News Opinions/Publications Every pen­ny should be spent lit­er­al­ly on sur­viv­ing spir­i­tu­al­ly and cul­tur­al­ly — An Inter­view with Zsolt Bede-Fazekas

Every pen­ny should be spent lit­er­al­ly on sur­viv­ing spir­i­tu­al­ly and cul­tur­al­ly — An Inter­view with Zsolt Bede-Fazekas

Zsolt Bede-Fazekas in the stu­dio of the inter­net-based Inde­pen­dent Hun­gar­i­an Radio.
All pho­tos in this arti­cle are cour­tesy of Zsolt Bede-Fazekas.

Edi­tor-in-chief of the Toron­to Inde­pen­dent Hun­gar­i­an Radio, co-founder of the Paraméter Club and own­er of the Toron­to Pan­non­ia book­store Zsolt Bede-Fazekas spoke with Hun­gar­i­an Con­ser­v­a­tive about the chal­lenges of reviv­ing the cul­tur­al life of the Hun­gar­i­an com­mu­ni­ty in Cana­da, and the efforts he makes to turn the tide and build bridges between dias­po­ra Hun­gar­i­ans and the motherland.

Zsolt Bede-Fazekas is pas­sion­ate about the preser­va­tion and trans­mis­sion of Hun­gar­i­an cul­ture in the dias­po­ra. He is edi­tor-in-chief of the Toron­to Inde­pen­dent Hun­gar­i­an Radio, co-founder of the Paraméter Club, which has host­ed count­less home­land per­form­ers from Tamás Cseh, the Boj­tor­ján Ensem­ble and Péter Huzel­la to Mik­lós Janc­só; own­er of the last Hun­gar­i­an book­store in the West­ern Dias­po­ra called Pan­non­ia; he is also the for­mer cul­tur­al direc­tor of the Hun­gar­i­an House of Toron­to and recip­i­ent of the Friends of Hun­gary Award. At the con­gress of the Hun­gar­i­an Asso­ci­a­tion of Cleve­land, a doc­u­men­tary movie by Anna Sza­ká­ly was intro­duced show­cas­ing his life and achieve­ments. After the screen­ing, we con­tin­ued the dis­cus­sion on the cul­tur­al sit­u­a­tion of the diaspora.

***

Why did you relaunch the Paraméter Club only recent­ly, long after the end of the Covid pan­dem­ic?

It is oper­at­ed in a spe­cial build­ing where dis­abled peo­ple are cared for, and the club has an office upstairs where the care­givers stay, who still wear masks. We also share the restrooms. How­ev­er, if I had seen more activ­i­ty in the Hun­gar­i­an com­mu­ni­ty, we might have start­ed a lit­tle ear­li­er. I would be lying if I said that the late start was not due to the fact that the cul­tur­al sit­u­a­tion of our com­mu­ni­ty has dete­ri­o­rat­ed a lot.

Renowned Catholic priest and men­tal health expert Fer­enc Pál (known as Father Feri Pál) speaks at a Paraméter event in the 2000s.

Why do you think that is the case?

There’s a lot of unpre­ten­tious­ness and indif­fer­ence. I have always worked with var­i­ous Hun­gar­i­an insti­tu­tions, and I have recent­ly heard a lot of com­plaints about the man­agers who do not dare to do any­thing, or if they do, they do not pro­vide any guar­an­tees, because it is com­plete­ly uncer­tain whether five or a hun­dred peo­ple would show up. You are enthu­si­as­tic about bring­ing a good artist here – from Hun­gary, with whom you agree that it would not cost too much – and you approach an insti­tu­tion with this idea; but the first thing the man­ag­er says is that they can­not orga­nize it, because no one might come. Very dis­ap­point­ing answer that breaks your enthu­si­asm. In such sit­u­a­tions, I get to the point where I do not want to con­tin­ue. Then I hear or see some­thing good and get enthu­si­as­tic again, but then might hit the wall again… This is because there are peo­ple in posi­tions who do not know much about cul­ture, yet they can decide who/what to per­form, and some­times the result is not even enter­tain­ing. At the same time, I believe that we have to push cul­ture down people’s throats even if there is momen­tar­i­ly lit­tle demand for it.

The exhib­it of the works of archi­tect József Sebestyén orga­nized by the Paraméter Club in 2013.

As some­one in the doc­u­men­tary says, we have to go back to the roots and rebuild the whole struc­ture from there. For this, we need the right peo­ple. A per­son in a posi­tion recent­ly said that paid pro­fes­sion­als should be brought from Hun­gary to run the Hun­gar­i­an cul­tur­al insti­tu­tions in the dias­po­ra. I do not agree. It makes no sense to bring some­one for a lot of mon­ey who has no local knowl­edge or con­tacts. If we can­not find com­pe­tent peo­ple in the dias­po­ra who are paid prop­er­ly for their work, then it does not mat­ter any­more. We our­selves have to ‘raise’ those who can run a Hun­gar­i­an book­shop, club or house or radio.

The Pan­non­ia Book­store at its first (L) and its cur­rent loca­tion in Toron­to, Canada.

Every com­mu­ni­ty, all civ­il and parochial insti­tu­tions have been equal­ly strug­gling with revival since the Covid pan­dem­ic. Why do you think peo­ple are still reluc­tant to attend social and cul­tur­al events?

At the last Hun­gar­i­an Con­gress before the Covid pan­dem­ic, after my speech there was a small dis­cus­sion where young peo­ple asked: why orga­nize live pro­grammes when every­thing is avail­able on Youtube? Why orga­nize live con­certs with the Kalá­ka band for instance when you can watch them online? Dur­ing the pan­dem­ic, many peo­ple got hooked on online broad­cast­ing and stopped phys­i­cal­ly going any­where. Lot of com­mu­ni­ty lead­ers made the mis­take of con­tin­u­ing stream­ing their pro­grammes online. Even today in church­es you can see pas­tors say­ing good­bye to those sit­ting in front of the screen and wish­ing them bon appétit for lunch. I do not think this is the right direc­tion. My son recent­ly told me that when their company’s Mon­tre­al office announced that employ­ees would have to go back to the office at least for a few days a week, many peo­ple quit. He added that if the Toron­to office had the same deci­sion, he might leave the com­pa­ny, too. This was shock­ing to me.

So it is not just about the health-relat­ed effects of the pan­dem­ic (with Cana­da hav­ing very strict restric­tions by glob­al com­par­i­son), but also about chang­ing cul­tur­al con­sump­tion pat­terns. You men­tioned the balls. Obvi­ous­ly your prob­lem is not that there are balls organized…

It has nev­er been a prob­lem of hav­ing some­thing, it is a prob­lem of not hav­ing alter­na­tives. When we moved to Toron­to and want­ed some­thing cul­tur­al­ly dif­fer­ent from what exist­ed there at the time, we cre­at­ed what we need­ed and what we loved so much: places and events offer­ing a high­er cul­ture. But with the pan­dem­ic all that dis­ap­peared, and only the ball­room danc­ing came back. If you look at the dias­po­ra in the West, Hun­gar­i­an scout­ing, folk danc­ing and week­end schools are impor­tant, even dom­i­nant. But where are the par­ents? Most of them, unfor­tu­nate­ly, do not attend any cul­tur­al events, they do not help main­tain these events, clubs and hous­es, and there­fore, as soon as their chil­dren will leave school and stop scout­ing and folk danc­ing, their Hun­gar­i­an iden­ti­ty will also end.

Zsolt Bede-Fazekas with his family.

Hun­gar­i­an teach­ers could also take their class­es to cul­tur­al events…

Indeed! Once I begged a sec­ondary school teacher, a good friend of mine, to bring the chil­dren to the per­for­mance of the sto­ry­teller András Berecz, as it would be a great expe­ri­ence for them. He came with all kinds of excus­es. These are the phe­nom­e­na that send us going down the drain day by day… I am sor­ry but I can­not see the future in pink: the Hun­gar­i­an quar­ter has dis­ap­peared in Toron­to, the Hun­gar­i­an restau­rants have closed: we used to have more than twen­ty restau­rants, now we have only one or two. There are signs of decline every­where, although the Hun­gar­i­an dias­po­ra is not nec­es­sar­i­ly declin­ing in pure num­bers. There may be even more peo­ple who iden­ti­fy them­selves as Hun­gar­i­an in Toron­to or Cana­da these days than twen­ty or thir­ty years ago, but those who are actu­al­ly nur­tur­ing and main­tain­ing our cul­ture and our com­mu­ni­ties are few­er and fewer.

Jesuit Father Tamás For­rai, who also lives and serves in Toron­to, told me the same in a recent interview.

Father For­rai warned us the oth­er day by say­ing: ‘I’m just a tourist here’. His time will soon be up and they will send some­one else to replace him. Just by the time we got to know Father Szabolcs Sajgó bet­ter, he went back to Hun­gary and con­tin­ued his fan­tas­tic work at home. Father Tamás has also done a lot of great things, like bring­ing the school back to the church, but he is still a ‘tourist’ who will soon be pack­ing up and going home. That is why it is impor­tant: there is no need to bring pro­fes­sion­als from home. With­in the church, it is not real­is­tic to expect and count on local replace­ments, i.e. priests or pas­tors born in the Hun­gar­i­an dias­po­ra, but with (Hun­gar­i­an) cul­ture it is dif­fer­ent: it is our own respon­si­bil­i­ty to pre­serve it. Before the pan­dem­ic, there were plen­ty of oppor­tu­ni­ties for state grants, and there are still today, but few­er. I have no right to say whether or not some­thing or some­one is eli­gi­ble to receive a grant, but I do have an opin­ion on the mat­ter: there are many Hun­gar­i­an com­mu­ni­ties who are not using this mon­ey in the right way. Every pen­ny should be spent lit­er­al­ly on sur­viv­ing spir­i­tu­al­ly and culturally.

Zsolt Bede-Fazekas hold­ing the Friend of Hun­gary Award he was bestowed on by the Friends of Hun­gary Foun­da­tion in 2019. Next to him is the cre­ator of the award, sculp­tor István Madarassy.

Speak­ing about the next gen­er­a­tion, is it not fea­si­ble to con­tin­ue your work with­in your family?

None of them are going to be Hun­gar­i­an radio speak­ers or cul­tur­al com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­ers; they do not have the dri­ve for it. Nor do they have the back­ground that I had in Győr, Hun­gary, where I was con­stant­ly build­ing up cul­tur­al con­tacts, which I have main­tained also after my immi­gra­tion to Cana­da. But it is not real­ly my children’s age group we are miss­ing here, but mid­dle-aged par­ents some­what younger than me.

Indeed, but can any­one have as many con­nec­tions as you do? Can your very rich expe­ri­ence and broad net­work of con­nec­tions be passed on to somebody?

I think so, if there was a demand for it, i.e. if I could see that there was some­one who want­ed to con­tin­ue and would put their own effort in it. For exam­ple, if the Hun­gar­i­an insti­tu­tions said: although you are not our cul­tur­al direc­tor, we need your advice. Just like the peo­ple who recent­ly asked me to help them to have a bet­ter pro­gramme and I sug­gest­ed they work with Gyöngyi Écsi. I did not man­age her or the rela­tion­ship, I sim­ply facil­i­tat­ed the con­nec­tion and thus she was their guest, not mine, and now they have a rela­tion­ship with her that they can build on. But insti­tu­tions do not have this atti­tude, they make it more of a van­i­ty issue and decide by them­selves who/what to invite. It is sad because I would be hap­py to pass on my knowl­edge and to help with con­tacts though. Nev­er­the­less, I could still make the Paraméter Club work, like in the good old days, if there was a demand for it; but it is time for some­one to take it over. I am not get­ting any younger and we are very fond of Hun­gary, we would like to spend more time there. But that does not mean that there would not be a new impe­tus. We had (renowned Hun­gar­i­an his­to­ri­an spe­cial­iz­ing in the research of the Com­mu­nist era in Hun­gary) Zsuzsan­na Bor­vendég join us recent­ly and lots of peo­ple came togeth­er and I have some oth­er ideas, for exam­ple (pop­u­lar rock musi­cian, com­pos­er, singer of the Hun­gar­i­an band Magna Cum Laude) Misi Mező, who could also be a ‘big head­lin­er’ to help relaunch the club. But, over­all, I think it will nev­er be the same…

What about the Inde­pen­dent Hun­gar­i­an Radio? Does it have a future?

It has become an inter­net-based radio; so I can broad­cast from any­where, even from my kitchen in Győr, I do not need a stu­dio any­more. In our home stu­dio in Toron­to we have a small mix­ing desk and two micro­phone stands, so we can have three peo­ple talk­ing togeth­er, but by now such small mix­ing desks are avail­able that I can eas­i­ly car­ry in a bag. The radio in fact is becom­ing more and more pop­u­lar. To my utter amaze­ment, I have had peo­ple stop me here, in Cleve­land telling me that they are lis­ten­ing to it.

Zsolt Bede-Fazekas in the ear­ly years of the Inde­pen­dent Hun­gar­i­an Radio.

There are not many Hun­gar­i­an radios left in the dias­po­ra by now – Boc­skai in Cleve­land, ours in Toron­to, Mag­yar Híd in Van­cou­ver, ZeneB­uona in Cal­gary, Mozaik Syd­ney in Aus­tralia – and they are all very dif­fer­ent. Peo­ple who lis­ten to my pro­gramme are inter­est­ed in how Hun­gar­i­ans live, how they think, and what they do all over the world. An actress from Szek­ler­land said: ‘Zsolt, you are build­ing bridges between us, between Szek­ler­land and Hun­gary’. I am talk­ing to a Hun­gar­i­an from Győr or from Tran­syl­va­nia or from North Amer­i­ca in the same way; they feel that bridges are being built between them.

You were the cul­tur­al direc­tor of the Hun­gar­i­an House in Toron­to some time ago, is that correct?

Yes, I was the cul­tur­al direc­tor for six years of the brown-brick old Hun­gar­i­an House with the Budapest sign on it. It was very dif­fi­cult to main­tain that build­ing, very uneco­nom­i­cal, but it was full of fan­ta­sy: there was a great hall with the Hun­gar­i­an Saint Crown hang­ing in the mid­dle, there was a restau­rant sec­tion, the Matthias Cel­lar, where we also had Renais­sance themed din­ners, with my friend, the singer (ének­mondó?) Zoltán Kátai – who has since passed away – of which I am par­tic­u­lar­ly proud. In spite of the two hun­dred high qual­i­ty and not unprof­itable cul­tur­al pro­grammes, despite the fact that we always had a vision, there were a lot of finan­cial prob­lems, since the month­ly fixed cost of the house was twen­ty thou­sand dol­lars. Even­tu­al­ly we sold it and a few years lat­er we bought the new house, but I nev­er went back to become cul­tur­al director.

The old Hun­gar­i­an House (L) and the Árpád Hall of the present-day Hun­gar­i­an House.

You men­tioned that you not only brought high cul­ture from Hun­gary, but you also took it there, too. How?

I was the direc­tor of exter­nal rela­tions for the Medi­awave Fes­ti­val for twen­ty years. From there I could eas­i­ly man­age things abroad, and in doing so I also got involved with the events orga­nized back in Hun­gary. When I took a Cana­di­an singer there, and the Cana­di­an ambas­sador was present, it occurred to her that it would be good to have a Cana­di­an movie week. I was hap­py to orga­nize it, I got the movies togeth­er, I even asked George Lan­tos for some, and the result was a fan­tas­tic movie week of 10 – 15 Cana­di­an movies in Hun­gar­i­an cin­e­mas, and I was invit­ed to the open­ing cer­e­mo­ny. It was the first pro­gramme of its kind, thanks also to the fact that Eszter Rodé, the cul­tur­al attaché at the Hun­gar­i­an Embassy in Cana­da was a human link between the Embassy and Hun­gar­i­an cul­ture; an out­stand­ing per­son who sent Cana­di­an diplo­mats to the Cana­di­an pro­grammes we orga­nized and also to Medi­awave. That is when we built all those rela­tion­ships that grew into the movie week that I am very proud of. Lat­er I also intro­duced Cana­di­an artists, musi­cians and film­mak­ers to Hungary.

Pan­non­ia is the only Hun­gar­i­an book dis­trib­u­tor in North Amer­i­ca. Who are your major customers?

The Cleve­land Scout troop orders gift books from time to time, but a lot of the box­es you saw in the movie go to libraries in Wash­ing­ton D.C., Cleve­land, Toron­to. They do not buy direct­ly from Hun­gary because it is too com­pli­cat­ed for both par­ties. Libraries like to place the order and get the books. But there is a lot of admin­is­tra­tive work to be done in the back­ground. My wife gets angry some­times, because the libraries request us to pro­duce a list of a few hun­dred books, trans­late the titles, etc., which she spends an awful lot of time on, but then they say half of those on the list should not be part of the order. A reg­u­lar dis­trib­u­tor would not do this. Libraries approach us, we put the order togeth­er, they give us a card num­ber and we sort every­thing out. It would be dif­fi­cult to do this from Hun­gary, and pack­ages can get lost on the way. Some­times Hun­gar­i­an schools in North Amer­i­ca also place orders with us, but less and less often, and some­times teach­ers do not even use the gift vouch­ers received from the heads of their insti­tu­tions… We often won­der whether Hun­gar­i­ans go to the libraries, because if no one bor­rows a cer­tain type of book, the avail­able fund­ing will be real­lo­cat­ed to books in oth­er lan­guages. We are ter­ri­fied of that, but for the time being it works. But once the libraries (also) stop, it will be a very seri­ous blow for us…

Final­ly, you said that in the future you would like to spend more time in Hun­gary. Why and how?

We bought an apart­ment in Győr. It is small but beau­ti­ful and at a very good loca­tion, not in the down­town area, but still with­in the town bor­ders, close to the Danube. We left a dark, smelly town at the end of the ‘80s and now we are going back to a mag­nif­i­cent, archi­tec­tural­ly and cul­tur­al­ly valu­able place, where it is very nice to live.

Zsolt Bede-Fazekas as a teenag­er in Győr, Hun­gary in the 1970s.

If we did not have chil­dren, we would already be liv­ing there; but we did not want to put them in a dif­fi­cult sit­u­a­tion. The grown-ups would not come any­way, and we would not want to take the 17-year-old ‘lit­tle one’ away from his sib­lings. If they decide to go, they will go on their own. Which is a real pos­si­bil­i­ty, because they real­ly like it there. We have tak­en them not only to Hun­gary, but also to Szek­ler­land, Délvidék and Felvidék, to fes­ti­vals, where they were some­times bored, but they got the atmos­phere. They also say that Cana­da does not have the qual­i­ty of cul­ture that Hun­gary has. My son, for exam­ple, was very much fond of the pro­fes­sion­al­i­ty and cre­ativ­i­ty of the House of Ter­ror. Of course, there are muse­ums here, too, but you would not find a Hun­gar­i­an Nation­al Muse­um in a coun­try that is a hun­dred and fifty years old.

Ildikó Antal-Fer­encz is an econ­o­mist, free­lance jour­nal­ist and blog­ger. She is cur­rent­ly based in the Unit­ed States, work­ing as an exter­nal cor­re­spon­dent for Hun­gar­i­an Conservative.

Source: hun​gari​an​con​ser​v​a​tive​.com