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“Hungarians beyond the border appreciate everything ‘Hungarian’ a lot more” – Interview with István Tőkés

Péter Cseresnyés 2020.05.13.

István Tőkés emigrated from Transylvania to Canada at the age of 25 to see the world and try his luck. He succeeded, and was able to begin working as an engineer almost immediately. Later, when regularly visiting his family back in Romania, he had to witness the horrors of the Ceausescu dictatorship. He also played an important role in organizing and then smuggling the footage of a television interview with his brother László Tőkés, which is ultimately considered to be the “spark” that led to the Romanian uprising. On the occasion of the publication of the third edition of Visszidensek (Remigrates), Hungary Today interviewed László Tőkés, who, even living in Canada, always felt that helping Hungarian minorities was one of his most important missions in life.

– You were born in 1943 and raised in Kolozsvár (Cluj-Napoca). How was growing up as a citizen of a foreign country just a few decades after Trianon?

All my childhood memories were beautiful, and most importantly Hungarian. I would say my childhood was carefree, and I never had any negative experiences back then. By the way, I was born as a Hungarian citizen; moreover, at that time, Kolozsvár was a Hungarian city in every way. They spoke Hungarian everywhere, from barbershops to convenience stores. Of course, I am not saying that the Romanian world was not present, but at that time the Hungarian community was still so strong there that the two worlds simply did not come into contact at all. The real conflict came much later.

– Were you ever a victim of discrimination for being Hungarian during your childhood?

Although during my elementary years we sometimes indeed had some conflict on the way to school with Romanian kids living there, these conflicts were not ethnically motivated. I suppose we could simply say that boys will be boys. Furthermore, since my dad is from Székelyland, he didn’t really have any experience in that regard. That is why he was much more neutral on the Hungarian-Romanian issue for a long time.

It was mostly my mother in my family who told me horrible things about living together.

She was from the Transylvanian Plain and shared many stories about the Hungarian-Romanian antagonism that she, but mainly her pastor parents had experienced. So I heard about it mostly through their sufferings.

I only have negative experiences from much later on, for example, about a handball match in which the Romanian team was much better and they led by around ten goals. In spite of this, the Romanian fans who stood next to me, leaning on the grid, were shouting at the Hungarians from the back of their throats: “You animals!”

Another memorable instance happened when one of my Romanian colleagues asked me where I bought my clothes after my holiday in Yugoslavia. I told him that the shirt was from Yugoslavia and the pants from Hungary.  He replied by saying why didn’t I go back there then. But after the negative experiences, there were occasions when something positive happened to me. Once back when I was enlisted in the [Romanian] army, as officer-candidate, during an ongoing Soviet-Hungarian football match. Romanian colleagues, of course, were rooting for the Soviets all the way, with a clear anti-Hungarian atmosphere developing. Then, after the match, a colleague from Bucharest came to me and told me not to care about them. Knowing that a Romanian understood what it was like to experience this felt great.

– As a young teenager, did you follow the events of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 from Kolozsvár?

At the time I was 13, so I remember not so much the specifics, but rather the horrible fear and concern I saw from my parents and environment. We kept listening to the radio, which my father bought in 1956 just to be able to follow the events of the revolution. Later, we listened to Radio Free Europe and the Voice of America.

During the events of ’56, following the initial hope,  – fear, terror, and bitterness were floating in the air. Our shock was greatest when we learned that many people had been convicted in Transylvania because they sympathized with the revolution.

In the meantime, we couldn’t talk about any of it. This is what makes our generation especially interesting. We had to learn to live in two worlds: in one -at home- we could speak freely, while in the other we learned to say nothing at all.

– You decided to go West in 1968. Why?

The main reason for my decision was the same as the emigration of young people today: to try my luck. I wanted to see and try myself in the world. And the question of why I would stay in an environment where I was a persona non grata, and as an engineer I might be sent to Moldova or anywhere and work for people who don’t like me, was more of an ideological excuse, as I was raised with: “you have to live and die here.”

– So Ceaucescu’s rise to power in 1965 had nothing to do with your decision? 

The true hardline dictatorship only began after ’72, so it didn’t affect my decision.

– Didn’t the idea of ​​moving to Hungary ever occur to you?

But yes. I wanted to come here. Hungary was the dream of every Transylvanian.

Unfortunately, however, it was only possible to settle here through marriage, as part of a very complicated procedure. So this could not be solved.

– When you left, did you have any remorse for leaving your home, your roots, and your family?

I did have great remorse.

We have always been raised that we, and Hungarians beyond the border in general, appreciated everything that is Hungarian a lot more: the traditions, the culture. This may spring precisely from being in the minority, since what one loses is later considered much more valuable.

Yet perhaps the most excruciating time was the two weeks after I left, because I couldn’t tell anyone what was going on. My family didn’t know what happened to me, or whether I was even alive or not.

Why didn’t you tell your family that you were leaving?

Because if they had known about it, they would not have been able to lie if they were being interrogated by the Romanian secret service, the Securitate.

– What did your family say when they found out what had happened?

My mother allegedly fainted when she found out I was gone. Then, of course, I also wrote letters to everyone: my mother, father, and seven siblings for 20 years. Everyone reconciled with my decision. Initially, my brother László was the only one in the family who resented me and despised me for it. Later, he forgave me too, and I noticed that other people showed some respect since I was brave enough to defect. One of my Romanian university professors, who later taught my brother József, told him that he respected his brother and that perhaps he would have done the same if he were in the same situation.

– How did the “escape” happen?

One of my friends called about an “unprecedented” official bus excursion to Oradea-Budapest-Vienna.

I knew it was a trip from which there would be no return.

When we got to Vienna, we were told we could be on our own until 6 pm, so we got off the bus, everyone with suitcases in hand. Nobody asked questions. Fear clutched at our hearts, we assumed the Securitate would pick us up. The bus hit the road at 6, but we went to the cinema at 5. We were so nervous that we ran out of cognac and brandy. The bus had left without us. To this day I’m not sure if the onboard staff knew something, and just didn’t say anything or it was just that much negligence. We then went to the nearest police station and reported that we had been left behind. They took me to the refugee camp, checked who we were. And we stayed there until everyone decided where to go next.

– You went to see a movie so the secret police wouldn’t catch you. Do you remember which movie you saw?

Unfortunately, I don’t. I do remember seeing Doctor Zhivago in Vienna, but it may have happened at another time.

– Why did you choose Canada?

I clearly remember when I was just a freshly shaven, newly enlisted soldier and read in a newspaper about Pierre Elliot Trudeau, the father of the current Canadian Prime Minister that he went into parliament in jeans. It was unforgettable. The other reason was that I had heard of an engineer fleeing to Canada in ’56 who was already working as a chief engineer on a huge construction site somewhere up north in ’68.

A place where someone who just settled there from a foreign country can have such a career in a few years, I thought, could only be great.

What’s more, even though most of my friends stayed in Austria, life there wasn’t that particularly good at the time. Vienna was a refreshingly cosmopolitan city even then, but I wanted to help my family financially and Canada promised much better opportunities at the time.

-What exactly impressed you about the Prime Minister wearing jeans?

It was a youthful move. I have always defined myself as a national liberal. By liberal, of course, I mean its classic meaning.

I was there as a young man, as a soldier, and I heard that there is a country where a Prime Minister can go to parliament in jeans. I thought it could only be a free, easy-going, and by no means, a domineering country.

– How did your inclusion go?

Luckily, it wasn’t a problem at all – basically, everything went smoothly. With the help of acquaintances and friends living in Canada, I was immediately able to find an apartment and a job. I started working as a draftsman in a Hungarian environment. It was a huge help in the first few weeks and months. I also spoke French and English by then. Of course, when I started speaking French with the wife of one of my friends in the early days, I immediately realized I understood virtually nothing of the live communication.

– Then you came home for the first time in 1975. How did that feel?

I was really looking forward to coming home as soon as possible. At the same time, I had stomach cramps I was so afraid something would happen because I was still traveling to a communist country. Fear can often overcome joy, at least until I crossed the border anyway. Of course, I was longing to return, and from then on I visited every year.

– What was the situation like in Romania and Kolozsvár at that time?

It was awful.

Not exactly in ’75, but somewhat later in the 80s, a severe deficit economy developed: food tickets had to be distributed on recycled paper for the most basic food products, and only those who had these were able to buy meat, eggs, and other stuff in the stores, naturally if existed.

Moreover, in ’66, Ceaușescu suddenly introduced an abortion ban. I remember back then everywhere I was looking on the street, I saw pregnant women. And obstetric wards were so crowded, up to two or three women had to lay on the same bed at the same time. The circumstances back then are inconceivable today.

– You started a family in Canada, having married an American woman of Hungarian descent. Have your children learned Hungarian?

My wife Kati had deeply Hungarian parents. Hers was a typical emigrant family. Her mother was a woman from Udvarhely from a family of doctors, and her grandfather was a hotel manager in Lilafüred. They emigrated without knowing foreign languages, and whoever emigrated as a Protestant was immediately classified by the Quebec French Canadians as non-francophone. So they became ”English” in the French province. Thus my ex-wife’s upbringing was surrounded with a sense of being an outsider. She spoke Hungarian perfectly, and we only communicated with our children in our mother tongue. Furthermore, when later I took a job in Peru for 3 years, Hungarian remained our primary language. That is why my 3 children from my first marriage, in addition to French and English, also learned Hungarian perfectly.

– In the 80’s you took an active role in representing the interests of the Hungarians of Transylvania. In the years of the civil movement, which achievements do you consider to be the most important?

At that time, the “dance house movement” had already started, which was symbolically not only a demand for cultural awareness, to get to know and experience Hungarian folk culture, but also rebellion, as well as a counterculture. When I returned home with my family from Peru to Canada in ’82, the ‘samizdat’ movement had already been revived in Romania.

Also, the hardships of my brother László, who at this time often raised his voice against the reformed church conditions and the village demolition plan in Romania, did have an influence on me.

In addition, in the early 1980s, the Hungarian Human Rights Foundation (HHRF), under the leadership of László Hámos, a human rights activist sworn to protect Hungarian minorities, had already begun to operate. Some of us decided to create a new Canadian branch of the organization, which I launched in Montreal; several friends of mine did the same in Toronto, others in Ottawa. If there was any significant violation of the law affecting Hungarian minorities, we organized demonstrations and tried to represent the arising issues. We corresponded a lot with official bodies, and the Western press. As a result, every month or two, unfortunately only a tiny article was published in local newspapers about abuses of Hungarian rights taking place, for example, in Romania. At the time this was a rather big deal.

My most memorable protest happened when Ceausescu visited Montreal. After the demonstration was over, we went to a small Hungarian restaurant to have some beer. After I got home, I went to bed, but then at three in the morning a friend of mine rang the bell, saying “István, we brought something.” “Can we put it in the garage?,” he asked. Half asleep, I said, sure.

As it turned out, my two eager college student friends had climbed into the building of the Romanian consulate through the window and the few things they found they brought along.

One of the boxes, on which a picture of a radioactive warning symbol was drawn, was in fact full of condoms, and so the Romanian side also realized that it was better not to make the incident public.

However, the most important result I managed to achieve, and what I am most proud of, is clearly my brother László’s interview in 1989, which led to, and somehow triggered the Temesvár [Timisoara] mass movements that sparked the Romanian Anti-Communist Revolution.

“It was One of the Best Decisions of My Life to Learn Hungarian” – Interview with Journalist Árpád Szőczi

– What was it like to experience that Canada, a place which meant freedom to you, had such a good relationship with the Romanian communist dictatorship?

It was always painful to face this. But in politics, interests matter. However, when the mass street protests in Temesvár started, this of course, changed everything and it was stunning how much sympathy and attention surrounded the issue. For at least a few weeks. Then the fight of the Hungarian Reformed Church and László Tőkés began to be downplayed in the media again. Moreover, the “revolutionary spark” of Temesvár has even disappeared from Romanian history.

– When the opposition movements started in Hungary in the second half of the ’80s, did you think that in a few years this would lead to a multi-party system and free elections?

Seeing it from a distance, I thought at the time that it would be best if a grand coalition were formed with the “experienced”, existing political groups. Those events were a huge motivation for me personally as well, and I was excited about what kind of changes and developments would emerge. From a distance, both the West and I considered the “reform communist” politicians to be representatives of a liberal and changing system.

In some respects, we have even forgotten Kádár’s sin. This, however, proved shortly to be a naïve dream.

– Did you ever think that such a change could take place in Romania as well?

No, never. We did what we had to do, and we were obviously hoping that what we were doing for the cause could succeed. But it was never a reachable goal in my eyes. The first time I somewhat became optimistic was after the independence of the Baltic States, because if they were able to achieve that after their past history, then anyone is able to.

– How was your relationship with your brother László after he was constantly harassed in 1988-89 for his statements criticizing the church conditions and the demolition of the villages in Romania? Did you warn and/or support him?

Every time I returned to Kolozsvár, I often visited him, we always had a great relationship. I had also been following how he was skating on thin ice. I didn’t warn him, in truth- in our family there was no such thing as being too scared for one another. We once heard what our mother replied when someone tried to warn her that her son László was playing with his life.

She said that her son was quite skillful, clever, the Lord was with him, and at worst he would become a martyr.

– At the end of July 1989, the Hungarian Television broadcasted an interview with him, on its program called Panorama. The footage created a turning point in the international public opinion of the Romanian situation. After the interview, the authorities took strong action against the young pastor of Temesvár, which eventually led to the mass protests starting on December 15th. You also have a lot to do with that interview. You recommended your brother to the journalist, and you also played an important role in the logistics of the success. How exactly did all this happen?

In December 1988 one of my friends called me on the phone to help him because he needed an interpreter. When I got there, former Quebec minister Michel Clair, then being the CEO of a large state-owned energy company, and Hungarian media people were already there. Michel said that he would like to see for himself the situation in Transylvania and asked who I would recommend as contacts. I gave him several names, including my father’s and my brother’s. The two of them were the ones who later accepted to be interviewed. Following long preparations, fundraising, collaborating with Hungarian friends, a plan of action and the appropriate team was set up with every detail worked out.

The March 1989 meeting with my father failed because the Securitate stopped the team’s car while on their way to his residence. The historical interview with László, however, did miraculously succeed. With Réjean Roy, a journalist from Quebec, and our friends from Székesfehérvár it was carried out in the church gallery in Temesvár. But the most challenging part was just to follow: the footage had to be smuggled out of the country. So the videocassettes were courageously brought in separate pieces first to Hungary and later to Montreal. It was a considerable risk. Michel told me later he had never been so scared in his life when on a deserted Transylvanian road their car was stopped by two “gorillas” who ordered them to be out of Romania within three hours.

The secret police could have easily killed them right then and there without any trace.

Later, upon arrival the Canadian TV – even that one which financially supported the action – did not want to air it. It was Alajos Chrudinák who finally gave it a green light in a popular Hungarian television program receivable across the borders, months later in July 1990. It was a real “atomic bomb” for Ceausescu…

– How did you feel when your younger brother László disappeared after the interview?

It was definitely one of the most difficult moments of my life, especially when afterwards rumors came that he had been taken to Moldova, or even killed. Those three days were horrible.

My conscience didn’t let me rest, because either way we look at it, I would have been responsible for my brother’s death.

By then, I even started wondering who could have done it, maybe it was the Russians who took him. Then when I heard the news that he was alive in the small hidden village of Menyő [Mineu], I can’t tell you how happy I was. I suddenly rose from “hell to heaven”.

– The Romanian revolution soon led to the fall of Ceaușescu. Video recordings of his trial and execution were immediately aired in France and other Western countries. How did you feel when you found out that Ceaușescu had been captured and executed?

The news about the trial and execution of the Ceaușescu couple reached me in Montreal, and at first, just as everyone else, it shocked me.

Later, to tell the truth, I felt satisfied because I saw the punishment of the wicked in the death sentence.

Of course, after a while I regretted what happened, as this way they were not able to confess their individual as well as collective sins.

– Árpád Szőczi, who also played a part in the making of the interview with your brother, said 20 years later that he feels guilty for his assistance setting the Romanian revolution in motion, which claimed many lives, and in which children died too. Have you felt any guilt about this?

No, never. It was an extremely nasty dictatorship and people could feel in the air that anybody could be killed at any time. For that regime, people’s lives meant nothing. In regard to the events of the revolution, people saw that this filthy leadership could kill and nobody blamed us for speeding up the change – everything that went against this political system was considered positive.

– Did you ever consider moving back there after the Romanian Revolution ended?

I didn’t want to go back there anymore. It had been decades since I left and by then I was no longer part of any local communities. The place I could have gone back to was no longer the same. In the meantime, I had many contacts in Hungary so nobody questioned my decision to settle in Hungary, not even my brother László.

– Did it ever occur to you to become a politician in Hungary? In the years of the regime change, the name Tőkés sounded particularly marketable.

When I came home, I knew several main faces in domestic politics. However, no one either from the MDF or Fidesz ever approached me to join their party. In my whole life, if a good idea came my way, I accepted it. It didn’t come there and then. Only in the last year of the Antall government was I asked by one of the state secretaries to be their personal secretary. To be frank, I’m really not a politician type, I’d rather define myself as a gray eminence, better said “background player”. Of course, at a local level in Érd, where I live, working with the NGO ’Civil Érdek,’  we have taken action against many burning issues in our town.

– During the regime change, many people hoped that those Hungarians who had emigrated would move back to the country and kick-start Hungary. Do you think Hungarian politics made good use of the returning Hungarians?

The intellectual, professional capital that is present in the Hungarians living in the West should have been and should be much better used. The current diaspora initiative is better than nothing, but there is still a lot of work to be done.

However, when I moved home, I found that many of my acquaintances who did the same, came with great arrogance, convinced they are the most experienced, skilled people.

Perhaps this is part of the Hungarian character: they were expecting others to bow before them instead of being humble, waiting for others to discover their aptitudes. Or the saying would indeed be true that no one can be a prophet in their own land?

– After the ‘old’ Trudeau, who made a significant impression on you and was partly the reason you ended up in Canada, his son, Justin, became the Prime Minister of Canada. What do you think about his political career?

I have a very good Hungarian friend who was born in Argentina, and got his university degree in the US, so we can say he is a world-traveled man. We were constantly having arguments. I had previously judged the direction America had taken negatively, which he rendered positive. That has changed by now. I even praised him for his change. He replied no, not himself, rather America has changed. I feel the same way about Canada. When I moved there, it was a wonderful place, perhaps the best for an immigrant. But now I can see the idiocy of trying to please everybody, every fashionable initiative and not taking in consideration that the country and its population remained mostly as before, still appreciating traditional values. The latest of drug liberalization, uncontrolled open borders, or composing its cabinet based on artificial considerations eventually neglecting professional competences is not too promising.

– We hear about legal violations and discriminations affecting Hungarian minorities in the neighboring countries, even today, for example in Ukraine, but there are such cases in Romania and Slovakia as well. What is your opinion on the situation of Hungarian minorities in 2020?

I always tried to comfort my father, who was a very Transylvanian-centric man, because he was always grieving about what would happen to us Transylvanian Hungarians in the future. I always told him that with the present World trends it doesn’t matter whether we or the Romanians would die out fifty years earlier.

Regarding our future in Romania, I have to say I am very pessimistic – but I also hope that my children are not, and will seize every opportunity and fight to prove me wrong.

But I also have to admit that until now, although we have always been drifting between the East and West, Hungarian foreign policy today, for the first time, stands on a firm foundation: it is open to the East, USA, Europe and the Middle East trying to weight them all according to the country’s interests. And with regard to the Ukrainians, I see that there is a possibility of a compromise if we negotiate properly, if the EU helps and especially because we are in the same “package” with the Russian minorities there.

– Why doesn’t the world seem to care even 30 years after the regime change about what’s going on with the Hungarian minorities?

An English politician said long ago that those who fight for autonomy are in fact the losers. This is a ruthless political truth, but in the meantime totally against democratic principles. So, the only thing we can do is trust that democracies have such institutions and mechanisms which, in addition to the firm assertion of our own interests, may and will provide an opportunity to gain some degree of autonomy existing in many EU countries.

Photos by Zita Merényi/Hungary Today