The Forgotten Heroes of 20th Century Hungarian History

Origo - 13.01.2021. (Tamás Elter)

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  • 2021. January 13.
The Forgotten Heroes of 20th Century Hungarian History (Origo)

The formidable totalitarian ideologies, Bolshevism, National Socialism and fascism in the 20th century caused horrible damage in the whole world, more specifically in our region, Central and Eastern Europe too, and their indirect impact can be detected to this day. Oppressive dictatorships did everything in order to gain full control of society, but even in times of institutionalised terror there were some, who put their own personal lives aside and chose to resist rather than compromise. The collection „Magyar hősök. Elfeledett életutak a 20. századból” [Hungarian Heroes. Forgotten Lifepaths from the 20th Century] fills a void in publishing various, lesser-known lifepaths of everyday heroes. We talked about the book with historian Réka Földváryné Kiss, chairperson of the Committee of National Remembrance.

(…) Our primary aim was to demonstrate how everyday people were forced by the totalitarian dictatorships of the 20th century to step up. None of the portrayed individuals were “born heroes”. The people in the book were ordinary individuals, living their own lives, and were made heroes by the historic situation. Their background and lives were very different: among them, there were blue-collar workers, peasants as well as highly qualified intellectuals, army officers and members of the oldest historical churches on both sides of the borders.

Réka Kiss (Origo)

Heroism manifested in many ways, from participation in armed resistance to saving people, and we tried to demonstrate that in the book. Quite a number of the people in the collection fought against the Nazi dictatorship, and yet, later they were stigmatized as Nazis in the communist era, because the leaders of the party state found their persistence might mean potential danger to their power.

The Forgotten Heroes of 20th Century Hungarian History (Origo) 3.

(…) The essence of this “everyday heroism” was maybe best articulated by Ödön Lénárd, who spent eighteen and a half year altogether in Rákosi’s prison: “The difference between the hero and the coward lies in the fact that the hero is afraid but stays, whereas the coward is afraid and runs away.” This heroic attitude can be seen in the story of pharmacist and factory owner Gedeon Richter. He had the chance to immigrate with the help of the Red Cross, but he wanted to stay to help, although he knew he was taking serious risk. At the end of December 1944 he was shot into the Danube by young Nazis along with some of his peers. People like him became heroes by taking risks courageously, regardless their world view and social status. Our primary aim was to personify history through their stories.

The Forgotten Heroes of 20th Century Hungarian History (Origo) 2.

(…) The 1956 revolution had a lot of “everyday heroes”. Let me talk about Mrs Béla Havrilla (Katalin Sticker), who came from a low social class and was brought up among very modest circumstances. Sticker was one of the six female convicts who were executed as part of Kádár’s retaliation. She was 23 when the revolution broke out in 1956 and she was working as a machine operator in the lamp factory in Soroksári Street. She joined the rebels at 41 Vajdahunyad Street on 26 October, and forged a life-long friendship with Mária Wittner, a fellow freedom fighter, who managed to survive Kádár’s retaliation with incredible luck. The young woman – just like many of her age – had an enormous thirst for freedom. After 4 November her group stood up against the overpowering Soviet armoured troops in a hopeless fight. Sticker made Molotov cocktails and help with the wounded. A couple of days later she emigrated to Austria, because all hope seemed to be lost for the revolution, and she settled down in Switzerland. She returned home at the beginning of 1957, trusting János Kádár’s false promise of amnesty on 1 December 1957. She was arrested some months later and her case – along with Wittner Mária’s and others – was given to Gusztáv Tutsek, one of the most infamous judges of Kádár’s retaliation. The death sentence of the young woman at first instance was approved by the most bloody-handed judge of the 56 trials, János Borbély, a.k.a. „the Smiling Death”. She was executed on 26 February 1959.

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Reka Kiss