Tóth, Károly Antal
Antal Károly Tóth was born on 3 December 1942 in Satu Mare as a Hungarian citizen, as in the period 1940–1944 this Northern-Transylvanian city belonged to Hungary as a result of the Second Vienna Award. His father was a bookseller who used the loan he had received from the Hungarian state to open a book and stationery store. During the war, as a member of a Hungarian cadet school, he had to transfer to the West. In Germany he fell prisoner and spent approximately two years in Belgium in a prisoner-of-war camp guarded by the British forces. Upon returning home he found that the private bookstore run in his absence by his wife – a housewife – had to be liquidated since it was impossible to acquire merchandise during communism. Tóth’s father tried his luck with several jobs and eventually found employment at the transportation section of the city’s largest machine plant, Unió (Union), where he worked until his retirement (Tóth and Tóth 2017; statement of Antal Károly Tóth).
Tóth completed his primary and secondary education in Satu Mare, then continued his studies at Babeş-Bolyai University of Cluj-Napoca. From 1960 to 1965 he was a student of the Faculty of Natural Sciences and Geography, specialising in biology-zoology (ACNSAS, I210560/1). Originally he wanted to become a biologist, but the chances of fulfilling this dream were soon reduced to zero and he eventually became a general school teacher in Oradea. For nine years, beginning with 1965, he taught natural science subjects at School no. 19 in Podgoria. As the number of Hungarian children decreased, and, implicitly, there were fewer classes and teachers, Tóth was required to teach other disciplines. In the end, the school was closed down, and from 1975 Tóth worked as a teacher at night school no. 7 for adults located on Str. Griviţei. After this school had also ceased to operate, in September 1979 he was transferred to the mixed-language school no. 1 on Str. Cluj, where he taught Hungarian-speaking Roma children too. In the latter two schools, due to the reduced number of students, Tóth was entrusted with the task of teaching in a few Romanian-speaking classes as well (statement of Antal Károly Tóth; ACNSAS, I210560/1).
Already after his graduation, as of the mid-1960s Tóth published his writings, articles in the magazines called Utunk (Our journey) and Ifjúmunkás (Young worker) as well as the Oradea-based daily newspaper Fáklya (Torch). In 1967, through his friends and colleagues, he became a member of the Ady Endre Literary Circle in Oradea. At the beginning he attended the Circle events (at that time rather resembling a workshop) only sporadically. However, following his divorce from his first wife (with whom he had one child) in 1972, Tóth spent almost all of his free time managing the Circle’s affairs. He remarried in 1977 to Ilona Szűcs, with whom he had three children (Gittai and Szűcs 1998, statement of Antal Károly Tóth and Ilona Tóth).
The Ady Endre Literary Circle played an important role in the life of the couple, who took an active part in its organisation. From the autumn of 1976 up to the summer of 1978, Tóth was the leader of the Circle. From 1980 until the fall of 1982, Tóth and his wife Ilona, as members of the seven-member directory board, efficiently participated in the Circle’s life and operation and in the shaping of its profile. In general, the Friday-night meetings of the Circle were continued within the framework of a so-called “private gathering.” As of the autumn of 1979, these private meetings were mostly held in the home of the Tóth family on Str. Tudor Vladimirescu, where circle members engaged in discussions with the guest presenters until their trains departed. For instance, on 12 December 1980, when the ethnographer Zoltán Kallós and the members of the Cluj dance-house visited the circle, the group did not leave the dance floor before 2 a.m.
His public manifestations – the uncompromised defense of the Circle against the local cultural authorities, his cooperation in the “Circle explosion” of 1979, his letters of protest addressed to the educational authorities and party organisations, his role in the unsuccessful launch of a cultural paper in 1980 in Oradea, etc. – did not go unnoticed by the Oradea secret police and resulted in repeated exchanges of documents between various levels of the county authorities. However, this did not constitute an impediment when it came to obtaining permission to travel to Hungary in the years 1973, 1975, 1977, and 1979 (I210560/1, 9v). On 26 April 1978, the Oradea Securitate opened a file under the cover “Bastionul” (Bastion) with the aim of keeping under surveillance the members of the Ady Endre Literary Circle. According to the secret police, the circle members formed an opposition movement which, in the field of literature, took all possible steps to fight the official line (I210560/1, 123). It was not until 1979 that Tóth’s name was included in the files (I210560/2, 19) but he eventually became the main figure. Besides the notes written by informants, beginning with 1980 Tóth’s being followed in the street can be documented as well. Due to its peculiar location, the Tóth family’s residence could not be intercepted before the summer of 1982. Although this obstacle was later eliminated, an undisturbed, adequate technical operation in this regard could still not be ensured (ACNSAS, I210560/1–7).
In 1982 Tóth and his wife Ilona, along with the poet Géza Szőcs and other contributors, took part in the edition and distribution of the underground paper known as Ellenpontok (Counterpoints), founded by the philosopher Attila Ara-Kovács. Among others Antal Károly Tóth was the author of the “Memorandum” and the “Programme Proposal” published in the eighth issue, which criticised the human rights policy of Eastern European communist regimes, with special focus on the discrimination of minorities. Since in the respective period it was Romania that caused the greatest stir with its violations of human rights, the two documents gained special significance thanks to the alternative political claims they contained. Both the “Memorandum” and the “Programme Proposal” reached the participants of the European Conference on Security and Cooperation in Madrid and became one of the factors that triggered open international criticism against Romania, contributing to the isolation of the Ceaușescu regime(Tóth 2000).
The announcement made in August 1982 in the Hungarian-language programme of Radio Free Europe regarding the existence of Ellenpontok was considered by the Cluj Securitate a bluff after an inquiry among Cluj-based Hungarian intellectuals, who dismissed the very possibility of the existence of a Transylvanian samizdat and linked the dissemination of such news to opposition members in Hungary. However, the efforts of the Securitate – primarily in the counties of Cluj, Bihor, Mureș, and Harghita – eventually yielded results in the case investigated under the cover-name “Revista” (Magazine). On 16 October 1982, after receiving notification from an informant, the secret police conducted a secret search at the house of Géza Szőcs (absent at the time) and found Ellenpontok along with further opposition materials. On 7 November a dozen secret police officers conducted searches at the Tóth family’s residence in Oradea. In parallel similar measures were taken in the case of Attila Ara-Kovács and other Oradea-based families who were found to be more-or-less involved in the case. A few days later the Mureș and Covasna county units of the Securitate conducted searches also in Târgu Mureș and Sfântu Gheorghe. During the subsequent questionings, Antal Károly Tóth had to endure both verbal and physical abuse, and blackmailing related to his wife. Tóth was even threatened with Scopolamine-injection that would help his interrogators extract the desired information from him. His wife was also subjected to questionings. Ara-Kovács was deprived of food and drinks and was not allowed to visit the toilet, and clumps of hair were even torn out of his beard. Finally, Tóth confessed that the samizdat was established in Oradea and that he had created Ellenpontok together with Ara-Kovács. (ACNSAS, I210560/6, 152fv). This shows the limits of the Securitate, which until the time of this confession had concentrated on uncovering the Hungarian links to the birth of the samizdat. Meanwhile in Cluj the university student András Keszthelyi was subjected to questionings after twenty-one copies of the fifth and eighth issues of Ellenpontok had been discovered in his possession on 8 November. After his interrogation by the secret police on 6 November 1982, Géza Szőcs sought refuge in the Tulgheș Sanatorium, but he was eventually caught by the Cluj and Harghita county authorities on 9 December 1982, while trying to send a letter from the post office in Toplița (ACNSAS, I160234/3-5, 8, 10, 12; I210560/6, statement of Antal Károly Tóth and Ilona Tóth).
The editors, authors, and distributors of Ellenpontok were not arrested; they could defend themselves as free citizens. In January, February, March, and May of 1983, Tóth was required to draw up declarations on an ongoing basis. On 17 May 1983, the case was “closed down.” By virtue of the provisions of the Ministry of Interior, on this day all those involved received warnings and were required to give declarations at the seat of the Oradea and Cluj Securitate that they would not further engage in such activities (ACNSAS, I210560/4, 17–18v, I210560/6, 261–262v). No criminal-law measures were taken. The Romanian communist regime had no interest in building a case on this matter or making martyrs of those involved. Apart from Radio Free Europe and Amnesty International, both the Western European and the North American press published detailed articles on the widely publicised story. Moreover, protest marches were organised in Vienna, Munich, and New York in support of the people involved in the production and distribution of Ellenpontok (statement of Antal Károly Tóth and Ilona Tóth; ACNSAS I160234/3–5; I210560/6).
The editors of this samizdat sooner or later chose the path of emigration. In the early eighties a certain infectious tendency to emigrate started to spread among the Hungarian population of Oradea, when almost everybody began to consider the possibility of leaving the country. Gradually it became a marker of status if a person could grab an opportunity to flee and settle down in a foreign country (statement of Ilona Tóth). In August 1983 the Hungarian authorities rejected the Tóth family’s application for resettlement. Although the Oradea School Inspectorate advised Tóth to withdraw his application for emigration so that he could continue his work in the public education system, he declined the offer and thus became unemployed. In the case of the Tóth family, emigration was nothing short of a defence strategy, a means to increase their safety even while their case was under investigation. They felt completely deprived of all possibilities to act. They were also aware of the fact that from that moment on they would be subjected to permanent monitoring and ongoing harassment, completely at the mercy of the authorities. They feared that they might become victims of car accidents which were a quite common phenomenon at the time. Following the events of November 1982, they no longer attended the sessions of the Ady Endre Literary Circle, for fear they might compromise the careers of other members. Self-imposed isolation was rendered more tolerable by the fact that a handful of friends continued to visit them in their home. In the streets some people recognised (greeted) them, while others refused to do so (statement of Antal Károly Tóth and Ilona Tóth). Until their emigration in July 1984, the Tóth family was kept under permanent operative surveillance (ACNSAS, I210560/5–6). After their emigration, the Securitate monitored the lives of those involved in the case as well as the contacts maintained with family members at home in the framework of the operational plan bearing the cover “Oponenții-83” (Opponents 1983); in Tóth’s case this was carried out until 24 May 1986 when the observation file known by the cover “Bastionul” (Bastion) was closed. However, this did not mean that the Securitate’s interest in the matter ceased, as illustrated by the seventh volume of the surveillance file kept on Tóth which contains transcripts of TV and radio broadcasts dating from February, March, August, and September 1989, mostly relating to the person of Attila Ara-Kovács (ACNSAS, I210560/6–7). Already before their emigration, as a precautionary measure, the Oradea secret police warned Tóth, making it clear to him that if he undertook any action against the country, the Securitate would disseminate the news that they were informants (statement of Antal Károly Tóth).
The Tóth family lived in Hungary from July 1984 until March 1988. Both members of the populists and representatives of the democratic opposition contributed to their integration by offering them support. Moreover, Tóth paid an official visit to the headquarters of the MSZMP (Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party) where he participated in discussions with the cultural politician András Knopp and the cultural secretary of the MSZMP Central Committee, György Aczél, with regard to the situation of Transylvanian Hungarians. In the following period Tóth would have liked to be offered a job involving the administration of minority issues, but his attempts at finding a job in accordance with his qualification as well as all the efforts he made in order to complete further studies proved to be unsuccessful. A possible reason behind these failed attempts might have been the fact that several members of the Hungarian intellectual elite in Cluj considered the authors of Ellenpontok to be provocateurs and informed György Aczél, one of the most prominent ideologists of cultural life in the Kádár era, about this. “Throughout our stay in Hungary we never encountered the level of democracy we had experienced in the Ady Circle in Oradea,” Antal Károly Tóth explains in an interview dated 25 November 2017.
From November 1984, Tóth worked for the Hungarian National Archives. However, he also undertook various sorts of occasional work in order to support his family. After having moved from place to place, the family eventually found a temporary home in Budapest in a single-room flat belonging to the wife of the populist poet Gyula Illyés. Not even their extremely modest living conditions could keep the Tóths from sending packages and medicines to their family members left behind. In addition to this, they engaged in voluntary aid work in order to support those in need who arrived with the stream of Transylvanian refugees beginning in 1987. There were occasions when, upon returning from work, Tóth found as many as nine people waiting in his home, asking for his help with writing the applications required by the Hungarian authorities. These applications had to be submitted to the National Office for the Control of Foreign Citizens (KEOKH) in order to obtain the documents necessary for emigration to Sweden on political grounds (statement of Antal Károly Tóth and Ilona Tóth). Tóth also participated in the meetings of the three opposition groups (populists, democratic opposition, and reform economists) held at János Kenedi’ home, where, upon examining the situation, he proposed the establishment of a new party in which he saw a solution to the existing problems. On 27 September 1987, he took part in the first meeting of Lakitelek where pluralism, indirectly the multi-party system was first publicly demanded in public. During their stay in Hungary, the Tóths continued to be extremely active; they tried to adapt to the new milieu but in the end their integration proved to be impossible. The two-year waiting period before obtaining Hungarian citizenship, the constant problem of lodgings, and financial hardships made life difficult for the couple, who in the meantime welcomed their second child. The family suffered from the lack of conditions necessary to feel at home. Despite their numerous connections, they did not feel that they belonged somewhere. Tóth maintained contacts with all groups; they worked together, but this was not a solid foundation they could build on. The work load and the hardships encountered eventually affected Tóth’s health; consequently the family decided to leave Hungary.
Using borrowed money to purchase their plane tickets, the Tóth family arrived in Göteborg, Sweden, in March 1988, as tourists. With regard to applying for a permanent residence permit they consulted with a Swedish lawyer who advised the family to wait until the expiry of their three-month tourist visa and only then make an application to the Swedish authorities. By that time the Tóths had already obtained Hungarian citizenship, so they no longer counted as Transylvanian refugees. Nevertheless, since Hungary was also a communist country, they still had reason to expect favourable treatment following the expiry of their tourist visa. After a period of three months, the family applied for political asylum to the competent authorities in Sweden. While the answer of the authorities was pending, the family were granted a temporary residence permit, which allowed them to benefit from social support. Refugees were usually accommodated in camps or special hostels and the social services insisted that the entire family should move to a refugee camp and wait there until the answer to their application for residence permits arrived from the authorities. Since refugee camps had a very bad reputation due to shootings and various atrocities, the Tóth family dismissed this alternative. Although they found a place where they could lead a decent life, it was very likely that they would lose the social support unless they complied with the official instructions and moved to a refugee camp. As a consequence, at their lawyer’s suggestion they applied for a residence permit for a third country, namely, Canada, considering the fact that expulsion could not be implemented as long as they were waiting for an answer to their application (statement of Antal Károly Tóth and Ilona Tóth).
In March 1989 they were granted a residence permit for Canada. They delayed their departure up to the last moment in the hope that in the meantime they would receive an answer from the Swedish authorities. The family then travelled to Canada using tickets bought from money they received as a loan from the Canadian authorities. They settled down in the French part of Montreal. The integration of the family was made easier by support received from the Hungarian Human Rights Foundation, which consisted of a sum covering one month rent. Furthermore, the family also benefitted from the support of the local Hungarian community in Montreal. They started to teach in the Catholic Sunday school. Tóth found employment in a printing house, whereas his wife Ilona stayed at home with the children, who found it hard to adapt to the French kindergarten. Besides this, Ilona attended an English language course at McGill University. Tóth also signed up for a course in mathematics at Concordia University, hoping that in five years he could become a computer expert. They had subscriptions to magazines from Hungary, bought books and sent packages and medicines to their family members left behind. After a two-month stay in Canada, the Swedish authorities finally granted permanent residence permits to the whole family, so in September 1989 they decided to return to Sweden, which they did on 1 December 1989. The family found a flat in Göteborg and did everything necessary to adapt to their new environment. Knowledge of the Swedish language, which was indispensable for a resident of the country made it possible for the couple to continue their studies. In Göteborg Antal Károly Tóth completed a twelve-month course in environment protection and worked as an environmentalist until his accident in 1998 when he took early retirement. His wife Ilona, after completing language courses in Swedish and English, worked as a kindergarten nurse for several years at various nursery schools. Later she studied socionomy and religion at the University of Göteborg and today she works for the social services department (statement of Antal Károly Tóth and Ilona Tóth).
Already during their first stay in Sweden the family had become actively involved in the cultural life of the local Hungarian community, contributing to the organisation of various events. Following their return from Canada they participated in the summer camps organised by the Hungarian Self-Study Group in Stockholm and also took part in various events in the camps organised by the Swedish Federation of Hungarians. For years they were members of the Kőrösi Csoma Sándor Society, which was also the organiser of the Hungarian Days in Göteborg. No matter where they went the family always paid attention to the interests of the community as well. “As an emigrant one feels that one has abandoned the family members left behind and is permanently tortured by qualms of conscience. Yet at the same time this gives one motivation to act. One feels that one has the obligation to do something to improve the lives of those left at home,” says Ilona Tóth in an interview dated 25 November 2017.
His manifold activity has not prevent Tóth from submitting his essays to the Swedish private newspaper Exaudi domine and from publishing his articles on a regular basis in Hungarian magazines and various periodicals in Hungary, nor from publishing his writings in different volumes (Tóth 2015). Ellenpontok, issued in 1982, has constituted the subject-matter of numerous articles, for Antal Károly Tóth was the one among the former editors who dedicated the most time and effort to the spiritual heritage of the samizdat. In 1994, he published his volume entitled Hova-tovább? Az Ellenpontok dokumentumai, esszék, tanulmányok (Where do we go from here? Counterpoints: Including documents, essays, studies), and later, in 2000, he published the issues of Ellenpontok in an independent volume. In 2017, he and his wife published the volume Egy szamizdat az életünkben. Az Ellenpontok (A samizdat in our lives. Counterpoints), which comprised collected interviews and independent writings together with other texts meant to clarify the events that in the meantime had become history.
- Satu Mare, Romania
- Jánosi, Csongor
Arhiva Consiliului Național pentru Studierea Arhivelor Securității (Archive of the National Council for the Study of the Securitate Archives – ACNSAS).
ACNSAS, Fond Informativ (Informative fonds): file 210560, volume 1–7; file 160234, volume 3–5, 8, 10, 12.
Gittai, István and László Szűcs. 1998. Péntek esti szabadságunk: A nagyváradi Ady Endre Irodalmi Kör húsz éve (Our Friday-night freedom: The twenty years of the Ady Endre Literary Circle in Oradea). Nagyvárad: Bihari Napló Kiadó.
Tóth, Károly Antal and Ilona Tóth. 2017. Egy szamizdat az életünkben: Az Ellenpontok. (A samizdat in our lives. Counterpoints). Kolozsvár: Kriterion.
Tóth, Károly Antal. 2015. Hol vagy, szabadság? Esszék, tanulmányok, vitaírások (Where are you, freedom? Essays, studies, pamphlets). Kolozsvár: Kriterion.
Tóth, Károly Antal. 2000. Ellenpontok (Counterpoints). Csíkszereda: Pro-Print.
Tóth, Károly Antal. 1994. Hova-tovább? Az Ellenpontok dokumentumai, esszék, tanulmányok (Where do we go from here? Counterpoints: Including documents, Essays, Studies). Stockholm – Szombathely: Magyar Ökumenikus Önképzőkör – Savaria University Press.
Tóth, Ilona, Tóth, Károly Antal , interview by Jánosi, Csongor , November 25, 2017. COURAGE Registry Oral History Collection