Lending a helping hand: How sick is Hungarian society?

A few days ago I read in the news that an employee of MÁV, the Hungarian State Railways, had died. At first blush one would think that this piece of news would not be of general interest, that it would properly belong among the obituaries.

The real news was not the man’s death but how he died. For sixteen hours he lay in a rest area on MÁV property, alive but obviously very sick. Two of his co-workers saw him but did nothing. They assumed he was drunk. They locked up for the night and went home, leaving him behind. A few hours later a third  man found him. He realized that the man was not drunk; he had had a stroke. A day later the man died in the hospital. MÁV is investigating.

I found this report very disturbing.  How could it happen that two men would leave their co-worker lying unconscious, whatever the cause of his state, and go about their business all day long without paying the slightest attention to the man lying a few feet away from them?

But what really made me reflect on the callousness that seems to be a hallmark of Hungarian society today is a story that broke two days ago. A totally naked man who was staying with his wife or girlfriend in a hotel on Rákóczi Street in Budapest either jumped or fell out of the window of his room. Traffic immediately stopped and a crowd of about 100 people gathered around the man, who was covered with blood. He was still breathing. There was only one man who rushed to his aid, Gábor Ferenczi, who left the bus on which he was traveling. In desperation he asked people gathering around the man to help, at least to get a blanket to cover the naked body. No one moved. In fact, some people laughed. So, the half dead man was lying there naked while onlookers were taking pictures of him. Eventually one woman moved, but she could offer only a  piece of Kleenex.

helping handsEventually a policeman showed up. His first question was whether they had called the police. Eventually he requested an ambulance which, after considerable delay, arrived. After a while someone showed up from the hotel with a blanket.

After the ambulance arrived Ferenczi went into the hotel to wash the blood off his hands. When he returned, he found a woman next to the body who seemed to have been the dead man’s companion. The treatment of  the woman by the police and the ambulance team, at least according to Ferenczi, was heartless. “Okay, and who are you? What was the name of the dead man? Where are his papers? And yours?”  Ferenczi asked one of the men from the ambulance to assist her back to the hotel but the only answer he got was: “Why?” So, Ferenczi himself helped her into the hotel and led her to the elevator. (I assume the police didn’t consider the room a potential crime scene.)

Not surprisingly, our Good Samaritan was badly shaken and couldn’t sleep. He phoned the ambulatory service and asked for advice. He was told “to drink a glass of something strong and go to a psychiatrist soon.” Ferenczi decided to talk about his experiences because he was so shaken, not just by the sight of a bloodsoaked naked body and the death of someone in his own arms but also by the behavior of the bystanders. After the death of the man was announced, one of the onlookers told him “the duck is dead, so it was in vain.” Ferenczi was outraged: “Is this man really a human being, or just something that walks on two legs?”

The story published in Origo elicited an incredible number of comments. The last time I looked, around 500. I picked a few noteworthy ones. One commenter insisted that “mankind is like that. There are some who help, while others laugh.” He found the reaction natural. Most people didn’t agree with him; there were far more damning comments than approving ones. Many came up with their own stories. One recalled that two months ago a girl on a bicycle was hit by a car “but we went to her although it was an awful sight. Thank God she survived. Twenty years ago a girl died in similar circumstances in my arms. I would spit into my own face if I were so cowardly that I would not offer help in circumstances like that.”

One woman told her own story. When she was 12 years old, a man grabbed her about 50 meters from her house in the outskirts of Budapest and 15 meters from the bus stop.”I screamed, yelled, kicked. The people waiting at the bus stop looked but then turned their heads and kept standing there. I’m now 50 but I still remember their faces.”

Another commenter told his story. A woman with a little girl and a teenage boy were crossing the road. Suddenly the boy collapsed in the middle of the road. The little girl cried, the woman screamed for help, but no one responded. People were standing on both sides of the street but no one moved. Eventually it was the commenter who carried the boy to the nearby hospital. He still remembers the anger and shame he felt at the behavior of those people.

Another person told of an experiment that took place a couple of months ago. Someone placed a toy baby in an abandoned baby carriage. The toy baby made realistic crying sounds. Out of ten people who went by the baby carriage only two stopped. One actually called the police, but another, a lawyer, announced that he had no intention of stopping: after all, “they could charge me with kidnapping.”

Someone commented that it had to be “the dregs of society” at the scene. To which another person replied laconically, “No, they are not. This is the norm.”