Vera Forster meets András Petö
In April I mentioned a book, about life in Hungary (and elsewhere) from 1924 to1956, that was on my to-read list. This book is A daughter of Her Century, by Vera Forster:
I ordered the book and read it while on my recent holiday. Well, that is not quite true. I read it on the journey to Norwich and finished it off in the spring sunshine in my Dad’s garden on the following day: my holiday reading all finished before the holiday had even begun! That left me more time for the gardening and the thinking about what I could write about the book.
I had been so engrossed and impressed by the story that I just could not put the book down until I had come to the end. That is the end of the book but I suspect not the end of Vera’s story. I wonder whether there is or will be a sequel! I do hope so.
Reading the book so intensely, almost all at one sitting, made the stories all so immediate and, because I know many of the places mentioned and have heard so many similar stories first-hand from friends, I was captured in Vera’s world for the length of the book.
I was delighted as I neared the end to read of her short experience of the Petö Institute.
I have, since that first reading, recapped on some chapters of the book and will in due course read it once more from cover to cover. The only other books that I have read through twice in quick succession are Enid Blyton’s Shadow the Sheepdog in the 1960s, and Ernest Hemmingway’s A Farewell to Arms in 1976.
Vera Forster’s book that relates her childhood and early adult life in Hungary and Poland, up until the time she left Hungary in 1956, has left a deep impression on me. She writes so personally and describes life in such detail, leaving nothing, - though at the same time lots - to the imagination.
As I gardened during my holiday I wondered how I would be able to express in words Vera’s adventurous, courageous, dangerous and very sad start in life.
The impression that I have been left with are of course very much related to my own experiences. My knowledge of the country that she lived in and knowledge gained from the stories that I have read and heard others tell me, all came together in this book. Vera Forster has managed to pull together all these different threads for me and given me much clearer understanding of what happened during the years of pre-war, wartime, post-war, and pre-and post-revolution, Hungary. Somehow all this clicked together in this very personal account.
I was hooked immediately when in the first few pages I read the accounts of early-childhood visits to her relatives in the city. The special orders from her Mum, that were given to her on the tram while they were on their way to visit her Grandmother, where so similar to those that I had known so well in my own childhood. She was reminded, just as I always was, to be on her best behaviour and to mind her Ps and Qs. She anticipated being treated like a princess by her relatives and receiving the best morsels of food, just as my sister and I had done on our trips with our Mother and our Grandmother to have tea with all the great aunties.
We also had our white gloves on and our best shoes, just like Vera describes in her book, but we knew that our Mum would not mind a bit if the shoes got dirty when we climbed out of the window and disappeared into the garden after eating our share of wafer-thin meat-paste sandwiches. Vera Forster was not able to retreat far from her doting relatives other than into her own imagination. Her shoes remained clean and uncomfortable.
It is with these stories of childhood that the similarities between my story and Vera’s end, apart perhaps from the impression I get that she too was a slightly loopy, skinny girl in her late teens -someone who, like me, had found it very hard to come to terms with adulthood.
Darker times, by far
Vera Forster had to grow up very quickly, at a time that was very dark and also dangerous, all the more so because Vera was part of a Jewish family. One by one Vera`s family and friends began disappearing, first into safe houses and later arrested and deported.
She relates how difficult she found the months before she herself was deported to a concentration camp. She describes how she stayed indoors for days on end not eating until her sister, who seemed so often there to help out, arrived to shake her out of herself.
Vera describes her fear as she later hid in a safe house, how she was arrested, how she helped others to escape, how she survived and how she escaped herself. She eventually reached freedom on the top of a goods train that brought her back to Hungary after spending months being moved from one concentration camp to another and surviving.
As I read I wondered whether Vera’s survival was not only due to luck and goodwill as she suggests, but also due to the fact that she had already suffered so many ordeals in her short life that had toughened her up both physically and mentally for the hardships of those months in Poland and had strengthened her will for survival.
“So I was spared the worst”
This is how Vera describes her return to Budapest and finding her family house still standing and many members of her family still or again occupying it.
She felt lucky for this, with so much of Budapest destroyed in the last days before the Germans retreated. She was spared the worst: “By the time I arrived home in August (1945), the corpses of people and dead horses had been cleared away from the streets and shops were open. Electricity was restored and the trams were running, but so many houses had been destroyed that sharing became compulsory.”
Now back in Budapest Vera studied and gained her degree but this period of personal peace did not last for long. By the late 1940s her place of work at the university was barred and she went on to spend her days working in a cement factory. Then, in 1951, when she could stand it no longer, a friend found her a job at Petö’s new institute, even though as a persona non grata she was not eligible for work!
It’s that Buddha again!
Of course when I first began to read this book I already knew that Vera had worked for Dr András Petö, but I had not known whether he or the Institute would be mentioned in the book. So after reading about Vera’s return to Budapest in 1945 I expectantly turned each page.
This is the very first time I have read something about Petö and his institute that is not uncritically singing their praises. Although she is complementary about the success she does not worship the ground that Petö walked on as some others have done.
Vera does say that the secret of the success of the Institute and its work was Petö himself… “A fat taciturn Buddha, whom I never saw smiling...”
In Vera’s very first paragraph about this period of her life she writes:
“Private enterprise did not exist, but the Institute of Mobility and Rehabilitation was run by András Petö as if he owned it. The Institute was built, furnished and staffed entirely according to the specifications of Petö who employed and dismissed whom he wanted, without any interference; he was even allowed to have a say in the choice of the Institute’s belligerent, but exceedingly stupid, Party Secretary. Petö could do anything because, according to rumour, somebody high up in the party hierarchy was supporting him.”
Petö refused to have qualified nurses, child-carers, teachers, or any other professional working for him, and he required no formal qualification from the young women he interviewed to work with him. They had to be bright and physically strong, with no preconceived ideas about disability. As far as possible he chose girls who had a boyfriend and a harmonious family life, dismissing anyone who said she wanted to sacrifice her life to ‘poor crippled children’. A “new” conductor received no special training, but joined others in washing, feeding, instructing and consoling the children, and doing, with them, the exercises specified by Petö.”
As I read about Vera’s experiences I did not know how I would put all of this into my own words so I have decided not to. I will quote a few more of Vera’s own words and then leave you to read more in her book.
What else did I read about Petö and the early years in his Institute?
“Under pressure from the Ministry, he would occasionally give a lecture to the assembled conductors but nothing could be learned from it. He mumbled incoherently, and what he said made no sense to us. Although he explained nothing, everyone understood what to do.”
Could this be the earliest experience of the learning through osmosis that I also experienced in my conductor training, and have often described in my blog postings?
“Play? Education? There was no time for these. Even the younger children would not have exchanged one unaided step for a whole toy shop.”
“Exercise was education. As far as I know none of these children had difficulties with learning when they went back to school.”
I was talking recently to a young conductor who trained at the Petö Institute. I got the impression from her that this was still how it was when she was there. The children learnt how to move, how to be independent, how to be motivated how to want to learn and then went back out into the big wide world to get on it, to get on with their living. Does it happen like this anywhere else?
Back to Vera’s book
She tells us that although she was deeply involved in her work at the Petö Institute she never “grew into the fabric of the place”. It was better work she says than her friend Lili had in a sewing factory but given the chance she would have left as soon as she could.
She was given that chance when in 1953 Stalin died and what she describes as: “The invisible noose around our necks seemed a little looser.”
Vera, again with help from friends, found work again as an academic, this time teaching at the School of Dramatic Arts. To gain her friend’s help she made this plea: “Do something! Please do something. I can’t stand it much longer at the Petö Institute.”
Unlike me, Vera did not enjoy her time at the Petö Institute and I suspect neither would I have done if I had been training there during such difficult times under the same conditions that she and her colleagues endured.
She did not stay in her job at the School of Dramatic Arts for very long either. Despite being determined not to leave her homeland, not even in the days during and immediately after the 1956 uprising she eventually left with an official passport, by train, a few weeks after she had helped her brother-in-law get over the border to the West with a bag full of gold ingots.
Europe is our extended home
Vera took the advice of her University lecturer: “… not to leave Europe. It’s your extended home. Further away you’ll find an alien world.”
I had a friend who also left Hungary in 1956. He told me many stories of his life before, during and after the war, and during the 1956 uprising. He also told me about how “foreign” he felt for the rest of his life, he spent many thousands of miles away on the other side of the world to Europe. Vera’s friend was probably right with his advice. My friend returned to Hungary in the early nineties for the first time. He returned most summers thereafter until his death in 2007. It was there that he felt at home and at his ease.
Whatever the differences are in the culture of the many European countries, wherever we travel within Europe, a European still feels more or less at home. I hope that Vera has felt this during her long stay in England.
When I lived in Hungary I searched the English language bookstores for all I could find on the history of Budapest and Hungary. Mostly I read about the time that Vera describes in her book, pre-and post-World War Two.
When I came to live in Germany I did the same here. I read many books about this era, most of them like Vera Forster’s, autobiographical. Many of them were written by Jewish survivors of the concentration camps. Living as I did, first in Hungary and then in Germany, amongst people who had lived through these times, I was able to hear many first-hand accounts. It was quite easy to find someone able and willing to answer my many questions.
In about 2002 I made a very conscious decision to read no more books about the suffering of the minorities in Hungary and Germany in the first half of the Twentieth Century. I decided not to read anymore about the Holocaust or about the Hungarian uprising of 1956. I realised that because of the closeness to people who had been though these experiences the books were upsetting me, I realised that I had read enough for now.
In 2011 I discovered this book by Vera Forster and this changed my mind. I would read it, I just had to read it. I was motivated to do so because I knew that she had worked for Dr András Petö. I hoped that I would read in its pages about this time of her life. By the time I reached this section of the book I was so engrossed by the rest of her story that I had almost forgotten what might be coming next in Vera’s life.
Vera tells her story throughout so clearly and with so much attention to detail. It is a story that spans thirty-two years in less than two hundred pages. In these pages she helped me to understand the politics and the disorder and the fears and the sufferings that I had read about piece by piece over the past years but had never really been able to put together as a whole. Now through my eagerness to find out about András Petö I have discovered much more. Most important is the better understanding that I now have of the people I know, or knew, who lived at this time, many of them with similar sufferings and hardships to endure, and with amazing stories to tell.
Despite the tears that rolled down my face as I read. I do still recommend that you find this book and read it for yourselves.
A Daughter of her Century by Vera Forster – The Clucker Press,
There is also a report by Vera Forster, a longer article about the years spent at the Petö Institute that was published many years ago in The Conductor magazine. This should be available from the Library of the National Institute for Conductive Education:
A view from the past by Vera Forster, The Conductor, nos.23-24, pp.43-48. NICE Library
Susie Mallett, earlier posting -
Mind your Ps and Qs-
The Siege of Budapest -