Somewhat belatedly I will spend some time today on a singularly distasteful event that took place on December 22, the fourth Sunday of Advent.
Advent is now celebrated widely in Hungary. When I was growing up I never heard of it. The first time I encountered an Advent wreath with four candles was in Canada in the home of a German-Hungarian Lutheran family. But then one never heard of Santa Claus or Halloween in those days either. Life has changed a lot since.
In any case, the Hungarian Reformed Church Charity (Református Szeretetszolgálat) came up with a “fantastic” idea. They collected forty kids ranging in age from six to eighteen who live in poverty and organized a luxury dinner for them in the Budapest Hilton Hotel. The chief sponsor of the event was Zoltán Balog, minister of human resources and himself a Hungarian Reformed minister. The reaction to the event was eerie silence on the right and loud condemnation on the left.
One thing is sure. It was a singularly disgusting affair that included a close to incomprehensible and offensive speech by Balog. Naturally, MTI simply reported the bare news, but it seems that even Magyar Nemzet thought that perhaps mentioning the name of the hotel was too much and only announced that the dinner took place “in a Budapest hotel.” Magyar Hírlap ignored the event altogether, and therefore readers of this far-right paper learned about it only yesterday when an MSZP politician condemned the Hilton gathering in connection with the general poverty of the population. She called the invitation of forty poor children to the Hilton Hotel a sign of “government cynicism.” Fidesz’s website also failed to mention the lavish dinner.
Origo was the first to express the disgust journalists who were invited to witness the event felt. Here are forty poor children who most likely have never been inside any hotel, and here is the five-star Hilton’s unimaginable luxury. The children looked not just ill-at-ease but outright sad and perplexed. One child was quite honest and said that he really didn’t want to attend but “my mom told me that I must.” It turned out that his “mom” isn’t his own. His father is an alcoholic and the mother is mentally ill. He was referring to his foster mother whom he likes very much. As for the food, he loves pizza, hamburger, and gyros. Another one, after seeing the menu, announced that he doesn’t like mushrooms and can hardly wait for the dessert. A twelve-year-old girl announced that her favorite is “túros tészta,” a Hungarian dish made out of egg noodles, sour cream, cottage cheese, and bacon. But, she added, she will manage to get the dinner down somehow.
The menu was not exactly kid-friendly. The first course was goose consommé served with vegetables and rottini. Then came chicken breast with a mushroom sauce prepared with Calvados, an expensive French cognac made out of apple cider. A bottle here costs between $50 and $80. In addition there was vegetable lasagna, broccoli, and rice. The dessert was yogurt strawberry cake. But for a while they were unable to taste these “delicacies” because first they had to listen to the Reverend Balog’s elevating speech about darkness, disorderliness, light, and order. A fascinating story followed about his own church’s explanation of what Advent is all about. Then came the story of a darkened room in which all sorts of obstacles were set up by the adults but as one candle after the other was lighted, the children instinctively began to put things in their proper place. Order was restored.
So what is the lesson one learns from this elevating story? Right now there are poor people in Hungary, the cause of which is “disorder.” But one day this will change and perhaps these children when they have a job or “perhaps even go to college, who knows” will be able to afford to eat in a restaurant like this. Or perhaps they will be able to visit Paris or Cluj/Kolozsvár. Why Cluj? I guess he realized that Paris is too western and one must pay attention to those territories lost in 1920. They will be able to go wherever they want to. All this was told in a way that demonstrated Balog’s total inability to talk to children in a non-condescending way. The best was when he turned to a child who looked about six and asked him how many corners a room has. Do these people really think that these children are not just poor but also imbeciles?
At the end each child received a box of gifts, but the wonderful organizers of the Hungarian Reformed Charity didn’t even bother to personalize the parcels. The labels simply said: “For a 6-8-year-old girl,” “For a 8-12-year-old boy,” etc.
Yes, the parcels. The organizers decided to call them “the Misi Nyilas packets.” And now we must turn to Hungarian literature. One of the great Hungarian prose writers of the twentieth century was Zsigmond Móricz (1879-1942). In 1920 he published one of his early novels, Be Faithful unto Death /Légy jó mindhalálig), whose young hero is Misi/Mihály Nyilas, a very poor boarding student at the famous Debrecen Reformed College. Clearly Misi is Móricz himself, who studied there between 1891 and 1893. He was one of seven children of a family who fell on hard times. They were poverty stricken. His tuition was paid by his maternal uncle, a Reformed minister.
A large portion of the second chapter in the novel is about the incredible excitement that a package from home caused in Misi’s life. He was told that he cannot expect to get care packages because the family can barely scrape by. But comes the day when he is told that there is a package for him at the post office. For all sorts of reasons Misi can’t open his parcel immediately, and in his absence his fellow boarders eat all the food in the package, including, as it turned out, some cream his mother sent him to put on his chapped hands and shine his shoes with during the winter. One can only wonder why these good Calvinists decided to name their Christmas boxes “Misi Nyilas packets.” Most likely they didn’t even read Móricz’s book. After all, Misi got nothing out of the package.
Few politicians said anything about the whole sordid affair, but the few who did didn’t hide their feelings. One MSZP politician sent Balog and his whole gang straight to hell. Actually it was a bit stronger. Today Ildikó Lendvai (MSZP) came out with an op/ed piece entitled “Cinderellas in the Hilton.” Lendvai admits that “Cinderella” was not one of her favorite tales when she was little. She simply couldn’t understand how a fairy who is also a godmother could allow Cinderella to be treated so badly by her stepmother and stepsisters. How could she think that sending her a fancy dress and a glass slipper could make up for all that suffering? Lendvai was certain that if the prince didn’t show up, the poor girl most likely would have had to return to her earlier miserable existence. Princes don’t show up very often.
Something like that happened to the forty little Cinderellas the other day who don’t even have names, faces, characters, talents. Each is simply called “a poor child.” As for naming the boxes these children received, perhaps it wasn’t a mistake because earlier this government took away benefits children had previous received automatically. Just this year parliament voted on 1,700 bills but not one had anything to do with feeding the 200,000 children who are malnourished. Instead they busied themselves with employing school policemen, lowering the age of compulsory education, making sure that even fourteen-year-olds can end up in jail for minor misdemeanors. Elsewhere Balog told 300 Roma children in state custody that “the government works hard to better the lives of children.” Ildikó Lendvai very much hopes that during the holidays the government will take a little rest.