8 September 2016

The Gift and Burden of the Past – Farewell to György Granasztói

The Gift and Burden of the Past – Farewell to György Granasztói

Address by Gyula Kodolányi at the funeral of György Granasztói

August 25, 2016


When someone very close to us passes away suddenly, we feel heart-stricken in a particularly acute way. Then, as we slowly come to from the initial spell of paralyzing pain during the first few days of mourning, we realize that the deceased had more faces than we ever attempted to frame or put into words. While he was with us, going with the colorful flow of the days that make up our lives, the image we formed of him was in constant flux as dictated by the moment, Yet here I am now, heavy with a task I feel is impossible but one I must nevertheless attempt – the task of framing a final, clean copy of his portrait.

Nevertheless, for all his faces notwithstanding, there is the feeling of a the drift of an immutable, deep undercurrent in our personality that we can best identify at its original wellhead and follow it from there to its ultimate, consummate unfolding.

György Granasztói – simply Gyurka to me – has been a dear friend for a half century, and one of the strongest bonds in my life. Beyond personal friendship, this bond linked, and continues to link, our respective families together. It took me many years to slowly discover the wellspring of his powerful but modest personality.

What we become depends on our genetic make-up, the singular, unique, and sometimes downright shocking, concatenation of genes. But it also depends on the age into which we are born, as well as on our traditions, inherited or willfully chosen. These anchors help us answer the challenges we face in ways that allow one’s body and soul to unfold and fulfill their potential in earnest.

György Granasztói and I grew up in an era when tradition as such became enemy number one in the eyes of a fanatical, destructive power. Starting from 1947, The Hungarian Stalinist leader Mátyás Rákosi and his clique spared no vice or spite in their inexorable efforts to destroy the last bit of the natural fabric that had held Hungarian society together, seeking to obliterate not just the so-called leisurely classes, but the middle class, the peasantry, and the traditional working class, along with all social and trade communities down to church congregations and every local singing civious foprm of resistance rcle. They wanted to mold us into a uniform, faceless mass deprived of all property, custom, and memory, to be plundered, terrorized, reviled, and branded as a guilty nation at will.

Such terror threw the nation back to its last resources, and bred resistance. The most obvious form of resistance was to quietly and faithfully carry on and preserve the ideas, values, and customs of our traditions, each in his own way as permitted by the particular circumstances. As we also cherished the memory and spirit of 1956 in our hearts as a crown jewel, a secret token of hope. Being a guardian of this faith became an obligation, a calling, a defiant mission, which many a family and small local community embraced to the best of its ability. We signalled this conspiracy to each other in quiet smiles and intimately told jokes. It was owing to this resolve that Hungary emerged from four decades of Communism in a better moral and spiritual shape than most had expected.

It was from this very ethos of preservation and survival from which György Granasztói emerged himself, from the wide social web of the Hungarian political center whose members always stood by the righteous side – in 1944-1945, 1948, 1956, and 1990. They were always on the right side, on the side of the Good. Another thing that went out of fashion in that half a century was citing one’s ancestry. And György Granasztói was always held back from such references also by sheer good taste, although he had quite a lineage to boast. Yet here seems as good a point as any to recall that the Granasztói-Riemers, who originally hailed from Northern Hungary (today Slovakia), had nurtured close family ties with the Fischers in the city of Pécs. That eminent family included the staunch anti-Nazi Minister of the Interior Ferenc Keresztes-Fischer, who was deported on March 19, 1944, to the concentration camp in Mauthausen by the occupying German forces. Among other notable deeds, Keresztes-Fischer appointed József Antall Sr. as Commissioner of Refugee Affairs when the War began, and, it was some of his few good men who kept their position inder the German occupation, who covertly supplied Raoul Wallenberg and his team with blank personal papers by the thousand.

György Granasztói remained faithful to this noble family tradition, epitomized for him by his father, the writer and urbanist Pál Granasztói. Just as crucially, his father’s circle of friends included Géza Ottlik, whom Gyurka considered the greatest of all modern Hungarian novelists to the end of his life. Another formative connection was his mother’s Russian-French relatives in Paris, another gifted branch of the family perhaps best emblematized by his grandfather, the talented painter Dezső Rózsaffy. An equally vital influence came with his wife, the art historian Katalin Györffy and her family, including such great figures of Hungarian intellectual life as the ethnographer István Györffy; the renowned historian of the Árpád dynasty, György Györffy; Katalin’s father, the ophthalmologist professor of European fame, István Györffy Jr., who invented the plastic contact lens; and, last but not least, the politician-economist Ferenc Farkas Bisztrai, one of the leaders of the National Peasant Party in 1945 and of the Petőfi Party in 1956, who was a close friend of Gyula Illyés.

An awe-inspiring list, indeed. But I have engaged in this enumeration not to further glorify my departed friend but to draw attention to the fact that so many of us grew up with a baggage quite similar to his, even though most of our own families may be less illustrious or even nameless. For what really matters is not the shine of the names in the family tree, the live web of one’s personal legacy, the reward and weight of a past that is accepted and chosen. Gyurka’s seldom-mentioned inheritance, the gift with which he struck out on his own, was precisely of this kind. It was an invisible burden on his shoulders, the sweet burden of being accountable for one’s life, not only to the Almighty but to the guardian spirits and masters he was fortunate to claim as his own.

At this point I can all but hear him say, “Fine, fine, my friend, now let’s move on” – true to form from a man whose sense of proportion and irony never let him down, and who always felt embarrassed by words of admiration. So let me return to that list of names for another reason: It presents us with an organic, multifaceted picture of what it means to be Hungarian – a tableau in which men and women of excellence, from backgrounds as varied as the Russian, the French, the German, and who knows what else, unite in a concerted endeavor to be good Hungarians and good Europeans. Reading this list of names we will find it even more obvious why György Granasztói assumed a key role, working with the Prime Minister, in facilitating the completion, by 2015, of the restoration work on the marvelous wall painting in the Árpád-period royal chapel in Esztergom. That illustrious list also goes a long way to explain why, as a historian, he delved into researching life in the towns of medieval Hungary and Europe, or why he remained forever fascinated with the ways in which the rural bourgeoisie of market towns in the Great Plain fashioned its own, richly differentiated way of life.

There were thousands of us intellectuals, and even more of others, who, during the softening but oppressive mid-Kádár period, the era when our generation came of age, opted for the path of intellectual resistance against a régime whose social engineering for homogenization reduced itself to abysmally undemanding standards, indolence, and cynicism. We managed to find one professional niche or another where they let us “unstable elements” carry on with our work. Having chosen marginalization we managed to steer clear of the pitfalls of officially sanctioned career, and never uttered the word “counter-revolution” in talking about the events of 1956. We reached out our intellectual tentacles far into the past, and into the outposts of freedom in the present. Our determination to stay abreast of the world was fueled by the absurdly self-assured, instinctive hope that caring for the self and spiritual growth still somehow made sense, because the country will need our abilities in some unknown future which we nevertheless firmly believed would dawn on us one day, when order will be created along values.

Over time, as the regime began to open up to the West in an effort to reinvent itself in the midst of deepening crisis, we were allowed to go on study trips abroad to privately pursue our “research” into the politics and institutions of healthy nations with a full life – Gyurka in the Francophone world, myself in the English-speaking countries. His focus was social history, and on his return he duly became the seminal master of the discipline in Hungary. He inquired into the order underlying historic communities, the disorder and anomalies of reality, cultures intellectual and material, and the universal laws ingrained in our nature as human beings. He also studied the human chaos of our era, with one foot always firmly planted in the present. He was a flesh-and-blood person who loved life and never passed up a chance to savour its many little pleasures. He would never make a secret of his penchant for the finer achievements of restaurateurs, wine-makers and brewers on his travels far and wide, all of which he cherished and celebrated as some of the most delightful pinnacles of culture.

This joy of life was inseparable from his whole character as a man. Gyurka was most interested in the human medium, the life of man, this densely complex middle ground between the celestial and the terrestrial. He observed and dissected human nature with a novelist’s awe-inspiring incisiveness. He adored its beauty so much that he forgave all its perfidies. In this ability – as in his bemused patience for this postmodern age of ours – he was aided by two legendary skills: his gift as a storyteller and his sense of humor, the fruits of which he generously shared with his friends and disciples. He was also a peerless practitioner of the ancient and very human art of conversation. While he was predisposed to be enraged by the vulgar and the grotesque – and he often relished giving vent to his fury – most of the time he defanged these abominations by casting them into a glorious narrative or otherwise using his humor to turn them inside out. I lose count of the number of times Gyurka hoisted us from the occasional spiritual abyss by the sheer force of his humor. No knot of tribulation was too intractable for the unraveling and healing power of his joviality to disentangle. As for his self-irony, that capacity peaked when he would tell us about his own blunders and bungles, which he always accompanied by boisterous laughter – how he was more than a few times victimized by his gullible craze for digital technology, how unknown perpetrators once cleaned out his trunk which he left wide open for hours as he parked the car in the street outside his cottage in Leányfalu. This kind of humor inevitably presupposes humility, the genuine power and integrity of the soul.

To such a man, organizing communities comes naturally. Gyurka always found it easy to forge new relations and openings between widely diverse circles and spheres of society. This talent of his really came into full bloom around 1988, finally in the full light of public life, as if all his life to that point had been spent in preparation for the great change. In a society that is free or wants to be free, all intellectuals owe an obligation to partake in public affairs, as our forebears were wont to do, whenever they could. This sense of duty has always been part of the legacy of the Hungarian center. It is hardly surprising that Gyurka, from the autumn of 1990, worked in Brussels holding a triple ambassadorial portfolio from Prime Minister József Antall, nor that he became one of the most popular members of the diplomatic corps there, securing for the benefit of all of us the personal friendship of people like Manfred Wörner, Secretary General of the NATO at the time.

It was in this constellation that he spent the last quarter century of his tenure on earth, in an amazing frenzy of activity. While rearing generations of historians with a fresh outlook as director of the Hungarian-French Atelier for the Humanities, he also served as President of the Batthyány Lajos Foundation and became a key figure in the intellectual awakening and organization of Hungary’s center right. He played a vital role in building a broad bridge between the first and second generations of the center right after 1990, which continues to form the backbone of our political endeavors today. Indeed, it would be difficult to enumerate all the public functions he held, from his Presidency of the Association of Hungarian Civic Cooperation from 2000 to 2002, to his membership in Friends of Hungary, the international society he helped found in 2012.

With such a track record, it is perhaps little wonder that our friend was invited by President Ferenc Mádl and Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to serve as a Senior Adviser.

In the last quarter of a century, my friendship with Gyurka was embodied in the work we shared in public, particularly in editing and publishing our twin periodicals, Magyar Szemle and the Hungarian Review. We wanted to exploit the intellectual network we had been building for decades by establishing a Hungarian periodical for the exchange of ideas on the past, present and future in readily accessible essays. And we wanted a first-rate English-language periodical that would show to the world the intellectual-spiritual face of Hungary and Eastern Europe in the process of being reborn. We would discuss many of our plans and problems at the cherished regular meetings of our Mádl Ferenc Circle.

Dear Gyurka, it is so hard without you! We thank the Almighty for the gift of the exceptional being that was you. But I will not bid farewell, because I know your are nearby, and will remain with us, standing us in good stead through your wisdom and love.

Translated by Péter B. Lengyel and the author

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