SURVIVAL: LIVES OF HUNGARIANS UNDER COMMUNIST AND CAPITALIST GOVERNMENTS 1956-2006
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This is a collection of oral histories containing accounts of everyday lives, thoughts and reactions of "ordinary" Hungarians living during two different political and economic regimes. The emphasis is on what they remember, or experience now, as memorable and important. The collection's intended use is as a primary source for students and historians. They are in English, either originally or translated from Hungarian at the time of the interview. All interviews conducted by Virginia Major Thomas and translator and collaborator Miklos Jakabffy. The collection has been partly financed by grants from the American–Hungarian Foundation. More About This Project

Transcripts Online

Andras Balog (b. 7/23/1949)
Andras Balog describes himself as the son of a poor family from the countryside. His mother was a cleaning lady and his father a driver for the Ministry of the Interior, transporting prisoners. Balog became a locksmith, and while working finished high school at night school and by correspondence. He advanced to become a textile machine technician; in that capacity, he traveled all over Hungary and then further east, later moving to Iran, where he taught himself Farsi and English. He was a member of the Communist Party, but began to question Communism when he talked to American soldiers in Iran. Eventually in 1988, he refused to rejoin the party. He also traveled extensively in the West. When his company went bankrupt in 1990, he became a full-time self-employed taxi driver, a job he had done part-time under Communism. As a taxi driver he began working as a guide and then as a courier between the USAID and the American embassy. Slowly he moved into work as a general services assistant for the Peace Corps, as computer network manager for another company after having taught himself computer skills.

Balog has insightful assessments of conditions in Hungary today. Although he says he is making enough money to live well, he sees many others who do not have enough. He does not blame Communism or its legacy, but rather capitalist propaganda, which he reports as saying that under capitalism you can do whatever you want. He finds the current political and economic conditions in Hungary lacking in many areas.

Discursive Table of Contents: Family background and education—The 1956 Revolution—Various jobs and traveling—Life under Communism—Break with Communism—Work since 1989—Discussion of contemporary Hungary

Dr. Dénes Bara (b.11/16/1925)
Dénes Bara was a physician in Szeged, Hungary. He grew up in Horthy-era Budapest, escaped in a Swiss safe house there the Arrow Cross killing of Jews, and after the Russian army entered the city he fled and by chance ended up in Szeged. He tells of his life in Szeged under the Communist rulers Rakosi and Kadar, of his going to medical school and serving as a doctor in the army, of the effects of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, and of various aspects of the capitalist governments after 1989.

Discursive Table of Contents: Family, early education and fate of family—life under Szalasi and the Arrow Cross and the liberation of Budapest—life under the Russians—arrival in Szeged and life there—in the university of Szeged—life under Rakosi, marriage and army service—1956 Revolution, its effects and the Kadar regime—transition governments—political situation in Hungary today.

Eva Beck (b. 8/18/1930)
Eva Beck grew up in an upper-middle-class Jewish family. Her father owned a leatherware shop, and her grandfather owned a well-known bottling company in Budapest. As a child, she learned German, French, and English from nannies and private tutors, but because she was Jewish, under the Horthy regime she had to go to a Jewish gymnasium, which happened to be an excellent school. When the Nazis marched into Hungary in 1944, her schooling ended. She survived the Nazi and Arrow Cross regimes first in a “yellow star house,” then hiding in the home of cousins of an old family friend. Her hosts did not know she was Jewish, so she had to do a lot of pretending. But her father was shot by the Arrow Cross and her brother taken away an unknown fate. When the Soviet Army defeated the Nazis and Arrow Cross, she was reunited with her mother after a long, confusing month.

Beck’s wartime experiences left her emotionally unable to go to school. She got a job in a bookstore, whose remarkably perceptive owner saw to her education as he trained her by requiring her to read all the books’ dustjackets and learn what they were about. She became a voracious reader, and eventually became both a high-ranking administrator in a state-owned book export company and a convinced Communist. However, she became slowly disillusioned with Communism around the time of the 1956 revolution, although she was not active in it.

During the Kadar regime, Beck led the life of a politically unreliable but efficient and productive book export company employee. Her account of how she and others walked a narrow line is very interesting. She traveled a great deal for work, including a trip to the United States during the turbulent 1960s. In the 1970s she and her family traveled as tourists to the West as well as to Eastern Bloc countries. She noticed the many differences between life in Hungary and elsewhere; most amusing was her discovery of the hunger in East Germany for political jokes, which East Germans were not permitted to tell, but the Hungarians were.

Beck did not anticipate the changes of 1989-1990. She has many penetrating comments about the present political, economic, and social situation in Hungary.

Discursive Table of Contents: Family background and education—Life under the Nazis and the Arrow Cross—Work at bookshop, becoming a Communist, 1956—The Kadar regime, life during this period—Travel—The changes and the present situation

Peter Bihari (b. 1957)
Peter Bihari is a history teacher in a high school (gymnasium) in Budapest and the author of The History of the 20th Century (Budapest: Holnap Kiado, 1991). He comes from an assimilated Jewish family; his parents were middle-class Communist Party members with no deep ideological commitment to Communism. He notes the absence of political discussion in his family, especially about the Holocaust, but heard his grandfather make occasional critical remarks about the Kadar regime.

Bihari recalls the Kadar years of the 1970s and 1980s as better than earlier years, but by the late eighties he was convinced the system was unworkable. During his year in the military (the question about what he did in the army he calls a “hard question”), he became friends with Hungarians from other educational and economic backgrounds and counts this a very valuable social experience. He then  went to university. During his university career, he spent four months at the University of Jena in East Germany, where he met students from Russia and other Eastern European countries; he memorably watched election debates with his companions on West German state television. Upon graduation he became a high school history teacher and continued this after he got a Ph.D. in Hungarian history at Central European University.
He finds life in Hungary after 1989 quite different, and presents an insightful critique of current social, political and economic conditions in Hungary today. He is not optimistic about the future but sees achievements Hungary can be proud of, both present and past, especially its contributions to world culture. He assisted the historian and news correspondent Kati Marton in preparations for her 2006 book, The Great Escape: Nine Jews Who Fled Hitler and Changed the World.

Discursive Table of Contents: Family background—life under Kadar—education—limitations of family discussion—military service and its value—at the Budapest university and at Jena—teaching history—PhD dissertation—the changes of ’89—post-’89 cultural changes—present situation in Hungary—Hungarian pessimism—Hungarian literature—great interwar Hungarian teachers and gymnasia

Ella Borocz (b. 5/1/1930)
Ella Borocz is the great-grandniece of famous Hungarian nobleman and statesman Istvan Szechenyi. As a member of the nobility, she had a privileged childhood and her family was not ill-treated by the Germans after the Nazi invasion in 1944. But she underwent the rigors of the Russian army’s siege of Budapest, and endured many difficulties under subsequent Communist rule. Her father, a nobleman, fled the country. She was not allowed to go to the university because of her noble background. She barely escaped deportation from Budapest in 1951. Her husband was arrested and imprisoned after the 1956 Revolution. And, ironically, under the Kadar Communist government she held various jobs for which she was prepared only by the language skills she had acquired during her privileged childhood from her nannies.

Borocz eventually became a tour guide, at first with politically imposed limitations on her travel. After 1989, she assisted Western businessmen interested in investment in post-Communist Hungary. She has much to say about the political and economic changes Hungary has undergone in the second half of the twentieth century, and which she has experienced for herself.

Discursive Table of Contents: Family and education—German occupation—Russian siege of Budapest—Life on country estate under Communism—Work in Budapest—Marriage and escape from deportation—Father’s escape from Hungary—Revolution of 1956 and imprisonment of husband—Life after 1956—1989—After 1989: work, travel, economics, politics

Judit Borzsak (b. 7/31/1936)
Because Judit Borzsak was the middle-class daughter of a teacher, she was not expected under Communist rule to go to the university; instead, she was sent to a secondary technical school of economics. But while she was there, government policy regarding eligibility for higher education changed, and on the basis of her good grades she was allowed to go to the university. She wanted to teach English but was first employed as a librarian in several manufacturing companies, including a radio factory. Later, she became an English teacher. As guide of a tour for vacationing teachers, she had an opportunity to travel widely when most Hungarian travel was very restricted. Her experiences in both Russia and the West were illuminating, as she compared Muslim and Communist cultures and Western Europe with Hungary. However, when she tried to become an au pair in England, to improve her English, she ran afoul of the suspicious and duplicitous Communist Hungarian government. She is currently program officer of the Hungarian Accreditation Committee of the Hungarian Ministry of Education, and she has much to say, among other subjects, about the changes in education, the media, and society since 1989.

Discursive Table of Contents: Family, education in technical secondary school and university—Revolution and post-’56 changes—Work as a librarian, marriage, child care—We’re Travel, passports, impressions of foreign countries—Journalists’ work under Communism—Differences between the west and Communist Hungary—1989 and post-1989—Life under capitalism—European Union—Higher education in Hungary and the teaching profession—Freedom of speech, the press, TV, and radio

Gabor Drexler (b. 5/2/43)
Gabor Drexler is the director of the Budapest campus of McDaniel College, which he was instrumental in establishing in 1994. (McDaniel was formerly called Western Maryland College.) He has had a long career in education, most of which took place during the Communist regime. Although, as the son of an engineer, he belonged to the middle class, he was able to enter the university because of his high entrance examination scores, and graduated in English and Russian literature and language. After briefly teaching, he worked in the Institute for Cultural Relations and was involved in educational and cultural exchanges with foreign nations and traveled extensively abroad. After 1981 he worked in the Hungarian Ministry of Culture and taught 20th-century English literature part-time at the university. He was a member of the Communist Party, which he discusses in the interview. He presents a history of Hungary under the Communist government, especially during the Kadar period, and comments extensively on the situation since 1989. He completely rewrote the interview in the interest of improved organization because he felt his oral presentation was confusing. His rewriting has not been altered in any way.

Discursive Table of Contents: Family, education under Communism—Life under Communism before 1956—Importance of 1956 and of Kadar—Entrance into university—Information restrictions under Communism—Prague Spring, including Kadar’s role—Work for the Institute for Cultural Relations, later the Ministry—Founding of McDaniel College—Evaluation of the changes in 1989—Analysis of current political situation in Hungary—Family, education in technical secondary school and university—Revolution and post-’56

Zsuzsa Eastland (b. 1944)
Although she belonged to the middle class, the daughter of teachers, Zsuzsa Eastland was admitted automatically to the university in 1963 because she was rated one of the ten best students of the Russian language in Hungary. After graduating, she became a language teacher, eventually at the language institute of the medical school, teaching students medical texts in English and other languages. She has vivid memories of pre-1956 Communist terror and of the 1956 Revolution with its euphoria and hope.
She discusses Communist values, how they were presented and how they were observed, and living with the restrictions of life under Communism. She also has much to say about 1989 and its aftermath, about current political splits in Hungary, the effects of living under two different totalitarian governments, and the clash of unreconciled values today.

Discursive Table of Contents: Family background and religion—Memories of pre-1956—Education, discussion of freedom of speech—Memories of 1956 and its aftermath—Kadar regime: principles and practices—The “changes” in 1989 and subsequent corruption—Post-communism: leaders, problems, values and attitudes

Jeno Eder (b. 1926)
Although Jeno Eder is the son of a German father and Slovakian mother, with Slovenian ancestors, he is very proud to be Hungarian and very proud of Hungary. The men in his family worked for the railroad, where his father played a brave role during the Nazi army invasion in 1944. After leaving the Hungarian People’s Democracy army, Jeno was employed as a technical worker producing military equipment made to Soviet design. Later he worked in telecommunications economic research. But his true calling was in guiding tourists, which he was trained to do and began in 1986. He worked a guide in Hungary as well as abroad, and had many revealing experiences. He relates these and also makes many comments on life today in Hungary.

Discursive Table of Contents: Family, education, and army and POW experiences—life and work under Communism—1956 Revolution and after—travel under Communism—becoming a guide—experiences as a guide—changes after 1989—Hungary today—pride in being Hungarian and speaking Hungarian—his father’s actions in 1944

Laszlo Fejer (b. 11/27/1947)
Fejer began his career as a part-time railway mechanic, employed by the Communist state. More important to his employer, however, was his excellence as an ice hockey player in the railway company's sports team in a regime where no professional sports were allowed. But the railway company paid him only as a part-time mechanic, a salary on which he could not live. He became variously a railway engineer, a college student, a gas heater mechanic, a teacher, and finally, after the political changes, the manager of a Danish company with international connections. He has many insightful comments on the life of a non-Communist worker in Communist Hungary. He added a letter about present-day Hungary after the interview was completed.

Discursive Table of Contents: Family and education—ice hockey for the Communist Hungarian Railway Company—traveling as an ice hockey player—life as a railroad engineer—college education—gas equipment mechanic and that jobs' advantages—technological changes and international contacts—the effects of political changes—post-Communist Hungary

Pal Geher (b. 1950)
Pal Geher is the son of a lawyer who lost his license because he refused the role of prosecutor in the now-infamous case of Peter Mansfeld, a teenager accused of treason for involvement in the 1956 Revolution. He could practice law again later only in a town far from his family in Budapest. Pal was allowed to attend the university because of his high academic achievements; he subsequently went to medical school and became a rheumatologist and later a Ph.D. During the Kadar regime, he organized a scientific society that arranged international medical meetings for Hungarian doctors who were otherwise not permitted to travel, enabling them to exchange scientific information with doctors of other countries. After the fall of Communism, he served in the Ministry of Welfare of the Hungarian government, from 1993 to 1994 and from 2001 to 2002. In the latter period he was Vice-Secretary of State, and instrumental in reorganizing and privatizing the health care system in Hungary. He comments on both Communist and post-Communist politics and economics and the effects of the different systems on personal life.

Discursive Table of Contents: Family background, early education—University, becoming a rheumatologist—Post-Communist changes in hospital system—Study in France, considering remaining there—Passport availability, possibilities of leaving Hungary—PhD—Medical meeting in Budapest—Ministry of Health position and politics—Political comments—Hungary and international politics—Hungary, NATO and E.U.—Current freedom of speech and press in Hungary—Computers, internet and freedom of speech—Freedom of speech and personal relationships

Kalman Hencsei (b. 1/1/45)
Kalman Hencsei’s father warned him early in life against becoming a Communist. His father was a peasant who, under Horthy’s regime, became a policeman in Budapest, but he refused to work for the Communists when they came to power and returned to farm life. Kalman grew up in the village of Bezered, where the Catholic church was very important to him and where he is now endowing a chapel. He graduated from the university in math and physics. He planned to be a scientist, but became a computer expert. He never joined a Communist Party, but he had a live-and-let-live relationship with the party and government. Later, he got a degree in economics; he worked in banking and in the Ministry of Finance as a consultant, a position he enjoyed. After an unhappy stay in the United States he became very critical of the “American mentality” and returned to Hungary. He is one of three partners in an English language school whose finances he directs. He discusses, among other subjects, the current political and economic situation in Hungary and various social issues such as the “Gypsy problem.”

Discursive Table of Contents: Family background and childhood—Education—Communists in his village—View of Trianon Treaty—Career as computer expert—Work in finance— U.S.A.—Work at English language school in Budapest—Current Hungarian politics and economics—Army service in Hungary—Gypsies in Hungary

Maria Kollar (b. 1945)
Maria Kollar is the granddaughter of eminent Hungarian banker Leo Lanczy, whose name is inscribed on the Chain Bridge in Budapest. Her father, Dr. Andor von Wodianer, was a lawyer. Because they were “bourgeois,” the family was “resettled”—deported—by the Communists from Budapest to a village on the Hortobagy ( Great Plains), where they were quartered with a peasant family. After two years, Maria and her sister were allowed to return to Budapest to live with their grandmother. Her mother also secretly lived with them.
Her social background also prevented Maria from entering the university. She had several administrative jobs with different businesses, finally working for Hungarian Lightmetal in Szekesfehervar, which was bought by Alcoa. She describes especially the social and economic changes as well as the political ones that have occurred in Hungary after the fall of Communism in 1989.

Discursive Table of Contents: Family, deportation to Hortobagy, early schooling, return to Budapest—Political exclusion from university, work—Marriage, move to/work in Szekesfehervar, changes in workplace—Memories of Rakosi and Kadar eras—Current work and living situations—Current politics and press freedom—TV and computers—E.U.

Janos Kovacs (b. 1961)
Janos Kovacs was born to a Hungarian family living in Czechoslovakia (now Slovakia). His family was part of the Hungarian minority stranded there by the Trianon Treaty at the end of World War I, which moved national borders and left three-fifths of the Hungarian population living in other countries. His father was a member of the Communist Party, but his mother was a strict Roman Catholic who took her children to Catholic religion classes although the Communist Party frowned upon that.

Kovacs went to an industrial high school and college and eventually became a technician at the hydroelectric power plant at Bos on the Danube. He was working there when what he calls the “Silent Revolution” (i.e., nonviolent) took place in 1989. He comments upon prejudice against Hungarians in Czechoslovakia, about post-Communist life in Slovakia, and about the division of Czechoslovakia into two states.

Discursive Table of Contents: Family background and education—economics in Czechoslovakia—prejudice against Hungarians in Czechoslovakia—Czech and Slovak attitudes toward Russian communism—marriage and work—1989 and everyday life—post 1989.

Marton Ledniczky (b. 3/11/54)
Marton Ledniczky calls himself “an artist of film.” He is the son of a lawyer and grew up in Budapest during the Communist era, aware of the censorship of school subjects and of terror during this regime. He worked his way up in his profession in a state-owned film company, and also attended a theater and cinema high school. He experienced taboo subjects in the film industry and also the fact that some filmmakers were “more equal” among the equal and were permitted to question politics a little in their work. He discusses the changes in the film business after 1989 and the changes in Hungarian life and how they brought both new freedoms and new tyrannies. He is currently an independent documentary film producer.

Discursive Table of Contents: Family background and education—Making films during the Communist regime—Freedom of speech with the coming of capitalism—Other changes with capitalism—Role of the media in capitalism—Critique of current capitalism

Krisztina Nemerkenyi (b. 1/23/1953)
Although she was born when Rakosi was the repressive Communist leader of Hungary, Krisztina Nemerkenyi grew up during the Kadar regime and did not experience Communism as repressive. She attributes her sense of freedom not to Kadar but to the influence of her family which was large (eight children), democratic, deeply religious (Roman Catholic), and skeptical of political propaganda. She feels her family taught her to speak and live as she believed without fear, and while she was aware of spying in the university and elsewhere, she had no personal experience of it. She taught English and geography, and also worked in scientific publishing and as an organizer for scientific meetings. She comments on the current political and social situations in Hungary.

Discursive Table of Contents: Family and education—organizational work and teaching—the media—polarization in Hungary—political activity of youth—European Union—traveling—current social situation

Mesi Nyilasi (b. 1/28/1963)
Mesi Nyilasi is the daughter of a father who was a waiter and a mother who was an accountant. Born and raised in Budapest, she took two university degrees, one in biology and chemistry, one in English. She taught English language classes for adults for 20-odd years and later, as well as now, does work in documentation for a Hungarian pharmaceutical company. Mesi has many insights into both the political mood of Hungary under the Communist regime and now, after the spring 2010 elections, and into the different cultural situations under the two types of government.

Discursive Table of Contents: Family background and education—Work—Travel during Communism—Economic and cultural life under Communism—The Change of 1989—Current political attitudes in Hungary—Sense of security during Communism and now—Hungarian traditions and Communism

Odon Orzsik (b. 7/15/1959)
Odon Orzsik is a pediatric cardiologist practicing in Slovakia and Hungary. He is of Hungarian descent, but was born and brought up in Czechoslovakia (now Slovakia). As a child, he learned five languages, some taught at home by his doctor father. He attended the medical school of Comenius University in Bratislava (Pozsony in Hungarian, Pressburg in German), and after army training in medical school and a regular army stint, he returned to his home town and practiced like his father in a hospital as an employee of the state under Communism until the changes of 1989. He discusses many aspects of life under Communism and life now in Slovakia and Hungary.

Discursive Table of Contents: Place of birth, family and education—religion in Czechoslovakia under Communism—television in Czechoslovakia under Communism—his father’s life before, during and after World War II—traveling under Communism—Hungarians in Slovakia—entering the university under Communism—army training in medical school and regular army life—life in Communism and life now—the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia.

Emil Pasztor (b. 4/18/26)
Emil Pasztor’s father was a baker who opened his own bakery just in time to be wiped out by the Crash of 1929, but who managed to open another in 1939. Emil was just beginning medical school in 1944 when the siege and occupation of Budapest by the Russian army occurred. He was seized by the Russians and marched off, ostensibly to captivity and forced labor, but by incredible luck managed to escape. He finished medical school and married his wife, also a doctor. Together they decided, after the 1956 Revolution was crushed, to remain in Hungary to contribute what they could to the country. He subsequently (1973-1993) became director of the National Institute of Neurosurgery in Budapest, which included a 150-bed free-standing neurosurgery hospital, the third largest in the world. An American colleague called him “a leader with courage, vision and high personal competence…I place him in the top five of all medical academics I have met.” (Dr. Frederick Holmes, professor emeritus, University of Kansas Medical Center, personal letter.) Dr. Pasztor comments about his trips to medical conferences during Communist times and about the changes in life after the collapse of Communism in 1989.

Discursive Table of Contents: Family, education during World War II—Siege of Budapest 1944, capture by Russians, escape—Work as glazier, medical education—Marriage, 1956, choosing to remain in Hungary—Professional meeting in Washington and Sao Paulo—Changes after 1989

Agota Pavlovics (b. 5/3/56)
At the time of her 2005 interview, Agota Pavlovics was an editor at the Central European News Agency, which she described as “at the moment the far world of beautiful hopes.” She meant there was hope that it could convey more accurate news to other European news agencies, because its reporters lived in and therefore knew more about central Eastern European affairs. She is the daughter of a Hungarian mother and a Serbian father who was a teacher and long-time member of the Socialist Party. She graduated from the university in Serbo-Croatian and Hungarian languages. She taught briefly and then became a translator at the Yugoslavian Embassy trade office. In the 1980s this became a privately owned trade company, which meant she then had a better income and more luxurious lifestyle. She became a journalist after 1989 because she felt it was similar to teaching in its ability to inform and enlighten people. But she views current political and economic affairs in Hungary, along with current journalism, as in a “boiling period” of adjustment and change.

Discursive Table of Contents: Background and education—Teaching—Working in Yugoslav trade office—Journalism—Privatization of property in Hungary after 1989—Hungarian economy and European Union—Political instability in Hungary—Intelligence, press honesty and responsibility

Katalin Pecsi (b. 3/29/51)
Katalin Pecsi was born in Budapest to Communist parents and grew up knowing nothing of her Jewish heritage. Her father’s background was that of an assimilated Jew; her mother came from an Orthodox family, and her maternal aunts and uncles belonged to a Zionist youth organization, Hashomer Hacair, and had spent some time in Palestine. When she was young there was little discussion of family members killed, ostensibly as political prisoners, in the Nazi death camps. Her parents talked of politics but eschewed all religious beliefs, although St. Nicolas and Santa Claus both visited at Christma time, causing Katalin some confusion as to whether they were twins or one person making two visits.

Pecsi discovered her Jewish background while at the university and has been exploring it ever since, in Hungary, in Germany, and in the United States. She feels that Judaism is “the most important part” of her identity. She is currently professor of literature at the Central European University in Budapest and director of education at the Budapest Holocaust Memorial Center. She is also a founding member of Esther’s Bag, a group of Hungarian Jewish women seeking to promote research on the history of Jewish women and writing, holding discussions, and having exhibits about women in the Jewish community.

Discursive Table of Contents: Family’s Judaism, Zionism and trip to Palestine—Parents’ Communism, father’s deportation to camp and escape—Mother’s work in anti-Nazi underground—Upbringing in ignorance of Jewish heritage—Discovery of Jewish heritage, meaning to Katalin—Marriage to non-Jew, travel as a student before marriage—Editorial work, PhD, children, travel to Germany and USA—Father’s suicide, discovery of Jewish music and Holocaust history—Jewish practices in USA, Jewish secrecy during Communism—Children and Judaism, political divisions in Hungary today

Istvan Pelsoczi-Kovacs (b. 10/3/1938) [Transcript in Progress]
Istvan Pelsoczi-Kovacs was born in Dunafoldvar, a small city south of Budapest. He was of Slavic descent and his father had a trucking company. Dunafoldvar was in a critical location because of its bridge across the Danube, the river crossing between the south border of Hungary and Budapest. Consequently it was the site of much fighting during World War II between the Germans, who were holding it, and the invading Russians. A Wehrmacht officer lived in the family house, and rode to the fighting every day on his bicycle. Although Pelsoczi-Kovacs was so close danger, he survived the war without injury.

After the war he graduated from the gymnasium but couldn’t go to the university because he had a noble family name. Instead, he went to work in a laboratory man, and through that position proceeded to the university where he graduated in microbiology and also met his wife. Later, he went to work in a well-known food canning factory where his mother-in-law held an influential management position. It was she who “ordered” all the men in the family in the 1970s to join the Communist Party in order to be in a position to direct the party’s actions.

Once a member of the party, Istvan became first a deputy head, and then head of a department in the county council, a paid full-time job where he was in charge of the economics of tourism in the county. He says his work was economic, not strictly political work, and he did not want to be involved in politics. In 1978 he finished a Ph.D. in economics. He then taught customer protection and quality assurance in college, until he retired in 2000.

Pelsoczi-Kovacs thought the Kadar regime was a “soft dictatorship” and that life in Hungary under this was better than in other Eastern Bloc countries, although the regime frowned on churchgoing (he is Protestant). He believes that it was deleterious to the country that former Communist leaders were allowed to remain in positions of power. He believes it will take several generations before the effects of Communism will vanish and Hungary will have a democracy. He has many criticisms of the current government, the international situation and its influence on Hungary, and the current dangers, which he blames on Jewish capital influence.

Discursive Table of Contents: Background: family and education—Experiences during World War II—Working for canning factory—1956—Communism—Hungary today

Tibor Pok (b. 2/10/64)
Tibor Pok’s life illustrates the difficult economic challenges presented to many Hungarians by the collapse of Communism and the arrival of unrestrained competitive capitalism. He went to a high school that trained students for the catering trade, but he worked only one year in that field before starting a small trucking business. It was the 1980s, when the Communist government allowed small businesses to be privately owned. Soon, however, small private trucking firms proliferated and his ceased to be profitable.

After 1989, when capitalism replaced Communism, Pok started a small tobacconist shop, which also carried a small assortment of food and household items like soap. It was located on the ground floor of his parents-in-law’s house in a suburb of Budapest and was managed by Tibor and his wife. After 10 years, however, he was unable to compete with the many large international grocery chains that flooded Hungary. Currently he works as a waiter and his wife as a store clerk; they no longer have to pay the heavy taxes and other expenses of owning their own business. Having worked in the United States, he is advising his daughter to go to the West when she is grown, because she will have better business opportunities there.

Discursive Table of Contents: Family and—Starting a private trucking company, its failure— Starting a small private store, its failure—Evaluation of the changes in 1989—Travel, impressions of other countries—Current political conditions in Hungary—Current education in Hungary

Marta Siklos (b. 6/4/1952)
Marta Siklos came from a Hungarian-Jewish family and became a secondary school English teacher and a translator of English-language literature. As a teenager, she visited family in England and later had both teacher training and a teaching job in the United States. She experienced the political changes in Hungary as a gradual relaxation, but was still surprised by their extent. She comments at length on the euphoria after the Communist collapse, and the subsequent divisiveness that developed in the country. She discusses many of the political and social problems in today's Hungary.

Discursive Table of Contents: Family background and education—teaching English and being a translator under Communism—life under the Communist regime—travel—the political changes—the Hungarian political and social situation today

Sándor Striker (b. 11/29/1953)
On June 1, 2008, Sandor Striker was appointed Vice Dean of the Faculty of Pedagogy and Psychology of the ELTE University in Budapest. He comes from the Polanyi family of prominent Hungarian intellectuals (Karoly Polanyi and Michael Polanyi were greatuncles). Although his parents were long-time Communist Party members, he became disillusioned with Communist “democracy” in secondary school, and he planned to become a literature teacher and work independent of the political situation. After four years at the university but before writing his thesis, he went to England, where he learned English and studied at the university. But he illegally stayed for a year, so his passport was taken away by the Hungarian Embassy in London. He describes in fascinating detail what he learned about politics, his own country and life in general, and the complicated scheming he used successfully to return to Hungary.

Back in Budapest, Striker finished his university thesis on Lucifer and freedom in Madach’s The Tragedy of Man. He joined the Ministry of Culture and Education after the political changes of 1990 and succeeded in having legislation passed to make the country’s cultural centers more democratic. He became cultural attaché in London, but with a change in the Hungarian government his position was threatened. There followed years of legal suits against the government, during part of which he acted as his own attorney; he finally won the many court battles and appeals. He taught first at the University of Applied Arts and then at Eotvos Lorand University, at the latter teaching European studies, the theory of culture, and cultural management. He comments on the continuation of old feudal traditions in Hungary today, the divisions in the country, and current political and economic problems.

Discursive Table of Contents: Family, parents, childhood and education—Communism in education— political awakening—influence of Beat culture and conflict with parents—travel by Hungarians during Communism—career plans, teaching in small town, and studying cultural center management in the university—decision to go to England and trip there—loss of passport, and life in England—return to Hungary: reasons for and restrictions—vindication and getting new passport—finishing thesis for university—discussion of The Tragedy of Man, freedom, and the influence of cultural environment—work in the Ministry of Culture and Education and successful cultural center legislation—Hungarian cultural attaché in London, government changes—legal controversies with the government—discussion of the situation of Hungary today

Eva Szabo (Dr. Bara Denesne) (b. 12/14/1927)
Eva Szabo practiced medicine in Szeged, during the Communist regime and she says she and her family never suffered a bit during that period. Despite gentle pressure to join, she was never a member of the Communist Party, but “I was not an enemy, I was neutral.” She was the daughter of a factory mechanic and an obstetrical nurse, and she decided early to get an education in order to “become somebody.” Coming from a worker background, she had no trouble getting into the university. She describes the real estate situation under the Communists, the 1956 revolution in Szeged, life during the Kadar regime for doctors like her and her husband, and the post-1989 political situation in Hungary, with the divisions in society resulting from differing viewpoints. Her husband adds a word about the influence of the United States in the political changes of 1989 in Hungary.

Discursive Table of Contents: Family background and education—World War II—Communism: housing, army service—The 1956 Revolution in Szeged—Medical practice during the Kadar regime—After 1989

Jozsef Szentesi (b. 1957)
Jozsef Szentesi’s family experienced at first hand the population displacements which roiled Eastern Europe after World War II. His parents were of ethnic German origin and his family, excepting his father, had to move away from home in 1947 to make room for Hungarians who, in turn, had been forced to move out of Slovakia. His father was allowed to remain because he was a policeman and had Magyarized his name from Sauter to Szentesi. However, with the coming of Communism he was kicked out of the police and became a day laborer, working mostly for farmers.

Szentesi grew up in poverty and went to school in Budaors and Budapest. He characterizes the history books he was taught from as “lying, lying, and lying.” He wanted to work as a clerk in a hotel office after high school but was refused, later learning that with his background he was rejected because he was unlikely to use the job to spy for the Communists. He became a waiter at a fancy restaurant until at 21 he had to go in the army, where he worked as clerk in a post kitchen assuring that the use of “Communist recipes” was exact. He was also a member of the army badminton team.

When Szentesi got out of the army he progressed from being a manager of various food services, including restaurants, to owning a grocery businesses, then to owning a wholesale grocery business. In the last position, although he was very careful to follow the law exactly, he ran afoul of the Communist government, which bent the law to serve itself. After the changes of 1989, he ran a billiard room and then went into raising grapes and producing the wine for which he is now famous. He discusses how to make excellent wine.

Discursive Table of Contents: Background and education—Work as waiter and army life—Restaurant manager—Store owner and businessman under Communism—Wholesale business, problems with Communism—1989 changes, billiard room, business complex—Current wine company

Lajos Veraszto (b. 8/31/45)
Lajos Veraszto grew up in Kardoskut, one of seven children of a poor farmer whose ingenuity in acquiring a threshing machine led to Communist condemnation of him as a kulak. The family experienced government pressure to join a cooperative and heavy Communist taxation of farmers in the early fifties. His experience of the 1956 Revolution was that of a country boy who knew nothing of Budapest and little of Communist politics. To avoid military conscription, he went first to drama school and then to the university in Budapest. There he acquired language skills, and after graduation he taught English at a workers’ club in a factory in Csesed. This morphed into a language department at the factory, and after his return from three years’ work in the United States, he developed it into a privately owned English language school, one of the largest in Budapest. He critiques capitalism as experienced in Hungary after 1989 as well as life under Communism.

Discursive Table of Contents: Family, home and farm, collectivization of farms, elementary education, gymnasium—Stalin’s death, taxation, 1956 in village, life after 1956, education—Land surveying, Budapest drama school, university—England, teaching English at Csesed workers’ club, U.S. visit—Return to Hungary, private language school, political views


The Hungarian Holy Crown

 

 

 

 

 

 

Transcripts Available Only in The Bancroft Library

Csilla Dobos (b. 12/21/62)
Because Csilla Dobos began working as an “assistant” for the Central European University in Budapest when it was first being created, she can describe herself now as the university's longest-serving employee. She did many jobs at the university, at the same time earning a BA, and is now coordinator of the Medieval History Department and a member of the board of the university. Her ideas have been greatly influenced both by her family and by the Communist period in which she grew up, and she has many concerns about present political and economic life in Hungary.

Discursive Table of Contents: Family background and education—early work—college—religious background and philosophy of life—children—Communism and post-Communism in Hungary—current political issues in Hungary.

Gabor Erdelyi (b. 1927)
Gabor Erdelyi is the son of a lawyer, later a judge, whom the Communist government tried to involve in the show trial of Laszlo Rajk and imprisoned when they couldn’t achieve their objective. Gabor trained to be a teacher in his native city of Debrecen and taught high school there before 1956, agreeing to teach Marxism. He told his students that if they learned the Marxism they had to know—and he would check their knowledge daily—then the class could spend their time studying other more interesting and important subjects. He was teaching when the 1956 Revolution occurred, and he was one of the principal leaders of the Revolution in Debrecen. He escaped from the pursuing Russians in an ingenious way and spent the next 50 years in the United States. He and his wife returned to Hungary in 2001, thankful for the refuge in the United States but happy to return to the country they had never wanted to leave. He not only relates the exciting story of his escape from Hungary in 1956 but also has insightful comments on the Communist and post-Communist political and social situations in his native country.

Discursive Table of Contents: Family, kidnapping by Russians, education in Debrecen—Teaching under the Communists—Pre-revolutionary activity in Debrecen—October 23, 1956 in Debrecen—The Revolution; head of security—November 4, 1956: hiding from the AVH—Escape from Hungary—Critique of interwar political situation in Hungary—Beginnings of democracy ’45-’46—Communist Hungary; father’s imprisonment—Imre Nagy, Janos Kadar—Politics and economics in post-Communist Hungary

Miklos Jakabffy (b. 6/17/48)
Desendant of a noble family, Miklos Jakabffy is the CEO of Decent Travel, a private travel agency in Budapest. He experienced Communist control of education in the gymnasium and university, worked in state-owned travel-related businesses (airlines, hotels), was restricted in his work because his step-daughter left Hungary illegally, and after 1989 successfully, though with difficulty, started his own business in the new free market economic system. Fluent in English and German, he is the translator and collaborator for this oral history collection.

Discursive Table of Contents: Family history—1956 and aftermath—education, college graduation competition prize—airline work, travel, smuggling—arrest, punishment—work and travel in 1980s—private enterprise, beginnings and development.

Peter Kardos (b. 8/14/56 )
Peter Kardos, the son of an army officer and trained as a carpenter, became a policeman because he was promised certain benefits: scholarships for future education, an apartment, and early retirement with a generous pension. He was a police officer during both the Communist and the capitalist governments, and particularly enjoyed forensics. He did many types of work, including tracking political criminals, although he says he never encountered resistance demonstrations or samizdat (but knew of their existence). He retired in 2001 at age 44 after 20 years as a policeman and is now a sometime disc jockey [DJ].

Discursive Table of Contents: Family background—education and work as a carpenter—Army career—joining the police, police training and work, courses in politics—training and work in criminal policing, general and political crime, differences in police work with political changes—retirement and pension

Eva Schleicher (b. 7/28/39)
Eva Schleicher is consultant and the retired general manager of the famous Hungarian distillery, Zwack Unicum. She worked her way up in the company from physical laborer, and along the way graduated from the university as a chemical engineer after six years of night school. She held various positions in the state-owned company during Communism and re-created the private Zwack Unicum under the new free market system after 1989.

Discursive Table of Contents: Family background—education and work—travel: Poland, Paris, Croatia—career at Unicum—political and economic changes in the 1980's—political situation in Hungary after “the change”



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Related Links and Reference Materials

American Hungarian Foundation

Columbia University Hungarian Oral Histories

Daily Hungarian News

The Institute for the History of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution--Oral History Archives

Open Society Archives

Denes, Magda. Castles Burning. New York: Touchstone, 1997.

Dent, Bob. Budapest. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Drakulic, Slavenka. Cafe Europa: Life After Communism. New York: Penguin Books, 1999.

Engel, Jeffrey A., ed. The Fall of the Berlin Wall. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Hoffman, Eva. Exit into History. New York: Viking, 1993.

Hollis, Wendy. Democratic Consolidation in Eastern Europe. Boulder, Colorado: Eastern European Monographs, distributed by Columbia University Press, New York, 1999.

Judt, Tony. Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1946. New York: Penguin Press, 2005.

Kenney, Pradraic. The Burdens of Freedom. London: Zed Press, 2006.

Marton, Kati. The Great Escape. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2006.
   Enemies of the People. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2009.

Rev, Istvan. Retroactive Justice. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2005.

Rosenberg, Tina. The Haunted Land. New York: Random House, 1995.

Schopflin, George. " The Political Traditions of Eastern Europe" in Eastern Europe...Central Europe...Europe. Graubard, Stephen, ed. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1991, pp. 59-94.


About This Project

“Survival: Lives of Hungarians under Communist and Capitalist Governments, 1956-2006” is a collection of oral histories containing accounts of the everyday lives, thoughts, and reactions of ordinary Hungarians under two different political and economic regimes from 1956 to 2009. Because they are intended to present personal experiences and responses, the interviews are not scripted. There are therefore few predetermined questions, and the interviewees describe situations and conditions that they remember or experience now as most important and memorable to them. The collection is intended for use as a primary source by students and teachers of this region of Europe and this period in history.

The interviews are in English, either originally or translated “on the spot.” The interviewees are almost evenly divided between men and women, ranging in age from 42 to 80. They are predominantly middle-class from a variety of occupations, including teaching, medicine, tourism, administration, waiting tables, journalism, and the police

 

The collection has been partly financed by grants from the American-Hungarian Foundation.

The transcriptions from the cassette tapes were made by the interviewer except for one, which was checked against the tape by the interviewer. In all cases, before the transcript was sent to the narrators in Hungary, the interviewer did some light editing. This consisted of deleting accidental repetitions not intended to emphasize a word or phrase, or repetitions of habitual “fill-in” phrases such as “you know.” The interviewer also corrected simple grammatical mistakes, for example using a plural verb with a single subject.

 

Hero Square

Two interviewees, Emil Pasztor and Gabor Drexler, corrected the transcriptions sent to them by almost completely rewriting them. Their rewritings have not been altered at all. Others edited their transcripts lightly, and some did no editing of any kind. The interviewer edited all of the latter two kinds of to obtain the clearest, most correct grammar possible without changing the speaker’s original meaning.
In a few cases, when the name of a person or place was not understandable on the tape and the interviewee, when editing, did not provide it, it has been omitted from the transcription.
If you would like more information regarding this oral history project, or you are a Hungarian who lived in Hungary during this period and are interested in being interviewed, please contact Virginia Major Thomas.





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Copyright © 2010 The Regents of the University of California. All Rights Reserved
Comments and Suggestions | | Server manager: Contact
 

UC Berkeley Library The Bancroft Library Website Regional Oral History Office Home Page