Zsolt Bede-Fazekas, editor-in-chief of the Toronto Independent Hungarian Radio and the former cultural director of the Hungarian Canadian Cultural Center in Toronto, operates the Canadian „Pannonia” bookstore, which is the only one supplying Hungarians with Hungarian-language publications “from Australia to America.” Hungary Today had the opportunity to talk to Bede-Fazekas before the annual Friends of Hungary Conference, where he received the Friend of Hungary Award for his work in helping the diaspora preserve their Hungarian roots.
We met in Győr, where you lived nearly 30 years ago…
Yes, I worked at the Kisfaludy Theater and I met my wife there as well. She was a member of the theatre’s dance group when I first worked there as a light technician. I soon became part of the theater choir, and later I also got smaller roles and completed a director’s training. Then we left the country.
Was it a well-thought-out decision or did you have to leave suddenly?
It wasn’t sudden, but it was a very unpleasant decision. We left the country just before the change of the regime, in 1987. We had to go because they tried to recruit me as an informant. Many people were involved within the theater; there was an internal intelligence officer, whose area was the theater and they reported to him. After they approached me, I found myself in a very tough situation: those who were unable to escape this situation and leave the country, their names became stained forever, even if they did not do anything at all. There are people who are still scandalized because of it, although they were forced into this situation. No matter how serious it was – because I think it was pretty frivolous then, a few years before the regime change, maybe even the leaders felt that the end was coming. But of course, we didn’t know that then, but we felt we had to go.
Where did you go from Hungary?
We spent a year in Austria. There, we kind of guessed or hoped that there would be some changes soon, but we didn’t dare to turn back. In the end, although I applied for political asylum, Austria did not accept us as refugees, so we went on to Canada.
Why Canada, and not the United States?
When it turned out we had to leave Austria, we had a choice as to where we would like to go: Australia, USA, or Canada. We didn’t even apply to Australia, we felt it was too far away and we already had a hard time leaving Europe. We applied for asylum to the other two countries.
Those who went through this procedure really understood what the differences are between illegal migration and legal emigration… Official papers, passports, one-week quarantine…
In the end, both countries accepted us and although we have relatives in the United States, we chose Canada. We found it more welcoming and is still more appealing to us. When we arrived in the country, we got plane tickets and were taken to the middle of the country, the prairie, where there were times when it was as cold as -60 degrees Fahrenheit in winter. Obviously, immigrants were taken to areas from where residents tended to move to larger cities. We first went to Regina, Saskatchewan, where we stayed for six months. Many Hungarians sidestepped the authorities and stayed in Toronto, but I think for us, it was good to go further. Fewer people went on to the prairie, so they were more concerned with the new arrivals. They gave us some furniture, dishes, helped with language learning. We didn’t even speak English back then.
It’s quite brave to flee to another country, where you can’t even speak the language. I guess it was also hard to adapt to the colder weather and the so-called culture shock.
Yes, it was hard at first.
We arrived with four suitcases, without any language skills. When we arrived at the immigration office, they asked me what we brought with us, warm clothes, gloves, things like that… but actually, two of our suitcases were completely filled with books.
Although it wasn’t the weather which was the worst, but the culture shock that you have mentioned. In the first few weeks, I couldn’t sleep, I had the feeling that I would come back even to Romania, if I could only be back in Europe. When we arrived in the autumn to Canada, there was no sun, everything was grey and it set quite a depressing mood for us.
But I think there have been some funny situations due to cultural differences in the first few months as you adapted.
Yes, many things were different. Once we were invited to a house party, which, according to Canadian traditions, was BYOB, bring your own beverage, not like in Hungary, where everything is shared with the whole group. Of course, we did it like the Hungarians did, with our contribution being consumed first, so we had nothing left for the rest of the evening. But we quickly learned these habits and the language, and when we moved to Toronto, it was so much easier to find our way.
Have you started to play a greater role in the life of the Hungarian community in Toronto?
Yes, we were consciously looking for the Hungarian community in Toronto. Back then, there was a street in Toronto, Bloor Street, with a section which was completely Hungarian. A dozen of Hungarian restaurants, two Hungarian bookstores… the community’s life was great as well. For example, when poet György Faludy lived in Toronto, he usually drank a few glasses of wine in one of them after closing, talking about poetry. At the other bookstore, I saw an advertisement about Hungarian theater performances. We had backgrounds in theater, so I was immediately interested in getting into the company. I acted with them for ten years. Currently I am the owner of the bookstore, Pannonia, which is now the only one supplying Hungarians with Hungarian-language publications.
Did you start organizing programs back then?
When we left Austria, we were wondering if we could watch European films out there. We decided that if we don’t have the opportunity, then we’d organize a movie club. We bought a video recorder and cassettes in Austria and I asked my brother to start recording Hungarian movies.
When we first went home, after the regime change, I returned to Canada with two suitcases of Hungarian films and we started our own Hungarian film club.
A couple of years later, we founded the Fészek Club with friends, where we started to organize cultural programs more seriously and invited Hungarian musicians and artists as well. Then, about 25 years ago, I broke off with the club and started Parameter, which still works today. During the more than two decades of its operation, we have had more than 400 performers, including Tamás Cseh.
How do you see the Hungarian community in Canada, and how much has it changed in the three decades since you moved to the country?
This is my subjective opinion, and many Hungarian-Canadians may not agree with me, but when we arrived 30 years ago, there was a Hungarian community that emigrated in 1956, a completely different generation. They led all the institutions, Hungarian houses, and they organized huge balls and elegant events.
When we, a younger generation arrived, we wanted more: more serious cultural programs, literary evenings, concerts, exhibitions, theater. We banged on the doors, we asked for a change. These were intense, interesting times, yet we didn’t get into the management of the Hungarian institutions.
Then finally, our time came, but by that time, these institutions and houses were completely worn down. I was the cultural director at the Hungarian House for six years – but some people remained skeptical and indignant, and did not appreciate the programs. I organized more than 200 programs, festivals, and the life of the community flourished. We could make ends meet with the programs, but financially, the maintenance of the Hungarian House was a tremendous amount, so we were actually in the minus. Then the idea of the sale of the house came up so the community could buy one that would be more sustainable. Meanwhile, in the background, some people were saying how the programs were uneconomical. Now that there is a huge support from Hungary, and the government is financially helping the diaspora, there are no economic problems with the new house. However, I feel we have gone back in time. The cultural programs are again replaced by the balls, and there is no vision in the program organization.
We have potential, but I think the community does not utilize the opportunities as it should.
That is why I continue to organize cultural programs in the Parameter Club.
You are the editor-in-chief of the Toronto Independent Hungarian Radio as well. How did this opportunity come about?
As the Hungarians appeared in Canada, the community was automatically organized into their own theater, radio, and cultural houses. When I arrived, radio stations were already in operation.
I supported and wanted to participate in everything that was Hungarian.
So obviously, when I heard there was a Hungarian radio, I called the editor-in-chief, saying that we are organizing programs, and offered to do an interview with them. I went in for the interview, and then I never left. I became a volunteer at the station. For a variety of reasons, after several radio frequency and owner switches, difficult financial situations, and a rotation of editors, I took over the editing. I thought I didn’t really have anything to lose and I launched a completely new concept. I asked the owners of Hungarian companies to advertise, and this is how the radio survived. At first, we started with an hour-long show every Saturday and we were able to switch to a live broadcast soon afterwards. For more than 15 years now, we have been broadcasting a 2-hour program. What’s special about it is, while the other radio stations of the diaspora, such as in Cleveland or Ottawa, who receive the broadcasting time free of charge, we are renting airtime from a private radio station for up to 35,000 dollars a year. It’s quite a lot.
How do you keep it up then? You can’t pay it from the proceeds of programs like those in the case of a Hungarian House.
Initially, half of it was funded by donations, half of it was financed by advertisements of Hungarian-Canadian companies. Then, unfortunately, the Hungarian shops started to close one by one.
There was a year when eleven Hungarian restaurants were closed just in Toronto. Today, there’s only two or three remain.
And with one or two exceptions, they aren’t really interested in advertising, so they don’t support the radio. So now 80-90% of the income comes from audience donations. Unfortunately, in September of last year, the radio station wanted to raise the price for the broadcasting time, so we had to give up the two hours. Luckily, the station was unable to sell the airtime, so in March we got it back. In Ontario, wherever you go, you can catch our program within a 400 square kilometer area and listen to it on the Internet as well.
What about the subsidies coming from the Hungarian government?
We also applied for those. Although I didn’t want to at first, I thought that if we couldn’t keep our own radio stations and Hungarian houses by ourselves, we shouldn’t really apply for subsidies in Hungary. But then I realized that it was a stupid thing – even if I don’t apply, the money will still be distributed. Why not spend it on some useful, valuable projects then? I do everything in these broadcasts to create value and we work on a completely voluntary basis.
Do you think or are you afraid that with these subsidies Hungarian politics will filter into the community and divide it?
There are those who in no way want to accept these funds because they do not agree politically with the government, not even when the institutions are ruined, worn down, closed or there are no funds or opportunities for programs. I say it’s okay, it’s their decision. However, if I accept the subsidies, when I organize programs from it and create value, and they still protest, then it’s a problem.
But this year you have received the Friend of Hungary Award for several decades of work you did for the Canadian Hungarian community.
It felt especially good, because the members of the Friends of Hungary can nominate people for this prize, those who they think are doing a lot for the community and the maintenance preservation of the Hungarian identity, culture, and roots.
I am grateful to them – not because of the prize, but because they realize the importance of the work we do and come to our programs, help, bring their friends as well, and believe in us.
Receiving this award is unbelievable for me. Believe it or not, this is my first real recognition for my work at the diaspora, being called a ‘Friend of Hungary.’
„We Always Were, Are and Will Be Hungary’s Friends” – the Friend of Hungary Award
Back in 2007, when I was the cultural director at the Hungarian House, I was nominated for the Pro Cultura Hungarica Award by the members of the Toronto Diaspora, to the Hungarian Ambassador. I received a call shortly afterwards congratulating me on receiving the award. They said they were awaiting the arrival of a government official, after which they would present it to me at a ceremony. Then the President and many prestigious visitors came, but somehow it was forgotten, and in the end, the Toronto Consulate closed down. When they had packed everything, they called me and handed over a plastic bag with the award in it – they had no heart to throw it away. I think it happened for political reasons, as I had invited guests such as the Civil Lawyer’s Committee, which the leadership at that time may not have liked. This is how politics has blended into culture. It was really difficult for me to process this, as it was a very important award. That’s why I was unbelievably happy to receive the Friend of Hungary award for my job now. Because for me, this is the Pro Cultura Award that I had never received.
Interview and translation by Fanni Kaszás