An Enviable Decency
A group including me recently left the northern city of Esztergom, Hungary and crossed the Danube River into the country of Slovakia. The border crossing is alway an experience for our group given that two of us hold passports from out of the area. We timed how long it would take for the official to process our papers. The average time has been around 25 minutes, but this time we made it through in 5 minutes. As we drove into the countryside, we seemed to be transferred back in time.
The next 20 minutes were spent driving through the beautiful Slovakian countryside on a narrow 2-lane road similar to those found in the States back in the early 1950s. As we passed through a couple of villages I was reminded of a time long past in rural America. This part of Slovakia remains locked in a time period from long ago. Our final destination was a small village of about 3000 people. The primary business is farming; it is here that the story really begins.
Twice a year we visit our extended family in this small rural area of a recently formed country, Slovakia. By American and most Western standards this is an incredibly poor community; few people have cars, many still ride bicycles, most walk from one point to another and our friends still barter for goods and services. For example, money is scarce but the family cows produce milk. Up to 40 quarts a day are created; the neighbors arrive, one by one to pick up their daily milk. For about 25 cents a quart you walk home with fresh milk right from the cow.
Next door there is no indoor plumbing, maybe three people have a computer and as far as I know the Internet has not reached this part of the country as yet. There are no stores selling designer clothes. A shirt, a pair of pants and shoes are worn by at least three in a family before new ones are purchased. The youngster walking about the area with a DKNY garment received it from a relative living abroad, he or she wears it proudly.
Macintosh is the apple growing on the local trees and a television is special if you can afford one in your home. This is not an exception in rural Slovakia, this is the norm. On the Slovakian-Hungarian border it is a different story. I have observed on the border during the past 9 years a major transformation taking place. At first there were only a handful of stores or businesses; today we passed by the Hollywood Pizzeria. Free enterprise is abundant and services and products are found everywhere. Many Hungarians now cross over the bridge to purchase such goods because they are even cheaper in Slovakia than in Hungary. For an American, Hungarian prices are buried treasure and the Slovakian prices are even lower.
We usually bring to our family some of the following: selected fruits, beer, chocolates and a few small gifts for the children. We spend our time together laughing, singing songs, playing outdoors and sitting around a huge table and talking about family, life in general and yes, even politics. Recently we have started swapping tales from our past and I notice that the young children, who never knew what is was like to live under a totaltarian government remain at the table and listen intently.
When we are ready to return the 20 miles to Esztergom gifts are bestowed upon us, this from a group who, by our standards, are poor. We arrive back in Hungary with a gallon of fresh milk, two pounds of new cheese, 3 pounds of grapes from their small vineyard, a dozen eggs and a small box of chocolates. We walk out to the car, and it takes at least 20 more minutes to say goodbye, as everyone from age 82 to 8 months stands by the car throwing kisses and waving. This happens every time we visit; it is a way of life, part of their culture.
The same is true with our Hungarian family and friends. They seem to be a few years ahead of Slovakia in terms of economy yet, their life styles and events are very similar. This past week at the dinner table our Hungarian extended family started telling us what it was like back in the 1980s prior to their separation from the totalitarian government that ruled over them for over 3 decades.
For example, back in those days they could only afford one new pair of pants from each monthly salary; that is all the extras they could buy. Today, the situation is different. I have noticed how the 10-15 year olds listen intently, not believing their ears. Yes, in such a short time, the Hungarian people have completely turned their lives around; they have done this so quickly that the newest generation has never known such proverty and wonder how their parents ever lived without DVDs,cell phones, iPods and the Internet.
These stories are not unique to Hungary and Slovakia; they do represent a social change witnessed by all of us during a most dramatic period of world history. It is useful to know the following about these two countries:
- During the 20th century their borders were substantially altered.
- Hungary lost many thousands of acres. Its current borders were determined in 1990. Slovakia was part of Czechoslovakia until 1993 and now is a country unto itself.
- Tens of thousands of Hungarians and Slovakians lost or had taken from them all of their belongings, homes, jobs – their way of life as their new states were being formed.
- There were no immediate or long term monies – no Marshall Plan for them, made available to either country for development of their economies. Nor was there a special UN division formed to take care of their collective populations. There was no 279 million euros provided to either country as was given to the Palestinian Authority in 2005.
- As they returned to a life of freedom, acceptance and tolerance, their lives began to change, shift and expand in a relatively rapid time frame.
- They each created their own form of democracy, and they are working on such challenges as are presented any people when they transfer from a totalitarian to a free form of government. They tell me it is a process and they are learning every year.
- The people tell me that they realize they are not America or Great Britain, they have a unique culture that is developing its own form of democracy. They tell me it is working well in spite of all the growing pains and they much prefer it to Communism.
- In spite of losing homelands, belongings, possessions, family members, and enduring torture by an occupying nation, neither country has sent out homicide bombers or missiles, or blown up busses in their neighboring countries – countries far more affluent than theirs. Their texbooks do not misrepresent the regional history or indigenous peoples.
- They do not preach hatred to the general population nor does their television portray their neighbors as evil, even though they seem to have so much more in terms of material goods and services.
- Both countries have invested in their people, in ideas and concepts that add positively to the lives of people everywhere. Hungary is becoming an international leader in technology.
- Finally, tolerance of those different from themselves is being practiced within both countires.
What seems to be missing is that we believe that the rest of the world has had some if not many of these same experiences. We have not been told the truth in a manner that would help us understand what is going on today away from the USA’s borders. Our borders have been defined for decades, this is not the case across the world. Since WW II or the early 1950s countries have come and gone. I do not write this in a cavalier manner, it is a matter of public record. For example, the following are just some of the changes that have occurred:
- Germany and Japan re-divided the areas under their control. Following world war II, the borders of Germany were moved west to the Oder-Neisse line, while the approximate boundary of the Curzon Line was used as the eastern border.
- 1947: Free Territory of Trieste was set up (bordering Italy and Yugoslavia)
- 1949: Saar was incorporated into the Federal Republic of Germany (Previously bordered Luxembourg, France and Germany)
- 1990: East Germany reunites with West Germany.
- 1991: With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the USSR split up into 15 independent states. Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia and Slovenia declare independence from the Yugoslavia, which now comprises Serbia and Montenegro. (This was renamed “Serbia & Montenegro” in 2003.)
- 1993: Czechoslovakia splits into Czech Republic and Slovakia.
- 2006 Montenegro gains independence from Serbia & Montenegro. Thus Serbia also becomes an independent state.
Change is part of life in this world, it occurs even if we wish it differently. Life events, people, situations and circumstances interact with one another with the result being our daily reality. It seems to me that how a person or a group of people choose to interpret the changes, how they choose to act in accordance with these same changes and what they choose to focus upon is what distinguishes one country from the others. Furthermore, it is this same focus that seems to define the character, integrity and honor of a group of people.
Slovakians and Hungarians have emerged from the totalitarian control of the former communist Soviet Union to develop into emerging democracies. They are focused upon freedom of choice in every aspect of their lives. They have invested heavily in education, their economy and their future development as a nation state with comparatively little assistance from the external community (finally in 2002 Hungary was provided loans and some monies from the EU).
Regardless of the current economic levels, regardless of the historic grievances they each sustained and regardless of loosing material items, they have selected the path of human decency. They are in the process of defining their national identity and character. They have developed their personal integrity and are standing tall among the emerging worlds nations. As nations they have displayed and continue to display decent human behavior among their respective citizenships as well as with the world community.
This, I submit, is a matter of choice, exercised in accordance with their cultural values. It seems that the media, the world leaders and general international population do not acknowledge their incredible accomplishments ongoing since 1990: a mere 16 years. Why no attention? Why have they not been held up as models for others to emulate?
I contrast these two groups with another group of people, in the Middle East, who have obviously chosen another path. The results should not be a surprise to anyone in the West. They have had the greatest per capital economic aid provided any world population since the 1980s. They had, during the same time frame as the Hungarians and Slovakians, unencumbered aid and support by the world community. Yet their actions, behavior and results pale in comparison.
Still, the world, through its actions, regretably reinforces actions and behaviors that are contrary to self-reliance, economic development and acceptance and tolerance of other people. I submit for consideration this is the result of their own victimhood and we witness these horrific results daily.
I now live part of the time in Israel, are we are not surprised. I, for one, am simply disappointed and am now approaching anger, that the world responds hypocrically to this one group. The world communities do not hold them to the same behavioral standards to which we hold the Slovakians and Hungarians, and I wonder why?
Meanwhile. I shall continue to admire the courageous daily actions of those who choose to join the international world of decency. My extended family is really representative of good people and my admiration abounds.
 Mokhtar, G. (1990) UNESCO General History of Africa, Vol. II, Abridged Edition: Ancient Africa, University of California Press. ISBN 0-85255-092-8.
A special thank-you to my editor Chana Givon.
G.S. Don Morris, Ph.D. is the proprietor of Docs Blog.
G.S. Don Morris, Ph.D