When Andras Pongratz celebrates Thanksgiving today at the Chandler home of his son, Joe Pongratz with 33 family members, he has many things to be thankful for.
“I’m thankful for my family, first and foremost,” Pongratz, 82, of Ahwatukee, said. “I am thankful to be in America and I am thankful for my freedom and being able to go back to Hungary.”
Pongratz recently returned from Budapest, where he spoke to thousands of people marking the 65th anniversary of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution.
Pongratz was one of seven siblings who helped lead the ‘56 revolt against the Russian Communists as anti-sentiment against the oppressive government boiled over on Oct. 23,1956. The massive protests escalated into nearly two weeks of fierce fighting in the streets of Budapest and some of Hungary’s larger cities.
Even children threw Molotov cocktails down the turrets of Russian tanks, burning Red Army soldiers trapped inside.
Pongratz was 17 when he recruited a welder to cut Joseph Stalin’s statue – a symbol of hatred – in Corvin Square, toppling it with a resounding thud. The ‘56 Hungarian Revolution caused a crack in Communism’s foundation, inspiring other Iron Curtain countries to throw off its yoke some 25 years later.
At the time, young adults presented 16 demands at the Parliament Building and radio station. Above all, they demanded freedom.
Communist police on the roof of the Parliament building started firing shots into the crowd on Oct. 23, killing some of the protesters.
The fight was on.
The Hungarian slogan “Ruszkik haza!” – “Russians go home!” – grew louder than ever.
In his most recent visit to Hungary, Pongratz spoke to 500 grammar school students in Dumafoldvar, outside Budapest, where his niece, Klari Cseke, is a schoolteacher and had arranged for his speech in the school’s auditorium.
Pongratz also spoke to about 1,000 people on Corvin Square in Budapest, where Edmund Pongratz, one of his older brothers, had established headquarters for the Freedom Fighters at the height of the revolution.
“It was a fantastic experience,” Pongratz said. “The students gave a wonderful presentation in the auditorium. They sang national songs about the country and freedom. They had me walk out onto the stage in the dark, and when they turned the lights on and I saw how the kids were looking at me in amazement, it was just an emotional experience. I was crying, I was amazed.
“The kids listened to me speak and asked me questions.,” Pongratz added. “The younger generation is beginning to understand and appreciate what we did and why we did it back in 1956.”
In Hungary, the Freedom Fighters are treated like World War II veterans are honored in the United States. They are considered part of Hungary’s Greatest Generation.
The year following the Revolution, Time Magazine named the Hungarian Freedom Fighter its Man of the Year.
“There’s not many of the Freedom Fighters around anymore, but the few who were there on Corvin Square for the 65th anniversary felt appreciated,” Pongratz said. “Sixty-five years is such a long time ago.”
Except for pandemic-shut 2020, Pongratz has returned to Hungary every year since 1990 to participate in the commemoration ceremonies of the uprising. Prior to 1990, he was not allowed to enter Hungary because of his and his family’s role in the revolution.
In addition to Andras, all of his siblings – Edmund, Ernest, Christopher, Gergely, Balint and Maria – all participated in the Hungarian Revolution.
In 2004, Pongratz was knighted in Hungary and received the Vitez Knight Award for his role in the uprising.
Pongratz said it took a crowd more than two hours to pull down the Stalin statue.
“We tried for two hours, and it wouldn’t budge,” Pongratz said. “It was so heavy. We tried to pull it down with cables, but the cables snapped. Knowing a little bit about cutting metal with a welding torch, I said that we needed some kind of metal cutter. A young man who was a student at a nearby welding school said he had his welder at the school. He ran and got it, and after he brought it back, I used it to cut off the leg of the statue - and it fell.”
Pongratz’s older brother, Edmund, re-assembled the cannon on Corvin Square so it again would fire.
“My brother sent another teenager to the apartment building across the street,” Pongratz said. “He went up to the second floor and gave us a signal by waving a white handkerchief when a Russian tank was coming down Ferenc Boulevard and came within about 5 meters of the square. When the tank got close enough, we all pulled the firing line on the cannon and shot the tank. We took out about 12 tanks without damaging the building behind it.”
Gergely Pongratz led the fighting, something which Andras said he was “in it” with his brothers “all the way through.”
Pongratz’s only sister, Maria, delivered messages to those who were involved in the fighting.
None of the Pongratzes were killed during the revolution.
By Oct., 29, 1956, the Freedom Fighters had won and Premier Imre Nagy announced that the country had its new government in place. The Russians pulled out of the country.
Hungary was ecstatic. Some 8,000 political prisoners were released.
Hungary appealed to the United Nations for neutrality following the uprising but received no support.
Andy Bogdanyi, a retired tailor who lives in Ohio and escaped Hungary in the wake of the revolution, said, “We had asked for freedom of religion. We had asked for freedom of the press. We asked for individual freedom and for the Russians to leave, but that was all just a dream.”
Indeed, Hungary’s victory was short-lived.
When the world stood by and watched, the Russians realized no other countries were going to intervene on Hungary’s behalf.
During the early morning hours of Nov. 4, Russia’s military thundered back into Budapest, fortified with more tanks, weapons and soldiers.
“They surrounded strategic points around Budapest and retaliated with everything they had,” Pongratz said. “They started shooting everything.”
On Nov. 10, the Russians had quashed the uprising.
The ‘56 revolution claimed the lives of 2,500 Hungarians and 722 Red Army soldiers.
Hungarian Premier Imre Nagy was apprehended and was assassinated in 1958 by the Communists for treason.
In its aftermath, 200,000 Hungarians left the country, often traveling for days on foot to make it across to whatever country would take them.
Andras and his brother, Balint, left the country with two of their friends.
After a three-day trek on foot, Andras and his group made it to the Austrian border.
“It took us three days and three nights to reach the border,” Pongratz said. “We didn’t want to take any chances on the roads, so we took the fields.”
Of those who left Hungary, 5,000 were permitted to emigrate to the United States. They had to be sponsored by relatives or friends, and mostly were processed through Camp Kilmer, New Jersey.
The refugees were on their own as the government did not shoulder any of the expense for their emigration to the United States.
After coming to the U.S., Andras first settled in Pennsylvania close to where his mother, Anna, lived, but later lived in New York City, where he worked mowing the lawn of a cemetery.
Andras later lived in Boston, where he owned a dry cleaner and laundro-mat, and worked at a wholesale car business.
After the Blizzard of 1978 in Boston, Pongratz and his family moved to Arizona for warmer weather. He and his wife, Carolyn, have five children – Andrew, Therese, Edmund, Joseph and Stephen – and 20 grandchildren.
Pongratz said he never regretted leaving his homeland.
“We just could not live under Communism anymore,” he said. “The worst thing about Communism is the lack of individual freedom, and how the government uses its people to make money.”
He recalled one time in the early 1950s, when the secret police came to his family’s home at 3 a.m. and took away his brother, Ernest.
“We didn’t know where he was for six months,” Pongratz said. “Then, we found out he was in jail. They charged him with “attempting to leave the country.” Attempting to leave the country? There was no truth to that. We were far from the border.”
Pongratz also said that the Communists gave their family a plot of land to farm so they could grow corn and produce eggs from poultry.
“My father, Dr. Simon Pongratz, was sick and bedridden,” Pongratz said. “He couldn’t do the work the government wanted him to do, so a judge came to his bedside to charge him. But, they realized he was sick and couldn’t do the work, so they didn’t charge him with anything. My father died in his country under those circumstances in 1956.”
After arriving in the U.S. early on, members of the Pongratz family spoke to schools, universities and organizations about the evils of Communism.
Gergely Pongratz later moved back to Budapest and founded the 1956 Hungarian Revolution Museum. He died of a heart attack on the grounds of the museum in 2005, a year before the 50th anniversary of the ‘56 Revolution.
Pongratz fears for the future of this country, citing forces that are “putting the United States in shambles and pushing us closer to socialism – globalism, anyway,” Pongratz said.
“The mess our country is in right now is beyond words. I won’t even watch the news on television anymore. People in Hungary and abroad feel sorry for the United States because of what is happening here.”
But he also said he is grateful to live in America.
“I’m proud to live in the United States,” Pongratz said. “I am thankful to be in a place where I and my family can be free.”