Zsuzsanna Kőrösi–Adrienne Molnár:
The handing down of experiences in families of the politically condemned in Communist Hungary
As part of a process of ongoing research for the Oral History Archive of Institute for the History of the Nineteenfiftysix Hungarian Revolution, we collected evidence from prominent figures in the last few decades of Hungarian history: living witnesses like key players in the fiftysix revolution, its victims, its instigators, as well as certain big names in the fields of Hungarian culture, science, art and public life. Altogether we conducted more than eighthundred life interviews. The interviews follow the methods of oral history and of life story, combining a historical and sociological approach. In the stories recorded on tape and transcribed they give us a picture of the subjective experiences, recollections, reflections and character-forming social conditions of those who played a part in this episode of history.
At the end of 1994 we started a new, four-year research programme, under the title of Second Generation fiftysix-ers.(1) The aim of this was to examine the lives of the children of those executed or imprisoned after the revolution, and through this the workings and the changing mentality of the Kádár regime.
Before talking about the results of this research, let us give a brief overview of the cultural and historical background.
After Stalin's death in Nineteenfiftythree the Soviet and Hungarian party leaders attempted to ward off a potentially explosive situation by corrective experiments that were mutually conflicting. In Nineteenfiftyfive the region's first reform Communist, the popular Imre Nagy, was removed from his position as Prime Minister. The opposition reform movement, and ever more widespread social disaffection, led to the outbreak of an armed revolution on the twentythird (23)of October Nineteenfiftysix. The revolution's principal demand was the institution of national independence and a guarantee of basic human and civil liberties. By popular demand Imre Nagy was reinstated, and the multi-party character of his government and the declaration of neutrality led to the stabilization of the situation. Democratic political bodies came into being in almost all parts of the country. On the thirtyfirst of (31) October the Soviet leadership ruled out the option of peaceful settlement, leaders decided to intervene and in a week-long bloody conflict starting on the fourth of November they defeated the revolutionaries, putting János Kádár at the head of government. Kádár renounced his former revolutionary role and he became the leader of the severe reprisals. The official line was that Hungary had just undergone a counter-revolution and those who had taken part in it were the enemies of the peopleës democracy. Recriminations which followed surpassed anything so far known in Hungarian history. 229 people -- Imre Nagy among them -- were executed for their part in the revolution. Around 22,000 were sentenced and imprisoned; 13,000 were interned; thousands more were dismissed with a caution and placed under police surveillance.
The Kádár regime did not simply seek to silence the revolutionaries and their families but also tried to consign the whole of the events of the autumn of fiftysix to oblivion, using a number of methods. One of these methods was simply the falsification of facts and altering of written evidence. We see this in operation in the whole nature of the legal procedures which followed the revolution, or in the Kádár regime itself - notably in its initial years -- in brochures and films which were produced. There were taboos too: events or even whole periods of time which were considered politically undesirable were simply treated as though they hadn't happened, and in such a way that people were afraid to mention them. Both these methods were used in school textbooks and university syllabuses. The majority of people were made to "forget" in a very short time all their experiences, feelings and opinions. They kept silent, and accepted -- at least seemingly -- the official ideology and propaganda. Not only on an official level, but on a personal level too: in most families -- practically up to 1989 when Communism collapsed -- Nineteenfiftysix and the recriminations which followed were taboo subjects. Naturally there were some who withstood this pressure and retained their memories and opinions to the last.
Our research seeks the answer to many questions, but for now, in the material from the thirty interviews(2) so far conducted we are interested in the following: how did the family reconcile the child to this very particular circumstance, and what strategies were developed to deal with the subject of the revolution and an absent father? We would also like to discover how the official organs of society discriminated against members of such families and what feedback such family members received from a society which regarded them as belonging to an officially stigmatised group.
The family is the child's primary learning model for social behaviour, and in this respect of crucial importance. Given that the subjects of our interviews were minors at the time of their father's arrest or execution, the family -- particularly the mother -- had a vital role in determining what the child knew about his/her father, his execution, about the revolution. The family was responsible for responding to the child's -- often never asked -- questions about what happened to his/her father; about why his family is different from other people's; as to whether his/her father is a criminal or innocent or even a hero. All this depended heavily on the mother's strategies.
We isolated three identifiable types of family communication strategy.
1)In the first category we can place those families who opted for complete honesty. The mother hid nothing from her children, spoke openly about their father and what had happened to him. These mothers recognised that they better not protect children from the truth, realising that secrets always come to light sooner or later and that this can cause problems with a child's character development. (If these mothers did not think this quite so explicitly, this was the tendency.) In type one families the mother tried to answer her child's questions honestly and to tell him/her everything -- taking his age into consideration of course. If the child was older and thus had his/her own direct experiences and memories of his/her father, then the mother shared her own troubles with her child and the family worked the problems out together. If the child was very young and had not consciously lived through the traumatic and sudden loss of a father, the mother was faced with the task of interpreting events to her child retrospectively. In this case the mother would explain more and more to the child, gradually, as he/she grew up, and the picture would slowly fall into place. In these families neither the father nor the revolution was either taboo or a secret, but had a place in everyday family lore. This openness and honesty helped the child cope with trauma and its aftermath.
So far this has been the least common type of strategy we have encountered, and we do not expect this proportion to change with subsequent interviews.
What do we know about these families? They were town-dwellers, the father was a member of the professional class, the mother -- if not in professional life then in attitude and mentality -- followed her husband. These fathers even before the revolution had belonged to the informal elite of their area, and by virtue of this came to political prominence in Nineteenfiftysix. Because of their activities not only their family, but a wider circle of acquaintances, retained a positive image of them. This circle -- even if silently -- acted as a support mechanism, thus the family was not alone with the tragedy and the memories. In these rare cases both sides strengthened each other, the family's position was legitimised with a resultant character-strengthening effect.
Mothers who could realise this open communication with their children were those who knew of their husband's revolutionary activities and identified with them. They did their best to make sure that their children should be aware of and understand what had happened to their father. They also managed to solve the crucial problem that their children should be hurt as little as possible by the knowledge. In these families the father's image was nurtured along with the memory of the revolution so that the child formed a positive picture of fiftysix and of his/her father. The father took on the role of hero for his child. All this armed the child ageinst pain when going out intothe world.
2)The second category can be distinguished from the first by the fact that although the mother hid none of the facts of the father's fate from the child, she did not give adequate answers to questions which the child posed later on. In these families the father's fate was taboo.
We find examples of this in families where the child was already older at the time of the revolution and thus had clear memories of his/her father and of events. The mother was thus in the position of having to give an explanation for her husband's sudden "disappearance". Total openness about these mutual experiences of mother and child would have been ideal; however, most of our interviewees recount that after the arrest or execution, the silence at home became total. The children were alone with their trauma. We find a similar strategy in families with very young children too. The mother did sooner or later tell her child that his/her father had been imprisoned or executed, but after that the information stopped and she put up a wall against further questions.
This taboo-creating strategy has been so far the most common. It seems to have no relation to the father's occupation or family housing conditions. From agricultural worker to intellectual, provincial householder to citizen of Budapest, the story is the same. If we look at the father's activities in fiftysix, a similar variety emerges. There were those who played a political, mediating role. Some took part in armed fighting. Others were executed on charges of having taken part in mob executions. The mothers were for the most part not skilled workers, but we do also find intellectuals among them. Most of them stood by their husbands, visited them in prison, though this was more out of duty and love than out of sympathy for the revolutionary cause. None of these mothers could really identify with what their husbands did, even if they basically agreed with it. For them, concern for their family's future ranked higher than anything else. Children from such families became insecure adults both in terms of their interpretation of events and of their estimation of their father's actions, which made him/her vulnerable to negative impacts.
3) The third category describes those families where secrecy was total. Mothers either lied outright to their children or prevaricated, or avoided their questions. This was a strategy open to mothers of much younger children, who had grown up with no father.Sooner or later, however, they began to ask questions and the mother had to come up with some sort of explanation. They explained away the absence of a father with stories of natural death or defection. The child believed all this for a while -- until he suddenly hit upon the fact that his/her mother had been lying. After this he/she would not listen to anything his/her mother had to say on the subject, even if it was the truth. The silence and avoidance of the topic became permanent.
If we examine the economic circumstances of these families, a similar picture to the previous group emerges, with the exception of the fact that here we find no father from the intellectual classes. It is not possible to typify the father's revolutionary activities, but we can say that, unlike the previous group, their part in events was not considered, rather they found themselves involved as if by chance. These are families at the bottom of the social and cultural scale, and we can unequivocally state that the mothers left school with the lowest qualifications. As a result of all this, family members did not really know exactly neither during nor after the revolution what the father had done and why he had been condemned. They had to face the tragic events in total ignorance. These wives did not identify with their husbands; some even denounced them. Children from families like this were at a serious disadvantage, and as adults most of them took the official line: that a counter-revolution had taken place in the autumn of Nineteenfiftysix and that their father was a criminal.
From our information thus far, it seems certain that the majority of children from the families of condemned fiftysix-ers grew up under circumstances disadvantageous to normal psychological development. We can see that, with a few exceptions (one sixth of those we spoke to) surviving family members did not speak to the children about their tragedy, and tried to expunge the events from their memories. The majority of those we have interviewed know nothing or at most very little of their father's activities. With few exceptions the revolution, the father's doings during the revolution, and subsequent reprisals were taboo subjects, in many cases right up until the collapse of Communism. These children have grown up with a very simplified view of the revolution and a totally hazy impression of their father.
Thus a combination of many factors decided the mother in her choice of strategy. Those mentioned above -- that is: what the mother knew of fiftysix and of her husband's activities, their social and economic situation, place of living and the age of the child etc. -- should be supplemented by one more. Despite the fact that we met with open communication among those families at the upper end of the social scale, and found taboos and secrecy to characterise mothers from lower class families, we can't say that the differences depend exclusively on social hierarchy. A better yardstick seems to be the level of cultural connections. Those with more of this at their disposal were able to set themselves on the road to survival with more success. They possessed communicative and psychological aptitude, they had a cultural background which was of vital importance in their strained social situation. By virtue of a firmer social position they had a better chance of obtaining the help and moral support of the family and friends. Those lower down the spectrum had not recourse to any of this, and thus were not able to come to terms with their tragedy within themselves, and their environment did not have the potential of lending them moral or material support.
The children of condemned fathers, apart from growing up with the disadvantage of having no father and being stigmatised by society, had to step from home to school, from school into further education, into employment, into military service, into the office coming face to face with discrimination every step of the way. Their ability to cope with this depended directly on training received at home.
In type 1 families, the tactics with regard to the external world were different from in-family behaviour. Circumstances dictated that in the outside world they should learn the behaviour demanded by day-to-day living, and hide their "dangerous" past. The children learned not to speak about their fathers, furthermore, that in the interests of getting ahead, even of survival, they must learn to compromise in certain ways. They avoided unnecessary conflicts and realised that in certain situations it was useless to fly in the face of the prevailing opinions of society and politics.
We have seen that a large proportion of mothers made a taboo and secret out of their husband's past, thus their children were not directly in the know about their stigmatisation and why society treated them differently. These mothers had opted for a strategy of dissimulation and thus an instinctive dissimulation became natural to the children too. They sensed that they could not ask questions about their fathers and that they too must hush the subject up.
This dissimulation and disguise was relatively successful. So long as the child did not want to break out of the mould, society accepted him/her, and treated him/her as "normal". After all, this was the aim of the government -- to erase all undesirable past elements from public memory. Thus society was conditioned not to speak of the revolution and its defeat. Stigmatising and other discrediting measures against our interviewees were to ensure that they keep their mouths shut about their past.
From the crushing of the revolution up until around the time of the great amnesty in 1963, all formal social institutions were forbidden places to the children of fiftysix-ers. They were not only barred from further studies in middle and high schools and universities, but if they applied for any employment position higher than assistant worker they were rudely rejected. Any institution which could have guaranteed them higher social status closed its doors to them. This strictness relaxed from the middle of the sixties, and the pariah children were "only" banned from schools of top educational quality, or those which could guarantee a high salary and prestige on graduating. Technical schools accepted the "counter-revolutionaries'" children because of labour demand. In due course middle schools opened their doors to them as well, although for the first few years would only take them as night students. High schools and universities held out against them longest. In some highly-qualified intellectual families where the father had a top political post the regime did not interfere with the children's further education opportunities, so they did not have to face discrimination that often.
However, there were opportunities for the child of a fiftysix-er, restricted maybe but they nonetheless existed, to outwit the political regime. Experimenting with breaking out far away from his/her stigmatised home, for example. This yielded a better chance of success, for he could begin with a clean slate in a place where no one knew him/her nor anything of his/her past or his/her family, and it was easier for him/her to keep information about his/her past under control. In these icivilî places he would be judged and treated according to the same standards as everyone else. There was a greater chance here too, that if he did not mention his/her father's story on his/her CV, the authorities would not notice.
They could feel completely safe only in the so-called "back" (hiding) places. Here they could act and speak freely, for they were either among people whose histories matched their own or else the others knew all about their past and accepted it. One such safe -- though narrow -- hiding place was home -- at least for those whose family had adopted an open and truthful policy with regard to the past. A similar back place, if you were lucky, was your circle of friends, where, because of shared values, it was not necessary to conceal facts. There were those, however, who, even though they lived in an open and trusting community, never spoke up, through the fear which followed them everywhere without letup.
The simple fact of contact with other people meant that members of this fiftysix-er group had to take some kind of stance. Public reactions were directed to a group, which the official line labelled as enemies of the system. But reactions were varied, ranging from absolute rejection, through neutrality to wholly positive. Society was not unanimous in its judgments. On an official level the reaction was basically negative, tending to treat them as outcasts. In social and personal situations, however, people were more inclined to be supportive than discriminatory.
Most our interviewees received support from their relatives. A sort of protective network was at work, though its effectiveness depended as we have seen on the level of the family's cultural and material wealth. Support came from many sources, and took the form very often of gifts of clothing or money, or offers of help around the house.
At school, teachers were required to demonstrate official repudiation of fiftysix-er children, yet we know that there were many who kept up this front while at the same time managing to find occasions to demonstrate their sympathy for these children. Most of our interviewees look back on their schooldays with positive memories. The majority of teachers were at worst indifferent, at best supportive to the children. Once the child moved on to the forbidden ground of further education, however, the picture changes. Most teachers were loth to demonstrate personal solidarity, not wanting to pit themselves against the powers that be. The reaction was similar in professional life as well. The informally supportive office atmosphere and qualifications that equipped them for management positions counted for nothing beside the coldness of official disregard which never helped them to achieve any of their potential.
Futher research is needed to find out whether the supportive attitude on the informal level was addressed to the disadvantaged child or was an act of solidarity against the political régime.
Of course, during the forty years of the Kádár regime official judgments on and public reactions to these condemned men's children altered considerably. The first few years were the years of reprisals and the creating of a new order, and thus it was at this period that fiftysix-er children suffered the most, and found that expressions of solidarity, from being rarer, meant much more. With time the situation began to stabilise and the dictatorship relaxed. The standard of living increased, people's sense of freedom grew, and in tandem with all this more and more doors began to open to the children and their families. The social stigma began to fade -- in Nineteeneightynine (1989) they were officially "absolved" of it. (The Hungarian Parliament declared the twentythird (23) of October, the day of the outbreak of the uprising, a national holiday and rehabilitated those who had been politically condemned.) In theory the old fears and tensions were eased away. From 1989 freedom of speech has been a legal right, though after several decades of repressive policies it is difficult to adapt immediately. These had such a lasting effect on society that even today -- albeit to a lesser degree -- the old inhibitions regarding open communication still die hard.
Korösi Zsuszanna--Molnár Adrienne: The handing down of experiences in families of the politically condemned in Communist Hungary. In: IX. International Oral History Conference, Goteborg, 1996. 1160--1166.
(1)The programme director is Adrienne Molnár (sociologist); collaborators are Gertrúd Hoffmann (psychologist), Gyula Kozák (sociologist) and Zsuzsanna Kôrösi (sociologist)
(2) Most of these interviews lasted between 4 and 5 hours and the material collected comprises 40 to 90 pages.