Rambling into Hungary

Elizabeth Bernays


        I had no reason in 1956 to learn anything about the history of Hungary, our school curriculum being about the British Empire and the Commonwealth, with Australia at the center. How would I know about the compelling complications of Hungary’s birth, the Magyar invasion led by Árpád, devastation by Tatars, the Ottoman rule, the long history of mixed blood, the area’s cultural importance in the Renaissance, its role in the history of Europe? How would I know about the Austro-Hungarian empire, the comings and goings of Hapsburgs and Communists, the support of Germany in World War II when half a million Hungarian Jews were killed, the appropriation of Hungary into Stalinist rule in 1948?
         After the 1956 uprising, a quarter of a million refugees found homes in other countries, including Australia, whose Government offered settlement assistance to around 14,000 of them - a significant number for a country of less than eight million. Three years later I had the fun of working one summer at a giant cannery in the small town of Mooroopna, a hundred miles north of Melbourne on the Goulbourn River. Earning money for my next year at college, I worked the lucrative night shift. At five thirty in the evening I showed up with my plastic apron, pushed my way towards the doors, and along with a couple of hundred other women made my way to the rack where timecards were stacked in alphabetical order. I went through the turnstile and provided it was before six, the starting time of six o’clock was punched onto my card.
         The remains of the day shift were still leaving and a group of women with headscarves trailed behind until shouts of, “Hurry up, get yer time cards stamped you geezers.” I found myself as usual on row two. I lined up on one side of a set of belts twenty yards long with six other women, while seven lined up on the other side. The cannery had eight such sets of belts, each beginning with two “pear machines.” The lucky ones, who got to a pear machine through excellence in other tasks, were able to increase their earnings because working pear machines was piecework – the more pears fed into the machine the more money could be earned. But the pace was fierce, and to really earn more than the rest of us on hourly wages, you had to be in terrific form. I have no figure for the numbers of pears placed per minute but it was a dramatic sight to see the racing hands, picking and placing, picking and placing.  And the lurid cursing if there were a delay in supplies that would impact pay packets.
         From the pear machines, half pears, peeled and cored, came tumbling along the outer moving belts at waist level. Between two such belts a third one moved at slower pace at a much higher level, and onto that we placed the perfect halves that had no skin or core remnants. This belt led to the canning section for export. We removed imperfections on other halves with a small tool and put the pieces into cans attached to a frame beside a fourth belt. Each worker had such a can and when it was filled the “forelady” emptied it onto the fourth belt. The fixed up pieces on the fourth belt went into cans for domestic sales.
         Our job was called “specking.” Cards attached to our apron strings at the back were clipped whenever the forelady emptied a can of specked pears, and to keep the job one had to have at least twenty-four cans emptied per day (or night). Winners were rewarded with working a pear machine when there was a dropout, and competition was quite intense, though the atmosphere was very jolly and friendly.
         “You still at school are ya? Must be learnin slow eh?”
         “Get on wiv it, Mavis done six cans already.”
         “Hay hurry up mate and ya have time to put a drawin on the pear.”
         “A face or a willy, ha, ha.”
         “Just look at her bum in those red trousers sitting on that old box, looks like a big red moon.”
         “There’s the 9 o’clock bell, wackadoodle, I’m ready for smoko.”
         At midnight the bell rang again and we got a half hour of rest on whatever box or bench was available. Men handed out “lunch” boxes and others rolled tea trolleys up and down the rows, women smoked, and gossip increased.
         “Look at her.”
         “Got a bun in the oven, I’d say.”
          “Yeah well, she’s a good lookin sheila and I seen her playing fast.”
         “Aw, half the blokes in the cookin section wanta do a naughty with her.”
         By six in the morning and twelve hours on the job, conversation flagged and everyone was ready for fresh air, breakfast and sleep. Everyone, that is, but those women in scarves, who were slow to clock off, just like the ones in the morning. After a few nights I realized.
         “The Hungarians wanna work more, ha ha.”
         “Listen to them jabbering away in their lingo, they oughta talk English I say.”
         “Yeah, New Australians. Look at them waiting as long as possible so as to get a few more bloody minutes on their clock.”
         “Miserable bloody wogs.”
         “Alwis cadgen.”
         Happy go lucky Australians had no idea of what these refugees had been through, how every penny mattered, how they had reason enough to be serious.  And the job that was novel and fun for me was serious for the Hungarians.
        I was not to know that other Hungarians would enter my work life properly later. I sailed to England and in my first teaching job in London met English Rosalind, who taught history at the same school and we quickly became friends. Spring 1964 was bursting out in London when Rosalind offered me a place in her rented flat at Regent’s Park –near Regent’s Park, because her friend was moving out. But first I had to be approved by the Hungarian landlady. She was not happy with the way my ring finger had a bend at the last joint – and on both hands. There was a lack of integrity. And there was something crooked, even though she was satisfied with the long lifelines on my palm, and thought the branched heart line was unusually good. The headline was strong and curved. It was just the finger.
         “I don’t like.”
         “You honest?”
         “Where you living now, eh?”
         “What you do for working?”
         “Where you coming from?”
         “You friends Rosalind?”
         “I take a chance on you den, OK.”
         This was Mrs. Kontuly. The flat was on the ground floor and basement, and I was to take over a small room at the back, next to the bathroom. Rosalind, as the longest renter, had the big front room with a bay window looking out onto wide Albany Street. Downstairs in the basement, Lorraine had the dark front room looking into the area. With a kitchen downstairs, and even a dining table, I felt I would be moving up many rungs in the scale of things, but best of all was the grand London street, with the famous Nash Terraces, and all of Regent’s Park and spring glory to walk in.
         No one knew anything about Mrs. Kontuly’s background, except that she had escaped from something in Hungary. She never wanted to tell, and she never spoke of her husband, but she had the money buy the lease on this fine Regency house. She had filled it with antique furniture, and, like other leaseholders in the row, she paid for the upkeep of the white-painted stucco front and columns, and the big black front door with its brass letterbox. Who she was in Hungary I never knew. The stairs up to her domain were close to the front door and we rarely glimpsed her mysterious friends that came and went and called to her in Hungarian as they left.
        It would be ten more years before I actually went to Hungary as part of the new career that made me feel as though I was being paid to do the things I loved. I had become an entomologist with a job in the British Government, and was a speaker at an international meeting on the topic held at Tihany, outside Budapest in 1974. Tibor Jermy, who was to become my dear adopted Uncle Tibor, hosted the meeting. It was at that meeting he grabbed the attention of entomologists from around the world and became my supporter.
         Tibor was born in 1917 in what is now Slovakia. After obtaining a doctorate in zoology in 1942, his career was interrupted by Soviet internment. Here, he once told me, was where he learned to love languages. With other inmates he learned and read German, Italian, Russian and English, and retains a love of languages, always happy to hear new English slang and to ponder the diversity of words in English. At his tiny apartment in Budapest pride of place went to the dictionaries for translating four languages into Hungarian.
         The meeting at which I met Tibor has many special memories for me. It was my first international scientific meeting, and the one where I first presented data that interested other entomologists. It was my first visit to Eastern Europe, behind the Iron Curtain. I conversed with people whose names I knew only from the scientific literature and began my life as a member of a friendly group of researchers scattered around the world, fascinated with each other’s findings, happy to get together at intervals to revitalize their togetherness, thrilled to be part of a scientific family.
         The meeting was held in a hotel at Tihany, a village on the northern shore of Lake Balaton. Tibor, then director of the Plant Protection Institute of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences had organized our program and our entertainment. One evening we went to a concert at the Benedictine Abbey, founded in 1055, its now baroque façade dominating the village and looking out to the smooth lake and the sunset. On another evening we ate goulash, drank far too much Tokay wine and danced wildly in a cellar restaurant.
         I have little memory of Tihany outside the conference hotel however. So enraptured I was with the drama of being a scientist at an international meeting, the amazement of talking to Prof Muller from East Germany who constantly looked over his shoulder and whispered of his son not being allowed to learn English, the sight of the Russian delegates who must always be in pairs and separate from everyone else, the fun of compatriot Alan standing on his head in the foyer of the hotel because he had hiccoughs while the famous and very serious behaviorist, John Kennedy, managed a smile.
         It was Tibor who gave me most at that 1974 meeting. His gentle warmth and quiet smile was there for everyone, his simple humor and genuine welcome made all of us feel wanted and created an atmosphere of friendly collaboration. With his thick gray hair, dark skin and black mustache, he could easily have been taken for a Turk, and he had a mischievous smile that lit up when he told his jokes or made fun (just a little bit) of anyone pompous. It was a time in the history of plant-insect interactions study when new theories were developing that would attempt to generalize about evolutionary history, and a sense of excitement about them reverberated through the week. The field was not yet vast enough to prevent everyone being interested in all aspects, from the minutia of aphid responses to plant surface waxes and the chemistry of strange plants, to the elaboration of grand evolutionary scenarios. Scientifically, the meeting was also Tibor’s triumph. His talk, “Insect-Host Plant Relationship – Co-evolution or Sequential Evolution,” remained the hot topic then and for years afterward.
         The big picture aspect of insect-plant interactions for a decade in the USA had been about co-evolution, the insect-plant arms race, and the role of strange metabolites in plants as principal players in the evolution of herbivorous insect diversity and specialization. Tibor’s argument was that plants radiated and developed chemical peculiarities for reasons unrelated to herbivory and later on the insects had to adapt in various ways. In other words, there was a sequential set of events and not a stepwise race to defend, adapt, and defend again. It was counter to the current dogma, just as a somewhat impish Tibor loved, and he had a case he could defend rather well.
         The presentations were strictly in alphabetical order during the week, so that Tibor’s talk came towards the middle, but it created great interest, intense argument, and for me, much wondering. Like Tibor, I have a predilection for rocking the boat and I found the process of making a new scientific argument highly stimulating. Tibor celebrated discussion and gave me my addiction to new ways of thinking, different ways of looking at things at a time when there was a tendency to slavishly agree with the popular theory of “coevolution.”
         The meeting in Hungary was a significant part of my scientific growth and the beginning of a life-long friendship with entomologists round the world, but especially with Tibor Jermy, who would soon become “Uncle Tibor.” With my partner, Reg, I ran the next international insect-plant meeting in England. Uncle Tibor came of course, and loved my presentation that, like his in Tihany, rocked the boat. Several biologists had theorized that tannins were the ultimate plant defense compounds, to which insect herbivores would never be able to adapt. Their widespread occurrence in woody plants was seen as a generalized defense, preventing digestion and use of proteins, and the large concentrations of them referred to as “quantitative” defenses, as opposed to the minute quantities of alkaloids and other toxins labeled  “qualitative” defenses. It was thought that specialists could evolve metabolic pathways to deal with the latter, but that the tannins were invincible.
         My presentation demonstrated that a number of grasshoppers had no trouble dealing with tannins, and some of them even used the chemicals for tanning their own cuticle, thus making a hole in the grand theory. My friendship with Tibor grew and flourished. His protégé, Árpád Szentesi, spent six months in my laboratory in London and in 1982 in The Netherlands the three of us presented a joint work on how experience changes behavior – another complication in understanding how genetic changes evolve.
         I met with Tibor and Árpád at the meeting in France in 1986 and then once more the meeting of 1989 was in Hungary. The Budapest conference center became an international scene, the field of endeavor enlarged, the diversity of work encompassing all biological disciplines. Tibor and I gave related talks in the section on evolution, but by this time we had somewhat differing views. Tibor elaborated on the theme of his 1974 exposition while I argued that predators had an important role in the affiliation of herbivorous insects and their host plants. Our affection intact, we argued warmly, then and for years afterwards, and to this day we each see flaws in the other’s case, though I believe the “multitrophic” theory is gaining precedence.
         Today, Tibor and I write emails to one another through Árpád’s computer. He sends me manuscripts to polish the English, and I send my memoir essays to him. We share a love of nature, wonderment at the brevity of life, the glory of a sunset. Across the world we each listen to the music of Kodaly, and as Tibor remembers the open friendly nature of Americans he met in his year in Washington State and visits to a free world, I remember my Hungarian friends and my visits to Hungary. I think of the many Shakespearean plays and concerts that were in production in Budapest when I visited in 1980 and the fine Verdi opera I went to for a mere three dollars, the hostel where I stayed that had once been a monastery.
         I remember visiting Tibor’s apartment, perhaps four hundred square feet of it, where his wife Grete made tea and we sat at a tiny table in the kitchen. I had brought, at his request, a chain for the door and a mask for Grete’s eyes, as they had no blinds or curtains to keep out the morning sun in summer. He talked of the tragedy of 1956, the Hungarians’ disappointment in the west. We walked out along the narrow cobblestone streets, by medieval buildings restored after being reduced to rubble in World War II. We walked over the chain bridge across the Danube and I know that both of us felt an irony in the music of Johan Strauss floating up from one of the tourist boats.
         The strongest memories of my two Hungarian friends find a combined love of science and classical music, fascination with human behavior, a melancholy for Hungary. Árpád, so ardent about visiting parliament in session in London, Tibor nostalgically bitter for what didn’t happen in 1956, both of them pessimistic in what seemed a very Hungarian way. Both still are, years after the collapse of communism and the adoption of free multi-party elections, and it makes me appreciate how the years of political desperation, and the disappointments of decades retain their power to shape our dispositions. Yet these two represent the excitement of my work career, and make me remember the amazement with which I joined the fraternity of biologists from around the world.
         Hungary is the home of Árpád and Tibor, a country fraught with pain over centuries and I believe the burden of such a history plays out in current problems and in the personality character of its citizens – a pessimism combined with dark humor, a focus on true world problems rather than self, and an old-fashioned idea of scientific honor. I think back to my student days when I knew so little, and Hungarians worked hard in an Australian cannery with never a smile. We laughed at them, not knowing their sorrows or what they had left behind, not knowing how history makes us who we are.  I think of Uncle Tibor, who taught me so much and connected me with Hungary.

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Elizabeth Bernays grew up in Australia and became an entomologist at the University of London, England.  She was a British Government scientist working in African and Asian countries before being appointed Professor at the University of California Berkeley.  She later became Regents' Professor in biology at the University of Arizona, where she also obtained a MFA in creative writing.  She has published essays in a wide variety of literary journals and won various awards for her writing, including the XJ Kennedy Prize for Nonfiction.  She lives in Patagonia, Arizona, where she writes and works on several ecological projects.