Interview with Gergeley Pongratz
Q: Can I take you back to the end of the war? Back to 1946? What, as a child, were your expectations at the end of this terrible war?
Pongratz: At that time...the Russians...came and started the propaganda, the socialists, that everybody's the same, that everybody received...goods equally. Somehow we [were] for it. The problem came later when we saw that what they put in practice is not what they talk about.
Q: Do you remember a concrete example that you saw?
Pongratz: A little bit later on, [in] 1952, when I graduated from the High School. Every year before graduation the students...put [a] ribbon on [their] jacket[s], and until then every year traditionally [it was a] green ribbon.... [The] year when I was graduating they wanted to introduce in our school, instead of the green ribbon, they were going to put out a red ribbon. And we had a class meeting and the secretary of the communist youth organization was in our class.
We ended up [in] a fist fight and they wanted to throw me out from all the schools [in] Hungary. I was lucky [because] the Principal of the school...said that for a stupid thing I'm not going to cut away...the whole life [of] somebody.
Q: What did they teach you at school about socialism, about the Soviet Union, about socialist Hungary?
Pongratz: [My] history professor came in and he said that I have [an] obligation to give this material to you guys. I ask everybody to keep your opinion.... And he had to give that material to us and we had to listen to it. Many times we were arguing about certain things, but sometime[s] he didn't...accept any arguments. He felt exactly like we did but it was in the material. He had to give that material to us.
Q: What was the material?
Pongratz: About the socialists, the communists. Exactly the opposite [of] what was going on in practice. At that time when...all this came up the socialists [wanted students to be taught that]: everybody's the same, everybody's equal; this is the workers' paradise; the most value in this country is the man; the human being [while] at the same time thousands and thousands were in prison and thousands...were executed. And they were talking about the most important value in this country is the human life.
Now naturally...we knew what was going on and [these] slogans came up and this material came up in school and we had to learn about Stalin and Lenin and the glorious Soviet army...when we knew what the Soviet soldiers did when they came [to] Hungary...
Q: Was there a general atmosphere at that time?
Pongratz: Everybody was afraid to talk and nobody could say his opinion. And I don't know, I always said that I have a very good friend up there who was taking care of me. How I got away with it I don't know, not even today. The only time when I was behind bars...I was in the military.... I had a very big mouth, [but] I was also a little bit careful [of] what I [talked] about.
Q: What did they tell you about America and the West when you were in the army?
Pongratz: In the army, what they [taught us was] that not only the United States but the whole West is preparing for war and that's the reason the socialist countries have to prepare for the war -- to be ready when the West [attacks]. And, you know, between us soldiers we had a small group [wondering] what we going to do if the war [came]. The Russians, they're going [to] throw us in the [front] line, and it was [our] opinion...that the only thing worth [doing was] to turn around. We're going to still be in the [front] line but in what direction? So that was the main thing they were talking about at that time, to prepare for the war.
Q: Can I take you on now to 1956, to October. What do you remember about your first realization that something was taking place?
Pongratz: To be very honest with you, thirty seven years later we still don't know what we were doing at that time. What happened at that time, it was so spontaneous that we didn't know...that we were fighting for the freedom of our country. That was the most important thing and that was the reason so many young kids sacrificed their lives. Freedom for our [country]. Russians go home and have a free and independent Hungary. We didn't even look who is the enemy, what strength the enemy has. It was a stupid idiotic thing if somebody was thinking that we're going to [beat] the Red Army. We wasn't even thinking, we never attacked the Russians but when they attacked we were defending our strongholds.
Q: Can you describe the moment you suddenly realized you were able to fight? Can you remember that moment when you suddenly realized that everything might be changing?
Pongratz: In 1956 I was working about eighty kilometers from Budapest as [an] agricultural engineer. The 24th of October in the morning I heard that...fighting in Budapest was going on. I had all my family over here, my brothers, and I knew that if anything happens to my brothers they will have been marked. And I felt that my place is beside my brothers. And I came up, and those eighty kilometers took me the whole day, the 24th of October.
[It was a] terrible thing when the first attack came, [on] the 25th. Russian infantry came behind the tanks, but the Russian soldiers, they got in a fire so terrible that they went in the buildings and they [were] coming from entrance to entrance. They were running, and I was in a second floor window. I had a mauser rifle, and I saw a Russian head looking out and looking how to run that fifteen yards or twenty yards, and I aimed and I pulled the trigger and I saw the Russian soldier fall out on the sidewalk. I started to cry. I killed a human being and if somebody think that it's easy to kill even your enemy he is wrong. Even now it's hard to think about....
But I went in the back of the room and I was sitting over there in a big chair and I was crying, and the other started yell[ing], "Come back here, come back. The Russians are coming, they're attacking. We are only defending ourselves." I had no choice. With tears in my eye, crying, I went back to the window and I was hunting and shooting. The thing is that again we [were not] thinking how strong the enemy is, who was...attacking. We were defending our stronghold and that was the most important thing that we did.
It wasn't forced [on] anybody to come over there to stay with us, and specially these kids. It was impossible to send them home -- thirteen, fourteen year old kids -- and I was twenty four years old and I was feeling responsible for these kids. They should be home. It was impossible to get rid of them. When I sent one of them home he went two blocks away and he [continued] fighting over there. So the spirit that was in those kids at that time... -- I cannot describe it because it's impossible.
Q: Was it a hatred of the Russians? What was it?
Pongratz: No, the love of their country, believe me, not the hatred of the Russian because.... We had Russian prisoners: seventy two in one group, about forty in another group. Not one single Russian soldier died because [he] was executed. So that proves that it wasn't the hatred of the Russians. Every single Russian prisoner, just the same [as] the Secret Police, the ABO, we said that they going to stand trial and if somebody's guilty, [they are] going to pay for their deed, but we have no right to execute somebody.
Q: But in 1956 there was an incredible outpouring of passion against the past ten years. Can you give us a sense of that passion?
Pongratz: We [weren't] fighting against the communists, we were fighting against the communist system, which is not the same. I don't say [that] many, but some of the guys who...were a little bit older, they had a red booklet in their pocket. They were members of the communist party but they were Hungarian patriots. What was important, and I cannot emphasize [this] strong enough, it wasn't the hatred but the love for freedom, the love for a free Hungary, to live in this country as Hungarians, free. England is entitled to be in England, Germany [in Germany], France [in France], the United States [in the United States]. Why [did Hungary have] to be occupied by a foreign country? And that's what we wanted -- the Russians to get out.... Again it's not the hatred -- it's the love for freedom and for our country which gave the weapons in our hands.
Q: Between the October 28th and November 4th, did you feel as if you'd already won?
Pongratz: The whole country was in glories.... The Soviet troops [had left] Budapest, and the meetings are going on with the Soviet government that they're going to leave Hungary, and Hungary is gonna be a free and independent country. Now can you imagine how we [were] feeling at that time? We were in the glories, in the heaven. We achieved our goal. We have a free country. And the 4th of November, when the Russians came back, that was the reason that, until the 15th, we were still fighting.... The only reason when we gave up, we saw that we [were] not going to get any help from anywhere.... We gave up because we saw that we [were] not going to get any help, and [that to fight] from now on is only suicide.
Q: What sort of help did you expect when the Soviets came back on November 4th? Did you expect help from the West?
Pongratz: Yes, we were expecting help from the West. We were promised help from the West, [from] the Free Europe Radio, The Voice of America.... They were promising, "Hold out, hold on. The help is going, the help is going." And they...never arrived. But now..., to reconstruct the whole situation of 1956, really it wasn't important [for] the help to come in from the West. But we were betrayed. We were sold out by the United States.
We were expecting...not only military but political help to recognize the Hungarian Free Government. One never happened by the UN, by the United States, by all the big three nations. It never happened.... If we would have been recognized at that time as a free country, from the 28th until the 4th of November..., one week, but we [weren't] recognized. The contrary happened. During this time they sent two telegrams from Washington to the Russians [stating] that Hungary is yours, what you waiting for? Go ahead and break down the revolution.
Q: That period between November the 4th and November the 15th must have been a period of despair.
Pongratz: Yes, at that time everybody was dying. We lost, and what was really terrible [was] the feeling, the knowledge -- knowing that so many kids died for nothing. That was terrible. I was lucky. The 28th of November I went out to Austria and from there to the United States. More than two hundred thousand people left Hungary, which [had a] nine million...population at that time. So you can imagine what that meant to the country.
Q: Do you remember your feelings as you crossed the border from Hungary into Austria?
Pongratz: I went with my mother and my 12 year old sister and we crossed the border. We went about fifteen, twenty yards, and my mother turned around. She went a few yards back under the flag -- the Austrian flag -- and in a handkerchief we put dirt.... She is buried in the United States but that dirt is under her hand -- Hungarian dirt, Hungarian land. It was terrible to leave my country. Thirty five years [of] exile. It was terrible...not only because I am a Hungarian and I consider myself a patriot, but again all that fight[ing], all those human lives, all the tragedy [that] Hungary went through and I had to leave. That was terrible.
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