Peg-leg Johnny, the disabled hero from Corvin Lane who made his mark in 1956
An interesting exhibition was opened for the 60th anniversary of the 1956 Revolution based on the research work of Borbála Harcsa, which focuses on the participation of those with disabilities during the revolution. The exhibition is located in a café (Nem adom fel/I won’t give up) where the employees themselves all have a disability.
Sándor Petőfi, the poet of the 1848-1849 Revolution and Failed War of Independence, put it eloquently that in the revolution everyone should participate “if we lose both our hands, even if we all die here, still we go forward”. During the 1950s in Hungary those with disabilities did not receive any special treatment in society and were even frequently excluded from it, since there was nothing at the time that resembled any form of assistance for them. This is another reason why it makes for such a terrific story that the legendary artillery captain of Corvin Lane, János Mesz, known as Peg-leg Johnny, fought against the Soviet invaders with a wooden stump at the end of his left leg and gave his life for Hungary’s freedom.
Mesz was born in Pécs in 1931 into a family of masons. One of twelve siblings, he grew up partially in a children’s shelter. In Budapest he worked at the Csillaghegy Brick Factory and lost his left foot in a traffic accident. Mesz was a regular at the famous people’s cafeteria, the Ilkovics Büfé. The leader of the Corvin Lane group, Gergely Pongrátz, emphasized that the reason Mesz was imprisoned on charges of criminal work avoidance prior to the revolution was because no one would employ him due to his wooden leg. During the Rákosi era, if someone was without a job, they were sent to prison.
Mesz joined the protestors on October 23rd and then found himself at Corvin Lane. According to his comrades-in-arms, he took out several tanks during the fighting. Instead of his hand, he would use his wooden peg to pull on the cord that would fire the rounds. Mesz earned a reputation as a fearless soldier and participated in the siege of the Budapest Communist Party headquarters. He was accused of killing Imre Mező, one of the Communist Party’s top secretaries, at the scene, but there is no direct evidence of this. János Mesz was mortally wounded during the Soviet invasion of November 4th while fighting at Corvin Lane, after an exploding shell from a Soviet tank struck him. He clung on to life for another two weeks before passing away.
Eszter Zsófia Tóth