How are you connected to Hungary?

Both of my parents fled from Hungary after the 1956 revolution to the USA. My mother was from Budapest and was afraid to return in the repressive Rákosi era. My father used to work as a teacher in a very small village in southern Hungary. He must have been the only intellectual there and also one of the few strangers, so the people of the village elected him as the leader of the revolutionary board – at the “ripe” age of 22. It could have turned ugly, when the Russians marched in. This was clear to everyone. So their choice was the stranger of the village, and he was left with no other choice than to flee. My parents met in the Hungarian exile community of New Jersey at a local Hungarian restaurant, where they became engaged later. This is why I was born in the USA and raised as a bilingual child.

Did you grow up listening to stories about the 1956 revolution?

Absolutely. For the Hungarian community in New Jersey – the same as for many other Hungarian exile communities – 23 October was a national celebration to commemorate the revolution, unlike in Hungary where this day was not celebrated, of course. One of my most influential memories from my childhood is connected to the feeling of this day. Every year we used to play the recordings of the last radio broadcasts from the revolution on a vinyl record. Radio Budapest sent the last call for help in the morning hours on 4 November, before it fell silent, like all free radio stations, when the Russians marched in. I remember, how melancholic my father would get, as if he was a different person. Already as a child I could feel that this event was something extremely important and significant.

When did you move to Hungary and why?

I arrived in Budapest in 1980. We often spent the summer in Hungary with my family and I fell in love with Budapest. The city had just the perfect size. It was not huge like New York but it still was not a small city. After I graduated I decided to apply at a local university. I studied ethnology and later on art history.

What was it like for someone who grew up in a Western country to be living in Hungary back then?

Local people were very surprised about my relocation to Hungary. I often heard that people normally move in the other direction. For me it was very interesting and very strange here, especially the social economic structure and the whole life in the Kádár era. What I was most surprised about is that people were happy.

Why was that surprising to you?

Before I moved I knew my parents’ stories from 1956 and I also learned about what makes a dictatorship. So I was expecting that people are living in a state of permanent suffering due to the constant and open suppression. But it was not true. They were happy and actually they were doing well. Sometimes they grumbled and sometimes they complained more than I think was allowed. But rather about not being able to buy bananas, and not missing the freedom of speech.

Did you have to censor yourself, since you grew up in a country with more political freedom? Perhaps when you were talking about your parents and about 1956?

You don’t really censor yourself at the age of 18. To be honest I did not have many reasons to talk about the revolution, since my generation here just did not talk about such things. For them 1956 just did not exist. Officially 1956 was considered a counter-revolution against Lenin’s revolution and the proletariat. In consequence the revolutionary were criminals. My generation knew that this was not quite right but nobody knew anything more specific than that. Some people asked me to tell them about the actual events and they were really confused when they heard the real stories. However, for the majority it did not matter, since it was irretrievably over and they rather wanted to focus on their future. As long as you could get a good piece of meat from the butcher every three weeks, a television in two years and even a weekend house at the Lake Balaton, why would you care about such things? This was the Kádár era.

What was the essence of the Kádár era? What do you mean by that?

The motto was: “Just ignore it! Sweep it under the rug! We cannot turn back time! Let’s move on!” I consider this psychical manipulation to be one of the greatest crimes of the Kádár regime. The majority of people exchanged the freedom to think and talk about the important things in life for a comfortable life. And they enjoyed it. They had trust in the system, they adapted themselves to the structure and they came to terms with most of the restrictions. When they did not get a passport one year, they tried again next year. The regime said: “Keeping quiet is better. It’s healthier for you. We don’t have to talk about everything, it’s not that important. What counts is that we have a higher standard of living than the other socialist neighbours. You are having a good life though! You can watch movies from the West! We close our eyes when you leave work early in the afternoon to home…”

How did you come to terms with that? Were you able and willing to fit into the structure?

I was very clumsy in that. Although people here – like I said – were mostly not openly standing up against the system, they still realised and used every small chance to trick the regime. They saw invisible things and were able to read between the lines. I could not do that and I am still bad at it today. Sometimes someone would show me an article that was full of hidden messages. But I did not see them. For me something was either written in black and white in an article or not. You either have something or you don’t. But here stores officially did not have certain things, but “under the counter” you could still get them. Unlike my acquaintances I was really unable to “read between the lines” since I was raised in a more direct and honest system.

Do you think that this characteristic of the Kádár regime still lingers today?

Yes, I believe that this approach is still inherited from one generation to the other. Even Viktor Orbán knows this and he counts on people not starting something here, as they haven’t started anything similar since 1956. Based on this Kádár trade-off, freedom for comfort, Orbán already managed to introduce many changes in Hungary.

As a foreigner, have you been under surveillance?

For sure. In the beginning it must have been due to my father, who founded the “Native Conference”. This conference was organised by the "World Organization of Hungary" back then, a Hungarian government organisation. The Hungarian government tried of course to stop all oppositional activities and keep everything clean from politics. Still, writing contemporary textbooks for teaching foreign Hungarians was not the only thing undertaken there, of course. My father used it to keep in touch with many prominent members of the Hungarian intelligence. When I started photographing later on I am relatively sure that my own file was opened for me, although it was never found. The Ministry of Internal Affairs burned many files in its last days in 1989, and they supposedly began with those ones that were still lying on the desks. Mine was surely one of them, since I was present at almost every opposition event back then.

Did you feel free back then?

I was probably freer than anyone who had been living here, since I knew that I could go back to America any time. I had a backup plan. Furthermore I thought it was impossible for this communist dictatorship to last forever. People are not able to keep up that pressure. I was hoping it would end soon. Other people of my age hardly thought that it was possible. All in all I was living in a very cathartic and euphoric age these years. Sometimes, when I am telling about how we fought for something together, my children become jealous.

Why did you start photographing the opposition activities in 1988?

In 1986 I heard gossip about a demonstration at the 30th anniversary of the 1956 revolution, where Imre Mécs was supposed to give a presentation at the Technical University. I could hardly believe what I heard there. It had a strong impression on me. A wind of change was blowing: finally, someone was telling about 1956. The revolutionaries had already been my childhood heroes. Now there was a real hero standing right before my eyes. I felt literally in seventh heaven. Finally I was even able to have a conversation with him. We even managed to get his speech copied for me – which was not easy, considering that copying machines were quite rare and strongly monitored back then. I sent the speech, just like other materials, to my father so that he could publish it abroad. For me the process, which aimed to complete what the former revolution did not manage to achieve, began in this moment. It got stuck in its infancy back then. People were working behind the stage on making it grow. I decided to help these people. I knew that I was not an intellectual who could add something besides what had already been told. The best that I could do was to document their activities. So in 1988, when I finished my studies, I asked my parents for a camera and I started taking pictures of all the events. I was convinced that we were making history, no matter what happened. It must be a historic moment and it felt that it was the beginning of the end. At the opposition events I often tried to capture the “normal”, not prominent, participants in my photos. I often asked myself: Why are these people here? Why are they taking this risk? What motivates them? And so on.

What were demonstrations like back then?

The environmental protests moved a lot of people. More precisely, the protests against the planned barrage on the Danube near the Slovakian border. The demonstrations concluded that the government did nothing against such environmental protests. The government knew that it was necessary to let people blow the steam off. As long as people were active there and not demonstrating for Imre Nagy! There were times when there was a demonstration against the water power plant every weekend (she laughs). For me, the interesting events were of course which were related to 1956. There were also large demonstrations against the planned resettlement of Hungarians in Romania, and of course there were large protests on March 15, the commemoration of the 1848 revolution.

Was it dangerous to be at these events?

There was some police violence but I grew up in America seeing the images of the civil rights movement. Compared to that it was quite innocent. It was rather a cat-and-mouse game, not a kind of terror, which reigned at the time of the Rákosi regime. I was only afraid that I might be taken to jail for the night or be expelled from the country. As a child of 1956 exiles I did not have Hungarian nationality. When the policemen were coming near me I intentionally began to speak English. This usually irritated them, and since they did not want to get involved in an international scandal they left me alone.

What did you do with the photos?

In the beginning I had no idea how or where to develop them. Luckily I met a photographer at a demonstration in 1988 who had access to a photo laboratory as a science student. He invited me and helped me to develop the films. It was quite creepy, since the dark room was in the institute’s basement where they also kept the animals for the experiments. While we were developing photos all night, dogs were barking and whining continuously next to us. Later on I discovered a small private photo lab at the Eternal Light Square close to Batthyány (in District V) where a lot of demonstrations were held too. I went there and I was lucky, since the owner developed my pictures without saying a word about their contents. We became secret, wordless accomplices. The photos were often used in the samizdat press. Then I met my future husband, who had his own lab at home. I was also working at the end of the 1980s as a translator at the HBO movie shootings. I asked the still photographers for film rolls and sometimes I also sent envelopes with photos to America so that my family could publish them there. The famous photojournalist Mary Ellen Mark also helped me out often. You conspired with who you could.

Were you otherwise active in opposition?

My stomach is still in a knot at the airport when I am entering Hungary. My sister, who came to study to Hungary, and I were always searched. In every summer vacation I brought illegal literature from the USA, especially about the 1956 revolution, which I partly copied and partly privately published here. When we were lucky, the inspection was not that precise. When we were not so lucky, they took away the books. The worst moment was in 1986 when I wanted to bring a VHS cassette with an American documentary about 1956 into the country. They found the tape and we knew that it was over. Bye-bye university studies. But the woman who found the cassette gave it back to me and we could proceed. I had absolutely no idea back then that Europe and America had two completely different video systems, and they could not play the video at all.

What changed in Hungary in 1989?

In the beginning I was still thinking – how naïve I was – that when democracy would finally arrive, people would know what they had to do. Instead there was complete chaos. After communism was over, people were floating in a vacuum without any structure: suddenly your fixed workplace was taken away, you could travel to the West but you did not have any money for it. The governmental support disappeared and everything collapsed. Even in economic terms there was an absolute Wild West. The large group of well-read and savvy intellectuals suddenly fell apart and small groups formed, which were fighting with each other. On one hand this is part of democracy but on the other hand nobody was supervising the larger picture, everything was just about right now. So it happened that the archives of the secret police were not opened, since that was a too complicated and entangled story. For me that made absolutely no sense back then. How could you go on when you don’t clear the table first? Nobody wanted to point fingers at responsible people – which is also a Kádár reflex. Me, on the other hand, thought it was questionable that for example former informers were entering politics. I have often wondered upon hearing what happened back then. Then I got pregnant and I did not have enough time anymore to deal more intensively with politics.

And what do you think of the situation today?

There are some clear parallels between today and the 1980s. It’s unbelievable that people now, 30 years after the dictatorship is over, are partly behaving exactly the same way as in the Kádár era. They are censoring themselves, and expressions such as “let’s not discuss it over the phone” are slowly coming back. I have not heard such words since 1989 anymore. Now they are coming back, since some people are afraid again.

Do you think this is an exaggeration or do you think there will be consequences?

The consequences are different. You will not be thrown in jail. However, there are some people, who I know, who work for a public institution and because of that they don’t make any political posts on Facebook anymore. This is a variant of “not over the phone”, just with social media. If you would like to keep your job, you better not talk about your political attitude, at least not if you are quite opposed to the government line.

What was the most touching moment for you in that era?

I have a special memory: the largest action of the Inconnu activist artist team in June 1989. They wanted to remember all the people who took part in the national revolution of 1956 in addition to the Imre Nagy government. For this reason they set up carved stakes in parcel 301, where the bodies of the revolutionaries had been buried, which are typical Hungarian grave decorations. The event was transmitted live on the radio. Suddenly, a group of workers from Csepel appeared from nothing, nobody knew them. They had been listening to the transmission on the radio, they had picked up their shovels and other tools and came to help the artists, and they did. This unexpected assistance was one of the most touching moments of the whole process. Factory workers and intellectuals were fighting hand in hand.

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