János Kenedi

* 1947  

  • „The very same day I was fired from Magvető Publishing House, Kemény called me in the afternoon and he asked me to visit him in the Institute for Sociology where he ran a research on tziganes. He asked me to be an interviewer in the project. We signed a contract. Q: Could you really do this job under your own name? A: For two or three weeks I could, then the party center heard it and forbad it. Kemény had the idea that I could continue to work under Csalog’s name who was engaged in the project, too. So I did as far as he himself was also dismissed from the Institute for Sociology. We worked in this way for two and a half or three years. We travelled a lot together with Csalog to two counties, to Somogy and to Szolnok, we were on the road almost every day or at least three or four times a week. This was a national survey. It was published among by the Institute for Sociology of the Academy, in part, since it was an unfinished project. It was a very serious problem Kemény described in it. For us, that is to say for me and for Csalog, it was enormous life experience and a great job. We worked in two and when my identity was checked he told I was his assistant who didn’t work but brought his tape-recorder. It was extreemly interesting. I became acquainted with the Hungary of the Kádár era better than I could doing anything else. Q: Contemporary to this did you have other jobs? A: Yes, I did. Thank to Csalog contemporary to this a psychologist named Ilona Fonyó invited me to take part in a research entitled by her Kontaktometria. All of us had ten or twelve families, we visited them regularly and we followed their lives, both Csalog and me. There were ten or twelve factories involved. Csalog and me had two or three. It was a highly interesting job. It was conducted under the protective covering of the Institute for Popular Education. And I had a third job, too. It was of the same type, and it was almost the most interesting. Péter Ambrus made a research project on ’Dzsumbuj’ (Mess), a building on Illatos Road. We had to make reports on every family which lived there in every month. And in the meantime I had a phylological charge, too. Ferenc Jánosi asked me to order his former wife’s, Mária Holló’s, immense bequest for Kossuth Publishing House. The editor of Kossuth accepted that I could do it without my name and without any contract. I couldn’t do anything using my name. My name ceased to be in 1970.”

  • „The determination of the opposition was enforced by the Haraszti trial, since everybody who up till then had hesitated what to do, felt the need to make a coming out regarding it. The trial couldn’t go down with us, it might be considered a landmark in our history. As a consequence of it we in three, me, Bence and Kis, decided on January 3, 1977 to organize a petition with Hungarian co-signatories. Charta 77 was published on January 1 and ours was published on January 9 in Le Monde. Our Charta petition in 1977 and the three petitions of 1979 meant a novelty as for our attitude towards the possibility of publication abroad, or double publication. If you ignore our inner debates it is difficult to understand why there were two very similar petitions in 1979 and also a third one a part signed by Bence, Jancsi Kis and me. We were very dubious that it would succeed because we had been followed by cops for a long time. Q: Was the lack of time the reason for collecting only 34 signatures in case of the first petition? A: We in three, and we agreed in this absolutely, so we were convinced, this method hadn’t been tried out before, that if we would organize it in advance, keeping it in secret, and we would succeed to finish the collection of the signatures in the afternoon and we could transmit it to the western press agencies in the very same evening. In this case we could succeed. But if we fumble and we are fuck-up, the sheet would be seized and we would fail totally. So for three-four days before it we thought the plan out, we didn’t reveal the details and the persons to be involved to anybody. Imagine, for example, five people were invited to Erzsi Vezér’s and they waited that somebody would arrive at 9:30. Q: Do you mean that you were those who chose the co-singatories? A: Yes, we were. You may say it was an autocrat method, but we thought it would succeed otherwise. Yes, it is ridiculous having in mind the later petitions, but we had never did it before and we didn’t know whether we had the chance to do it or not. So we sat down in advance with a sheet of paper and a pencil and we planned who, where, at what time should sign it. And we kept the plan almost by seconds until 8 o’clock in the evening. We started the collection at 8 in the morning and we finished it by 8 in the afternoon. We did it without any improvisations. We defined the number of signatures we wanted. Thirty-four was for me a cabalistic number, I used it in the edition of Profil, too, where I selected thirty-four papers, also the Helsinki Final Agreement was signed by thirty-four countries and so my aim was to collect thirty-four signatures. So we respected this limit of thirty-four.”

  • „We were close friends, the three of us. Q: Does it mean you, Ferenc Donáth and János Kis? A: Exactly. We understood that conspiracy was important for Feri. We made excursions, we met by night, we stiffed the agents. Donáth was always followed by cops and we stiffed them according to his intentions. And Donáth told us that our final aim was the organization of a conference on 1956. First of all let us settle this stupid contrast between ’populars’ and ’urbans’ which had destroyed every progressive projects in the past in Hungary. Let us first edit a Memorial Volume. It became the Bibó Memorial Volume by accident, because we had done it by all means, but it speeded up the editing. In the middle of the organization Donáth said it was the first step to the third one. The third step was the organization of a conference on 1956 on the basis of national consensus to make the legitimacy of 1956 accepted by the party-state. And we made the memorial book more or less in the way Donáth wanted, he managed it wonderfully. We organized the Conference of Monor, too, I think we did it wihout any faults. Donáth died in the meantime and Vásárhelyi took over the conference on 1956. And we did it, however, not so well. Q: Was it then Donáth’s political program? A: Yes, it was his merit. Q: Your name is strictly linked to the Conference of Monor, the idea of the symposium. A: It’s true, too. I did everthing because Feri was already very ill in those days. But the original idea came from Feri. My role was that, for other reasons, I tried to avoid the renewal of the contrast between ’populars’ and ’urbans’ because I was convinced that it should put an end to the ’popular front’, by the term Donáth used to indicate the cooperation of different forces. Donáth gave his approval to my policy and something else, and this later turned to be more important than I thought: he was accepted by both the ’populars’ and the ’urbans’. He was accepted for example by Csoóri, also Jóska Tornai listened to him, as well as did Eörsi. Donáth was commonly respected.”

  • „There is a report on me prepared to the Minister of the Interior András Benkei on the occasion of a later police’s charge in 1976. It is an eight-ten page long summary of what the political police knew about me. It turned out that a folder had been opened about me as early as 1967 under the name ’Critic’, and real facts are cited from it at some length. No, I’m wrong, they had exaggerated at some points but they had recorded what really happened. You can read there what I said to whom as well as that after 1968 I decided to write samizdats and my monography on the film director Jancsó was intended to be a samizdat publication. Q: And did you really want to make samizdats in those early years? A: Yes, I did, I wanted the make samizdats all the time since 1969. I began the volume on Jancsó in this form, too. But these were a border-line cases. If Új Szimpozion published my studies, then they were published, but if it didn’t, I thought that I would do it myself. The idea was formed in me in those years. In those years I decided to make a samizdat periodical, typewritten on the Russian model, called Kelet-európai Figyelő (East-European Reporter) and by 1973 I succeeded to publish some numbers of it. A bit later I continued it. In the case of the monography on Jancsó I began to write it on the call of the Film Institute, but I knew when I finished it that it could be published only as a samizdat. Q: Six hundred pages aren’t too long to be a samizdat publication? A: No, it was normal in the Soviet Union to publish samizdats of this length. I was wrong not because it was difficult to distribute six hundred pages in samizdat, but the book was a mistake because I had only sixty pages of material and I overdid it in six hundred pages. Q: Did you find that there was any public interested in it? A: No, I didn’t. By the end I knew well that I should make samizdats and sociography instead of film aethetics, because it had a public and film aethetics hadn’t. It was difficult to exercise this genre. I had to steal into the studio at midnight by the help of a friend of mine in order to look at film in secret, from frame to frame on the continuity desk which was necessary to write on films. It was beyond reason, too. I found sociography interesting and I thought that being interested and making interviews were enough to do it.”

  • „It was crystal clear that the political system will go to pieces and political changes will soon take place. If the political regime changed, there would be a multiparty system, I thought. If there was any chance to create a multiparty system, it was high time to organize a political party and to make a program. I realized that ours wasn’t an embryonic mass movement, but a certain culture. If you look at what I wrote in 1984, a small letter which was as a matter of fact the text of my lecture on The Crisis of the Democratic Opposition. It dealt exactly with this problem, in 1984, that we should have to finish squirming. My conclusion was that this is a big and happy party and the democratic opposition should have to decide what to become compared to it: or some kind of party, or trade union, or a politically combatant group or an organization of literary critics. It was necessary to choose one of them. At a party it wasn’t necessary, but in time of political activity it was. Hardly anyone agreed with me. It was the reason why I joined SZDSZ (Alliance of Free Democrats) dragging my feet. I was there until we had to organize it. I took part with great pleasure in the phrasing of the Declaration of Principles because I hoped that sooner or later it might lead to the formation of a party, to the formation of a liberal party. There was a serious debate which wound it up. The organization of a party, it was a hard problem, the most of us disagreed with it, they prefered an alliance since they thought a party was much dangerous and MDF (Hungarian Democratic Forum) wanted to be some kind of alliance, too. I however was convinced that it was the right moment to pass them, to organize the first party in the very moment of the disintegration of the political system, we could have the advantage. We fell out on this point very much and I decided not to take part in this screwing around. I had others things to do. But I wasn’t disloyal to them. When it was formed I was even member of the National Council of the party for a very short time, until they had enough members that I could leave them.”

  • „Q: After 1968 could you realize your political purposes by making samizdats? A: Well, there was a big debate. We had an issue which remained unsettled until the eighties. I was convinced that we should organize some kind of political opposition. When the Polish new-evolutionist movement turned up, Bence and Kis thought that we should choose the form of political underground the Polish had done. I was however on the opinion that we should organize a political party, an underground movement, in the way other Polish dissidents had done. But Jancsi, who was my closest friend until the end of 1988, agreed with Michnik and Kuron that we didn’t need any political program, we should exist just in other forms. Q: Did you have in mind some kind of a political program right after 1968? A: I prefered a socialdemocrat program. That is to say I wanted a ’civil radical’ program but in the political culture of the 1910s of Hungary I was fond of ’civil radicals’ and socialdemocrats had very similar aims. Q: And what about István Bibó? A: In 1971 in Péter Donáth’s flat in Attila Street we organized a seminar. I suggested that the first topic to speak about would be the jewish question in Hungary. I myself prepared a paper on Bibó’s study on the jewish question and I made up a bibliography on his works in order to present him to the public. Q: Why was Bibó so important for you? A: It’s difficult to explain it briefly. In his studies I found the universal, European principles which I thought were necessary to the revival of the Hungarian political culture. I thought that at the very beginning of any political activity the opposition, which hesitated between the pedant copying of the West and the prejudices on the otherwise unknown Hungarian way, should be acquainted with his ideas.”

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    Budapest, 30.06.2014

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In the archive I feel myself in heaven, there isn’t any better place on Earth.

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János Kenedi
photo: Oral History Archívum Budapest

János Kenedi was born on July 12, 1947 in Budapest. His father was a chemical technician and his mother a wage clerk and statistician. Their marriage broke up soon after János Kenedi’s birth, he was raised by his father. In the 1956 Hungarian revolution he brought messages between various revolutionary groups and organized a strike in his school. In 1962 he was fired from the secondary school, he could take his school-leaving certificate only in 1966. In the meantime he worked for Vinegar Manufacturing Co-op and joined ‘Kalef’, that is the yobs of Moszkva Square in Budapest, as well as he visited the literary groups in Budapest’s coffee-houses. He was a trainee at Esti Hírlap, then between 1966 and 1968 he worked for Budapester Rundschau, the German language periodical of the Foreign Ministry where he was a trainee, editor and film critic. In August 1968, after the military occupation of Czechoslovakia by the Warsaw Pact, he resigned. He was employed by Magvető Publishing House as a literary editor. He gained a journalism diploma at the Journalists’ Centre of the Hungarian Journalists’ Union in 1969. He edited collections of studies on film aethetics and he wrote a book on the film director Miklós Jancsó. In 1970 he was dismissed from the publishing house for the police charge he got for the distribution of samizdat papers and for having disapproved the occupation of Czechoslovakia in the public. He could work under his name not before 1990, he was under employment and publication ban. He could earn his living by casual humdrum jobs, he was interviewer in different sociological projects and he was the editor of different bequests. He edited the samizdat periodicals Kelet-Európai Figyelő, Napló, Máshonnan Beszélő. He was the editor of the samizdat collection of studies Profil and Bibó Emlékkönyv. He partecipated actively in the initiatives and petitions of the intellectuals who criticized the communist regime. He was one of the organizers of the ‘free university’. In January 1977 together with his friends, György Bence and János Kis, he organized a Hungarian petition with 34 co-signatories in response to Charta 77, and they published it abroad. He received a research grant for the 1981-2 academic year through the New York Soros Foundation, which he spent at New York University and Columbia University. Returned to Hungary he was the main organizer of the Conference of Monor, held with the participation of different groups of the opposition about the problems of the Hungarian society, later he was the organizer of the underground conference on the 1956 revolution. He prepared the complete works of István Bibó for publication for the European Protestant Hungarian Free University in Switzerland. He prepared and brought back to the national library in Hungary a quantity of about 25,600 pages of manuscript left by Zoltán Szabó. In the years of the political changes he was founding member of the Democratic Trade Union of Researchers. He was one of the authors of the Declaration of Principles of the Alliance of Free Democrats, later member of the party’s National Council for a short time. He was elected one of the leaders of the Club for Openness. He has been on the staff of the 1956 Institute since 1990. Between 2007 and 2010 he was chairman of the so-called Kenedi Committee which was encharged with supervising the delivery of the files of the former communist state security to a state archive.