Persecuted by Nazis and Communists: György Konrád would have been 90 this month

Ninety years ago, on April 2, 1933, György Konrád, the Kossuth and Herder Prize-winning writer, essayist and sociologist was born.

Konrád was born in Debrecen, the second child of a wealthy Jewish family. He spent the first 11 years of his life in Berettyóújfalu. In June 1944, during the German occupation, he and his sister were able to travel to their relatives in Pest the day before the Jewish inhabitants of the settlement were deported. They survived the siege of Budapest in a sheltered house in Pest, and miraculously their parents returned home in the summer of 1945; they were the only family to not lose any members to the persecution in Berettyóújfalu. After the war, he studied at the Reformed Grammar School in Debrecen, then at the Madách Grammar School in Budapest; his parents also moved to Budapest in 1950, after the nationalization of their hardware business.

Konrád was not allowed to apply to university because of his bourgeois family background, but he was admitted to the Russian (later Lenin) Institute, from where he transferred to the Hungarian Department of ELTE in 1953; his first writings were published during his university years.

He was in the National Guard during the 1956 revolution, so after graduating he was unable to find a job for a long time, forced to live off odd jobs.

From 1959 to 1966, he worked as a child protection supervisor for the District VII council, and was confronted daily with the misery and hopelessness of those who lived in extreme poverty.

His novel “The Case Worker” (“A látogató”), published in 1969, was born from his experiences, in which he wrote with sociographic accuracy, striving for distance but also betraying a sense for and experience of the suffering in an era when it was not even officially possible to talk about social problems.

With this successful book, he attracted the attention not only of readers but also of the socialist authorities.

From 1960, he was also a part-time advisor and editor at the Hungarian Helikon Publishing House, and from 1965, he worked as a research associate at the Institute of Urban Planning and Design. Konrád became good friends with Iván Szelényi, an urban sociologist, with whom he wrote several joint papers and often went on study trips to the countryside. These experiences inspired his second novel, “The City Founder” (“A Városalapítót,”), which was rejected by Magvető Publishing for political reasons and then censored years later; its full text was published abroad before it was published in Hungary. In 1973, he was issued a warning by the prosecutor for trying to smuggle the manuscript of Miklós Haraszti’s book “A Worker in a Worker’s State” abroad, and lost his job.

In the summer of 1974, he and Szelényi wrote an essay on the philosophy of history entitled “The Intellectuals on the Road to Class Power.” They were interrogated and monitored by the communist authorities, the manuscript was confiscated, and the authors were prosecuted for incitement against the state. However, they were offered the right to leave the country.

Szelényi took up the offer, but Konrád chose internal emigration.

His writings were banned, but his travel ban expired in 1976, allowing him to spend a year on scholarship in Berlin and then in the United States; he was also able to visit his family in Paris. It was during this period that he wrote his novel “The Accomplice,” which “naturally” could only be published abroad. In the 1980s, he turned his attention to essays, resulting in “The Temptation of Autonomy” and “Antipolitics” In 1984, he read his „Does the Dream of Central Europe Still Exist?” at the Schwarzenberg Palace in Vienna, when he received the Herder Prize. In 1987 and 1988 he taught world literature at Colorado College in the USA.

By the end of the 1980s, Konrád had become one of the best known representatives of contemporary Hungarian prose in the eyes of the foreign public, and for a long time the authorities could not decide whether to let him return home or to keep him outside the borders.

The writer was involved in the activities of the democratic opposition, a founding member of the Alliance of Free Democrats in 1988, one of the initiators of the Democratic Charter in 1991, and its spokesman from 1993.

His works have been published in Hungary since 1988, and his trilogy of novels (“A Feast in the Garden,” “Stone Clock,” and “Legacy”) was published in the late 1980s.

For most of the ‘90s, he wrote almost exclusively essays; his most important include „Killing or Not Killing” (“Az újjászületés melankóliája”), “The Melancholy of Rebirth,” “Waiting” (“A Várakozás”), “The Flowing Inventory” (“Az Áramló leltár”), ”The Expansion of the Middle” (“A közép tágulása”),“The Writer and the City,” “Figures of Wonder – Portraits and Snapshots,” “Chimes,” and “On Judaism” (“A Zsidóságról”). In 2001, his autobiographical novel, “Departure and Return,” was published, in which he wrote about his family’s fate during the war and his own account of his childhood adventure of survival. The second part was published in 2003, “Up on the Hill During a Solar Eclipse,” and the third in 2005, “The Rooster’s Sorrow,” followed by “Pendulum” in 2008.

He was awarded the Kossuth Prize in 1990 and the International PEN Club’s Literary Peace Prize in 1991 for his work. In 2001 he was awarded the international Károly Prize and in 2003 the Grand Cross of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Hungary. In 2004 he was made an honorary citizen of Budapest. In 2014, he was awarded the Buber-Rosenzweig Medal by the German Coordinating Council, which brings together German associations working to promote Jewish-Christian dialogue. He was a member of the Digital Literature Academy and was President of the International PEN Club from 1990 to 1993.

One of the best-known figures of Hungarian prose worldwide passed away on September 13, 2019. Shortly before his death, he donated his legacy to the Berlin Academy of Arts, of which he was the first foreign president for six years from 1997, and from which the György Konrád Archive was created.

Sending our Hungarian Jewish brothers and sisters to their death was treason

It was treason to send our Jewish brothers and sisters in Hungary to their death, whose blood cries out to heaven, said Csaba Latorcai, Parliamentary State Secretary for Regional Development, in his speech at the memorial of the martyrs of World War II in Kőszeg on Thursday.