"I am now only an American professor," Gen. Bela Kiraly said with a grin.
His grin was a survivor's grin -- a charming, elegant East European survivor with a sense of humor about himself and perhaps the end-of-1984 Christmas party. Smile and sip the holiday brew, for we were about to survive George Orwell's ominous year in which The Party prohibits free thought and exerts total control over Oceania -- Orwell's fictional masks for communism crushing Great Britain.
We were in non-fictional Brooklyn, however, in a real friend's home, and we were quite free to speak and think. I suggested the courage of freedom fighters like Kiraly was one reason we had liberty in lieu of Big Brother. His eyes twinkled at the flattery, then he demurred with his cheeky but humble protest that since the Hungarian Revolution in 1956 his freedom-fighter status had shrunk to mere membership in American academia.
I write this column because Kiraly, who along with Imre Nagy led the lone full-scale revolt against Soviet totalitarian control in Eastern Europe, died this past month, on July 4. He was 97.
During those 97 years, he had witnessed death, destruction and defeat at close hand. For Kiraly, Orwell's prison state was no fiction. He spent five years in a Stalinist prison, first with a death sentence, later a life sentence.
What is the difference between a Joseph Stalin and an Adolf Hitler? For a man like Kiraly, very little. Near the end of World War II, he faced death if the Nazis managed to arrest him. Hungary was a German ally, and Kiraly, a professional soldier, had a command on the Eastern Front that included a battalion of 400 Jewish slave laborers. The New York Times, in its July 8 obituary, quoted the Jerusalem Post from 1993, the year Kiraly was honored by the Holocaust memorial authority, Yad Vashem: Kiraly "put the 400 men under his command into Hungarian uniforms and treated them humanely."
Humane treatment combined with a smart soldier's ability to provide it rated a Nazi warrant. In 1951, though he had joined the Communist Party, Kiraly's intellectual proclivities and every tyranny's deep fear of independent thinkers who know how to soldier rated a Stalinist death sentence.
In fall 1956, the communist government freed Kiraly and other political prisoners, as a sop to escalating public anger. Prison had left him weak and ill, yet Imre Nagy, now leading the revolutionary government, and several revolutionary groups asked Kiraly to take command of the newly formed National Guard.
Time, however, to train, to acquire heavy weapons, to prepare a credible defense was miserably short. The Russian invasion, launched Nov. 4, 1956, crushed the rebellion. Tanks, artillery and motorized infantry smashed the National Guard forces around Budapest.
I heard Kiraly, on two occasions, tell the story of the remnant resistance fighters' retreat from Budapest pursued by two Soviet tank divisions. Seeking ways to delay the Russians and gain time, he gave his engineers orders to blow up an ammunition dump as they fled toward Austria. The dump exploded, producing an unexpectedly large cloud and a seismic ground shock Kiraly described as extraordinary. The tank divisions stopped, however briefly. Kiraly and his men eventually escaped through the border wire. "I think the Russians thought the U.S. was intervening with nuclear weapons," Kiraly said.
Nagy was executed in 1958, and Kiraly sentenced to death in absentia. But armed perseverance by the Free World, led by the U.S., the poverty-producing "contradictions" of tyrannical Marxism and Eastern Europeans' unrepressed hope for liberation won the Cold War.
In 1989, as the Cold War ended, Bela Kiraly returned to Hungary, greeted as a heroic freedom fighter.