When the 50th anniversary of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution is remembered today, Andras Pongratz of Ahwatukee Foothills and his brother will be among those recognized in Budapest for the role they played in helping crack the foundation of communism.
From his family-owned plumbing shop in Phoenix, Steve Faller Sr., of Scottsdale, who also lived in Budapest during the revolution, will remember the friends who died huddled on the steps of the Parliament Building.
Pongratz, 67, a retired insurance salesman, was the youngest of six brothers who helped command the revolution from the Corvin Theatre in the heart of Budapest.
Oct. 23, 1956, marked the beginning of a short-lived victory against U.S.S.R. troops when anti-government sentiment boiled over.
The Hungarians wanted individual liberty as well as freedom of religion, the press and airwaves. Above all, they wanted the Soviets to leave.
“I feel I should be in Hungary on Oct. 23,” said Pongratz, who helped a crowd pull down the large statue of Kremlin dictator Joseph Stalin in Budapest’s town square as an act of defiance. “We knocked out the first brick from the wall of communism.”
Pongratz and his brothers helped command a revolt of thousands that found the stringent rules of the Soviets so revolting even children pelted their tanks with Molotov cocktails. As Soviets climbed out to avoid being burned alive, Hungarian freedom fighters shot them.
“We were scared, of course, but we weren’t thinking about our lives,” Pongratz said. “When the Russians first pulled out of the country, there was such a euphoria. We were victorious.”
But on Nov. 4, the Soviets thundered back into the city with 200,000 soldiers and 2,500 tanks. By Nov. 8, the revolution was quashed.
During two weeks of fighting in the cobblestone streets of Budapest and other cities, an estimated 20,000 Hungarians were killed and 200,000 fled the country. About 70,000 refugees settled in the United States. Some 23,571 people of Hungarian descent live in Arizona, based on the 2000 census.
Faller, who was 27 in 1956, also helped pull down the statue of Stalin. He fled the country with his 2 1/2-year-old son after traveling 100 miles by bicycle and train in three days to make it to the Austrian border. He has been a journeyman plumber since 1949. He and his two sons own Accent Plumbing.
“When the crowd sang the Hungarian national anthem at the Parliament building, a Russian stood on top of his tank, and someone shot him,” Faller said. “Everyone was piled on the front steps of the Parliament, and the Hungarian police just kept firing into the crowd. By the time they stopped, a couple of my friends who were shot and killed just rolled off my back.”
“The revolution meant a whole lot as far as freedom and a better life,” he said. “When the Russians came back, that’s when I decided to leave the country. I was hoping one day to go back to live in Hungary, but I loved it here. I always support the idea of freedom in Hungary from here constantly.”
Because of the Pongratzes’ contribution to the revolution, Andras and four of his brothers, Edmund, Christopher, Gergely and Balint, and his sister, Maria, all received the Vitez Award of Knighthood in Budapest in 2004. Simon and Ernest Pongratz were posthumously honored at the ceremony.
Edmund Pongratz will be speaking in Budapest today.