Democracy is not a right. Democratic values must be fought for and protected every day, sometimes in seemingly small ways, and even in Canada. This was the overarching message of this past Sunday’s commemoration of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution in Ottawa’s Beechwood Cemetery, organized by the Ottawa Hungarian Forum. The Forum is a fledgling grassroots community group in the Canadian capital. Judit Petényi, the host of the city’s weekly Hungarian-language broadcast on CHIN Radio, opened the commemoration with poignant words on what 1956 means to her…someone who grew up in Hungary at a time when the revolution was not talked about and also as a Hungarian Canadian who has come to realize that the values of social justice and democracy that were so prevalent in the uprising had to be defended in Canada as well.
The Ottawa Hungarian Forum was very pleased to welcome three guests from Montreal: award-winning Hungarian author Ákos Kertész and his wife Éva, as well as András Göllner, the founder of the Canadian Hungarian Democratic Charter. Mr. Kertész recited a poem entitled “The Bards of Wales” from nineteenth century poet János Arany, as well as poetry from twentieth century poet Miklós Radnóti. Mr. Kertész highlighted the bravery of Hungarian writers and artists in Hungary during the 1956 Revolution and their commitment to democratic values, suggesting that the same cannot always be said of today’s journalists and writers, when they, their colleagues or the society in which they live, are faced with oppression.
György Takács, a local Hungarian active in the Ottawa community, was 21 years old when the revolution broke out. He shared some of his recollections of what he saw in central Budapest, as university students, other youth and workers took to the streets on October 23rd, 1956 to demonstrate their solidarity with protesters in Poland and to demand both improvements in living standards, but also democratic political change in Hungary.
András Göllner was another witness of the 1956 revolution, although he was only 11 years old at the time. Professor Göllner commended the organizers of the Ottawa Hungarian Forum and stressed the importance of pluralism in a liberal democratic society and the value of fostering vibrant discussions, including within Hungarian Canadian communities. Professor Göllner noted that this local grassroots initiative in Ottawa was an example of freedom of speech and pluralism in action.
In addition to the wreath laying, the commemoration included a moving lighting of candles, in memory of those who fought, died or suffered, in their attempts to defend freedom and social justice. We also left a card, along with our wreath, at the memorial, for other Hungarians and any visitors who may take a trip to Beechwood Cemetery in the coming days. The card reads: “The Ottawa Hungarian Forum remembers all the men, women and children who died during the 1956 Revolution, were imprisoned, or who fled Hungary. The 1989 Republic of Hungary was born out of the legacy of the uprising and out of a desire for liberal democracy.”
The Ottawa Hungarian Forum’s first public event was undoubtedly modest, yet also meaningful to all those present. The commemoration was also an opportunity to remember Hungary’s first democratic President, Árpád Göncz, who participated in the 1956 Revolution, was imprisoned and who died earlier this month.
Community-building often involves sharing a meal and that’s exactly what we did: thanks to the generous contribution from one of our participants, who helped make our ceremony possible, we continued our lively discussions at a local restaurant after the commemoration. For a taste of our commemoration, see the video below: