“Distance learning” in Hungary between 1943 and 1945 – Hungarian Spectrum

by Kevin | Last Updated: April 12, 2020


Since over Easter/Passover weekend Dr. Cecília Müller doesn’t entertain the country’s inhabitants with her daily press conferences, I think it is time to take a breather from the depressing news of the coronavirus pandemic and turn to something entirely different, though not unrelated: teaching and learning during the two final years of World War II, when most Hungarian children attended school only sporadically.

The article that inspired me appeared behind the paywall of HVG, and since I have personal memories of those years I was intrigued. My interest was especially aroused because the article began with a reference to an old newspaper article that appeared in Dunántúl, the daily paper of the city of Pécs between 1911 and 1945. The date of the article was November 4, 1944, about three weeks before the arrival of the Soviet army on November 29. A short announcement by Dr. Bernardin Palos, a Cistercian priest and head of the local school district, declared that by the order of Ferenc Rajniss, minister responsible for religion and culture (kultuszminiszter) in the Szálasi government, “the current school year was being temporarily shuttered.”

Considering that the Soviet troops had already crossed the Hungarian border in September and that, by October 11, they had reached Szeged, one would think that it was the precarious military situation that compelled the Szálasi government to close the schools. Bernardin Palos, however, denied that “the disquieting news” had anything to do with the school closings. On the contrary, “the truth is that the school year is being suspended to have more human resources available for military purposes.” From that comment, one gets the distinct feeling that Dr. Palos wasn’t exactly antagonistic toward the Szálasi regime. Indeed, in the summer of 1945, he was among those people who were temporarily detained in an internment camp because he didn’t satisfy the local political screening committee when he appeared before them. To the best of my recollection, my father was also called to appear before the committee, but given his well-known anti-Nazi views, there was never any question about his loyalties.

In any case, Palos warned that “any young man or woman who doesn’t want to understand that this national trial cannot be an excuse for undisciplined behavior” should be censured. A list of rules was set up which included boys wearing school caps, behaving in a dignified manner, and carrying their “report book” at all times. Church attendance was also compulsory on Sundays and religious holidays. The report book (ellenőrző könyv, whose literary meaning is “controlling book”) was the dreaded little book in which teachers sent usually dire messages about their students’ behavior to parents, who had to sign to show that the message had been received.

Those teachers who were not called up for the defense of the country were supposed to be in touch with their pupils through “circular letters.” Father Palos “appealed to the moral sense of the parents” and asked them “not to allow, under the guise of group study, the creation of ‘student digs’ (Studetenbude/diáktanya) where, instead of honest hard work, levity, sin, and debauchery raise their heads.”

The elementary school I hardly attended

This was “the early dress rehearsal for distance learning,” says Balázs Illényi, who wrote the article, to which I added some historical background necessary for a better understanding of Dr. Palos’s announcement about school closings in Dunántúl.

Actually, already during the 1943/44 school year students attended no more than about five months of classes, and the same was true in the 1944/45 school year. Classes began on November 1 and ended on March 31. Although in a 2014 doctoral dissertation on institutions providing elementary school teachers by Judit Neszt (University of Debrecen) we can read about examples of great cooperation between schools and parents during these difficult times, I suspect that they were more the exception than the rule. Apparently, during September and October teachers, with the help of the parents, got together in smaller groups in the apartments of parents. In 1944, even if  schools opened in September in cities like Budapest or Miskolc, because of the air raids many parents were afraid to let their children attend school. Yet, as far as I know, no child ever had to repeat a year.

My own recollection is that, in third and fourth grade, I barely attended school. In grade three my parents hired a young girl who was studying to become a teacher to tutor me. I remember her only faintly. Then, in grade four, I missed the whole first term. Instead, I got a private tutor who for a couple of months was supposed to teach me something. I remember her even less than the student teacher. What I want to say is that distance teaching in my case simply didn’t exist. Yet, we all survived somehow, even without the wonderful opportunities the children of today enjoy. Not that I recommend distance teaching and school closings as a desirable state of affairs, but at least this time around the distance teaching should be a true “dress rehearsal” for eventually more digitally oriented and more exciting teaching methods in Hungarian schools.

April 12, 2020


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