Budapest, 1961

According to the weather forecast, the next day was to be sunny, warm, decidedly springlike. At times like this, though, one never knew, because on the eve of ­ official holidays the forecasts were always falsified. They reported something either better or worse than what was actually expected, though occasionally they kept it real with only minor cosmetic adjustments. There was hope that this time would be one of those exceptions, since the previous days had indeed been sunnier and warmer than average, but, whatever the officials did or did not know, at dawn on March 15 turbulent northern winds were raging furiously over Hungary, a three-day hurricane which hit the capital especially hard. The false forecast, based on a compilation of daily requests and reports on the general public mood, was prepared in the disinformation department of the secret service, whose submitted recommendation could be accepted or rejected only by authorized party functionaries at the session of the political committee. At such times, the weather report, traversing strange paths, would not come from the Meteorological Institute, but would be delivered, as top secret, by a runner to the editorial offices of every newspaper, where it was the duty of the editor in chief to supplant the real report with this one before the paper went to press.

Suddenly the mercury dropped eight degrees; it was almost freezing again. Something terrible happened at the site of the official celebration, but no one knew any details. Swelling clouds sped across the sky, it was light and then it was dark, it drizzled, it was wet; closed windows rattled in the icy squalls. Festive flags were soaked and flapping wildly above Budapest’s empty streets, the national flag between two red ones. Tiles fell from roofs; from broken rain pipes water gushed freely. There were hardly any pedestrians; anyone who braved the wretched weather also risked having something fall on his head. In the general din, the streets seemed transformed into abandoned battlefields. Massive broken tree limbs lay scattered everywhere. Anyone trying to proceed by clinging to the walls of houses would get rain right in the face and water gushing from the pouring gutters down his neck. And the din reached its climax when, for a long moment at several distant points in the city, fire trucks and police cars blared as one and, blasting their sirens again and again, raced toward the center of town.

Ambulances moved in formation along the dead Grand Boulevard.