You may recall my mention of a children’s song, taught in Hungarian kindergartens, about a stork’s leg that was cut by a Turkish boy and healed by a Hungarian child. The topic came up in connection with anti-Islamic propaganda spread by the Orbán government and its hangers-on. While working on the post I discovered an article in which we were assured that such ditties are harmless. Most children at this age cannot generalize and most likely don’t even know the meaning of the word “Turkish.” Later in school they will learn the historical context in which this little song was born.
I never thought I would encounter this topic again so soon, this time in one of the editorials written by Zsolt Bayer, whose notoriety has spread far beyond the borders of Hungary of late. Great was my surprise when I encountered his name in The Washington Post of all places. Michael Gerson, a conservative columnist and former chief speechwriter for George W. Bush, quoted long passages from Zsolt Bayer’s hateful writings against the Roma, which he compared to “Trump’s ugly speech [that] threatens our ideals and our safety.”
But back to the children’s song. Why did it resurface in one of Zsolt Bayer’s editorials? A few days ago in the courtyard of a Catholic school in Jászapáti the dead body of a white stork was found. Its legs had been broken and its head smashed. The public outcry that followed was extraordinary. One reads often enough about brutal murders in Hungarian papers, but “ the crime of the stork murderers”—as one newspaper called the perpetrators—elicited unheard of emotions. A nearby humane society and the district’s member of parliament each offered 100,000 forints to anyone who could lead the police to the “criminals” who should, in their opinion, be locked up for years. As it turned out, there was no need for the reward. The police in no time found the two fifteen-year-olds who were responsible. It was also discovered that the stork had already been injured, and perhaps was even dead, before the boys began their sadistic game. Apparently thousands of storks die or break their wings by flying into power lines. This, it seems, is what happened to this particular stork.
The death of this stork inspired Zsolt Bayer to recall his fond memories of the children’s song about the bad Turkish boy and the good Hungarian child. “Every Hungarian who hears the words ‘Gólya, gólya, gilice!’ can immediately continue ‘Török gyerek megvágta, magyar gyerek gyógyítja.’ That is the Hungarian.” So, being a Hungarian is the embodiment of goodness, decency, and empathy. This what he and his classmates learned from their Hungarian teacher, who happened to be the daughter of a literary historian specializing in the Hungarian narodnik (népies) movement.
To Bayer, the stork is a Hungarian bird, just like the swallow, “because both always return to us. It is their return that makes them mystical in the minds of the Hungarian people. Mystical and similar to ourselves.” These birds are “the wandering Szeklers” who always find their way home and who, regardless of where they happen to be, “see only the steeple of their village’s church.”
After talking about the sadism of children, who can occasionally do terrible things to animals (Dezső Kosztolányi beautifully described killing a toad in his childhood), Bayer continues: “This stork with its broken legs and smashed head is about our society. Because perhaps one could kill a June beetle or a frog. But not a stork. The stork is being healed by the Hungarian child. Or, at least this is my wonderful faith that I have carried with me all along.”
Of course, neither the stork nor the swallow is a “Hungarian bird.” Storks do return to their carefully built nests year after year, but those nests can be practically anywhere in Europe. And Hungarians are not alone in thinking that the returning storks are their very own special birds. The white stork is the unofficial national symbol of both Belarus and Lithuania.
When it comes to invoking the stork as a symbol, it is not this ditty about the Turkish and Hungarian boys that comes to my mind but a famous poem by János Arany titled “The Captive Stork,” written in 1847. It describes a lonely stork standing in the middle of a small plot who would love to fly away, all the way to the seas, but can’t because its wings have been severed. The stork at one point tucks its head under its wing because it is painful to look at other “free storks flying to a better homeland.” But the stork waits and waits. Perhaps one day “it will fly into the sky where the blue of freedom reigns.” At the end, however, the “orphaned stork” realizes that even if its wings grow out, wicked people will cut them back. The original Hungarian can be found online.
Clearly, the stork has a special meaning for Hungarians. Otherwise, it is difficult to explain the incredible reaction to the stork’s death in that schoolyard. Thus, there is most likely a deeper meaning to the old children’s song than meets the eye. In it evil is represented by the Turkish boy who brought trouble to Hungary, while the stork symbolizes the country or the Hungarian people. And, by the way, the song is taught not only in kindergarten but also in first grade. I found on sulinet.hu, a treasure trove of all sorts of information related to teaching and learning, a thorough analysis of both stanzas of the children’s song, including the exact meaning of archaic words and expressions. One thing is sure, this children’s song made an impression on Bayer and most likely on thousands if not millions of others, regardless of what psychiatrists say.