October 23, 2016
3. Witness the celebration of the 60th anniversary of the ’56 uprising.
A was worried. She didn’t want Z and me to go to the celebration. She expected trouble. My 91-year-old mother who survived the Holocaust and who risked her life to escape from Hungary told me before I left to keep my mouth shut and stay away from crowds. Silence didn’t do her any good during the Holocaust. Keeping away from crowds and mobs I could understand.
Z and I decided to go. A decided to come along. But first I wanted to go back to the Turkish Bath area to look for my phone. We drove back to where we had parked the day before. Every few feet I lay on my belly and looked under each parked car. Z called my number. People crossed the street. After a while he told me that the phone had gone dead. I was phoneless. I thought, almost simultaneously, “Sugar, I am cut off from the world, and, “Sugar, I am untrackable. I am free.”
We walked toward the celebration in Kossuth Square. From across the bridge, we could see a mass of people there. There were barriers and police tape all over the place. We couldn’t get near it. We heard from others that only those with the ruling Fidesz Party armbands were allowed in the square. There were Fidesz ‘scrutinizers’ checking people. Only true Hungarians, a.k.a Fidesz party members, were allowed to celebrate.
The Whistle blowers, the protesters who used whistles as a way to make their presence known, drowning out the speakers, were behind the barricades whistling away.
We couldn’t get nearer. I could see relief in A’s face.
Since we couldn’t see the celebration, I asked if we could go to The House of Terror,
The name sounds like an amusement park thrill place. Actually it was the headquarters of the AVO, the Hungarian secret police. It was a feared place of interrogation, torture and disappearance during the Communist era. And before that, the Hungarian and Nazi SS headquarters. The AVO had informants everywhere, making people afraid to speak their minds, sometimes even amongst their own family. They made Hungary a quiet country and Hungarians, usually a loud and boisterous people, a quiet and self-censoring people.
During the ’56 uprising it was one of the first places people attacked, storming the building, shooting the AVOs, throwing them out windows, hanging them upside down from trees and lampposts, stubbing their lit cigarettes into their skins, kicking their heads in; committing all the atrocities they had heard the AVO committed on their prisoners. But the revolutionaries added a twist. They stuffed money in their mouths. This was a symbolic rebuttal of informants.
A didn’t want to go. Z led the way. The street was closed off to vehicle traffic. There was a line that wound around the block-wide building. It would take hours to get in. I thought it ironic that people were lining up to get into the House of Terror from which people, in the Nazi and Communist days, desperately wanted to escape.
I could understand why A had no interest in visiting. Besides, she had a student coming for an English lesson soon.
Evening October 23, 2016
We were in the kitchen eating Z’s delicious homemade goulash and watching Duna TV, the state-controlled station. We watched clips of Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s short speech at the celebration. According to the magazine 168 Óra, a magazine that defines itself as a critical civic-intellectual weekly, Orban wanted the event, his speech included, to grab the young. He had ordered his event planners to make it “fancyk, trendik and sexik.”
He spoke mainly of Hungary being for true Hungarians, of the sacrifice of the freedom fighters of ‘56 being the defenders of Hungarian values and Hungary being the defender of Christian Europe. He stressed their youthful enthusiasm and willingness to give their lives for the cause. The TV showed an enthusiastic crowd, mainly the middle-aged and elderly, applauding the short speeches and waving flags.
Z switched over to ATV, an independent station. He and A told me that ATV had been under increasing pressure from lawsuits, restrictions on what they could broadcast and high fees for freedom of information requests. He said that it was because ATV was exposing government corruption. On this independent station we saw the same demonstration but could hardly hear the speeches because of the piercing pitch of the whistles. Somehow the national TV had deleted the whistle symphony accompaniment. We also saw confrontations between the guards of who could get into the inner circle and the bloodied faces of those without the arm or wristbands who tried to get in.
ATV also covered the Left’s counter-speeches which consisted of criticism of the Orban government and mia culpas about their own divisive and self-destructive opposition and pleading for unity. It was pretty impressive to see these people admit their mistakes and call for unity.
Most of the people I spoke to afterwards, mainly educated, left-leaning liberals and academics, were convinced that it wasn’t going to happen. “As long as Orban keeps the shops full, and the Circus interesting, nothing will change,” a number of them told me. “Not even scandals and corruption could defeat them.”
Four scandal stories
Citizenship for Sale
Hungary had offered citizenship to any foreigner who bought at least £200,000 of its government’s bonds. Legislation would grant residency and ultimately a Hungarian passport, allowing the holder to live and work anywhere in the European Union. And, of course, at the same time, the government was/is staunchly denying access to passage through Hungary for the thousands of refugees wanting to get to Germany. Orban proudly declared that he had built a wall before Trump.
Hungary had a referendum to decide whether to allow immigrants in or not. Hungarian law states that for a referendum to be binding, 51% of the population must vote. The opposition urged people to stay home or destroy their ballots. Only 41% voted, so the referendum was nullified. However, Orban’s government pulled a Big Brother thing. Out of the 41% that did vote, 98% percent voted to keep the immigrants out. Orban’s party then plastered the country with billboards declaring that 98% of the population voted YES and therefore the people were with them on this issue.
Democracy Not at Work
A Fidesz party member who was also a mayor of a town was accused of spousal violence. His first defence was that they were driving home from a wedding party; he had been drinking, fell asleep and could not remember what happened.
His second version of why his wife had a broken nose was that she sustained the injuries as a result of tripping over their blind dog.
Finally, after confessing to beating his wife, the mayor was fined $1,500 US by the judge who found his confession and eventual apology satisfactory. The court said that his outstanding behaviour and admission of the assault would make any prison sentence – even a suspended prison sentence – unnecessary. The ruling means he need not resign his position as mayor.
He was re-elected mayor. His attorney attributes this to the public’s trust in him.
The fact that he was the only candidate and the fact that others were encouraged not to run, had nothing to do with the massive victory.
The Smelly Fish
Prime Minister Viktor Orban personally asked American-Hungarian Desmond Child, songwriter with cred who worked with Bon Jovi, Aerosmith, Cher and Kiss, to write an original song to celebrate ‘56. He was paid $186,000. He decided to recycle a tune he had composed to celebrate American athletes. And if that wasn’t enough, the lyrics by Gábor Tallai, had a refrain that was difficult to understand. Nearly everyone, including Child, thought that the line was “Hungary smells like a fish” rather than “Hungary hear our voice.” In Hungarian, it is difficult to tell the difference when sung. As one media outlet declared after discovering that the song was recycled: “It doesn’t smell like fish, it just smells like shit.”
We turned off the TV, had a shot of pálinka and went to bed.