Archive for the ‘Kecskemét’ Tag

Roots of Liberal Democracy, Part Four: Liberation & Democratic Transition in Hungary, 1988-2004.   1 comment

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Goodbye János Kádár!

By the end of 1988, Mikhail Gorbachev had clearly abandoned the ‘Brezhnev doctrine’ in terms of which the Soviet Union undertook to resort to military force in critical situations in the ‘eastern bloc’ countries. In other words, he intimated that the events of 1956 in Hungary, 1968 in Czechoslovakia and 1981 in Poland, where an invasion was only prevented by the announcement of martial law, would not be repeated. Kádár, the one-time pioneer of reforms in the bloc, was deeply disturbed by Gorbachev’s aspirations, for they now made any depth of reform possible, whereas the ones enacted up to 1985 in Hungary were the maximum he was willing to concede. It was rumoured among the broad segment of reformers in the party rank-and-file, whose expectations were heightened by Glasnost and Perestroika, that Gorbachev’s statements were being censored in Hungary as well as in the more rigid socialist countries. In the final stage of Kádár’s reforms in Hungary, ‘multiple candidacy’ was introduced for future general elections, allowing ‘independent’, non-party candidates to stand, resulting in ten per cent of the new parliament being composed of such deputies in 1985. Any further step in the opening up of the public sphere would have provided a fundamental challenge to the régime’s power base.

Supported by a faceless crowd of yes-men of his own age in the upper echelons of the party hierarchy, Kádár stubbornly denied any allegation that Hungary was in crisis. When he could no longer maintain this facade, in July 1987 he dropped his long-standing Prime Minister György Lázár, replacing him with one of the several vigorous, relatively young figures who were biding their time in the lower echelons. Károly Grósz was the most characteristic representative of the new technocratic cadres which were in favour of going forward with economic reforms without changing the political system. The policy of transition to a mixed economy based on mixed forms of property (state, co-operative and private) was therefore carried forward with the elimination of subsidised prices; the return, after four decades, of a two-level banking system and the introduction of a new tax system, including progressive personal income tax. Grósz also continued the ‘openness’ policy towards the West by abolishing all travel restrictions, winning Gorbachev’s confidence in the process. The Soviet leader had no objection to getting rid of Kádár, who was aged, sick and tired in every sense of the word. As he outlived his days, the stage was set for a succession struggle.

Besides Grósz, the main contenders included Nyers, the architect of the 1968 economic reforms and Imre Pozsgay, whose commitment to reform extended to the political sphere, in favour of democratisation. He was supported by a sizeable reform wing within the party, as well as by a group of social scientists who prepared, under his protection, a scenario for a transition to pluralism in 1986, Turning Point and Reform. In addition, Pozsgay communicated with a segment of the opposition led by ‘populist’ intellectuals. An investigation within the party and the expulsion of four prominent reformist intellectuals from the party in the spring of 1988 were intended by the ‘old guard’ to deter the opposition within the party, but the measure missed its target. Then on 22 May 1988, Kádár’s long rule came to an abrupt end: the party conference elevated him to the entirely impotent post of Party Chairman, electing Grósz as Party Secretary in his place and completely reshuffling the Political Committee. By this time the different opposition groups that had been germinating for a considerable period in the ‘secondary public sphere’ stepped forward into the primary one and started to develop as political parties, presenting the public with analyses of past and present communism, diagnoses of Hungary’s predicament, and antidotes to it, which proved to be more credible than the versions prevented by officialdom.

From its inception in the late 1970s, the opposition that arose as a viable political alternative a decade later was distinguishable from the post-1968 dissidents both by their ideological orientation and their strategy. Instead of grafting pluralism and democracy onto Marxism, which the experience of 1956 had shown to be futile, they drew on the liberal-democratic and Christian national traditions, and instead of the similarly futile effort to represent these endeavours in the ‘primary’ public sphere, whose organs and institutions were dominated by the party, they created and maintained autonomous organisations. At the outset, these initiatives were confined to a few dozen individuals, maintaining contacts with a few hundred others among the intellectuals of research institutes, university departments, editorial offices and student circles. Through these, their views started to infiltrate into the pages of literary and social science journals of the ‘primary’ sphere that were testing the limits of free speech. From the mid-1980s on, some of them also developed contacts with reformers within the party. Of course, the authorities continued to possess detailed and up-to-date information about the activities of opposition and the groups linked with them. But given the developing dialogue with the West and its increasing dependence on western loans, the régime could not afford to show its iron fist. Whenever the opposition made itself visible by coming out on the streets for alternative commemorations of the 1848 and 1956 Revolutions, up to 1988 arrests, detentions and beatings invariably followed. Otherwise, the régime contented itself with occasional harassment: sporadic searches, the confiscation of illegal publications, the rejection of travel permits, censorship of writers and replacement of editorial boards.

Far from being homogeneous, from the outset, there were clear divisions within the opposition, reflecting the old urban-populist divide, although they maintained a co-operative dialogue until the eve of the transition process. The ‘populists’ identified national ‘questions of fate’ as their main commitment, such as the conditions of Hungarian minorities in the neighbouring countries, types of social delinquency, demographic problems, the conditions of the Churches, the loosening of communal ties and the effects of communism on the national consciousness. The neglect of these issues by the government, especially the first, led to the beginning of these ‘populist’ nationalist trends, also at the end of the 1970s. From 1983 Sándor Csoóri became a dominant figure among the ‘populists’, with polemical writings combining the above-mentioned themes with a critique of the morally detrimental effects of socialism. New social service periodicals succeeded in outmaneuvering censorship and discussing in a more objective manner an extensive range of sensitive themes, not just Stalinism and the 1956 Revolution, but also anti-Semitism, the condition of the Roma minority, poverty and the anomalies of the social security system. Both liberal Democrats and populists established links with Hungarian emigré organisations in the West, benefiting in the shape of scholarships from the New York-based Open Society Foundation launched by the Hungarian-American businessman George Soros in 1982, which also opened a registered office in Budapest five years later.

In the first half of the 1980s, the endeavour of anti-communist cooperation dominated the relationship of the two camps of the opposition, so different in outlook. A conference was held at Monor in 1985 in June 1985, whose speakers addressed and analysed the most soaring issues of the then generalised crisis. As the transformation of the system responsible for it came on to the agenda, and programmes started to be worked out, the ways of ‘urbanists’ and ‘populists’ parted. In June 1987 the programme of the democratic opposition was published, entitled ‘Social Contract’. They were uncompromising in claiming that the current political leadership was unsuitable to guide the process. Their document concluded that Kádár must go. This was too radical for the populists, who envisaged a more gradual transition, with an active role for reform communists within it. As a result, the democratic opposition was not invited to the meeting of the ‘populist’ camp which took place at Lakitelek, near Kecskemét, where the Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF) was founded. This was a recognised movement with the goal of transforming into a political party and was formed in the presence of Pozsgay and other reform Communists, on 27 September 1987.

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The Young ‘Liberal’ Democrat, Viktor Orbán, speaking at the re-interment of Imre Nagy in June 1989. These days, neither Liberal Democracy nor Nagy’s Social Democracy are any more fashionable for Orbán and his now ultra-Conservative party and government.

The Alliance of Young Democrats (FIDESZ), established on 30 March 1988, originally as an alternative to the Communist Youth League, endeavoured to supersede the urbanist-populist divide and submitted a programme in which a mixed economy, human rights, political pluralism and national values were given equal emphasis. At the same time, it also identified itself as a radical liberal initiative, and for some time during the ‘Transition’, it remained the closest political ally of the former democratic opposition. The ‘urbanist’ counterpart of the MDF was the Network of Free Initiatives, launched on 1 May 1988 which then developed into the Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ) on 13 November that same year, after their hope of integrating most or all of the democratic opposition became thwarted by the mushroom-like growth of quasi-political organisations, together with professional associations and trade unions in the intervening six months. Shortly afterwards, the ‘historical parties’ reformed themselves: the Independent Smallholder Party re-emerged on 18 November 1988, followed by the Social Democrats in January and the Christian Democrats in April 1989.

Meanwhile, in November 1988, Grósz had passed over the premiership to Miklós Németh who, contrary to expectations, became one of the engineers of transition. He drew reinforcement from the successful manoeuvring of Pozsgay, who arose as an emblematic figure of reform Communist policies by sharpening the divisions within the party through a number of publicly made statements from late 1988 onwards. Pozsgay had avoided getting involved on either side in the 1956 Uprising because he was based in a provincial town at the time. He was an intellectual by instinct and training, who had worked his way up through the system until he and his fellow reformers had been strong enough to vote Kádár, who had once referred to him as ‘impertinent’, out of power in May 1988. It was then that Pozsgay became a member of the Politburo and it was soon after that he, not Grosz, had emerged as the dominant figure in the party leadership. Most notably, his announcements had included breaking the taboo of 1956: the redefinition of the ‘counter-revolution’ was as a ‘popular uprising’, and the urging of the introduction of a multi-party system. This was ratified by the legislature on 11 January, and acknowledged by the party on February 11, 1989. Through a cabinet reshuffle in May 1989, the followers of Grósz were replaced in most posts by pragmatic reformers like Németh himself. This did much to undermine hard-liner positions in the party and to push it to disintegration. The founder of the party did not live to see it. In early May 1989, Kádár was relieved of his offices, and died on 6 July, the same day that Imre Nagy was officially rehabilitated.

Even before his total removal from power, it was already being openly said that the Kádár period had come to an end. What had come into existence under his aegis was now in ruins economically. The attempts of the régime at reform had won excessive, flattering judgements in the West, making it more suspect within the Eastern Bloc. But the end of the third decade of Kádár’s rule was overshadowed by the previously whispered, but later admitted, information that Hungary had accumulated a foreign debt of twenty billion dollars, most of it in a couple of years of recklessness. This was where the contradictory, limited national consensus had ended up, in a cul-de-sac of national bankruptcy; this was what the divergence of production of production and consumption, the maintenance of a tolerable standard of living, and the erroneous use of the loans received had amounted to. The heavy interest burden on these debts alone was to have its effects for decades, crippling many early attempts at renewal.

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By July 1989, Hungary had become a de facto multi-party democracy again. Although these parties, new or old, were not mass parties with large numbers of activists, they were able to show that Grósz was wrong to suggest, as he once did at the end of 1988, that the streets belong to us. There were few mass demonstrations during this period, but those that did take place were organised by the opposition and were effective in conveying clear messages. They included mass protests over Ceausescu’s treatment of the Hungarian minority in Transylvania, reminding the Communists of their neglect of nationalist issues, and against the proposed construction of the hydro-electric dam system on the Danube Bend, which called attention to the ecological spoliation of communism. On 15 March, the anniversary of the 1848 Revolution, there was a keen competition to dominate the commemorative events in which the opposition scored a sweeping triumph; its main message was that the hundred-and-forty years of demands for civil liberty and representative government was still on the national agenda.

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Above: The Danube Bend at Visegrád, where the river, hemmed in by the Börzöny and Pilis Hills, meanders beneath the castle at Visegrád. After the foundation of the Hungarian State, Visegrád was one of the first ecclesiastical centres, as well as being a royal estate and a county seat. After the Turkish Conquest in the sixteenth century. the ‘Hungarian Versailles’ was laid low and almost completely raised to the ground. In the 1980s the area was again brought to the forefront of public attention. Czechoslovakia and Hungary long ago planned the building of a dam, of which the main Slovak installation would be at Bős and the main Hungarian installation at Nagymaros, north of Visegrád, in close proximity to the Royal castle and palace. But in East Central Europe during the 1980s growing political dissatisfaction and civic opposition found an object of focus in this gigantic project. In this, ecological and environmental considerations played a major part, with national and international ramifications.  The Hungarian domestic opposition had two main areas of activity: the publication and distribution of pamphlets and the struggle against the Danube dam. In response to this, the new Hungarian government elected in 1990 stopped all construction work on its side of the river and started to restore the bank to its natural state. Later, the ‘Visegrád’ group of four neighbouring countries was formed at the palace.   

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The most dramatic of all the public demonstrations was the official re-burial of the remains of Imre Nagy and his fellow ‘martyrs’ on the anniversary of their execution, 16 June 1989, which amounted to a public confession that in its origins the régime was built on terror and injustice. Nagy’s body, along with the others executed in 1958 was found in the waste ground at the Újköztemető (cemetery), wrapped in tar paper. After its exhumation, Nagy’s coffin lay in state in Heroes’ Square before being formally reburied. Over three hundred thousand citizens paid their respects to the martyrs of 1956, together with the tributes of government ministers. The fact that only a year beforehand police had used force to disperse a group of a few hundred demonstrators commemorating the martyrdom illustrates the rapid erosion of the régime’s authority and the simultaneous occupation of the public space by the opposition by the middle of 1989.

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The Hole in the Curtain:

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At last Hungary had come to terms with its past. Its future was determined by a decision taken by the Central Committee of the HSWP, to put the rapidly developing multi-party system on an official basis. Pozsgay’s own position had often seemed closer to that of the opposition Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF) than to that of his own party. In the midst of these preparations for a peaceful transition of power and democratic elections, Kádár’s successors surprised the world at large. The summer of the annus mirabilis continued with its internationally most immediately conspicuous achievement: the dismantling of the ‘iron curtain’, the barbed-wire fence on the Austrian frontier, a process which had begun in May. On 23 August, the Foreign Minister Gyula Horn spent a sleepless night worrying about the changes going on around him and the irritated reactions of Hungary’s Warsaw Pact allies to them. He had been telephoned by the East German Foreign Minister, determined to know what was happening to Hungary’s border with Austria. He had assured him that sections had been removed for repair and would shortly be replaced.

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Again at Pozsgay’s instigation, the border gates were opened to allow for a ‘pan-European picnic’ in the woods on the Austrian side, which several hundred East Germans (‘holidaying’ at Lake Balaton) were able to stream through (pictured above). Hungarian citizens already had the right to visa-free travel to the West, but thousands of disenchanted East Germans, hearing from compatriots of the ‘hole’ in the curtain, had been making their way into Hungary via Czechoslovakia to escape from their own unpopular hard-line régime. Hungary had signed a treaty with East Germany in 1968 pledging not to allow East Germans to leave for the West through its territory. Horn sounded out Moscow as for a reaction as to whether the Soviet leadership would object if Hungary abandoned this undertaking. This was an urgent practical problem for the Hungarians, as about twenty thousand citizens from the DDR were seeking refuge at the FRG Embassy in Budapest. The Soviets did not object, so Horn resolved to open the main border crossings on the roads to the West. He said later that…

… It was quite obvious to me that this would be the first step in a landslide-like series of events. 

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Above: (left) Demonstrators in Budapest keep up the momentum; (right and below) East Germans, holidaying in Hungary, cross the border and head West, to the fury of their government, and to their own freedom.

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On 10 September, despite strenuous objections from the East German government, Hungary’s border with Austria was opened to the East German refugees. Within three days, thirteen thousand East Germans, mostly young couples with children, had fled west. This was the biggest exodus across the ‘iron curtain’ since the Berlin Wall was built in 1961, and it was only the beginning. Eschewing its erstwhile role as ‘gendarme’, still expected of it within the Eastern camp, Hungary decided to let the refugees go West without exit visas, thereby playing the role of catalyst in the disintegration of the whole Soviet bloc. Over the next few months the international situation was transformed. Liberalisation in Hungary had led directly to the collapse of the Húsak régime in Prague and the breaching of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. Writing in 1990, the historian István Lázár commented:

Naturally, all this can, or should, be seen in connection with the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev in the Soviet Union, even if in history questions of cause and effect are not entirely settled. However the question of what went before and what happened afterwards is constantly debated in history. Hungary, desperate and euphoric at the same time, turning away from the road followed for almost a half century and hardly able to see the path of the future … took  state, national and political risks with some of its decisions in 1989 in a context of a rather uncertain international situation which was not moving towards stability. This is how we arrived at the 1990s. 

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Queues on the road to Sopron and the border, with cardboard Trabants and boxes.

Tradition and Transition:

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Simultaneously, the scenario worked out by the opposition and Németh’s pragmatists to facilitate an orderly transition was launched. Between June and September 1989, representatives of the HSWP, the Opposition ‘Round Table’ (established in March by eight organisations) and the ‘third side’ (the Patriotic Popular Front and the trade unions) discussed the central issues of the transition process at national meetings. By the time President Bush visited Budapest in July (11-13), Hungary had effectively ceased to be a Communist country or a Soviet satellite state. I have written elsewhere on this site about this first ever visit by a US President, its importance and its outcomes. John Simpson, the BBC’s correspondent was standing on the balcony of a flat overlooking Kossúth Square where the President was due to make a speech. The owner of the flat was an Anglophile in his mid-forties from a wealthy background. There were English touches on the walls: mementoes of visits by at least two generations of the family. From his balcony they looked down on the enthusiastic crowds that were starting to gather:

“These little Communists of ours are acting like real politicians”, he said; “they’re giving people what they want, instead of what they ought to want. The trouble is, they can never give us so much that we can forget that they are Communists”. …

… He was right about the fundamental unpopularity of the Party. I went to see Imre Pozsgay a few days later and asked him whether he and his colleagues would really be the beneficiaries of the changes they were introducing.

“Who can say? Naturally I hope so. That’s why we’re doing these things. But to be honest with you, there’s nothing else we can do. Even if others win the elections, there’s no serious alternative to doing what we have done”.

On 18 September, an agreement was signed which emphasised a mutual commitment to the creation of the legal and political conditions under which a multi-party democracy could be established and the rule of law upheld. In addition, it put forward plans for surmounting the ongoing economic crisis. It required the amending of the communist constitution of 1949, the establishment of a constitutional court and the re-regulation of the order of national elections, legislation on the operation and finances of political parties and the amendment of the penal code. The two ‘liberal’ parties, the SZDSZ and FIDESZ refused to sign the agreement because it stipulated the election of a head of state before the elections, which they thought would benefit the only obvious candidate and most popular reform-politician, Imre Pozsgay. They also hoped to drive a wedge between the reform Communists and the MDF by insisting on a referendum on the issue, the result of which went in their favour. It was a sure sign of what was to come the following spring.

On 6 October, Gorbachev began a two-day visit to East Germany to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the German Democratic Republic (DDR). The government there, led for almost half of its life by the now seventy-four-year-old Erich Honecker, remained perhaps the most repressive régime in Eastern Europe. Only four days earlier, it had sealed its border with Czechoslovakia to prevent its people from voting with their feet and flooding to the West through Hungary. When Gorbachev suggested that a more permanent solution might be for the DDR to introduce a version of perestroika to satisfy people’s material needs and demands, Honecker refused to listen. He pointed out that on his last visit to Moscow, he had been shocked by the empty shops. How dare Gorbachev tell the leader of what many believed was the most prosperous country in the socialist world how he should run his economy! But Gorbachev persisted, telling a large rally that East Germany should introduce Soviet-style reforms, adding that the country’s policies should, however, be determined “not in Moscow, but in Berlin”. Two days after he left, Honecker was ousted within the DDR’s Politburo and replaced by Egon Krenz, who represented himself as the East German Gorbachev.

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The crowds outside the Parliament welcoming the proclamation of the institution of a Liberal Democratic Constitution for the new ‘Republic of Hungary’, October 1989.

Meanwhile, meeting in Budapest, the Fourteenth Congress of the HSWP also proved to be its last. It officially abandoned Leninism. On the 7th, the vast majority of its deputies voted in favour of creating a new Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP), which defined its aims in terms akin to those of Western European socialist parties. Out of seven hundred thousand Communist Party members, only fifty thousand transferred their membership to the new Socialist Party, before the first free elections of March 1990. Shortly after the dissolution of the HSWP, the party’s paramilitary organisation, the Workers’ Guard was also disbanded. In another ‘gesture’ to the memory of 1956, reparation payments were authorized by Parliament to those imprisoned after the Uprising. On the anniversary of Uprising, 23 October, Acting President Mátyás Szűrös proclaimed the new “Republic of Hungary” on the thirty-third anniversary of the Revolution. The “People’s Republic” created forty years earlier, had ceased to exist.

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Parliament had changed eighty per cent of the 1949 constitution in the interim one that replaced it. It defined the peaceful transition to a market economy and the rule of law as the goal of the state. Its fundamental principles were defined as ‘civil democracy’ and ‘democratic socialism’. It guaranteed civil and human rights, declared the establishment of a multi-party system, not only eliminating the clause referring to the leading role of the Marxist-Leninist party of the working class but also outlawed the exercise of power by any single party. It was the first time that a ruling Communist Party anywhere had rejected its ideological faith and authorised a shift to liberal democracy and capitalism. Shortly after the promulgation and proclamation of the new constitution both inside and outside parliament (see the picture below), the red star was removed from the top of the building, demonstrating the end of the system of state socialism.

Yet now the full vulnerability of the economy was already being revealed, and the necessary decrease in consumption had to be forced on a society which was expecting a contrary shift. The past, both the pre-1949 and the post-1958 periods, began to be viewed with nostalgia, as ‘old-new’ ideas resurfaced alongside ‘brand-new’ ones. On the political scene, in both parliamentary and extra-parliamentary spheres, a faltering democracy continued to develop amidst struggles of bitter and frequently depressing content and form. In the meantime, both Eastern and Western visitors to Hungary at the beginning of the 1990s found the country more affluent and resourceful than did its own citizens, who saw it being forced into worrying straits. Eastern visitors were influenced by their own, often more miserable position, while Westerners found things better than their out-dated stereotypes of life behind the iron curtain would have led them to expect. This was Hungary’s paradox: almost every outside observer values the apparent dynamism of the country greatly, but unless they became inhabitants themselves, as some of us did, did they begin to see the burdens of ‘the changes’ born by ‘ordinary’ Hungarians and understood their caution and pessimism.

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Above: The famous MDF (Hungarian Democratic Forum) poster from the 1990 Election Campaign: Comrades Go Home!

On 2 November, as Minister of State, Imre Pozsgay met President Bush in Washington to discuss Hungary’s transition to democracy, a week before the fall of the Berlin Wall. The following January, Hungary announced its withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact, at the same time as Czechoslovakia and Poland, at a meeting of Foreign Ministers in Budapest, with effect from 1 July. In February, the United States signed an agreement providing for a Peace Corps Program in Hungary, to begin the following September. In March, the Soviet Union reached an agreement to remove all Soviet troops from Hungary by July 1991, two-thirds of them by the end of 1991. John Simpson’s friend in Budapest had promised his father that he would not drink the bottle of Bell’s Scotch Whisky he had placed in the cupboard in 1947 until the day the Soviet troops left Budapest. That day was now approaching. When the final round of elections took place on 8 April 1990, the reform Communists won only eight per cent of the seats, and Pozsgay and his colleagues were out of office. A centre-right government came to power, led by the MDF. They had won 164 out of the 386 seats. Looking back from later in 1990, John Simpson commented:

As in 1918, Hungary had emerged from and empire and found itself on its own; though this time, unlike the violence and destruction which followed the abortive Communist republic of Béla Kun in 1919, the transition was peaceable and relaxed. Hungary’s economy and environment had been horribly damaged by thirty-three years of Marxism-Leninism; but now, at least, it had shown the way to the rest of Central and Eastern Europe. There are dozens of men and women … who had a part in encouraging the revolutions (which followed) … But the stout figure of Imre Pozgay, who now stays at home and cooks for his family while he tries to work out what to do next, is one of the more important of them.

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Rather than bringing stability and calm, however, the 1990s in Hungary were a time of intensive movement across the political spectrum from right to left and back again, with a minority persisting on both extremes and an undercurrent of the old ‘populist-urbanist’ divide surfacing from time to time to emphasise patriotism over cosmopolitanism. Of the sixty-five parties formed in 1988-89, only twelve could run a national list at the elections of March-April 1990, and the four per cent ‘threshold’ required to make it into parliament eliminated half of them. Of the six parties that surpassed this, the highest-scoring MDF invited the Smallholders and the Christian Democrats to form a centre-right coalition. József Antall, a historian and museum curator who had become President of the MDF the previous year, became Hungary’s first prime minister in the new democratic era. Pledging itself to uphold Christian and national values besides democracy and the market economy, the coalition enjoyed a comfortable sixty per cent majority. The opposition consisted of the two liberal parties, the SZDSZ, which came second in the elections, and FIDESZ. The Socialists struggled hard to emerge from the isolation the past had thrown them into. Based on a ‘pact’ between Antall and the SZDSZ leadership, the prominent writer, translator and victim of the 1956 reprisals, Árpád Göncz, was elected by parliament as its Speaker and the President of the Republic. Over the next four years, he made periodic use of his limited powers to act as a counterweight to governmental power. He was re-elected in 1995.

As a result of the first free elections after the fall of state socialism, there was a comprehensive change in the highest echelons of the political élite: ninety-five per cent of the MPs were new in that position. Nearly as dramatic was the change in their social and cultural backgrounds. The first setback for the coalition government came in the municipal elections of the autumn of 1990. In the larger settlements, the two liberal parties scored much better than the government parties. The prominent SZDSZ politician, Gábor Demszky became Mayor of Budapest and was subsequently re-elected four times, becoming the most successful politician in post-1989 Hungary.  Following a protracted illness in late 1993, József Antall died. His funeral, in December 1993, was attended by world leaders including US Vice President Albert Gore. He was replaced by Peter Boross, his Minister of the Interior. With Antall’s untimely death, the MDF lost a politician whose stature was unparalleled among its inexperienced ranks.

It was not only a shift in political sympathies among a considerable proportion of voters that started well before the parliamentary elections of 1994, the outcome of which astounded many people from more than one point of view. A recasting of roles and ideological commitments accompanied a realignment of partnerships among the parties from roughly halfway through the electoral cycle. The MDF had first emerged as a grassroots democratic movement and had advocated a ‘third way’ between capitalism and communism. It had also been open towards ‘democratic socialism’. In government, it had adjusted itself to the personality of Antall, a ‘conservative liberal’, and had had to work hard to purge itself of its radical nationalist right-wing, which seceded in 1993 as the Party of Hungarian Justice and Life (MIÉP) led by the writer István Csurka. After its 1990 electoral victory, the MDF had indulged in militantly anti-communist rhetoric. This contrasted with the trajectory of the SZDSZ, which had initially tried to undermine the MDF’s credibility with allegations of collaboration with the former communists. Following the ‘media war’ which broke out between the two major parties, while the SZDSZ refused to abandon its core liberal values of upholding human rights, civil liberties and multi-culturalism, it re-evaluated its policies towards the left. This enabled the MSZP to re-emerge from the shadows and paved the way for the Democratic Charter, an initiative by intellectuals from both parties to counter the tide of radical nationalism that was threatening to engulf Hungarian political life.

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Viktor Orbán in the mid-1990s, looking Right.

In these circumstances, the earlier affinity and sometimes close collaboration between the SZDSZ and FIDESZ began to unravel as the inherent differences between them became ever more obvious. Of FIDESZ’s initial platform – anti-communism, youth culture and political liberalism – only the first was entirely preserved, while the second was quickly abandoned and the third was increasingly modified by an emphasis on Christian values, conservative traditions and strong central government. By 1994, FIDESZ had thus redefined itself as a party of the centre-right, with the ambition to become the dominant and integrative force of that segment of the political spectrum. This process was cemented in the public eye by the addition of the title Hungarian Civic Party (MPP) to its name. In 1999, it resigned from the ‘Liberal International’ and joined the ‘European People’s Party’, the conservative-Christian Democrat alliance in the EU. But in 1994, there was a general recovery in the fortunes of European socialists and social democrats, and the pledges of the MSZP to the values of social democracy looked credible enough to earn it widespread respectability in Europe and admission to the ‘Socialist International’. Its pragmatism and its emphasis on modernisation and technological development won it a landslide victory in an election which showed that the country was tired of ideological strife and disappointed with the lack of progress in the economic transition. Although the Socialists won over fifty per cent of the seats in parliament, the SZDSZ accepted the offer of Gyula Horn, MSZP chairman, to join a coalition. The other four parties of the previous parliament constituted the opposition. The Socialist-Liberal coalition government faced urgent economic tasks.

In the early to mid-nineties, Western corporations and investors came to Hungary hoping, in the long run, for a strong revival from the Hungarian economy. They procrastinated over possible investment, however, due to the threat of uncontrolled inflation. In an economy which was rapidly polarising society, with increasing unemployment and poverty while the rich got visibly richer, Hungarian citizens were already gloomy when they looked around themselves. According to the journalist Paul Lendvai, between 1988 and 1993 GDP fell by twenty per cent, twelve per cent alone in 1991; in 1990-91 real wages fell by twelve per cent, while inflation was thirty-five per cent in 1991, twenty-three per cent in 1992 and only sank below twenty per cent in 1993. Unemployment had risen sharply as thousands of firms were liquidated and half a million jobs disappeared. If they contemplated, beyond the borders, a crisis-ridden Eastern Europe beset by nationality problems and compelled to starve before the much-promised economic upturn, they were gloomier still. As Lázár commented:

Looking at the recent changes, perhaps ungratefully, this is how we stand in East Central Europe in the middle of Carpathian Basin, before the 1100th anniversary of the Hungarian Conquest, which, in five years time, will be followed by the opening of the third millennium…

In spite of the differences in their fundamental values, socialist and liberal, the MSZP and SZDSZ had similar policies on a number of pressing transitional tasks, such as Hungary’s Euro-Atlantic integration and monetarist reform, providing a wide scope for collaboration between them. In both of these priorities, they were successful, but none of these did much to assuage the resentment many voters felt towards the post-1989 politicians in general. In addition, many SZDSZ supporters were puzzled by the party’s reconciliation with the Socialists which they felt had robbed the party of its original liberal character. In the light of this, it is perhaps unsurprising that the SZDSZ followed the other great party of the 1990 régime change, the MDF, into relative obscurity following the 1998 general election. The remodelled FIDESZ-MPP attracted growing support during the second part of the election cycle, capitalising on mistakes made by the Socialists. While the latter maintained much of their popularity, FIDESZ-MPP won the election narrowly on the platform of a ‘civic Hungary’ in which the post-communist heritage would be forever buried while the state would accept greater responsibility in supporting the growth of a broad middle-class following Christian-nationalist values.

To obtain a secure parliamentary majority, the FIDESZ chairman and new PM, Viktor Orbán, formed a coalition with the MDF and the Independent Smallholder Party (FKGP). While the historic FKGP had a respectable place in the liberal democratic endeavour in post-1945 Hungary, its reincarnation was an anti-élitist, populist force, notorious throughout the 1990s for its stormy internal relations. In addition, although not part of the government, the radical-nationalist MIÉP – anti-communist, anti-capitalist, anti-liberal, anti-globalist and anti-Semitic, frequently lent its support to the first Orbán government. On the other extreme of the political palette, the radical remnant of the HSWP, the Workers’ Party, openly cherished the heritage of the Kádár era and remained a part of the extra-parliamentary opposition throughout the post-1989 period. Whereas a fairly constant proportion of the electorate has supported a traditional conservative-liberal line with national and Christian commitments, in whichever of the pirouetting parties it appeared at any given election, the values and endeavours of the Socialists also continued to break through until recent elections. On the other hand, those associated with the Liberals fell to a level equal to the radical Right, a picture not very different from some Western European countries.

With regard to European integration, all significant political forces except MIÉP were in favour of it. Although the Council of Europe responded to the Hungarian application as early as November 1990, and Hungary became an associate member in December 1991, the ensuing process was considerably longer than optimistically hoped for. Alongside the Czech Republic, Estonia, Poland and Slovenia, Hungary gained full membership of the European Union on 1 May 2004. By this time, public opinion in the West was increasingly sceptical about both the broadening and deepening of the EU. I have written extensively about Hungary’s more rapid progression into NATO membership elsewhere on this site, but its involvement in peacekeeping in former Yugoslavia, from 1994-1999, undoubtedly aided its process of accession to the EU. In an atmosphere of growing anxiety for global safety, neither the requirements concerning border security nor other developments caused a further postponement.

(to be continued…)

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Moments of Régime Change, Budapest (2009): Volt Produkció.

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Borderlines: Remembering Sojourns in Ireland.   Leave a comment

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Edited by Sam Burnside, published by Holiday Projects West, Londonderry, 1988.

The recent ‘Brexit’ negotiations over the issue of the land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland have made me think about my two visits to the island as an adult, in 1988 and 1990, a decade before the Belfast talks led to the ‘Good Friday Agreement’. I had been to Dublin with my family in the early sixties, but recalled little of that experience, except that it must have been before 1966, as we climbed Nelson’s Column in the city centre before the IRA blew it up to ‘commemorate’ the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Rising. I had never visited Northern Ireland, however.

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Nelson’s Column in the centre of Dublin in 1961.

A Journey to Derry & Corrymeela, June 1988:

In June 1988, while working for the Quakers in Selly Oak, Birmingham, I drove a group of students from Westhill College to Corrymeela, a retreat and reconciliation centre in the North. We drove to Belfast, being stopped by army blockades and visiting the Shankill and the Falls Road, witnessing the murals and the coloured curb-stones. Political violence in Belfast had largely been confined to the confrontation lines where working-class unionist districts, such as the Shankill, and working-class nationalist areas, such as the Falls, Ardoyne and New Lodge, border directly on one another (see the map below). We also visited Derry/ Londonderry, with its wall proclaiming ‘You are now entering Free Derry’, and with its garrisons protected by barbed wire and soldiers on patrol with automatic rifles. Then we crossed the western border into Donegal, gazing upon its green fields and small hills.

My Birmingham colleague, a Presbyterian minister and the son of a ‘B Special’ police officer, was from a small village on the shores of Lough Neagh north of Belfast. So while he visited his family home there, I was deputed to drive the students around, guided by Jerry Tyrrell from the Ulster Quaker Peace Education Project. He described himself as a ‘full-time Peace worker’ and a ‘part-time navigator’. I had already met him in Birmingham, where I was also running a Peace Education Project for the Quakers in the West Midlands. He was born in London but had come to live in Derry in 1972, where he had worked on holiday projects for groups of mixed Catholic and Protestant students. It provided opportunities for them to meet and learn together during organised holidays, work camps and other activities. He had left this in April 1988 to take up a post running a Peace Education Project at Magee College.

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Magee College, Londonderry.

Jerry gave me a copy of a slim volume entitled Borderlines: A Collection of New Writing from the North West, containing prose and poems by members of the Writers’ Workshop based at Magee College, including some of his own poetry. The Workshop promoted and encouraged new writing in the North-west, and acted as a forum for a large number of local writers. In his preface, Frank McGuinness wrote of how …

… freedom is full of contradictions, arguments, the joy of diversity, the recognition and celebration of differences.

After reading the collection, I agreed with him that the collection contained that diversity and that it stood testimony to the writers’ experiences and histories, their fantasies and dreams. Its contributors came from both sides of the Derry-Donegal border we had driven over, and from both sides of the Foyle, a river of considerable beauty which, in its meandering journey from the Sperrins to the Atlantic, assumes on its path through Derry a socio-political importance in symbolising the differences within the City. However, in his introduction to the collection, Sam Burnside, an award-winning poet born in County Antrim, but living in Derry, wrote of how …

… the borders which give definition to the heart of this collection are not geographical, nor are they overtly social or political; while … embedded in time and place, they are concerned to explore emotional and moral states, and the barriers they articulate are … those internal to the individual, and no less detrimental to freedom for that.

If borders indicate actual lines of demarcation between places and … powers, they suggest also the possibility of those barriers being crossed, of change, of development, from one state to another. And a border, while it is the mark which distinguishes and maintains a division, is also the point at which the essence of real or assumed differences are made to reveal themselves; the point at which they may be forced to examine their own natures, for good or ill.

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A page from an Oxford Bookworms’ Reader for EFL students.

In the short story ‘Blitzed’ by Tessa Johnston, a native of Derry where she worked as a teacher, Kevin has moved, in a fictional future (in 1998), from Derry to Manchester, to escape from the troubles, but the report of a car-bombing by the Provisional IRA in Manchester brings back memories of his encounter with a soldier in Derry as a schoolboy, fifteen years old. On his way from his home in Donegal to the Grammar School in Derry, in the week before Christmas, he had been blinded by the snow so that he didn’t see the soldier on patrol until he collided with him:

Over the years Kevin had grown accustomed to being stopped regularly on his way to and from school; to being stopped, questioned and searched, but never until that day had he experienced real hostility, been aware of such hatred. Spread-eagled against the wall he had been viciously and thoroughly searched. His school-bag had been ripped from his back and its contents strewn on the pavement; then, triumphantly, the soldier held aloft his bible, taunting him:

“So, you’re a Christian, are you? You believe in all that rubbish? You wanna convert me? Wanna convert the heathen, Fenian scum? No?”

On and on he ranted and raved until Kevin wondered how much more of this treatment he could endure. Finally, his anger exhausted, he tossed the offending book into the gutter and in a last act of vandalism stamped heavily upon it with his sturdy Army boots, before turning up Bishop Street to continue his patrol.

With trembling hands Kevin began to gather up his scattered possessions. Then, like one sleep-walking, he continued his journey down Bishop Street. He had only gone a few steps when a shot rang out. Instinctively, he threw himself to the ground. Two more shots followed in quick succession, and then silence.

He struggled to his feet and there, not fifty yards away his tormentor lay spread-eagled in the snow. Rooted to the spot, Kevin viewed the soldier dis passionately. A child’s toy, he thought, that’s what he looks like. Motionless and quiet;

a broken toy …

Then the realisation dawned as he watched the ever-increasing pool of blood stain the new snow.”

What haunted Kevin from that day, however, was not so much this picture of the dead soldier, but the sense that he himself had crossed an internal border. He had been glad when the soldier was shot and died; he had been unable to come to terms with the knowledge that he could feel like that. He had been unable to forgive not just the young soldier, but – perhaps worse – himself. The shadow of that day would never leave him, even after his family moved to Manchester. This had worked for a while, he’d married and had a child, and he had coped. But in the instant of the TV news report all that had been wiped out. The ‘troubles’ had found him again. They knew no borders.

Fortunately, this was a piece of fiction. Though there were thousands of deaths in Northern Ireland like that of the soldier throughout the troubles and bombings even after the PIRA cease-fire by the ‘Real IRA’, there was no renewal of the bombing campaigns on the mainland of Britain. But it could easily have been a real future for someone had it not been for the Good Friday Agreement.

An Easter ‘Pilgrimage’ to Dublin & Belfast, 1990:

Tom’s Tale – A Young Hungarian Refugee in England: January-June 1957, and after…   1 comment

The International ‘backcloth’…

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In January 1957, a number of members of the British Parliamentary Labour Party, wrote a letter to the Editor of Pravda about the use of Soviet armed forces in Hungary. They included Fenner Brockway, Barbara Castle, Dick Crossman and Anthony Wedgwood-Benn. In it they asked a series of questions, perhaps the most important of which was…

do you consider that the present government of János Kádár enjoys the support of a majority of the Hungarian people? Would it make any difference to your attitude if it did not? We ask this question because, on November 15th, according to Budapest Radio, János Kádár said that his Government hoped to regain the confidence of the people but that “we have to take into account the possibility that we may be thoroughly beaten at the election.”  

Whatever Kádár himself may have believed, or been given to believe, in mid-November, by January 1956 there was little or no prospect of free and fair elections taking place, as the Nagy Government had promised. Hungary would remain under direct Soviet occupation, with the Red Army remaining until all traces of resistance had been eliminated. Anna Kethly, giving evidence to the United Nations Special Committee (see photo above) on her mission from the Nagy Government, declared that Kádár was a prisoner of the Russians, and that she could not believe that he would have accepted his part voluntarily.

First School Term and Easter Holidays…

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Cross-country run, class 3B of Tollington Grammar School, Muswell Hill, February 1957 (Tom is fourth from the right)

For Tom Leimdörfer and his ‘half-siblings’, learning English and adjusting to school life in England dominated the early part of 1957. Tom’s ‘Uncle Brandi’ had approached the Headmaster of Tollington Boy’s Grammar School and the Headmistress of Tollington Girl’s Grammar School. He explained the situation of the children’s flight from Hungary and arrival in England, and stressed the fact that Ferkó and Tom had attended two of the top high schools in Budapest. While their English was not very good, it was improving daily. Marika was not of high school age in the Hungarian system, but she had been doing well in her elementary school. She was trying hard in making a start with English, but understood very little. Tom described how…

Ferkó and I found ourselves in the study of Mr. Percival, a greying and sombre looking man, sat behind his desk, crowded with books and papers. He asked us a couple of questions. I managed to answer one, but the others my uncle had to translate. Mr. Percival said we could start there for a trial period to see if we would fit in and could keep up with the work. He introduced me to class 3B (the middle of three sets in the year group) and Ferkó to class 4A, which was a year below his correct age group, but this was inevitable as he could not be expected to take the dreaded O level exams within six months. So started our school days on Muswell Hill.

Tollington Boys’ Grammar School was situated in a road called Tetherdown. The unimposing red brick pile is still part of the complex of buildings of the present Fortismere Community School. The school was originally founded in the late nineteenth century and moved to Muswell Hill from Tollington Park (hence the name) at the beginning of the twentieth century. It gave the impression of a somewhat overcrowded and slightly chaotic place with equipment and resources inferior to the school Tom had left in Budapest. The plans for a brand new building and the amalgamation with Tollington Girls’ Grammar School were already well advanced by Middlesex County Council, which was then the local authority, before the days of Greater London boroughs like Haringey (which administers the present school). Only children who passed the old eleven-plus exam could be normally admitted to grammar schools and in Middlesex that was less than twenty per cent of the school population. Tom thus felt grateful for the opportunity, but it did not stop him feeling even more of an ‘alien’ when at school:

The first few weeks were totally bewildering. Almost everything was different. School assemblies with prayers and hymns, school lunches with oddities like shepherd’s pie and puddings with pink or green custard, exhausting cross-country runs in Coldfall Wood in the freezing cold or the pouring rain, an incomprehensible team game with an odd-shaped ball called rugby were all part of a strange initiation into a new culture. Some lessons were beyond my comprehension, but I soon noticed that I was well ahead in mathematics, physics and chemistry and the teachers started to show appreciative surprise when I started answering questions when no other hands went up in the class. In geography and biology, I simply tried to copy down as much as I could from the board. Mr. Ron Davies, our history master dictated all his notes. At first, this made things very difficult especially as I had to get attuned to his broad Lancastrian accent. I gathered that the Spanish Armada had just arrived and been defeated, but not much of that found its way into my book. However, by the time we got to the Stuarts, I became good at taking down his dictation and then checking the spelling afterwards. I also tried to memorise as much as I could. At the end of the year I actually came top in history by simply regurgitating the notes and being able to answer just the right number of questions.

For all its oddities for me, Tollington school was a humane and generally tolerant place. The boys of 3B initially reacted as if a Martian had landed in their midst. They asked questions about Hungary, but I often misunderstood or struggled with words and they did not have the patience to listen. However, they all knew that Hungarians were supposed to be brilliant at football (the national team having beaten England twice) and I was included in playground games with the right shaped ball. They were soon reassured that I was just about average for their standard… After our first three weeks, Ferkó and I were summoned to Mr. Percival’s study. He said it was time we attended school in proper school uniform (green blazers and caps with gold badge). He said he no longer wanted to see me ‘looking like a canary’, referring to my yellow jumper by courtesy of the WRVS ladies at Heathrow. That meant we were accepted as proper Tollington students. As an afterthought, he added that we were both doing very well and he was pleased. At the end of term, I was ‘promoted’ to class 3A, probably because in maths and science I was too far ahead of the class.

Meanwhile, there were momentous family developments in Budapest. When Bandi informed Tom’s Aunt Juci that they had safely arrived and were getting settled, he told her that he could also get visas for her and Uncle Gyuri, their three children, as well as Tom’s grandparents (Sári mama and Dádi). This came as a great challenge for them, as they had good jobs and a lovely flat they would leave behind. Times were growing darker there, however, with a repressive communist regime back in charge, though they had been through all that before. They thought and prayed a lot about it before thinking about submitting a passport application. The border was closed, of course, and chances of getting passports to the West were remote. It was at this point that a strange twist of Hungarian politics produced a miraculous opportunity. Kádár imprisoned hundreds of liberal activists who were associated with the revolution and executed dozens, but he wanted to signal that his administration would be different from that of the hated Rákosi regime. He invited the left-leaning, puritanical Reformed Church Bishop of Debrecen, who was not actually communist party member at the time, to be in his government as Minister of Culture (years later he was to be Hungary’s Foreign Minister). The bishop accepted, after some hesitation, and was therefore looking for a flat in Budapest. This was known to someone in the Ecclesiastical Office, who also knew that Juci and Gyuri were thinking of emigrating. A deal was done within days: seven passports for a large comfortable upper ground floor flat in Buda with garden.

The excitement of hearing that his beloved uncle, aunt, cousins Jani, Andi and Juli were to come to England, followed shortly after by his paternal grandparents, lifted Tom’s spirits as he visited his mother in hospital. He still has two letters written by his mother to ‘Sári mama and Dádi’ as they were preparing to come to England. She was anxious to reassure them that her illness was not serious and her cough was getting better. She also wrote:

Throughout his years at school, my Tomi never gave me as much joy as he has these past weeks. It is such a surprise to see that now when I dared not demand too much from him, he has worked harder than ever.

Tom saw his mother for the last time at the very end of March. She was weak, but still insisted that she was getting better. This time she asked to have a few minutes just with him. She said she was proud of him and also that it gave her much joy that Aunt Juci and family had arrived in England. They had just landed at Dover and were going to Ramsgate, where they had temporary lodgings in a guest house run by the Hebrew Christian Alliance. Ferkó and Tom were going down there for the Easter holidays while Marika stayed with her father’s friends:

Our first term at school ended, we packed our bags, Bandi took us down to Victoria Station and we boarded the train for Ramsgate. Juci, Gyuri and my cousins met us at the station and it was a wonderful feeling to see them. Ferkó hardly knew them, but was treated as part of the family immediately and fitted in without fuss, as he always did. The guest house was a grim place run by an austere elderly couple. They found fault with everything we did, rationed our use of soap and toilet paper and turned off the heating even though it was a cold and drizzly start to April… Aunt Juci set about ensuring that we children had as good a time as possible. It was the first time Ferkó and I saw the sea, so a walk along the promenade was a novelty. There was also a miniature model village and some other traditional seaside attractions.

Then, on 11 April, Tom received the shattering news of his mother’s death. He went down to the sea at Ramsgate, sat on a rock, and watched and listened to the waves breaking and crashing on the shoreline for what seemed like ages. Aunt Juci continued to ensure the children had as much fun as possible during the next few days, going by bus to Margate and Folkestone. They then met up with Bandi, Compie, Gyuri Schustek and Marika at Golders Green Crematorium for Edit’s cremation:

We sang Mami’s favourite hymn ‘Just as I am..’ in Hungarian, some prayers were said by the Presbyterian minister and her coffin was gone. I knew I had the support of close loving relatives but I also felt that my life was mainly in my own hands. I must try to fulfil Mami’s dreams for me.  My childhood was over; I had to be an adult at the age of fourteen and a half.

Gloomy Relations…

International relations over the Hungarian ‘situation’ also continued to get gloomier during the early part of the year. In January 1957, the UN General Assembly had adopted a resolution establishing a specialist committee to investigate the situation in Hungary, also calling on the Soviet and Hungarian authorities to allow committee members free access to the country. The Hungarian government had retaliated by requesting the recall of the Head of the US Legation, Minister Wailes, whom it alleged was conducting his activities without having presented his credentials for formal acceptance by the new government. Wailes left Budapest on 27 February, following which the US was represented by Chargés d’Affaires ad interim until 1967. In March, Soviet and Hungarian officials had finally responded to the UN resolution by issuing a joint declaration denying the right of the UN to any purview over Hungarian affairs. Relations with the West deteriorated still further that month when the US began using a postal cancellation stamp reading, Support Your Crusade for Freedom on letters sent to Hungary. The Hungarian government protested that the stamp encouraged counter-revolutionary elements and violated the Universal Postal Union Convention. Mail bearing the stamp was returned to senders. In April, the US Legation replied that the stamp was meant to encourage voluntary contributions to privately supported organisations, and was in general use only during the first quarter of 1957. Officials denied that the stamp had any political intent, adding their ‘surprise’ that the Hungarian authorities seemed to consider aspiring to freedom as counter-revolutionary.

Also in April, Soviet and Hungarian military personnel detained US Military Attaché Colonel J. C. Todd and his assistant, Captain Thomas Gleason, charging the latter with espionage and demanding that he leave the country. The US Legation denied the charges against Gleason and demanded his release from detention. In a tit-for-tat move, on 29 May, the US demanded the recall of a Hungarian Assistant Military Attaché. The Hungarian government then demanded that the US Legation reduce its staff by at least a third and make proportionate reductions in its staffing by local employees. On 10 June, the Legation replied that it did not accept the concept of the Hungarian Government determining the size of the US mission. Ten days later, in New York, on 20 June, the UN Special Committee issued its report on events in Hungary. It concluded that a spontaneous national uprising had occurred in October and November of 1956 and that…

… the ‘counter-revolution’ consisted in the setting up by Soviet armed forces of Mr Kádár and his colleagues in opposition to a Government which enjoyed the overwhelming support of the people of Hungary.

Despite its de facto stability, significant, continued, passive resistance and the lack of international recognition still denied the Kádár régime full legitimacy. On 26 June, representatives of the twenty-four countries that had sponsored the January resolution met to discuss the prompt consideration of the report by the General Assembly. The GA then adopted a resolution in September endorsing the Special Committee’s report, calling on the Soviet Union to desist from repressive measures against the Hungarian people. It also appointed the President of the General Assembly, Prince Wan Waithayakon of Thailand, as its special envoy to further study the situation in Hungary. However, the Kádár Government refused to allow the prince to enter the country.

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On 23 October, the White House issued a statement proclaiming the anniversary of the uprising to be Hungarian Freedom Day. In December, President Eisenhower announced that his emergency program for Hungarian refugees would come to an end at the end of the year. About 38,000 refugees had been received in the United States and a total of $71 million had been spent on their assistance, including $20 million from private and voluntary contributions.

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The Hungarian Communities in Britain…

Of the approximate total of 200,000 who fled Hungary in 1956, about 26,000 were admitted as refugees to the UK, a respectable number for their hosts to have accepted then, given the relative size of the population and the fact that the period of post-war ‘austerity’ in Britain had only recently ended and there were still some privations. A British-Hungarian Fellowship had already been established in Hungary in 1951. After the refugees arrived, many more clubs and associations began to be established and to thrive. Three other area associations were formed between 1965 and 1971. In one area the Hungarian community only ‘fifty-sixers’, while in the two other areas it also included earlier immigrants.

Diplomatic tensions between Hungary, the Soviet Union and the ‘West’ continued throughout the 1960s and ’70s, however, and tight restrictions on travel to and within Hungary meant that exiles remained cut off from their familial, linguistic and cultural ties in their homeland. To begin with, those who spoke up among the exiles (others feared reprisals against their families back home) did so in uncompromising terms. After news came through of Imre Nagy’s execution in June 1958, Tibor Meray, wrote an account of the uprising called Thirteen Days that Shook the Kremlin. He concluded:

To say that Hungary’s history had never known a leadership more thoroughly detested than this ‘Revolutionary Workers’ and Peasants’ Government’ would be in no way an exaggeration… Little by little the rule of the Rákosi-Gerő clique was restored… The activities of the Kádár Government soon gave the lie to the glowing promises with which it assumed power.

Due to the extent and continuation of the Hungarian diaspora after 1956, as refugees were joined by emigrants simply wanting a better life, there was a low ethnic and linguistic vitality of the Hungarian speech community in Britain. Given the rapid shift from Hungarian to English which, it would appear, has taken place in the second and third generations of ‘exiles’, it is not altogether surprising to note that mother-tongue teaching did not seem to be generally demanded by those of Magyar descent. Marriage to non-Hungarians consolidated assimilation for some while others attempted to integrate their partners into existing Hungarian circles; some partners and children attended language classes especially to enable them to converse with relatives when visiting Hungary or when relatives visited Britain. Three of the five associations held language classes in 1988, students ranging from age eight to forty-five and one group even helped with preparation for ‘O’ and ‘A’ level exams in Hungarian. The School of Slavonic and East European Studies at the University of London also offered courses in Hungarian.

One of the very few sources of information on Hungarians living in Britain in the 1980s was the Inner London Education Authority (ILEA) Language Census, which showed that in 1981 there were ninety Hungarian speakers attending schools in the capital; in 1983 there were 86; 1985, 83, and in 1987 there were 86. However, because numbers were so small, the Hungarians were aggregated with ‘other Eastern Europeans’, so that it is impossible to say whether these were descended from 1956 exiles, and were bilingual, or whether they had arrived more recently and were in need of ESL (English as a Second Language) support. ILEA funded HFL (Hungarian as a Foreign Language) classes in Pimlico, and there was a new Saturday morning class in Highbury for young children. It included folk-dance teaching, as did the various social clubs which also showed Hungarian films, held dances and performed other traditional, social functions. Hungarian commemoration days were observed traditional crafts such as embroidery were taught, and there was an annual Hungarian Cultural Festival.

Nevertheless, due to the easing of the political situation in the seventies and eighties in Hungary, and particularly the restrictions on the travel of ordinary citizens in 1986, there was an awakening of interest of ‘second generation’ exiles in their ‘roots’. Few of these clubs and associations survived into the third generation of the late 1980s, however, so new organisations were needed to facilitate the coral growth of inter-cultural links and exchanges which now emerged.

The Reform Communist governments of the late 1980s in Hungary attempted to foster Hungarian language knowledge and a knowledge of Hungary among the children of Hungarian descent living abroad by running summer camps for 7-14 in three locations in Hungary. In the summer of 1988 eight camps were held of ten to fourteen days’ duration. Although the prices in the online brochure were given in US dollars, most of the participants were from Hungarian ethnic minority families in the bordering Slavic countries rather than from third generation refugee or exiled families in ‘the West’.

The relative difficulty of learning the Hungarian language as a non-native, second or foreign language in the UK may help to explain why, in 1988, only eight students entered for the University of London School Examination Board’s ‘A’ level in Hungarian, compared with eighty entries for Polish. Even allowing for the comparative sizes of the two communities, the proportion of entries for Hungarian was disproportionately small.

Living Adventurously…

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Above: Tom (centre), standing behind his wife, Valerie,

outside the Friends’ Meeting House at Sidcot, c 1990

Tom Leimdorfer graduated in Physics from London University, where he met his wife, Valerie. They both joined the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in 1971. He had a career as a Science teacher before becoming Headmaster of Sidcot (Quaker) School in Somerset in 1977, moving there with Valerie and their three children, Andrew, Gillian and Karen. They stayed at the school until 1986, when Tom left to do a master’s degree in Bristol. He then began working for Quaker Peace and Service (QPS) as their Education Advisor at Friends House in Euston, London. This was when I met him in 1987, as I began working for the West Midlands Quaker Peace Education Project, based at Woodbrooke in Birmingham. Tom and I attended the International Teachers for Peace Congress in Bonn that year, meeting teachers from the Hungarian Peace Council. We acted as hosts to their delegation which visited the UK the next Spring, including Woodbrooke, and Tom invited me to join the QPS teachers’ delegation to Hungary the following Autumn, 1988, just as the major changes were beginning to take effect in the country. It was then that I first heard his incredible story of how he had escaped Hungary in 1956.

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Tom visited again in May 1989, taking part in a symbolic cutting of the barbed wire on the Austrian border, close to where he had crossed thirty-three years earlier. I returned in the summer, to establish a teachers’ exchange between Coventry and its twin town of Kecskemét, where I met Stefi, my Hungarian wife. Tom and Valerie attended the Meeting for Worship in celebration of our forthcoming marriage in Hungary, which was held at Bourneville Friends’ Meeting House in Birmingham on 6 January, 1990. His advice to us, given during the meeting, was to live adventurously!

Seeking alternatives to despair…

We took his advice, living and working as English teachers in southern Hungary for most of the next six years, while it underwent ‘transition’ to a democratic society. The area also provided a base for NATO troops and UN peacekeepers working in the war-torn areas of Former Yugoslavia. Three years into this period, Tom visited us at our home in Pécs, on his way to a conference in Osijek, now in Croatia, not long after that country’s war of independence. The town had seen some of the worst fighting in the conflict, as it is close to the border with Serbia as well as with Hungary. Tom gave me a copy of his presentation to be given at the Children at War Conference. In its introduction, he wrote:

Anyone coming to Osijek must come with a feeling of humility. How can we, who have watched only on the screen the horrors which were experienced by those who lived through it, relate to what you felt and are feeling still? 

I need to search the memories of my childhood, for I too am a child of war. Born in neighbouring Hungary, I was barely six months old when my father died near the shores of the river Don, where the Hungarian army had no business to be; I was two years old when my grandparents were taken to Auschwitz and when we lived in hiding through a siege which brought both terror and hope of survival. I was fourteen when I saw tanks on the streets of Budapest in 1956 and became a refugee soon afterwards.

My work has been mainly with children as a teacher, then as a head of a school where many children came from abroad, often from places of tension or conflict. In my present work, as Education Advisor for the Society of Friends (Quakers), I run courses in conflict resolution techniques for teachers, educational psychologists and others involved in education both in Britain and central/eastern Europe. Such work has special significance in places of ethnic, cultural or religious conflicts such as Northern Ireland, Romania or indeed in your country, but children are growing up with violence all around them everywhere. They not only see violence on television, they can experience it daily in the school corridors and playgrounds, and on the streets. A child’s life can be made hell by the children or adults around her or him anywhere, even without a war… Does it all demonstrate that human beings are fundamentally evil and there is nothing to do but despair?

I regard much of the work I am doing as seeking the alternatives to despair. The starting point of such work is encapsulated in some lines written by the Hungarian poet Attila József :

Ti jók vagytok mindannyian: Miért csinátok hát rosszat?’

(You are good, all of you; so why should you commit evil?)

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The fundamental aim of Peace Education is to lead each child, or adult, to a form of self-respect which is not only tied to being Croat or Serb, Catholic or Orthodox, Muslim or Jew, Anglican or Nonconformist, Marxist or Nationalist, Monarchist or Republican, but simply to being human. From this child-like, simple understanding they may aim to develop a spirit of affirmation of the worth of ‘others’, even when they disagree with them and need to challenge them with the truth of Attila József’s words above. Violence comes from a feeling of despair. Peace Education aims to empower people to seek alternatives to despair. That is Tom’s witness and testimony, and mine: it is also the story of his life.

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Published Secondary Sources:

Marc J Susser (ed.) (2007), The United States and Hungary: Paths of Diplomacy, 1848-2006. Washington: Department of State Publications.

Marika Sherwood (1991), The Hungarian Speech Community in Safder Alladina & Viv Edwards, Multilingualism in the British Isles: The Older Mother Tongues & Europe. London: Longman.

Valerie Leimdorfer (1990), Quakers at Sidcot, 1690-1990. Winscombe, N. Somerset: Sidcot Preparative Meeting.

Hungary back under the heel: 1957-1968 (and beyond).   Leave a comment

The ‘Gulag’ State…

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Despite the strength of world opinion, expressed through the United Nations as well as by individual governments, the Kádár Government was determined to stick to its line that the ‘uprising’ of the previous autumn had, in fact, been counter-revolutionary. In Hungary itself, there wasn’t much room for discussion or debate about this at the beginning of 1957. On 5 January, the government introduced more stringent measures of control, threatening the death penalty for striking or agitating for a strike, as well as for anyone even disrupting normal work. The leaders of the Csepel Central Workers’ Council, the last organ of the revolution and now of resistance, were arrested. Elek Nagy was sentenced to twelve years in prison, József Bácsi to ten. The Csepel militants went back to work, defeated and disorganised. On 17 January, the Writers’ Union, one of the initial intellectual forces behind the uprising, was dissolved by the authorities. Many intellectuals were arrested and served time in prison, while many others had already managed to escape abroad.

The May Day Demonstration…

On 1 May the Kádár government held a mass demonstration in Heroes’ Square in Budapest, a traditional May Day parade, but this year also designed to show the strength of its support from among the general Hungarian population. As photographs of the event confirm, the square was filled with people, at least a hundred thousand. Some party estimates put it at four times that number. György Lítván, former director of the 1956 Institute, who was himself one of the curious onlookers, explained how…

It was a genuine demonstration by many thousands and it was at the same time forced – not in the physical sense, but maybe in some enterprises there was a bit of pressure; on the other hand many people wanted to show their new orientation, their readiness to support the new régime… It was an experience to see how swiftly people could forget their opinions, their attitude of the previous months and very quickly adjust themselves.

Probably for this reason, much of the recent writing on the events of 1956-57 has tended to ignore the rally, though one exception is the work of Békés (et al.) which asserts that by early 1957 a wave of acceptance had swept over the country and that the turnout for the traditional May Day celebrations in Budapest was simply an expression of this, of a continuity which had been broken, not supplanted, by the memory of October and November. The authors conclude that force alone could not account for the change…  but that a feeling of political apathy… had developed due to the litany of strikes, speeches, meetings and negotiations, all of which had come to nothing except the creation of a well of frustration. It was those who sought a means of expression for this who swelled the considerable ranks of the political establishment of the Rákosi-Gérő régime, members of the party and its huge bureaucracy as well as other ordinary citizens who either supported the régime of felt no particular apathy toward it. Some of these people…

… had undoubtedly felt terrorized during the revolution because of their status or sympathies, and possibly humiliated or remorseful in its aftermath… Contrary to general opinion in Hungary today, this group represented a not inconsiderable proportion of the overall population.

While these crowds may, genuinely, have celebrated a combination of liberation and victory, that does not mean, as the régime’s sources claim, that the sympathy of the entire country was demonstrated in the event. This is no more credible than the UN Special Committee’s 1957 report on Hungary which claimed that, following the Soviet intervention of 4 November, in the light of the evidence it had received, that it may safely be said that the whole population of Budapest took part in the resistance. The means by which Kádár managed, through a clever combination of stick and carrot, to generate sufficient support to establish a régime which lasted thirty-three years, is well summarised in László Kontler’s recent History of Hungary. For him, the Heroes’ Square May Day demonstration was one of…

acquiescence, if not sympathy, by the people of a capital which, after the shocks of invasion and destitution, could not but want to believe in the message of tranquility and safety that the concessions transmitted.

Party membership rose from a mere 40,000 in December 1956 to 400,000 a year later. Despite the efforts of Revai, who returned from Moscow in January 1957 and tried to arrange a reversal to ‘orthodoxy’, Kádár received assurances from Khrushchev and was confirmed in his position at the party conference in June through the election of a centralist leadership, including Marosán and others not implicated in the pre-1956 illegalities, like Ferenc Münnich, Gyula Kállai, Jenő Foch and Dezső Nemes. At the same time, the reorganised Patriotic Popular Front, whose new task was to transmit and popularise party priorities to society at large, was chaired by the hardliner, Antal Apró. After the disintegration of the Alliance of Working Youth,  the Communist Youth League was set up in March 1957 to take care of the ideological orientation of young people and ensure a supply of future cadres. Purges and voluntary resignations among the officer corps, the confirmation of first Kádár and then Münnich in the premiership, and the approval of his policies in May, all consolidated the restoration of the party at the centre of state power. In addition, the external guarantee was signed on 27 May, by which the Soviet troops were given temporary residence in Hungary. Their number became stabilised at around 80,000 once the Hungarian army was considered politically reliable.

The People’s Court…

Sándór Kopácsi, the deposed Chief of Police, later recorded the harsh system of repression to which he and the other internees of the Budapest gaol were subjected. On the morning of 6 February, 1958, the prisoners were lined up in the corridor. He met Pál Maleter again, whom he hadn’t seen since they had crossed Budapest, singing, on a Soviet half-tank a year previously. From a third cell emerged Zoltán Tildy, the former President of Hungary, and a former Protestant pastor, a minister in Nagy’s government who had negotiated the surrender of parliament to the Soviets. He had been under house arrest throughout almost the whole of the Rákosi years and was now, aged seventy, imprisoned again. They were joined by four other prisoners and then Imre Nagy himself:

He came out of the cell as if he were coming out of a meeting room, his face preoccupied. I found him a bit thinner, but the build was the same: the peasant or the sixty-year-old blacksmith, the village strongman in the most commanding period of his life. The legendary pince-nez straddled his nose as before. For an instant, he turned toward us and his glance passed us in review… He gave each of us a brief, friendly nod. Our presence seemed to reassure him… We were to be tried by the Supreme Court in order to rule out the possibility of an appeal. The judge was Zoltán Rado, a seasoned man, fat and rather friendly…

This turned out to be a rehearsal, however, though Moscow’s order to interrupt the proceedings didn’t arrive until the next day. They were all accused of having fomented a plot aimed at reversing by force the legal order of the Republic of Hungary. In addition, Nagy was accused of high treason, and Maleter and Kopácsi with mutiny. Then József Szilágyi was called forward and, when asked if he acknowledged his guilt, he replied:

In this country, the only guilty one is a traitor named János Kádár Supported by the bayonets of the Soviet imperialists, he has drowned the revolution of his people in blood.

There followed a sharp and bitter exchange between Rado and Szilágyi. Except for Nagy, the prisoners were all then returned to their cells. During the next two days of hearings, the Kremlin changed its mind four times as to what verdicts would be pronounced. Khrushchev found himself in an awkward position, since his policy of reconciliation with Tito was shaky.   At the time of its second intervention, the Kremlin was still counting on Tito’s friendship and, to begin with, he got it, but after the kidnapping of Nagy and his entourage from the Yugoslav Embassy, relations between Moscow and Belgrade deteriorated, and they had remained strained in November 1957 when Tito refused to accept the hegemony of the Soviets over the ‘fraternal parties’ at a conference of world Communist parties. When Khrushchev interrupted the Nagy trial and sent Kádár to Belgrade to negotiate with Tito, the latter leader told Kádár:

You have to do it like Gomulka: Fight to get the maximum of independence vis-à-vis the Russians and we’ll support you.

When Kádár told Khrushchev of this ‘duplicity’, he became furious, and his desire to teach Tito a lesson explains why, two years after the Hungarian Uprising had been quelled, and the population pacified, the Russians relentlessly pursued the trials and executions of the Nagy government. However, Kopácsi had saved Kádár’s life at the time of the uprising, and Kádár managed to persuade the Russians that he should not be executed, in exchange for his help in convicting Nagy. First it was Szilágyi’s turn, however. After a brief trial in which Kopácsi was a forced witness, he was sentenced to death, and his hanging was carried out on 24 April in the prison courtyard. He climbed the scaffold, head held high, declaiming, long live free and independent Hungary!

At the trial of the other defendants, the prosecution tried to prove that they had been part of a Nagy conspiracy which had begun in 1955, and that, allied to the forces of reaction, both within the country and outside they had provoked the counter-revolution to re-establish the old regime. They asked for the death sentence against Imre Nagy, Pál Maleter and Miklós Gimes, the young journalist. For Kopácsi, they requested life imprisonment. On 14 June, Nagy spoke to the court:

Twice I tried to save the honour of the word “Socialism” in the Danube River Valley: in 1953 and 1956. The first time I was thwarted by Rákosi, the second time by the armed might of the Soviet Union. Now I must give my life for ideas. I give it willingly. After what you have done with it, it’s not worth anything any more. I know that History will condemn my assassins. There is only one thing that would disgust me: if my name was rehabilitated by those who killed me.

He was followed by Pál Maleter, who said he had respected the oath of a socialist soldier and went with the people through fire and storm. Kopácsi spoke of how he had fought in northern Hungary with the Soviet Army, and that even in October 1956 he never had a Russian uniform in (his) sights. Revolution isn’t simple, he said. Neither is what follows it, whether the revolution is victorious or otherwise. The ‘People’s Court’ condemned to death Imre Nagy, Pál Maleter and Miklós Gimes. Kopácsi was sentenced to life imprisonment, Ferenc Donáth to twelve years, Ferenc Jánosi to eight years, Zoltán Tildy to six and the journalist Miklós Vásárhélyi to five. Imre Nagy refused to enter a plea for clemency, and although Maleter’s and Grimes’ lawyers made appeals on behalf of their clients, both were rejected.

The Graveless Dead…

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Cover of the 2008 film about the arrest, imprisonment, trial and execution of Imre Nagy

At 6 a.m. on Monday 16 June, Nagy, Maleter and Gimes were hanged in the yard known as the ‘little dungeon’ at the central prison. Everybody was ordered to keep away from the windows. According to the prison ‘information agency’, the Russians forced Nagy to be present while the others were executed. He stood, tottering, at the entrance to the yard. If the report is correct, this was the second time he had had to witness the execution of an innocent friend. In 1949, Rákosi had forced him to attend the hanging of Rajk, who had been personally promised by Kádár that his life would be spared and who, before dying, cried out, János, you tricked me!

The last words of Nagy and Maleter, spoken from the gallows, were the same: Long live independent and Socialist Hungary! Gimes remained silent. The Soviet authorities were apparently satisfied. Pravda described the verdicts as severe but just. Peking’s major paper carried the headline, Good news from Budapest! When Choi En-lai had visited Hungary some months previously he had complained that not enough people had been hanged. Khrushchev had demonstrated to him and Mao that his hand didn’t tremble when dealing with deviationists.

Serov, the KGB chief, however, felt that leaving Kopácsi and the others alive was a scandal. The day after the executions, he began trying to correct what he viewed as the leniency of the Budapest court. On the direct order of the Hungarian emissary of the KGB, Hungarian Politburo members Antal Apró and Karoly Kiss organised public meetings to gain support for cancelling the verdict and demanding that everyone in the Nagy group be hanged. The two men went to the large metallurgical factory, Ganz Mavag, to prime workers to push for these demands. There would be a vote taken at a general by a show of hands. The result seemed assured, but several former Resistance fighters at the factory prevented the KGB from going too far. General László Gyurkó asked to speak, having been sent by the Partisans’ Union. He briefly described the Resistance background of those who would be the victims of further death sentences. He urged the meeting to reject the idea of interfering in the verdicts already pronounced. The show of hands defeated the proposal, and with it Serov’s hard-line. The workers’ meeting demonstrated that there were different currents of opinion in Budapest, and that there was no widespread support for further retribution.

In September 1958, Sándór Kopácsi was transferred to the central prison where the executions had taken place six weeks earlier. In May 1959, the political prisoners were moved again, this time to Vác prison, fifty kilometres from Budapest, which was full of criminals. Tibor Dery, the elderly writer was thrown into a cell with a murderer who beat him badly in exchange for alcohol and tobacco from the ÁVH captain. Kopácsi intervened to stop this, and Dery survived his detention to become president of the Writers’ Union and write many more works. The police chief then found himself thrown into ‘the hold’ for two weeks before being put on ‘coal duty’, pushing a hundred kilos from a boat on the Danube for ten hours every day. He realised that this was the ÁVH’s way of finishing him off, so he asked to see the prison commandant, who was a Holocaust survivor. Kopácsi was relieved of his duties. The following year, the writers were given an amnesty, but the Imre Nagyists as they were known, were not yet released. A hunger strike went through the prison and the ÁVH imposed a total blackout. Many of the Nagyists were transferred back to Fő utca and threatened with death. Several committed suicide. The Vác prison became an ÁVH hell, with the prisoners deprived of the most elemental rights. Even the guards were beaten. Kopácsi remarked:

It would have been the end of us if our community hadn’t been what it was, a team prepared for any ordeal. It was in prison that I learned to respect strength of character, the last defence of a man in distress… What moved me most… was the ingenuousness and tenacity of the prisoners. Despite the dense network of informers, we manufactured radios that were good enough to bring in the news from Western stations. At any given time there was hardly a cell that didn’t have its own miniature receiver, the size of a coin and lacking for nothing… Thanks to the radios, gipsy music played late into the night in the ears of the poor jailbirds dreaming of the bustling life outside the prison walls.

After seven years in prison, Kopácsi and the other Nagyists finally said goodbye on 25 March, 1963, thanks to the general amnesty decreed by Khrushchev to mark the implementation of the détente he had worked out with President Kennedy after the Cuban Missile Crisis of the previous October.   

By this time, 1960s, the tone, if not the content, of the comments made from both ‘outside observers’ and exiles towards the régime had also softened somewhat. In 1962, Eric Bourne, the journalist who had written his eye-witness accounts of the uprising, commented in The Christian Science Monitor that…

Few Hungarians these days talk about the uprising… Many – with varying mental reservations – fall in with the régime’s general effort at conciliation and accept the ‘guided’ liberalisation from the top with relief. But it is evident that the liberalisation has its calculated limits and that the régime, which has gone further than any other in Eastern Europe with de-Stalinization, is concerned to keep the process from getting out of hand.

Two ‘émigré’ journalists, the first, Lászlo Tikos, exiled in the USA, and the second, George Pálóczi-Horváth, in Britain and broadcasting on the BBC, made the following optimistic comments:

Hungarians now enjoy greater personal, spiritual and political freedom, an increased measure of national independence and economic well-being, and an end to isolation from the West – all things that the 1956 revolution stood for and that are now more in evidence than at any other time since the Communist take-over. (Tikos)

When we were marching on that revolutionary protest march, if anyone had told us that in five or six years life would be in Hungary as it is now, we would have been very pleased, because it would have accomplished a great deal, if not everything we wanted to achieve. (Pálóczi-Horváth)

Perpetual Persecution…

As a former political prisoner, however, Sándór Kopácsi continued to receive the attention of the ÁVH and its network of informants. One day at work he casually remarked that on the outside he was surrounded by as many informers as he had been in prison. The remark was reported and the next day he was summoned to the Fő utca ÁVH HQ. He was told that he had broken the rule prohibiting a liberated prisoner from revealing anything he had experienced in prison. The penalty for this was a further ten years in prison, so he denied the report and agreed to sign a statement reiterating his promise not to infringe the regulation. He and his wife met dozens of other spies; on foot, on the tram, in the bus, and even on the doorstep of their apartment. They openly asked him for news about himself and others of his prison comrades he might have been in contact with. There were so many that they decided to invite the least disagreeable of them in for coffee, or got them to take them for country drives if they had cars.

Their daughter Judit’s life was made unbearable, however. From the day her father was imprisoned, she was made the object of official discrimination. At school, she was put on a list of children deemed socially alien. Her mother went to see the principal:

‘Socially alien to whom?’

‘To the workers’ state,’ the principal replied with a straight face.

‘My daughter has nothing but working-class ancestors, on her father’s side as well as her mother’s side, for four generations.’

‘Agreed,’ said the principal. But her father has betrayed the working class.’ 

Some of the children at the school took advantage of the situation to tease Judit mercilessly, possibly encouraged by the teachers and the parents. The bullying got so bad that, at the age of fourteen to fifteen, she was seriously contemplating suicide. An old social democrat, whom Kopácsi had rescued from the ÁVH in 1952 and who had subsequently escaped as a refugee in 1956, came to the family’s help. He had settled in Quebec and had become a Canadian citizen. He was visiting Hungary, and called on the Kopácsis. He and his wife offered to take charge of Judit, but her father said they could not part from her. Soon afterwards, however, Judit tried to poison herself. Kopácsi wrote to László Sárosi and six weeks later she was on the plane to Quebec. They did not see her for another six years, by which time she was a Canadian citizen. Finally frustrated by their inability to speak freely, Sándor and Ibolya Kopácsi emigrated to join their daughter, then with a family of her own, in 1974. They settled in Toronto, where Sándor ended his working life at Ontario Hydro.

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Progress and Reaction…

Later in the year that Kopácsi was released, in June 1963, the United Nations agreed to normalise relations with Hungary following the general amnesty. The US was also seeking to move towards a policy of seeking gradual change in Eastern Europe. In Hungary, some restrictions were slowly relaxed, especially in cultural spheres, and a new economic course continued to be followed. Kádár famously announced, whoever is not against us is with us, allowing a broadening of discussion and debate. Nonetheless, relations between the US, in particular, and Hungary remained strained, and were exacerbated by the actions of Hungarian troops in August 1968, when they took part in the Warsaw Pact’s invasion of Czechoslovakia to remove the reformist government of Alexander Dubcek, which had come to power in the Prague Spring. The first full US Ambassador, appointed a year before, noted Kádár’s…

… early endorsement of reformist developments in Czechoslovakia, his widely publicised meditator role, and his apparently only last-minute conversion to a need for forceful measures.

Even the man who admitted signing the request for the Soviet invasion in 1956 (three days after it happened), András Hegedűs, openly condemned the invasion of Czechoslovakia. As a result, and although he had been Rákosi’s prime minister, he was fired from his job as a statistician and expelled from the party. In Britain, too, Hungary’s part in the armed intervention led to a setback for developing cultural links. The emerging civic links between Coventry and its twin-town of Kecskemét in the midlands of Hungary had to be ‘put on ice’, and were not fully defrosted again until the Cold War entered its permanent thaw in 1989.

Re-burial and Reconciliation…

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As 1989 began, a momentous year in European history, the Hungarian Parliament passed a law allowing citizens to form independent associations, including political parties, thus paving the war for an eventual end to Communist rule. In February, a groundbreaking report prepared by a historical commission of the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party officially rejected the interpretation of the 1956 Uprising as a counter-revolution. Instead, it was described as a popular uprising against the existing state power, since under Stalin, the ideal of international communism was turned into a merciless imperial programme. This was followed in June by an important step designed to heal old wounds and come to terms with the events of 1956-58. Imre Nagy, Pál Maléter and three others executed in 1958 received a public reburial and state funeral, attended by an estimated 250,000 Hungarians, broadcast nationwide on state-controlled radio and television. The ceremony also paid tribute to the hundreds of others who had died in the retribution meted out by the Kádár Government. The next day, János Kádár died. These developments led to much open public discussion about the events of 1956, for the first time. On the anniversary of the uprising on 23 October 1989, Mátyás Szűrös, the Acting President, proclaimed the new, democratic constitution of a country now called “the Republic of Hungary”, no longer the “Hungarian People’s Republic”, the ‘different’ country I had entered just a week before.      

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Sources:

Bob Dent (2006), Budapest 1956: Locations of a Drama. Budapest: Európa Könyvkiadó

László Kontler (2009), A History of Hungary. Budapest: Atlantisz Publishing House.

Marc J Susser (ed.) (2007), The United States and Hungary: Paths of Diplomacy. Washington: US Department of State.

Sándor Kopácsi (1989), In the Name of the Working Class. London: Fontana.

Back to the Eighties: The Growth of English Language Teaching in Hungary.   Leave a comment

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On Thursday, 22nd October 2015, a group of us were invited to attend a tree-planting ceremony at the Kodály Zoltán Music School in Kecskemét (Hungary). After a musical introduction performed by students of the school, including folk songs in English, we went out into the front garden to plant the tree. After a short and characteristically witty speech by Péter Medgyes (President of IATEFL), we then took turns in shovelling the earth around the little fir tree. This caused me to reflect on some of the local events of a generation ago which helped to establish the Kecskemét Association of Teachers of English (KATE), which in turn helped to found IATEFL Hungary a year later, with its inaugural conference held in the town in February 1991.

The Eighties: Educational Exchanges

The link between Coventry and Kecskemét went back decades, one of twenty-six twinnings resulting from the Blitz of November 1940. It had, however, been dormant since the Hungarian troops had been sent to help suppress the Prague Spring of 1968. Together with Tom Leimdorfer, the Quakers’ Peace Education Advisor at Friends’ House in London, himself a Hungarian exile from 1956, I met teachers from ‘behind the iron curtain’ at the second International Teachers for Peace Congress in Bonn in May of 1988. Although we knew that ‘one swallow does not a summer make’, we were particularly impressed by the frankness of Hungarian delegates who reported how, after establishing exchanges with other countries, children were enabled to speak out about their experiences of violence in their societies. In the Autumn of 1988, a group of us, Quaker teachers, were invited to visit Hungary, as the guests of the state-sponsored, but increasingly independent, Hungarian Peace Council.

On the first full day of our visit, the anniversary of the Hungarian Uprising of 1956, our guide and hostess became very excited about two announcements on Kossúth (state-controlled) Radio. The first was that the Uprising would no longer be described, officially, as a ’Counter-Revolution’ and the second was that the Soviet troops would be invited to leave the country. This came as a dramatic confirmation of the sense we were already getting of a far freer atmosphere than we knew existed in other Warsaw Pact countries, including the one we were looking across the Danube at, the then Czechoslovakia. We visited Kecskemét a few days later and a link was formed with KATE, the English Language teachers association in the town, who needed an invitation to attend the International ELT Conference at the University of Warwick the next year.

So, with the support of Coventry City Council and the Teachers’ Centre in Coventry, an exchange was established through the One World Education Group, with myself as facilitator. The twelve KATE teachers were hosted by Coventry and Warwickshire Friends and teachers in the Spring of 1989, and a twelve-strong OWEG group were invited to Kecskemét the following summer. At the time, the Exchange Project was reported in the local press in Hungary as having the purpose ’to educate for peace, to develop mutual understanding within the scope of a subject which is not compulsory in school in order that the children should have an all-embracing picture of the world’. In explaining the purpose of the exchange, we tried to emphasise that ’Britain is not too great to learn from Hungary’, the Petö Institutes in Birmingham being just one example, and that Hungary was considered to be a bridge between East and West. Hungary no longer meant just ’goulash, Puskás, and 1956’.

We were beginning to learn about Hungarian expertise and aspirations in Science, Mathematics, Music and Art, as well as in society in general (there were even later exchanges of police forces!) In July 1989, just after the barbed wire was first cut in May (Tom Leimdorfer was there, twenty miles south from where he escaped by crawling under it in December 1956), the Lord Mayor of Kecskemét reminded us that whilst it was important that the Iron Curtain should be removed physically, ’it also needs to be removed in people’s hearts and minds…as more and more educational links are forged between ordinary people in the East and the West, so it will become impossible for politicians to keep the existing barriers up, or to build new ones…’ Coventry had long been interested in reconciliation between Western and Eastern Europe – we could now help bring this about by our practical support for the teachers and people of Kecskemét. This public statement, from a then member of the ruling communist party in what was still a ’People’s Republic’, gives a clear indication of the importance of these exchanges and contacts between ’ordinary people’ in the tearing down of the curtain and the fall of the wall, now more than a generation ago.

Into the Nineties: TEMPUS and IATEFL

In October 1989, I entered one country and left another without crossing a second border. On the anniversary of the 1956 Uprising (no longer referred to as a Counter-Revolution), the name of that country had changed from the ‘Hungarian People’s Republic’ to ‘the Republic of Hungary’. It was during that week that I also received formal invitations to become an Associate Tutor at the Kecskemét College of Education, meeting its Principal and staff. I returned on Valentine’s Day 1990, having won the sponsorship of the Westhill and Newman Colleges in Selly Oak, Birmingham, to establish a student-teacher exchange. I began teaching at the College, supervising teaching practice in the primary schools, and working on the joint application to Brussels for TEMPUS Funding from Birmingham, Rennes and Kecskemét. One of my first duties was to give a presentation on the Higher Education system in England and Wales to the College Staff Meeting. An elderly colleague at the back of the room protested at the brevity of the Ministry of Education’s recent letter informing institutions that they were now free to follow their own path. ‘We don’t know how’ he pointed out, ‘we’ve always got our instructions from the Ministry!’

The first leg of the student-teacher exchange took place the following January with a visit to Birmingham of the Kecskemét students, who were training to become specialist teachers of English at the primary school level (6-14 years of age).  The students were given a multi-cultural tour of Birmingham, its schools and its churches, Quaker meeting houses, mosques, gudwaras and synagogues.  In February, at the same time as the Birmingham lecturers were visiting in order to set up the TEMPUS programme, the first Hungarian IATEFL (International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language) Conference was being held in Kecskemét. With many American and British guests visiting the Conference, among teachers from all over Hungary, it suddenly felt as if the whole world had descended, with the snow, on the small provincial town. The following poem, written for the twenty-fifth anniversary of this event, takes up the story:

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   Kata Ittzes and Péter Medgyes plant a tree in commemoration of the twenty-five years of IATEFL’s work among the teachers of Hungary, 22nd Oct 2015.

Another Brick from the Wall: My (Small) Part in its Downfall, 1987-92   1 comment

Quaker

Quaker (Photo credit: kendoman26)

Another Brick from the Wall: My (Small) Part in its Downfall

by Andrew J Chandler

It’s now twenty-five years since I first ‘set foot’ in Hungary, on 22nd October 1988, as the Organiser for the West Midlands Quaker Peace Education Project. In May 1987, at what turned out to be the beginning of the end of the Cold War, I was concerned about both international conflict and interpersonal conflict, having experienced both verbal and physical abuse against teachers and between pupils, as a teacher in Coventry. The Project, based in the Selly Oak Colleges in Birmingham at Woodbrooke, George Cadbury‘s home, was also set up to continue to support teachers with work on controversial issues in the classroom, later characterised as ‘peace versus patriotism’ in a late-night TV programme I was invited to take part in. Since the hottest days of the Cold War, Quakers had answered invitations to visit schools throughout the West Midlands to show the film The War Game and give their views on Disarmament. The Project organised balanced debates between CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament organisers) and advocates of Peace Through NATO.  These used the BBC ‘Question Time’ format, with fifth and sixth-formers ‘firing’ prepared questions at the speakers, who had no time to prepare their answers, however.

The Project also gave scope for considering Human Rights as well as ‘Earthrights’, with a simulation of rainforest destruction with paper cups! We broadened the range of international issues dealt with to include, for example, Hong Kong, eight years before the 1997 handover. This work on global issues led to a  Sixth Form Conference at Woodbrooke with participants from Stafford, Sutton Coldfield and Coventry. Based on a quote from Peter Kropotkin, the Russian scientist, about what learners should demand of teachers, it was entitled ’What kind of world? How do we build it?’ Held over a weekend, it consisted of a series of workshops which were designed to give the students the opportunity to place themselves in the various conflict situations and to think of ways in which they might empower themselves to tackle some of the major issues facing the world at the end of the twentieth century. Various guest speakers, including Jerry Tyrrell, who had been recently appointed as Field Worker to the Ulster Quaker Peace Education Project, presented  ’case studies’ of the conflicts from their countries and regions.

Looking back, Warwickshire Monthly Meeting on the twelfth day of the twelfth month of the last year of the decade marked a significant turning point in the life of the Project in more way than one, held during the collapse of the Ceaucescu régime in Romania, the latter sparked by in Temesvár by the resistance of the Hungarian Reforrmed Church. Reference was made to the pack for upper school pupils, prepared by teachers from the West Midlands and Northern Ireland, ’Conflict and Reconciliation’, the resources for which had been provided by the Project. It aimed to develop an awareness of interpersonal and conflict between cultures at a community, as well as an international level. Although I left in February 1990 to take up an appointment, through Westhill College, with the Hungarian Ministry of Education in Coventry’s twin town of Kecskemét, Hungary, I  returned to complete work on the pack in Belfast in the Spring. This was eventually published  by the Christian Education Movement, by then also based in Selly Oak, and launched at a workshop in Sutton Coldfield in the Summer of 1991.

At the time, the work between Northern Ireland (the only part of the UK where the Government funded Peace Education as part of EMU (Education for Mutual Understanding) and the West Midlands attracted the attention of the Belfast Telegraph and The Times Educational Supplement and I was invited to make a presentation on it to an EU-sponsored Peace Education Conference in Brussels which was published in the journal, Trans-Europe Peace (1988). The CEM’s ’Conflict and Reconciliation’ pack serves as lasting testimony to the work of Q-PEP, as its Preface contains the remark that we were responsible not only for gathering together much of the material for use in the classroom, but also for ’the insistence on pupil-centred activity-based learning’. But the ultimate credit here, as in that of the Preface, goes to teachers like Terry Donaghy, from Belfast, from whom I learnt about the importance of faith-based education in helping pupils to reach out to people of other faiths and traditions. Following the Northern Ireland ‘Peace Accord‘, EMU was ‘transmorphed’ into ‘Education for Reconciliation’, a trans-border initiative which held its last conference recently, in 2012 (see links below).

Hungary: visa and stamps

Hungary: visa and stamps (Photo credit: Sem Paradeiro)

The link between Coventry and Kecskemét went back decades, one of twenty-six twinnings resulting from the Blitz of November 1940.  It had, however, been dormant since the Hungarian troops had been sent to help suppress the Prague Spring of 1968. In the run-up to the 50th Anniversary of the Blitz, the City Council asked to the One World Education Group, which met at the Elm Bank Teachers’ Centre, to produce a pack of materials for use in schools. The Project was asked to help with this. At the same time, members of our Steering Group were keen on the idea of developing school and youth group East-West links, as were Friends elsewhere. In 1987, the Project had already helped co-ordinate the production and staging in Solihull and elsewhere of an exhibition on ’Life in the Soviet Union’, based on an exchange involving Quaker women. In 1988, we had received an invitation to visit the DDR. Tom Leimdorfer, Peace Education Advisor at Friends’ House, himself a Hungarian exile from 1956, and I met teachers from ’behind the iron curtain’ at the second International Teachers for Peace Congress in Bonn in May of that year. Although we knew that ’one swallow does not a summer make’, I wrote in the Q-PEP newsletter shortly afterwards, that ’coming as it did just before the Moscow summit, there was a distinct atmosphere of Glasnost, which meant that the exchanges between the participants were relaxed, open and constructive… the spirit was very much in evidence in the opening session when children from the USA and USSR joined together spontaneously in songs from a peace musical.’  It was also apparent in the openness with which a Soviet representative spoke about the new Soviet Children’s Fund, a baby of Glasnost, through which they were  beginning to deal with child abuse and the problems of the one-third of families in which the parents were divorced. We were also particularly impressed by the frankness of Hungarian delegates who reported how, after establishing exchanges with other countries, parents meetings were held and children were enabled to speak about their experiences of abuse.

Since Éva Horváth, of Hungarian Teachers for Peace, had visited the West Midlands Q-PEP with a delegation the previous year, we looked forward to the 1990 Congress in Budapest, little knowing that she would be inviting the delegates to a very different country. Prior to that, in the Autumn of 1988, a group of us, Quaker teachers, were invited to visit Hungary, as the guests of the state-sponsored, but increasingly independent, Hungarian Peace Council.  On the first full day of our visit, the anniversary of the Hungarian Uprising of 1956, our guide and hostess became ver excited about two announcements on Kossúth (state-controlled) Radio. The first was that the Uprising would no longer be described, officially, as a ’Counter-Revolution’ and the second was that the Soviet troops would be invited to leave the country.  This came as a dramatic confirmation of the sense we were already getting of a far freer atmosphere than we knew from Friends and teachers existed in other Warsaw Pact countries, including the one we were looking across the Danube at, Czechoslovakia. We visited Kecskemét a few days later and a link was formed with KATE, the English Language teachers association in the town, who needed an invitation to attend the International ELT Conference at the University of Warwick the next year.

So, with the approval of the Project Steering Group and the support of  the City Council and Martin Pounce at the Teachers’ Centre in Coventry, an exchange was established through the One World Education Group, with myself as facilitator (one result of this was that Martin later became the LEA’s International Officer). The twelve KATE teachers were hosted by Coventry and Warwickshire Friends and teachers in the Spring of 1989, and a twelve-strong OWEG group were invited to Kecskemét the following summer, including Frank Scotford, a retired teacher and ’elder statesman’ from Coventry, Gill Kirkham, a music teacher from Kenilworth, John Illingworth, a special needs teacher and bell-ringer from Monks Kirkby, and Gill Brown, a Quaker teacher at the Blue Coat School.  Stefánia Rozinka was one of our hosts who had been unable to take part in the first leg of the exchange due to her university studies in history, just as I had been unable to accept an invitation to visit the DDR the previous year because of mine, and so, academic work over, we became engaged within a week of meeting each other and the rest, as they say, is literally, ’personal’ history! This exchange also had longer-lasting effects in terms of school, teacher and trainee-teacher exchanges, the latter attracting significant funding from the EU.

I believe that the significance of Q-PEP’s work in this area cannot be overstated. At the time, the Project was reported in the local press in Hungary as having the purpose ’to educate for peace, to develop mutual understanding within the scope of a subject which is not compulsory in school in order that the children should have an all-embracing picture of the world’.  In explaining the purpose of the exchange, we tried to emphasise that ’Britain is not too great to learn from Hungary’, the Petö Institutes in Birmingham being just one example, and that Hungary was considered to be a bridge between East and West. Hungary no longer meant just ’goulash, Puskás, and 1956’. We were beginning to learn about Hungarian expertise and aspirations in Science, Mathematics, Music and Art, as well as in society in general (there were even later exchanges of police forces!) In July 1989, just after the barbed wire was first cut in May (Tom Leimdorfer was there, twenty miles south from where he escaped by crawling under it in December 1956), the Lord Mayor of Kecskemét reminded us that whilst it was important that the Iron Curtain should be removed physically, ’it also needs to be removed in people’s hearts and minds…as more and more educational links are forged between ordinary people in the East and the West, so it will become impossible for politicians to keep the existing barriers up, or to build new ones…’ Coventry had long been interested in reconciliation between Western and Eastern Europe – we could now help bring this about by our practical support for the teachers and people of Kecskemét. This public statement, from a then member of the ruling communist party in what was still a ’People’s Republic’, gives a clear indication of the importance of these exchanges and contacts between ’ordinary people’ in the tearing down of the curtain and the fall of the wall, now more than twenty years ago.

Following my three semester secondment to the Hungarian Ministry of Education, and a further year as a teacher-fellow at Westhill College, I was then invited to return to Hungary to co-ordinate a teacher-exchange being set up by Devon County Council with Baranya County Assembly in southern Hungary, in 1992. By that time the coup had failed in the former USSR, and the Cold War was officially over, so longer-term ‘transition’ programmes could take shape, like the wholesale re-training of Russian Language Teachers to teach English as a Foreign Language in Hungary, a process which took a further four years with the support of ‘NESTs’ (Native English-Speaking Teachers) who took the place of their Hungarian colleagues in the classroom while the latter attended university training colleges part-time. My initial period of work in and with Hungary therefore came to an end in 1996, by which time a remarkable transformation had taken place in the education system there, as elsewhere. Fifteen years later, I returned to Hungary in 2011, to take up an appointment as a Consultant in English Language Teaching (CELT) for the Hungarian Reformed Church Schools. I’m now working for the Piarist (Catholic) Schools in Kecskemét in a similar role, as well as at the College of Education in the town.

AJC October 2008

Updated May 2012, October 2013.

Village Voices & The Hungarian Holocaust   1 comment

As The Land Remembers Them:

Village Voices

& The Hungarian Holocaust

 

 
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 by

 

Andrew James Chandler

 

Preface:

In July 1989, Dr Bill Campbell and myself, from the Selly Oak Colleges, Birmingham, joined an exchange programme between the twinned municipalities of Coventry and Kecskemét, to establish an exchange between Westhill and Newman Colleges of Education and the Kecskemét College of Education. The following February, I took up a post as Associate Tutor for the Colleges, based in Kecskemét, at the invitation of the Principal of Westhill College, Rev Gordon Benfield and Dr Márta Dovala, of the Kecskemét College, under the guidance of József Vida, the Head of Modern Languages. The Hungarian Ministry of Education agreed to sponsor the appointment, and Gordon Benfield visited Kecskemét in March to formally establish the exchange programme. The benefit of a visit to the UK the following January for the Hungarian students in their four-year English Studies programme was fairly obvious. What was not, at first, as clear was the English Studies Programme the benefit that the student teachers from Birmingham would gain from a visit to Hungary the next spring, as part of their four-year B. Ed. Programme.

As both Westhill and Newman were built on strong Church foundations, both Free Church and Catholic, specialising in Religious Education, it was felt that it would be useful for them to engage with studies of the roles played by the churches in the various towns and villages throughout Bács-Kiskun County. Of course, they also visited primary schools and helped with English lessons, but, in 1990-91, and for some years following, there was no Religious Education provision in Hungarian schools. So, the key question which was under investigation during their visit was, ‘what are the values of the people and communities following the establishment of the Republic of Hungary and after forty years of the Hungarian People’s Republic?’  Coming from a multi-cultural society in the West Midlands, we wanted to know, in particular, why the town’s synagogue no longer had a worshipping Jewish community, and how the churches worked together to promote their beliefs and values in a more mono-cultural ‘Magyar’ society.

Coalescing with these developments, the Colleges established a Joint European Programme under EC TEMPUS funding, and Dr Éva Kruppa was appointed to the International Office in Kecskemét College of Education, to co-ordinate this. In planning the student exchange, she suggested a visit to Apostag, since she was aware of the work being done there to both restore the synagogue for community use, largely completed by 1987, and to commemorate the village’s victims of the Holocaust of 1944-5. So it was that in the autumn of 1990 that Bill Campbell (RE) and John Gosling (English), visiting Kecskemét, came with Éva, József and myself to visit the village, see its synagogue and meet its residents, some of who had known the victims well as children and young people. What follows here is the result of their testimony, given at that initial meeting and during the visit of the students from Birmingham, Michael and Ruth, who spent a week in the villages of the territory in April 1991. None of their testimony could have been recorded without the painstaking translation provided by Hajnalka Szigeti (pictured below in 1991), an excellent student from Kiskunfélegyháza at the College of Education in Kecskemét, and now a teacher near Hastings. The original intention was to transcribe the testimonies together the following autumn, but that summer my recall to Westhill and Newman Colleges, as a Teacher/Fellow, prevented this.

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AJC, 27/1/2013: Anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz/ Holocaust Memorial Day

Contents:

 

Introduction

Habakkuk’s Protest;

The Lord’s Answer;

Habakkuk’s Prayer;

Hungarian Jewry – A Doomed People?

 

Chapter One: A Timeline of the Hungarian ‘Shoah’

 

Anti-Jewish Laws, 1938-41

The Census of 1941

Occupation and Deportation

Survival

 

Chapter Two: Apostag – The Village in View

 

Geography

Testimony

The Village Chronicle to 1918

The Synagogue & the Jewish Community

Village Relationships Between the Wars

 

Chapter Three: Fifty Years of Division & Sorrow

 

Anti-Semitic Laws & Outbreak of War

Deportation, May 1944

Continuation & Conclusion of War

The Aftermath

The Village in the Nineties

 

References & Bibliography

 

© 2013 Andrew James Chandler/ Team Britannia, Hungary

 

 

Introduction:

Habakkuk’s Protest:

Nothing is known about the prophet Habakkuk apart from what is in his book. Because he mentions Babylon (1:6) it is assumed that he lived at the end of the seventh century B.C., when the Nebuchadnezzar’s forces ‘ended’ Israel and Judah was exiled.  The prophet questions God about his justice: why does he turn a blind eye to Babylon’s cruelty and deportations? How can he use wicked people to punish people who are better than them? These are questions that many Jews must have echoed on their way to Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, and other death camps, as well as inside them, centuries later:

‘How long, O Lord, must I call for help,

But you do not listen?

Or cry out to you, “Violence!”

But you do not save?

Why do you make me look at injustice?

Why do you tolerate wrong?

Destruction and violence are before me;

There is strife and conflict abounds.

Therefore the law is paralysed,

And justice never prevails.

The wicked hem in the righteous,

So that justice is perverted.’

(1: 2-4)

 

The Lord’s Answer:

God gives no direct answer, but promises that one day he will punish all oppression and injustice:

 

‘Woe to him who builds his city with bloodshed,

And establishes a town by crime!

Has not the Lord almighty determined

That the people’s labour is only fuel for the fire,

That nations exhaust themselves for nothing?

For the earth will be filled with the knowledge

Of the glory of the Lord,

As the waters cover the sea.’

(2: 12-14)

 

Habakkuk’s Prayer:

The book concludes with a statement by the prophet that he will trust God, no matter what happens:

‘I heard and my heart pounded,

My lips quivered at the sound;

Decay crept into my bones,

And my legs trembled.

Yet I will wait patiently for the day of calamity

To come on the nation invading us.

Though the fig tree does not bud

And there are no grapes on the vines,

Though the olive crop fails

And the fields produce no food,

Though there are no sheep in the pen

And no cattle in the stalls,

Yet I will rejoice in the Lord,

I will be joyful in my saviour.

     

The Sovereign Lord is my strength;

He makes my feet like the feet of a deer,

He enables me to go on the heights.

(3: 16-19)

 

Hungarian Jewry: A People Doomed?

I’d gladly resign my claim to the Hungarian Jews if only I were certain that their patriotism would save them from the misery of antisemitism…But the Jews of Hungary will also be overtaken by their doom, which will be all the more brutal and merciless as time passes, and wilder too, the stronger they get in the meantime. There is no escaping it.

Theodor Herzl, 1903

‘Tivadar’ (his given name in Hungarian) Herzl was born in Budapest in 1860 at a time when Hungarian Jews were so well-integrated into national life that their Chief Rabbi sat in the Upper House of Parliament. This integration had taken place over the two previous centuries, so that at the beginning of the twentieth century they had become part of the Hungarian nation legally, socially and culturally. All that really marked them out as different were their synagogues and religious practices, though even here, the laws relating to food were being abandoned by the 1920s, as the testimony below shows.

After the sudden wave of anti-Semitic horror which engulfed Hungary for the last two years of the war had passed, the Communists made any mention of the Jews as a people a taboo topic, except in the context of a ‘scientific’ study of it as a religion. This was applied to Jews and non-Jews alike. Such studies were restricted to the confines of Marxist academia. Any form of Religious Education in schools was strictly prohibited and church activities were severely restricted. Any discussion of the events as genocide was frowned upon, if not punished. The victims of the Holocaust were called those persecuted by the Nazis. So it was only after the forty years from 1948 to 1988 that the unresolved anti-Semitic laws of the Hungarian Horthy Government, the actions of the Hungarian Fascists and the Nazi deportations could be examined in the clear light of day, and spoken about in public. Of course, this, in itself, remained a difficult process, since many of the small number of those who participated in these actions were still alive and identifiable as neighbours in the village.

More recently, the task has been made still more difficult, though even more important, by the re-emergence of anti-Semitism in Hungary, even within the very same Parliament building where the Chief Rabbi sat (quite comfortably) a hundred years ago. An MP belonging to the anti-Semitic ‘Jobbik’ Party recently suggested that a new national register of Jews be kept, provoking huge controversy and protest both within the country and internationally, reminding everyone of the 1941 Census, used by the Nazis in 1944 to rapidly deport most of the Jewish population. Even among my own Hungarian friends and family, partly Jewish itself, I have heard more anecdotal anti-Semitic remarks in the past two years since returning to Hungary, than I ever heard in the two years of 1989-91, when this project was conducted. In fact, from 1991 to 2011, I encountered more anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim attitudes in the Churches I attended in Britain, than in Hungary. Recently, however, in Budapest and elsewhere in Hungary, Jewish cemeteries have been desecrated, memorials have been defaced and damaged, and, perhaps most sinisterly, rabbis have suffered abuse in the streets.

More positively, however, there has also been a new emphasis on Jewish identity in the last fifteen years, most noticeably in music and culture, which previously was considered a thing confined to the distant past, as if it belonged to a different country. Perhaps this is due to an increasing recognition that post-war politics has not allowed for the social resolution of this trauma. Hungary never had a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, for any of the events of 1938-88. After the Holocaust, Hungary was the only country in Central Europe to retain a significant Jewish population, so this remains a practical issue for both Jews, Gypsies and Magyars alike. Until the country comes to terms with its twentieth-century past, at least in regard to current attitudes, it will remain stuck there, paralysed and unable to move on to become the  twenty-first century democratic nation it longs to be. It’s in this spirit of reconciliation that I decided to share these testimonies for Holocaust Memorial Day, 2013.

Chapter One: A Timeline of the Hungarian ‘Shoah’

Anti-Jewish Laws, 1938-1941:

Starting in 1938, the Horthy Government in Hungary passed a series of anti-Jewish laws based on Germany’s Nürnberg Laws. The first, passed on May 29th, 1938, restricted the number of Jews in each commercial enterprise, in the press, among physicians, engineers and lawyers to twenty percent. The second anti-Jewish law (May 5th, 1939), defined Jews as a racial group for the first time. People with two or more Jewish-born grandparents were declared Jewish. Private companies were forbidden to employ more than 12% Jews. 250,000 Hungarian Jews lost their income. Most of them lost their right to vote as well.

In the elections of May 28th–29th, Nazi and Arrow Cross parties received one-quarter of the votes and 52 out of 262 seats. Their support was even larger, usually between a third and a half of the votes, where they were on the ballot at all, since they were not listed in large parts of the country. The ‘Third Jewish Law’ (August 8th, 1941) prohibited intermarriage and penalized sexual intercourse between Jews and non-Jews.

The Census of 1941:

The census of January 31st, 1941 found that 6.2% of the population of 13,643,620, i.e. 846,000 people, were considered Jewish according to the racial laws of that time. In addition, in April 1941, Hungary annexed the regions of Yugoslavia it had occupied, adding over a million people to its population, including a further 15,000 Jews. This means that inside the May 1941 borders of Hungary, there were 861,000 people who were considered to be Jewish. From this number, 725,000, nearly 5% of the total population were Jewish by religion.

When the Nazis invaded in March 1944 they used the lists of members of the Jewish community to organise one of the swiftest and most efficient episodes of the Holocaust. With the ready assistance of Hungarian officials and the Gendarmerie 440,000 Jews were deported to Auschwitz within a few weeks, most to their deaths. On some days the gas chambers and crematoria processed more than a thousand people an hour.

Occupation and Deportation:

A Jew living in the Hungarian countryside in March 1944 had a chance of less than one in ten of surviving the following twelve months.In Budapest, a Jew’s chance of survival of the same twelve months was fifty/fifty.

On March 18th, 1944, Hitler summoned Horthy to a conference in Austria, where he demanded greater collaboration from the Hungarian state in his ‘final solution’ of his Jewish problem. Horthy resisted, but while he was still at the conference, German tanks rolled into Budapest. On March 23rd, 1944, the government of Döme Sztójay was installed. Among his other first moves, Sztójay legalized the overtly Fascist Arrow Cross Party, which quickly began organizing throughout the country. During the four-day interregnum following the German occupation, the Ministry of the Interior was put in the hands of right-wing politicians well-known for their hostility to Jews. On April 9th, Prime Minister Sztójay agreed to place at the disposal of the Reich 300,000 Jewish labourers. Five days later, on April 14th, Adolf Eichmann decided to deport all the Jews of Hungary.

From his SS headquarters in Budapest’s Majestic Hotel, Eichmann proceeded rapidly in rounding up Jews from the Hungarian provinces outside Budapest and its suburbs. The Yellow Star and Ghettoization laws, and the deportation, were accomplished in less than 8 weeks with the enthusiastic help of the Hungarian authorities, particularly the Gendarmerie. The plan was to use forty-five cattle cars per train, four trains a day, to deport 12,000 Jews to Auschwitz every day from the countryside, starting in mid-May; this was to be followed by the deportation of Jews of Budapest from about July 15th.

At the end of April,the Jewish leaders of Hungary, together with the Hungarian leaders of the Roman Catholic, Calvinist and Lutheran Churches, in addition to Horthy, received a detailed report about the deportation to Auschwitz, but kept their silence, thus keeping the hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews and their Christian neighbours in ignorance, and enabling the success of Eichmann’s timetable. The reality that no one in the villages knew anything about the plan in advance of it being carried out is borne out by the testimony of the Apostag villagers below.

The first transports to Auschwitz began in early May 1944 and continued even as Soviet troops approached. The Hungarian government was solely in charge of the Jews’ transportation up to the northern border. The Hungarian commander of the Kassa railroad station meticulously recorded the trains heading to Auschwitz with their place of departure and the number of people inside them. The first train went through Kassa on May 14th. On a typical day, there were three or four trains, with ten to fourteen thousand people on each. There were 109 trains during these 33 days through to June 16th, as many as six trains each day. Between June 25th and 29th, there were a further 10 trains, then an additional 18 trains between July 5th and 9th. By then, nearly 440,000 victims had been deported from the Hungarian towns and countryside, according to official German reports. Another 10 trains were sent to Auschwitz via other routes from Budapest, while seven trains containing over twenty thousand people went to Strasshof at the end of June, including two from Baja, which may well have picked up the Jews from Apostag at Kalocsa.

In total, one hundred and forty-seven trains were sent to Auschwitz, where 90% of the people were exterminated on arrival. Because the crematoria couldn’t cope with the number of corpses, special pits were dug near them, where bodies were simply burned. It has been estimated that one-third of the murdered victims at Auschwitz were Hungarian.For most of this time period, 12,000 Jews were delivered to Auschwitz in a typical day. Photographs taken at Auschwitz were found after the war showing the arrival of Jews from Hungary at the camp.

The devotion to the cause of the ‘final solution’ of the Hungarian Gendarmerie surprised even Eichmann himself, who supervised the operation with only twenty officers and a staff of a hundred, including drivers, cooks, etc. Very few members of the Catholic or Protestant clergy raised their voices against sending the Jews to their death. A notable exception was Bishop Áron Márton, in his sermon in Kolozsvár on May 18. But the Catholic Primate of Hungary, Serédi, decided not to issue a pastoral letter condemning the deportation of the Jews.

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, in a letter to his Foreign Secretary dated July 11, 1944, wrote:

 “There is no doubt that this persecution of Jews in Hungary and their expulsion from enemy territory is probably the greatest and most horrible crime ever committed in the whole history of the world….”

Admiral Horthy ordered the suspension of all deportations on July 6. Nonetheless, another 45,000 Jews were deported from the Trans-Danubian region and the outskirts of Budapest to Auschwitz after this day. The Sztójay government then rescheduled the date of deportation of the Jews of Budapest to Auschwitz to August 27th. But the Romanians switched sides on August 23, 1944, causing huge problems for the German military, and Himmler ordered the cancellation of further deportations from Hungary on August 25th. Horthy finally dismissed Prime Minister Sztójay on August 29th.

However, in spite of the change of government, Hungarian troops occupied parts of Southern Transylvania, Romania, and massacred hundreds of Jews, starting on September 4th.

After the Arrow Cross coup d’état on October 15th, tens of thousands of Jews of Budapest were sent on foot to the Austrian border in death marches, and most forced labourers under Hungarian Army command were deported to Bergen-Belsen. Two ghettos were set up in Budapest. The big Budapest ghetto was set up and walled in the Erzsébetváros part of Budapest on November 29th. Arrow Cross raids and mass executions occurred in both ghettos regularly. In addition, in the two months between November 1944 and February 1945, the Arrow Cross shot between ten and fifteen thousand Jews on the banks of the Danube. Soviet troops liberated the big Budapest ghetto on January 18th, 1945. On the Buda side of the town, the encircled Arrow Cross continued their murders until the Soviets took Buda on February 13th.

The names of some diplomats, Raoul Wallenberg, Ángel Sanz Briz, Carl Lutz, Giorgio Perlasca, Carlos de Sampayo Garrido and Alberto Teixeira Branquinho deserve mentioning, as well as some members of the army and police who saved people (Pál Szalai, Károly Szabó, and other officers who took Jews out from camps with fake papers) and some church institutions and personalities. Rudolph Kastner deserves special attention because of his enduring negotiations with Eichmann to prevent deportations to Auschwitz, succeeding only minimally, by sending Jews to still horrific labour battalions in Austria and ultimately saving 1,680 Jews in Kastner’s train.

Survival:

An estimated 119,000 Jewish people were liberated in Budapest (25,000 in the small, ‘international’ ghetto, 69,000 in the big ghetto and 25,000 hiding with false papers) and 20,000 forced labourers in the countryside. Almost all of the surviving deportees returned between May and December 1945, at least to check out the fate of their families. Their number was 116,000.

It is estimated that from an original population of 861,000 people considered Jewish inside the borders of 1941–44, about 255,000 survived. This gives a 30% survival rate overall under Hungarian rule, but only because the projected deportations from Budapest did not take place. As has already been stated, the survival rates for Jews from the Hungarian countryside were far lower. This number was even worse in Slovakia. On the other hand, the Hungarian-speaking Jewish population fared much better in the Romanian-controlled Southern Transylvania, since Romania did not deport Jews to Auschwitz. According to another calculation, Hungary’s pre-war Jewish population was 800,000, of which 180,000 survived.

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Chapter Two: Apostag – The Village in View

 

Location of Bács-Kiskun county in the Southern...

Location of Bács-Kiskun county in the Southern Great Plain region (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Geography:

The village is in the County of Bács-Kiskun, occupying an area of thirty-two square kilometres, and with a population of just over 2,100. It’s located close to the eastern bank of the River Danube, to the south of Budapest on Hungary’s Southern Great Plain region. It is both a village and a municipality.

Testimony:

When we visited Apostag for the first time, in the autumn of 1990, we were met by a group of villagers at the Village House, the former Synagogue. There were no surviving Jewish residents or relatives of residents from the earlier period, so we realised very quickly that our project would depend entirely on the testimony of the Christian inhabitants who had contact with, and remembered, the families, together with the Church leaders, charged with the responsibility of commemorating these people and events.

The witnesses initially told their stories uninterrupted by ourselves. I remember that the testimony of one elderly woman was particularly moving, and she sobbed as she gave it. Similar accounts were recorded in the later visit to the village, which took place in the spring of 1991, in notes and on magnetic tape.

Several interviews were conducted over the course of the week, involving people altogether, at least six of who were eyewitnesses. Their testimonies have been merged to some extent, where common observations or experiences were described. Individual stories are reported using Christian names only. Full names are only used in connection with the Jewish victims, when given to us. The text follows closely the original words, in translation, used by the witnesses, and contains very few interpretations and additions by me.

The Village Chronicle to 1918:

The Catholic Priest told us that before the Hungarian tribes settled in the Carpathian Basin, there were some ‘Bulgár’ people living on this territory and they built their ancient Christian Church here. They called it ‘the Church of the Twelve Apostles’ which is where the name ‘Apostag’ comes from. It was a twelve-cornered rotund building, almost round, and couldn’t have been built in this form by the Magyars, who built in a totally different style.  It is thought that the name ‘Hungary’ may originate from these Bulgar people and not, as is commonly but erroneously supposed, from the Huns, the nomadic people who had built up a powerful Eurasian empire in the fifth century, under their leader Attila (406-453). In the seventh century, the Magyars settled in the former lands of a Bulgar-Turkish trading alliance along the Danube. These people were called ‘On-Ungour’, which meant ‘Ten Arrows’, or ‘Ten Tribes’ in Turkish, mutating to ‘Ungar’ in German and ‘Hongrois’ in French, no doubt passing from there into ‘Hungary’ in English, hence the confusion with the Huns.

For these early Christian traders up the Danube from the Black Sea ports, Apostag was no doubt an important port, as well as a centre of their faith, to which the stones of this ancient church on the site of the present-day Reformed Church, bear witness. So when the Hungarian people settled in this territory, they found this church, which remained here until the beginning of the eighteenth century, when the Calvinists were growing in numbers following the end of the Ottoman occupation and needed a bigger place of worship. In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries the settlement was a very important centre of Roman Catholicism, because the priests from all over Hungary gathered here, before going to meet the King. There are records of these meetings in the Vatican archives. The Ottoman troops destroyed this early settlement on the way to Buda. A settlement named ‘Apostag’ then grew up on the other side of the Danube during the Turkish occupation. The lands on this western, or left bank remained under Hapsburg control for most of the period.

Although still quite a small village by Hungarian standards, its central location and role in the territory meant that there were strong congregations for all the main Christian churches, Catholic, Evangelical (Lutheran) and Reformed (Calvinist). The Evangelical congregation was the oldest and richest congregation in the village. They escaped from persecution in the Hapsburg territories to this territory, because it was under Turkish occupation. They were able to save some money here, and they soon became rich. However, it was only when the occupation ended at the end of the seventeenth century that the settlement on the right bank was fully restored by the Reformed Church, who became owners of the site of the ancient church.

The Calvinists were soon followed by Evangelical and Catholic people who settled down in what began to look like the large, traditional Magyar village of today. By the middle of the eighteenth century there were about 150 Catholic families in the village and in 1991, there were a total of about 1,200 Catholics living in the village. There are two other villages belonging to the Church territory today, Dunaegyháza and Dunavecse.

There were also a lot of mixed marriages. Pál, a retired teacher in 1991, had a mother who was Lutheran and his father was Catholic. His wife was Lutheran and her father was Calvinist. So, there was a real mixture of ‘religions’. However, he stressed that they could all live together without many problems.

The Synagogue and the Jewish Community:

There has been a Synagogue in Apostag since 1768, the Jewish population having developed into a sizeable, settled community, worthy of its own place of worship, by the 1760s. The earliest place of worship was completed by the end of the eighteenth century. The Jews had settled in this part of Hungary at the beginning of the Turkish occupation, following the Battle of Mohács in 1526. It was at the beginning of the eighteenth century that they came to the village selling small goods like needles, and at first they were very poor. They saved a lot of money and by the second half of that century they had become rich enough to think about building a synagogue. The proximity of the settlement to Buda/ Pest along the Danube meant that the richer Jews living in the cities were in a position to help the Jews of Apostag with both money and materials. They not only helped each other, but earned a reputation for honesty in their trading relations with others as well.

In 1820, the Synagogue, together with a large part of the village, was destroyed by fire. The new building had to be larger, since the congregation numbered more than six hundred by this time. It had a plain, simple appearance from the outside, as the Jews did not want it to stand out too much. However, inside it was very ornate in parts, decorated in a baroque style, with a magnificent four-pillared ‘bimah’ as its central feature and a beautifully crafted ‘Aaron-cabin’ housing the Torah on the eastern wall. These can be seen in their restored form in the synagogue today. The interior bears a striking similarity to the Protestant churches of the Great Plain. The men in the congregation worshipped in the main hall of the synagogue, with the women and young children occupying the galleries, according to Judaic custom.

The village was an important centre of trade, because it was a central crossing place over the Danube and the place where cereals, wood and building materials were traded. The Jews became rich mainly because of the trade in wood, since the merchants brought wood along the Danube from the Upper Austro-Hungarian territories, which later became part of the new state of Czechoslovakia in 1918-20. The Jewish traders bought and sold the wood in Apostag, making a lot of money, which they then used to buy most of the land in the territory (around Apostag). This territory was very famous for its agriculture and the Jewish families were dealing with the growing of all kinds of vegetables and maize.

The Catholic Church has some documents dating back to the nineteenth century. According to these, in 1863, there were as many as 900 Jewish inhabitants, and among them were the richest people in the village.

Village Relationships Between the Wars:

By the end of the Great War and the beginning of the living memory of those giving oral evidence, there were some 2,300 inhabitants of the village and 104 Jewish families. Some of them owned land and some rented it, so not all the Jewish families were rich, and some remained quite poor. There were between one and three children in the families (smaller than the average ‘Magyar’ family). Twenty-four councillors were elected for the Village Council, one for each group of ten families. These representatives needed to be fairly wealthy landowners to qualify for election, and the fact that twelve of these councillors were Jewish also shows how integral a part of the leadership of the village they had become.

When the Jewish people bought most of the land and began to deal with the trade in cereals, they then began to buy shops. Most of the shops belonged to these families, and, for example, the Chemist’s now (in 1991) was a butcher’s shop at that time (1918-38). All the houses on the same corner of the main street were Jewish, and there were a lot of Jewish homes in that one street. The head of one of the families was a tanner, making and selling leather, and others in the street were leather-workers.

For the most part, there weren’t any problems between the Jews. They really helped each other. It was interesting that when new Jewish people arrived in the village there was a house, a room just for this purpose of providing accommodation until the family could find their own flat or house, and work, in the village. They didn’t want to keep their money for themselves. On the whole, there were very good relationships between the Jewish people and the other Hungarians. The Jewish people were so kind to the Hungarian people that they lent, or gave money to the poor.  They weren’t really rich families, but had enough money to live on. Some of these Jewish tradesmen lent them some cereals if the poor peasants didn’t have any, although they had to pay it back with interest. The Hungarian people didn’t keep it for a long time, but only for a year or two. Most Magyars liked the Jewish people, but some didn’t, because those who were merchants, dealing in cereals, bought them at a very cheap price in the village and sold it at a very expensive price in Budapest, so high that nowadays (1991) the price is almost the same as it was then.

The Jewish families not only bought land, but they rented it as well, and they had very modern equipment and machines. They had a lot of animals and they had land of a very good quality.

Pál, a retired teacher (in 1991), was born in Apostag of peasant parents. He remembers that in his childhood there was a disabled Jewish boy in this street who was very ill with and he died before the Jews were taken away. He used to go to that house because they were quite rich and he was given a lot of sweets and he read books out loud to the boy because he couldn’t read because of his illness.

There was a Chemist in the village, and they had a daughter, who was one year younger than Pál, and sometimes he met her on the street when she was out walking with her French au pair. They liked each other, and the girl asked her mother to ‘buy this boy for me, if you can!’ So she thought that her parents could buy anything!

This girl now lives in Israel, and she came home to the village, but they weren’t able to meet. Her name was Klára Hetényi.

Pál could remember well that from around 1934, Lajos Nagy, the writer, was collecting topics for writing a book and in his most famous book he wrote about these Jewish families. Lajos Nagy’s wife was Jewish and they visited Apostag several times. He was able to meet up with his wife here and they were able to escape deportation by going from here to Budapest. He was said to be a Communist writer, but he wasn’t really, he was just interested in these socialist topics and sociology. In his books he doesn’t really speak in a very kind way about Jewish people.

In a Jewish family, they had several servants to do the housework, even if they weren’t so rich. The richest one, by giving her a job as a washing lady, helped the poor Jew.

In a Hungarian family, even if they were rich, they just did it themselves. So, the wife had to do the housework. They didn’t spend their money on this.

There were some women who weren’t very kind to their servants, but it happened not only with Jewish women, but with others as well. Small Hungarian peasant families originally owned the Jewish houses and it was claimed that they had collapsed because of fires. The poor Hungarian peasants couldn’t repair these houses, so the Jewish people bought them. There was gossip that these weren’t accidents, but someone set fire to them. Most of the houses in the main street belonged to Jewish families. We don’t know if these story is true or not, but people thought there must be some truth in them. Perhaps this was evidence of anti-Semitism.

However, an example of the good relations between the Jews and the Hungarians was that in 1937 there was a really big storm and lightning destroyed the house of a Jewish woman. A lot of people, not only Jewish people, but also Hungarians, tried to save the house, but it was ruined.

Anna was born in Apostag in 1919, and spent all her life in the village. So, she remembers her childhood and the Jewish families, because they often asked her mother to help them cook something, and she used to help her mum. Instead of going home, she would always spend the afternoons in the Jewish houses. She can remember all the families living in the main street and she can tell all the names and stories. They had a very good relationship with them.

To help her mother, Anna had to learn the Jewish food customs. They were not supposed to eat from Friday evening until Sunday. They were fasting, and the Saturday was their Sabbath, ‘Shabbat’, so they didn’t work on that day. If they ate bread, it had to be special, unleavened bread. They also ate this special ‘matzo’ bread on New Year’s Eve. Anna remembered her mum helping a young servant prepare the Passover meal, according to the Judaic food laws, washing the meat together and taking it to the Cantor.

The Jews ate only meat which was ‘kosher’, from their own butcher’s shop, chopped with a special knife, and they had to kill the animal with only one blow of the knife, without breaking its bones. The blood was unclean, and they had the special unleavened bread, matzoh. Only the elderly people were eating this meat and bread; the younger people ate pork as well, so they departed from these rules. However, some of older people continued to keep the food laws.

Anna remembers from when she was a young girl that her sister asked her to go to a shop to get some bicarbonate of soda and the shopkeeper asked ‘what shall I give you? Soda as well as an ox?’ (a play on words in Hungarian). The Chemist was Jewish, and the doctor as well. She remembers seven shops, two of which belonged to Magyars, and five to Jewish families. She remembers a greengrocer’s shop, which was also a butcher’s shop and she remembers that family. They didn’t have any land to grow vegetables, so (during the war) they had only the butcher’s shop but it was interesting that they could make a living out of it alone.

Pál didn’t spend all his life in this village; he spent some years in a town. He thought that ‘nowadays’ it wasn’t better to live in a village than it was then. It was better in ‘the old days’. There were eight shops in the village, and now there are only two ‘ABC’ shops, small supermarkets, where you can buy everything. Then there were eight of these, so the standard of living was better and the inhabitants, though not rich, had everything they needed, even from foreign countries. For example, they could buy needles and thread from England. He only just found the thread, which reminded him of this. The streets weren’t covered with concrete. It was muddy, so they didn’t walk through it after rain. There were no streetlights at all, but the water pipe was very good, because there weren’t any wells in the neighbourhood, so the pipe had to be very good.

In their free time, they couldn’t really use the Danube banks to swim, because it was quite dirty and polluted. A lot of people had ‘hobby gardens’ or allotments, in which they tried to grow things.

There was also a Jewish doctor in the street and just opposite there was a famous house, or mansion, which belonged to Ákos Hetényi, and this is now called ‘Ákos Garden’. Three families were living in that mansion, and Pál used to go there to collect tennis balls, because they had a tennis court. It was a real experience to visit that garden because they had many bushes, trees and flowers there. He had several fellow students who were Jewish.

János, born 1918, attended a Lutheran (Evangelical) School, famous for its strong teachers. Most of the Jewish children studied there, so he remembers them well. In particular, three children in the same class as him, though they were younger, the youngest being the doctor’s son, whose family lived in the house next to the school. They were all very good friends with him. The parents of the other two children were ‘bailiffs’, who gave orders to the peasants about where and how to work, and what to do.

The doctor’s son was a bit lazy. He was clever, but he didn’t do anything in school time, or in the holiday, nothing. He preferred talking and just staying in bed and on Monday mornings he usually asked his friend to do his Maths homework and paid him for it. János could buy a lot of chocolate and sweets for this! Later on they left that school and went to a Grammar School, so they didn’t meet up as often.

Chapter Three: Fifty Years of Division & Sorrow

 

Anti-Semitic Laws and the Outbreak of War:

Pál’s father was the Justice of the Peace in the village law court when the anti-Semitic laws began to be introduced. His father was always very humane towards the Jewish people in the village: He gave several certificates to them to pass on to the German or Russian leaders. Some of the children moved to Budapest at this time, so they met only rarely.

János’ parents rented some of the land of the Jewish families who moved to Budapest, just as the war began. Before the laws restricting Jews from owning shops were introduced, János worked together with these Jewish families, and he was apprenticed to one Jewish family, training to be a butcher, working with two Jewish butchers in their shop. He went to a school in Budapest to train there, but he had to return to Apostag, because the Jewish butchers weren’t allowed to work in their own shop, because of the anti-Jewish laws. So they sold the shop to him, and he became the butcher.

János’ father was a ‘hussar’, a light cavalry soldier, who was in the Hungarian Army for seven years, fighting alongside the Jewish soldiers. The Jewish people living in Apostag were not just Jewish in culture, but also Hungarian. Some part of their hearts was Hungarian.

At the outbreak of the war, Pál had just enrolled as a student teacher at the Training College in Budapest. When they began the course there were fifty students, of whom only fifteen graduated when the war ended, not just because they became soldiers, but because some left Hungary to live in other parts of the world rather than join up. It wasn’t compulsory for them to join up, but they were put under a lot of pressure to do so. They hated this recruitment campaign.

Pál stated that there were no real arguments between the two ethnic groups until Hitler’s troops came into Hungary. This, he said, was the story of Hungary, because we are at the gate of the west and the east, and everybody runs through this gate, and we don’t know what to do. We can’t help this. First the Mongols, then the Tartars, then the Turks, then the Russians, then the Germans and every one of them ruined this country.

However, János said that it was the 1941 Census that marked the real beginning of the legal discrimination against the Jewish people. Everyone had to show their grandparents’ birth certificates, or Christening certificates. János remembers that, as a soldier, he had to show this certificate as well. He didn’t know why at the time, but now he does.

For example, he remembers a town clerk from before the war who belonged to the Fascist Party (the Arrow Cross) and the Jewish people first suffered because of him and his party. It wasn’t a very happy life, even for János, because he needed to get a license to slaughter the animals, so he wasn’t able to do as much for the Jews as he wanted. He couldn’t give them as much meat as he wanted to, because of the new laws.

It only became worse only in 1943/4. So, the Nazis only came in March 1944, but by that time the Horthy Government had a lot of people in place in key positions in the towns and villages of Hungary who had wanted to become the leaders in these places for some time, and that was a sad time for everybody.It was a very moving moment when, in March 1944, Anna saw her Jewish neighbours wearing the yellow star for the first time. She met a woman wearing the star, and nodded her head because she couldn’t look at the star, and the woman was really upset about it. The woman told her that they would have revenge on someone for this, that they would do something in the years to come.

Another woman spoke to us on our first visit to the synagogue, of a close Jewish friend who, although not related, looked almost like her identical twin sister, so much so that, before the war, they would try to fool the villagers by exchanging clothes and pretending to be each other. On the ‘Shabbat’, Saturdays, she would occasionally take her friend’s place with the other children and their mothers on the balcony of the synagogue during worship. Her head was covered, and no one looked at her too closely while the service was taking place. Meanwhile, her Jewish friend was playing outside. In return, the Jewish Girl would sneak into the back of the Church her friend attended the next morning.

When the Hungarian Fascists, the ‘Arrow Cross’ Guards came to the village in March 1944, the two friends put their similarity to more serious use.  From this time onwards, the Jews were forced to wear yellow stars on the streets and in the fields. If they were found outside without them they were routinely beaten up, there and then, by the Fascists, who would also take pleasure in abusing the Jewish girls in particular, without any reason to do so other than their ethnicity, when they saw them coming. One day, the young Christian girl suggested to her friend that they should swap coats, and she would wear the coat with the star. That day, she took the beating and the abuse.

The Deportation; May, 1944:

János had joined the army in 1940 and was a soldier until 1948. He was only given leave once during this time, and this, crucially and perhaps poignantly, happened to be in May 1944. While he was at home, the Jewish families were taken away from the village. There is no evidence that anyone in the village, even soldiers like János, had any prior knowledge of the Nazi deportation plan. Even if they had heard something, there were only two cars in the village in 1944, so there was no real possibility of escaping abroad in the days and nights before it was so rapidly and ruthlessly enacted.

As it happened, János was surprised by the speed with which the Hungarian soldiers came in and took the Jewish people to Kalocsa. No one knew where they were being taken, or how long they would stay there, or what would happen to them. They were told to gather what they needed and they had to leave this village. Two little girls, aged 9 and 11, were somehow left behind, and they were able to stay on for a while, but one day the soldiers came and took them to Kalocsa as well. He was able to talk with the Hungarian soldiers who said that they weren’t very happy to take the girls away, but they had to do this. He went to Kalocsa to see the parents of these two girls and was able to talk with them. Then he returned to army. When he finally arrived home in 1948, he met some of the relatives of the family, who then owned the house where they had lived. He bought the house from them and was still living in it in 1991.

Some of the Jewish people tried to escape persecution by changing their faith, becoming Calvinist or Catholic. But this didn’t help, since the 1941 Census formed the basis for the rapid deportations, and they were taken away as well. However, they went to work in several Christian houses before being deported. There was a Jewish man who lived and slept in Anna’s house, and many years after one of his relatives came back and asked whether they could visit the house and remember ‘the old things that happened here’ because he got food and shelter there, and was sleeping there. But they didn’t come back. We don’t know what happened to them.

On the other hand, a lot of Hungarian men were told they would get the land or houses or shops of the Jewish people if they helped them to rid the village of them, and many wanted to do this. It is unlikely that they were from the same village, or that this was done more than a few hours beforehand, however, since rumours would have forewarned the intended victims. Hungarian forces, including the Arrow Cross, carried out the ‘evictions’. The witnesses all reported that, at this stage, the Germans didn’t really come into the village, but those people who became Communists after the Russians came in had supported the Fascists before. They were the same people, but they changed their minds!

When the Jews had to leave this village, Anna saw a little girl in someone’s lap, crying, ‘don’t let me go away, I want to stay here’, but she had to go as well. Everybody had to leave this village. When the Jews had to leave the village, they didn’t want to leave their houses and were wailing at the walls. They were kissing the walls with their lips and caressing them with their hands. The children were crying. It was really terrible. Some of the Christian families who lived close to the Jews went to the Jewish houses to say goodbye, and it was a very sad event, such a sad thing that they cannot forget it.

All the witnesses agreed in their evidence that the village people who weren’t Jewish couldn’t do anything to save their Jewish neighbours. The villagers also told us how they had watched from the nearby woods, in secret disbelief, as the soldiers took the Jews away in May 1944. They went on carts from the village to Kalocsa, which although further south of Budapest along the Danube, was apparently used as an assembly point for the Hungarian Jews being sent to the concentration camps. The villagers all stated that they did not know this at the time.

So, when the Jewish people were taken away from the village, nobody knew anything about where they would go. When the Jewish people had to leave the village, they went by horse and cart to Kalocsa, some with their non-Jewish servants driving, so unaware were they of the ghastly reality which awaited them.  All anyone knew was that they would stay for a while in Kalocsa, but nothing else.

Explaining their apparent ‘naivety’ at the time of the deportations, the witnesses referred to the apolitical nature of Hungarian country people. The people of Apostag were no exception to this. We were told that they ‘preferred not to deal with political matters’ and ‘preferred to work rather than talking about politics’. They were simple, unsophisticated, agricultural workers, unlike the residents of Budapest, but they remember very clearly what happened to the Jewish people. It all happened very quickly, because the German troops came in on 19th March 1944, and they were taken away in May.

On his return to working as a soldier, János became a courier – his task was to carry letters from one town to another. He became more aware of what was happening in all the parts then controlled by the Hungarian Army. He met some Hungarian Jews in Yugoslavia and shared some pálinka (brandy) with them. They were very grateful, because they couldn’t get anything like that usually. They were rich, well-educated, but they had to remain and work in Yugoslavia.

After the war, very few Jewish people were able to return to this village. Only the Cantor and six of the six hundred deported Jews returned to live in the village, according to the synagogue’s records. These included two young women and a two couples, on of which were known to be living in Budapest in 1991. The other husband and wife had both died in the village by that time, as had the two young women. In addition some of their relatives came to settle the families’ affairs. They could find only some of their houses, however, and they sold these houses to other people. The land that belonged to the Jewish people had already been taken over by the co-operatives, so they could only sell their houses. Nothing could be seen of them in 1991, and nothing was written down. Only a very few houses could be seen in their original state, because many had become ruined, but there were some which could be viewed. There was one which was a kindergarten to which Pál went there as a child in 1921-23.  A Jewish man gave this land and the building. His name was Lajos Hetényi, and for many years there was a marble plaque on the kindergarten, a memorial to him. The building can still be seen, but not the memorial.

Anna remembers that from one of the families which was taken away, only the daughter could return. When Anna heard that the daughter had returned to their house, she went there to meet her, but she was very bitter. When Anna asked her how she was and what had happened to her, the daughter told her that it had been really terrible for her. They had had to do the most menial, basic hard labour, carrying bricks and doing everything that is not good for a woman.

Another couple came back after the war. One day, they asked to borrow a hoe to repair the hedges around the garden gate, and they did this, but couldn’t go on living in the building, because it was too full of people they didn’t know. So they moved to another house in the village. She came to Anna’s house one day, to get some milk. This couple had converted to Catholicism by then, but the woman told Anna that she found it difficult to worship in Hungarian, that she could only worship in the Hebrew. The couple died here in Apostag.

Otherwise, it was mainly the relatives of the Jewish people who returned to sell the houses, not those who had lived in them themselves.

The witnesses all said that they felt sorry for the Jews, as did 99% of the population of the village. There were those who were still jealous of them because of their prosperity, but most people liked them and couldn’t imagine how it could have happened.

The Continuation and Conclusion of the War, 1944-5:

During the war, there wasn’t any fighting in the village itself, but in the neighbourhood there was a lot. Only a few people died due to bombing, and only one bomb fell on the village itself. There was a woman who had just given birth and she died, but the child survived.

In the village, there were some German soldiers towards the end of the war. There was one in his parents’ house and he asked him whether the Germans would win the war and he replied, ‘naturliche, yah!’, (‘of course’), but only he was sure of it, nobody else. There wasn’t really any fighting in the village. The Russian troops did run through the village, but they couldn’t go to the other side of the Danube because the bridge had been bombed, so they stayed outside the village.

Anna remembered that on 3 November 1944 a lot of Russian soldiers came into this village, and her father told them that no matter what happened, they always had to give food to the soldiers, whether they are German, Russian or Hungarian, and then they wouldn’t do any harm. She remembers that one day soldiers came and knocked at the door and she wanted to give them some bread and bacon. Next day they came back and she gave them some pork and from that day on they came back every day to have breakfast, lunch and supper, and she always had to give them some food. One day they didn’t appear any more, and they didn’t know what happened to them. A lot of people stayed in their living room, Russian soldiers, and they were even sleeping on the table, because there were no more bed-spaces for them on the floor. So it was really terrible, but it was the war, so no one could help this.

The first Russian troops were very kind, only looking for German soldiers in the sewers, and they collected only small amounts of food from the villagers. But those who came later were terrible. They collected everything they could find. His family had a small pig they had somehow saved, and they kept it in the house, out of sight. To keep him quiet they gave him corn all the time. He became so fat that he couldn’t even stand, just sit, and in the end they gave him to an abattoir in Budapest to get some money.

The Russian soldiers collected some goods in another village and gave them to this village as a present. They had a pair of oxen, each ox with only one eye, so it was difficult to arrange them so that they could see to do their work! There were some Russian soldiers who didn’t want to return with the army, and they tried to help with the housework around the village houses and they were told to go to the edge of the village, because there were cereals there and they wanted to use the oxen to bring them into the village. So, one Russian soldier went in front of the oxen and one went behind, and on the other side of the Danube there were Fascistic Hungarian soldiers and they began shooting because they thought the cart was carrying military equipment. So it was dangerous for the oxen as well as the Russians!

Later, a lot of Hungarian people were deported to the Soviet Union for hard labour. Pál was one of them, but he managed to escape. He was allowed to stay in Hungary, but under forced labour, and he helped to build a wooden bridge near the Danube which was bombed and a lot of people were killed there. In 1944, on Christmas Night, more than a hundred people of the village were sent to build the bridge at the Danube. There was an aeroplane, they still don’t know to today whether it was German or Russian, they just thought that it must be German, and it dropped a bomb, and 43 people died. Pál wasn’t working there at the time it actually happened, but he had the memorial plaque placed on the Town Hall, because he could so easily have been killed there. There were some other deaths after that, but not many.

The Aftermath:

The Synagogue was ruined only by the passing of time. After the war it was in a very good state, and in the winter of 1944/45  soldiers were camped there and the people brought them food and blankets. There was a sign on the side of the synagogue written in Hebrew, but it’s not there nowadays, so nobody knows what it said. Later it became a cereal storehouse. The roof became ruined, but it had been restored by 1987, though there are some differences. For example, the gate is on the other side from where it was. Anna remembered this from playing there. When they were restoring the Synagogue and building the library, they found many broken glasses under the bimah. After the priest blessed the newly married couple, they broke a glass under their feet, the idea being that they were allowed to divorce only when this glass became a whole glass again. So when they were rebuilding the synagogue they found a lot of broken glasses. They also built a passage on one side of the (reconstructed) synagogue, but Anna remembered that she was playing there one day and she cut the cat’s whiskers, so she remembered that there wasn’t (originally) a passage there!

It was only in the 1950s that the people in the village found out what had happened to the Jews. János first heard something in 1946, because he was in the army. The Hungarian people couldn’t do anything to stop this, though they felt sorry for them; they were frightened for their own lives. Ordinary people couldn’t imagine that this could happen. Not only the Jewish people, but also a lot of Hungarian people were told to leave their towns and villages, and they had to go to the Soviet Union and work there. It was not only what happened to the Jewish people that was so tragic, but also what happened to the Hungarian soldiers who were put into forced labour in the Soviet Union (János was there for three years). Those who were taken prisoner by the Soviet troops could only return home years after, maybe even fifty years later. There were some who could come home only last year (1990). One old man spent five years in the Soviet Union. This could happen to everybody and anybody, though only the Jewish people died in gas chambers, or were starved to death.

In the 1956 Revolution there was no fighting in the village, but there were a number of ‘interesting events’. The soldiers beat some of the teachers through the streets because they were thought to have encouraged the young to rebel. At the end of October, one man was caught climbing over a gate into a wine cellar owned by a company of merchants, because he wanted to get his money out of the safe that was kept inside.

The Village in the Nineties:

In 1991 the Evangelical congregation hadn’t got a priest, they had only the church, which is the largest church in the village. They didn’t know what the future of the congregation would be, because they couldn’t really do what they wanted. It was also seen as a sad fact that the younger people had ‘escaped’ from the village because they didn’t want to work in the co-operatives, day and night, without earning money, so they had ‘escaped’ to other parts.

The village had changed a lot since Anna was a child, she felt. They were all together before the war, and it was only one community, but in 1991 it was split.

After the war János became a tradesman, dealing in animal husbandry, especially in beef cattle. He came home from Russia in 1948 and he didn’t think we could imagine how very difficult that time was for them. Not only the Jewish families suffered from the war, but everyone who lived here, either as a citizen or as a soldier. When he came back, as regards the ‘faith’, that time was a turning point in Hungarian life, because the churches and their social services were nearly destroyed by the Soviets, and there were also so many other problems. It was a great shame, but there were so many other problems at that time, both historically and in private lives.

The sorrow felt about the deportations lessened a little when the Hungarian people had their own troubles after the war and during the forty years following the communist takeover, when they had to deal with their own problems and didn’t have time to think about the Jewish people. Nowadays, it’s becoming easier to think about these problems again, and they feel solidarity for those families. They try to remember and to commemorate the families. If they were not thinking about these people with joy and love in their hearts, and if they didn’t love them, then they wouldn’t have kept them in our memories. We wouldn’t even be able to use their names to talk about them. The Primary School is named after the Hetényi family, and the garden is called the Ákos garden, and many of the shops have kept the names of the Jewish people. The Jewish names live in the language of the people, because they are still used to refer to fields and parcels of land after the Jewish people who owned them before, in spite of the fact that they have changed hands more than once. That’s because the names are written in the hearts of the people.

The Church leaders felt that God had helped them during this difficult period, these forty years, and that they had to believe that he would help them in the future. In 1989-91, these forty years were usually mentioned as the reason for everything that was really bad then, and it’s the same with the churches, so people often said that they were in a bad state because of these forty years. But most of the children could be members of the different churches and the parents of these children, who weren’t allowed to go to churches previously, could take their children there. They hoped that these children would remain as members when they became adults. For their parents, there was no Religious Education in schools either, so people under the age of forty have no experience of such classes.

004 The Library in the Village House (former synagogue), Apostag, 1991.

References & Bibliography:

Bart, István (1999), Hungary & The Hungarians. Budapest: Corvina Books.

History of the Jews in Hungary:  en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hungarian_Jews

en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apostag

en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theodor_Herzl

 

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