11. 09. 2009. 16:05

Excerpt from Monkey on a Bicycle: Portrait of an Age, Portrait of the Life of Ágnes Heller: An interview-novel by János Kőbányi

It was 1956. In those days, nobody stole. The murderers who had left prison did not murder, the robbers did not rob. The moral level of the entire nation remained on a higher plane, everyone rose above themselves. In this aspect, 1956 was not just a republican moment in the life of Hungary, but an invigourating moral celebration as well.

All of Budapest was seething and streaming. We went back: here there were crowds, there groups of people were starting to collect. In front of Parliament: like a sea. We met up with Pista Mészáros, who informed us that all of the lectures that the Petofi Circle had planned for the following week had been delayed because of the events, but that we should most certainly come. Another clump of people came rushing towards us, breathlessly informing us that there was shooting at the Hungarian Radio building. They can’t shoot! Where’re they shooting? We were disillusioned with Imre Nagy’s speech. If a crowd is hanging on every word, don’t say that we’re going to talk everything out and then say “I am not the prime minister…” Speak to the crowd! Or don’t come out at all. I was seized with rage, because I felt that he had failed to rise to the situation, and was merely acting like a functionary. “They’re shooting at the radio building!” “Let’s go there!” We started off, but by the time we got there, the shooting had stopped. It was evening. We roamed all over the city; it was impossible to find out what was going on. Everything was in motion; the news came that the barracks had been opened, and it was possible to obtain weapons. We wandered here and there, my small daughter Zsuzsa was in the hospital battling with pneumonia; rest was necessary. We arrived home at three o’clock in the morning, slept for a couple of hours, at dawn we ran over to Zsuzsa. In the hospital, the radio was bellowing: Erno Gero was calling upon the people to hand in their weapons, with the promise of amnesty. We hurried to the university, where we were met with the news that a revolutionary committee of intellectuals was to be formed. And not long after that, Géza Losonczy and György Ádám would be arriving to give a talk. While we waited for them, I “founded” the MSZMP with Gyuri Litván in a small seminar room. I didn’t want to hear anything more about the Hungarian Workers’ Party. It was time to build a new socialist party; a completely different one. One that would begin from anew. From nothing. A virgin initiative. And one that the sins from the previous decade could never cling to.
We regularly kept running from the Revolutionary Committee to Zsuzsa in the hospital, then back to the maelstrom of the revolution. There were no doctors in the hospital, they could not make it there because there was no public transportation, and they did not come on foot, like us. Poor Zsuzsa was lying there ill, only the nurses took care of her. It was 1956. Nobody could give a tip. In those days, nobody stole. The murderers who had left prison did not murder, the robbers did not rob. The moral level of the entire nation remained on a higher plane, everyone rose above themselves. In this aspect, 1956 was not just a republican moment in the life of Hungary, but an invigourating moral celebration as well.
Géza Losonczy – whom we were expecting to bring a message from Imre Nagy – never arrived. Perhaps Imre Nagy had no message to send to us. At last, Gyuri Ádám appeared, with the news that so far, the negotiations were still continuing. The next day, however, we waited in vain for the delegation from Imre Nagy; we didn’t meet with them during the entire revolution, so we never did know what his message would have been for the intellectuals at the university. One evening, coming home from the committee, we were stopped by a soldier with a tricolor armband, shoving a revolver into my chest. I took out my membership card for the Writers’ Union. He saluted. My Writers’ Union membership card – like the jolly joker dealt in the winning hand – caused all obstacles to disappear.
We ran headlong from one place to the other, looking for our friends: who was fighting? Where were they fighting? If they weren’t fighting, what were they doing? The situation was confused. The professors gathered at the university. László Bóka wrote above his office door: “Here I was a university professor.” Everyone was at work composing a revolutionary speech. Dezso Pais, the mild-mannered linguist, was delivering patriotic orations accompanied by theatrical gestures. Yesterday’s committed Communists had within two days, without exception, shed their skin for an anti-Communist one. This applied not only to those who had simply joined Party organizations, but also to the MAMLUKs as well, who pounced with unsparing vigour on anyone they viewed as lacking in commitment. I asked several of them: would they join the MSZMP? They demurred, because only now were they discovering within themselves the original Social or Christian Democrat. “But it often happened that even yesterday, you wanted to cut my throat, you were such a fervent Communist.” But thanks be to God, within two days all discovered that they had always been, and always would be, Social Democrats, Agrarians, or Nationalists – thus they set their conscience in order, with full retroactive force. I was more amused by the scene, I was not truly scandalized. I was so happy that the Revolution had come that I was more inclined to see it in terms of the human comedy. I was truly indignant afterwards, when the very same people immediately discovered that their Communist identity was still fully valid.
In those intoxicating days, if I may use such a term, the entire nation’s heart beat as one. Everyone rejoiced that they could breathe freely. If you left a packet of cigarettes somewhere, the next day you would find it in exactly the same place, because nobody took the belongings of others. If someone did not have enough money in the shop, the next person in the queue paid for the bread for them. These very small acts – although of deep moral significance – showed that a common cause, at least for a certain time, lifts everyone up. Everyone understood: nothing is happening to us; we are the creators of something. These days are our own work; we are exercising our own freedom.
Revolutionary committees and workers’ councils came into being – even in the hospital where Zsuzsa was lying. Every day, a new workers’ council appeared with a new proclamation: “What do we want?” They want this and that. We read with great excitement about everything that people had come up with. “Free elections!” “A responsible Hungarian government!” They used that beautiful phrase – from 1948 – but also the concept of self-government or “workers’ councils”. “We’re not giving back the factories or the land!” We didn’t want to give back the means of production to the forces of capital, nor to the state: everything was ours. We would till the soil together, we would organize things ourselves. Nowadays, they say that 1956 was a socialist revolution, the only true socialist revolution in world history, because the larger part of the slogans spontaneously reflected socialist ideas. There is a lot of truth to that definition, because the revolution was characterized by many socialist elements. Still, I myself would not call it unequivocally a socialist revolution, because its essence was the exercise of the most various forms of freedom. People’s fantasies began to operate, in every minute the strength of imagination brought a new institution into being. I call this a “republican moment”. People took their fate into their own hands, nobody bent down to power. Who held power in those days? No one. Was it anarchy? No. Never were people so orderly, so organized as they were then. The trams weren’t running? There was a strike. But people stood in the queues in front of the shops, they did not steal nor deceive, although the prisons had been emptied. It was freedom without licence.
I felt that Hungary had now regained normality. It lost it in 1919 after the terrible shock of Trianon, with the Soviet Republic, the White Terror, Horthyism, the Nazis, Communism, Stalinism – each one more insane than the next. For the first time, I felt I was at home somewhere! In 1956, I felt for the first time: here is my home. This not only means that I speak the language, that there are certain poems I’ve heard my whole life, but also that I can build my own life into the history of this place. I’ve always rooted for Israel, for everything to go well there, that is essential for me. But Israel is not my homeland. It is not built into the veins of my blood, I never fought there, nor have my children. There is always a hope burning within me for everything there to succeed. But I have built my life here, in Hungary. I felt this for the first time in 1956. Not before then. During the years of the Holocaust, I stifled my Hungarianness, after the Holocaust I buried my Jewishness within me. Communism covered everything with huge universal illusions. I woke up from the illusion of universalism in 1956: I am at home here. In 1967, during the turmoil of the Six Days' War, I became Jewish again. I became what I am today: a Hungarian Jew.
At the professors’ conference, where Pais was proclaiming nationalist Losungs, László Bóka was maliciously ironic, and where it emerged that last week’s Communists were lifelong Social Democrats, liberals or nationalists, and where there was an unverifiable assortment of every possible “-ism”, some people crashed into the room with the news that ÁVO agents dressed in nurses’ uniforms tried to escape, and were killed on Köztársaság tér. Others said: “That isn’t true.” There is a certain type of person who always automatically refuses any awkward, illusion-destroying phenomenon, with the statement “it isn’t true.” I have never been so certain myself. During the Holocaust and Stalinism, I learned that if somebody is saying that people are being killed here and now, I should not reject it out of hand, simply because I don’t care to believe it. In our circle of friends, everyone always reacted with the statement “It’s not true, the Communists made it up.” “Children, how many times have I said in my own life that something isn’t true, that it’s just made up; now, however, I’m a little cautious in these matters.” I went to the square and asked what had happened. I was told that a couple of people had been murdered and strung up. I hurried into the offices of the newspaper Szabad Nép with some of my friends, where all and sundry were flurriedly producing a newssheet. For one of the issues, I wrote an article against vigilante justice: this was my single literary production during the entire revolution. I wrote that it was wrong to engage in lynching, that the criminals must be brought to justice. I felt and said exactly the same as I did in 1945, in connection with the Arrow Cross movement, when people came telling us to come and see how the Fascists were being hung from lampposts on the Octagon Square. I hand-wrote the article at breakneck speed and handed it to the printer. You can still find it in one of the issues. I signed it with the initials H.Á.
In the Rákosi era, you could not slander the Jews. If now everything is possible, then slinging mud at the Jews is as well. Personally, I did not meet with anti-Semitic statements, although I heard that they were commonplace. My response was that if you can say anything, then you can also verbally abuse Jewish people. Which is what anti-Semites do. In the apartment block at Falk Miksa utca 24, old Mr. Esztergályos, who was the house warden during the siege of Budapest, and directed life in the air-raid shelter, was much more sensitive to anti-Semitism than I. On November 2, he called the residents of the house together, and he said: “Everyone, remember that in 1944 in this house there was neither Jew nor Communist. Nor is there now!” I didn’t think that they were going to come looking for Jews or Communists, but Mr. Esztergályos, like the old Social Democrat he was, was preparing for that possibility as well. Feeling is a subjective reality: why else would he have bothered?
We wandered with our friends from one spot to the next, sat next to the radio lying in wait for the news. From time to time, curfews were imposed. In the heat of excitement, we discussed the fragments of information we had been able to assemble: this speech, that speech, Kádár’s speech, Mindszenty’s speech. We spoke, we spoke, we didn’t do anything, and we screamed when they said the radio was lying. “Imre Nagy said he would never lie, and yet he lied. He was the one who called in the Russians.” “He didn’t call them in!” “Who called in the Russians?” We propagandized for Imre Nagy and his associates: they were not lying but telling the truth. “The ÁVO secret agents are pressuring Imre Nagy, they compelled him to make that speech…” We narcoticised ourselves with these muddled statements. We sat in the university and held our meetings as if they meant something: we discussed the issues in a continual fever, in the light of fresh developments re-conceptualised various proclamations that became irrelevant one hour later. What’s going on today? What’s your opinion? What will the consequences be of this or that event? We have to do this, that, and the other thing. But we didn’t do anything. Nothing in the whole wide world. We were simply glad that the world was in ferment, surging around us. Most likely, every revolution is like this.
On November 3, we thought that everything would be fine. A comforting silence descended upon the city, the sound of weaponry was no longer heard, the Warsaw Pact had been abrogated. On November 4, we awoke to the sound of gunfire. The Russians had returned. The previous night, we had gone to sleep in the knowledge that things might succeed. Only those who saw it from without, who were not inside the events of the revolution, were capable of objectively considering what was really going on. There was no more street fighting, the workers had stated that on Monday they were going back to work. On Monday, work would begin, normal life, and the trams would run. We took it for granted that the revolution had a chance. And even today, I would say: it had a chance. Khrushchev was never completely certain that he wanted to intervene in Hungary. At the very worst, the Empire could have fallen apart earlier, which would have been good for everyone, for us and for the Russians.
I lay down in tranquility that night, and I woke up to the crackling of bullets. The bark of the guns was deafening, because we lived very close to the Ministry of Defence. This was the end. The Revolution was crushed. We knew that in certain places people were still fighting, resisting. We had no doubts: we didn’t have a hope in hell against the Russian tanks.
Altogether, the revolution lasted for nine days. It wasn’t long, and we spent part of each day in the Károly Róbert Hospital. We brought Zsuzsa home after November 4, in a covered children’s carriage, because there was still shooting on the streets.
The turn set in slowly. People were murdered slowly; heads were chopped off at a leisurely, measured tempo: salami tactics. In the winter of 1957, the terror set in with full force. That is when they started to hang people. Gyula Obersovszky and József Gáli each got a year at first; in the appellate court, however, death or life sentences were meted out. The lawyers convinced the prisoners not to appeal.
As for my personal fate, I felt I had entered a dark cave. The whole country had been swallowed up by a tunnel. Not only my own fate, but the fate of those who were above me in higher positions. The entire country clattered into the dark underpass. One day, there would be an end to the tunnel, but I was not going to reach it. It was to last for a long time, for a very long time, until 1989. And many didn’t make it to the light. I used to recite a very bad poem about the Ottoman occupation to myself, which I only remembered in fragments. I don’t know who wrote it; I learned it in school from Auntie Erzsi, who used to recite it for political reason during the time of Hitler. “Evening is coming, an evening of a hundred and fifty years, what shall he do who was born into the night? Work, pray, be patient, wait, while eating bread made of tears, because the stars above are changing.” I thought it was a bad poem, but “the stars above us are changing”, there would be an end one day to this tunnel. I, however, as a resident of this dark passage, would finish my life there.
I finished out the semester of teaching, but knew there was no hope; I knew that my dismissal from the university was already being prepared, and with that my exclusion from the world of thought, intelligent conversation and work, from the scent of books. In short, from everything that I held valuable in life.


Agnes Heller, author of numerous scholarly books in various philosophical fields, is one of the most prominent of the disciples of Georg Lukács. After Lukács’s death in 1971, there was no one to protect his followers against political harassment, and many of them, including Ágnes Heller and her husband, Ferenc Fehér, felt forced to emigrate in 1977. She taught at the University of Melbourne until 1986, when she was appointed Hannah Arendt Professor of Philosophy at the New School for Social Research in New York. Since 1989, she has also taught in Hungary.
Excerpt from Monkey on a Bicycle: Portrait of an Age, Portrait of the Life of Ágnes Heller: An interview-novel by János Kőbányi was amended from Monkey on a Bicycle (excerpt from a memoir).

Translated by: Ottilie Mulzet

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