Updated Nov. 8
In 1956, 62 years ago this week, everyday Hungarian citizens armed with Molotov cocktails and scrounged rifles battled Soviet tanks in the streets of Budapest. Robert Fokos, who now lives in Chilmark, was among them. Known alternately as the Hungarian Uprising of 1956 or the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, the popular revolt against Soviet overlords was among the most startling episodes of the Cold War. It began with peaceful student protests on Oct. 23, and ended when the last pockets of Hungarian resistance were annihilated by Soviet infantry and tanks on Nov. 11.
Fokos, a Hungarian Jew, survived the Holocaust as an 8-year-old in Budapest. The Third Reich set its sights on Hungary’s Jewish population late in the war — 1944 — and Fokos said among the reasons he and his family escaped a freight car to Auschwitz was that Germany depopulated the countryside before Budapest, and the war ended before they could shift their attention there.
A dozen years later, Fokos lived in a city and a country ruled by the Soviets. The Soviets never left after they marched westward and met up with the Allies at the close of the war in Europe. The Hungarian people had grown weary of Soviet subjugation, and it didn’t take much of a spark, or a torch as Fokos put it, to arouse their discontent. That arousal came on Oct. 23, 1956, when students gathered and demanded reforms.
“One of the major demands was to end the Russian occupation of the country,” Fokos said. “And having something like that said and declared at the time, under the political system that existed, was unheard-of, unimaginable, and everybody believed that this is going to be real trouble …”
The students’ demands initially remained within the sphere of the university. They asked to assemble for other reasons on the 23rd, to place a wreath on the statue of Józef Bem, a hero to both the Hungarians and the Poles. They received it.
“But on the 23rd, first thing in the morning,” Fokos said, “the radio is blasting that the permission is withdrawn.”
That gathering was disrupted by tear gas and arrests. Martial law was declared. Yet, Fokos said, more and more people came onto the streets. “Before nightfall, there was a huge crowd of people in front of the Parliament. You know that big square in front of the parliament [Kossuth Square]? It was full with people.”
Among those people was Fokos.
“Nightfall came and so they wanted to disperse the crowds and they turned off all the lights.” That made it quite dark, he said.
“The streetcars stopped going,” Eniko Fokos, his wife, said. She was a few streets over in her family’s apartment; the two had not yet met.
“In Hungary, even today — people buy newspapers and they fold them under their arms until they go home, and so on,” Fokos said. “And so there were a lot of people with newspapers in the crowd. And somebody decided to make a torch out of a newspaper when they turned off the lights, and lit it. In five minutes there must have been 10,000 torches burning. And the only [other] light that was visible at that moment was the red star on top of the parliament, which did not get turned off. So the crowd started chanting, Turn off the light in the star. And then news came that fighting broke out at the radio station where people and police had a confrontation. And then things just rolled.”
“You can’t picture this in today’s world,” Eniko Fokos said. “That it would happen today, here. I mean this was chaos. It was young people. It was opportunity to a free world. It was very different.”
The situation in Budapest escalated violently. “What I participated in and saw happening must have been fueled by the terrific oppression that the population felt at the time. They started attacking police stations to get weapons … not just students, the general population,” Fokos said. “The students were no longer that main force in this movement. Now the general population all of a sudden followed the example of the students, decided to do something about the Russian occupation.”
Many police officers simply fled their stations, Fokos said. “They were so afraid of the crowds, they left their weapons and uniforms back [inside] and in civilian [clothing] they disappeared. So it was relatively easy to gain weapons,” he said.
Budapest was embroiled in skirmishes through the night. The violence spread throughout the nation and lasted days, until on Oct. 27 a new government was formed, headed by Imre Nagy. The next day Soviet forces withdrew from Budapest.
“It was a big celebration … finally we achieved our goal — the Russians are gone and democracy can be built,” Fokos said. What he and his fellow Hungarians did not know was that the Soviets, whom he preferred to call Russians, would return in greater numbers.
What brought them back, according to Robert Jervis, professor of international and public affairs at Columbia University, were political miscalculations by Chairman Imre Nagy, who among other things announced Hungary would withdraw from the Warsaw Pact.
Nikita Khrushchev, who and been acting conciliatory, could not abide this, Jervis said. That and the massacre of a great many secret police motivated the leader of the Soviet Union to retake Hungary.
“We woke up to the tanks, and you know, after the war you can recognize that it was a tank,” Eniko Fokos said.
“The Russians came with hundreds of tanks, hundreds of tanks,” Fokos said.
As part of a contingent of Hungarian irregulars, Fokos and a longtime friend were stationed
at Keleti Train Station to defend a nearby building. Fokos was armed with a machine gun. When he and his friend saw a column of Soviet tanks rumble at them, they contemplated the impotence of their weapons against all that armor. They fled just before the building they guarded was shelled to smithereens.
Hungary was soon crushed. Eniko Fokos, then with a different surname, escaped over the Austrian border with her family. Later, so did Fokos, crossing through what he described as a five-mile no man’s zone between the two countries that Hungarian farmers had cleared of mines by sacrificing their livestock.
“The U.S. decided not to counter the Soviet invasion, because Washington believed it had no realistic outcomes that would boost Hungarian autonomy without risking nuclear war,” Christopher Miller, assistant professor of international history at Tufts University, wrote in an email to The Times.
Robert and Eniko emigrated to America through the assistance of relatives they had here. They ultimately married. After leaving a 95-cents-an-hour job in Philadelphia, Robert Fokos became an engineering force at Oxy-Catalyst and helped pioneer the catalytic converter. His work there was interrupted when he decided to enlist in the U.S. Army, where he almost partook in the most perilous episode of the Cold War.
Fokos was sent to Fort Knox in Kentucky for basic training. “I never saw the gold,” he said.
When he got his first leave, Fokos said, he was so exhausted he checked into a Kentucky hotel and slept for two days. After checking out, Fokos said he noticed a big crowd in front of the hotel. Not wanting to navigate it, he decided to exit the hotel by a rear door. Fokos said it was there he crossed paths with President John F. Kennedy and his Secret Service contingent. He and the president, who could have sent him to his doom a short time later, saluted each other, he said.
“In ’62 I graduated from basic training the night of the Cuban Missile Crisis. And I was petrified to hell that now I survived the Second World War, the revolution, and now I’m going to be sent to Cuba,” Fokos said. “And the drill sergeants told us that as soon as we land in Cuba, they’re going to make dog meat out of us.”
As Fokos prepared to ship out, a Red Cross vehicle showed up, and he was pulled from the crowd of soldiers. “And I said, ‘That’s it. They figured out I came from a Communist country, I’m probably a spy, they’re going to shoot me.’ So I went in the car, and it took me to headquarters and they said you have a telephone call. ‘A telephone call?’ Yes. I pick up the telephone. And who’s on the telephone? My girlfriend [Eniko] who wants to know what’s going on. That she was able to do that, that’s a miracle. Then I had to go back to my platoon and explain what happened, and for sure I couldn’t say that my girlfriend called.”
Fokos spent only three months on active duty. His speciality was sharpshooting. Oxy-Catalyst clawed him back due to the national importance of his work on catalytic convertors, he said. He went on to serve as a reservist until 1970, when he was honorably discharged.
Today he and Eniko live peacefully in Chilmark.
Updated to correct the name of the company Fokos worked at. – Ed.