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1956: Protest at the Statue of Liberty
1956: Protest at the Statue of Liberty

On November 12, 1956, István Sisa, editor of the New World Review, called a meeting at his New Jersey home to discuss some way of expressing protest over the brutal suppression of the Hungarian Revolution. István Juharos, painter and artist, István Koronka (Sisa’s neighbor) and István Mártonffy, an engineer and colleague of Koronka, participated in the meeting. 

Several subjects were discussed, including painting the Hudson River with red dye, placing tri-color smoke bombs, dropping leaflets by plane, etc.  Finally, their attention focused on the Statue of Liberty.  The group, whose nickname became the ”Conspiracy of Stephens” (since all the initiators had István/Stephen as their Christian name), determined to fly the Hungarian flag from the torch of Lady Liberty.

The Hungarian photographer Kálmán Keviczky became involved inasmuch as it would be his responsibility to film the planned event, while his son Attila would take photos.  István Mártonffy organized a group of young people to carry out the plan.  These included Martha (aged 14) and Judith (17) Bakonyi, Joseph Sövér, Joseph Abrankó, Elemér Édes, William Sárközy, István Juharos and, of course, István Mártonffy who, by his own recollection and admission, executed the final project.

To sew the flag together was no small task.  Mrs. Ilona Bakonyi (my future mother-in-law) was asked to buy the tri-color material and stitch the 30 x 9 foot flag overnight in their apartment.  (A smaller American flag was also to be flown.)  In addition, a long white banner, carrying the inscription ”STOP GENOCIDE;SAVE HUNGARY” was to be displayed from the 10th floor balcony of the Statue’s base. The consensus is that the wording on the proclamation as well as the emblem of the Hungarian flag were the work of István Juharos.

Juharos and some of his friends had previously visited the Statue and climbed up to the crown, only to find that the staircase leading up to the torch-carrying arm was padlocked.  They made a note of the lock’s model with the idea that after knocking it down, they would replace it with an identical model.  The original action was planned for Saturday, November 17, 1956; however, rainy weather prevented its execution.  They decided to postpone it by one day.

In her own words, my wife Martha subsequently recorded the following:

”... I don’t quite remember how exactly I got involved in this project.  Maybe through the fact that my sister and I were Girl Scouts and were active in the St. Emeric (Szent Imre) organization.  I was always picketing with my parents and friends at the Soviet Mission to the UN and we had known at least one of the organizers, István Mártonffy.

”One Sunday afternoon, Mártonffy asked my sister, myself, my brother-in-law William Sárközy and three other young men to come to his apartment to make some banners.  The fate of the Hungarian Revolution had turned sour and the West did not seem to pay much attention to it.  We had to do something about it.  Mártonffy talked to us about a big project.  He wanted us to place a Hungarian flag around the torch of the Statue of Liberty and a 50-foot long banner on the base of the Statue. I guess we all felt proud to have been selected and didn’t think of the possible consequences. On reflection, how could I?  I was only 14 at the time.  Our parents were asked to make a flag but they were not told for what purpose. We were sworn to secrecy.

”A Sunday morning was set for the action.  On November 18th, we all met at the Hungarian self-service restaurant on 81st Street, had breakfast and went to take the subway for the first ferry to the Statue of Liberty.  We were paired off and tried to look as natural and calm as possible.  Kálmán Kevicky and his son were there to take pictures and film to commemorate the events.  We carried the flag and banner in shopping bags.” (In the ladies’ room at Liberty Island, the banner was wrapped around Martha’s waist to be able to get it up into the Statue.)

 ”Unfortunately, we were not the only passengers on the ferry.  There was a Puerto Rican couple as well. This made our situation more difficult. After all, we were all amateurs. But we did not intend to do any damage. We even brought a lock to replace the one that would have to be broken in order to get up into the arm of the Statue.

”After arriving at Liberty Island, I followed the Puerto Rican couple for a while. My sister feigned illness and sat down on the stairs of the Statue in order to slow the ascent of this couple to the crown.  The couple must have sensed that something was wrong and started to descend.  I tried to alert everyone that we were in trouble, for surely they would tell the guards.  At this point we had already managed to stretch the banner on the 10th floor balcony’s bannister and some of our people draped the flag around the balcony of the torch-bearing arm.  Our job done, we spread out and tried to catch the return ferry.  But the guards stopped us anyway.  Mártonffy was our spokesman.  He took full responsibility; he was arrested and we were let go.  The Keviczkys had already boarded the ferry to return to Manhattan.

”That evening, this was reported on the TV news ...  Our parents were surprised to find out that we had been involved in this.  And they probably were a little proud, too.

”A few days later, Mártonffy came to our home with an FBI agent to interrogate me.  (No one else in the group had been interrogated.)  The agent asked how old I was and why I did what I did. I replied: ’I wanted the United States and the world to know that we want freedom for Hungary.’  With that, the interview was over and I never heard from the FBI again. But the authorities confiscated the flag and despite several efforts to get it back from them, we never were able to locate it.  It would have served as a nice memento to the immigrants’ museum at the Statue of Liberty – but the flag and the banner had disappeared.  I have only the memories left...”

While this was going on, István Sisa was watching the events with binoculars from his office in downtown Manhattan and when he saw its success, he immediately called the news media which sent helicopters and reporters to the scene.  Kevicky and his son had filmed and photographed the action from the lawn at the base of the Statue.  When they realized that the inscription was removed from the balcony they hastily withdrew to the ferry landing.  The alerted guards asked them whether they had seen a flag flying from the torch, which they denied, then boarded the ferry and returned to Manhattan.  On arrival, they hurried to the NBC News studio where Kevicky emptied his Bolex movie camera of the film clip.  (He was later paid $25 by NBC as a first prize for the documentary.)  Kevicky developed the photos in his own laboratory and transported them to the Rockefeller Center office of the Associated Press.  That evening, the news was televised and the photograph was carried in the Daily News and on the front page of the New York Times.

 1956: Further NY Protests

The emigrant world, including us in New York, took to the streets in protest when we learned of the Soviet attack and reprisals. On the night of Saturday, November 3 to Sunday, November 4, I received a telephone call from a friend in New York about the Soviet military intervention.  At 3 o’clock at night, a demonstration was organized in front of the United Nations complex.  At 10 the following morning, a caravan of 60 flag-bedecked cars cruised throughout New York City to call attention to the tragic events in Hungary.  I drove one of the cars in the parade.

In the afternoon, 10,000 gathered on Fifth Avenue for a protest march.  The Voice of Faith Radio Choir, to which our friends and I belonged, led the way, singing tragic church anthems and Marian hymns under the direction of Fr. Sabbas Kilian, OFM.  According to police reports, more than 50,000 watched the ”funeral march” from the sidewalks of New York.  The day ended with another demonstration at UN headquarters.

Demonstrations and picketing continued also at the Soviet Mission to the United Nations on Park Avenue and 68th Street.  The New York police department kept us in check with mounted cops and swinging clubs. From time to time, things did get out of hand.  Bottles of red dye were thrown against the building wall.  On one occasion a man, elegantly dressed, pulled up in a limousine, walked up to the door of the Mission where the commemoration of the 1917 Soviet revolution was being held.  When the door opened, he threw in a brown paper bag full of human excrement and then disappeared.

While we demonstarted at the UN, Joe Sárossy of our choir sneaked behind police lines and cut the ropes from the Soviet and Hungarian flags on the flagpoles.  Others, including my future wife, Martha Bakonyi, who was still in high school, went to the Rockefeller Center skating rink and cut a hole in the middle of the Hungarian flag on display, thereby eliminating the hated hammer and sickle, symbol of the Red regime.

One of the major demonstrations of the period was to take place at Madison Square Garden on the evening of Thursday, November 8.  Some 10,000 people gathered at the sports arena to raise $100,000 for Hungarian refugees, listen to some speeches and await some sort of commitment from the US government to aid the freedom fighters.  We expected to volunteer for the Hungarian cause, and either be parachuted into Hungary, or be dropped off at the Austrian border armed with American weaponry to come to the rescue of the embattled forces. 

New York State Governor Averell Harriman delivered President Eisenhower’s message to the Hungarians assembled at Madison Square Garden.  He announced that the US would admit thousands of Hungarian refugees, victims of the revolt.  The audience expected a lot more and became restless, especially when some politicians, recently escaped from Hungary, appeared on the stage with Harriman, one of them raising his right fist in the traditional Socialist salute.  I, too, felt the blood boiling in me and my utter disappointment came to the surface.  Suddenly, I sprang on my feet and at the top of my voice I started yelling: ”We want action!  We want action!”

The crowd took up the cry.  Several friends, seated in the audience around me, also rose to their feet and raised their voices. Next day, when I went to the office at American Export Lines, people told me that television cameras had brought my face up close as my chant was taken up by thousands.  Newspapers and LIFE magazine took pictures of this spontaneous outburst and our photo appeared in a commemorative edition of the magazine. 

Hungarian-born Jules S. Vallay, retired telecom executive, was the organist and choir-master of St. Stephen of Hungary Church in New York City. Between 1990 and 1992, he represented NYNEX in Budapest, counseling the newly liberated Hungarian government on modern telecommunications systems. Mr. Vallay is also the author of historical essays and is currently retired in Virginia. 

 

 


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