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Mária Wittner: “Hungary is still oppressed”

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Mária Wittner, a 1956 freedom fighter, was sentenced to death and imprisoned for over a decade. Today she returns to the political scene

Mária Wittner doesn’t feel free, she never has and she never will. The 69-year old woman points to the attic window of a building in the Budapest city centre. There, on October 23, 1956, she and others hatched a plan to takeover the state-owned broadcasting network. Fifty years later, the struggle continues. “Hungary is still oppressed,” Wittner says, “and we have the politicians’ lies to thank for this.”

Born in Budapest in 1937, Mária was raised by nuns for the first 11 years of her life. Her father left her family when she was very young and her mother struggled to raise Mária’s six siblings on her own. “I am so grateful for the years in boarding school and village life in Gyoemoere. That’s where I learnt that lying was a sin,” Wittner reminisces.

Lying through our teeth

Since she could not stomach ideological training during secondary school, she moved to a town in east-central Hungary, Szolnok, where she found a job first as a caretaker in an orphanage and later as a secretary. After a short affair, she became pregnant at 18. Her son came into the world in 1955, one year before the rebellion. Because Wittner had not yet reached legal adulthood and lacked a residence permit, her newborn was forcefully taken from her to become a ward of the state.

When Wittner found out on October 23, 1956, that a demonstration in support of workers’ rights was planned that day in Poland, she went straight to downtown Budapest: Wittner recalled how “throngs of people gathered. A wagon was on fire. People burned communist books in front of a bookstore in the main square.” After the legendary radio broadcast declaring, “Day in and day out, we tell lies. We lie at every chance we get,” armed battalions from Hungarian state intelligence occupied the station to suppress the broadcast. Wittner was at the forefront of the popular uprising to reconquer the airwaves and build support for change. She loaded weapons and passed them to her comrades and even fired a few shots herself. But victory was short-lived. After occupying the station once again, they were only able to hold out for 11 days.

Safe passage denied

On November 4, Wittner was hospitalized for a shrapnel injury: “While bedridden, I could constantly hear the drone of Russian jets and lost all hope of victory.” Fearful for life after their defeat, Wittner planned to flee to Austria before the end of the year, and after that to Australia. The only thing holding her back was the hope that the Red Cross would find her son. She was determined not leave without him. After weeks of waiting, she gave up and returned to Hungary in order to look for him herself.

Although she found a spot working in a radio factory, she was arrested in the fall of 1957 before she received her first paycheck: “In the middle of the night the doorbell rang and the Secret Police burst in and searched my apartment. Once they found my Austrian visa, that was grounds enough for my arrest, and I stood trial in 1958.” Mária Wittner received the death sentence for crimes including revolutionary activities, illegal crossing of the border and espionage.

A close encounter with death

She shared a jail-cell with her friend Kati, who fought by her side in the revolution. Kati only spent two nights there before meeting her death. Mária Wittner waited a month without news until she suddenly learnt that her crimes no longer justified execution. Instead, she would serve life imprisonment. The judge had argued that capital punishment was too harsh for a minor. Wittner confides, “Until 1989, I racked my brains wondering why I had been spared. What really went on behind the scenes? Had I really been too young?”

Wittner struggled to survive the guards’ brutality amid the filthy quarters of the Kalocsa prison. Her only toilet was an open bowl in the corner of her cell. Her bug infested sheets made it impossible to sleep. Although she was able to find her son, infrequent contact with him dwindled until she got news of his death of illness from hospital administrators. She spent twelve years in prison before she was finally pardoned.

The fight continues

Since 1972, Wittner has lived in Dunakeszi near Budapest. After 1989, she founded the Association of Political Prisoners, so that she could give her fallen brethren of 1956 a proper burial. The bodies of the victims of the revolt, and many later dissenters were hastily dumped in mass graves. Only in 2006 could Wittner bring herself to participate in politics again. She is active in the Conservative party, Fidesz, which is currently in the opposition in Budapest. Yet, Wittner never officially enrolled in a party in order to maintain her independence.

Today remains Wittner fights for justice and freedom in Hungary. She views the democratic movement of 1990 severely, as a facelift for the same old political elite and their protégés. Criticizing the excesses of liberal democracy, Wittner argues, “You know I already have my pension. But, I worry that if was working in some firm today and was so outspoken, I’d quickly lose my job.”

This summer in Budapest, history seems to repeat itself. In the most recent demonstrations, 10,000 people marched against the socialist government and Wittner gave a rousing speech before the Budapest parliament. She repeated the lesson she learned from the nuns: “ Whether you like it or not, I am going to tell you the truth.”

The Hungarian Uprising: an overview

Before the 1956 uprising, Hungarians enjoyed a short spell of relative autonomy following Stalin’s death in 1953. Imre Nagy became Prime Minister, implemented flexible economic policies and amnestied certain political prisoners. But 1955, Imre Nagy was expelled from the Communist party for being too nationalist. Encouraged by similar anti-soviet demonstration in Poland, popular discontent grew against his successor, András Hegedüs. On October 23 1956, the PM proved he was incapable of controlling the student and worker protests that had broken out in Budapest and appealed to soviet troops to restore peace and order. The Communist party intervened and appointed Nagy as the new PM. Greeted as a national hero, Imre Nagy, asked the Russian troops to leave, condemned the Warsaw pact and promised free elections and economic reforms. Though the Russians made some concessions, the demonstrations continued. In November, the soviet troops finally crushed the Hungarian Uprising as they appealed to the West for help.

Translated from Die verlorenen Kämpfe der Mária Wittner