In the Elementary School of
According to my birth certificate, I was born in Gordisa; but in truth, I was born in Sívó, a picturesque little village located about one kilometer from the Hungarian-Yugoslavian border at the edge of a beautiful hardwood forest on the banks of the river Dráva. In an administrative sense, Sívó never existed. One could not locate it on the map. It never made the list of Hungarian villages, but as I remember it, it had two streets Uµica mare (Broad Street) and Uµica mikc. (Little Street). My very modest house was located in the middle of a half an acre yard on Little Street. The outside walls of my house, just like all the small mud-brick houses of the village, were whitewashed and decorated with a foot wide black stripe at the bottom. The village was built on the west bank of a small lake, and its two streets were facing in north-south directions. The dike, which was built on the south-end of the village to protect it from the occasional flooding of the river Dráva, served also as the playground for the children of Sívó. I remember how much we children liked to roll down the grassy banks of the dike. Standing on the top of it, I could see the whole village in its pristine beauty and, as I think of it now, also its primitiveness. The community of my native village called themselves B∂ash: they were known to most Hungarians as Gypsies. After World War II, in 1949, Sívó, my native village, was relocated on the flood plain of a little creek in a segregated area nearby Gordisa. It was then that at age eight, thanks to the intent of Communism, to integrate my community into the Hungarian society, I was able to enroll in the Elementary School of Gordisa
The Elementary School of Gordisa was a good mile from my home in the New Settlement. It was a one room building tailored for the education of pupils from the first through the eighth grade. Students from the first to the fourth grades attended it from eight in the morning until noon, and students from the fifth through eighth grades attended it from one in the afternoon until five. It was that configuration of the pupil’s attendance of the school that made it possible for me to keep ahead of my studies. Being in the same room with my upper class school mates made it possible for me not only to learn my assignments but also to listen to the teacher=s lectures aimed at the upper classes in the same room. It was in the elementary school of Gordisa that I learned not only to speak, read and write in proper Hungarian language but also to listen in order to learn. Yes, it was in the early years of my elementary school that I learned to listen and listened in order to learn.
Before I started school, race, nationality, and skin color were not concerns of mine. In elementary school, after a sad realization and disappointment, they became large concerns. I started to question, and I still question, whether human worth is a derivative of race, nationality, or skin color. I questioned it because it was in school that I realized the fact that Gordisa, just like the rest of the country, in spite of the imposed ordinance by the newly introduced communism, was neither ready nor willing to consider the people of my community equal to themselves.
In the elementary school, I learned more than that the people of my community were Gypsies. The fact that people of my new home were still segregated and considered unequal told me that integration and equality did not take place. Communism, in spite of its intention, failed to convince the average person of the equality I craved. Sadly, I learned that neither the integration of my native villagers nor their social acceptance took place because the newly introduced ordinance did not change the centuries’ old Hungarian view of Sívó’s people. This was so because the ideology of Communism was only a theory; it did not change reality.
The theory proposed by Communism, in reality, was more often rejected than accepted. That was especially true among the general population of the country. The new social reform was only superficial and unenforceable. All of these facts were brought to my attention by the behavior of the innocent and forthright-mannered children of Gordisa.
Despite my disappointments, my elementary education was an eye-opener. In elementary school, I learned that the social ordinance of Communism by forbidding derogatory and racial slurs just intensified the tendency of their usage and thus became more insulting. Now, as I think about it and recall incidences involving derogatory and racial slurs, situations that I witnessed as child, I realize that forbidding such behavior does not necessarily change people’s views or ways of thinking. Thoughts have their own way of expression. If they are suppressed, when they surface, they usually end up surfacing in expressions of anger and violence.
Upon revealing my concern to my father, I remember him telling me that sometimes it is better to swallow a bitter pill than to chew it. “Do not let a perception imposed on you become an obstacle,” he said. And as if to dissipate my concern, to encourage me and to let me know that I am not alone in such situations, he told me, “The Hungarians’ view of the Gypsies is similar to the European’s view of the Jews. While to Hungarians the Gypsies are stinky and good-for-nothing, to the Europeans, the Jews are dirty.”
“The world’s view of the Gypsy,” my father told me, “is similar to the Caucasians’ view of the Negro. Negroes, because of the color of their skin, are as socially unacceptable to the white people as the Gypsies are because of their dark skin and the stereotypical view of them. The failure to integrate the Gypsies into the societies of Europe, to eliminate discrimination against them, and to portray them as equals, has a long history and tradition.”
“Such a failure,” he said, “is not only the failure of the Communist system. It is the failure of all systems.”
“Son,” my father continued, “European nations refused to consider the Gypsies equal to themselves for similar reasons the Negroes are considered inferior to the Caucasian race. I want you to remember that the sin of discrimination pales in comparison to extermination. My dear son, I hate to think of what the future of Shívó’s community would have been if Hitler’s Aryan view and dictatorship had prevailed. We are still living in a world of nations who think of themselves more than of others and, most of the time, behave like the green wheat.” Then, quoting an ancient Arab proverb, he said,
Up and above keeps its head while green is the wheat;
It is capable of bowing only after ripe and ready to reap.
“People, like wheat,” my father told me, “must reach maturity in order to understand, appreciate, and accept. They must learn to see, to hear, and to behave. Behave not like the green wheat, a poorly educated man or an impolite person, but like the ripe wheat.”
“My dear son,” he continued, “I want you to remember that only an ignorant man is rude, and only a crude person is capable of bragging about his racial superiority. Looking down upon and insulting another man is not in the character of polite men. Some men are ignorant. Others are arrogant. Sometimes people are arrogant because they know no humility. At times, some people are insecure, cowardly, and afraid, and they have to learn to be brave. You have to learn about these qualities of men. It is a hard way of learning, but you have to learn it on your own.”
Now, as I am writing my memoir and thinking about my father’s advice, I am reminded of an article titled “The Cosmic Orphan.” It was written by Loren Eiseley, an American Anthropologist. In the article, Eiseley recalls his father’s advice as follows:
My father tousled my head; he gently touched my heart. "You will learn in time there is much pain here," he said. "Men will give it to you, time will give it to you, and you must learn to bear it all, not bear it alone, but be better for the wisdom that may come to you if you watch and listen and learn. Do not forget the turtle, nor the ways of men. They are all orphans and they go astray; they do wrong things. Try to see better."
I felt that with his advice, my father also touched my heart. Thanks to the eye-opening lesson imparted by my father and the constant encouragement I received from my wise teacher, Révész István, I was able to see better and thus became determined to do better.
Mr. Révész was educated as a Catholic priest; but because by the time I started school religion was obliterated and the church banned, he became an elementary teacher. He was an understanding, wise, and kind man—an excellent teacher. I remember him telling me, “Imre, if your sword is short, add a step to it.” My teacher telling me to add a step to my sword made me understand that he had an insight into the battle I was facing in school as well as in life. Because of my teacher’s encouragement, I did my best in school. Because of my father’s advice, most of the time, I swallowed and did not chew the bitter pills. I disregarded unfavorable opinions of me. I refused to accept my status as inferior.
I remember that throughout my elementary school education, the emphasis on Stalin’s victory was so exaggerated that pupils were expected to accept Stalin the Liberator as their father. In Hungarian schools, students were expected to call their teacher tanitó pajtás (teacher friend); and after Stalin’s death in 1953, perhaps to reinforce the camaraderie, pupils were to call their teachers tanitó elvtárs—that is, teacher comrade. The designated word of greeting was elöre (ahead). None of these terms impressed me. I greeted my teacher with the appropriate phrase pertaining to the time of the day and called him sir. I refused to refer to Stalin as my father.
I did not have to learn who my father was. I knew who my father was. I knew that if I worked as hard as my father, I could create my own sense of well-being. I knew that if I studied hard, I could learn not only to read and write, but also to see beyond prejudice, as well as beyond the dictated discipline of Communism. Although by the time I enrolled into fifth grade the Hungarian language was not a task for me, the mandatory study of the Russian language enhanced my challenge. My studying challenge, from the fifth grade on, increased not only because of mandatory Russian language study, but also because by then, all of my classmates had dropped out; I was the only student in my class. I had to be prepared for every class of the day. The responsibility of being the only student in my class and my aim to excel increased my determination to do my best.
Because I started school at the age of eight, by the time I graduated as an excellent student, I was sixteen years old. At sixteen, I spoke three languages (Bəásh, Hungarian, and Russian) and read and wrote both in Hungarian and in Russian. By the time I finished my elementary studies, it became clear to me that the people of Shívó neither spoke nor understood the Gypsies’ language. Based on that notion, I concluded that my community, in spite of their dark complexion, was not Gypsy.
I did not understand how the people of Sívó could be Gypsies. Due to the discrimination they were subjected to however, I knew that within the Hungarian society, my community, like the Gypsies, was placed in a social stratum defined by the color of their skin. It was then that it became clear to me that the Hungarians called my villagers Gypsies for the same reason the ancient Greeks called the rest of the world Barbarians.
During my elementary education, I became aware of the sad fact that not even the utopian philosophy of Communism could change the negative view imposed on the people of Shívó. I also realized that in Hungarian schools, the mandatory Russian study was as poorly accepted as my community was into the Hungarian society.
Russian language study, just as the integration of the Gypsies, was superficial. Integration of the Gypsies did not work because of the overall negative view of them. The Russian language imposition on the society did not work in part because of the teachers’ lenient tendency to let students pass Russian language exams even if students did not learn it. That was especially true in the rural schools. The Russian language did not become the second language of the Hungarians, but by the time I finished elementary school, I could claim Russian as my third language. Russian became my third language because, unlike most of the Hungarians, I wanted to learn it. I had no hostility toward the Russians.
In the elementary school of Gordisa, besides learning two additional languages, I also developed a love for poetry.
Poems connected me to a world beyond my own. It was from poems that I learned a history that was not taught in my school. Poems made me aware of human feelings that were always part of human history but rarely revealed in the history books. One such poem was “The Bards of Wales” written by Arany János (John Gold). In the poem, the poet gave me a view on the Welsh people’s acceptance of their country’s annexation by King Edward. The poem, as I understood it, was a reflection of the feelings of the bards. In the thirteenth century, after conquering Wales, Edward I traveled on horseback throughout the country to assess what his gains were. During his travel, he ordered the bards to praise him in their poems. Some five hundred bards, one by one, were burned at the stake because they cursed him instead of praising him. It was that poem that made me understand how Hungarians felt about the Russian occupation of their country. From the poem, I learned that human feelings are part of ongoing history and that they cannot be dictated. It was from “The Bards of Wales” that I learned a universal truth: the truth that neither kings nor dictators or tyrants can dictate human feelings. I loved poems. They instilled in me a belief—a dream without which life had no meaning. From my literal understanding of Ady Endre’s poem titled “From the Rill to the Ocean,” I learned that to want is the door to possibilities; to want is human, and that one’s will make dreams come true . I was in the fourth grade when I memorized Ady’s poem.
I memorized it because it depicted the environment in which I was living and the conditions I hoped to climb out of.
I was living in an environment similar to that of the foam of the rill; I felt as vulnerable as the foam whose aim was to reach the ocean. I knew that I, like the fragile foam, was facing similar obstacles and would have to fight an uphill battle in my attempt to reach the goal I set for myself. I was inspired by the courage of the poet. I was inspired by the courage he attributed to the foam of the rill. Throughout my life in Hungary, it was Ady’s poem that kept my hopes alive. It was the compelling factor in my determination to leave the rill in the hopes of reaching the saint, the big Ocean.