On the occasion of his 90th birthday, Pesti Vigadó interviewed Regular Member of the Hungarian Academy of Arts' Section of Folk Arts ethnographer Dr. Bertalan Andrásfalvy about the importance of ethnography and children games as well as about the importance of love.
Interview by Árpád Lesti
Unlike others, you did not flee from the forced labour camp of the 1950s in the Hungary-based Recsk but instead sneaked in to visit your brother. What family traditions helped you to carry out this daring act?
My mother was a goldsmith who studied at a vocational training school of applied art. My father was a recognised soldier during World War I and then after War in 1919 he moved from today's Cluj-Napoca (Romania) to Sopron (Hungary) and became a clerk at the Eszterházy Estate Tail. During World War II the Hungarian town of Sopron was bombed several times as the Hungarian Nazi Arrow Cross party government operated here in 1944 and 1945 during Hungary's Nazi German occupation. My father always came home during these bombings as if nothing was happening. I never ever saw him being afraid of anything.
At the end of the 1930s you went to an Evangelical elementary school in Sopron to be the only Hungarian student there. Why did your parents decide to school you there?
The majority of the residents of Sopron called poncihters engaged in agriculture and vine-growing and were German-speaking and of Evangelical religion. My father sent me to their Lutheran school, where, apart from Hungarian, I could also learn to read and write German. It is quite unknown to the public today but it is a fact that during World War II, when the American forces bombed the Ruhr Region, many young children were secretly and in an organised manner relocated to Hungary, especially to Sopron, by the German Hitlerjugend. Local families gave shelter to these children, who paraded through the town every second or third day singing, blowing their trumpets and playing their drums. A part of the above-mentioned poncihters joined Volksbund, an organisation of minority Germans in Hungary at the end of the 1930s and in the 1940s, and when the Germans occupied Hungary on 19th March 1944 Sopron was deemed a town of the enemy and there were fights in the town. Because of this, some of the local residents became extremely angry with the occupying forces and this also meant that the relationship between us and my 2-3-year-older schoolmates became hostile. This situation, in turn, left my father with no other choice but to remove me from that school.
How did you experience World War II?
At that time, me and my classmates formed a special-interest society devoted to dealing with the future of Hungary: we saw with our own eyes the German and later the Soviet occupation and we were very concerned with what was going to happen to our country. At one point my friend László Erős suggested that we should act rather than only talk, and recommended that we should do something to win the war. Eventually his plan was voted down. Because of the bombings, my father decided to evacuate my family from the town and we moved to the nearby Feketebokor-puszta and this is where we were living at the end of the War. eventually Prince Eszterházy lost all his assets, his clerks including my father were made redundant. We could request some land but we had no agricultural machinery, tools or animals, so I worked for the agricultural cooperative and helped in harvesting and did some other jobs when threshers were used. I also learnt to do menial jobs. In 1947 I moved to Budapest to my grandmother's and attended the Cistercian Secondary Grammar School. When I was a student there, I undertook to help people move homes only using my hand trolley. Once I even had a muscle torn. It turned out later that in our Sopron-based society there was a spy: not much later than I came to Budapest, all members of the society were arrested and sentenced. At our place in Budapest, there was only a house search but we never got to know why that happened. At that time my friend László Erős was not caught, and he later even came back from Austria, where he fled, and several times carried important data and documents with him. About one year after the arrests he was also found in a neighbouring village but he shot himself dead to avoid being caught. Upon his death, a new series of interrogations were held in the Budapest Markó Street based building. All those who were earlier arrested and were serving their time in different prisons were transported to Budapest. The authorities were trying to force them to confess telling them that "they should do so as the Andrásfalvys confessed everything". "This cannot be true," answered the prisoners and they requested that "they should be confronted with the Andrásfalvys". Then the accusers said "it is impossible as they were beaten to death". One of our friends, who was escorted by a guard back to the prison in Márianosztra during a night on a train, found an issue of the Hungarian journal Élet és Tudomány in the compartment where they sat down. He put the journal into his pocket, which the guard did not notice. As soon as he was already in his cell, he took the journal issue out of his pocket and in it he found an article about the life of ants written by my brother. Never before or after did my brother write an article in that journal. This is how this friend of ours got to know that we were alive. I came to know this only over 10 years later when I visited this friend of mine after he had been released from prison. Only after the political changes in 1990, when I requested to see all the so-far secret papers about me and my family kept with the secret police, did I get to know that I was subject to constant monitoring, there were several reports about me and they were trying to find those people I was connected with. Probably that is the reason why I was not arrested.
How did your brother end up in the forced labour camp in Recsk?
It was customary that everybody was to serve one year in the army before beginning their studies at the university. When my brother, however, was conscripted, he was directed to the labour camp rather than to the army because of my family's past. This camp was not the same as the one for political prisoners, but my brother and the others were also under strict supervision. We seldom heard about him anyway, but when it turned out he was serving his time in Recsk, I went to visit him by bicycle as I could not afford any other means of travel. We could talk only for a few hours and then the visitors had to leave. My brother, nevertheless, said there was a means of entering the camp at the rear end of the site so I entered the camp but later fell asleep. I was very lucky to have been able to get out the next day.
What prompted you to apply for the university and study Romanian and Hungarian literature?
When the lands of former families were re-allotted due to land reforms following World War II, my father was not given any land because of his military past in World War I. For this reason, we ended up in Budapest at the end of the 1940s. At that time, my mother was bedridden with sickness, my brother served in the forced labour camp, my little brother was still a secondary school pupil, which situation gave me no other choice but to take casual jobs. When the Sopron-based student society I was a member of was preparing for Hungary's future, I was assigned to learn more about all the nations living in the Carpathian Basin. This prompted me to apply to study ethnography in the first place, as well as Hungarian and Romanian literature in the second place at the university in Budapest. Then I was lucky enough to have been granted a special permission to visit ethnography classes in Budapest. Our instructor in the first year was László Vajda. In 1951 he took us to visit a farming cooperative in the Hungarian town of Kecskemét and, as requested by my teacher, I wrote about what I had seen there. Apparently, there was a spy among us as later on the Head of the Ethnography Department Gyula Ortutay interrogated four of us. "You go to church, you speak with contempt about the Soviet Union and you study middle-class philosophers…" I said I was following in the footsteps of Hungarian writer László Németh and wished to continue my studies at the university. I thanked the Head of Department for his words, which I considered praise from my perspective, but he started yelling and asked: "What? You don't want to study at this university?" I told him I was not sure I would be able to attend in the future. "How could that be?" he asked. "Me and my family are practically starving: my father has no job, my mother is ill, my brother is serving his time at the forced labour camp so I must work," I replied. Soon I started to be late for his classes because I selected coke during the night up until morning. Professor Ortutay noticed this and came to me at the end of a lecture saying: "I thought the Hungarian State Protection Authority had captured you." I was to be seen as a very dangerous man and was regarded as such. A week later he asked to see me. "I was trying to ‘garner' some scholarship for you but all in vain. You see I have a small representation-purpose budget and I can use it whichever way I want, so I have decided to give you a sum of 100 forints each month. At that time, the price of a loaf of bread was 1.50 forints, so this was a nice sum of money. I was going to say no to his offer, but I knew that without this financial support I would not be able to attend university. I could not agree with his political deeds but I am still thankful to him to have made it possible for me to finish university. I and he had many arguments during our classes and he showed several times he did not loathe me or did not consider me an enemy. Later on I visited him on his deathbed and he said to me: "You know you were right in many things. Let us talk about all this later." All this goes to show that people are not simply black or white, they rather assume diverse shades between black and white. In his situation as an influential politician he also risked himself by supporting a suspicious political conspirator under monitoring…
Why were you intrigued by ethnography?
When I was a student in Sopron, I was member of a scouts group and read Hungarian "folk writers" of the 1920s. The two years I spent in Feketebokor-puszta in the company of servants proved me with the most decisive input in my life. I took delight in seeing children gathering in one end of the servant houses on Sundays: they were singing, dancing and having a whale of a time without the supervision of adults. This artistic gathering was not managed or supervised by anybody, it simply came from the tradition these children were acquainted with. I was invited to be a member of their meta ball team: in this game there is no winner, the point is the game itself. Today everything is about competition and winning over somebody let it be about sports, a study competition or money. This approach is in striking contrast with the way of thinking I discovered among the servants, who constituted the poorest layer of the society. I was interested in what way this different world operated. As scouts we also went camping and I wanted to see all places in Hungary. In those years, I went to many places, and kept going even if I did not know where I would be sleeping the next day. I requested accommodation and I slept where I was put up for the night. I believe this is the only way of getting to know people. The first place where I stopped after leaving Budapest behind was the Hungarian settlement of Perkáta. My grandmother's former servant girl worked there. It was at that time that I prepared my first ethnographic notes after having listened to an old man narrating a tale. It has just been very recently that these old notes were found and they will actually be available in the form of a publication. My intention and wish to be related to the Hungarian people meant for me that I wanted to get to know the entire country. The years I spent in Feketebokor-puszta taught me that there is another type of intelligence that is not dependent on the ability to read or write or on one's level of education. This intelligence is a kind of natural folk intelligence, which merits research.
How do you see the situation and role of art in today's world? To what extent is art part of our lives?
At the age of 90, my conviction is that a society can operate appropriately only if human relations supported by arts function well, and that human relations and arts create human relationships and ultimately societies hand in hand. Art is not a luxury product, nor is it a way of passing one's free time; it is the joy of creation. Yet, in today's society art is also specialised: there are writers, poets, musicians and in fact about 4-5% of the society earns a living doing art and the number of those who visit artistic events is not higher than 15-20%. Art is not providing people what it should. But for art human relationships will cease to exist and stop functioning. These, however, are vital just as much as food, clothes and accommodation are. In peasant societies, the building, cultivation and expression of human relationships take place through art, while such relationships operate with the help of love, which is not simply an emotion, because love is actually a collective term that describes that humans will necessarily resort to their peers and fellow humans. Social life is in fact a necessity of life. The essence of art is to imitate emotions and to convey these emotions to fellow humans through words. In fact, imitation is creation in itself, which, on the one hand, can satisfy our need to create and, on the other hand, also functions as the most basic way of satisfying our love. The relationships between mother and child, between children, between those seeking their partners, between spouses, between members of a village community and ultimately the entire nation offer a framework for, and a means of, social relationships and all of these relationships are necessities of life.
What features peculiar only to the very necessity in question do these necessities of life have?
In 1961, I visited the Moldavia-based Luizi-Călugăra and I had the opportunity to listen to joyous singers, accompanied by drums and trumpets, wishing all the best for the new year. In the house where I stayed, several generations lived together. There was a young woman with a 1.5-year-old child. Hearing the loud music, the child started crying and the mother was trying to put the baby to sleep again. The child could not speak yet, and, probably for that reason, the facial expressions and the sounds the baby produced were imitated by the mother. The mother smiled at the child and the child smiled back in return. I read some reports according to which children growing up in state-owned foster homes cannot smile, which means children also have to learn to smile. This means the mother imitates her child to make the child learn to speak and smile just like the mother does. When my son was born, children were breast-fed at the hospital every three hours. It was only at these times that children met their mothers and when the time for breast-feeding was over, children were taken back to their beds "as they had to learn some kind of daily routine and order". After a few hours, babies typically started crying as they were again hungry. In many parts of the world, new-born babies are not left alone: they are closely tied to the body of their mothers and in the meantime the mothers can work. This is the way children can feel the mothers' heartbeat. Afterwards children learn the most basic words through touching the objects in question. Certainly everything has its own time and therefore children should also experience a period when they play with toys. Each period in one's life has their own customs including the times when people are no longer engaged in playing with toys, and when the young adult is about to marry or have a job. Later on one find themselves in marriage with its own special rituals and relationships, then this expands into relationships with relatives and with those living in the same neighbourhood, and finally one realises one belongs to a nation. This development is no longer the case in Hungary. Hungarian writer László Németh wrote that he envies the Serb nation as each celebration of theirs features singers and storytellers, who will sing about their national heroes and will be joined by the celebrating crowd.
Do these necessities of life or the retention of customs have tangible impacts on our conditions of life?
After World War II, an American research project studied refugees from Japan. The study concluded that there were two distinct groups concerning these refugees' attitudes to retaining or rejecting their Japanese roots. One of the groups wanted to assimilate, chose to marry an American and spoke English, whereas the other one chose to marry a Japanese person and spoke Japanese and retained Japanese national customs and traditions. The greatest difference is that in the end those who retained their identity lived 5 years longer than the other group. A book by Hungarian psychologist Mária Kopp and sociologist Árpád Skrabski entitled Magyar lelkiállapot [The Hungarian State of Mind] likewise points out the importance of human relationships. The authors have shown that, in average, the number of people with cancers and vascular diseases, the number of people struggling with depression and the number of those committing suicide are higher in the Hungarian society than the referent averages in other European countries. All this can be traced back to one single cause: namely, that human and social relationships are weak among Hungarians.
In 1983 you wrote "the younger generations are increasingly interested in the values of folk traditions". How do you see the same issue with respect to the awareness of those generations that have grown or are growing up since then? Is it true to younger generations that they are interested in folk traditions and thus want to return to their ancestors' villages and get to know the knowledge their forebears possessed?
I know about an increasing number of kindergartens where children do not just learn about games but also play them. I am thinking of kindergartens where children engage in joint activities and experience these games. In these situations children are surprisingly good at experiencing these necessities of life and they do so with empathy, deep emotions and sincerity. I have written a number of recommendations about the transformation of public education but I was unable to carry out these plans even when I was the minister responsible for this area. Small schools should be reopened as bigger schools are typically attended by pupils and students who come from quite faraway places. Pupils and students must hurry as the bus leaves early, they are not at school in the afternoons, and they do not take part in extracurricular classes or activities, which hinders the formation of real communities. Schools where several grades are concurrently taught exhibit a lot of pedagogical advantages: several grades study in one classroom with one teacher. Earlier, in villages where there were only few children this was the manner of teaching, and this did not produce any worse results than teaching a higher number of students in separate grades. Research has in fact shown that in case several grades are concurrently taught in one classroom, outstanding talents are easier to recognise and it is likewise less difficult for those lagging behind to catch up. I got to know that this way of education is acknowledged and frequent practice in England as in such a set-up students learn from each other just as it happens in the case of learning folk traditions. Four-year-olds learn the way babies are put to sleep from 6-year-olds. The culture of old days that catered for human relationships had its own particular structure. This scenario, in turn, encourages cooperation rather than fosters the nowadays so commonly present principle of "defeating the other". I have also recommended on several occasions and at several forums that local history, folk traditions and folk art should also be taught and given more priority and that such knowledge should also be used actively. And the same stands to singing, dancing, the teaching of folk customs and needlework. I also suggest that teacher education should start already in the secondary school as a young person aged 14-15 wants to choose a profession they got to like, while later on they will choose a career that pays better. At the same time, a pay rise for Hungarian primary and secondary school teachers is also desirable. Education and the nurturing of national sentiment are indispensable when it comes to shaping the future of any nation.
In many writings and studies of yours you discussed the importance of love.
Very importantly, children's games offer the joy of creation, and "joint creation is an intellectual need in life and this is what makes this activity an art". Love is at the basis of everything and this topic was the one that I was also engaged in during my research. If relationships of love break in a nation, when e.g. a landlord becomes separated from his servants, this is just like the separation of two lovers. All tragic Hungarian historic events, including the Battle of Mohi in 1241, the Battle of Mohács in 1526 and the Treaty of Trianon in 1920, are rooted in the lack of a human relationship we might call love. It was first Miklós Asztalos who wrote that the emotional separation of the landlord from their serfs and the landlords' refusal of their serfs' rights were the cause of those losses the Hungarian nation suffered in those years. According to historical records, in 1241 the Hungarian King could not cope with the experienced troops of the Mongols, who severely outnumbered the Hungarian forces. However, two contemporary sources claim that the Hungarian landlords did not join King Béla IV of Hungary in the battle as the King wanted to settle their disagreement over the pastures. An Englishman called Robert also recorded that when the Mongols were about to loot the town of Kiev, the head of the town called Demeter suggested that the Mongolian Batu Khan should raid Hungarian territories as they were richer. The Khan said the Hungarian troops are known to be strong and for that reason he was not going to attack them. In reply to this Demeter kept saying everybody knew that the Hungarian King and the Hungarian high nobility turned against each another. And it is true that "a country in conflict will not gain victory from God!"
Austro-Hungarian Queen Maria Theresa killed peasant communities in the 18th century when she enacted a law enabling landlords to dispossess peasant communities and to ban them from using woods, pastures, flood plains and waters formerly under their control. The Queen did so to encourage landlords to use their land to grow cereals as part of their farmstead. Such lands for farmsteads were cultivated by landless peasants and servants and the cereal thus produced was sold abroad. Hungarian history books are likewise silent about the fact that during the 18th century Hungarian landlords in Transylvania chased away their serfs by the thousands so that these serfs could be replaced by Romanians, who kept sheep, whose wool could be sold more easily. It was in this period when the ratio between Hungarians and Romanians started tilting towards Romanians in Transylvania, which situation led to the conclusion of the Treaty of Trianon in 1920.
It is a well-known fact that you are a supporter of arts education. When was arts education terminated at schools?
In the past decades, opportunities of taking part in arts education gradually declined. The number of singing lesson was reduced, opportunities of engaging in joint singing and choir activities became fewer, and physical education lessons less frequently featured games and dances than before. Dance houses are very popular in both Japan and Norway, they are almost compulsory to attend. But unfortunately this is not the case in Hungary. In this field, Hungary experiences huge drawbacks and this also leads to the situation that there are fewer and fewer human relationships holding Hungarians together.