October 18, 2016

The excellent students forced into becoming laborers

Nothing was left to chance in terms of education during the Rákosi era, since the communist dictatorship knew very well that it had to create loyal support from future generations, which would vote for it without a second thought in the parliamentary “elections”. These elections, of course, made a mockery of parliamentary democracy, since the voting slips only featured the communists themselves. The communists were able to convince many people for a long time that they were the only ones to stamp out illiteracy in Hungary by expanding public education opportunities. What they “forgot” to mention, however, is that by 1941 during World War II, before the communists were anywhere near a position of power, a census showed that only 6 percent of the population could not write or read.

Several generations grew up after 1945 in this society founded on lies, among them my mother. Her family was considered to be wealthy, since her grandfather owned a sewing workshop and an entire apartment building in downtown Budapest, both of which were of course seized by the communists after 1945. The authorities did everything in their power so that she and those from similar backgrounds would not find success in their careers. Her ability to continue her education after elementary school was made difficult, since the Rákosi government had declared that the greatest recipients of education opportunities would be the children of workers and peasants, and she obviously did not belong to either. This plan even featured lists of individuals who were not permitted to continue their education. This list consisted of the propertied classes, or the children of those who belonged to the “genteel middle class” prior to 1945, to which my mother belonged. Despite her excellent grades, they meant nothing, and she was not admitted anywhere, so that instead of continuing her education in high school, she was sent to a pea farm to work. This was so traumatic for her, that to this day she still brings it up, revealing that she has yet to come to terms with it. Her two younger siblings were not impacted the same way since following the 1956 Revolution, the system became more relaxed.

That her younger brother could continue his education under the Rákosi system, the family moved to a different part of Hungary in the hopes that they would be left alone, since no one would know their pasts. One of their local friends, who knew the family’s background, offered the advice that when he was to appear in front of the admissions committee, her brother should be dressed poorly, thereby increasing his chances of making a positive appearance. This friend even suggested that his pants and socks should have holes, and perhaps even his shoes, because then the committee would see a poor kid just wanting to continue in school. The advice was taken and proved helpful, since my uncle was admitted to the school. It’s one of those weird twists of fate that he wound up working alongside one of the leading figures in the Kádár era as an interpreter. My mother, however, had to give up on her dreams of becoming a doctor. Later, to her surprise, she was allowed to continue her studies to become a health worker, which became her line of work. As it so happened, she began her career in the autumn of 1956, when the revolution broke out.  

Bence Csatári