Medical university students also played an important role in the student protests of 1956. Following the breakout of armed fighting, the university took part in the treatment of the wounded. Both during the revolution and the succeeding reprisals, various university buildings were damaged. In our series leading up to the coming 250th anniversary of the university’s founding, we are reviewing the role the university played during great historical events.
University students played an important role in the preparations leading up to the revolution, with students of the Technical University taking the initiative in Budapest. The medical students of the capital joined them by formulating a list of 16 demands on October 22, which they had planned to present to the delegates’ assembly of the Union of Working Youth (DISZ) on the 24th. At the same time, the Technical University students announced a demonstration for the following day, October 23, to express solidarity with pro-reform movements in Poland, an announcement that was joined by the Medical University of Budapest as well.
On the morning of the 23rd, leaders of the university DISZ organization, smartly taking advantage of the tense political situation, sent a delegation led by DISZ secretary Dr. János Somogyi to József Román, the minister of health, where they managed to get support to equip the student dormitories. Following the meeting, they hurried over to the Kossuth Artillery Officers’ College, located near the university, to get them to hand over the military building complex for use as a dormitory. Talks with major-general Károly Janza, deputy minister of defense, ended in a surprise success: the medical university was granted the building they had long been asking for.
By this time, students were gathering en masse for the afternoon demonstration in the courtyard of the university, in the inner clinical center located under Üllői út 26. Due to the ban announced by the interior minister, the rector advised students against taking part in the demonstrations. Tensions grew, and medical students took part in the protests in several groups, taking different routes to get to the Buda side. From the statue of national hero József Bem, some of the students returned to the Gólyavár building of ELTE University in Pest, where the next debate of the Petőfi Circle was to be held, titled “Young Doctors and Society,” while the remaining students took part in the street protests. The fierce debate that developed at the Petőfi Circle ended when gunfire broke out at the nearby Radio Budapest building. This was where the first victim in Budapest, fifth-year medical student Sándor Puskás died.
The next day, the Revolutionary Committee of the Medical University was formed, led by associate professor Dr. István Pataki, assistant lecturer Dr. Dezső Prágay and medical student Béla Jankó. They also took over control of all university affairs, made easier by the fact that the rector had not shown up in his office at all since the start of the revolution. The most urgent task was organizing supplies of drugs and bandages and taking part in treating the wounded, as injured people were pouring continuously into the university’s clinics. So many students signed up to serve that most of them were left without any tasks to attend to, and they thus went to help out at other hospitals. Many of them landed at ambulances or took on direct “service on the front” alongside insurgent groups. In treating the wounded, Emil Monos, who was a fourth-year medical student at the time, made great use of what he had recently learned from his master, Dr. Arisztid Kovách, about treating traumatic shock.
We only have sporadic data on the extent of the treatment of the wounded, but we know that every department took part in it. The 2nd Department of Surgery treated 378 wounded between October 23 and November 9, including 37 Soviet soldiers. The 2nd Department of Pediatrics treated 80 civilians, 14 insurgents and 12 Soviet soldiers. The number of wounded transported to the Department of Urology was around 170, where a mere four to six doctors and their assistants tended to them. Due to the dangers of moving around the city, most departments were understaffed, which exacerbated the work overload of those that made it to their posts.
When the Soviet intervention started on November 4, the university, especially its inner clinical center, found itself once again in the middle of the fighting. The nearby centers of armed resistance – the Corvin köz, the Kilián Barracks and the Tűzoltó utca – made the university departments into targets as well. This was when ward number 25 in Building A of the 2nd Department of Internal Medicine was hit by artillery fire, killing every patient inside. The cellars quickly filled up with patients and emergency operating rooms that were moved below ground. This time, the right wing of the university’s main building – the Department of Dermatology – was destroyed, but many other buildings suffered serious damage as well. Completely disregarding the huge Red Cross banner, Russian troops literally lay siege to the Kálvária tér building of the 1st Department of Ophthalmology, which was left undefended. Thanks to the presence of mind of a young doctor on call, Dr. Gábor Brooser, and the earlier ordered moving of patients to the cellar, no one died there. The extent of the damage was comparable to the one suffered during the Second World War, although then the siege lasted 108 days. The wave of emigration that followed the failed revolution represented a major loss to the university as well, with 104 doctors and 76 other workers leaving the country as of January 1957. Many people were also missing from among the student body: three died and 315 emigrated west, which was almost 11% of the total 3085 headcount.
One of the goals of the arrests and reprisals that started in November was the intimidation of the university youth that played a key role in the revolution. As part of this, Ilona Tóth, a sixth-year medical student, was sentenced to death in a show trial, and executed on June 27, 1957.
The disappointment and passive resistance following the stifling of the revolution was reflected in party membership at the university. According to a report from early 1958, only 71 of the 2260 medical students (3.14 %) were members of the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party (MSZMP), and 178 people (7.8%) members of the Hungarian Young Communist League (KISZ). Also telling is how many department heads from 1956 renewed their party membership after the revolution. Of the 40 people, no information is available on the party membership of nine, but two of them left the country. An additional nine were not party members in 1956 and did not join later either. Of the 22 department heads that were members of the pre-revolution Hungarian Working Peoples’ Party (MDP), only four became members of MSZMP, one of them only in 1958.
Dr. László Molnár, Central Archives
Translation: Tamás Deme
Photo: Mihály Bartalos