Today is May 1st. May Day is the biggest holiday celebrated in Communist countries, and Hungary was no exception. This was the day selected to commemorate the victory of the workers over their capitalist oppressors, and to dedicate ourselves to the continued struggle to liberate our comrades who were still enslaved in the West. This was the message we were taught in schools. As a member of the Young Pioneers (see my previous posts) I was to show up at school wearing my white shirt and red handkerchief tied around my neck. From there, we were bussed to the beginning of the parade route, lined up with other Young Pioneers, and organized to march behind the tanks and the troops ahead of us. The long march was to culminate in front of the House of Parliament, where the reviewing stand containing the Premier, his generals, and Communist Party official sat to accept our salutes.
It’s a testament to the strength of propaganda that I felt excited to be part of this process, in spite of my parents’ privately expressed weary resignation that they too had to march in solidarity with all their coworkers. I was also feeling proud, having just been told by my teacher that because of being a good student, I was given the singular honor of being one of three flag bearers in my troop. (One flag was the red, white and green stripes of Hungary, on which the hammer and sickle were added, one was the red Russian flag, and one was the city flag of Budapest.)
The parade organizers had done their homework. Having learned the propaganda value of these exercises from their earlier Nazi counterparts, those who were not actually marching were expected (an expectation enforced by severe censure or demotion at their places of work by their bosses) to line the parade route, wave the small flags and patriotic signs they had previously been given, and loudly cheer the speeches given by government and military functionaries.
May Day in 1956 was unusually warm. After a short time, the flag was heavier than I expected it to be, and despite the adrenalin of the music and spectacle, I was tiring fast. One of the first things marchers are taught is that when required to stand at attention for any length of time, do not lock your knees. Unfortunately, I was either not given this piece of wisdom, or failed to hear it, prior to the parade. The result was that all of a sudden, I began to feel lightheaded, my vision became blurry, and I apparently passed out. The flag was taken from me, and as my classmates twittered amongst themselves at my shame and obvious failure, I was left by the curbside to be attended to by another teacher, as the rest of the Young Pioneers marched on in their glory. I didn’t know it at the time, but this was the last time in my life that I was to celebrate May Day. The Hungarian Revolution would occur in the late fall, and my life, as well as the lives of hundreds of thousands, would never be the same.
To be continued later…