In an effort to learn more about the Scottish Mission in the lives of Hungarian citizens during the 175th Jubilee year, the RCH recently spoke with János Horváth about his emotional and trying times as a political prisoner in the Mission School. Horváth had attended services in the congregation as a child and then, later in life, was held prisoner in the basement of the school during the Nazi regime. He speaks poetically and with conviction about the vital work that the Mission has done in Budapest during his lifetime, and how dear the place is to his heart.
How does it feel for you to be back in the Scottish Mission? What is your connection to this place?
The first thought is gratitude to the Almighty that in my life so many things have been entrusted to me or given to me. Then, thanks for the endurance – I was able to not just to endure but here and there be an active contributor, or participant, in events. In the moment when we talk about one event, my having been held prisoner in the building of the Scottish school, it is so much part of my Hungarian incarnation. I almost feel that I ought to be a poet to express it in an appropriate manner. When I search for the words to answer your questions I am not stammering, but it is a soul search. I find myself in the midst of a soul search right now talking about this.
The place here in Vörösmarty utca, the Mission School building, to me the significance was life-saving. I think of the life-saving mission that was practiced in this building – that Scottish mission teacher, Jane Haining, who lived here, saving the lives of those who were in danger. She became the martyr of the mission. If I were a poet, or a preacher from the pulpit, I would say that this is a holy place.
So appropriate for those who revive the events and then generate thoughts about it. Both of them are significant and worth doing. First of all it’s useful, mandatory even, to recapitulate the events here in Budapest – the days we are remembering – when this was a mission of saving lives. In a world nowadays, how much strength could come, would come, should come if our generation came to recognize how very useful it would be for this generation to know. It’s one thing to be thankful for those who did good things, yet I am bold enough and selfish enough to express how beneficial it would be for this world today, for us in our societies and neighborhoods, to know more.
It would be such a benefit to this society, this Hungarian nation, here in the midst of a soul search of its own. How much value and a resource the experience that what happened in the Scottish mission school in 1944-1945 did happen in Hungary! The social fabric of the whole nation would gain so much knowing, recognizing the circumstances, deciphering the mysteries around it, and then seeing the miracles and the heroes’ actions. See these elements, each one of them, and how they interface in a synergistic fashion in that being good begets good.
The mentality of the Scottish mission in Budapest did do the begetting – what happened in this mission in 1944-1945 – saving and attempting to save more of the Jewish children, offering shelter in the basements and attics, giving rooms to people who were trying to survive. Their work contributed to the wading through, that’s a good way to say it, to wading through the mud. It did happen.
It makes things even uniquely miraculous because some bible reader Scottish missionaries came here more than a hundred years ago and established a school and established a mission and when there were the trials and tribulations. They did what the good ones do, not to just simply survive like the one who is hiding away and hoping for survival, not even thinking that they are guilty of the sin of omission – this community here is not guilty of the sin of mission. The Scottish mission and affiliates, they do the biblical work here throughout society – they did the right thing.
It is conventional to say, “Do a good thing,” and, “Do a right thing,” – are they synonyms? Yes and no, sometimes they are very different things. In a synergistic way they overlap and reinforce each other. The good people will do the right things, but why here, why these people? This is what I’ve tried to think about since you asked this question. Why are they the ones who are called?
You mentioned earlier in the day that you had a deep connection to this place beyond your imprisonment here with the Nazis – you actually came to services here as a child and to learn English?
Yes, I came here in the mid-1930’s when I was a Boy Scout. Our team, among other things, wanted to learn English; it was part of our student existence. We came to know that there was an English speaking service in this school, a church. From 1936-38, in those years, I frequently was here meeting people and sometimes just going to church, and also practicing my English.
A group from Scotland visited Hungary in the spring to learn more about the Scottish Mission and Jane Haining. When you spoke to them about your experiences here with the Mission you mentioned that, “Neither the Nazis nor the communists wanted me, only Jesus.” Could you talk a little bit about that?
This half-poetic expression, my way of putting it, is true – He wanted me. The teachings of Jesus have been beneficial to me. I may not belong to those who are busy in their lives; I just like to do things which I think are the right things. There is nothing more significant to me than to know that the person sitting next to me is better off because we are neighbors and not worse off. It’s very simple: better off or worse off. This is the teaching of Jesus that I referred to in that statement. Jesus wanted me to share this wisdom, this feeling, that I feel good when the person next to me feels good because we are next to each other.
Modern science has this expression of synergy, or a positive sum game, when two plus two is not four, but six or eight. The strength of contemplation, the strength of prayer, the strength of being in a community – these are all important, but I am finding more strength than anywhere else in knowing that these teachings, this mentality, enables me to do good for the sake of doing good, not expecting compensation or rewards. To me this is the message: I feel good if somebody feels good and if I can be an agent in that they I feel good. In Boy Scouts we would say that, “A Scout does a good thing every day!” It’s a rule for each day, to search for opportunities to do good in the world. This is the mentality when I responded with that quote that Jesus wanted me. It was a symbolic notion in that Jesus is an incarnation of the Holy Scriptures.
It is a blessing for me to come together with people with whom these thoughts surface. Some things might not ever be verbalized or conceptualized if not for these questions that stir my memory.
I’m only reporting on what I know, like how in Hungary, the Scots have been part of something very special – more than others from anywhere. There is so much inspiration coming from our communion with the Scots.
At the end of the Revolution in 1956 you left Hungary. How does it feel to leave the country and start a new life in a strange country? How did it feel becoming a part of the wider Hungarian community there?
I did not intend to leave Hungary when the revolution was crushed by the Soviets. I had the spirit of the revolution which was to bring back to Hungary the democratic society which we had after the liberation and the expelling of the Nazis. Hungary took the declaration seriously that the liberators drew up, and we built it: we had elections, etc. It was a remarkable success. Then there was the Soviet occupation in 1947 that destroyed it. I was thrown in jail as an elected member of the Parliament in this Soviet-imposed tyranny.
When I eventually left, I did not go as a refugee or fleeing for my life, but I went to tell the world what was happening in Hungary. The western newspapers were getting it all wrong by saying that the Soviets had come to Hungary to establish order – implying that the revolution was disorder. Of course, this was communist propaganda. I was very shocked and disappointed at the western democratic world for reporting what the Soviets told them to. I went to the embassies here, to the American’s and others, as a former member of Hungarian parliament who was a hero from the Nazi occupation, giving me the credentials to go in and speak to people on behalf of the country. I felt that I was obligated to do this, that it was my mission.
We wanted to make the world realize, through the media and through diplomacy, that it was in their best interests of the great powers for Hungary to return to the 1945 platform; it was my mission. I did this in all kinds of ways such as diplomacy, scholarship, propaganda. I thought initially that I would go to America for two weeks, just to get them to listen, but then I ended up staying for 41 years.
In 1997 you returned home to Hungary. What made you return after all of those years?
They called me from Hungary, very convincingly, and I initially told them that I must decline. In Hungary, after the communist way of the economy, things were not well. I had the reputation of being a great economist and so they said that I should come and help out. Initially they heard a speech of mine from when I had accepted an honorary doctorate at a school in America and they wanted me to come. Viktor Orbán, a young politician from the opposition party who craved to have an impact in the next election, he asked me, too. I accepted in response to that, that I would be the leader of the political economy in the next election campaign. During the next election I was there bringing together a group of people who had a stake in the Hungarian political scene. We had a good year preparing for the election and it was a success. I decided that I would then stay here and I was elected into the parliament again. Years ago [between 1945-1947] I was the youngest Member of Parliament and then during this second time [between 2002-2004] I eventually became the oldest Member of Parliament.
Dr. János Horváth is a distinguished professor emeritus of economics. He first entered public life as a university student via the Hungarian Independence Movement against Hitler and the Nazis. In December 1944, he was arrested and cruelly interrogated by the Hungarian branch of the Nazis, the Arrow Cross, in the occupied building of the Scottish Mission, and was saved from execution by the advance of the Soviet army into Budapest. A few years later he was again imprisoned – this time by the Soviet imposed Communist dictatorship. Meanwhile, he had been elected Member of the Hungarian Parliament in 1945, where he served until his arrest and imprisonment in 1947. He became a political leader in the 1956 Revolution against the Soviet occupation and communist dictatorship. Thereafter he lived in the USA for 41 years, where he was also active in public life. In 1998 he repatriated to Hungary and was elected to the Parliament in the ranks of the FIDESZ-Hungarian Civic Party for a second time, and in 2002 he was re-elected. Since 2014, Mr. János Horváth serves as Ambassador-at-Large in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
Interview by Kearstin Bailey