autobiography discussed the events of 1956 and her and her friends’ fates. Like Sticker she also did not know her father, and her mother gave her to a foster home at a young age. Later on Wittner was raised by nuns before living in a children’s home. She left high school before graduating and worked as a typist in Szolnok and then Kunhegyes. Wittner gave birth to a child at the age of 17 whom she then raised alone. In Budapest she survived by working odd jobs, and was later employed as a domestic worker. She joined the revolutionaries on October 23rd at the siege of the radio building, at first providing aid to the wounded and then later taking part in the fighting together with the Vajdahunyad Street group. On November 4th, she was injured by shrapnel and was released from hospital on November 9th. Wittner escaped with her boyfriend to Austria, but soon returned, after which she was condemned to death following her conviction for armed participation, several counts of attempted murder, armed robbery and defecting. The sentence was later reduced to life in prison, and she was released in 1970 owing to international pressure. After prison, Wittner worked as a seamstress and cleaner before receiving a disability pension in 1984.

From 2006 to 2014, Witter was a member of the Hungarian Parliament, and has always strived to preserve the memory of the 1956 Revolution. A film about her life, titled Hóhér, vigyázz! A siralomháztól a Parlamentig (Hangman, Watch Out! From Death Row to Parliament) was produced in 2007, making her personal story accessible to a wider audience.

Eszter Zsófia Tóth