“Jó napot, pacák” Which, as somebody here must surely know, means “What’s up, guys?” in Magyar, that peculiar non-Indo-European language spoken by Hungarians for which, given the fact that cognitive diversity is at least as threatened as biodiversity on this planet, few would have imagined much of a future even a century or two ago. But there it is: “Jó napot, pacák” I said somebody here must surely know, because despite the fact that there aren’t that many Hungarians to begin with, and the further fact that, so far as I know, there’s not a drop of Hungarian blood in my veins, at every critical juncture of my life there has been a Hungarian friend or mentor there beside me. I even have dreams that take place in landscapes I recognize as the landscapes of Hungarian films, especially the early movies of Miklos Jancso.
So, how do I explain this mysterious affinity? Maybe it’s because my native state of South Carolina, which is not much smaller than present-day Hungary, once imagined a future for itself as an independent country. And as a consequence of that presumption, my hometown was burned to the ground by an invading army, an experience that has befallen many a Hungarian town and village throughout its long and troubled history. Or maybe it’s because when I was a teenager back in the ’50s, my uncle Henry — having denounced the Ku Klux Klan and been bombed for his trouble and had crosses burned in his yard, living under death threat — took his wife and children to Massachusetts for safety and went back to South Carolina to face down the Klan alone. That was a very Hungarian thing to do, as anyone will attest who remembers 1956. And of course, from time to time Hungarians have invented their own equivalent of the Klan.
Well, it seems to me that this Hungarian presence in my life is difficult to account for, but ultimately I ascribe it to an admiration for people with a complex moral awareness, with a heritage of guilt and defeat matched by defiance and bravado. It’s not a typical mindset for most Americans, but it is perforce typical of virtually all Hungarians. So, “Jó napot, pacák!”
I went back to South Carolina after some 15 years amid the alien corn at the tail end of the 1960s, with the reckless condescension of that era thinking I would save my people. Never mind the fact that they were slow to acknowledge they needed saving. I labored in that vineyard for a quarter century before making my way to a little kingdom of the just in upstate South Carolina, a Methodist-affiliated institution of higher learning called Wofford College. I knew nothing about Wofford and even less about Methodism, but I was reassured on the first day that I taught at Wofford College to find, among the auditors in my classroom, a 90-year-old Hungarian, surrounded by a bevy of middle-aged European women who seemed to function as an entourage of Rhinemaidens.
His name was Sandor Teszler. He was a puckish widower whose wife and children were dead and whose grandchildren lived far away. In appearance, he resembled Mahatma Gandhi, minus the loincloth, plus orthopedic boots. He had been born in 1903 in the provinces of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, in what later would become Yugoslavia. He was ostracized as a child, not because he was a Jew — his parents weren’t very religious anyhow — but because he had been born with two club feet, a condition which, in those days, required institutionalization and a succession of painful operations between the ages of one and 11. He went to the commercial business high school as a young man in Budapest, and there he was as smart as he was modest and he enjoyed a considerable success. And after graduation when he went into textile engineering, the success continued. He built one plant after another. He married and had two sons. He had friends in high places who assured him that he was of great value to the economy.
Once, as he had left instructions to have done, he was summoned in the middle of the night by the night watchman at one of his plants. The night watchman had caught an employee who was stealing socks — it was a hosiery mill, and he simply backed a truck up to the loading dock and was shoveling in mountains of socks. Mr. Teszler went down to the plant and confronted the thief and said, “But why do you steal from me? If you need money you have only to ask.” The night watchman, seeing how things were going and waxing indignant, said, “Well, we’re going to call the police, aren’t we?” But Mr. Teszler answered, “No, that will not be necessary. He will not steal from us again.”
Well, maybe he was too trusting, because he stayed where he was long after the Nazi Anschluss in Austria and even after the arrests and deportations began in Budapest. He took the simple precaution of having cyanide capsules placed in lockets that could be worn about the necks of himself and his family. And then one day, it happened: he and his family were arrested and they were taken to a death house on the Danube. In those early days of the Final Solution, it was handcrafted brutality; people were beaten to death and their bodies tossed into the river. But none who entered that death house had ever come out alive. And in a twist you would not believe in a Steven Spielberg film — the Gauleiter who was overseeing this brutal beating was the very same thief who had stolen socks from Mr. Teszler’s hosiery mill. It was a brutal beating. And midway through that brutality, one of Mr. Teszler’s sons, Andrew, looked up and said, “Is it time to take the capsule now, Papa?” And the Gauleiter, who afterwards vanishes from this story, leaned down and whispered into Mr. Teszler’s ear, “No, do not take the capsule. Help is on the way.” And then resumed the beating.
But help was on the way, and shortly afterwards a car arrived from the Swiss Embassy. They were spirited to safety. They were reclassified as Yugoslav citizens and they managed to stay one step ahead of their pursuers for the duration of the War, surviving burnings and bombings and, at the end of the War, arrest by the Soviets. Probably, Mr. Teszler had gotten some money into Swiss bank accounts because he managed to take his family first to Great Britain, then to Long Island and then to the center of the textile industry in the American South. Which, as chance would have it, was Spartanburg, South Carolina, the location of Wofford College. And there, Mr. Teszler began all over again and once again achieved immense success, especially after he invented the process for manufacturing a new fabric called double-knit.
And then in the late 1950s, in the aftermath of Brown v. Board of Education, when the Klan was resurgent all over the South, Mr. Teszler said, “I have heard this talk before.” And he called his top assistant to him and asked, “Where would you say, in this region, racism is most virulent?” “Well, I don’t rightly know, Mr. Teszler. I reckon that would be Kings Mountain.” “Good. Buy us some land in Kings Mountain and announce we are going to build a major plant there.” The man did as he was told, and shortly afterwards, Mr. Teszler received a visit from the white mayor of Kings Mountain. Now, you should know that at that time, the textile industry in the South was notoriously segregated. The white mayor visited Mr. Teszler and said, “Mr. Teszler, I trust you’re going to be hiring a lot of white workers.” Mr. Teszler told him, “You bring me the best workers that you can find, and if they are good enough, I will hire them.” He also received a visit from the leader of the black community, a minister, who said, “Mr. Teszler, I sure hope you’re going to hire some black workers for this new plant of yours.” He got the same answer: “You bring the best workers that you can find, and if they are good enough, I will hire them.” As it happens, the black minister did his job better than the white mayor, but that’s neither here or there. Mr. Teszler hired 16 men: eight white, eight black.