The so-called “Lads of Pest” (pesti srácok) – youngsters mostly in their teens or early twenties who took up arms to fight against Soviet occupation – are a familiar symbol of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution and freedom fight. As many of them served as commanders of armed insurgency units, many of them were either killed in combat or executed during subsequent reprisals.
Danish photographer Vagn Hansen’s haunting portrait of 15-year-old revolutionary Erika Szenes has become a symbol of the Revolution
Some of them – such as László Iván Kovács, the first commander of the famous Corvin köz unit – were victims of Communist persecution because their fathers were army officers during the inter-war Horthy regime, others fought for the ideal of “true” Socialism, such as István Angyal, leader of the Tűzoltó utca group.
As a joke from the time goes,
Which are the world’s superpowers? The United States, the Soviet Union, England, France and Districts VIII-IX
– this referred to the fact that these two inner-city areas were the strongest bastions of resistance on the Pest side of the river after Soviet tanks entered the capital on 4 November. In Buda, fighting was most intense at Móricz Zsigmond körtér and Széna tér. While the “Lads of Poest” were no match to Soviet forces in terms of armament and headcount, they nevertheless managed to gain temporary successes – in recognition of which Time magazine named the Hungarian Freedom Fighter as the “Man of the Year” in 1956.
One of them, József Sándor Rácz, who joined the freedom struggle as a second-year medical student, and jailed with four others during reprisals, has spoken of his anguish at surviving the ordeal, while his three fellow freedom fighters were all hanged in 1958. Speaking to Origo.hu, he said:
I was shattered the most by the very fact that I survived – especially because my cell was above the execution yard and I was forced to listen to their execution, their last screams. This is impossible to forget.
Many recollections suggest that the young generation of 1956, who grew of age during the Communist dictatorship of the Fifties, were keener to take up arms than older people. “I said that over eighty per cent of “Corvinists” (Corvin köz fighters) are below the age of twenty. These children achieved victory for the Revolution with their fighting and became heroes of the nation; we will not deprive these children of their weapons”, Gergely Pongrátz, the commander-in-chief of the famous Corvin köz unit is believed to have told Pál Maléter, the Revolution’s Minister of Defence.
Statue commemorating the “Lads of Pest” in Corvin köz (Lajos Győrfi, 1996)
The majority of “Pest Lads” fought in Ferencváros, also known as District IX, an area long known for its strong national sentiments where five larger groups were formed, and Corvin köz, a secluded side-street just off Üllői út. Here, the young Hungarian freedom fighters defeated the 33rd mechanised Soviet Guard division and destroyed 17 Soviet tanks in a single day. József Pestessy, a doctor, said the following in memory of Corvin köz lads: “Children wounded by Molotov cocktails were often taken to the aid station operating in the cellar of the Kilián barracks with burns on their palms. Following treatment, instead of waiting for complete recovery, the Pest lads rejoined street fighting, saying that “we can already throw with this…”
Péter Mansfeld, the youngest – and arguably most tragic – martyr of the Hungarian Revolution
Péter Mansfeld is perhaps the best-known of the Lads of Pest – and the one who suffered the most tragic fate. Born in March 1941, he was well under 18 years of age – the legal limit of imposing the death penalty at the time – in late 1956. However, in an extraordinary display of ruthlessness, he was nevertheless executed shortly after he turned 18 years old, on 21 March 1959.
In September 2016, a thematic park was opened on Horváth Mihály tér, District VIII, in memory of the Lads of Pest as part of commemorations to mark the 60th anniversary of the Revolution.
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