Tag Archives: Hungarian language and literature

Transylvania in focus

Today’s post will be devoted to three subjects, all of which are related in one way or the other to Transylvania. The topics range from beer to the coming national election to a fifth-grade Hungarian language and literature textbook for Hungarian students in Romania. Since I spent the last two hours comparing a textbook written for children living in Hungary with that written for Hungarian students studying in Romania, I will start with the textbooks.

The Romanian Hungarian literature textbook is available in its entirety on the internet. Internet access to the textbook from Hungary is restricted to the first 16 pages, but from the table of contents we have a fairly good idea of what fifth graders are expected to learn. The verdict coming from educators in Hungary is that the textbook published in Romania is far superior to the ones children in Hungary use.

According to László Arató, president of the Association of Teachers of Hungarian, it is refreshing to read the book published by the Romanian ministry of education, especially when it’s compared to the old-fashioned, stodgy Hungarian textbook from Budapest. From the very first page the authors stressed that they consider the children partners, which is in stark contrast to the book children currently use in Hungary. While the Romanian textbook is full of contemporary writers’ works, the Hungarian equivalent got stuck at Sándor Petőfi’s ”János vitéz.” The choice of this poem didn’t surprise me a bit because Rózsa Hoffmann, former undersecretary in charge of education responsible for the “reform” of Hungarian education, said at least five years ago that it was an absolute must that children study this poem. Those who are unfamiliar with the story don’t deserve to enter college. Fifty-six pages of the 203-page textbook are devoted to the literary analysis of this poem. I might add that in my copy of Petőfi’s complete poems “János vitéz” takes up 53 pages.

While the Romanian textbook is full of modern texts and daily encounters among people, teachers in Hungary are supposed to teach children about metaphors, Greek myths, and the Bible. There is also a section of excerpts from Hungarian writers who describe different regions of the country, with an emphasis on patriotism. One item sounded promising: Ferenc Molnár’s immortal The Boys from Pál Street. But, as it turned out, the book was covered in only five pages–just the structure and plot of the novel plus the names of the characters. The final item in the table of contents made quite an impression on me. I kept wondering how anyone can teach 10-year-olds about the “theory of literature.” In brief, I feel sorry for all those children who have to sit through this literature course and am especially sorry that they have to analyze “János vitéz” for weeks on end. I’m sure that fifth graders find this textbook deadly. No wonder that children don’t like to read.

Now let’s move on to a jollier subject: beer. Of course, not just any beer but the world famous “Igazi Csíki Sőr,” which I wrote about earlier. There was a trademark battle between a Dutch-Hungarian mini-brewery in Transylvania and the Romanian division of Heineken, the well-known Dutch brewery. For some inexplicable reason the Hungarian government decided to weigh in on the side of Igazi Csíki Sőr against Heineken. János Lázár and Zsolt Semjén traveled to Sânsimion/Csíkszentsimon to show their support. The government contemplated passing legislation that would discriminate against larger foreign-owned companies and promote the business interests of small Hungarian firms. And the government gave money to the company that produced the Igazi Csíki Sör. For a while patriotic beer drinkers boycotted Heineken and Igazi Csíki Sőr disappeared from the shelves as soon as it was put out. But these happy days for the owners of Igazi Csíki Sör didn’t last long. When the large breweries’ products are half the price of the beer from Csík, customer enthusiasm doesn’t last long. The mini-brewery decided that the government-favored beer will no longer be available in supermarkets. They will try their luck with direct distribution, providing home delivery to customers. I don’t know, but I have the feeling that this is the end of Igazi Csíki Sör. Market forces are simply too strong.

The last item is the intensive registration campaign the government has been conducting in the last month or so in the neighboring countries to entice ethnic Hungarians to vote in the 2018 national election. Those familiar with the details of the 2014 election know that Fidesz’s all-important two-thirds majority was achieved only because of the votes that came from Transylvania, Serbia, and Ukraine. Although Fidesz is way ahead of all the other parties in the polls today, Viktor Orbán leaves nothing to chance. In 2014 the government managed to register 193,793 voters in the neighboring countries, though only 128,712 of these were valid. A whopping 95.49% of them voted for Fidesz. Therefore, getting as many people registered as possible is of the utmost importance for Viktor Orbán and his party.

The government hopes that of the one million dual citizens at least 500,000 will vote in the election. The government had 332,000 registration requests by the time of the referendum on the migrant quota issue, in which dual citizens could vote. The intensive registration campaign since then has produced only meager results. In the last ten months the number of registrants has grown by only 18,000. The current figure is 350,000, with 148,000 from Romania, followed by Serbia with 40,000. Of course, it is possible that large numbers of people will register only in the last few weeks, but the goal is very ambitious.

Viktor Orbán himself sent letters to all dual citizens living abroad. In addition, the Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania (Romániai Magyar Demokrata Szövetség/RMDSZ or in Romanian Uniunea Democrată Maghiară din România/UDMR), the only serious Hungarian party in Romania, is actively involved in the campaign, especially since Viktor Orbán’s speech in Tusnádfürdő/Băile Tușnad on July 22. The relationship between RMDSZ and Fidesz was not always amiable, but efforts to create a new ethnic political force to be used against RMDSZ failed. RMDSZ was the only Hungarian ethnic party left standing. Lately, RMDSZ and Fidesz have been working hand in hand for the reelection of Viktor Orbán.

August 12, 2017

Matriculation and politics: A couple of conspiracy theories

During the month of May people seem to be preoccupied with news about the Hungarian matriculation exams. All of the questions are thoroughly discussed in the media. Everybody has an opinion about the quality of the questions, their difficulty, and their political implications if any.

I find this national preoccupation odd. After all, how high school graduates perform on these examinations should really be the concern of the students and their parents. Moreover, matriculation means a great deal less than it did, let’s say, a hundred or even fifty years ago. Before World War II matriculation was the dividing line between the middle class and the rest of society. After the war the number of high school graduates grew significantly, and thus a matriculation certificate means a great deal less today than it did in the olden days.

Judging from past experience, this matriculation mania will last for weeks, but the first few days are the truly exciting ones as far as the Hungarian public is concerned because Hungarian language and literature and history are the first two subjects to be tested.

Commencement exercises

Commencement exercises

This morning students spent four hours writing answers to the questions on the Hungarian test, which had two parts. The first was a reading and comprehension test of a text on linguistics. The second required the students to write an essay on one of three possible topics.

As usual, this year’s Hungarian test has its critics. One possible topic was a short story by Sándor Márai (1900-1989); apparently, that was the most popular choice. The second was an essay by Leszek Kołakowski, the Polish philosopher, who is, as I found out, not well known in Hungary. Most likely the students had no idea who the man was. But it was the third that  raised the most eyebrows. Students were supposed to compare two epigrams: one by Dániel Berzsenyi (1776-1836) and the other by Mihály Vörösmarty (1800-1855). Both are about Napoleon Bonaparte.

Let me quote the Berzsenyi poem first:


Nem te valál győző, hanem a kor lelke: szabadság,
Melynek zászlóit hordta dicső sereged.
A népek fényes csalatásba merülve imádtak,
S a szent emberiség sorsa kezedbe került.
Ámde te azt tündér kényednek alája vetetted,
S isteni pálmádat váltja töviskoszorú.
Amely kéz felemelt, az ver most porba viszontag;
Benned az emberiség ügye bosszulva vagyon.


The soul of the age was Liberty whose flags your victorious armies carried. People worshiped you and the fate of mankind was in your hands. However, you surrendered it to your pleasure, and a crown of thorns replaced your laurels. The hand that raised you now throws you into the dust.

Then the Vörösmarty poem:


Nagy volt ő s nagysága miatt megdőlnie kellett;
Ég és föld egyaránt törtek elejteni őt:
Tűrni nagyobbat irígy lőn a sáralkatu ember,
S tűrni hasonlót nem bírtak az istenek is.


He was great and because of his greatness he had to fall; Heaven and earth endeavored to make him descend: Man made of dust is jealous of the greater one and even gods could not tolerate his kind.

The president of the Association of Hungarian Teachers, I think rightly, claims that there is no way anyone can write a fairly long essay comparing these two epigrams. He also added that “the task borders on the embarrassing.” He is not alone in believing that the choice of Napoleon was not a coincidence.

Actually, I find this theory a bit of a stretch, but I agree that the Kołakowski essay “On travel”  was selected as part of an effort to dissuade Hungarian students from leaving the country and studying in some other European Union country. In the essay Kołakowski claims that people don’t travel in order to learn “because everything we can learn during a trip can be learned perhaps even better without travel.” The reason for travel is to escape  from everyday problems in addition to satisfying one’s curiosity.

It is unlikely that such a primitive little trick would deter some of those who are serious about leaving Hungary to study elsewhere. Here is a series of cartoons that appeared in Index, drawn by “grafitember.” A girl who is just graduating from high school stops at the corner store to buy a chocolate bar. She and the store owner are old acquaintances.

-Aunt Rose, kiss your hand! The usual chocolate bar, please!

-Oh, my dear Panni, you see this day arrived after all. Are you worried or did you study hard?

-I am not so great in Hungarian but I’m prepared.

-Where are you going from here?

-To Vienna, just as half of my class. Perhaps archaeology or management.

Indeed, it seems that the best and the brightest are planning to study abroad. Despite this exodus, Viktor Orbán today talked about how he is going to make Hungary the “land of knowledge.” Yes, from less and less money and fewer and fewer university graduates.