Gergely Pongrátz

Resistance fighter in the Hungarian Uprising
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The Independent Online

As commander of the largest and perhaps the best-known group of resistance fighters during the Hungarian Uprising of 1956, Gergely Pongrátz experienced the elation of unexpected victory and then the despair of total defeat within the space of less than two weeks. He was only 24 when he joined a group of workers and students who had taken up arms in and around Corvin Passage in central Budapest to fight for an independent and democratic Hungary, in what became the first serious challenge to the Soviet domination of Communist-ruled Eastern Europe.

Gergely Pongrátz, resistance fighter: born Gherla, Romania 18 February 1932; married Maria Solidar (two sons, one daughter; marriage dissolved); died Kiskunmajsa, Hungary 18 May 2005.

As commander of the largest and perhaps the best-known group of resistance fighters during the Hungarian Uprising of 1956, Gergely Pongrátz experienced the elation of unexpected victory and then the despair of total defeat within the space of less than two weeks. He was only 24 when he joined a group of workers and students who had taken up arms in and around Corvin Passage in central Budapest to fight for an independent and democratic Hungary, in what became the first serious challenge to the Soviet domination of Communist-ruled Eastern Europe.

Pongrátz's involvement with the revolutionaries of Corvin Passage began soon after 23 October 1956, the day when troops from the much-hated State Security force provoked an uprising by shooting into a crowd of demonstrators who were calling for their demands for reform to be read out on Hungarian Radio. By the beginning of November, when Pongrátz took over as commander of the units in Corvin Passage, their numbers - together with those in nearby areas - had swollen to around 4,000, and they had been incorporated into the National Guard, part of the armed forces of Hungary's new, democratic government.

When the Soviet army launched a fresh and decisive attack to crush the uprising on 4 November, its heaviest shelling was directed against the Corvin Passage. After the resistance was overcome, Pongrátz - along with 200,000 of his compatriots - fled Hungary and spent the next 35 years in exile.

Pongrátz was born in 1932 in Gherla in Romania, where his father became the mayor when the town - along with the rest of northern Transylvania - reverted to Hungarian control during the Second World War. After the war his family moved to Hungary, and Pongrátz was educated at an agricultural college. His rebellious nature was to manifest itself early on. When the local Communist youth official insisted that the traditional green ribbon worn on graduation day should be replaced with a red one, the altercation that followed ended in a fist fight with Pongrátz.

As the street battles erupted in October 1956, Pongrátz needed little encouragement to go to Budapest, the scene of the most serious street battles, and join his five brothers. The bravery of the lightly armed urban guerrillas of the Corvin Passage area - who used submachine guns and Molotov cocktails against tanks - played no small part in persuading the Soviet command to withdraw its troops and armour from Budapest. On 28 October the new government, under Prime Minister Imre Nagy, a Communist reformer, accepted the revolutionaries' main demands. Fighting gradually came to an end, and the armed groups were incorporated into the National Guard to maintain law and order.

The charismatic Pongrátz, who was dubbed "Bajusz" because of his twirled moustache, emerged as the leader of the radical faction among the Corvin Passage fighters. He was suspicious of all those in authority, and opposed compromise. He resisted demands that the young fighters - some barely more than half his age - should be disarmed. As life was returning to normal, he tried to hold up the removal of wreckage from around the Corvin Passage, fearing (rightly, as it turned out) that if another attack was launched against his forces, it would be easier for Soviet armour to penetrate the area.

Thanks to his bold approach and the support of his brothers, Pongrátz replaced the more moderate László Iván Kovács at the head of the Corvin Passage fighters. His command lasted less than a week. As Soviet forces launched a fresh attack on 4 November, their artillery and tanks devastated much of the area around Corvin Passage. Within days it became clear that any further resistance would be tantamount to suicide.

Pongrátz escaped to Austria, and then moved to the United States, where he spent much of his exile. He was involved in keeping the spirit of the 1956 Revolution alive, and among his other activities, served for 12 years as Deputy Chairman of the Hungarian Freedom Fighters' Association. In the meantime he worked as a factory worker, an insurance salesman and finally ran his own pig farm in Arizona.

After the fall of Communism, Pongrátz returned to Hungary in 1991. He spent the final years of his life chairing the World Federation of Hungarian Fighters of 1956 - one of several, frequently feuding, organisations dedicated to the memory of the uprising. An emotional man, he frequently broke down in tears when recalling the events of 1956.

The most enduring legacy of Pongrátz's latter years was the establishment of a museum in Kiskunmajsa, in southern Hungary, which was filled with mementoes of 1956: flags, maps, photographs - and a Soviet T-55 tank. It was perhaps appropriate that Pongrátz, who had dedicated much of his life to the 1956 uprising, met his death, from a heart attack, in the courtyard of the museum he had set up for the same purpose.

Gabriel Partos



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