Flying under the radar to escape the reprisals

Mobile phones were still rare back in 1999, so when I went in search of the people who had participated in the 1956 Revolution, I used a phonebook to look up the names that I had found in the archives. To my surprise, many of the revolution’s participants still lived in the same areas of the city where they had lived back in 1956. During the first round, I focused on those people who had less common names, which is how I came across István Kléger, who was the vice president of the Workers’ Council of the Csepel Iron and Steelworks. When I made the call via landline, the person on the other end was a nice, elderly man who at first did not even understand how I had found him. Nonetheless, he gladly agreed to an interview.

István Kléger was one of five siblings and was of Swabian descent. He spoke German at home growing up and worked as an engineer in the power plant division at the Iron and Steelworks. He was elected to be the vice president of the workers’ council during the revolution.

Leaders of the council were arrested in parliament in December 1956. Kléger had every reason to believe that he would also be detained, which is why, along with 200,000 of his fellow citizens, he left the country. Kléger left via Yugoslavia, since the workers’ councils had been based on the Yugoslav model. He crossed the Dráva River in the cold of winter, and from there received assistance to make it to Halle in Germany. He returned to Hungary in 1961.

Upon returning he was not persecuted for his participation in the revolution, probably since by that point the trial regarding the Csepel workers’ councils had concluded, and his name only appeared in the documents as having left the country. Elek Nagy, the president of the council, was convicted in 1958 and sentenced to 12 years in prison before being released in 1963 following the general amnesty. József Bácsi, the other vice president, received 10 years and was also released in 1963.

Kléger did not make any attempts to re-establish contact with his former workers’ council comrades, electing to instead fly below the radar and not discuss his activates in 1956. Following his return to Hungary, he worked for a textile cooperative and later as a building caretaker. Kléger was quite surprised that I was able to find him, and I encouraged him to get in touch with his companions, since there was no need to fear the reprisals anymore. Kléger in fact did manage to reach his former companions and kept in touch with them. When he passed a year later, his former comrades and fellow revolutionaries paid their respects at his funeral.

Eszter Zsófia Tóth