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Vancouver author Helga Hatvany reveals father’s transition from wealthy Hungarian aristocrat to communist computing pioneer

Helga Hatvany
Helga Hatvany will discuss her book, Dreams, Nightmares, and Reality: A Family Memoir, at the Cherie Smith JCC Vancouver Jewish Book Festival on February 12 and 13.

Vancouver writer Helga Hatvany’s father, József, lived an astonishing life. Born into a fabulously wealthy Hungarian Jewish family in 1926, his early years were marked by privilege. According to Hatvany, József lived in a huge mansion in Budapest with a domestic staff of seven, including a governess.

“The chauffeur took him to the private school,” Hatvany tells Pancouver over Zoom.

The Hatvany family made a fortune in the 19th century in the sugar industry, becoming great patrons of art and literature. But in 1938, anti-Jewish laws came into effect in Hungary, and József was shipped off to an English boarding school.

He then grew up by himself, studying physics at Cambridge University, and becoming a dedicated communist. He believed that communism, rather than the middle-ground approach of Winston Churchill and Charles de Gaulle, was the only way to halt murderous fascism.

After the Second World War, József’s ideological disposition led him to sever relations with family members. But a few years later, something unexpected occurred after he had returned to Hungary with his Scottish wife, Doris.

“He was imprisoned by the Stalinist regime, which was very ironic because it was a hardcore communist regime—and they basically imprisoned him for being a communist,” Hatvany says.

She shares this and much more, including József’s distinguished career in computer systems, in her remarkable book, Dreams, Nightmares, and Reality: A Family Memoir. Hatvany will speak at two events at the Cherie Smith JCC Vancouver Jewish Book Festival.

On Sunday (February 12) at 10 a.m., she’s one of eight authors at A Literary Quickie. Then at 11:30 a.m. Monday (February 13), Hatvany will join author Simon Choa-Johnston (House of Daughters) at Unique Family Histories – Novel & Memoir.

József Hatvany
József Hatvany was a poineer in computer-integrated manufacturing systems,

Hatvany delves into dad’s imprisonment

One of the more astonishing aspects of this family memoir is József’s refusal to forsake communism—even after he was tortured while being kept in detention from 1952 to 1956. He revealed in his prison record that one interrogation officer declared that the British Communist Party was filled with spies.

Therefore, according to this lieutenant, anyone who returned to Hungary from Britain was a spy.

“Every time a new name came up, the first thing that the lieutenant wanted to know was whether the person in question was a Jew,” Hatvany writes, recalling her father’s declaration of what had happened. “He had a terribly beaten and tortured detainee placed in my cell, and repeatedly threatened me with being beaten until crippled.”

The book is full of surprising developments—including Doris’s decision to divorce her husband while he was in prison and her subsequent return to Scotland. In a riveting section of the book, Hatvany tracks Doris down and interviews her about her relationship with József.

Hatvany emphasizes that her book is not only about a family’s history or being Jewish or the twists and turns of 20th-century Hungarian history. Rather, she feels that Dreams, Nightmares, and Reality offers broader insights about the world, as well as tolerance and intolerance, whether discrimination is targeting Jewish people or anyone else.

“It’s very relevant today because basically, there are lessons to be learned in our modern society from our stories in the past,” Hatvany emphasizes.

Author experienced goulash communism

Hatvany was born to Zsófia, who was József’s second wife. Hatvany grew up under the somewhat milder “goulash communism” ushered in after the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956.

She says that people living in other East Bloc countries envied Hungarians. That’s because they faced fewer restrictions. Some small businesses were permitted but the country remained under one-party rule.

“We were the ones who could still go to the West—not every year and not without too much money or without all these permissions—but we could go,” Hatvany recalls. “There were things in the stores. We had nice things. It wasn’t that bad.”

By the time she had reached her 20s, she was convinced that a better governing model existed in Scandinavia, where there was far more political freedom. But József couldn’t abide by that idea for Hungary.

“My father was maybe not that hardcore at that point,” Hatvany says, “but he was still believing that we were going in the right direction.”

József died in 1987, two years before the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe. To this day, Hatvany isn’t sure how he would have reacted that news.

However, she’s certain that he would have strongly disapproved of the rise of the authoritarian Viktor Orbán becoming the long-running prime minister of Hungary in modern times.

Hungarian edition coming

Five years after her father’s death, Hatvany began working at a U.S. company that had opened an office in Budapest. She later married an American and moved to California in 1994 before settling in Vancouver in 2018.

Hatvany, a professional translator, spent seven years researching and writing Dreams, Nightmares, and Reality. She chose to do it in English because she wanted it to reach an international audience.

However, once her Hungarian friends read it, they urged her to publish it in her first language. Now, she’s under contract with a Hungarian publisher and has almost finished this version.

Hatvany acknowledges that she’s tweaking the book in Hungarian.  She points out that some things in the English version don’t need to be explained to people living in Budapest.

“So, it won’t technically be a translation,” the author says. “It will be a new book.”

To find out where to buy a copy of Dreams, Nightmares, and Reality, visit HelgaHatvany.com. The Cherie Smith JCC Jewish Vancouver Book Festival continues until February 16. Follow Pancouver editor Charlie Smith on Twitter @charliesmithvcr. Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia.

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We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.