From Immediacy 2/3 (2001)

Histories, memories and a few videotapes

By Zsuzsanna Várhelyi

Discussing the importance of memory does not necessarily come easy for historians like me at a time when memory has been prized as superior to history. So about two years ago when I initiated a video project to record what elderly members of my family remembered of the past sixty-plus years back in Hungary, I conceived of my "memory project" not as a professional inquiry, but as a private undertaking, a family keepsake. My camera and questions were aimed at initiating a flow of personal narratives and geared around critical times in personal lives rather than querying about this extremely rich period of the country’s history, that included the Second World War and two revolutions against Communist rule in 1956 and 1989.

The ambivalent feelings I had about my project and the intention to keep it distinct from my professional interests were, -- along with my interest in recording these memories, -- symptoms of contemporary interpretations of history and memory and their relation. History and memory seem inevitably opposite to each other. Traditional historiography is criticized exactly for how it is different from memory, for its impersonal, collectivist and state-directed approach to the past. At the same time many historians have heard the call for an "effective history," to use Michel Foucault’s phrase, and indeed, it has become a vogue among historians to include counter-histories from those outside the conventional sphere of history. But even in the best attempts by professional historians to incorporate memory in their work, -- as exemplified by Pierre Nora, who first gave due attention to the familial relation of history to collective memory, -- historical memory still seems to remain sterile in comparison to the wealth of individual recollections. In Jacques Le Goff’s call for history to take on the task of producing a critical account of memory and its representations, history is clearly detached from the immediacy that memory appears to offer.

However, memory also had less alluring associations. It seemed to me that the popular concept of memory has allied itself with the language of identity politics, and increasingly separated from any historical or cultural context. For me this exclusive and excessive preoccupation with memory seemed just as arrogant in its claim for authenticity as the definitive political narratives it once claimed to challenge. In fact, some historians reflected, with Frederic Bartlett, on the constructed nature of memory, be it individual or collective. And Paul Ricoeur has recently pointed out that both history and memory share the problem of the representation of the past, which indeed starts with the very first attempt at commemoration. From this skeptical perspective, individual memory narratives appear doubly suspect: they not only stem from an apparently subjective source, but they also promote the idea of a linear narrative supposedly representative of the past.

But these were not the problems that occurred with immediate relevance to people like me in the countries of the former Eastern bloc after the peaceful revolutions of 1989. Because of the way history as a discipline had been subject to the political agenda of the previous forty-some years, it was clear to all that we had no reliable history of these years available. Written records were largely lost, purposefully destroyed or the product of suspect circumstances, and fact-based historical evaluations were never created. Memory, namely what individual survivors could recall, was to play a central role in the project of learning about and conceptualizing the past. Along with many of my fellow history majors in Hungary in the early 1990s, I took classes taught by intellectuals who were involved in tracing the country’s history in the post-World War II era as derived from oral history interviews with former communist politicians and members of the opposition.

Memory, that of private, familial reminiscences bordering on the political, was rarely talked about in our home while I was growing up. All I really knew about my family’s past came from my mother, from her steadfast commitment to return from the provincial city where she grew up to the capital, Budapest. From this, I always imagined my grandfather, S., whom I never knew, as he died before I was born, in pain. I imagined him, time and time again, as he saw his daughter, my mother, growing up in what felt like bleak exile some 60 miles northeast of Budapest during the communist era of Hungary. He was once an upcoming talented young physician working in the best clinic of Hungary, traveled widely in Europe and was fluent in many languages. Yet in 1948 he moved to what was essentially a mining town, far from Budapest in more ways than mileage. I knew little of actual grievances apart from the political terror that translated into my mother’s fear and skepticism towards politics. My grandfather’s pain, as I learned to imagine it, was dramatized around the time, when he watched my mother try to return to Budapest again, some fifteen years later. She believed she had failed to meet his expectations in so many ways. She failed the entrance exam to medical school (her exam was marked with an X, because my family owned ‘too much property’ before the war), she lacked the sophistication of the city, and maybe most painful of all, she had an inescapably provincial accent.

When talk of changes came in the late ‘80s, personal memories, the stories of losses and grievances played a secondary role in relation to the tragedy of having been denied the reality of a past we all shared. What mattered most was to start talking openly about political oppression and to reclaim the country’s past: to call the events of 1956, what had been commonly referred to in the "politically correct" talk of the communist regime as a counterrevolution, a revolution again. At the reburial of Imre Nagy, leader of the revolution and a victim of the ensuing oppression, whose remains were now re-gathered from an unmarked site, Hungarians united in celebrating the freedom to talk about the past in terms one would not have dared to think aloud before. The interpretation of any revolution in Central Eastern Europe (since as long as 1848) had always been used for political purposes, and 1989 was probably no different in its agenda to reclaim the memory of the anti-regime revolution of 1956 in the name of its political program of freedom and democracy. But exactly because of the enforced silence of the previous decades there was now a clear sense that this was also an opening, the chance for society to actually and openly remember a thorny past in commemorating the 1956 revolution.

The difficulties of remembering the past regime in the countries of the former Eastern block were widely publicized. In Hungary, 1989 saw public erasures of the past regime: the ideological monuments of the communist rule were relegated to a sculpture park on the outskirts of Budapest and the street signs commemorating its heroes were now crossed out in red [Muntadas link] – to become distinct mementos of a past that felt too close for comfort. Personal memories had a unique position. Ever since the 1956 revolution and its aftermath, and somewhat similarly to Poland after the events of 1980, a great divide separated the country into the opposite groups of state versus society. So when 1989 brought about the changes in Hungary, claiming individual memories seemed subordinate to the exceptional opportunity that society had to challenge former, state-controlled representations of the past. In contrast to the Western intellectual debates about history and memory, the oral history interviews made in Hungary immediately after 1989 were concerned with trying primarily to reconstruct the history of the previous 40 years and not to commemorate the individual survivors of that era.

When I returned to Budapest in the late 1990’s, my intentions were different. Influenced by the different, "Western" agenda of identity politics, with a concern for the loss of family narratives in a global setting, I initiated my video project to learn about the memories of my relatives who happened to live through this tumultuous half century of Hungarian history. I wanted to record individual faces, those of my relatives, marked by all that they have seen of this past. I wanted to record their narratives for my children, a private monument to lives, molded by a different time, but at the same time also unmistakably similar to ours in the personal concerns.

The project that I originally intended to be just such a genealogical endeavor, took on its own life when differences in personal memories surfaced concerning the causes for the abrupt move away from the capital by my maternal grandfather at the time of the communist takeover in 1948, the move that turned the lives of almost all of my family members around. I did not need to be a trained historian to realize the difficulties in establishing any historical facts about this event. Both my grandfather and grandmother are dead, and there are no surviving documents about the move to the countryside, no official letter ordering my grandfather to leave, which some of my interviewees hoped I might discover, not even documentation of my great-grandfather’s soon-to-follow deportation. The first lesson was about silence and the absence of easy answers.

It was my mother’s godmother, Aunt K., an elderly lady in her 70s, who first suggested in her interview that the move might have had a non-political motivation. She said it was about survival, (the countryside had more food than the capital), and that it was also about romance. My grandmother, E., was raised on an estate in the same part of the country far from the capital, and she wanted to return there. My grandfather, as Aunt K. romantically recalled, followed her. In Aunt K.’s narrative the relocation, the same move that forged my mother’s determination to return to the city, was about following your heart. When I went and told my mother about this interview, she was furious. "Oh she does not know, she just colors everything with her simplistic understanding. What does she know about politics? They were so afraid." But the most shocking event came when I invited my mother to observe an interview with my grandfather’s brother, Uncle B., which she and I hoped would clear things up. Uncle B., an old man now in his 80’s, offered a third interpretation. As the tape started rolling, he acknowledged that there may have been oral threats, and indeed my grandmother’s father, who was a "kulák" (the ill-fated communist category for those who had owned an estate before the Second World War), was in political danger. But the relocation was his private decision after considering all these factors. After an initially passionate exchange, my mother was bewildered; her father could not just leave the capital, he must have been forced to move.

In retrospect, looking back at my experience making these videos, I am most impressed by how these varied interpretations of my grandfather’s relocation contributed to the fabric of personal identities among my family members. For my mother, who perceived it as a forced evacuation, which was the only interpretation I knew growing up, it forged a personal agenda of "returning" to Budapest. For others, mostly of an older generation, who recalled a romantic or a political choice, my grandfather’s decision to leave was a model for prioritizing family values against public roles in a politically unreliable environment. They interpreted what happened in the context of the enormous suffering brought about already by the war.

I wonder about these generational differences that historians and sociologists since Mannheim, have identified as important in understanding how people remember past events. Beside the generation of those now in their 70s and 80s and my mother’s in her 50s, where does my generation, in our late 20s today, fit in? If the changing meanings of the past shape the significance of various events and also the rhetoric of their representation, (a phenomenon exemplified in the language of survivorship and trauma that has appeared in the wake of the Holocaust), what will guide how my generation will "remember" those turbulent times in Hungary? We are just starting to learn about the way memory work among various generations in the countries of the former Eastern bloc. As Catherine Merridale explores in her excellent new book on death and memory in twentieth-century Russia, in contrast to descendants of Holocaust survivors, second-generation members of families in Russia that have suffered various forms of persecution under Soviet rule, rarely interpreted their own encounters with the past as trauma. Indeed, they rarely have even discussed what now appear as common experiences of concealment and guilt.

One of the most striking features of memory in Russia, as Merridale sharply observes, is the silence between generations. Similarly, in communist Hungary, silence about the past ruled, personal memories were concealed and rarely shared. While growing up in the 1980s, my generation enjoyed relative freedom of speech, but parents squandered this freedom in Russian jokes and hushed up talk about the family past. The state repression of memory was personalized and internalized. My case in point is the silence among my family members that allowed for such varied interpretations of my grandfather’s move to the countryside, and that included my mother’s refusal to return to this provincial town ever since my grandfather’s death. All I had was my mother’s strong commitment to right the wrong she perceived, which stood for my understanding of what happened to my family (and to Hungary) during and after WW2.

The wider outcomes of the video project for my family were varied. For better or worse, I have not edited the tapes and as of now, no one in my family asked to see anyone else’s videotapes. But things have changed. At the end of last year, after a quarter of a century, my mother decided to go back to the provincial city where she had spent her youth. The disagreement in the family about why my grandfather really relocated from Budapest in 1948 has not passed, because the personal interpretations were too tightly entwined in the identities of the individual family members to give way to any unified story. But even with all these ambiguities, the once-silent subject now does come up in occasional conversation.

The silent coexistence of these varied memory narratives today is also evidence of complex historical developments both during the communist era and since 1989. Trying to "normalize the past" has been a state agenda in all countries of the Eastern bloc in the past decade: to find a resolution without military involvement. To choose this road was a political solution that coincided with the wish of many individuals, for whom "living well [from now on] is the best revenge".

But how memory works in Hungary today also had its source in a less often mentioned, darker aspect of how it functioned under the state-party system in Hungary. The consolidation after the failed revolution of 1956 brought about a pact of forgetting in the 1960’s, in which giving up remembrance equaled to the promise of a better life. This "deal", however, created a model for remembering and forgetting that was different from the best-known paradigm for memory as resistance in the countries of the former Eastern bloc, that the West learnt from Milan Kundera’s work. While in Kundera novels the most important tool to resist Communist rule is "counter-memory-as-resistance", György Konrád’s hero in his novel The Loser, "T." takes on a voluntary silence, cooperating with the state’s agenda of the suppression of memory. His willingness to participate in this pact gives away a "morass of shared responsibility" for communist rule among Hungarians, which has not passed ever since. If everyone "knew" that communist rule was wrong, but kept silent about it, what can we say now?

Eastern European silence about its communist past and the many manipulations of that past since 1989, when newly recounted memories were potential sources of power and wealth, have left the project of collective memory in Hungary a difficult legacy. But I would argue that such a destabilization of memory can also open the possibility to reach beyond the politics of antagonistic counter-histories formed on the basis of individual narratives. Indeed my video project is just one among many of the seemingly instantaneous reactions, all over the world, to the unique production possibilities offered by new media to document alternative histories and complex personal memories.

For my generation, coming to age in the midst of these changes and often considered insensitive to our parents’ and grandparents’ narratives of the past, these media can provide a means to "remember" past events without the need for tragic (over)identification, constituting ourselves as surrogate victims. The work of remembering, a kind of mourning mediated through a camera and an editing deck, can help create a distance and impose self-reflexivity on the personal narratives as well as force a critical stance in thinking about the past. Making my videotapes taught me disengagement from any one of the familial interpretations of the past, and also made me realize how much more work is to be done, talking and thinking, for my generation, to break away from the spell of Konrád’s "T.", and dare to remember a difficult past. From a professional perspective as a historian, I am convinced that it is only by inviting multiple memory narratives into a shared public forum that we can formulate a common, but multifaceted, critical history as the vital basis of future democracy.


Zsuzsanna Várhelyi is completing a doctorate in history at Columbia University. Her dissertation addresses the relation of elite status and religiosity in the Roman Empire. Her current projects include a video short on ancient religion in cooperation with the New School. This fall she will start teaching as assistant professor of Classical Studies at Boston University.