Im Bökeler 2
September 25, 1978
Dear Children and friends:
Several of you have asked us to report to you on our trip to Hungary. I trust that you will not mind our writing to you collectively while the impressions of the trip are still fresh in our minds.
The trip was a unique experience. It was in many ways very different from what we had expected and different from any other trip we had taken. We had not realized this visit had been conceived as an official invitation. The official character of the visit had the advantage that our activities were very well planned, that we met a large number of historians and that at the same time we probably saw more of the country in the short period of time than if we had travelled on our own. The disadvantage was that the setting was often too formal to permit the informal give and take which we would have liked and that we moved in the relatively exclusive world of the academic classes with only limited glimpses into the everyday life of the average Hungarians. Nevertheless we actually managed in our free time to talk with a number of people on a relaxed level.
We did not quite know what to expect before we arrived. Two Hungarian historians at the International Historical Congress in San Francisco in 1975 who knew my work and apparently liked my positive assessment of aspects of Marxist historiography in a short paper I gave there mentioned the possibility of my visiting Hungary. A date in the fall of 1977 proved impossible for me to accept and this spring a formal invitation came from the Academy of Sciences inviting me to spend a week in Hungary as the guest of the Academy and to give a lecture there. A subsequent invitation asked me also to visit the University of Szeged in the southeastern part of the country. On my request the invitation from the Academy was expanded to include Wilma. We knew nothing about the program beyond the plans for the lecture in Budapest and a possible lecture in Szeged. At the station in Budapest, where we arrived last Sunday two weeks ago in the early afternoon, we were met and embraced by our hosts, the two profesors I had met in San Francisco, Prof. Mérei from the University of Szeged and Prof. Elekes, one of the most distinguished Hungarian historians, a member of the Academy, and Mrs. Elekes as well as an interpreter, whom we did not need since we conversed in German and to a lesser extent in English, and taken in two chauffered cars of the Academy to the luxurious Gellert Hotel built in the pompous style of the early twentieth century,with thermal baths and elaborate swimming pools, and named interestingly enough after the missionary who brought Christianity to Hungary.
We were assigned a huge room (with a bar of refrigerated drinks) and a balcony overlooking the Danube. There were flowers for Wilma in the room from the Elekes. We were then taken to a magnificent meal in the Gellert – we have never been wined and dined as we were during the week in Hungary – and spent the next several hours talking with our hosts who had freed themselves from all their academic responsibilities for the week to accompany us. Almost immediately Prof. Mérei told us that he was Jewish, that he had been in a labor camp during the war, and that Mrs. Elekes had been in a concentration camp. He was aware that we were Jewish and had fled from the Nazis, the latter a fact which he stressed several times when introducing us. A surprisingly large number of the persons we met at the academy turned out to be Jewish and I think that our common background had something to do with the extreme cordiality with which we were received. The two Elekes’ and Prof. Mérei were long time party members, having joined the party shortly after the war, and although critical of the excesses of the early fifties were, particularly Prof. Mérei, surprisingly orthodox in their attitudes. While he considered us to be progressive and humanistic in our political views and involvement, he at times seemed sincerely disturbed at our critical expressions.
Our hosts left in the early evening and we were free until the next afternoon. I took an extensive walk through Budapest, and the next morning Wilma and I and our brother-in-law Steve, who happened to be in Budapest, explored the city. We were impressed by what we saw. Budapest was a bustling city comparable in vitality, even if not quite in elegance, to Vienna which we had left the day before. The streets were crowded with traffic, both vehicular and pedestrian, and there were considerable signs of prosperity. The street curbs were jammed with small automobiles. The shops were filled with consumer goods. Food shops had plentiful supplies of vegetables, fruits and meat, in short supply in other socialist countries, and there were no long lines Outside the stores. There was a great variety of dress among the people we observed on the street from elegant to very simple but no signs of poverty. Budapest is a beautiful city with little of the drabness or neglect which mars the beauty of Prague or other Eastern European cities. In the early afternoon we were taken to the Academy wheres I read my lecture. I was asked, to deliver it in English but the discussion almost immediately lapsed into German. It was halting at first, polite, but then became more lively. It reflected considerable sophistication on the part of the participants and a thorough acquaintance with trends in historical studies abroad, and acquaintance which one would not be able to take for granted in, let’s say, East Germany. The atmosphere seemed very reminiscent of Poland, where we visited some years ago, and the Hungarians expressed a considerable admiration for the openness of Polish scholarship.
Free again in the evening, we met Joszef, a teacher of English in a vocational high school in Budapest, who had studied at the University of Minnesota and shared an apartment with Jeremy until he returned to Hungary this past April. This conversation together with other conversations we had, one with a student on the train coming from Vienna, another on Tuesday evening with an aunt of a Slovak student we know, now in Germany,gave us some insights into everyday life which confirmed some of the things told us by our official hosts. In many ways, Hungary seems to be a society which is functioning relatively smoothly. There is full employment, a comfortable standard of living, and a well developed system of social welfare. The political and intellectual atmosphere is much more relaxed and open than in any other Eastern block country including probably Poland. Hungarians receive currency allotments to travel to the West once in three years. There is relative freedom of discussion. But there are also problems. Everyone, including our hosts, spoke of poor work morale and low per capita productivity, the result in part of excessive planning and bureaucratization although Hungary has gone further than other socialist states in decentralizing the economy. Housing continues in short supply. There has been steady inflation which has affected particularly the elderly whose pensions are often very meager. Class differences are still striking, as they are in other Eastern European socialist countries. There is definitely a privileged class which as we observed in the company of our hosts moves in spheres of its own and enjoys definite advantages. There are separate hospitals for the academics, special resorts, and greater opportunity to travel abroad. The social distance between our hosts and the chauffeurs who carried our bags and ate at separate tables was marked. At the same time there are limits to political expression. Despite a broad range of opinions which can be expressed, there are opinions which cannot appear in print. The circle of liberal Marxist philosophers around Georg Lukacs, who was much more orthodox than his disciples, has been dispersed, with several in exile and others barred from university teaching. As another couple, friends of friends in Germany, whom we visited in our free time on Thursday evening, also university people, told us, dissenters, particularly those who spoke up against the occupation of Czechoslovakia and more recently in support of Charter 77, found themselves relegated from their university posts to research assignments in the academy where they were isolated from contact with students. There are consderable diversities within the framework of Marxist ideology, as became very apparent at my sessions at the academy with our hosts representing relatively the conservative end of the spectrum.
Tuesday morning we were picked up by our hosts in two official cars and taken to Lake Balaton. This gave us an opportunity to see the pleasant Hungarian countryside with its tidy villages and prosperous looking small towns. We made stops at various historic sites, including the abbey at Tihany overlooking Lake Balaton. We were fed an elaborate meal at the resort house of the Academy at the lake. Tuesday evening, as I mentioned, we visited the one non-academic persons we had an opportunity to meet on the trip, the aunt of our Slovak friend. Wednesday morning we were free. One of the younger, very open historians from the academy came to see me and spent several hours talking about new trends in Hungarian historiography. Both Professors Elekes and Mérei took pains afterwards to stress that this historian did not speak for the Hungarian profession. Wilma in the meantime went to see Dr. Scheiber, the director of the rabbinical seminary in Budapest, the only one in the socialist countries, to discuss her work on the Bohemian Jews with him. Scheiber, we were told, was an outstanding Jewish scholar. Mrs. Elekes arranged the appointment. This turned out to be the one unpleasant meeting either of us had. Scheiber was unfriendly and obviously not eager to get into a discussion.
In the afternoon, we were picked up by the Elekes and Prof. Mérei to go to Szeged. Szeged, located very close to the Romanian and Yugoslav borders, makes a very Cengral European impression. This time we were housed in the Hotel Royal (!), a brand new luxury hotel, and given a suite. Again we were treated to a magnificent meal and then taken to one of the dormitories where we spent the evening in a conversation with students. Unfortunately the discussion was relatively stiff. The students were polite, inquisitive about American conditions, willing to give us what appeared a relatively official picture of their own curriculum and conditions of study but very reticent to be critical of any aspects of Hungarian education, very much unlike the Polish students we had met on an earlier trip. The fact that the discussion had to be conducted with the help of an interpreter and that the professors attended the session may have contributed to the tone of the conversation. The next morning I gave a lecture at the university to a group of professors and students. The lecture was translated into Hungarian and the discussion was interpreted. I was impressed by the skill of the interpreters who gave a running account of my remarks. There was a moderately lively set of questions coming from the professors, none from the student. We afterwards went to the house of Prof. Mérei, were given a beautiful book of modern Hungarian sculpture, and talked with Mrs. Mérei, who is a professor in the required course on Marxism-Leninism at the university about her course. This is a course, divided into three years, taken by all university students in Hungary, and judging by the syllabi and reading lists remarkably little effected by the modern, reformist discussions of Marxism. It was mid-evening when we arrived back in Budapest in time to visit the friends of our German friends. Again, although just as on Tuesday evening we had indicated that we had eaten already, we were treated to a second sumptuous meal. All our attempts to stick to a diet had to be forgotten for a week. Hungarian cuisine, we decided, is perhaps the best we have tasted, and considerably varied. Of the couple we visited, he was a professor at the university for the creative arts, she a teacher of pedagogy at a college and a concentration camp survivor as was her mother who was there. They talked extensively about the intellectual situation, particularly about the dissenting group of philosophers, on the other hand felt relatively content with the situation, although they recognized the limits, and certainly loyal to the political order. They seemed like people who really enjoyed life and who radiated a warmth and cordiality which one would find rarely in the West.
On Friday morning we were picked up by a young economic historian, interested in historiography, who had corresponded with me some years ago about my book on the German historians and written an extensive review article at the time,who took us on a tour of Budapes, ncluding the castle. The trip was interesting but our conversation on scholarly interests did not really get going. At two o’clock, he deposited us at the Institute of History of the Academy in the castle for an informal discussion with members of the institute. This was a much more relaxed discussion than on Monday and for my purposes a very fruitful one. It gave me a sense of what Hungarian historians are doing, particularly in the area of social history. It also reflects the openness and diversity of contemporary Hungarian historiography. Mérei who took us to a concert in the evening was not happy about the discussion. He would like to have seen it much more structured with the various sections of the Institute reporting on their research activities.
Saturday morning was free. Wilma went shopping for gifts while I went briefly to the Great Synagogue, the largest in Europe. About a hundred men and women, seated separately, were assembled in a hall intended to hold three thousand. Outside the synagogue three Schnorrers (beggars) were standing. Few of the people in the congregation were under sixty. At noon the Elekes and Prof. Mérei met us at the Gellert for a farewell dinner. In the late afternoon we went to the Elekes’ apartment for high tea and a very relaxed conversation which included the very pleasant and well informed young professor of English and American history at the institute for English studies. In mid-evening we were picked up by a couple whom Wilma had met at the lecture on Monday. Mrs. Elekes gave Wilma a beautiful painted peasant plate as a farewell gift. Our hosts for the evening were the editor of a foreign language press, his wife a “Dozent” in pedagogy at the university and their twenty-three year old son who is working on a joint American-Hungarian movie project. There was again a very elaborate meal and we were received, as we had been on our other visits, with a cordiality as if we had been long time friends. The conversation lasted until after midnight. We talked about a large variety of subjects. Our hosts spoke extensively about their situation as Jews, about the position of the one hundred thousand Jews still living in Hungary, and about antisemitism, of which they were very much aware although a large number of the positions at the academy and at the universities are occupied by Jews. The wife felt uncomfortable to ask for promotion to a professorship, although she had successfully completed the second thesis (Habilitation) required, because she felt Jews should not be in conspicuous positions. Nevertheless the position of the Jews is undoubtedly freer than it is in the majority of Eastern European countries.
Our train left the next morning shortly after 9. At a quarter to eight both the Elekes’ and Prof. Mérei came to take us to the station and bid farewell. This had indeed been a memorable week, filled with experiences and marked by an incredible cordiality both on the part of the people whom we met as part of the official program as well as those whom we met inofficially.
The train approached the border. The controls appeared relaxed. Yet an official went through the train and looked with a flashlight under every seat. As we crossed the border we saw the barbed wire fence and the watchtowers.