|Ilona Gizella Tóth - A Bright, Shining Light
In 1998, a documentary film was shown in Hungary of Dr. Ilona Tóth's life and
martyrdom. It had an ageless, central, unmistakable theme and challenge to which her
brief life bore testimony:
There is evil in the world.
Will we have the moral sensitivity to recognize it, in spite of its ever more-clever
When we do, are we prepared to follow the dictates of the spirit and continue the
fight against it, even when the mind says it is hopeless?
In that, her life provides an example.
In that, she has truly become a woman as well as light and leader for all seasons,
for her answer was the same as must be ours: unequivocally, yes, until life's end or
victory's been won.
In November of 2001 a statue of Dr. Ilona Tóth was placed in the hall of Semmelweis
Medical University. She had been in the public eye for less than a year. Hungary's
fight for freedom in 1956 seared her martyrdom into its conscience and memory. Today
she would have been 74 years old.
Because of their relevance to events unfolding once again, I wish I had the
eloquence to describe the evil that took her life and is threatening to engulf an
entire region once again.
The stakes in Hungary were far greater than most in the West realized. Socialism, a
"scientific" system that was an "historic inevitability" was backed by a military
that was "invincible."
One of the strengths and characteristics of evil is that it can accommodate and
adapt itself to the environment it wants to influence. In its appearance, it can
camouflage itself to make itself appear acceptable or attractive. In its words, it
will use those most effective at that time to achieve its purposes.
Ilona Tóth was so striking in bearing, manner, and appearance that when Dr. Iván
László-then a classmate, today a professor-first saw her, years before the
revolution, he said, "Look! Hungary's Joan of Arc."
The details of her story that I will relate I know to be true. Some of my personal
friends knew her and verified the details. Another friend was a senior government
official in the first non-Communist government in 1990. He personally looked at the
investigation that established the facts in order to determine the reason for the
fright she continues to cause among the renamed-Communists.
Her name could at most be whispered decades after her execution, even under the
"soft dictatorship" that followed Hungary's unsuccessful fight for freedom in 1956.
Memory of her martyrdom surely haunts the renamed-Communists, now in power once
again. Their parents established the dictatorship that followed a stolen election.
They have come to power in similar fashion and now are trying to establish similar
control, limited only by what this age now allows.
In telling her story, the documentary film ineluctably introduces a moral theme as
well, one that every generation in every land confronts.
A constant theme of the film-a question and challenge really-appears that is
unexpectedly relevant once again, not just in Hungary but throughout today's Central
Europe: in what is one to hope and trust when the enemy the West once knew as
Communism has reappeared, renamed and in new disguises to once again claim
dominance, this time with the West's apparent support.
Thus, this is one of those times when I wish I could find the words that could
convey the true horror of what happened 45 years ago, and of events whose repetition
is now again under way in Hungary.
The essence of communism was its vision of mankind "emancipated" from God, for "if
God does not exist, everything is permissible."
Hungary seems to be leading the region in revisiting the 1950s. After what seems to
many to be a stolen election (again in 2002), the ruling party is consolidating its
power by scaling back press freedoms and civil liberties.
The story of Dr. Ilona Tóth is a bit of history that was to be repeated untold
thousands of times. It took place in Hungary. But then, as now, it is unfolding once
again not just in Hungary but throughout the region.
The fight for freedom started on October 23, 1956.
Every age group, every stratum of society, men, women-all joined in.
Instead of firearms as weapons, they had ingenuity and that unalienable spirit of
"yearning to breathe free." Hilly streets were greased so tanks would careen out of
control. Dinner plates put on roadways upside-down, tin cans of food, all lined up
to look like mines, were enough to cause the tanks, trucks, and jeeps to at least
slow down. When that happened, someone would leap out of hiding to throw a Molotov
cocktail into the vehicle.
All the while Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty broadcast encouragement: "hold
out...help is on the way." The fighters did not want our troops, only weapons. None
of what was promised ever came.
The largest tank battle in history occurred during World War II at Kursk in Ukraine.
The Soviets sent more tanks into Hungary than took part in that battle, more than
2,600 to put down a rag-tag, untrained bunch.
In one of history's little ironies, Yuri Andropov, Gorbachev's "godfather," was
ambassador to Hungary before later becoming head of the KGB, then general secretary
of the Evil Empire. He gave his word he wanted to negotiate Soviet withdrawal from
Hungary, then broke it, arresting and executing the military leaders who had joined
the revolution; best-known among them was Paul Maléter. (Years later, like Lucy
coaxing Charlie Brown, Ronald Reagan was urged by our elites to forget his past and
assured we could trust Andropov-this time for sure.)
Western journalists were astounded that there was no looting. Even shattered display
cases for baked goods went untouched. Surely, breads and pastries would spoil, and
in a war, just as surely, no one would mind if people helped themselves.
But no one did, and the journalists marveled and wrote about the character of these
citizens-turned-warriors in freedom's cause.
The Soviets also noticed and knew that somehow these people, these
"counter-revolutionaries" had to be discredited. Even in France, prominent
Communists had begun to rethink their support for the party because of the ferocity
with which the Soviets sought to extinguish the then-flickering flame of freedom in
Hungary. With Moscow's strong direction and guidance, someone had to be chosen,
tried-convicted, of course-and executed to show that these people were not the salt
of the earth but mere earth-dirt.
A detour. In the last days of July of 2002, I received a note alarming in tone. The
note said that the combination of KGB/GRU/local secret services are organizing,
guiding the takeover of political life and elections not only in Hungary, but also
in the surrounding countries as well. As though history were repeating itself,
similar actions occurred in the 1950s following another stolen election. Communism
and its adherents are alive and well, under a different name.
Dr. Ilona Tóth attracted the attention of the "Comrades." For one, there was what
turned out to be the unhappy coincidence. Ilona Gizella Tóth was born on October 23
in Árpádföld, a part of Budapest, exactly 24 years before Hungary's fight for
freedom began. Her mother was a teacher, her father had been executed in 1945 by the
By all accounts she was an exceptional individual in every way: impeccable
character, her every word and deed bore testimony to her strong Christian faith
(Protestant), and high intelligence. She was tops in her class, an intern intent on
going on to do medical research in the treatment and cure of breast cancer. In
another of history's ironies, the former US ambassador (Nancy Goodman-Brinker,
appointed by President George W. Bush) who so openly sided with the
renamed-Communists before the elections, was a leading fundraiser for a breast
cancer cure prior to her appointment.
She was skilled in aerobatics and fencing.
She did have a flaw.
A classmate recalls, she did not have the manual dexterity nor strength to give
injections without flinching. He attributes it to her aversion to causing anyone
pain. For medical research this "flaw" would not be disqualifying.
The battles raged near the hospital where she was an intern. She volunteered to help
treat the wounded. Because of her obvious leadership qualities, her tirelessness,
she was asked to organize and lead the hospital's emergency room. It had become a
She was arrested on November 18 along with some other colleagues, after the
revolution had been overwhelmed by the Soviet army and their Hungarian
collaborators. One vicious collaborator among them, Gyula Horn, would later become
She was held without charge until December 4. She was then charged with the murder
of a secret policeman.
According to the charge, she injected gasoline into a vein in his neck. Since that
did not kill him, she then allegedly injected air into his veins. When that did not
kill him, she allegedly stepped on his neck and, in a final desperate attempt,
stabbed him in the heart with a knife.
All who knew her-professors, classmates, friends-or worked with her thought it all
preposterous. She would not have had the strength, dexterity, nor will to do such a
horrible deed. Four decades later, one of the then-prosecutors also came forward to
say she would not have been capable of such evil.
The documents that cast doubt on the place, time, and even identity of the alleged
victim were, of course, kept out of view, for they would have proved her innocence.
Interior Ministry documents indicate the alleged victim was posthumously promoted
for his "heroic death."
The body of the "martyred" secret policeman was never produced. What's more, a
recent examination of all Interior Ministry records shows there was only one
policemen who bore the "victim's" name, and he retired in 1981.
The 100-page indictment charged her with premeditated murder and attempted overthrow
of the state. A considerable portion of the "indictment" was in fact a polemic, charging
that all of the "counter-revolutionaries" were fascists, heavily influenced by Mein
Kampf and National Socialist (Nazi) thought, trying to mask their own kinship as
The same never-supported or substantiated charge of "fascist" is still being used by
the same people. It has been expanded to also include "anti-Semitism." Conveniently
ignored was the fact that Hitler had advocated the extermination of all Hungarians,
not just those who were Jewish.
The Soviets and their Hungarian puppets decided she and her case were to be used to
warn other students of the merciless consequences and to show the world how base
those "counter-revolutionaries" really were.
The secret police knew Dr. Tóth would not lie unless it was to accept responsibility
for what other friends may have done. For two weeks she steadfastly denied the
charges against her. Then an emergency "appendectomy" was performed on her. And she
At the show trial, it was obvious to all who knew her that she had been tortured and
drugged. Beating the bare soles of her feet seemed to have been a part of the
regimen to get her to voluntarily "confess."
As had been foreordained, she was convicted.
She made three final requests after she was sentenced to be hanged: she wanted to be
hanged without a hood put over her head, without any hand restraints, and to have
her mother present. Only the first request was granted.
The gallows used for her were different from what we are accustomed to seeing in
pictures or movies. There was something like a foot stool with steps in front of the
vertical beam. Above the stool was a beam from which the rope was hung.
On the fateful and dark day of June 27, 1957, there were three in the executioner's
party, all wearing blue "work" clothes and rubber boots. Three other goons including
an officer brought her from her cell shortly after 6 AM. She looked at the gallows
and then seemed to search the assembled witnesses for someone, presumably her
The three guards took her to the table at which a judge sat. A guard stood on either
side, close behind her was a third. The judge read the charge and sentence: Because
of her premeditated and unusually cruel murder carried out for the most vile of
reasons, he intoned, no mercy or clemency would be granted or shown.
In the ensuing silence, she was heard to say, "This is not what you promised...."
But the judge interrupted her and issued the command, "Executioners, do your duty!"
The executioners forced her hands in front of her, tied her wrists together. They
grabbed the rope and led her by the rope to the gallows. She mounted the steps and
was heard to say, more out of pity than anger, something like, "Murderers most
vile." In Hungarian, the word "nyomorult" she used can mean "crippled," and that
surely would have been an accurate reference to and description of their souls.
One of the executioners put and tied a rope around her ankles. The other, ran up the
steps of the ladder to lower another rope from above her head, and placed it around
her neck. The third grabbed her by the thighs, and lifted her just high enough so
that the rope around her neck could be placed in the hook above her head by the
chief executioner. Just then, another of the three shoved the foot stool out of the
way, the other let her body drop. Two of them then grabbed the rope tied around her
ankles. And yanked-hard.
The chief executioner forcefully slapped her head to one side.
The execution having been completed, one of them covered her face with a white
cloth, then stepped in front of her. In one, swift motion, he grabbed the top of her
blouse and ripped it open and away. They watched as the reflex motions started, then
stopped. In all, eleven minutes had passed.
The grisly record shows the execution had begun at 6:37 AM. She was pronounced dead
at 6:48 AM but left hanging for another 30 minutes.
She had faced her death without a trace of fear or panic. She had died with the
self-same dignity and character with which she had lived. And the witnesses were
left to silently marvel at her-and I hope-reflect on the crime with which they will
remain forever associated, to which they all were party.
After her execution, her body was dumped in an unmarked mass grave in the infamous
Parcel 301 of the Rákoskeresztúr Cemetery. A secret policeman mounted on a horse
witnessed the event and used his horse to trample the small mound and cross her
mother had erected.
Later, one of the members of the disposal party-hardly a burial-showed Dr. Tóth's
mother where her daughter's body had been placed. The workman was imprisoned.
A bust of Dr. Tóth was unveiled in 2004 at Semmelweis Medical University in
Budapest. As you may know, Semmelweis himself was a revolutionary. Untold numbers of
us owe our lives to his work. It was he who thought doctors assisting in child birth
should wash their hands to prevent puerperal fever, once they left their other work,
conducting autopsies, for example. Dr. Ignác Fülöp Semmelweis had the
heretical-revolutionary-idea that germs and disease would be passed by unclean hands
and cause infection.
The same people whose parents carried out the atrocities following the revolution,
who would later add other tens of thousands to that shameful list to keep the evil
regime alive, are now back in power. With our help.
Now as then, they leveled the self-same charges against their opponents in order to
gain acceptance by the West and divert from their past.
The same people are also aware of the power of the testimony of Ilona Tóth-her life,
her death-for it rightly casts doubt on their current words and deeds. For that
reason, a campaign continues to discredit her-once again.
To begin to appreciate the dimensions of the horror, visit the "Terror House" in
Budapest. The current government of renamed-Communists wants to rename this museum
and, instead of terror, call it a "house of reconciliation or remembrance." In it,
all too many of their relatives-or they themselves-stand accused by their deeds. For
them, there is also too much obvious continuity of ideology and action between Nazi
The folly and danger of such an act, to soften the stark horrors of the past by
casting them in pastels, has been well summed up by two individuals, former-Prime
Minister Viktor Orbán and George Santayana.
In 2002, Helle Bering-Dale quoted the then-Prime Minister in The Washington Times:
"Reconciliation is always an expression for those who committed the crimes. Memory
is for the victims."
At least an half century earlier, Santayana warned, "Those who cannot remember the
past are condemned to repeat it."
Why is she still feared in death since she never gave cause during her brief life?
In the documentary film of her life and martyr's death, a question arises and
becomes unexpectedly relevant once again in today's Central Europe and Hungary: in
what is one to hope and trust when the enemy the West once knew as Bolshevism has
reappeared in new forms to once again claim dominance?
It is more specifically true of Hungary than the West-the two are becoming separated
once again, unnoticed and unremarked.
An unmistakable and consistent message of Ilona Tóth's life the film preserves and
presents is that the fight for the right must continue to be waged even when all
hope appears gone. But why?
In the final scene, the last known photograph of her as a free person appears. Above
it is an inscription from the prophet Isaiah, "For as the heavens are higher than
the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts."
Clearly, she did not expect the rulers of this world to have the last word.
Tell me who you think Ilona Tóth was and your reflections and I will be able to tell
you something about you, your character, your own stewardship, and how you value