Three pipehitters from the Corvin Passage, 60 years ago this month
The below image by Peter Dennis via MHE shows off a motley group of three freedom fighters in the Hungarian Revolution of October-November 1956 against the Soviets and the country’s puppet regime who would all lose their lives in the bitter fighting and subsequent repression.
From left to right, they are the real life Belane Havrilla, Mesz Janos, and Jozef Tibor Fejes. In the background, note the flag with the central motif cut out, and the captured 76.2mm anti-tank gun with the traditional coat-of-arms being painted on the gun shield.
They are depicted in front of the Corvin Cinema in Budapest, which was used as the headquarters of revolution leader László Iván Kovács. The narrow streets around the cinema allowed Kovacs’ 1,000~ irregulars to hold off a full Soviet mechanized infantry division, and, using Molotov cocktails and improvised anti-tank weapons, the Covin group knocked out 12 tanks including a few massive ISU-152s.
The Covin group held their position for 15 days.
Each of the three Covin group rebels shown below had their own story. Many were captured in a series of photos by LIFE’s Michael Rougier, which were sadly in some cases used by security officials after the uprising to track down rebels.
Béláné Havrilla was born in 1932, one of five children, growing up partly in an orphanage. She worked in a textile factory; married in 1952, but soon divorced; worked as a cleaner, then in a lamp factory. On 24 October she took part in the protests, joining the Corvin group first as a nurse, and later taking up arms herself, usually fighting together with Maria Wittner (shown with PPSh to the right).
Dennis: Photos show that she equipped herself with a khaki padded jacket (differing slightly from the regulation military model in having no side pockets); large stocks of these jackets were kept at Army depots and they were often worn by insurgents in the increasingly cold weather. Here the jacket is not fastened but closed in ‘female’ (right over left) style, and held fast by the Sam Browne-type belt; she has added a national armband to the left sleeve. She has a standard Mosin-Nagant M91/30 infantry rifle in addition to a holstered pistol.
János Mesz was born in 1931, one of 12 children in a worker’s family in Pecs. He spent part of his youth in a home for destitute children, and worked at various times as a gardener, a miner and in a factory. He lost his leg in an accident when run over by a suburban train. In 1956 he joined the ‘Corvinites’ – according to recollections he introduced himself as an officer (which was not true), but actually proved to be a fine gunner, commanding his group’s artillery. He was wounded in the head when his anti-tank gun (or 122mm howitzer – accounts vary) was hit and both his two helpers were killed; several photos show him as here, with a bandaged jaw. On 27 October he saved the lives of two injured Soviet soldiers who were taken prisoner.
Dennis: Here he wears a khaki Army M-51 uniform jacket without insignia apart from a narrow sleeve band in national colors, trousers of apparently the same shade, and a civilian fedora hat. He armed himself with a Mosin-Nagant M44 carbine and a PPSh-41 submachine gun; he also carried stick grenades in a canvas pouch for a PPSh drum magazine, and slung an extra 7.62mm machine gun cartridge belt around his body.
Born in 1934 into a workers’ family, Fejes, known as “Keménykalapos,” the man in the bowler hat, spent his childhood in an orphanage after his parents divorced. While still a child he was transferred to Transylvania to work, spent some time in a correctional home, and only returned to Hungary in January 1956. In October he was with the crowd tearing down the Stalin statue, and was among the first members of the Corvin group.
Dennis: He is shown here wearing typical workers’ dress – a mid-blue loose shirt and trousers, with heavy laced boots. Over this he wears a lady’s dark grey jacket (note the buttons on the left), and a knitted scarf apparently of sand-colored wool. When photographed he was well armed with a captured AK-47 assault rifle; on his belt are two leather rifle cartridge pouches – probably he had had a Mosin-Nagant before laying his hands on the Kalashnikov. Slung from his shoulder is a thermos bottle.
“He did so before Fidel Castro, before Yasser Arafat, before Idi Amin. He was years ahead of the flag of Zimbabwe, which would expropriate the AK-47 as a symbol. He was ahead of Shamil Basayev and Osama bin Laden, who would convert the product of an atheist state into a sign of unsparing jihad. József Tibor Fejes was the first of the world’s Kalashnikov-toting characters, a member of a pantheon’s inaugural class.”-– Chivers
All three perished soon after their resistance.
On 7 November Havrilla managed to escape to Austria, but on the urging of her boyfriend returned in December. She was arrested on 25 July 1957, and executed on 26 February 1959. Mária Wittner, shown above with Havrilla, was also sentenced to death. Her sentence was commuted to life imprisonment and she was released in 1970. She was subsequently awarded the Grand Cross star, as well as Ministers of silver and gold medals in 1991 by the new government.
On 4 November Mesz was mortally wounded.
As for the bowler hat man, Fejes quickly went home on November 5th after the pocket fell but was identified from press photographs, and was arrested in April 1957, and executed on 9 April 1959 for allegedly shooting State Police Lt. János Balassa— with his captured AK.
In all some 253 Hungarians were executed or died in prison for their part in the Revolution by the government. The Hungarian State Security Police (Államvédelmi Hatóság, ÁVH) was very efficient.
It is estimated that the three-week Revolution resulted in the combat deaths of 722 Soviet troops and some 2,500-3,000 Hungarians.