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  • Beth Lantinga

The Student World of Daniel Szabo

To understand the context of Daniel Szabo’s story, I went back to, The Lean Years, a small book by Gyula Gombos, a Hungarian Reformed pastor. Published in 1959, the book contains a description of struggles within the Hungarian Reformed Church following World War II. According to Gombos three groups coalesced after the war. The first group consisted of conservatives who dominated leadership positions before the war. Many within this group saw the church primarily as a cultural institution. Too often, charged Gombos, “They had indeed made the Church too much of a bureaucracy, intent on grinding out red-letter holidays and recording births, marriages, and deaths.”

A second group consisted of reformers who saw spiritual renewal as necessary for true social change. Many renewal leaders, like Daniel Szabo’s father, saw the Gospel in all its richness – true believing resulting in fruitful caring. For others in the renewal movement, faith meant flight from the world and worldly affairs.

According to Gombos, a third group moved the church leadership leftward and affected the church for decades. “The conflict of the reformers and conservatives might have been productive, because much good will prevailed in the better part of both camps, had it not been for the intervention of a third group, which for want of a better term might be called the left wing in a political rather than a theological sense.” Though it was the smallest of the three influential groups, “It exerted the greatest leverage, helped by the political atmosphere the Soviet occupation had created.” Leaders of this group rejected both traditional conservatives and renewal reformers and embraced the state’s vision of human flourishing.

Within the left-wing group, Gombos identified three types. The first were, “noble revolutionaries who, in contrast to the usual kind, envisage social justice in terms of Christian precepts.” As Romantics, they did not truly understand the realities of life under communism. Others were swept into a passionate left-wing outlook when the horrors of Nazi persecution of the Jews came to light. The third type were the cynically ambitious who took the most convenient road to power and found it within communist circles.

By 1948, the Reformed church was weakened by internal strife and unable to resist pressure from the communist state. The result was the collapse of the elected leadership and the election of left-leaning Albert Bereczky and Janos Peter as bishops. Under their leadership, theology was bent to accommodate left-wing ideology and cooperation with communist officials became collaboration. At the behest of their communist bosses, the new leaders directed the suppression of dissenters. Professors and pastors who spoke out against the dominant ideology were removed, and many others remained silent. Gombos described life in communist Hungary:

“Fear weighed on the land like a dank smog. Soon there was scarcely a heart it did not pervade. It was present in every decision. Only a man’s individuality determined whether it led to compromise, surrender, flight, prison or the gallows.”

Nonetheless, dissent continued to churn until the Hungarian Revolution erupted in 1956. This is where Daniel Szabo’s story resumes.


The Heady Days of 1956


“I was a fifth-year student by that time, nearly finished with my seminary training. We were all very excited about the revolution, so I jumped at the chance to travel to Budapest. We brought food to distribute in the capital, thrilled to be in the middle of the action. It was nighttime; shots were coming from every direction as naively we walked down the street. Fighters dragged us into doorways and behind gates to protect us, warning us when new fighting was about to begin. There was shooting everywhere. We passed a corner and a loud voice stopped me shouting, ‘Halt, who are you?’ When I stopped, I was astonished to see a group of women, university students with guns in their hands – bayonets, whatever they could find – checking identification papers. We thought of them during the trials after the revolution, when many of these same students were sentenced to prison because of their revolutionary activities. During those heady days of the revolution, I traveled back and forth between Debrecen and Budapest several times.

In Budapest, it seemed to us that the revolution was successful though we had no food for long days but walked the streets watching the big movie, actors in the big show. Watching, our hearts and souls were filled with enthusiasm. The revolution’s honesty allowed us to openly collect support for those families who had lost their children – and this very much characterized the spirit of the revolution – we collected funds openly on the street and no one even attempted to steal the money. There was such innocence in the early days that the shops were not looted even when the windows were broken by gunfire.

Once I jumped into a half broken bronze sculpture of Stalin, and finding a small saw there, I tried to get a souvenir piece of that sculpture. I was wielding the saw, holding the end with my handkerchief, when people came with huge hammers and started to pound on the sculpture to break it. I had to cry out for them to stop or they would have killed me too.

Signs of the Revolution - 2009

Though we were exhilarated during those days of the revolution, I was also shocked and horrified to see the blackened bodies of young Russian soldiers mummified in burned-out tanks. These soldiers, who thought that they were fighting at the Suez Canal, would never reach their homes again. So we were charged up with a mixture of contradictory feelings all at the same time. My brother-in-law’s brother was shot in the square in front of the Hungarian parliament. Three brothers were there; it was God’s grace that only one was killed. We brought home coffins containing young bodies and collected the dead from the streets burying them in the small gardens of downtown houses. We saw parents who came to look for their children but found only coffins. We met peasant families crying as they carried the bodies of their children back to their villages. These moments of our days were nearly breaking our hearts.


Flowers brighten the pock-marked building.

The Rescue of Katalin Peter

It was in such a situation that I met Katalin Peter, the daughter of Janos Peter, the Debrecen bishop. Debrecen really is a small world, so in spite of the fact that we had never talked to each other, we knew about each other and recognized each other in Budapest. She knew that I was studying under Professor Czedledy in a seminary class, and he was her uncle. So she recognized me in Budapest and asked for help because she was afraid, and no one wanted to talk to her. At that moment the revolution appeared successful, so she was a persona non grata at the Reformed church headquarters in those days. She couldn’t even call her parents in Debrecen and didn’t know whether they were safe, dead, or alive. I told her that I had just come from Debrecen and knew that her father had been forced to resign.

I felt that with her request for help, God was giving something into my hand, and by taking part in their lives, perhaps I could make something good for her family. It’s hard to say this because it sounds a bit hypocritical, but I can say that one of man’s greatest gifts from God is to make something good for his enemy. I knew that this did not come from my nature, but it was God who prepared me to give this gift. After two days we met again and she told me that she knew that her father would be called to stand before a revolutionary court. She herself was in a fever, worried about her father and at the same time excited, twisting in the current of the revolution. She told me that her father, as a member of the parliament, had an apartment in Budapest and there might be incriminating documents that could harm and damage her father at a trial.

She didn’t know that I was one of the persons about to be kicked out of the seminary by her father, but she knew that I was from Debrecen and her uncle’s student, and she trusted me. She asked whether I would go along with her to the apartment. She had a door key, and though the wardrobes were locked, we could break into them to choose from her father’s files the most compromising documents, even Russian materials. I could see that this opportunity was offered to me by God, so we looked for tools to break into the wardrobes and suitcases to carry the documents.

We found the apartment and opened the door, lighting our way with candles. I broke into the wardrobes and poured all the papers into the middle of the room. Today I know how dangerous it was and that though we were both university students, we were working with the minds of children. We finally filled two huge suitcases with documents we thought were important. Then we took them to some of her relatives on the Buda side of the city who agreed to safely store the suitcases. I think they probably burned them.


A Reminder of 1956

This was on the second of November, and she wanted to go to Debrecen, so we had to figure out how to get home. We planned to depart on the evening of the third, but we didn’t know at that time that the city was about to be surrounded by Russian tanks. We found a place on a truck going to Debrecen, and one time we were forced to stop at the side of the road because of all the tanks on their way to Budapest. With all the others on the truck, students and soldiers, we stopped for the night at a small agricultural cooperative. The small house smelled of garlic, palinka, Hungarian brandy, and smoke. Knowing that this was not her sophisticated world, I traded with the agronomist – a revolutionary newspaper for a room for Katalin for one night. We made a bed for her in the middle of the room, covering a small table with blankets. I sat in front of her door all night, not wanting her to be bothered by any of our rough company.

The next day we traveled away not knowing what was happening with the revolution. At Tiszafured we realized that Russian soldiers were standing at the bridge. They stopped us, pointed their machine guns at us, and searched us. I became very nervous because the piece of the Stalin sculpture was in my pocket and it was in the shape of a pistol. If they took it out of my pocket, it wouldn’t be hard to figure out that it was a piece of a sculpture made of bronze. I was also afraid that I wouldn’t have the chance to explain before they shot me. So I dropped it on the ground and stood on it, still wanting very much to keep it. Sometime later we were allowed to get back to the truck with the other students and Hungarian soldiers. Fortunately, the soldiers had gotten rid of their guns long before we were stopped by the Russians. The question was, how could I manage to take this small bronze piece with me? I wasn’t brave enough just to pick it up and take it, but the passengers were asking for some stone or tool to fasten a chain on the back of the truck. I reported that I had something, picked up my sculpture piece from the ground and dropped it into the back of the truck.

When the truck finally arrived in Debrecen and passed by the military camp, we could see that the camp had been heavily damaged by shells and gunfire. It had been attacked at night; many hit by the shooting had died. Some ordinary young soldiers shouted to us for help and told us that their wounded fellows had bled to death during the night, but they had not been allowed to move them. They begged for help. We couldn’t do anything because as soon as we entered the town, Russian military officers wearing quilted jackets surrounded us, stopped and searched us, demanding to know where we were coming from; they shot some people there that morning. When Katalin showed her papers, the soldiers were astonished and asked whether she was related to Janos Peter, the bishop. Yes, she answered, I am his daughter. People had been searching for her everywhere! She was offered a seat in a small car and carried home.”

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 © Beth Lantinga 2020