Hungarian resistance fighter tells story of escape during 1956 revolution
Friday marked the 60th anniversary of the Soviet Union's crackdown that ended the Hungarian revolution.
Imre Jokuti of St. Louis fought with the resistance before he fled. He shared the memories of his escape from Budapest:
"I grew up and I was working in a packing house back home. When I was 21 years old, over there everybody had to go to the service. And I was in the service not too long because in '56 the revolution broke out. And there was a lot of people hurt. Hard to think about it because I’ve been through too many things.
When the revolution broke out, there were so many of us, thousand soldiers in barracks over there. And the Russians spread out all over our country. We [the soldiers] were sent out because we have an airport and they wanted to know what’s going on because there were a lot of airplanes coming in bringing in stuff from Russia. They sent us out to see what [they were] bringing in. We see a lot of tanks and heavy equipment coming in.
The barracks were outside of the city [Budapest], and one morning we hear tanks coming – the Russians. Russian tanks come and circle around our barracks and start shooting with a machine gun from the top of the tank – everything that was around that. A couple hours later, a microphone: 'Everybody throw [out] any guns' – we have guns, and they told us – 'Take it outside the gate and throw them in the holes over there next to the highway.' They took it away and the tanks surrounded the whole barracks. And we can [go] no place. We just were over there, no ammunition, nothing.
One morning I was in a bed, I was sleeping, I look out the window and see the highway over there and the tanks were gone. Every two tanks had a machine gun between them set up. [The tanks] are gone and we have no rifle. What do we do? We saw an opening. 'Let's get out of here. You know, escape.' Because we know we can't defend ourselves.
We go to the gate and go over an 8-foot fence, climbing over just to get out of there. I was lucky because I was going to the main gate. We go to the gate and away from the barracks and we hear tanks coming. We were running away from the barracks and we see a little place, about a couple hundred yards [away], a little river, and on there was a grinding [mill]. The water was about 2 feet high, and here come the tanks from the airport and a machine gun on the top, shooting everybody that was running out.
One guy was [from the] next town [from where] I live. Every time they shoot at us, we go under water. I was lying down, he was 2 feet in front of me, and I see his foot. The heel was sticking up and I saw he was hit with the machine gun. What the heck? We have to go because they were killing everybody. That guy was shot. There were a couple people living [in a house] there because there was a water grinder, and we have to go over there because there was no place else; there was a field all around us. I told him go into that place where they have the animals, and I told him, 'Go in there and put something on your feet so you don’t bleed to death.'
So I go over to the little house. There is one old lady and two little kids. I was scared, too, just like everybody else. And she was screaming at me, 'Please! Please don’t come in here. They are going to kill all of us.' I said, 'I cannot go out there with these clothes. Give me some different clothes.' And I’m tearing up the uniform off of me, and they gave me whatever was available. They had some old clothes and I tore everything down and put on old clothes. They gave me shoes at least two sizes smaller than my feet, and you wouldn’t believe: the shoes fit, I was so scared. I told [the women to put the] uniform someplace nobody would find it, if the Russians come in.
From there I took off because they were still coming and going around and shooting all of us. When I looked back at the long fence, people were hanging on the fence, killed. Screaming. [They] killed so many people.
I have a sister [on the] other side of the city, and I said, 'I have to go over there. It's the only place I’ll be safe.' I go to the outskirts of town. [There were] soldiers all the way around. They stopped me three or four times, but never checked me because of how I looked, and I went to my sister. You heard shooting and killing and shooting and killing. Then after that, a couple days later, I said, 'I have to leave, I have to go some place because I’m too close to the fire here.'
Me and my brother-in-law with a bicycle go away from the city. About 20 kilometers, my parents lived, not too far from the area, and we decided, 'We have to go away from there. At least I can go home where I grew up and I know the areas.' We went home – I don’t know how they let me. They stopped everybody and they just waved me on, 'Just keep going.' And we went home to my parents house and I was there for a couple days. The radio was calling all the soldiers who left, 'Come back, go back to your places.' And I have what choice? If I go back, I don’t know what's going to happen to us. Or I have a chance to escape the country.
I found out, like a lot of friends in that area, that a big truck was going to the town and going to the border. I knew one friend that lived there, and he had all the information on how to get out. He told me, 'Tomorrow morning, 7 o'clock, a farmer with a tractor, he’ll be there and he’ll take you to the border. Be there. The truck is not going to stop. You have to be sure to jump in the back. If you miss it, you miss it. He cannot stop.' And that’s what I did. I was young 21 years old; I’d jump over a house if I have to for safety.
He took us out to the border, and border patrol was Hungarians, not Russians. There were a lot of them going to the border. There was a bridge over a little river. [The soldiers] told us which way to go and we went through. When we get there, Austrian soldiers were waiting for us to take us away from the danger area. When we went through, a few hundred people went through. From there it was easier. They took us into town into big schools. We were there for a couple days, so many people.
The Russian soldiers, they returned to border. They blew [the bridge] up. People were swimming in the river in November and rain. A lot of them drowned. And the next day after we crossed, the Russians closed the border. And [other people] couldn’t come out. If you decided to come out by the river, they were shooting in the river, killing them. A lot of them died. A lot didn't make it.
In Austria, they took care of us over there, very helpful. For two weeks – the schools were closed – they put us up there. There were thousands of people over there. We could go to countries that accepted refugees. All the guys from the packing house [where I worked], 11 of us escaped from our country. They all came over to Austria. Everybody spread all over the United States. You could get in touch with people, visit them and they visited us.
First, we had applied to go to Australia because we were scared that the Russians would get into the country. We signed up to leave and [move] as far as we could go, to Australia. The trip was so long and we didn't want it. I told this guy from the packing house, a friend, 'Let’s try something else. Let’s go to the United States, if we can try to go over there.' So we went and applied to go to the United States. A couple days later, they called us on the microphone.
They took us to the airport, and a stupid thing happened. We were in the airport to bring us to the United States. At that time, airplanes took all the refuges to go. The friend of mine got on the plane. [Then they] cut down on the line – 'No more people fit in plane.' I was left over there by myself with no friends!
Finally I got another plane. It was nighttime flying. It's a plane full of refugees: young guys, couples, kids. We were flying over a river, and it was the scariest thing. You could see the airplane shadow and see the airplane turning around. You should have seen all the people screaming; they know something's wrong. But they don’t tell us an engine stopped. It was just scary – kids were there, families. We go back to Germany because the airplane is in bad shape, an engine out. They took us out, put us in a bus, took us to the American barracks over there. We were there for two days before they finally could get [another plane] going to come to the United States. My poor friend is over there, standing at the gate, waiting for me to get there. After that, everything was lucky. It was lucky. We found jobs. Two weeks here, we were working. We married, we had families.
This day is to remember the revolution in '56 and all the people who escaped. There are not too many left; most died. I’m lucky I’m still here; I can tell a story. The first time I went back to Hungary, a good friend who didn't come out when I came out of the country, we went to find him. He was there; I will tell you, that was the saddest part. He had gone back to the service. They took him out somewhere, and they beat him up so bad, every day, every day. He was telling the story, and he was crying. That was hard. I'm still thinking about it. I shake when I think about it. It's hard to tell a story like this."