Bernie Dunlap, American academic and former president of Wofford College, tells the story of how a Hungarian man changed his life. According to him, at every critical moment of his life there had been a Hungarian helping and guiding him. He talks about how Sandor Teszler, Hungarian Holocaust survivor taught him how to be passionate and a life-long learner.
He greets his TEDTalks audience in Hungarian. He then goes on to say that he has always felt close to Hungarians, but he cannot quite point out why, as he does not know of having any Hungarian ancestry. He says he has always had Hungarian friends and mentors by his side and he often dreams of Hungarian landscapes.
He tries to understand this affinity between him and Hungary. He compares his home of South Carolina to Hungary, which do not differ much in size. But as it turns out they share some history too. He says his hometown was burnt down by an invading army, just as countless Hungarian towns and villages were by tyrannical leaders of other countries. He says while his state had to deal with the Klu Klux Klan, Hungary had their own versions of the Klan.
He has “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.”
Dunlap went to teach at Wofford College, which he knew little about. To his surprise, among his students, he found a 90-year-old Hungarian man. His name was Sandor Teszler and he reminded Dunlap of Gandhi.
His wife and children were deceased, his grandchildren lived far, far away. He had been born in 1903, in the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, with two club feet, which required him being operated on between ages one and 11. He went to school in Budapest, and then later joined the textile business, both in which he enjoyed some success. One night a thief tried to steal socks from one of Teszler’s plants, Teszler confronted him, but did not involve the police.
He stayed in Budapest long after the Nazis started arresting and deporting Jews. And one day it eventually happened. He and his family were captured and taken to a death house on the Danube. The people there were brutally beaten to death and simply dumped into the river after. In a weird twist of fate, the Gauleiter happened to be the very same thief who Teszler had let go. Though Teszler and his family received a beating quite brutal to keep up appearances, the Gauleiter helped them escape.
The car from the Swiss Embassy arrived. They were taken to safety, reclassified as Yugoslav citizens, and remained on the run for many years, but managed to stay clear of their pursuers. They first went to Great Britain, then to Long Island, then to the South, to Spartanburg, which just happens to be the location of Wofford College. There, they started their life over. Teszler became largely successful, especially after inventing how to manufacture a new fabric, called double-knit.
With the rising of the Klan in the late 50s, Teszler recognized the situation as one he had been in before, in Hungary. He went to the most racist part of the South — where the textile business was very much segregated —, bought a piece of land, and hired 16 men to work there: eight white and eight black. He battled racism and segregation head-on when, after a tour of the factory, one of the white men asked if this place was “integrated or what?” Teszler replied: “You are being paid twice the wages of any other workers in this industry in the region and this is how we do business. Do you have any other questions?” And they had none.
After having retired, he went to audit courses at Wofford College and became known by everyone as “Opi,” Hungarian equivalent of grandpa. The college’s library was named after Teszler and later he was named Professor of the College. Not only because he had basically taken all of the courses the college had to offer, but because he was wiser than any of the faculty members. Dunlap not only loved him for his wisdom but for his humour as well. Teszler also taught Dunlap about music, Béla Bartók’s, Dunlap remembers in particular.
Not long before Teszler’s death, Dunlap gave a lecture about human history, describing it as “a tidal wave of human suffering and brutality.” After the lecture Teszler went up to him and said: “you know, Doctor, human beings are fundamentally good.” This touched Dunlap deeper, than anything ever before, because he thought that if someone who had suffered as much as Teszler believed it to be true, than it must be.
He believed his Hungarian mentor-ship to be over after the passing of Teszler. He met Hungarian heart surgeon, Francis Robicsek, who was in his seventies at the time. He not only invented devices now standard in open-heart surgeries, but he was also an art collector and author of seven books. Dunlap invited Robicsek to lecture at Wofford college.
At the end of his speech he concludes, that his passion is getting more knowledge, his hunger for information and experience. And that this defined the imagined futures of his admired Hungarians as well, from whom he had learned it from, Teszler, Robicsek, Bartók.
You can watch the video here:
Featured image: Wikimedia Commons