Tag Archives: Pál Pruck

The dangers of being a historian in Orbán’s Hungary

Something extraordinary happened yesterday. László Tüske, director of Hungary’s National Library, launched disciplinary action against János M. Rainer, head of the Institute for the History of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution (’56 Institute), and three of his colleagues. Two were charged with making their views public on the factually inaccurate billboards used to advertise the sixtieth anniversary extravaganza staged by Viktor Orbán’s court historian, Mária Schmidt. This was the by now infamous case in which a fourteen-year-old boy who was one of the “pesti srácok” (urchins of Pest) was misidentified. A third was charged with complaining about photoshopped images used in the anniversary celebration. The fourth was charged with behaving improperly during Viktor Orbán’s speech on October 23.

Before I return to the story of this boy, let me say a few words about the ’56 Institute. It was officially established in June 1989 as a private foundation with very limited resources. In the mid-1990s the institute’s financial problems were seemingly solved when it became a publicly supported institution. Its financial security, however, was dependent on the whims of governments. As soon as Fidesz and the Smallholders won the election in 1998, the promised 60 million forints for the coming year was reduced to 6 million, largely because the right-wing government’s views on the events of 1956 differed radically from those of the majority of historians inside and outside the ’56 Institute. The Institute survived the four lean years and kept publishing literally hundreds of first-rate books on the revolution and related subjects. After the change of government in 2002 the Institute again received proper funding. But then Viktor Orbán returned, and this time he was ready to abolish the Institute altogether. At the last minute a compromise was reached, and the Institute was placed under the supervision of the National Library. Its historians became employees of the library.

Last November I wrote a post titled “An inveterate liar: Mária Schmidt’s celebrated freedom fighter.” You may recall that the Orbán government’s new “take” on the 1956 Revolution is that the only heroes of the revolution were those urchins and adults who actually fought against the Soviet troops on the streets. All others, including disillusioned party functionaries, journalists, intellectuals, and students, played a minimal role. Their presence didn’t make a substantial difference in the course of the events. So, for the sixtieth anniversary, new heroes had to be found from the groups of street urchins.

An actor with unlimited imagination came forth who created a hero of himself. He even found proof: a photo that appeared in Time Magazine at the time. Mária Schmidt, the organizer of the ’56 Memorial Year, was delighted. Giant billboards covered the country with this photo, and the boy depicted was identified as László Dózsa, an actor of modest talents. There was only one problem: the boy on the photo was not Dózsa but Pál Pruck, whose family came forth and proved, at least to my satisfaction, with family photos that it was indeed their father plastered and falsely identified all over the country. Both Dózsa and Mária Schmidt insisted that they were right and the Prucks were lying. Schmidt was especially adamant.

Since Schmidt didn’t let go, the “controversy” went on for weeks. During the debate contemporary pictures of both Pruck and Dózsa were displayed, and it was obvious that the boy in the Time Magazine photo was Pál Pruck. I suspect that Dózsa himself also knew that the boy in the photo was someone else. It is pretty difficult to mistake oneself for someone else regardless of the number of years that have gone by. For example, I found a picture of myself in the company of three of my classmates on Fortepan.hu, a fabulous collection of old photographs turned in by volunteers. I was unaware of the existence of this photograph, taken by someone without our knowledge. I had no difficulty identifying myself and my classmates. I was 16 at the time, Dózsa was 14 in 1956. Yet Schmidt in her usual shrill manner kept insisting and insisting, even when the facts were staring her in the face. As far as I’m concerned, she made a fool of herself. And now she’s making an even greater fool of herself by instructing the director of the Hungarian National Library to discipline the historians who “dared” question her judgment.

From left to right: László Eörsi, János M. Rainer, Réka Sárközy, and Krisztián Ungváry

While I could care less that Mária Schmidt is making a fool of herself, I do mind very much that Hungary has by now become a country where historians are “disciplined” for making their views public. This is another low in the history of Viktor Orbán’s “illiberal state.”

János M. Rainer’s sin was that he placed an interview on his Facebook page in which he explained that no one from Schmidt’s committee had asked the opinion of the historians of the Institute about the decorations Dózsa received in recognition of his role in the revolutionary events. Dózsa did receive all sorts of state decorations for his alleged heroism, but according to László Eörsi, the second disciplined historian, none of his stories could be verified. Eörsi was in fact quite diplomatic when he called Dózsa’s stories unverifiable. I, who went through the events, find them figments of his imagination. His stories are simply not believable. A third historian who was disciplined is Réka Sárközy, whose specialty is film history. She talked to 168.hu about her reservations over how the committee in charge of the memorial year was falsifying original photos. Obviously, expressing her opinions on “photoshopping” was also forbidden. Krisztián Ungváry’s specialty is not the revolutionary events of 1956, and his case is not connected to Dózsa. He was punished because on October 23, 2016 he whistled during Viktor Orbán’s speech. As he said, “I went there as a historian to demonstrate against the falsification of history.”

According to the Index article on this disgraceful case, the director of the National Library did what he did because he felt it was the only way to defend the historians against Schmidt’s wrath. Schmidt’s original idea was to put an end to the very existence of the Institute by subordinating it to one of the institutes Schmidt herself runs. It even occurred to her that the Institute should be merged in some form or other with the Veritas Historical Institute, where the “truth,” according to Orbán, is being sought by mostly right-wing historians.

György Gábor, a philosopher and a former classmate of László Tüske, finds the director’s decision to work hand in hand with the powers that be “disgusting and unacceptable.” It reminds him of the years of the one-party system. I would go even further. In the last ten years of the Kádár regime such blatant interference in matters of history was uncommon. This “disciplinary action” reminds me more of the Rákosi regime’s favorite way of handling such cases. In less serious matters, party functionaries from the top of the pyramid all the way down to the lowly Pioneer leader demanded a public “self-criticism” for one’s perceived misdeeds. I guess if these four historians had humbled themselves and apologized to Mária Schmidt perhaps they could have saved themselves from disciplinary action. Instead, I understand, Krisztián Ungváry has already turned in a formal complaint against the ruling.

March 24, 2017

An inveterate liar: Mária Schmidt’s celebrated freedom fighter

Today’s story is a sad commentary on the gullibility of some of the leading supporters of Fidesz. It’s the tale of a man who among his colleagues is known to be a habitual liar but who, over the past 30 years, has managed to fool an awful lot of people.

Pathological liars are not rare. I myself have encountered at least two. But most of us sooner or later realize that the stories they tell don’t add up. And we certainly don’t defend the truth of these stories in the face of evidence to the contrary. Here, however, once hard facts proved that our man had been lying through his teeth, Mária Schmidt, the chief organizer of the sixtieth anniversary of the 1956 October Revolution and allegedly a historian, came to his rescue. She attacked the media for trying to ruin her precious event and besmirching the halos of the “pesti srácok,” youngsters who fought on the streets of Budapest.

The man I am talking about is László Dózsa, an actor whose career has not been distinguished. He currently directs plays staged in the Újpest Színház, which doesn’t strike me as much of a theater. Yet shortly after Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz won the election in 2010, he was awarded the title “érdemes művész” (actor of merit). Admittedly, as far as awards in the theater world go, this one is fairly lowly. Even so, in one of his interviews a reporter asked him whether anyone had ever suggested that he received the award not so much for being an actor but rather for being a “freedom fighter.”

It would seem that his alleged activities in 1956 are central to his self-identity. In his Wikipedia entry, which most likely he wrote himself, he is described as “1956 freedom fighter, actor, director, actor of merit” in this order.

This year Dózsa made it as the freedom fighter of all freedom fighters. A painting based on a Life Magazine photo, depicting a young man with a rifle and captioned László Dózsa (1942-), was plastered all over Budapest. He must have felt on top of the world. But soon enough his world collapsed. It turned out that the boy in the picture was Pál Pruck (1941-2000). Once Pruck’s family learned that Dózsa had assumed his identity, they decided to act.

dozsa

It was high time to put an end to Dózsa’s outrageous stories about 1956. Dózsa was always known to tell tall tales. When after 1989 he began regaling people with his exploits during the revolution, his friends didn’t unmask him even though they figured the stories were lies. They thought the lies were harmless.

After a while the media became interested in the adventures of this extraordinary man. One of the first of these interviews, “The man who has three lives,” appeared in the October 2005 issue of Hetek, the fundamentalist Assembly of Faith’s weekly. This story was repeated over and over in several more publications, with new embellishments. It is difficult to create a coherent story from Dózsa’s recollections which were, I assume, purposefully vague, but there are a couple of fixed points: he joined a group that gathered around the Divatcsarnok at the corner of Rákóczi út and Szövetség utca and he joined the group after November 4.

According to his story, once the fighting was over the Russians made them, about 30 young boys, stand against the wall of the Rákóczi movie theater and killed everyone except him. He escaped with his throat half destroyed by a bullet. He was then taken to a prison hospital where he was interrogated and was so badly beaten that he was eventually pronounced clinically dead. He was taken, together with other dead bodies, to the cemetery on Kerepesi út and thrown into a common grave. They even poured lime on the bodies. The gravediggers, however, discovered that he was alive and returned in the darkness of night. They took him to the Jewish Hospital on Szabolcs utca where two professors operated on him. These two good men hid him until it was safe to return “from the dead.” Because of “international pressure” he was not prosecuted.

On its face the story is bizarre and unbelievable. And, after reading an interview with László Eörsi, the historian who has written scores of books on these small fighting groups, one can be pretty certain that not a word of Dózsa’s story is true. Eörsi describes himself as an “event historian” (eseménytörténész). I have several of his books, which are basically minute-by-minute descriptions of the activities of these groups. Eörsi interviewed Dózsa at one point but came to the conclusion that his stories were bogus because they could not be corroborated. No one had ever heard of the murder by the Russians of 30 people in the center of the city. Dózsa claimed that the Russians bombed the Divatcsarnok when in fact they didn’t resort to air attacks. He talked about firing squads against civilians at the Nyugati Station, but that occurred only on December 6.

So, let’s turn to Pál Pruck. Once the Pruck family found out that Dózsa had assumed the identity of the deceased Pruck, they complained. Dózsa, after the story broke, magnanimously agreed to take his name off “in reverence” to the deceased’s relatives. But he still maintained that he was the one who appeared in the Life Magazine photo despite convincing evidence to the contrary. Tamás Pruck, Pál Pruck’s son, remembers his father telling him that he had been sent by the guys of Corvin-köz (Corvin alley) for bread when a foreign photographer stopped him and took a picture of him. “But he never spoke about being such an important freedom fighter.” He was just a “srác interested in guns.” Apparently, he never received any decoration but he never asked for one either.

The Life Magazine photo

The Life Magazine photo

Yesterday I was sure that Mária Schmidt would remain quiet. The evidence against Dózsa was far too strong. I was wrong. Today Schmidt called the poor deceased Pruck a criminal and insisted that Dózsa was an outstanding national hero. At the same time she launched an attack against the opposition media, which insists on debasing the memory of the ’56 revolution and its heroes.

The photos Pál Pruck and László Dózsa at the time

Photos of Pál Pruck and László Dózsa at the time

Her defense of Dózsa stretched the limits of logic. 444.hu summarized it well. (1) Dózsa is credible because he received a lot of decorations for the heroism he demonstrated in ’56. (2) In 2007 Dózsa himself wrote that this was a photo of him, something that nobody questioned. (3) Normally photographers don’t identify their subjects in a wartime situation or they give them phony names. That’s why the photographer gave an existing person’s name to a photo depicting Dózsa. (4) This is not the first time that the wrong name is attached to this photo. (5) Dózsa years ago in a video taken at the House of Terror identified himself as the boy on the picture. (6) Nothing is known about Pál Pruck’s activities during the revolution. (7) He himself said in a television interview that he doesn’t know how the photographer got his name. (8) Pál Pruck was a criminal who was in jail several times. He was also used by the Kádár regime’s propagandists to discredit the revolution. (9) The relatives of Pruck didn’t come forth although the photo was widely known. (10) It is suspicious that Pál Pruck didn’t suffer any reprisals after the revolution.

This is the best that Orbán’s court historian could come up with. Pitiful and embarrassing. But, I said to myself, isn’t it also embarrassing that Dózsa received the Officer’s Cross of the Hungarian Order of Merit in 2006 during the Gyurcsány government? At least this is what I read in his Wikipedia entry. Well, I checked the list of recipients and there is no sign of László Dózsa. He even lied about that in his Wikipedia entry.

On the other hand, he has been richly rewarded for his faithful service to right-wing causes since 2010. I already mentioned his becoming an “actor of merit” in 2011. But the big prize came this year, on the sixtieth anniversary of the revolution. He became an “honorary citizen” of Budapest. Apparently, Mayor István Tarlós and the Fidesz majority’s choice was Dózsa while Csaba Horváth (MSZP) argued for László Nemes Jeles, director of the Oscar-winning Son of Saul. Tarlós put an end to the discussion by saying that “László Dózsa is our son of Saul.” What a gift. Tarlós, Schmidt, and the rest can now contemplate how to rescue Dózsa for posterity.

November 3, 2016