My Central European family
03 October 2000
Few people were interested in my family background before I became the head of the Hungarian government's Office for National and Ethnic Minorities in 1995. Then, suddenly, many people began to ask me to speak about the subject. I have few memories of my Central European family. One memory I do have, however, is of my father returning after a visit to his parents. When he came back, he would always bring us presents. For my mother, it would be a wooden spoon; for us children, a hand-sculpted wash-basin. These were things, I learned later, typical of the crafts practiced by Beash Gypsies. My grandfather had made them.
I was born in Budapest. In my family, sometimes I heard my cousins and aunts and uncles speaking Slovak or German; my grandmother on my mother's side of the family was born in the village of Chorvátsky Grob, which is now in Slovakia. It was a Hungarian, Slovak and German town (despite the name, which means "Croatian Grave", I never heard about Croatians there). My grandmother was German. My great-grandfather was German and when his wife died, he remarried a Slovak woman.
On Saturdays, my relatives would come to visit my grandfather, and they would speak about many important issues. First, they would discuss the international scene. Then, national politics. Finally, they would get down to family business. They took important decisions there.
One night, while I was sitting at home, I switched on the television and a film with a beautiful title came on: "On a Dirt Road, With Wings" (Földúton Szárnyalva). I watched for a few minutes before I realized: the film was about my uncle Jakab Orsós! He is a famous Romani writer in Hungary, and a person of high moral character. The film was about his life. I sat riveted to the screen and watched the whole film. It touched me deeply because I had been too young when my father died to have asked him all of the questions I would have like to have asked him, like what was the meaning of the Saturday discussions, the plucked chicken, the wooden spoon, the other languages...
The film gave me a lot of clear answers. The most important answer was to the question, "Who am I?" The answer the film provided me was the same one Balou gives to Maugli in the Jungle Book: you are charged with achieving more than other people, because you are a person among wolves, and a wolf among people. Through my father, I realised, I had received a special task in life.
Support and understanding was very important in my family; in fact it was the only way! We were part Romani, part Jewish; my grandmother was born in a German family - she was Theresia Roth - and my great-grandfather remarried a Slovak woman. So this was why my cousins spoke German, Hungarian and Slovak.
I can't remember prejudice from my childhood, but I remember poverty: we were poor. There were three children in my family. When I finished secondary school I wanted to be a veterinarian, but at the last moment I changed my mind and decided to study to be a primary school teacher. In the 1970s, the best students didn't go on to be primary school teachers. It wasn't considered a good job. Now I know why I did it: I had read Pierre Bourdieu about the chances of advancement for poor people; for poor people, the first generation always starts at the bottom of the occupational hierarchy.
When I finished teacher-training college, I went on to teach in a primary school for several years, at the Hegedű Street school in Budapest's sixth district. After that I completed a second degree at teacher training col lege in Russian Language and Literature. Then, I decided to try and get into university. I was 28-years-old at the time and had two children already. I was very unsure whether I would manage. But I remembered one English teacher I had had in secondary school, who had told me, "If you have enough strength to continue your studies at university, do that." So I took the exam and did very well!
During the three years I spent working towards my third higher degree, I arrived at two serious decisions: the first was to leave the Hungarian Workers' Party and the second was to divorce. Both of these decisions emerged from my growing introspection as to who I was and what my values were. When I finally got a university degree, I thought about what Bourdieu says of educational degrees earned by poor people: "This degree has the smell of sweat."
After that, in 1988, I went to work for the Minister of Health and Social Affairs Judit Csehák. She was very sensitive to the needs of poor people. She personally answered many of the letters sent in by poor people. She asked me to work to organise an office to communicate with the many people who addressed concerns to the Ministry. Under our tenure, the name of the office changed from "Complaints Office" to "Information Office". I had detested the old name because it did not take seriously the concerns of the people who wrote to us.
After the change of regime, Judit Csehák became a Member of Parliament and she called me to work for her. I had lost interest in working at the Ministry because the new people looked at us and treated us as enemies. The work atmosphere had become very bad there.
In 1994, the Socialists won the election and formed a coalition government with the Free Democrats. Then in 1995, the head of the government Office for National and Ethnic Minorities left his position. A member of the Free Democrats came to me and said that the open position was supposed to go to a member of the Socialist Party and that they were keen to make sure that it was a member of the Socialists acceptable to them. In the area of minorities, the Free Democrats' priority was Roma, unlike the other parties, which were concerned with minorities in general. For that reason, the Free Democrats wanted me as an "acceptable" Socialist.
I immediately came under pressure from all sides to take the job, although I really was not sure. The event that spurred my acceptance was one that was very painful for me: a very high level official called me to give me some "friendly" advice. I was told by this person that I should refuse the job, because members of the other minorities would never accept a Romani person in the position. I was emotionally devastated by this statement, but when I accepted the job the next day, I did it with a clear head and after careful thought.
The three years during which I was head of the Minorities Office were very difficult. It was tough working with colleagues who were as prejudiced as everyone else in Hungary, people unaware of Roma and the real values of Roma. Nevertheless, I think my tenure was a success. During my time in office, the office became a respected body. Additionally - and I have largely the Hungarian media to thank for this - many Hungarians learned, as a result of our efforts, that Hungary is a multi-ethnic society. I also noted during my tenure the remarkable strengthening of the consciousness of the Hungarian Romani leadership. They realised their responsibility to formulate the needs of the Romani communities. The change of their personality during the period was impressive. Finally, in July 1997, we pressed for and won approval of the Hungarian government's "Medium Term Strategy for Romani Issues". Hungary is now one of only a handful of countries in Europe to have a serious policy programme addressing Romani issues. This was a great victory.
If I had to assess the period during which I was head of the Minorities Office critically, I would make the following observation. I think that three things are necessary to address the perilous situation of Roma in Hungary - as in all countries - today: political will, a good programme, and implementation. The guiding assumption of my work was that even if the political will was missing, a good programme was worthwhile and valuable. I am not so sure of that anymore: the current Hungarian government entirely lacks the political will seriously to address the problems of Roma, but is drawing up a new programme. Without the political will to try to find real, workable solutions to the problems plaguing Roma, the best programmes will remain on paper.
Today I am remarried to a Jewish man named Gábor Hegyesi. And my daughter Ágnes - by my first marriage - carries on our family's Central European tradition: she sings in a band that plays Romani, Balkan and Jewish folk music!