A Retrospective after Fifty Years
This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the success that launching concurrent instruction in Hungarian at the Novi Sad1 Faculty of Law meant to many of us. Alas, none of this survives today, except in memory.
Yet my friends tell me that I should at least make these memories enduring, if only because memories, when made to last, may inspire reality all over again. So I went searching for old documents, and I did find some. I also spoke with other human repositories of memory. What I attempt here is to outline the picture I hope has emerged from these endeavours.
Like many others, I grew up in a world marked by frequent and profound changes. My father was born two years before the outbreak of the Great War; I was born two years before the Second World War. Both of us first saw the light of day in the same house, probably in the same room—in those days, the venue for childbirth was seldom the hospital—but not in the same country. My father was born in Hungary (then part of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy), in a street called Váraljai by its Hungarian name. I came to this world in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, where the same street bore the name of Cara Dušana. Some things had not changed, though. We continued to speak Hungarian at home, and I went to a Hungarian school. Our street continued to be trilingual. Most people who lived there had some knowledge of Hungarian, Serbian, and German, regardless of whether our country was the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy or Yugoslavia. Yet already as a schoolboy, I could see that not all of this would survive. From the very beginning of the war, my town was under German occupation, and hardly any Jews remained among us after the war. I also experienced the departure of languages. My trilingual environment had been reduced to two languages. In my early years, we had quite a few ethnic Germans living in town, even in our own street, and I considered it a blessing to have absorbed some of their language to complement my native Hungarian and Serbian. By the time I went to secondary school, however, German words had vanished from the city. Yet the mindset I inherited in my street continued. According to this outlook, normalcy is not the rule of one language over others (or the replacement of one language by another), but the parallel life of several languages within the same environment.
I attended my university courses in Serbian, as the only option. Indeed, in what is today Vojvodina, there was no university education in Hungarian even under the Monarchy—if only because university education as such simply did not exist here.
The date of the first attempt to introduce university education in Vojvodina is 1920. This was the year when the Belgrade Faculty of Law launched off-site legal training in Subotica (Szabadka). The purpose was to rub in the new political reality for what was the northernmost Hungarian-majority city that had become part of Serbia (more precisely, of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes). At that juncture of history, concurrent teaching in Hungarian was outside the field of vision. Geologically as well as economically, it would have made sense for most Hungarian law students in Vojvodina to attend courses in Subotica. Yet this is not how things played out. The local climate, suffused with the zeal of carving out a new place for the Serbian nation, proved less congenial for Hungarian students than the traditional Croatian milieu of Zagreb or the traditional Serbian one in Belgrade. During the interbellum years, Zagreb was the more attractive destination of the two, although a fair number of Hungarians pursued their university studies in Belgrade as well.
After the Subotica Faculty of Law ceased to exist in 1941, another period without university education in Vojvodina set in until the University of Novi Sad was founded. Here, a law faculty operated from 1959. I myself might have enrolled in Novi Sad had it opened a year sooner. I graduated from secondary school in 1958, and started my university studies in September the same year, at the Faculty of Law in Belgrade. In 1962, I earned my degree and, in July, began working for my father’s law firm in Zrenjanin (Nagybecskerek) as a clerk. In 1963, when I became an assistant lecturer, I faced a choice between moving to Belgrade or to Novi Sad. The Law School in Belgrade had higher credentials and recognition, but there was no doubt in my mind about choosing the latter. One argument in favour of Novi Sad was that it provided a home for the recently launched avant-gardist (or so it was called) Hungarian periodical Új Symposion. I became a member of the editorial team and thus, inevitably, part of the local community of intellectuals.
During my student years in Belgrade, I had the privilege of getting more closely acquainted with Serbian culture. I became a member of student organizations, and regularly attended the theatre Atelier 212, which was probably the only truly open-minded avant-garde theatre in any communist country. At the same time, I also participated in an experiment aimed at forming a Hungarian students’ community in town. This was hardly unprecedented, given the pre-war legacy of the Bolyai Farkas Society of Hungarian University Students in Belgrade. Even after the war, there was a similar initiative, this time not confined to academic recruits. The József Attila Hungarian Cultural Society was formed in 1951, but terminated in 1956. I enrolled in Belgrade in the autumn of 1958. A year later, in the fall of 1959, plans emerged to organize an association of Hungarian students. As a law student, I was given the task of drafting the by-laws, in compliance with a 1947 Yugoslavian law on societies. I found some help in the by-laws of the Petőfi Sándor Cultural Society of Zrenjanin, once drafted by my father. On 8 May 1960, we made it to our inaugural meeting. To the post of president we elected Ferenc Bóner, a former fighter in the Spanish Civil War (on the communist side) living in Belgrade. We believed that this decision would serve us well on our way. He was not a student, and thus not really one of us, but he obliged us by accepting the largely ceremonial role of president. I myself was elected secretary of the Society. We succeeded in securing our membership in the Association of Cultural Societies of the City of Belgrade, but failed to find registered offices or have an official stamp made for us, which prevented us from operating as a registered society. Under the circumstances, all we could do was convene every Friday night in a restaurant—fifty to seventy Hungarian students attending classes in Belgrade. Our circle included Jenő Gubás, then a medical student, who would write a monograph on the history of Hungarian student societies in Belgrade, published in 2009.2
When I moved to Novi Sad as an assistant lecturer, there were no Hungarian student associations of any kind, although Hungarian cultural societies certainly existed—as did the Domino Pub, an established hangout of Hungarian students in Novi Sad, without any stamps or by-laws. I think it was in this latter venue that we first came up with the idea of trying to introduce university courses taught in Hungarian.
In 1959, the Faculty of Liberal Arts of Novi Sad University endowed a Hungarian Department, but there was no teaching in Hungarian in other disciplines (and never had been in the territory that is today Vojvodina). Back then, in the sixties, minority political parties and other minority advocacy organizations were out of the question, as of course was any kind of support from the mother country. Group interests had to be protected in other ways. A measure of opportunity remained open under the nascent Yugoslavian and local Vojvodinan regulations, and courtesy of the fact that Tito himself, a Croatian by birth, did not belong to the national majority, and distinguished himself as a very competent politician (if not one of a decidedly democratic bent). Instead of majority zeal, he relied on balance. That this balance became his chief organizing principle benefited not just the nations comprising Yugoslavia but the national minorities as well. In short, our efforts were ‘in line’, although several colleagues of mine, who otherwise toed the line, took exception on this specific point. A truly important breakthrough took place with the adoption, in February 1974, of the Constitution of the Socialist Autonomous Province of Vojvodina, even if it was not signed in the Domino Pub. Significantly, each province was allowed its own constitution at the time, which is no longer the case. The 1974 Constitution of Vojvodina devoted special attention to minority rights—which was natural, given that most of the minorities in Serbia back then lived in two provinces, Vojvodina and Kosovo. Section 5 of the Vojvodina Constitution recognized Serbo-Croatian, Croat-Serbian, Hungarian, Slovakian, Romanian, and Ruthenian as languages of equal status. Needless to say, ‘equality’ before the letter of the law always hovers between words and reality in practice. Declaration in principle is hardly enough; it also takes in-depth rules, perseverance, and even sheer luck.
Section 189 of the Constitution mandates pre-school and elementary education in minority languages. As for higher education, the Vojvodina Constitution leaves that up to ‘arrangements in harmony with the law’. In December 1978, I wrote an article for the periodical Létünk, which I later adopted in my volume of essays, The Nearness of History. In this piece, I attempt to argue that legislators have a responsibility here: ‘The phrase “in harmony with the law” expresses an imperative for the legislature to regulate what is an available option ready to be implemented, and to stake out the path toward the complete equality of nations and minorities.’3 Even as I penned this, I was fully aware that ‘harmony with the law’ might point in several directions, but I also knew what I said meant a valid route to take at that fork in the road.
In May 1977, Vojvodina adopted its own law on education, with Section 46 devoted to universities. The law declared that education had to be offered in minority languages (meaning the recognized minority languages in the case of Vojvodina) whenever demanded by at least 30 students attending the same school of study at the same institution. It was also possible to organize courses for fewer than 30 students, subject to a number of conditions. One of them was to ‘fill a social need as defined by the self-governing body of the institutional community’.
Writing and copying this down, I feel I owe an explanation on several counts. One is the fact that, at the time, it was quite imaginable (indeed sometimes the reality) to have 30 Hungarian law students enrolled in the same academic year. The term ‘self-governance’ also demands an explanation, if only as a concept that has since dropped out of public thinking and discourse. A guiding principle which emerged in the sixties, this notion aimed to present an alternative not only to capitalism but to Soviet-type communism as well, by seeking to make discretionary powers contingent on the investment of work rather than simply on the investment of capital. In short, let those who work make the decisions. The idea even caught on with certain thinkers in the West. In Germany, for instance, a toned-down version of the original concept appeared, under the name of Mitbestimmung. A number of laws on self-governance appeared in Yugoslavia itself, although these seldom amounted to actual regulation beyond the parroting of phrases. In other words, some sort of self-governance was in the offing, but it never got to the point of really empowering actors, as opposed to the party, to make decisions. And there were episodes of confusion. I remember the time when the self-governing body of our faculty had to vote on reappointing László Székely to his position as assistant lecturer—a resolution to be adopted at the discretion of the faculty. As it turned out, Székely’s re-election to the post encountered serious opposition, in the form of charges that he had scribbled anti-Marxist writings. To add insult to injury, he was even accused of Hungarian nationalism. László was hardly a Hungarian nationalist, if only because he openly professed his Jewish roots. He even joked about it, as anyone with a secure sense of self-identity would. He lived next door to us. On his mailbox, he posted a sign in Serbian that read, NIKUD BEZ LIKUD, or ‘NOWHERE WITHOUT LIKUD’. If he had found a Hungarian word rhyming with Likud, he would probably have posted that sign in Hungarian. The river beach of Novi Sad was not far from our apartment. We used to go there to play soccer, without any of us demonstrating any appreciable talent for the game. I remember once getting a clear shot on goal (a makeshift affair cobbled together from scrap planks) but I missed wildly, the ball flying off the pitch far above the crossbar. ‘Ungarn über alles!’, László commented, flicking at me a version of the Hitlerian slogan used to mock Hungarian players. To wit, we Hungarians were so intent on rising above the situation that we even fired the ball way over the target. When it was László’s turn to miss the goal by a wide margin, I kindly asked him why Yahweh chose such an uncoordinated people. In reality, though, we both respected one another’s identity, and we felt liberated upon realizing that, as good neighbours, we did not need to beat around the bush, that there was room between us for a measure of well-judged leg-pulling and banter. To cut a long story short, László Székely was not a Hungarian nationalist. In fact, I believe he was not an anti-Marxist either, except that he took a different view of Marxism than the party cadre who filed charges against him. And this is where self-governance came in. According to the regulations in force, the decision rested with the self-governing body of the faculty. But before the case reached this body, a position was taken by the faculty organization of the Communist Party. About 70 or 80 per cent of the teachers were party members. A friend of mine who was among the party members told me that at the party meeting an almost unanimous position was taken against László. When the issue came before the self-governing body, everything converged on the single procedural dilemma of whether to hold an open or a secret ballot. With the open ballot, László clearly did not stand a chance. Even party members with a more considered attitude would not have dared to openly oppose the party position. We had a long exchange of arguments both against and in favour of open voting. I also participated in this discussion. In the end, a quote from Marx in favour of a secret voting was tabled, and this proved decisive. We had a secret vote, and László got away with it. Self- governance did not come easy in those days, you see.
Concurrent teaching in Hungarian was another matter to be decided by self- governance. I drafted a proposal in early 1970, when the Vojvodina Constitution or the provincial education law had not yet been voted in, but they were in the wings. Standpoints were taking shape in a process, extending the hope of a breakthrough. To put it differently, public politics had slowly begun to recognize minority rights. Some put their faith in these values openly, while others remained less forthcoming, but a foundation of reference had been laid. It did not hurt that I came back in late 1969 from Harvard, where I had obtained my doctorate (officially conferred in the spring of 1970). This bolstered my position at the negotiating table somewhat, at a time when there were precious few Hungarian instructors at the Law School in Novi Sad. My appointment to Associate Professorship pending, I did not have any Hungarian colleagues apart from Károly Gyetvai, a full professor, but he declined to participate in the initiative. On the other hand, I got some valuable help from several Serbian colleagues and friends, including Professor Magarašević, who ultimately decided to play a role. Although his Hungarian was not proficient enough for him to teach in the language, he supported the idea of a seminar to be held by an assistant lecturer in Hungarian, and he even administered examinations in Hungarian himself, in the presence of that assistant lecturer. Perhaps it would not be inaccurate to call Magarašević a parlour communist. As the first dean of law in Novi Sad, he regarded multilingualism as a gentlemanly affair, and his Austrian wife shared this view. Another person who embraced our cause was Dejan Janča, also an assistant lecturer at the time, who spoke some Hungarian. He took over international law classes from Magarašević, and followed in his footsteps by agreeing to administer exams in Hungarian. After the fall of Milošević, he was appointed Yugoslavia’s ambassador to Budapest. We found further support from colleagues who did not speak Hungarian at all but concurred with me that what we wanted to achieve did not amount to revision as such, but rather an attempt at sustainable normalcy in a region of Yugoslavia that had been multilingual for centuries. Just as the parallel practice of multiple religions is normal in a multireligious country. It may have helped that, having grown up in a family of legal professionals, I had the ingrained conviction that arguments had to be tailored with an eye to the decision-makers that be.
Most helpful of all was Nikola Vorgić, who became dean in 1969. I do not think we would have made it without him. The background to the story was quite unusual. Nikola Vorgić had earned his degree with honours, was a gifted jurist and member of the Party, but had been imprisoned, before he had a chance to embark on a promising legal career, on the very probably unfounded charge that he had sided with Stalin in his conflict with Tito. There were many cases like his in those days, all attesting to the harm that can be done when impulse replaces prudent thought and formulae take precedence over the particulars of a case—even if the impulse and the formula themselves happen to be sound. My acquaintances invariably cheered Tito’s move to break with Stalin, but scrapping Stalinism wiped more than just Stalinism off the stage. In a criminal case, my father once defended a novice baker accused of working for the infamous ‘information office’ that is, Cominform. Having had the indictment read to him, the young baker asked the judge what Cominform was supposed to be. Both the prosecutor and the judge then embarked on a tirade against what they called the inhumanity of the Stalinist brand of fake socialism. ‘But Comrade Judge,’ the baker rose to speak, ‘how could I like that Stalinist socialism when I don’t even like our own?’ Nevertheless, he was convicted as a ‘Cominformist’. So yes, Tito’s break with Stalin was a very good thing, except that the enthusiasm spilled over, with prosecutors and others bending over backwards to demonstrate their patriotism. It became possible for a participant in a personal dispute to gain the upper hand simply by labelling his opponent as a ‘Cominformist’.
When Vorgić got out of prison, he found he was unable to continue his legal career, try as he might. At first, no law firm was willing to hire him as a clerk, nor did he have a chance to find employment as a paralegal at the courthouse. Finally, he did become a clerk when he was taken on by my father, whom he befriended in short order. Several times, my father would invite him over to share a family dinner with us. Having completed his apprentice years at my father’s firm, he set out on a career path worthy of a truly competent jurist. He earned his doctorate, started publishing remarkable articles in the field of civil procedure, and returned to the fold of the Party. When I came to the Law School of Novi Sad, he held an associate professorship there. I had made his acquaintance back in Zrenjanin, but I really got to know him in Novi Sad. On more than one occasion when we went out together for dinner, he would have the band play Serbian songs that not only fell into the ‘politically incorrect’ category, but definitely carried certain risks. In any case, Vorgić repeated several times how grateful he was to my father, and this was no empty turn of phrase. To a large extent, we have him to thank for our success in introducing university education in Hungarian as early as 1970.
Of course, the circumstances surrounding me were far from being limited to the fortunate. It was then that I first gained personal insight into a few rather peculiar techniques for denying minority rights. A case in point was what I will call ‘topspin’. A Serbian friend of mine recalled that one of our colleagues, a hard- line Serb nationalist who could not care less for the ‘balance’ I spoke of earlier, at a Party meeting happened to say, ‘This Várady wants to introduce teaching in Hungarian instead of Serbian’. Naturally, such a proposal would have been nonsensical (and obviously thrown out without second thought) at a university school located in Serbia where students of Hungarian nationality barely accounted for 10 per cent in the total, and there were even fewer Hungarian instructors to speak of. Had I indeed meant that Hungarian should take the place of Serbian as the official language of teaching, the initiative could have had no outcome other than point-blank rejection. It would have been far easier to disqualify a ball on which its spin-doctor put some ‘topspin’. A full-scale concurrent education in Hungarian would have stood no chance either, if only because of the shortage of faculty members to actually teach classes in the language. Being a university instructor in those days was never easy. There were a few exceptions—mostly political appointees—but the standards remained largely serious, and not all full- time positions in the various subjects were filled, even when they were supposed to be taught in Serbian. In fact, the university managed to keep certain subjects on the curriculum only by bringing in visiting instructors from Belgrade. This was the case with Roman law for many years. For a while we did not even have an assistant lecturer. I undertook that role myself, running courses in the subject in addition to my core specialty of international private law. (As a side benefit, this latter enabled classes to be offered in Hungarian in the first year as well, with myself teaching the first classes in Roman law.) In short, the requirements were just as high as it was difficult to recruit qualified teaching staff, particularly from among the minorities.
In any event, our self-governing body finally made the decision in 1970, adopted by open ballot following protracted debate, to launch concurrent teaching in Hungarian. Yet I had one more experiment up my sleeve: I wanted to set up a separate department for teaching legal terminology. The aim was to help students master Hungarian legal terminology in fields not taught in Hungarian, qualifying them for the carrying of cases in Hungarian in justice and public administration— to some extent an existing possibility, but largely hoped for as an option in the future. While I was working on this initiative, discussions often centred on the question of whether to offer such a programme in Hungarian only or in all of the recognized minority languages. Someone next to me at the Domino Pub argued it should be Hungarian only, because where we lived had been part of Hungary but never of Slovakia, Romania, or Ruthenia. I found this argument unconvincing, and thought we would be well-advised to launch the department in all minority languages recognized in the province of Vojvodina. This would have made for much better support for my ultimate goal, as well as fit in much more snugly with the catchwords of brotherhood and unity. In short, I felt that Hungarian would enjoy a safer position in the context of a multilingual reader’s department. Ultimately, the plan I set on the table featured all minority languages. In 1970, we started with Hungarian only, but later we managed to expand to include Slovakian, Romanian, and Ruthenian as well. The first Hungarian instructor was Rezső Hock, a man with an unimaginably colourful career. He went to elementary school in Sombor (Zombor) and earned his secondary-school diploma in Zrenjanin. He studied law, first in Budapest, then in Zagreb, before obtaining his degree in Pécs, in 1930. He joined the communist movement but was put in prison. After five years behind bars in Mitrovica, he was unable to find employment in his profession. First, he became a café musician, then got a job fabricating lampshades. In 1941, he was sentenced to prison again, but managed to escape from Bačka Topola (Topolya) to Budapest. Returning to Serbia, he became Deputy Minister of the Interior and, in 1946, editor-in-chief of the recently launched Hungarian weekly Hét Nap in Subotica. In 1948, like Vorgić, he was stigmatized as a Stalin-sympathizer, and dispatched to the infamous penal colony on the island of Goli Otok in the Adriatic. Released after two years, he returned to journalism, and also worked as a translator at the Official Gazette of Vojvodina. This man became our first instructor at the reader’s department. He was sixty-five in 1970. He was followed by Kálmán Fehér, who had been a fellow law student of mine in Belgrade. I had known him back then, but in Novi Sad, we really became friends as co-editors of Új Symposion. More of a poet than a jurist by temperament, Kálmán served as executive for FORUM publishers, followed by a few years’ stint as Yugoslavia’s ambassador to Bangladesh. Meanwhile, he compiled a Serbian–Hungarian dictionary of legal terms. His successor Endre Letsch had been a student of mine in Novi Sad who stayed on for a few years as an enthusiastic reader and published articles in the field while gearing up for his own career in law. The department worked with one or more groups, as the need arose. In some years, we had more than fifty Hungarian students enrolled in the first year alone, necessitating two groups early on.
Concurrent teaching in Hungarian was more difficult to arrange than the terminology department, because it required significantly more staff. In the matter of a few years, we got to the point where lectures in Hungarian were offered in two subjects and seminars in eleven. In those years, we hired a number of Hungarian instructors, all of them alumni of the Novi Sad Law School. They included Enikő Végh (labour law) and József Szalma (contract law), followed by Ágnes Odri (later Kartag, legal theory), Bernadett Ökrész (later Bordás, private international law), István Fejős (criminal law) and Magdolna Szücs (Roman law), who married István Fejős. For a year or two, we also hired Alpár Losoncz, who taught political economy as an assistant lecturer. László Székely, whose degree was not in law, held seminars in sociology, in Hungarian as well as in Serbian. Most of these assistant lecturers went on to become professors in their own right, giving lectures in addition to seminars. Today, all of them are retired (except for Losoncz, who continues to teach classes in another faculty, and the sadly deceased László Székely). Some of our instructors held full-time jobs at the courthouse or elsewhere. They included Veronika Egeresi, Richárd Hübsch, and Katalin Füstös, all of them judges. Seminars were taught for a few years by György Ózer, who held office in the administration of the city of Novi Sad.
I have one more tiny recollection to add to this story. Although most of the students were aware of the Hungarian terminology department when it was launched, we had to post notices giving the time and place for each first class. I duly typed it up (on a typewriter, of course) and brought it to the administrator to post it on the bulletin board. He replied that he was not authorized to publicize a note in a language he did not understand. Who knows what it says? I could have taken the issue to the dean, except that I did not want to escalate an already smouldering conflict. I chose the easier way by pinning the class schedule to the board myself.
It went on like this for a few decades. Today, there is no teaching in Hungarian of any kind, nor a department of Hungarian terminology (or of any other minority language, for that matter) at the Law School of Novi Sad. Ibsen once claimed that ‘the minority is always right’. This need not always be the case. But even if it is a fact that the minority is right, this does not itself yield an entitlement. It simply serves as a starting point for endeavours. This applies to the Hungarian minority in Vojvodina, as it does to Serbians, and all other minorities living in Hungary. It applies to all minorities. As contexts shift, we must never cease from making an effort to rediscover opportunities.
Translated by Péter Balikó Lengyel
1 Újvidék in Hungarian. Translator’s note: Henceforth, for the sake of the non-Hungarian reader and where practicable, we will refer to places by their English or current Serbian names, rather than by those traditionally used in Hungarian. Hungarian place names in their first occurrence in the text are given in parentheses.
2 Jenő Gubás, Értelmiségünk bölcsője – a belgrádi magyar egyetemista egyesületek története (The Cradle of Our Intellectuals: The History of Hungarian Student Societies in Belgrade), (Senta: Bolyai Farkas Foundation, 2009).
3 Tibor Várady, ‘Vajdaság SZAT nemzetei és nemzetiségei nyelvi egyenrangúságának érvényesítése az egyetemi színtű oktatásban’ (Implementing the Rights of Nations and Nationalities in Vojvodina), in Történelemközelben (The Nearness of History), (Novi Sad: Forum, 1995), 112, 113.