The high-school years.
In 1933, when I was ten years old, I entered the gates of Revai real school that was my home-away-from-home for eight years. The school was founded in 1788. The present building was built in 1879. It was facing a park to the east and nested between the railroad station to the south and Vilmos csaszar u. to the north. To the west loomed a city block, housing the local jail with high walls topped by barbed wire. We entered the building from the park that also served as a playground for the 10-minute intermissions between classes. The entrance led up to an aula in which the names of the fallen heroes of W.W.I were memorialized on marble slabs. From there the staircase brought us to the respective classrooms. The wooden benches, each seating two students, were aligned in three rows. By the time I got there their seats were polished by 50 years of fidgeting behinds. The benches had grooves to hold pencils and pens in horizontal position, and an inkwell. The latter became less and less used as we grew older and reached the status being the owners of fountain pens. The latter were the precursors of ballpoint pens, each with their own ink supply that on many occasions decorated our shirts, coats. In the front center was the teacher?s desk and right behind it the blackboard. A pot-bellied stove was shoved in the corner of the classroom providing the necessary comfort during winter days.
In 1933 I was still oblivious of the world events swirling around us, the economic difficulties created by the Great Depression, the rising Nazi power in Germany and the parallel growing shift to the extreme right in the prevailing Hungarian power house. This innocence was shed with the entrance to high school. I led a very sheltered life up to this point, cuddled by my Mother and Grandmother. In spite of the loss of my father two years earlier after a long illness, the nuclear family was seemingly intact, because I never remembered the early years when my father was still an integral part of it. His death touched me emotionally in a curious manner, rather than mourning a loss, it became a public badge, making me an orphan.
I did not mind to bask in the pity of outsiders. "Poor little Frici"- did not prompt protestations. I accepted the fruit of such a status with equanimity and occasionally it provided some advantages. For example, I was exempted of paying tuition in the high school. The Hungarian educational system on the books required 8 years of mandatory education. The four years of elementary school was strictly enforced. It was followed by a number of venues: Eight years of high school for the good students, a parallel 4 years schooling in the terminal "polgari" or "civic" school system, or trade school education for those who became apprentices in one trade or another. The schooling required for 10-14 years old children was not enforced 100 %. The high school, whether public or private, charged tuition, the latter more than the former. In my case it was waived for three reasons (a) my father was a wounded veteran of the Austro-Hungarian Army in the First World War (b) I was an orphan (c) I was an all A student. The three reasons for exemption were scaled: the last contributed the least. Nevertheless it remained one of the guiding rule to maintain an A student status. Beside the pride of achievement, there was also the sword of Damocles hanging over my head: if I fail to maintain an all A status I may lose some of the exemption from tuition. This latter entered my consciousness only 2-3 years later when I became aware of the precarious family finances.
Revai high school was an alien territory. Up to this point all my association were with the Jewish kids in my elementary school. Although I played football on the street with all kind of kids I never entered a non-Jewish home, save one, our neighbor in Kossuth u. 60. There I learned about those strange rituals, Christmas tree full of decoration and szalon cukorka, a special gift-wrapped candy that had the texture of granular sugar and was made only for this occasion. The caroling in front of our neighbor's door introduced me also to those church sanctioned tunes. Thus my interaction with the dominant culture was limited to chance encounters on the streets.
Now my existence was rigidly regulated. I sat in a classroom with 33 other kids in the I/b class headed by Bela Lacza, a geography teacher with a handlebar mustache. The classroom was given us each year and the seats within it were assigned by the "osztaly fonok"(headmaster). The task of the headmaster was to be responsible for the overall progress as well as behavior of the class. The headmaster traveled with the class. Only unusual circumstance, retirement, illness etc. prompted a change in this assignment. We had three different headmasters during my high school years. If somebody misbehaved the punishment was meted out immediately. If the offense persisted or grew it was referred to the headmaster, finally if the offense was really severe, the matter was referred to the principal of the high school.
We were in a Prussian type, strict disciplinarian, school system where corporal punishment was the order of the day. Every teacher was entitled to control the rambunctious ten-year-old kids by whatever means he could. Some teachers were mild, others strict. The behavior of some even bordered on sadism. I was timid by nature and scholarly by inclination, thus I never experienced corporal punishment of any sort in the classroom. But my classmates were less fortunate. The brute of the first year was the math teacher, Koczan. He was an elderly gent, gaunt, tall, his face covered with large freckles, baldhead fluffed with a few gray strands. The instruction in the class usually started with the performance of the students. One after the other was called to the blackboard to show the results of the previous day's homework. While this was going on Koczan was patrolling the isles with a cane in one hand and scratching his behind with the other. This motion was dominant even when he voiced his complete disapproval of a student's performance with poignant expression:
"You have not got even a whiff of it (meaning the idea)!"
Although the colloquial Hungarian expression looses its flavor in translation nevertheless we had a second interpretation of this recurring remark. Many of us inferred that with his constant ass scratching this allusion had more to do with flatulence than with algebraic rules.
Koczan smacked kids hard on the first offense, spontaneously. The cane was used in more deliberate manner than the smacks: either on the behind of the kid who had to bend down to present his ass for punishment or on the fingers of an extended hand brought together in a crown. Many of my classmates learned math in this first year the hard way.
For me the studies did not provide a challenge, not in the first years. The greater difficulty was to adjust to a class where only I and Jancsi Teichner were Jewish kids. In the elementary school all my classmates were Jewish, thus the outside turbulence of an anti-Semitic world did not touch us. Suddenly we felt the burden of being a minority, and a persecuted one to boot. The numerus clausus, that is, the law restricting Jews of access to higher education, started to be applied already at the high school level. In our entering class (35 in Ia and 33 in Ib) a total of 4 Jewish students were admitted. This was below the official count of 8 %, the Jewish population in Hungary represented at the time. Very soon we learned which of our classmates grew up in rabid anti-Semitic households. Mostly we avoided them and they avoided us in games we played in the courtyards during intermissions. A second group of classmates were tainted only by the anti-Jewish stance of their respective churches. Most of them were Catholics. Jews were Christ killers in the teachings they heard, especially emphasized during the Eastern rituals. About half of my classmates belonged to the third group: not influenced by a propaganda or hatred, they were indifferent.
After the first year?s attrition the two classes were combined, numbering 52 students, under the headmaster, Dr. Erno Baszel. He was specialist in Hungarian and German literature and for the next five years he was a daily presence in our life. Baszel was a knowledgeable, strict but very correct teacher, which was in style with his military past. During the First World War he reached the rank of a major in the artillery. He let us know that his hard of hearing was the result of his wartime service. Not to let us get away with a wrong answer when we slurred a German sentence, he insisted to call the student to the blackboard to make sure that the article was ?den? and not ?dem?. He was a fat presence in our daily life. Being about 5?6? high we quickly grew taller than him and the slightly protruding belly invited a condescending nickname, Tokos, referring both to his age, late fifties, and to his physical stature. The fact that he wore the same kind of breeches as us, the vogue in the thirties, made his appearance even more corpuscular. I had very good relationship with Baszel. Although he was not an inspirational teacher, he appreciated scholarship and he did not withhold praise when it was due. And I was his prize-student. Not only did I excel in both of his subjects, but I also won prizes in shorthand writing competitions, which was one of his extracurricular activities on behalf of the students. I ran afoul of him only once, as far as I remember.
As usual we were called out in front of the class in the 4th grade to recite an assigned poem. That particular day Goethe?s ?Kennst Du das Land? was assigned. After the first two students called out failed in recalling the words, he turned to me expecting a star performance. On that day I was not prepared either. The disappointment prompted a quick punishment.
?Why did you not study yesterday??- he asked.
I hee-hawed for a while, finally admitting that an important soccer game demanded my time.
? You bring in your soccer ball, tomorrow. You won?t have it for two weeks?-he thundered.
It accurately reflects the system and the power held by the school over our private lives, that next day I sheepishly surrendered my soccer ball. My memorization of poems, gained new priority, and even today ?Das Land wo die Zitronen bluhn? resonates in my ear with clarity. Dr. Baszel in the flourish of the Hungarization of names in 1936 changed his name to Bankuti and left our school in 1939 for an assignment in Budapest. I was sorry to see him go, because in the ever more strident nationalistic tone of many of my teachers his was a measured, cultured voice, European if not totally Westward looking. The German literature in his classes was void of Nazi tendencies, something I could appreciate when another teacher taught the German classes in my last two years in Revai.
In 1935 our school changed its orientation. The original real-school curriculum was designed to lead to scientific/engineering studies at a University or Polytechnic. Our school became real-gymnasium. This meant more emphasis on humanities while maintaining a rigorous math/science curriculum. It also meant the addition of another foreign language class, culminating thus in: 8 years of German, 6 years of Latin and 4 years of French.
And so I got a large, although not a fatal dose, of Simon the Terrible. Simon was the Principal. He was my Latin teacher for four years. Furthermore being the Principal he had only one class, us to teach regularly. This made him a clear choice to substitute for any ailing teacher. In this manner we, on a few occasions, had him for three consecutive periods (180 minutes). Everybody became petrified when he called on somebody to account for the previous day?s homework. A typical episode comes to mind:
We were supposed to translate from Virgil?s Aeneas a fighting scene.
The hero grabs his sword. ?Ferrum coepit.?
My classmate shaking in his boots translates literally:
?He grabs the iron?
?What kind of iron??- thundered Simon.
The student is frozen in fear. I whisper. My classmate accepts the help and declares triumphantly:
? Tuzes vasat? ?Sizzling iron?.
The class dissolves in laughter. But no smile appears on Simon?s face.
I also ran afoul of him once. I was about 13 when some mildly pornographic verses came to my possession about the different ways members of the Leagues of Nations perform their procreative functions. Obviously I found it funny and passed it along to my classmates for their amusements. A few days later, in a Catholic religion class, the priest Szabadkay, heard some giggling and went to the source. He confiscated on the spot the offending poem.
He demanded:?Who gave you this??
?Bettelheim? came the confession.
The next day I was called in to Simon?s office to hear the charges: ?Corrupting the morale of Christian students.? My expulsion was averted on the pleading of our Jewish religion teacher, Ullmann, and in consideration of my excellent academic standing. Not in the least was also influential the bishop,Vilmos Apor, who used his influence with Szabadkay to drop the charges. You see, I did some service to the Kapolna Domb Cathedral, singing some Latin hymns during Mass. For a few years between 10 and 13 I had a beautiful boy soprano voice, which was not only, heard at our Hanukkah candle lighting services but also at other ecumenical occasions. Alas, that voice broke when I reached puberty and with it my budding operatic career. But at least that voice saved me from expulsion.
Simon was an ultra nationalist and disciplinarian. His behavior in classrooms bordered on sadism. A class usually started with the recitation of the homework. He always started with one end or the other end of the class. I was sitting mostly in the middle rows, so I never performed first in his class. This had a clear advantage. As student after student rose to recite the assigned lines, their performance lasted until they uttered a mistake. A smack and the student sat down. The performance was repeated with the next and so on. By the time the tenth smack was administered the force of it diminished somewhat considering the advanced age of the Principal. I repeat: I never got smacked which was due not only to my steadfastness but also to my strategic seating arrangement. Corporal punishment ceased in most classes when we reached 4th grade (age 14), but not in the classes of Simon the Terrible.
Another incident that threatened me with expulsion never came to Simon?s office. Again the Catholic Church was my adversary. The father of one of my best friend, from the days of elementary school, owned a junkyard. Karcsi Knapp was also a classmate of mine until the 6th grade, when he went to study art and design. The Knapp home was my second home, spending long afternoon hours in the house studying and playing together with Karcsi. His mother, a real beauty, treated me as a second son and I had a crush on her. On one afternoon we found in the junkyard a mold for six statuettes. After pondering, at the urging of another friend of ours, Gyuri Gold, we decided to make statuettes. There was plenty of lead in the junkyard and we could easily melt it and pour it in the mold. Out came six St. Anthony statuettes. Gyuri who went to the gymnasium ran by Benedictine monks immediately saw the potential of our discovery.
?Let?s mass produce it and sell it. We can make a fortune.?
He explained that such statuettes can be purchased in churches and we could undercut the price.
The only problem was to find an outlet. Gyuri thought to that too. He had connection to a toy store, a second cousin owned it, and they were willing to buy some 50 statuettes. At that point Karcsi demurred. He received a generous allowance, so he was not interested making money. Also he did not want to implicate the Knapp junkyard in the project. We went ahead undeterred and expected a handsome profit. Gyuri?s cousin would have worked on commission only. However instead of coins we reaped only trouble. One of the Benedictine monks spotted our ware in the toy-store window. He inquired and made a stink. The charges were not the manufacturing of the statues, but that we tried to sell them without the actual blessing of the Church. A statue not blessed cannot bring the expected protection, thus we were defrauding potential customers. Gyuri was suspended for a month. The bishop of Gyor interfered again, not letting the issue out of the clerical domain. Thus the charges have never reached Simon, the Terrible. That bishop, Vilmos Apor, was an outstanding person. During the Holocaust he was among the very, very few who tried to protect Jews and actively saved some.
Among my Christian classmates there was only one whose house I entered frequently on a friendly base. This was Robi Rabl, the son of the owner of the towns biggest apothecary shop that was strategically located in the center of the town He was a slightly built blond kid with whom I shared affinity not only toward science and literature but also to music. Robi lived in a mansion- like-apartment above the apothecary. It had a large dining and an even larger living room. In the latter stood a grand piano, which symbolized, to me, the height of luxury. When I started piano lessons in the elementary school we did not own a piano. I practiced in the municipal music school that had mostly uprights and baby grands, and only one grand piano in the school auditorium. Later, we rented an upright and even owned one for a short time before I gave up music lessons around the age of 15. With Robi we not only studied together but we made music together. Such an extracurricular activity brought us closer, elevated us above our classmates because of our liking of refined classical music. Beside the esthetical closeness, playing four hand piano sonatas required a discipline absent from the solo playing. The style and the timing must be achieved by either planned consensus or by intuitive feel for each other?s expressive mood. Neither of us looked for music as a professional career, thus the bond formed was due to spiritual likeness.
Robi left our school in the fifth grade, to become a pharmacist and eventually to take over the family business together with his brother. Sometime thereafter they changed the family name to Hollos in a moment of nationalistic fervor. My memory of him always puts a smile on his face, even on occasions when we had disagreements on the interpretation of a piece. He was also an A student, never a competitor but a soul mate to share certain values. Still he was not what one would call a buddy with whom one exchanged secrets of life. Curiously the buddiness was distributed among my Jewish friends. It was not attached to one single person. In much later years, in our seventies, I met Robi again in a few reunions of old classmates. I invited the remnants to a dinner whenever I visited Hungary. He remained the soft, smiling person of my youth, albeit the corner of the mouth slightly frozen, the result of a possible mini-stroke. But we never talked about that or of other unpleasant stories.
If I needed a competitor it was there for seven years in the person of Elemer Debreczeny. He was the darling of the class, a designated leader, an all A student. All these had to do something with the fact that he was the son of our math and physics teacher of the same name. Debreczeny the Elder taught us math from the second grade on and he also became our headmaster for the last 3 years until graduation. The competition between Elemer and me for the number one position in the class was at hand, tinged with a slight jealousy. Elemer was clever, and more importantly, a tenacious memorizer, storing knowledge rather than creating new one. That made him shine in math and science and even languages in which fields our curriculum required spitting back the lessons day in and day out. When it came to fancy of thought, be that in writing poetry, arguing about philosophy or even historical interpretations, he was cautious and silent, fearing to tilt the dogma. He was very much his father?s son both in physical appearance as well as in attitude.
Debreczeny, the Elder, was a capable math teacher and an inspirational physics teacher. Our math throughout eight years, which included differential and integral calculus, was by rote learning the rules and applying them to problems. I still have in my possession, thanks to Elemer the Younger, one of my home works where I plotted about 100 points of a curve, meaning that I had to solve the same second order equation 100 times with different variables without the help of a calculator. Thus mathematics never became a field of discovery or wonderment. That had an effect on my scientific career later. I had a certain command of the basic mathematical language. But in many times when a new idea occurred that required a mathematical expression not straight out of the textbooks, but a derivation of principles, I often became flabbergasted, akin to a Moses-like stutter, lacking the elegance I strived for.
In contrast the exploration of physics was by experiments. Debreczeny set up a well-stocked physics lab where we could demonstrate the fruits of every equation learned in the classroom. He was a strict teacher, so the work in the lab was not really fun, but exciting nevertheless. I especially was enchanted by the demonstrations of electricity, from the amber rods to radio assemblies, which was his specialty. In spite of our on hand involvement, Debreczeny remained an aloof, distant teacher who did not tell stories about himself, or about the humane sides of explorations.
That distancing extended to his son. Even though we were in good terms for seven years, I don?t remember visiting Elemer?s home, or he ours during that period, even for a study session. The fact that he was the headmaster?s son may have something to do with this. Different outside interests could also have contributed. Elemer was an avid fan of gliders; he built models and belonged to the local glider?s club. Gliders in the late thirties were definitely the symbols of German air superiority. The invasion of Crete was accomplished through the surprise of the silent gliders. Thus, Elemer?s affliction with flying put him into a different world that I could not penetrate even if I wanted to, and a world that had its own exclusionary lingo. In spite of all this friendship-at-arm?s-length, Elemer was the only one who understood my misery after our graduation, when I was denied entrance to a University by the Jewish Laws. He did approach me at that time, thus easing somewhat my pariah existence, offering whatever comfort he could as he departed to study electrical engineering at the Polytechnic in Budapest. After attaining a first degree he went on to satisfy his intellect and ambition and later in life obtained a Ph.D.
Elemer was the one with whom I reestablished contact in the sixties and as we grew older we became real good friends. Although other classmates especially those with whom he went to the Polytechnic had a nickname for him, Dede, he remained Elemer for me throughout his life. The slight resentment of the school years of his privileged status has long disappeared and his humanity during the war years up to the Holocaust provided a solid bond between us. He remained the class spokesman though. He was the one who assembled our class history and in 1991 typed it in three parts. He sent it to me to America and I copied it and distributed it among the remaining 10 classmates who showed interest. Elemer is now dead. His measured, frequently complaining voice is gone. His heart was never exposed to athletic stresses, and his heart betrayed him at last at 76.
Our class has whittled down from the original 68 to 16 at matriculation time. Actually the attrition was more severe than the numbers indicate. We had also newcomers in the class so it is more likely that one out of every eight made it to the end. In the last four years I was the only Jew in the class. Actually there was another, a quarter Jew, whose maternal grandmother belonged to our faith. But considering the prevailing atmosphere Gyuri Vince kept this family secret to himself, confiding in me only near our graduation. Probably because of this ?skeleton in the closet? we never fraternized much outside the classroom in spite the fact that we had common interest in chemistry and biology. Vince went to the University after our graduation and eventually obtained a degree in chemistry. Later during the Communist regime he became the director of a biological Institute in Tihany, near the Lake Balaton and considered to have achieved a good career. However, he kept his domicile in Gyor where he managed to build a second story addition to his house, a tremendous achievement under the regime. Sometime in 1975, probably his political influence waned, and the State took away this ?luxurious? apartment to be allocated to some politically more connected person. Vince took this humiliation to heart and before the actual appropriation took place, he went up to the second story balcony and jumped to his death.
The one classmate with whom I spent long hours in heated discussions about literature and politics was Jancsi Nemeth, the true proletarian of our class. The rumor was that his mother was a Madame in the Kadar Koz (the official red-light district of our town) and truly they lived in a nearby street. I never went to Jancsi?s house, although the curiosity tore my insides, but we walked sometimes long into the nights in the parks and not too busy streets. Striving for social justice bound us together, but our interaction remained tete-a tete. I was not aware that Jancsi was a member of the Socialist/Communist party when we were in our mid-teens (15-18 yr.) and he never tried to recruit me. About Jancsi and his eventual martyrdom in the cause of his political beliefs I wrote in detail in the Chapters ?Rakoczy u.? and ?Communism and I?.
Beside the political affinity our opposition to the official irredentist Hungarian literature united us. Hungarian literature and similarly German literature was taught to us only up to the 20th century by Baszel (Bankuty). The current literature was deemed too unsettled into the official canon to be included into the curriculum. But in our last 2 years a teacher named Gyula Tomor taught Hungarian literature. He was a slightly built, short, middle-aged fellow with dominant black hair contrasting a very pale white face. He also had a dense black brush of a mustache that clamped down on his mouth. Tomor never cracked a smile. Not much of him remained in the collective memory of my class. His name is even omitted from the class history assembled by Debreczeny that I already referred to. But if I am correct, Tomor came from Transylvania, which was ceded, to Romania after the First World War. So Tomor became the champion of the irredentist Hungarian writers prevalent in the 20-and 30-s whose claim to acclaim was based not so much on the quality of their writing but their political agenda to keep Hungarian language alive in the ceded territories, so that one day they may be reclaimed into the Great Hungarian Empire. Their reference to the then existing state was always: Csonka Magyarorszag (Amputated Hungary). Their sword brandishing bravado and whining nostalgia to a tranquility that never existed was distasteful if not disgusting to Jancsi and me. To Tomor?s credit, he recognized Jancsi?s talent and only in his classes did our poet wannabe receive A grades.
Both Latin and German were taught us as literature to which one can allude as a common experience, a cultural unification project. There was little attempt to teach conversational German and thus to most of my classmates it remained a dead language just as Latin. Not so with French. It is true we went through four years prodding in the grammar and the ?La plume de ma tante? sentences at the beginning but French literature came to us as a fresh breeze. Largely this was due to the eccentricities of our French teacher, Jean (Janos) Turoczy. He was shot in a battle in the First World War; the bullet went through his neck and exited near his ear. Turoczy head was always tilted, like a bird?s, on a skinny, wound scarred neck and the sound came out of his nose. This, in our imagination, created a perfect French pronunciation, with all the nasal ?-en?-s and ?-in?-s. Turoczy was, to us, authentic French. He preferred to tell stories from his Paris days, illustrating some phrase in the literature.
?One day I was walking on the Boulevard Saint Germain. It was late at night. Suddenly an apache came out of the shadow. He reached for my pocket, my purse. I turned around grabbed his arm, twisted it and forced him to his knees. ?Let me go, Monsieur le Professeur?-he begged-?Let me go. I?ll be good?.
I never knew whether the preposterousness of his stories was a design or just came out spontaneously that way. In any case we got a slight dose of colloquial French beside the high literature and together with a lot of non-sensical doggerels it made the French language alive. His selection of readings favored the late 19the and early 20th century writers, Anatole France, Rimbaud, Verlain, Bourget and Rostand, albeit representing the right wing, petit bourgeois tinge of French literature as opposed to Zola and Maupassant?s naturalism and social agenda. All these influences created a Francophile attitude in our narrow literati circle, if for nothing else than to unshackle the overwhelming German (and increasingly Nazi) cultural dominance.
English language study came as an extracurricular affair in my junior and senior years. I took private lessons from a childhood friend of my Mother, Margit Molnar. It had a strict utilitarian purpose, to acquire an elementary conversational facility. We had no time to fancy literature. The war was on already and the German victories were trumpeted every day on radio and in the newspapers. We hoped to survive the war, and after it to leave the Teutonic Europe for Palestine and English would have been a vehicle to reach this goal. Aunt Margit, as I called her by the customary Hungarian titular, acquired her English by living for a few years in Hong Kong. Only ten years later when I came to America did I realize that my English is not only Hungarian accented but also Hong-Kong British that I had to shed quickly. The Hungarian accent remained, never having enough time or making special effort to nullify or at least mollify it. Similarly my lack of acquaintance with English literature was never erased in a systematic manner. Being in a hurry after delays by wars, I only took courses at the University that were necessary to enhance my scientific career.
With all the effort to be a cultured European, an extra effort was extended to get also rooted in Hebrew. This went on two fronts. In the high-school religion was an obligatory subject. Each religion had its own teacher: the most numerous Catholic class had Szabadkay, a fat priest residing in the Bishop?s Castle, the Lutherans (Evangelical)) and the Calvinists (Reformed Church) had their own preachers with whom I never came in contact and we, the Jews, had Jozsef Ullman, a dour but very decent fellow who also acted as the leader of the Jewish Boy Scout Group. Ullman taught us the Hebrew reading of the Bible and the translation of segments of it by rote, not by understanding the words or the sentence structure. The latter teaching was part of the education of the Zionist Youth Group taught by our beloved rabbi, Dr. Emil Roth.
The forgoing may give the impression that we got an extraordinary dose of humanities, at least as far as languages go. That may be true, but it was not the majority of our studies. Throughout eight years, studies of natural sciences included geography, geology, biology and chemistry. Chemistry fascinated me the most. Not only was I predisposed to this discipline by my early encounter with chemistry kits, especially producing flames of all colors, but the change in material when a chemical reaction occurs fascinated me as the utmost example of creativity. In the 4th grade we had a teacher by the name of Polgar whom we nicknamed Csupi. He lisped and slurred words, partly because a speech defect and partly because of his advanced age. He retired the next year. He was the only Jewish teacher we had in the high school, a left over from the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy days. Csupi on occasions had difficulty demonstrating the reactions he was lecturing on. He tried one test tube, mixing its content. Nothing happened. He tried the next one. The same result. The third test tube he was shaking violently to induce the reaction when the test tube fell and broke. Thoroughly frustrated Csupi exploded:
?The rest should perish too!?
And with a majestic sweep of his hand he herded the remaining test tubes to the floor, breaking them and spilling their content into a puddle of complex conflagration. Csupi taught me that science could be also very subjective.
Opposed to the faltering in science, the impressions Polgar conveyed, in the last four years we get an enthusiastic support from a new young teacher Dr. Gyula Mikszath. He was rumored to be a nephew of one of the most famous Hungarian novelists of the late 19th century, a rumor he never acknowledged nor denied. Mikszath showed us the beautiful order in natural science. He reorganized the chemistry labs, and created a Natural Science club, an after school activity where different topics were discussed by the students. I helped him in cataloguing the chemicals in the stockroom and thereby acquiring a firm foothold in a mysterious world. He was also innovative by acquiring large supply of educational films in all scientific endeavors from physics to biology. These movies were not part of the required curriculum and thus we did not have to account for their contents. Probably because of this Mikszath was constantly inundated by demands to show movies during the class, sometimes 4 or 5 times the same movies. Since he did not keep a record what movie did he show to what class, our suspiciously fervent requests were never denied.
My final account of the academic influence I gained in high school must center on our history and philosophy teacher, Dr. Sandor Kato. He was probably the most gifted teacher we had, erudite, creative and a true scholar. Having said this I also must record that he was probably the most right-wing irredentist teacher, deeply seeped in Catholicism. He believed and preached the beneficial role the Church played and should play in Hungarian history. He posted a fidgety Hitler mustache that was the dominant hairpiece on his face, since baldness crept up on his skull leaving only a little stripe of fuzz from ear to ear behind his face. The Hitler mustache was also a political statement. Thus Kato provided a paradox. I hated him because of his politics and I suspected his motives behind his different categorical statements, but at the same time I was fascinated by his vast knowledge and ability to synthesize coherent lines of thoughts from disparate nuggets. Mostly I was enchanted by his command of art history, which he used as a very effective instructional device. Thus in Kato?s class we learned not only about the wars and battles, the political maneuvering behind the powers, the legislative and social strivings but also how all this mixture was reflected in the art of each period. He was also our Latin teacher in the last two years. During that period we got acquainted not only with the poetry of Horatius and Catullus, the oratory of Cicero and the like but we learned a good deal about the day to day living of the Romans, the lay-out of the houses, the individual courses of their feast, ?ab ovo usque ad malum?. It was the first time for us that somebody made a dead language an exciting living endeavor. In all fairness to him, although he strongly espoused the historic role Hungary can play in a German dominated Europe, he was not averse to hear different views from us especially in our philosophy classes. He was doctrinaire but allowed dissent if it was firmly anchored in cogent philosophical thought. I had a lot of disagreement with him, about the right to self-determination of minorities and the like, but that diminished toward our graduation in 1941, when voicing such opinions became outright dangerous.
Kato represented an elitist, absolutist philosophy that I admired and abhorred at the same time. Those who subscribed to its tenets, felt superior, the true heirs to the Central European culture directly derived from Rome. That common heritage linked together people who could quote the same poetic lines, proverbs and bon mots, the fraternity of educated, the literati. People smitten by these allures sometimes stayed anchored for the rest of their lives. A typical example comes to mind when one reads Edwin Chagraff?s autobiography: the Heraclitan Fire. Chagraff was exposed to the same elitist education in Vienna some fifteen years before me. Throughout his life in the USA he flaunted this supposedly superior European culture, rather than his considerable scientific accomplishments as one of the founders of molecular biology. Spouting long Latin and Greek quotations he alienated his colleagues in his adopted country where he remained forever alien.
The eight years spent in Revai realgymnasium came to an end in 1941. The matriculation was an exam prepared nationally by the Ministry of Education. As usual it consisted of two parts: written and oral. The written exam had the same topics for everyone the title of which was kept secret under seal. . To illustrate the level and scope of these exams here are some of the titles of the topics as recorded in the yearbook of 1941: The written part was conducted in three days in May each lasting a maximum of 4-5 hours: The topics of Hungarian literature were (a) ?What was the influence of the writings of Szechenyi, Kossuth and Deak on the Hungarian political scene?. (b) ?How are different sounds fixated and reproduced in literature?. I selected the first topic. The Latin written exam was a 30-page selection from Vergilius: Aneas to be translated into Hungarian. The last day was the German written exam. The title was: The Danube in German literature. Except of the Latin translation the Hungarian and German literature tests required creativity, an improvisation on materials studied for 8 years.
During the last months of the year we feverishly prepared for these exams. From each discipline there were some 30-50 topics from which the final oral exam was selected. For the oral exams each student was given a different topics. The oral exam topics varied in difficulty, we went through them in the classroom studied them intensively on our own for a month after the written exams were over. I remember strapping books onto the spring-loaded package seat of my bicycle and peddling out daily to the country side and immersing myself under the shade of a mulberry tree. I thought that the bucolic location will enhance my brain?s receptiveness and will be conducive to focus on the task at hand. The tree ripened its fruit conveniently in June, so that I nourished my brain and stomach at the same location.
Some examples illustrate the level and rigor required to pass the exams: In Hungarian literature I received a bonus, one of my favorite oeuvre: Madach: The Tragedy of Man. My topic was to discuss the mode of temptations of Adam throughout the ages. Other sample topics were: ?The effect of romanticism in our literature?, ?The influence of women on our poets? among 47 other topics. We had about 30 topics on the subject of grammar: ? The origin of Hungarian language.? ? The subject of a sentence and its grouping? etc. Some 30 topics crowded under the category of ?Style and rhetorics?: ?Modalities of historical novel? ?The style of a hymn.? Some topics probing our Latin education were entitled: ? The use of ablativus instrumentalis.? ?The Roman house and its furnitures? ?The hierarchy of Roman Gods?. Some 62 topics covered all what we have learned in math and geometry:? The roots of second order equations, the rules of Descartes? ?The concept of indefinite integral? ?The concepts of geometrical bodies. Euler?s rule.? This illustration I culled from the partial list preserved in class records. I do not remember what topics I drew from the lottery of these and other diverse field, save the above mentioned literature topic and my physics topic: ?The pressure dependence of phases?
Suffice to say that I passed my baccalaureate with flying colors, collecting all A marks, similar to my record throughout the eight years. Up to this point the studies went on an ascending pathway. Now it came to an end in more than one way. The fact that I was denied admission to a University had sad intellectual and psychological consequences. I deal with that in the ensuing chapters. But my general education ended also by design. The whole system was set up, so that by passing the baccalaureate we were in no need to further formal education. The bases were laid out. One could go on and specialize to acquire a profession, physician, engineer, lawyer, or one could float around many subjects either as an autodidact or even as a ?free philosopher?. This is a somewhat awkward translation of the title of a University student who has not chosen any set curriculum, but follows his desire to acquire wisdom (as opposed to an organized set of knowledge of a field). Sometimes this gentlemanly pursuit continued for a decade or so, as long as the family?s purse allowed such high living. The roots of these diverse ways to satisfy the intellect are in the name of the disciplines themselves. Philosopher is a lover of sophos, wisdom. Science and scientists are derived from scire, to know. Thus knowledge and wisdom are two different things. One is ever changing, argumentative; the other is systematic and immutable. There I was. An end product. I could go out and argue my way and also I could go and acquire new knowledge. No more hand holding guidance was necessary. Open to all potential enrichment and at the same time deprived an access to any of those openings.
In all that I must admit, we got an excellent education: solid to serve as a foundation and inspirational to allow soaring to different heights. As a closer I must record that not only our intellects were challenged throughout these 8 years. ?Mens sana in corpore sano.? Physical education and art classes were dealt in equal doses. I have little recollection of the art classes that progressed from geometric drawing, to free hand drawing and eventually to water-color painting except that a brutal teacher and rabid open anti-Semite who fancied himself as an accomplished artist was my nemesis for two years. He was the only one who decorated my record with B grades.
I have much happier memories of our physical education classes. Beside the large auditorium for gymnastics, fencing and tumbling we had a city block size of athletic field that served as skating rink in winter and outdoor activities for all kinds of games during the summer. The school also owned a regatta on the river Raba with some 10 hulls of different sizes, from eight oars to single skiffs, and even some kayaks. Gyor being the home of three rivers (four if one counts the Marcal that entered the Raba just outside the city limits) was a natural place for water sports, especially rowing. The season started in early spring right after the ice has thawed and continued during the summer recess. Only the upper four classes were allowed to use the facilities, and we had to sign in and keep record of each of our outings. The one who amassed the longest mileage in a category of rowing got annual prizes. I did my share but never got a prize partly because I spent too much time in swimming, a definitely private, non-school activity in the municipal pool. I did excel in swimming, won a few races in breaststroke and even ended up playing water polo on the junior division of the local ETO team. However, the competitive swimming ended when I was 16, and was diagnosed of having an enlarged heart.
The other sports I liked were tennis and table tennis, soccer and hand ball game winning in each some medals or trophies in competitions. I admit I hated the gymnastics, not just the floor exercises but the parallel bars, the rings and the whole other slew of equipments, I could not stomach standing on my head nor did I enjoy climbing up on ropes. Nor did I engage in wrestling bouts. But athletics and ball games were another matter. Even when we were in second grade (11 yr. old) we organized our own Olympics with all the different categories. It is true that we did not have all the necessary equipment and, for example, in shot put we substituted a standard brick for the iron ball. Actually that ended effectively our games when a misguided heave of a brick landed on the back of one of the participants, knocking him unconscious for a few seconds to the horror of all of us. From there on, on school grounds, only supervised sports were allowed.
But of all my physical activities the most memorable was an altercation that happened on the tennis court. I was playing against a classmate of mine, by the name of Komondi. He came from a deeply religious Catholic family of candlestick makers. They had their shop in the building of the Carmelite church and nunnery. Part of the candle output of their shop was delivered to the Carmelites to be purchased at the entry by worshippers. We were in reasonably good terms, having won together the doubles table tennis championship that year. On that fateful day, Komondi cursed me out during the game for some imaginary offense. The curse included the frequently used slur: Stinky Jew. I heard that before, but coming from Komondi enraged me. I leaped over the net and grabbed him by the necktie. (Tennis was considered to be a British sport with formal attire!!). I yanked Komondi with his necktie over my shoulder and he landed on the other side of the net in the dirt. This was the only violent act I participated in during my high school years and since I was considered to be meek, the surprise was all the more unexpected. Komondi took his humiliation and like a dog, his tail between his legs, withdrew. From there on, my reputation established, the taunts diminished if not entirely disappeared.
A few days after the oral matriculation exams, the results were announced and we had the traditional graduation celebration. We walked (ballagas) the corridors and school yard, candle in our hands, green silk kokarda sewn by our respective sweethearts into our lapels, singing the old mediaeval Latin student song: ?Gaudeamus, igitur, iuvenes dum suumus? ?Let?s be merry, while we are young?. After the parting speeches in the aula, we left the school for the last time. That evening we had our banquet, the last symbol that still bound us into the friendships established during eight years. By midnight we broke up into three separate bands each to be accompanied by Gypsy musicians to serenade our sweethearts, never to meet again with most of my former classmates.