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“In some sense, for us, this was the real Hungary”: Homeland Aloft, A Conference on Hungarian Émigré Cultural Life in the West after 1956

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What does a writer do when his homeland, the one little spot on earth where his obscure language is spoken, forces him out? How does art based on language survive in countries where that tongue is spoken by an absurdly small minority? How does one dealing with being “banned” in one’s own birthplace?

Last Wednesday, an event was held in which these questions, and more, were examined by people who had experienced exactly such dilemmas in their own lives. This panel was hosted by the English-language literary journal Hungarian Review and the Lajos Batthány Foundation, and it examined the cultural life of Hungarians living in the West after the defeat of the 1956 Revolution.

The panel was entitled “Haza a Magasban (Homeland Aloft): The Hungarian Émigré World’s Cultural Life after 1956.” The title, Homeland Aloft, comes from a poem by famous 20th century Hungarian poet Gyula Illyés, who described a true homeland, one of intellectual ideas and poetry, rather than any physical space.

The event featured four speakers: György Ferdinandy, Mátyás Sárközi, Ádám Makkai, and Pál Szeredi.

The evening began with opening remarks from Gyula Kodolányi. Currently the Editor in Chief of Hungarian Review, he is a prominent Hungarian poet in his own right, in addition to being the nephew of famous poet János Kodolányi and the son-in-law of Gyula Illyés himself. He was also, for a time, active in Hungarian politics, serving as a Senior Foreign Policy Advisor to Hungary’s first Prime Minister following the end of Communist rule, József Antall (whose widow attended last Wednesday’s event as well).

Kodolányi began the evening by providing some background information about the speakers, about the Hungarian émigré world, and about the 1956 Revolution in general which, despite its defeat, he described as “victorious in a moral and spiritual sense.”

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Gyula Kodolányi (center), with Ádam Makkai (right) and György Ferdinandy (left)

Describing the vibrant cultural world that sprouted up after the defeat of the Revolution, Kodolányi said that

In the west, after 1956, an incredible intellectual life developed.  This émigré community had journals, publishing houses, organizations, a multitude of events, and a colossal informal information and communication network. There were larger population centers, but really, back then, without internet, they brought into being a virtual intellectual community whose members lived at tremendous distances from one another, from Ireland to Australia, from Canada to Australia.

Kodolányi explained how, as part of his studies, he was able to travel extensively outside of Hungary, where he could visit these émigré communities. For him and his wife, “In some sense, for us, this was the real Hungary. I must say this” since at home one “couldn’t speak honestly,” while in West writers “lived in freedom, they were in step with new western currents of thought, and they wrote down everything that was unspeakable back home. This was, at that time, the ‘Home Aloft,’ this is how we all thought of it.”

The first member of the panel to speak was the writer and poet György Ferdinandy, who described his experience as a “tropical émigré” in Puerto Rico, in a talk he entitled “Tropical Hungarian Literature.”

In contrast with many of his fellow countrymen, who fled the 1956 Revolution and made their way to Hungarian population centers in Western Europe, the United States, and Canada, Ferdinandy spent the better part of his “exile” in the Caribbean, in Puerto Rico. He talked about his “double emigration: far from Hungary, and far from the literary capitals of Europe.” He discussed the way in which his connection to the wider émigré community was chiefly through letters, or through occasional meetings in the United States.

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György Ferdinandy

After fleeing Hungary in 1956, he made his way to Paris, where he wrote French-language articles on the revolution. His first book appeared, in French, in 1960, titled Island under Water. Ferdinandy made a point of contrasting this title with Gyula Illyés’ “Homeland Aloft,” saying that, “for me, we really were living in an island under water,” a place removed, both in space and in substance, from Hungary, a shadowy existence that was not easily visible from the surface.

While working toward his PhD in Literary History at the University of Strasbourg, Ferdinandy worked a variety of jobs in France, including as a stone mason. As he jokingly recounted, “If you visit Dijon, be sure to check out the train station: I built it.”

In 1964, he was offered a position at the University of Puerto Rico, where he taught Western Civilization until 1976. Upon moving to into a Spanish-speaking world, Ferdinandy decided to shift back to writing in Hungarian. He wrote regularly for Radio Free Europe, where he tried to bring information to his countrymen about “Hungarian literature and its possibilities,” while also showing those behind the Iron Curtain something of new western cultural trends. In total, Ferdinandy said he sent hundreds of articles to Radio Free Europe. He wrote extensively about the new generation of Hungarian émigré writers, about “those who switched languages, and about those who did not.”

Ferdinandy invited young poets to visit Puerto Rico, and engaged in a lengthy project of translating some of the greatest contemporary Hungarian poets into Spanish, an effort that continued long after the end of the Cold War.

Ferdinandy was followed by writer and journalist Mátyás Sárközi. Based in London, Sárközi came from a family of famous Hungarian writers; his maternal grandfather was none other than Ferenc Molnár, author of the world-famous Paul Street Boys (A Pál utcai fiúk); many other members of his family, including both his parents, were writers or otherwise involved in the literary world as well.

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Mátyás Sárközi

Sárközi described, in humorous terms, the harrowing experience of fleeing Hungary following the defeat of the 1956 Revolution. He spoke about his life as a young reporter at the Hétfői Hírlap, where he was working when the Revolution broke out. As the youngest journalist, he was sent to go out and write about a student demonstration planned for October 23rd. Initially, by his own description, Sárközi thought that “This won’t be particularly interesting. I already know what’s going to happen, there will be speeches and then they’ll go home. I can write this without even having to leave home.”

Of course, the demonstration turned out to be far more ‘interesting’ than any could have possibly imagined; running late to the march, Sárközi quickly found himself swept up in the outbreak of Hungary’s 1956 Revolution. In his own words, “by midnight, half of Budapest was in flames, city trams were knocked over, and the revolution had begun.”

When the revolution collapsed, Sárközi fled westward, an event which he described in great detail in an article for Hungary Today in October of 2015. At the Austrian border, he described walking across a field into Austria, where two Austrian soldiers were waiting for him. There, they informed a stunned Sárközi that they had been placing bets on whether he “would arrive by walking, or by flying,” since the entire field had recently been filled with landmines.

Sárközi quipped that, while crossing the field in the early morning hours “I saw all these very pretty red copper wires, but I avoided those; it turns out these were proximity mines.”

Sárközi talked about how he made his way to London, and how, initially, he wanted to become a graphic artist. “I didn’t have literary ambitions,” he said of himself at his arrival in the UK.

Sárközi discussed his work sending ‘forbidden’ Hungarian literature into Hungary, and how he eventually made his way to writing, at both Radio Free Europe and the BBC’s Hungarian desk. He also discussed the émigré literary and intellectual scene that he and his compatriots inhabited in London and other European cities during the long decades of the Cold War.

In one of the evening’s more humorous asides, Sárközi and György Ferdinandy discussed Hungarian novelist Sándor Márai, who lived in California until his suicide in 1989, just months before the fall of Communism.

Sárközi described the famed author as “a very arrogant man,” whereupon Ferdinandy took hold of the microphone to share his own anecdote about Márai. His uncle, a very gentlemanly figure and prominent historian, had known Márai quite well, and upon being asked about him, responded that “If you please, he was a frozen pug dog.” (The quotation is far more humorous in the original Hungarian: “Kérlek szepen, ez egy megfagyott mopszli”).

The panel’s third speaker was historian Pál Szeredi, who spoke about his work digitizing the archives of Látóhatár and Új Látohatár, perhaps the most important political and literary magazine of the Hungarian émigré community.

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Pál Szeredi

Szeredi talked about the magazines’ widespread popularity in Hungary during the Cold War, as well as the importance that Communist authorities placed on the suppression of Látóhatár and Új Látohatár; “In the 70s, when intellectuals came home from the West, customs authorities went through their luggage, through their pants and underwear, looking for two things: pornography, and the Új Látohatár.”

Szeredi gave an overview of the magazines’ history, which ran from 1950-58 as Látóhatár, and from 1958 for another 31 years, until the end of the Socialist era, as Új Látohatár. He described the work of the magazine’s editors as “keeping the faith in democracy, they guarded the beauty and honor of the Hungarian language, they wrote and worked, despite being far from their homeland.”

He also discussed his efforts to digitize the collection, an effort that has since been successful, and can be viewed in its entirety here. Szeredi bemoaned the lack of attention that the Látóhatár and Új Látohatár have received from Hungarian libraries, which to this day generally do not have complete collections of these journals that played such an important role in the intellectual life of the Hungarian émigré community, and by extension in the life of Hungarian literature as a whole.

Writer, poet, and linguist Ádám Makkai was the evening’s final speaker. Makkai, who spoke Hungarian, German, and English by the age of eight, escaped to Austria after the Revolution, before arriving in the United States in 1957.

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Ádám Makkai (left) and Pál Szeredi

Makkai discussed some of his experiences as a Hungarian émigré writer, including his time at Harvard, as the first Hungarian refugee to be admitted to America’s most prestigious university. He discussed how, despite his initial reluctance, he studied Russian after encountering many White Russian émigrés who had fled following the Bolshevik Revolution; these included his terrifying department chair, “whose father had been Tsarist Governor of Poland.”

Makkai recounted to an amused audience, how, upon being asked to recite something a piece of modern Russian literature, the only thing that came to his mind was “the inscription on the Budapest Soviet War Memorial on Szabadság Square”; his aristocratic teacher responded that this was not in Russian, but rather the thoroughly bastardized “Soviet language.”

He also spoke about his time as the “Russian, French, Latin, and German teacher, all in one person” at a preparatory school in Hawaii, before going on to study linguistics at Yale University, where he earned his MA in 1962, and his PhD in 1965.

Makkai recited some of his poetry and writing, which dealt with some of the themes and emotions associated with living as an émigré. He also recounted numerous humorous anecdotes about his fellow poets and writers.

Ádám Makkai would eventually go on to teach linguistics at the University of Illinois in Chicago, where he remained until his retirement as full professor in 2004.

Last evening’s event, then, brought together a few of the leading lights of the Hungarian émigré intelligentsia. These writers, reporters, and poets kept alive the fire of Hungarian literature through some truly dark decades. It was a truly uncommon gathering, in the very best sense of the word, one that very well may never be seen again.

By Tom Szigeti

Images via the Hungarian Review