It’s been 63 years since Hungarian youth took to the streets in the hopes of freedom and a better life. Looking at the old pictures you can notice that not only men but also women joined the armed forces. Who were they? What do we know of them? We write in detail about three of these women that we know more about.
Ilona Tóth – murderer or hero?
The one we can most closely relate to is Ilona Tóth, who was an extern in 1956, as you can see on the bust in front of the NET’s entrance. She was spending her internal medicine rotation at the Péterfy Sándor st. Hospital-Clinic when the revolution broke out – due to her persistence and determination she soon became one of the people in charge of the hospital in the upcoming chaotic days. There are several theories on her role in the revolution, and about what exactly happened to István Kollár, the man whose murder resulted in the execution of Ilona Tóth and two of her associates.
According to one of these theories, they thought the man to be an “ávós” (a member of the State Protection Authority, the secret police from 1945 until 1956). He was a stevedore, often getting around the hospital, this raised suspicion which ultimately lead to his “brutal and cruel” murder. This happened in November when the secret police started arresting people near hospital grounds – the staff was afraid of getting caught since the clinic’s basement gave place to illegal editorial work of newspapers and leaflets. In this scenario they indeed committed first-degree murder; they deliberately got rid of the officer investigating them.
Another theory says that they only wanted to put the suspicious person to sleep as a precaution, but they involuntarily caused his death. These mitigating circumstances are not proved as of today.
The third speculation is that the whole thing was fictitious, smear strategy against the revolutionaries was a beloved tool of Kádár’s (communist leader of Hungary between 1956 and 1988) government. This is contradicted by the fact that both Ilona Tóth and her associates confessed to the murder at their trials, however, this may have been because they were previously tortured during their detention to make them cooperate.
It’s impossible to find out beyond doubt what happened exactly, but historians agree that Ilona Tóth should be one of the commemorated martyrs of the revolution, despite whatever happened to István Kollár.
Júlia Sponga – the mysterious girl in the photo
The photo appeared in the French newspaper, Paris Match, along with several other pictures taken on Budapest’s ravaged streets. That was all that was known when Phil Casoar and Eszter Balázs started investigating their story. Eventually, they found out their names – Júlia Sponga, and the man standing next to him, György Berki. He died soon after the picture was taken.
Júlia’s life, however, took several unexpected turns: she participated in the revolution as a member of an armed group, then she fled the country to Austria, that’s where she came to learn that her photo was on the front page of the French newspaper.
She worked in a clothes factory in Switzerland and eventually settled down in Australia. Her husband remembered her as someone who was never afraid – not afraid of joining the revolutionaries or talking about the times when she had to kill, and she was fearless even in her regular life; she once climbed a tree eight months pregnant just to cut off a withered branch.
The research turned out to be quite difficult, even the photographer was unknown. It was speculated that the newspaper’s press photographer, Jean-Pierre Pedrazzini took the photo, but he was shot a day after their arrival in the city and died a few days later. As it was later found out the actual photographer was Russel Melcher, who allowed the photos to be released under Pedrazzini’s name out of respect.
Erika Szeles – the armed girl in the quilted jacket
Despite being raised by her party loyalist mother, Erika turned out to be one of the iconic faces of the revolution. The fourteen-year-old girl was studying to be a chef when she decided to join the revolutionaries. Despite her age, she had strong opinions about matters discussed in the Petőfi Kör (a group of intellectuals who played an important role in triggering the revolution), and she was an enthusiastic supporter of democracy.
In October 1956 she joined the rebel armed forces, but she was deemed too young to fight, so she had to join the Red Cross as a volunteer nurse. On 8th November she was fatally shot while working on the streets of Blaha Lujza square – she was shot several times, even though she wore her Red Cross uniform.
The famous photo was taken by Vagn Hansen, a Danish photographer. The picture appeared on the front page of the daily newspaper, Billed Baldet. Danish youth idealized the young girl wearing the iconic jacket and holding the Russian machine-gun, this motivated an old Danish professor to find out more about Erika.