On September 10th, 2020, Erdélyi Krónika, a Hungarian history portal in Romania, published an online interview with our colleague Attila Réfi. In the excerpt translated below, Dr. Réfi discusses his childhood and why he became a historian.
Can you tell us how you became a historian? Who and what inspired you to choose this profession?
My special interest in history has, for all intents and purposes, accompanied me throughout my life and had already emerged by early childhood. Having said that, I cannot connect it to one specific event or person. My earliest memory related to my love of history is that I quickly learned to read as a first grader in elementary school, and having mastered that amazing skill, I immediately began to devour the books in my vicinity, including Dénes Lengyel’s Régi magyar mondák (Old Hungarian Tales) and its sequel Magyar mondák (Hungarian Tales), which became my favorites. Over the years, I have reread with great pleasure the short stories contained therein numerous times. So I became acquainted with the most important characters and events of Hungarian history from an early age.
By virtue of my first name, I was particularly interested in and attracted to the world of Hun-Magyar tales, mainly the ones about King Attila of course. My enthusiasm only grew when I happened upon István Komjáthy’s book Mondák (Tales) on the bookshelf of my daycare classroom. It too became one of my absolute favorites. Although the storyline is not really based on reality, the book is a literary treasure and a joy to read. Growing up I continued to devour historical novels, for example Ivanhoe, Walter Scott’s classic set in England at the time of the Crusades, and Zsolt Harsányi’s Mathias rex (King Mathias), which paints a vivid picture of the Hunyadi Era.
Luckily for me, at that time there were numerous historical films on TV, many of which I enthusiastically watched. In light of everything I have just said, I am sure it will come as no surprise to hear that I could hardly wait to reach the fifth grade, when I would finally have my first real history class. And I was not at all disappointed because Pál Radnai, an outstanding and highly experienced teacher with whom I soon formed a personal bond, instructed me. In high school, I had another excellent teacher whose name was Ilona Németh. The two of them contributed greatly in deepening my love for history and solidifying my knowledge. In my junior year of high school, under Ilona Németh’s tutelage, I qualified for the national finals of the National Middle School Academic Competition in the subject of the “Hunyadi Era” and earned ministerial praise.
I remember both of my former teachers with great affection. Unfortunately both have passed away. In addition to them, there is one other person I must mention who had an impact on me. Near the end of the 1980’s, my parents decided to get me a private German tutor. So on an early afternoon on a summer day, a lean and balding man approximately seventy years old but in good health showed up at our flat. He eyed me with suspicion and told me that I would have to study hard because he refused to deal with lazy and stupid pupils. He was challenging me to see how determined I was. A few days later, we held our first lesson. Luckily, I did not disappoint “Mister” Laci (as he was called), and we quickly formed a close bond. He was like a grandfather figure who had the greatest affection for me. So much so, that after our second lesson, he would no longer accept money from my parents! Over many years, he taught me gratis. And German was not the only thing I learned from him. He shaped my worldview and outlook on life. He taught me history and what it meant to be human.
He was not simply a German teacher; moreover, he did not even have a teaching certificate. But his flawless linguistic skills, intelligence and feel for teaching made him an excellent mentor. As far as I know, Mister Laci had begun tutoring only after retiring from his office job at the coal mine in Ajka. His life story seemingly lacked intrigue. However, I soon found out that he was descended from a venerable and well-to-do noble family from western Transdanubia, the Hettyey family from Makkoshetye, which had belonged to the highest stratum of society during the Miklós Horthy Era. One of Mister Laci’s uncles had been a general while one of his cousins had flown fighters. He himself had also been a gallant military officer, graduating from the famous and acclaimed Ludovika Academy and subsequently fighting in the Second World War. He had been at the Don River Bend, where a Soviet soldier whom he had fought in close proximity had shot his hand with a pistol, leaving a scar that would accompany him for the rest of his life.
Having traveled such a long and winding road, Mister Laci could obviously teach me about a great many things. He told me stories about the First and Second World Wars, the Ludovika Academy and the winemaker of his family’s vineyard on Somló Hill, who had ended up as a POW in Russia during the Great War. Mister Laci shared with me the winemaker’s adventurous story about traveling through Manchuria and over the ocean to get home. Above everything else, of course, Mister Laci told me numerous stories from his own personal experiences. I found out that he had grown up in a palace, a governess had taken care of him as a child and that he spoke four languages.
I always marveled at Mister Laci’s character and dignity. Even though he had lost his fortune and social status with the implementation of the Soviet system in Hungary, the communists could not take his faith and humanity. Forced to live in a 2-room tenement flat and work as a day laborer, he remained a proud Hungarian, Christian and gentlemen. First and foremost, he remained Human (with a capital H) and rose above blind hatred and bitterness. In addition to his faith and humility, his unbreakable good cheer and humor helped get him through the bad times.
So having said all that, though many subjects interested me, perhaps it is no surprise that when the time came to choose what to study at university, history was my clear-cut choice.