Saturday, December 27, 2014

Seneca and Szánto Gyuri

Although we didn't see each other much and I knew little about him, we were firm friends, like young people who meet and immediately establish a rapport. In some ways we were a lot alike, in other ways we were very different. Gyuri, George, arrived in New Zealand after the 1956 Hungarian uprising. He had ambitions to become a judge. That was in Hungary. Then history intervened. Justice in communist Hungary was somewhat elusive. To become a judge an ethical young man would have had to compromise his principles. But this is probably not why he left. He probably left because he saw this as his one opportunity to leave and try his luck in a far distant Western country. I suppose he ended up in New Zealand because the lottery that offered refugee destination in Vienna to the many thousands of people who fled Hungary suggested it. New Zealand was ready to accept young men with no qualifications apart from their willingness to work. So here was George, a young Hungarian Jewish intellectual I could talk with about literature, politics, life in general, and we played chess. Although I had lived in New Zealand for some eight years, and thought of myself as reasonably assimilated, I found in Gyuri a kindred spirit. I would have been teaching at the time and trying to complete my university degree. Gyuri found work in Tourist Hotels in various parts of the country. He had a lot of personal charm, and presented quite a dashing slight figure. Perhaps he also considered doing a part time course at university, but I am not sure about that. What he really wanted to do is to go sailing. He bought a boat, moored it in Evans Bay and lived on that. Once he took me and a girl whose name I can't now recall, on a cruise around the harbour. Gyuri, George, was popular with girls. It was memorable, because we were becalmed just outside Oriental bay, and the boat stopped completely still. We didn't have a functioning motor. After waiting for a while for some breeze, Gyuri got into the dinghy and rowed us, towed us to our destination. This is one of my vivid memories of him. Gyuri and I tried to find out place within the local Jewish community, but were not made welcome. We were too different, had too little in common at the time with other young Jewish men and women in the Jewish circles. Once we got all dressed up to go to a function and were turned away. Perhaps we didn't know that we should have booked in advance, or had to be members in some organisation we didn't even know existed. Anyway, the incident left a bad impression. Neither of us cared much about religion, but being Jewish meant a lot to us. Gyuri moved away from Wellington, still sailing and moored his boat, I think, in Auckland. New vistas, new opportunities. Then tragedy struck. Gyuri was hit on his head by the boom of his sail. He didn't appear to suffer significant injury, but he lost his hearing. He went completely deaf. The doctors could not establish what caused his deafness, there appeared to be no obvious cause. Gyuri hoped that the Mayo Clinic in America, with its state of the art facilities, might be able to help. Gyuri and I kept exchanging letters, he despairing, writing of his despair in a facetious light hearted manner, I trying to keep his spirit up, hoping that help will be just around the corner, or medical science will find a miracle cure. But the miracle never happened. Gyuri and I often talked about Seneca. This is about the only conversation I still remember. Seneca was perhaps one of the Latin authors I was studying at the time. Gyuri was captivated by Seneca's stoic philosophy. Gyuri only wanted to live on his own terms. This did not include living with total deafness. Then he got into the bath one day, and like Seneca, he cut his artery and killed himself. In his will he left instructions for his executors to send me a chess set to remember him by. I received, quite unexpectedly a beautiful marble and alabaster chess set with chess board. I still have it, though one of the pieces is slightly broken. From time to time I think of Gyuri, a lovely young man, trying to fit into the New Zealand world, an independent spirit, but out of place in the homogeneous New Zealand world of the 1950s.