Armed revolutionaries, aid workers and nurses…

When we think of the 1956 Revolution, it’s men who first come to mind, not women. The chain of events that happened during the revolution are generally considered manly activities. Women, aside from the armed revolutionaries, are primarily presented as aid workers, nurses and guardians of the kitchen. They are the ones who prepared sandwiches so that the intellectuals arguing about how best to save the world would have something to eat. In terms of the 1956 Revolution, women are usually only mentioned if they were witnesses to an important event (such as shots fired at protestors) or if their husbands were revolutionaries, with the story usually being that the women guarded the memories of these men who were either executed or served long prison sentences.

Women gained equal rights to men in Hungary in 1945. That was when all adults got the right to vote and universities also opened their doors to women.1956_02_women_fbsize2

At the beginning of the protests on October 23, 1956, it was women university students or women with white collar professional jobs who were primarily in attendance, and following this the housewives watching the events or women

An 18-year-old girl who was at Bem Square with her friends described the event in her diary: “The lawyers got to know us, and upon learning that we were high school students pulled us into the line, smiling at us and telling us the chants. ‘Wave the Hungarian flag’ we shouted, and flags flew from the windows with holes in the center, from where the communist coat of arms had been cut out. An old lady leaned far out of her window and applauded us with all her might. The Chain Bridge shook beneath us as we crossed. I looked at the people stopped on the bridge as they watched the protest. ‘Come with us!’ we shouted and saw hesitation and happiness on their faces.”

In the picture we can see Erika Kornélia Szeles. This famous picture was taken by the celebrated Danish photojournalist Vagn Hansen, and this image was printed on the cover of Billet Baldet. The photographer recalled the moment the image was taken thusly: “I accidentally managed to take a picture that became world-famous and became a symbol of the revolution. I saw an attractive but serious looking girl in a coat with a Russian machine gun over her shoulder, and I convinced her to let me take some photos of her.”

The young, red-haired girl, who was 15 at the time of the revolution, was raised alone by her mother from the age of 3; her father had perished in the Holocaust. Before joining the revolutionaries, she had trained as a chef and worked in the Béke Hotel. Szeles died during the final struggles near Blaha Lujza Square on November 8, 1956. She had been trying to help an injured companion when she was struck by a fatal shot. A film about her story is currently being produced.

Mária Sebestyén, who as a 22-year-old participated in the revolution as a modern-day Florence Nightingale, was drawn into the center of the events: “My father joined me, and we went to the Stalin statue. The steel cables were already attached, and they were trying to pull it down with the trucks, but the statue would not give. I remember that they brought cutting torches and began to work on the boots. Meanwhile, news arrived that we should go to the radio building, where they were dispersing the crowd with teargas and high-pressure water hoses, and were not permitting them to read the points on the radio. I caught a truck to the radio. They had not yet begun firing on the crowd, but that began not long after we arrived. Therefore, I already began my Red Cross service at the radio building, since I had previously learned first aid because it was a compulsory course in high school”.

The nurses were torn from their everyday environments for various amounts of time as they were together with the armed revolutionaries. These women made tea, peeled potatoes or dressed the wounds of the injured during the pauses in fighting. Other women in addition to them were also with the fighters: in recollections they were there as wives, lovers or as “young girls hungry for the romance of the revolution” who assisted in procuring food.

Others considered it important to go to their workplaces (despite the great difficulties), although they could hear gunfire during their route or would have to show their papers along the way.

Mária Sebestyén also participated in the women’s protest of December 4. She attempted to escape to the west in January 1957, but this was unsuccessful since the borders were already closed. Sebestyén was arrested February 18, 1957, and was at first sentenced to prison for two years and eight months, which was reduced on appeal, after which she was released March 4, 1958. She later worked as a seamstress, film extra and as an administrator. On June 16, 1989 she was part of the honor guard at the reburial of Imre Nagy and his fellow martyrs, which is widely considered the moment when the end of communism in Hungary became inevitable.

Eszter Zsófia Tóth