When health workers were also targets

During times of conflict, health workers have been central figures by saving lives. It’s their work that often allowed injured soldiers to recuperate and then return to the battlefield. This was also the case during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, although in Budapest, the teenage and twenty-something fighters were frequently treated by doctors and other caregivers of a similar age. Sometimes they were medical students who were still completing their studies, since the revolutionaries overwhelmingly came from the youth. This can also be seen by looking at the time following the revolution’s defeat. Those sentenced to death by the courts were primarily under the age of 40, mostly employed as workers or peasants. It turned the communist slogan of ‘power to the workers and peasants’ into a farce.

1956 was a busy year for health workers in Hungary. The country’s largest river, the Danube, spilled over its banks and caused flooding throughout the country, bringing with it much damage. Additionally, an unusually strong earthquake for the region caused some of the most significant damage in the 20th century when it struck near the capital in Dunaharaszti, which also required aid from health workers. When the revolution broke out, according to witnesses, it was uplifting and at the same time tragic to see health workers at the start of their careers use their knowledge to save the dying or critically injured revolutionaries lying in the streets. They were out providing care from October 23 to November 4 in 1956, when the communist dictatorship appeared to be overthrown, but they were also there for the most difficult period after November 4, when the Soviet Army arrived with 2,000 armored units to crush the Hungarian Revolution. For the sake of comparison, the Soviet Army sent the same amount of firepower to crush the revolution as they had used against Nazi Germany in World War II, meaning that Hungary had zero chance of protecting the revolution’s achievements.

The brutal Soviet military response claimed many lives, most of them young. The number of victims from the attacks after November 4 is uncertain to this day, some sources claiming that over 10 thousand died in the street battles. One thing is certain, however, that among the dead was Klára Anna Szentkirályi, a student from Budakeszi who was killed at the age of 20 by Soviet henchmen. She studied at almost the same time as my mother, completing high school a year after her. During the revolution, she bandaged wounds, assisted in removing bullets and did what she could to save lives. Klára was a volunteer ambulance worker and wore a red cross armband, which even during the worst parts of war is supposed to serve as a sign that these people are not to be fired upon, for they are not fighting but are saving lives, and if necessary will also aid the soldiers of the enemy. And there were examples of that, providing medical aid to the enemy, in 1956. Klára, my mother’s schoolmate, was struck by a bullet during the fiercest fighting on November 4th as she was trying to reach an injured solider in Corvin Lane by Ullői Road. The Soviets thus shot down a medic as she was carrying out her job. Poignantly, her death as a result of Soviet fire killed a young caregiver who had planned to devote her medical career to pre-natal care and young children.

My mother essentially owes her life to the fact that she completed her social work studies in 1956 prior to the revolution and found work in a region that did not see as much fighting. She preserves the memory of Klára Szentkirályi, and when she visits her relatives in Budapest’s Farkasréti Cemetery, she always visits Klára’s grave and remembers the woman she knew who died heroically in service to the revolution.

Bence Csatári