A black Zis-110 idled ahead of me, the car’s curtains drawn
on its passenger windows. I shivered at the sight of the secret police’s
hallmark car, thinking of all the friends who had disappeared for no reason,
taken away by henchmen in the middle of the night, never to return. It was no
coincidence the Zis looked just like a hearse. I scurried onto a side street,
dodging the car and the poor captives I assumed sat, trembling, inside of it.
I tiptoed past the Ministry of Interior, where red geraniums
lined the building’s windows. In the secret prisons below, police tortured
people with whips, limb crushers, nail presses, and scalding and freezing
baths. Or else they just executed them. But the geraniums were always fresh.
I slid my fingers across the building’s dusty exteriors,
imagining I could somehow transfer my nerves onto the cold, unfeeling brick. I
had snuck through the streets after curfew for years, but tonight was
different. I could feel the regime sensing our newfound courage, like a dog
pushing its nose high into the air, catching the subtle perfume of a rabbit
After walking several blocks, I spied smoke unfurling in the
path before me, like a languid snake expanding as it digests a fresh kill.
Following it, I found Antal, his eyes closed, relishing in a cigarette.
“Antal, it’s me,” I said, coughing on the smoke now choking
Antal smiled and opened his eyes, his cataracts reflecting
the glow of the street lamps. “Eszter, it’s good to see you.”
“It’s good to see you too.” I kissed Antal on both cheeks,
feeling his dry skin against mine and wondering how long he’d been outside
waiting for me in the cold.
“Tell me, what information do you have for me today?”
“It will happen tomorrow,” I said. “Today, technically.”
It was already past midnight.
“So it’s here, isn’t it?” Antal said.
“Yes,” I said. “I went to their meeting. The students
decided they’re going to march. I heard them talking about gathering arms.”
“How many people are participating in this … this march?”
Antal asked as he stamped his cigarette into the ground and lit another one.
“Hundreds, thousands, maybe. I can’t be certain.”
“It doesn’t take a genius to predict how Gerő will react.”
“Gerő will slaughter them,” I said, feeling dizzy as I said
aloud what we both knew. Hungary’s
leader, Erno Gerő, was a Soviet puppet with an arsenal at the ready. “Without
enough people hearing about it and organizing, it will just be a bloodbath.”
Antal fell back against the brick wall, suddenly losing his
breath. He was always so levelheaded, so much so it often drove me to even
greater heights of anxiety as I tried to compensate for his indifference. His
fingers, still clutching the cigarette, quivered as his eyes searched the space
“The state radio will probably ignore this and just keep
spewing out its propaganda,” he said.
“Exactly. We’re going to print with this too. But Realitás
won’t reach enough people in time. An announcement on Radio Free Europe is the
students’ only hope.” I held on to Antal’s shoulders to steady him. “It has to
happen first thing in the morning, so people will have time to plan.”
The closest Radio Free Europe outpost was in Vienna.
If Antal left now, he would get there by four in the morning.
“I already have meetings scheduled in Vienna
for today,” he said. “I’ll visit our Radio Free Europe contacts as soon as I
get there and cancel my other meetings to get back in time for the march. Gerő
will think I cut short a routine visit to be by his side.”
Our lives by day were lies—Antal’s more than most. He served
as the regime’s Deputy Interior Minister. After being forced to coordinate the
executions of his friends—communists who threatened the power structure when
they became too popular—he resolved to undermine the regime in any way
possible. He began relaying intelligence to the American-run Radio Free Europe.
With the freedom to travel at will and deep knowledge of the government’s inner
workings, he also became an asset to Realitás, the underground newspaper I ran.
“It’s already one in the morning,” I said. “What will you do
when they ask you why you’re crossing the border so late?”
“This is normal for me. I go to Vienna
at all times of the day and night, just to keep them guessing. Just in case I
run into a situation like this.”
“Smart. Well, you better leave now before Gerő tries to get
We both knew Antal’s phone could have been ringing right
then. I wondered what it would cost him—or his children and grandchildren—if he
wasn’t there to answer it.
“I’ll be back,” Antal said, coughing into his hands, still
shaking from what I knew was the fear we all shared.
“Wait.” I pulled out a tattered piece of paper, wincing as
the cuts in my hand protested the sudden movement. “Take this with you. A
student gave it to me yesterday. It’s a coded list of meeting points and times
for the march. You have to get this on air too.”
Antal nodded as I slid the paper into his coat pocket,
making sure to secure the meticulously crafted plans of the brave, hopeful
students. They probably didn’t even realize that at this moment, Soviet troops
were almost certainly readying their tanks at a base nearby.