2 December 2012

1956-63: My First Years In Oxford

My interest in the English language goes back to 1947 when at the age of thirteen my mother sent me to Sárospatak to learn the tongue of Shakespeare. This was an excellent Calvinist grammar school (gimnázium) in North-East Hungary with a long-standing tradition of teaching English (quite a few of its alumni visited England as early as the seventeenth century). As I had no English at all when I arrived there in September (my classmates had started learning the language two years earlier), I had to sit an exam three months later. With two other boys we took special lessons from a schoolboy four years our senior. Dezső was a born teacher, using progressive teaching methods – he believed in rewards, not in punishments. When it came to spelling (very hard for Magyars who have no diphthongs and “w”-s in their language), he put boiled sweets on the table and said: “Boys, whoever can spell this word right, will get them”. I became the fastest speller in no time. When a year later I returned to my former Reformed Church school in Budapest, the Sárospatak method showed its effectiveness. At the end of the year there was a written competition in each subject and I won first prize in English with my essay which was about London or how I imagined that great city.

My knowledge of English certainly influenced my choice of country in 1956 when I left Hungary after Soviet tanks suppressed the Revolution. Initially this was supposed to be just a trip to Vienna – the Students Revolutionary Committee sent out a few of us from the Faculty of Philology with a definite commission – but it soon became clear our visit would turn into a long-term stay abroad. With my friend Sándor András we decided that the best way to help Hungary in general and our fellow-students in particular was to organise a students’ congress somewhere in Europe protesting against Hungary’s Soviet occupation. Our Austrian hosts told us that we were not allowed to do this from Austrian soil – they were neutral and their neutrality had to be respected. Fortunately we met a young American, Clive Gray, in Vienna who shared our concerns, and it was he who suggested that we should approach COSEC, the Co-ordinating Secretariat of the National Unions of Students as they were the only body which might help us to realise our (no doubt, ambitious) plans. In the end a visit to Leiden in mid-December 1956 and a brief discussion with the COSEC people convinced us that nothing could be done.1

Vienna in those days was full of Hungarian refugees. One of them, a journalist friend, told us that at the headquarters of the British Council in Vienna Oxford scholars were interviewing Hungarian students wishing to continue their studies in the United Kingdom. As we wanted to leave Austria anyway and I spoke some English (András spoke a little German), we went for an interview. There was a translator with the Oxford group, but I could make myself understood in English. As I had played a not insignificant part in the organisation of the student demonstration of 23 October which led to the Revolution and also during the Revolution edited the student newspaper Egyetemi ifjúság (University Youth), I was immediately accepted. This was around 20 November and we were told to wait for word when we would be airlifted to England – this eventually happened some six days later. (I even remember the name of the rickety old army plane – it was called “Sir John Warren”, but I am not sure whether we landed at Gatwick or at another airport in the South.)

In a sense I was handpicked in Vienna by Max Hayward, the youngest member of the Oxford group, a scholar specialising in Russian literature. Max spoke uncannily good Russian – some time later I learned that at one point he was employed at the British Embassy in Moscow and even met Stalin in person! Max was thrilled by the Hungarian Revolution and as a good linguist he managed to cram up about a hundred words and phrases in Hungarian, so he managed (on a very simple level) to communicate with monolingual members of our group. In fact, Max Hayward was a new Fellow of St Antony’s College, Oxford, and when in 1957 we finished the language course which made us proud owners of the Cambridge Certificate and were about to be distributed amongst different colleges, he suggested that I should stay at St Antony’s. As I admired him and the excellent library of this postgraduate College (it had a unique collection of books on Fascism and Communism and under Max’s auspices the College even started a new East European sub-collection which was named by us “Bem Library”), I was quick to agree.

Before describing our first years in Oxford, let me say a few words about St Antony’s. It was the most “politicised” college in Oxford, founded by French money and in close contact with the British Foreign Office. The Warden, Sir William (“Bill”) Deakin was a legendary character: at one point Churchill’s personal secretary, a Colonel of the British Intelligence Service, he was parachuted during the war to Yugoslavia to help Tito’s partisans fight the Germans. As a result, after the war he kept up some of his contacts with the “independent” Communists of that country, a few years after my arrival hosting Vlado Dedijer, a close wartime collaborator of Josip Broz Tito. The college also had a number of eminent Russian émigré scholars, the best known of whom was Georgi M. Katkov, a historian of some distinction. It was Katkov (who apart from Feltrinelli) smuggled out a copy of Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago which was then quickly translated into English by none other but my friend Max Hayward.2 So I had the enormous privilege of reading in Oxford an English translation of Pasternak’s masterpiece as early as 1958! It was this experience that drove me towards the translation of the “Zhivago poems” which were eventually published (for the first time in Hungarian) in a book, Karácsonyi csillag (Christmas Star) by Occidental Press of Washington.3

Our first few months in Oxford were both eventful and chaotic. The thirty-odd Hungarian students who took part in the language course had different interests and preoccupations. Some of us from the very beginning started to take an active part in politics, focusing attention on the situation in Hungary. We began with a manifesto of the Hungarian students in Oxford published in the Oxford Mail on 4 December 1956 which was summarised next day both in The Manchester Guardian and The Daily Telegraph. This publication had, as far as I know, one practical result: it aroused Zoltán Szabó’s interest in the “Oxford group” of Hungarians. He sent a letter to me offering help in every possible respect, a help which we continued to use through many years.4 After our first encounter with Szabó, the first months of 1957 were spent by many of us on frequent visits to London where he edited a Hungarian-language weekly, Magyar Szó (Hungarian Word). As far as I remember, I wrote only one or two articles for this paper, but other “Oxonians”, András, László Márton and even Tóni Ormay (later he became a well-known psychiatrist in London) were more active. This Oxford-to-London commuting lasted only for a few months, because by late spring Zoltán quarrelled with the financial supporters of the paper and resigned. His interest in our work and future, however, continued through the Irodalmi újság, the literary weekly of the Revolution, now restarted in London and it did not decline even when a few years later the editorial office of the journal moved to Paris.

One political episode which I can recollect from the first Oxford years was our protest movement against verdicts by courts of the vengeful Kádár regime. Summary executions of participants of the revolutionary uprising had begun in Hungary in December 1956 and continued until 1961, the new puppet regime reserving its special hatred for writers and journalists involved in the events of October–November 1956. This hatred fuelled the so-called “Gáli–Obersovszky case”. József Gáli was a young playwright of Jewish origin – he survived Auschwitz and became a Communist afterwards, but turned “Revisionist” after the death of Stalin. Gyula Obersovszky edited the outspoken daily Igazság (Truth) during the revolution, as well as an illegal journal soon after the suppression of the revolution, both major crimes in a Communist dictatorship. In 1957 they were both put on trial but were given relatively light sentences. The prosecutor appealed for an increase and in June 1957 the Appeal Court changed the sentence of both writers dramatically: to death by hanging! This extraordinarily harsh decision created a storm of protests: every Hungarian writer and artist in the West signed letters of protests asking their English, French and German friends to do the same. From Bertrand Russell to Sartre many important intellectuals signed the protests and in Oxford we also hunted for valuable signatures. In the circumstances the signature of a Communist or Leftist intellectual weighed a lot, so I went to Balliol College to recruit Christopher Hill, the well-known Marxist (now ex-Communist) historian for our cause. Hill carefully read our appeal and signed the letter of protest without a word. As for Gáli and Obersovszky, thanks to the groundswell of international protest, the sentences were changed from death to imprisonment, so their lives were saved.

Arthur Koestler was one of the organisers of these protests. I met the writer of Darkness at Noon only once, soon after our arrival at Oxford, some time in December 1956. Koestler wanted to talk in private to some young Hungarians – Max Hayward arranged the meeting in St Antony’s. Apart from me the other participants were Sándor András, the economist István Zádor and probably Miklós Krassó. The presentation of our case to Koestler was all in Hungarian, a language which he knew very well. I cannot recall any part of our hour-long “interview”, but I remember that Hayward remarked to me afterwards: Koestler was surprised that “these young men were not really indoctrinated”. Actually, Stalinism lasted only five years in Hungary, 1953 was already marked by Imre Nagy’s “reform- Communism” and Mátyás Rákosi could never completely restore his previous iron grip on the country. Our “indoctrination”, if it ever existed, was only skin-deep and the first breeze of freedom blew it away.

A few words about how my “fellow-Oxonian” compatriots fared in years to come. A young man from Győr achieved the highest distinction: György, aka Sir George Radda, served for some time as Head of the British Medical Research Council. The historian László Péter finished his doctoral thesis and was offered a teaching post at the University of London, retiring as a Professor there many years later. Some of us in the Humanities taught for decades at English or American universities (the undersigned taught Polish and Hungarian for 32 years in Cambridge). A certain László Heltai started a choir in Merton College, the fame of which spread all over Oxford: the Kodály Choir. The energetic and good-looking Heltai became the heart-throb of numerous young girls in Oxford, and, I think, was also instrumental in Oxford’s decision to award an honorary doctorate to Zoltán Kodály some time in the 1960s.

Most Oxford Hungarians attended meetings of the Hungarian Society formed in 1957 – most of which took place at St Antony’s College. We had representatives in most colleges and the meetings were attended not only by Hungarians but by British friends and fellow-students in Oxford. I remember particularly well a meeting with composer Mátyás Seiber who talked to us about Béla Bartók and the celebration of the first anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution, when our Club was addressed by, amongst others, an astute British economist, Peter Wiles.5 Another activity of the Club – of which I was for a time Secretary and then President – was establishing contact and exchange visits with the Hungarian students who held scholarships in Cambridge. Thanks to this I visited Cambridge in the summer of 1957 when I realised the truth of the age-old saying: “Oxford is a town with a University and Cambridge is a University in a town”.

The 1956 group of Hungarians in Oxford began to fall apart in the early Sixties. The first great loss that we suffered was the death of István Zádor, a cousin of György Konrád and brilliant young political thinker who studied economics in Trinity College. During the Revolution István was in Győr where he helped Attila Szigethy to maintain order and secure support for the revolutionary national government of Imre Nagy. He was a member of our original group selected in Vienna, considered by most of us as “the brains” of the group. Suddenly, in February 1960 he committed suicide in his College room. His motives remained unknown. This event deeply shocked me; soon after I wrote a short poem mourning István’s death, concluding with the words: “Do not rush to judge him / Remember his face”.6

The other loss was Miklós Krassó – but that was the loss for Oxford, as he left the “city of dreaming spires” for London in 1963, after funds for his postgraduate scholarship ran out. Miklós was a great talker and an original thinker, but he had an innate inability to commit his thoughts to paper. Apart from a single piece for Irodalmi újság (on István Bibó) and a long essay on Trotsky in English7 he never published anything. To the best of my knowledge he never managed to even finish his thesis, although his supervisor Isaiah Berlin (one of the cleverest men and greatest conversationalists of Oxford)supported and encouraged him. There are many anecdotes extant about Miklós Krassó’s extreme absent-mindedness – once he was invited for dinner by the Hungarian economist Jászay in the latter’s Oxford flat and after the meal he went to the bathroom from which he altogether failed to emerge. Somewhat worried about the well-being of his guest, Jászay went to investigate, only to find that Krassó had forgotten where he was and proceeded to take a bath!

As for myself, I was in a curious position in 1957. My mother managed to send out by post my grade book from ELTE, so I could prove that I had completed three years of studies of Hungarian and Polish in Budapest. On that basis the University of Oxford accepted me for a higher, B.Litt. degree. This degree is unique to Oxford and it was invented by the University to ease the very stringent conditions set down for a PhD. For example, in those days it was out of the question to write a PhD thesis on a contemporary theme – the University would not accept it. So from the outset I was told to work towards a B.Litt., my subject being Polish and Hungarian Poetry 1945 to 1956. Not that my Oxford supervisor was of much help – Professor Boris Unbegaun was a kindly “White Russian” of Baltic origin who offered me some sherry and a big smile at our first meeting, at which he gave some technical advice on how to write a thesis. His very first words to me, though, were strikingly honest: “I don’t know anything about your subject-matter”. Advancing on uncharted territory then, I was at the time most interested in the political aspects of poetry, and posed the question why most Polish and Hungarian poets accepted, or partly accepted Communist promises of a better future in 1945–48, and why and how they rebelled after Stalin’s death against Stalinist censorship and “socialist realism” imposed upon them by the Communist Party. Apart from Max Hayward who read my thesis in manuscript, I got useful advice from two eminent Polish poets, Czesław Miłosz and Zbigniew Herbert, both of whom I knew personally. It took me four years to finish my thesis (with a year-long pause in between on account of my trip to Indonesia) and I received my B.Litt. degree in 1962, the thesis itself being published in book form by Clarendon Press, Oxford, four years later, in 1966.

In other words, I could have “jumped” over my first degree, but I realised that the absence of a BA in my CV could raise eyebrows in later years. So I approached Professor Jerzy Pieterkiewicz in London to ask whether I could do an External BA while working on my B.Litt. in Oxford. The answer was affirmative, though Pieterkiewicz, a poet himself, told me: “You can do it, if you stop writing poetry”. Needless to say, I did not accept his advice – if you have to write a poem, you just have to do it. At any rate, in 1958 I sat for four days of examinations in London, working for a BA in Polish as my main subject and Hungarian as my subsidiary – I was literally sweating blood during the exams but I passed, putting “BA Hon., London” to my name. The third academic degree I received was in 1969 when joining the teaching staff of the University of Cambridge I was automatically awarded an MA (Cantab.) on account of my Oxford B.Litt. (the latter being a higher degree than MA).

Finally, what was it like to be a student in Oxford in those years? We lived in unheard-of luxury, each student having his own room (though in undergraduate colleges students sometimes had to share three-room apartments with two bedrooms and a joint study), having free meals in our College and getting a scholarship which was more than adequate for other expenses. I lived in the warmest room (right above the boiler) in the main building of St Antony’s for two and a half years, until December 1959, when I moved temporarily to London, returning to the College in the summer of 1960. I got married that autumn and from then on was living in rented accommodation, first finishing my thesis, then working for Max Hayward, as his Research Assistant between 1962–63. In the summer of 1963 when I left for a teaching post in Berkeley, at the University of California, our numbers in Oxford were already depleted, and I had to realise that the post-1956 “heroic” period of Oxford Hungarians had at last come to an end.




1 Sándor discusses this visit in an essay in Parnasszus, 2012 Summer, pp. 14–16. For my account in Hungarian see “Oxfordi egyetemisták a magyar szabadságért” (Oxford Students for the Freedom of Hungary), in Az 1956-os Intézet évkönyve, 1994 (Yearbook of the Institute of 1956), Budapest, 1994, pp. 27–34. For our trip to Leiden in December 1956 we received money from the students in Oxford.

2 It was published under the name of Manya Harrari and Max Hayward, but it was Max who did most of the work. Mrs Harrari was the wife of the publisher.

3 Translated and edited with Vince Sulyok, with a foreword by Victor S. Frank.

4 I discussed this in an essay in the review Forrás, April 2011 , pp. 100–103.

5 Sadly, he is no longer with us: Wiles died in 1996.

6 In memoriam Z. P. 1960/5.

7 Which he read (under duress) onto tape for the New Left Review.

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