Erika Szeles was a young soldier and nurse in the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. When her photo was taken by a Danish photographer her image graced the covers of several European magazines and she became an international symbol of the revolution.
Szeles was born to Jewish parents in 1941 and raised solely by her mother after her father’s death in a Nazi concentration camp. At age 14 she trained as a cook at the Hotel Béke in Budapest. While her mother was a hardline communist, Szeles had an older boyfriend who converted her to the anti-communist cause.
When Hungary’s revolution against the Soviet Union began on October 23rd 1956, she was 15 years old. When her boyfriend formed a resistance group with some fellow students she chose to join them. She quickly learned how to use a sub-machine gun and fought alongside the group in several skirmishes with Soviet soldiers.
The iconic photo above of Szeles holding her sub-machine gun was taken around November 1st 1956. A few days afterward she was approached by friends who, knowing that Russian divisions were pouring into Hungary, feared for her safety. They argued that she was too young to be fighting and she agreed to put down her gun and to instead serve the resistance as a Red Cross nurse.
On November 8th the resistance group she was with became involved in a heavy firefight with Russian soldiers in the center of Budapest. When a friend of hers was wounded she ran forward to help him. Despite being unarmed and wearing a Red Cross uniform she was gunned down and died instantly. She was buried in the Kerepesi Churchyard in Budapest.
Szeles’s story remained largely unknown for some 50 years, until in 2008 journalists were able to uncover the truth about the young woman from the infamous picture. She is now recognised as a martyr of the Hungarian Revolution.