I escaped from my homeland, Hungary, in 1956 after the spectacular, but in the end, unsuccessful uprising against the authoritarian Soviet Communist rule. It was a momentous event, the first armed rebellion against the supposed perfect system of Communism that was imposed on the country as a foolproof blueprint of the future, guaranteed to bring happiness and righteousness to the people. The people, however, in their wisdom thought otherwise. The dream of a utopia clashed with reality, especially when peaceful student demonstrators were gunned down in the streets, and the people responded by raiding army barracks and using the obtained weapons to fight back.
The twelve delirious days of freedom in October were traversed by a leap of imagination that was soon shot down by brutal repression on the Soviet side, and by indifference and expediency on the side of the West.
I, too, felt caught up and carried away by the spirit of the time, even though I knew it was only a dream. I didn’t let it dull my mind to the reality of international politics – to real politik – and to the interests of the Western Powers. Sure enough, Great Britain and France exploited the occasion for their own goals in the Middle East, and they left the Hungarian freedom fighters to their fate.
Well, not entirely. Perhaps to expiate for their sins, the countries of the prosperous West started accepting refugees who were streaming out of Hungary in the wake of Soviet reprisals. But this is only the background to my story.
My story starts with a phone call I made to Zoltan, my high school friend, from the same street corner booth where a few weeks earlier, a passing Soviet tank had almost gunned me down. I’d had to crouch down as far as I could and listen to the rattle of machinegun fire and broken glass raining down on me. By now it was December 12, the resistance had been crushed, and there was an uneasy peace. Many of the factories were still on strike as workers’ committees were still holding out for reforms. I wanted to know what Zoltan was doing and whether his university had resumed classes yet.
“You still here?” Zoltan’s mother said, “What are you waiting for?”
I was taken aback by her question for a second; it made her political position unambiguous. It was like the act of unfurling a flag.
“Listen, everyone’s getting out, all the young people who know better, they’re all leaving. Zoltan’s already in Germany, he’s already been accepted by Karlsruhe University. Maybe it’s not too late for you to make your escape. Take the southern route to Austria, through Savaria. They say border control isn’t quite as tight down there. Don’t try heading directly for Vienna.”
I stumbled out of the telephone booth, perhaps in a deeper daze than after huddling there under machinegun fire. What should I do? Although I was an engineering student, my secret ambition was to become a writer, and a writer deprived of his language is worse off than a painter without his brushes or a sculptor without his clay. However, there’s something else a writer needs besides his language; like everyone else engaged in any other endeavor, a writer needs the will to live. Zoltan’s mother had brought it home to me. The world as I knew it, the world I was used to, the world that used to define reality for me was in ruins, and it made me feel very depressed. More than depressed: empty. I didn’t want to be anything; I didn’t care. So why not just cross off this life and start a new one? Forget everything that had gone before and be born again into a new life, into a new world. No matter what it was like, congenial or hostile, as long as it was different. For me to go on living, I had to go somewhere else, and be someone else.