Recently, Hungary Today had the opportunity to interview Andrea Lauer Rice regarding her work on the Memory Project, a visual oral history project focused on collecting the stories of Hungarians who were forced to flee their homeland following the Second World War, and later after the defeat of the 1956 Revolution.
In addition to her work with the Memory Project, Lauer is President of the Hungarian American Coalition, President of Lauer Learning, and founder of the Atlanta Hungarian Festival. Over the course of the interview, she discussed her personal background, how the Memory Project came about, and where it is headed.
This article has been edited for concision and clarity.
Could you tell us a bit about your personal background?
I was aware that I was half Hungarian my entire life, but only learned to speak Hungarian as an adult. We traveled back to Hungary every couple of years during my childhood, starting in the 70s. Every holiday, family trip, and on phone calls, my mother spoke Hungarian with my grandparents (which is probably why I eventually wanted to learn the language – I was tired of them talking about things in front of me!) I grew up hearing the stories of Hungary, the 1956 Revolution and the horrors of communism and because of these stories that were shared with me, certain ideals became second nature – family is the most important thing, get an advanced education, always stay informed and vote in elections, value your freedom, and more. Aside from that, I had a typical American upbringing.
We lived in New Jersey when I started college in Pennsylvania in 1990. One day my mother called me to tell me she was taking me into New York City for the weekend. Several of my friends had these special trips with their moms and went to Broadway shows and shopping, so I was excited…until she told me we were going in to demonstrate in front of the Romanian Embassy because of their treatment of the Hungarians living there. This was the moment when pride in my Hungarian heritage translated into more active involvement in the Hungarian American community.
I moved to Hungary in 1990 to work in the Határontúli Magyarok Hivatal and several years later, became director of the Center for Independent Journalism, funded by the New York Times Company Foundation. Those first years after the transition were quite incredible – filled with grand adventures, meaningful work and young people working together to shape a new world. (That is when I first met Réka Pigniczky). I lived in Budapest for 6 years, eventually moving back to the US in 1997 to attend business school at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.
Could you take us through some of the milestones that led to the creation of the Memory Project? How did someone who had previously worked on books and video games related to 1956 move on to documentary film a decade later?
After working on a number of ways to pass on information about the 1956 Revolution to the next generation for the 50th anniversary – computer game, graphic novel, oral history website and books – MP just evolved out of a conversation with my longtime friend Réka Pigniczky. I’m not even sure which one of us came up with the idea first, but it just seemed like a natural progression to create the project and work on it together. It was a great blend of our two areas of expertise and interest.
Journalism has always been my background, so that is the foundation for all of these projects. I love hearing people’s personal stories, learning what they have been through in their lives, what motivates and inspires them. I also grew up hearing stories about the 1956 Revolution from all of my relatives – my grandparents, my aunt and uncle and my Mother – and know the profound effect that living under communism, witnessing the Revolution and making the decision to immigrate to the US, had on their lives. Our interviews help record those stories for others and pass it on to the next generation to make sure these important memories are never forgotten.
This is one of my real areas of passion. I’m always looking for ways to reach the next generation. My children do not speak Hungarian, and neither did I growing up, so I think it is incredibly important to create resources in Hungarian and English to share this history with 2nd and 3rd generation Hungarian American kids and non-Hungarian spouses. Even without the language, my sons are very much aware of their Hungarian heritage and proud of it. I want to continue to reach them and teach them about their heritage and their family history – whether it’s through graphic novels or firsthand accounts like Memory Project. It is all about recording personal stories that young people can access and relate to and learn from.
To date, the Memory Project has conducted interviews with over 120 people. How do you choose your interview subjects?
We have a database of interview subjects who have contacted us over the years, or people we know personally, or stories we may have heard. In some cases, recommendations or contacts come from our mothers – Edit Lauer and Katalin Vörös, who are both ’56-ers and well-known throughout the Hungarian American community. But primarily, we contact the leaders of the local Hungarian American community we are planning to visit to ask for their suggestions ahead of any trip we plan. Since we both have little kids, it’s difficult to travel, so we generally plan 5-day trips to an area with the goal of completing 10 or so interviews. We do a good amount of research ahead of each trip and try to strike a good balance between DPs and ’56-ers.
On the Memory Project’s website, a distinction is made between those interview subjects who left Hungary after the Second World War (so-called “DPs”) and those who emigrated following the defeat of the 1956 Revolution. Are you planning on conducting interviews with other groups as well, for example those who emigrated during the late Kádár era (1970s-80s) or those who have left in the decades since the end of Communism?
We do hope to expand Memory Project to include more recent immigrants, but at the moment, we are very focused on getting the stories of DPs and ’56-ers, because of their age. It is amazing to think that within the next decade or so, there won’t be many freedom fighters or DPs alive anywhere in the world to share their own personal stories. We don’t want to miss the opportunity to get their stories. It’s really a race against the clock.
The 1940s were a particularly tragic period for Hungary. How do you go about asking difficult or painful questions of those who lived through that era? Have any of your interview subjects been offended by your questions or unwilling to answer them?
Since we are both daughters of ’56-ers, we approach our interviews with a great deal of respect and admiration for the people sharing their stories. We often send our questions ahead of time so people can start thinking about the past in a bit more detail and prepare any archival materials – like documents or pictures – they may have. Oftentimes, the interviews seem to be therapeutic for our subjects. But I think it all comes down to the fact that people trust us to help share their stories, and that is based on the fact that we have both been working – in our own ways – to document the story of 1956, immigration after WWII and the history of our Hungarian American community for more than a decade.
In 2016, controversy erupted in Hungary over the case of László Dózsa, a revolutionary whose photo was widely used to promote the 60th anniversary of the Revolution. Later, reports emerged, and were confirmed in court, that the person in the photo was in reality a man named Pál Pruck, who had since passed away. To what extent, and how, do you check the validity of your interviewees’ stories? Where do you draw the line between exaggeration and outright lies?
Personal histories are based on the memories of our interview subjects, and our questions are often asking about things that may have happened 70 years ago. We don’t fact check the stories people share with us. In some cases, stories may have been a bit exaggerated or details forgotten, but to me oral history is about the overall body of work. When you listen to a similar story told by 4-5 different people, it becomes part of the history of that time. It is simply a different way to record historic events. But the real benefit in a visual archive is hearing the people themselves tell their stories, seeing their emotions and understanding what is behind their unique perspectives. It is amazing to me – though not at all surprising – that 60 years later, the moment when people stepped across the border to leave Hungary still evokes such raw emotion in almost everyone.
The Memory Project is partially financed by the Hungarian government. Has this fact ever impacted your choice of interview subjects?
We are very lucky that we have been funded from different organizations and many individuals, including some funding from the Hungarian government. Funding sources have never in any way influenced the project, choice of interview subjects or any content. Memory Project is completely independent and nonpolitical. We are all about recording personal recollections and sharing them.
The Memory Project has already interviewed world-famous Hungarian-Americans such as Joe Eszterhas and Andy Vajna. Do you plan similar interviews in the future? Will there someday be interviews with Charles Simonyi, George Soros, or Thomas Peterffy on the Memory Project site?
Yes, we are hoping to add a number of new interviews to Memory Project in the coming months, among them some celebrities. Stay tuned…
What are your future plans? Will the Memory Project become a global program?
Our goal is to take Memory Project global. The next step would be to create a global internship program where we train and empower two-person teams in major cities across the US and Canada to add to the archive. We are particularly excited about this expansion, because not only will it add interviews to the archive, but it will allow us to build strong, cross-generational relationships in local communities and help bridge the generational gap.
We are also working to build partnerships with leaders in other diaspora communities to make this a worldwide project. The great news is that our methodology and approach can work anywhere. We have worked with well-respected leaders in the US oral history industry – Shoah Foundation, Digital Storytelling Center and National Public Radio StoryCorps – to create our own methodology that we would like to share. Time is of the essence, so we are offering to become the clearinghouse for interviews from across the globe and make them available online. Obviously, we would need expanded funding to help execute a much larger project, but we feel like MP is uniquely positioned to be in this role.
We are also working to help scan and preserve documents, pictures and other artifacts people brought with them from Hungary. Some people we interview have personal diaries, maps, tickets, the welcome letter from US President Eisenhower and even original documents or armbands from the 1956 Revolution or WWII. These are important to preserve. After we spend 2-3 hours learning someone’s personal story, they often feel comfortable enough with us to show some of these treasured artifacts. It’s a unique opportunity to scan them, store them digitally and make sure they are not lost.
It is all part of our Hungarian American community and our unique history.
Reporting by Balázs Horváth and Tom Szigeti
Photos courtesy of Andrea Lauer Rice