I was hoping to have this posted somewhere with some actual readership but I ran into a bit of a brick wall. So I'll just post it here.
I’m what you might describe as a Hungarian of convenience. I’ll cheer for Hungarian teams competing in high profile international sporting events (which never, ever happens). I cook Hungarian influenced dishes every once in a while. I have even used my Hungarian-ness as a crutch to make conversation with attractive females. In short, my identity as a Hungarian-Canadian has been a means to infuse a bit of excitement into an otherwise dull, white bread, middle class, North American upbringing.
Being half Hungarian has always felt a tiny bit special. There it is, just next to Austria, but nobody seems to know anything about it. It is just foreign enough to remain mysterious, but not foreign enough to inspire anybody to learn much about it. There are no ski hills, no beaches and decided lack of tourist attractions. So it is largely ignored, save for the odd person who has “discovered” Budapest and insists on raving about how amazing it is. And it only enters mainstream discussion as a calamitous news story, once every few years. An environmentally destructive spill here. A horrifying election result there. A ridiculous Internet tax to round out the crazy. It just kind of feels right that they’ve managed to insert themselves as the world’s villains, scapegoats and poster children for years of inaction on Syrian Refugees.
Even with my lifelong exposure, Hungarians are baffling. Much of my extended family still lives in a small village, not quite a stones throw, but maybe a rifle shot from the Croatian border. Indeed, we discovered some long lost relatives in Croatia during the Yugoslavia conflict, because back in the day, people just hopped back and forth over the border and nobody worried too much about it. Travelling back to that village now is a somewhat sad proposition. What was once a bustling little farming community is now full of homes in a state of semi-collapse. The local industry is complaining. And the average age is ancient. This seems to be what happens to your country when you are used as the doormat to the USSR for 30 years.
Outside of the cities, it can feel as if there has been no progress since 1989. Communist life in Hungary sucked, but relatively speaking, wasn’t so bad. The borders were (relatively) porous. Food was (relatively) plentiful. The people (relatively) endured. And then it ended and they didn’t know what to do with themselves. Anybody who could run, swim, jump or afford a plane ticket had left in the preceding decades (the most famous and capable Hungarians seem to live nowhere near to Hungary – compare this list of famous Hungarians to this list of famousHungarian-Americans). Those who remained had lost the structure that supported their lives, and there wasn’t trillions in oil money to swoop in and pick up the pieces. It’s no wonder things are still a struggle.
I’ve spent the last few days looking at photos of Hungary, past and present. I have found three series of photos that have left me confused and sad. The first shows Hungarian soldiers eagerly, proudly, happily tearing down barbed wire fences in 1956, shortly before the Russians returned and expressed their dismay over such hasty actions. The next, shows Hungarian politicians eagerly, proudly, happily tearing down barbed wire fences in 1989. And the last, shows Hungarian soldiers eagerly, proudly, happily erecting barbed wire fences over the last couple of weeks (and of Syrian men, women and children wrestling their way through the fresh Hungarian iron).
What I can’t understand is how a country with such a long history of working to tear down the sharp and pointy fences designed to keep people in, is now so hell bent on building sharp and pointy fences to keep people out. Full circle, but with a sad, ignorant and ironic twist of wilful blindness to one’s own history.
Of course, Canada and Hungary go way back. According to Wikipedia, there are over 315,000 Canadians with some sort of Hungarian ancestry (Although less impressive than the American list, we boast of some pretty kick-ass Hungarian-Canadians. Alanis Morrisette, people!). Most famously, Canada took in around 30,000 Hungarian refugees during the time of the 1956 Revolution. Planes and boats were chartered. Politicians flew over to arrange things personally. We rolled out the red carpet. It was an amazing time and an amazing result, and at least 315,000 people will agree, a long term, net positive thing for Canada to have done. This photo sums it up for me:
The caption reads “First Hungarian refugees with Immigration officer William A. McFaul at the former Montreal–Dorval airport, Montreal, Quebec,1956”
No red tape. No hiding behind false fears. Action, plain and simple.
This wasn’t the only time that we went above and beyond, though. Over 10,000 Czechs in 1968. 50,000 Southeast Asians in the late 70’s/early 80’s. In times of trouble, Canada, and the rest of the world, has responded. So why is it so different now? The situation seems as dire. We’ve proven that it isn’t about race. Why aren’t we doing anything? Does there need to be some sort of Communist hysteria for us to become interested? With Russia ramping up in Syria, are the tides going to change?
Nearly 10 years ago, the Sopron Faculty of Forestry, of which my father was a part, celebrated the 50th Anniversary of their arrival in Canada and their establishment at UBC. As far as celebrations are concerned, it was fairly low key. They erected a monument at the University, and then retired to a hall in East Vancouver to drink a lot of wine and eat a bunch of stuffed peppers. I don’t remember a whole lot from that evening, but one moment does stand out. A UBC Professor, who is the son of a Sopron Alumnus/Former UBC Associate Dean (I mention these things just so you are aware that we weren’t trifling with lightweights), was responsible for the pre dinner speech. He talked about the history of the group, their initial struggles, and then the tremendous contributions that this group made to the country. And then he wrapped up the speech with an idea. Canada had been so kind and so generous, and in the end had benefitted so much from taking on this group of refugees...why don’t we do it again?
Why don’t we invite another University Faculty that has lost their home over to ours, and welcome them and support them and bring them into the folds of Canada? This felt like an astonishing idea at the time, and it is one that I’ve come back to many times since then. But the night rolled on and the wine kept flowing and it proved not to be the start of the revolution. There’s only so much you can expect out of a group of old and liquored-up Hungarians and we’re actually probably just lucky that they all made it home safely that evening. But now feels like the perfect time to resurrect this idea. But as beautifully balanced as the idea sounds, I don’t think it will be enough to just bring over one University Faculty.
Each and every day I feel worse and worse about this situation and my relationship to it and it is impossible for me to sit here and reconcile my existence with the current state of affairs. The birthplace of my father has become an international embarrassment. My own birthplace has shirked its responsibility and if attitudes were the same in 1956 as they are now, I would most likely never have come into existence. Best case, I’d be some angry Hungarian villager throwing rocks at some poor Syrians as they struggled to find their way through a haphazardly erected fence.
There are over 300,000 people out there, just like me. Maybe this is our chance to do something to celebrate our own luck and fortune. Maybe this is the time for all of those Hungarian-Canadians to speak up and create the ambition to bring in the next generation of lucky new Canadians. 60 years from now we might once again have a legacy to celebrate. Right now, it feels like we don’t.