Ervin Varga (1925-2018) Letters from the past

Biographical Notes*


Life is back

Miraculously, most of my family survived the Nazis, the Forced labor camps such as Theresienstadt and the Ghetto of Pest. Our apartment is again livable and complete with Grandmother and most of the rest of us.

It is now the meeting place for my friends who were not lucky as we, they lost everybody. There is lively political activity with plenty of newspapers and disparate parties all claiming democratic principles. I do not understand all the details, but it is clear that, politically, the newly invented democratic Hungary leans more toward the right. Yet, the Communist party is (also) in power and as long as the Russians remain no Fascist take-over will be possible. For me in those days, however, the Russians were my liberators - I watched when these Mongol-looking soldiers opened the gates of the hut where I was imprisoned. Not knowing much about politics, our primitive axiom was: Jews sympathize with the poor and oppressed and [Miklós] Horthy and his Hungarian followers are the ultimate oppressor. Maybe a simplification, but instinctively true.  

Home now, I wait for my first love  Anna, my eyes searching for her where ever I go. By the fall of the year I learned she had died in Bergen Belsen [Germany].  Anna’s loss is not like grief, but almost a physical pain, constantly present. But being young, surrounded by family, studying, brings me back to life.

Medical school will start soon and our prewar dream to immigrate to America is now on hold. (And we are not on the US quota, anyhow.) We can start here, in Budapest, where our old wish to study as University students is now reality.  In any case, our life is improving, thanks to so many things I cannot list. Since the family decided to stay, its full steam ahead to settle down to a new Hungary. This is also the time when we change our name from Weisz to Varga.

I am aware that in postwar Europe I am lucky to live an untypical life: I survived, I did not lose my parents in the Holocaust when everybody I know lost everything. Only retrospectively do I realize what an advantage I had. Not only to have family, but my father’s business is successful.    Maybe this is the reason that I am not as hateful as my friends.      

At this time I was getting involved in the University youth movement in which all the best brains seem to go in the Leftist direction. Not only because any kind of movement of the political Right  leads to fascism, but because the Left represents social justice; my former classmates are already active.

Life is difficult to balance. My parents bought a condominium along a “Fasor,” that loosely translated into the English “Allee” [an alley in a formal garden or park, bordered by trees or bushes]; we live in elegant comfort while I fight for colleges where poor farmers and “proli” (lowbrow) kids might get a proper education. It is funny to watch their metamorphosis [from country to city].  For instance, one of the poor country boys received a stipendium [scholarship].  He went out to buy a new wardrobe which resulted in his looking like an ispan, e.g., bailiff; a former slave master; the new clothes fit him poorly.

I meet Vera in the Institute of Physiology. She is not Anna; she has less self-awareness, which was Anna’s forte, but is more cultured and deeper.  She is very bright and easily absorbs, almost without studying, chemistry, anatomy and some boring lectures (she avoids by chatting with me), Vera is well built and a strong swimmer, but hates any games with balls. She was born without vanity and is embarrassingly modest. She never brags nor even mentions her successes. In love, she is innocently naïve and trusting. I love her and know she loves me, but will not say so. 

After three months studying together I tell Vera that I will marry her. She is surprised but readily agrees without the thinnest sign of hesitation.  We write a comforting letter to our parents about how well-furnished our sublet will be with a couch and cupboard. “Why wait?” asks Vera. Without much ceremony we are wife and husband. Proud of our self-induced poverty (refusing parental support) we are the happiest young couple.

Life is again fast-paced

After the war in late 1940s Hungarian socialism penetrated every corner and every aspect of life. Regardless, Vera graduated with honors, summa cum laude, and I received my MD. We planned our future life in Budapest where Vera is a resident in pediatrics and I am accepted for neuropsychiatry training.

While learning neurology I am also indoctrinated in “cheap” Marxism. (We never had access to modern Marxism in Hungary.)  As an example, at one of the communist party meetings at  the University, professor Ernst, a  celebrated scientist, interrupted a ceremony to proclaim: “Comrades we have to clap more our hands. It is for Comrade [Mátyás] Rakosi”; we were sinking deeper into an idiotic personality cult.

I am writing these notes from past memories, not as an essay of history, but how I perceived life. A vignette:

At a party meeting one of the organizers greets Rakosi, the leader of the Communist party, and makes a mistake. Instead of announcing the “hotly loved Rakosi comrade,” he said, with a slip of tongue, the “beloved hot Rakosi comrade.” Not much later he was arrested, accused at a witch-hunt trial to be a Swiss spy, tortured and confessed.

I remembered a book Anna once discussed, about the idealist commissar who helps the prosecutor to fabricate the accusations against him knowing that he will be sentenced to death. He does it because the Party needs his confession and goes to the gallows for the benefit of the Party -- a trial for a stolen piece of chocolate.

Trials were characterized, not by simple admissions, but by over-admitting fabricated crimes so convincingly that even a skeptical public initially believed. The organized suspiciousness (officially called alertness!) first hit the old Communists who fought against the Nazis while in the underground. Friends disappeared - for months there was no news - are they alive? or were they coerced into a fabricated confession; this went on and on until Stalin died. The permanent climate of terror became the way of life. One did not speak about these tragedies; did not want to hear of them. Torture remains the oldest and cheapest way to control your enemies. It is enough just to be afraid of it.

Even the police were not immune:

One day an AVO (Hungarian secret police) colonel came to the clinic and asked for a sedative: “Give me a couple of tablets, no prescription. Nobody should suspect that I need, tranquillizers, I am afraid.” Soon thereafter his wife was arrested, tortured and brutalized (she had become a young Communist during the war fighting the Nazis in the underground.)

In 1953, I was in the hospital in the same room with five coal miners. They were not afraid to talk; they had already been told by their doctors that they had no escape from their fibrosis and from dying soon. They spoke about politics and their sex life, the only topics hot enough to distract their attention from dying, these poor favorites of the Party. In this hospital, gradually I had to face these horrible views from their perspective.

My thoughts were not about dying, not about sex – but guilt feelings about things which I never committed, or approved, or even knew about. I read Tolstoy’s War and Peace – not light reading. To me it was clear that Kutuzov was neither stupid nor a coward – he was a genius who left the Russian peasants, the masses, to lead the way and destroy Napoleon.

Half year later I was released, not only from the hospital, but also from communism - more precisely, from Stalinist propaganda.  I then entered into the atmosphere of reality of fear and mutual lying because I had another issue: my health.

A growth in my chest got larger and I decided to have it removed since my doctors were unsure about diagnosis and treatment. I chose an unknown Indian-trained surgeon who opened up my chest and found a huge unexpected tuberculoma; a lobe from my lung was removed and I was sent into a sanatorium for a half year.  In the meantime, Vera gave birth to our second son while completing residency training with night duties; ran our household and took care of the children; and, at the top of her heroism, participated in a white lie: to prevent my hypertensive mother from panic, we conspired to create a story for her: “Ervin is away for some science course.”  My parents were told of the facts later.

Home after a half year hospitalization and back to work doing some Pavlovian research, my superiors looked at my activity with suspicious and hostile eyes, suspecting political opportunism. This from the neuropsychiatric department where I spent seven years of residency to pass the specialty exams –in both Psychiatry and Neurology.

Characteristically of these times, the outstanding chairman [Bela] Horanyi was removed from the university by the communist government under suspicion of social-democratic connections. [Gyula] Nyiro, a good psychiatrist, was forced to take over the department, which he did reluctantly. A known political maneuver by the medical Trade Union blackmailed him as a result of a patriotic article that he wrote during war years. 

Now I learn psychiatry from Nyiro; it is most interesting and rewarding. He was a born humanist and his acts in professional matters always reflect liberal views, but carefully avoid open conflicts either with the ruling Fascist or Communist era. He was not revolutionary in any sense, but a good doctor and a great psychiatrist. He worked with [Laszlo] Meduna, who in 1933 induced seizures to treat psychotic patients. Nyiro was also a true son and successful; one of the old-fashioned Hungarian nationalists. He was never an anti-Semite, but also never openly critical of the Fascist Horthy regime.

To clear the air about psychiatry at this time: in Hungary during the period of socialist realism, Freudism as an ideology and therapy was officially disliked, seemingly persecuted. At the same time, however, most psychiatrists in position were either Freudian (or Jungien or from similar dynamic schools).  In fact, most power positions in medical associations and journals were held by doctors practicing some sort of psychodynamic therapy. The director of Lipotmezo, The National Institute for Mentally Ill, the largest mental institution in Hungary, was led by a psychoanalyst; the chief editor of the Psychology  Journal was openly analyst. A leading Hungarian psychology journal refused to publish my Pavlovian papers, but they were published in Switzerland. Only the Hungarian Psychological Journal published my paper.

Nyiro followed the classic German, Swiss concepts. He was genuinely interested in Pavlovian psychiatry theories and applied them in teaching.  A soviet psychiatrist, [N.P.] Tatarenko, arrived at our department to teach Pavlovian psychiatry. She – a simple and one-sided doctor – was vehemently against electroshock therapy and declared it is “not a medical issue, but it should be a police issue.”  Nyiro was not afraid, did not get panicky, but continued providing intensive ECT. In political matters he was malleable, but in medical matters he had the strongest spine I ever saw in anybody.  I never was in his genuinely inner circle, no Jews were, though I wished to be close to him.

A brief description of those years     

Hungary was an anti-democratic country with ruling landowners; Horthy’s dictatorship [1920-1944] was a quasi-parliamentary system. In 1920 the soul of the nation was injured by the shortsighted, unfair Trianon treaty which took away and gave to hostile neighbors one third of the country. Early under Horthy’s rule, the leading pathos was to take revenge – if needed, with arms and blood – to take back the territories. This revengefulness was also the fate of Hungary.

Horthy was a self-appointed governor. After the first World War ended there was a brief Communist period that included brutal rules against landowners, advocates of the dethroned king [King Charles IV] and against the bourgeoisie. Horthy, a former navy officer, led a counter revolution, an equally atrocious so-called “White Terror.” At this point virulent anti-Semitism became official state policy. 

Many of the leading communists during the Bolshevik 1919 Red Terror were Jewish, romantic socialists. They were outraged by the irrational brutality of the war. They also provoked antipathy and hatred because they overstepped their power and introduced terror against capitalist reactionaries. But the reaction, Horthy’s “White Terror,” did not distinguish between guilty or innocent; it was directed against the whole Jewish population.

Horthy’s administration introduced “numerus clausus” to limit the admission of Jews to the country’s Universities.  In Budapest such White Terror groups stopped street cars, pulled down the passengers, opened their flies and those who were circumcised were beaten,

Finally, after 1920 Horthy was pressured from abroad to halt the brutalities. During the height of the terror two of my uncles, Armin and his brother Sandor, escaped to the democratic Czechoslovakia, while uncle Mauricio took off for Palestine. Much later I found out that there were some Jewish supporters of White Terror because of their fear of the Bolsheviks. 

As history repeats itself – after 25 years of the Horthy era, now in the Rakosi era – Jews flocked to the Communist Party, now called the Hungarian Workers Party

It was a natural selection: in between the two great wars the surviving Jews were exposed to anti-Semitic persecution and ended up murdered in Auschwitz. Now that Horthy’s Hungary was defeated, the surviving Hungarian Jews felt grateful to their liberators, the Soviet Army, and supported the new Communist system; the leaders were mostly Jewish. Not that Jewishness meant any religious affiliation to them, they were all atheist, but were identified by the people as Jews, Jews with “Blood label” in extreme. The Party elite was believed to be all Jew.

There was no need for extra repression, the tension in Hungary predicted a breakdown. It came from most unexpected sources:

Stalin’s death made it possible for Khrushchev to speak out about the horrors of the system, but this led to a historical Hungarian misunderstanding. The reactionary component ran ahead and pushed the progressive youth into a premature uprising which, in no time, became known as a national revolution; the Russians found this intolerable. They feared that if they let it continue, the Poles would soon follow, then the tense East Germans, thus bringing an end to the Soviet empire. So, the Soviets suppressed the revolution with tanks and blood and reinstituted the power of the Communist Party.

For support, the Russians found a former victim of Rakosi, the still ardent Communist [Janos] Kadar, who accepted the role of the leader of a new Hungary.   For months terror still reigned and young people were executed. Kadar gradually introduced less drastic measures and slowly life eased into an unusual but not publicly endorsed “social pact” which was based on mutual lies. Hungarians soon learned how to play the game: instead of rebelling and resisting, they pretended that the new order was better and, in turn, the government responded to this silent pseudo cooperation with more leniency. By the ‘60s Hungary was known as the most cheerful tent in the Communist camp; Hungary would have been the “West” for Germans, Russians and Poles who came to Budapest for vacation and to enjoy a more relaxed Western style life.

For Vera and me this created a dilemma: although we were not Party members (we did not have to be so anymore) we still enjoyed exceptional privileges as successful academicians and our connections extended beyond professional circles; by Hungarian standards we did well. At the same time, however, we were painfully aware of the whole falsehood of the social peace as it was based on mutual lies. Being a psychiatrist, I was connected to numerous people with solid first-hand information from high Party echelons. I was told that simmering anti-Semitism was growing, even within the Party.  We did not feel it directly; it was enough just to know about it. The greatest motivation to ignore the situation was, paradoxically, the fact that we still could not get permission to travel to the West with our children. And for us, freedom in those years meant a passport; it was beyond hope – unless I could find a proper connection. 

To get an academic position in the university; to get a good, state-supported, desired position – a good job – one had to know somebody higher up who would “protect you,” give the sort of a personal push beyond correct fair judgment. It was corruption with connection more than with money. You had to know a person in the office who would dispense what you needed – and of course expect mutual kindness, which I, as a doctor, received in different forms: wine, chocolate, arranged trips abroad, etc. It was morally acceptable, everybody did it, so you were not very humiliated to belong to the “gang.” You could be either on the receiving end or forced to be on the giving side.  Doctors did not get money; they got, euphemistically, “parasolventia” (tips or bribes). What a wonderful example of hypocrisy. People believed such “gratefulness money,” paid in advance, would motivate the doctor to provide better care. 

Corruption was pervasive; still I considered most people reasonably honest. Even sex was not taboo in the connection exchange. Here is a memorable illustration:

I was gaining influence at the Medical School when an elegant and pretty girl approached me. She was a top student in high school, but her mother comes from aristocratic family; she offered herself to me if I would arrange her admission – I disappointed her: I don’t do such things. She was admitted anyhow, without my intervention, but she refused to believe it and offered to pay her dues anyhow. Sorry, I believe if fidelity.

Moral categories like honesty, integrity and the concept of decency gained flexibility. “Reasonably honest” becomes a positive characterization, everybody had to play the same game.

Life is bearable

I gave lectures in England during this time and was shown around. I fell in love with London. This is where I wanted to live.  Upon my return home from London I faced the contrast:    compensation for the lost illusion was found in the “free” from the Party’s Hungarian TV and News: “…the Soviets are still strong and the peace is safe. Everything is fine. We are secure.” In contrast: Western news reports were full of insecurities and anxiety-producing bad news.

Nyiro unexpectedly died in 1966. While attending a forensic committee meeting and having a sanguine argument, he suddenly had a heart attack. With his death, the steady state of my life suddenly also ended.

Friends from Academy of Sciences wanted me to go for the chair.  I was surprised that even the powerful body of the Party directly wanted me as the coming chairman; no other possible candidate had similar credentials. From the Ministry of Health came embarrassing encouragement:

the Minister’s adviser invited Vera and me to a meeting. During the dinner he guaranteed me the chair, but he wanted me to promise that his pretty young wife, presently assistant professor, would have a safe future in the Psychiatry Clinic. I could not offer any guarantee.

Even so, the road to the chair, the Herr professor title and accompanying power got green lights. It was not only the highest honor, but a position from which I could build and improve research and patient care. It was a much more important position in central Europe than in Western universities.

During the ‘60s my career showed success while I remained ambiguous. So, we made extra effort for our boy’s sake; to keep our home life as balanced as we could.

Our sons, being in the middle of adolescence, were in a different situation and enjoyed a special role, partly because they had the opportunity to travel abroad.  At home, we didn’t criticize the system; we didn’t make the boys antagonistic toward the regime.  After all, we had to live there.  But being what adolescents are, they, on their own, figured out everything which was phony and ridiculous.

Before 1956 the mood of the country changed from passive-aggressive to openly rebellious.  But after the bloody defeat of the revolution, the people did not give up -- 1956 proved the power of the masses and contributed to the downfall of a dictatorial system.

Sadly though, the claim that it was a “clean” revolution is not quite true.  The chauvinistic elements and anti-Semitism gave a stench to the initially puritan uprising.  The Hungarian people genuinely hated the Russians.  Partly for the right reason, for the occupation, and partly for the wrong reason, the Russians defeated Horthy, the last ally of the Hitler. Whatever the cause of the Revolution was, it had an impact far beyond the Hungarian border.  It proved that the Soviets were not unbeatable.  The aftermath of the revolution was brief, but with brutal retaliation.  Immature young people who were fighting on the streets against the Russians mostly young students – were arrested; a large number were executed.  Kadar, who earlier himself was tortured by Rakosi and jailed and tried falsely, now became the Prime Minister and impressed the world with his political skills.  After a while, Hungary, though still under Russian occupation, became a more tolerant system and people had more in life to enjoy.  This was the period when my sons reached adolescence and developed hyper-critical attitudes toward the system and developed a strong liking for anything Western.  In their mind, this ambivalence was a perfectly normal; this “double bookkeeping” was true.

            During the decade of the relative liberalization, it looked for us as if nothing happened. Vera and I got our MD degrees, became specialists in our fields and were permitted to visit an old uncle in a socialist country, Czechoslovakia. Once I was even granted permission to go to London for a presentation. There I took in a taste of life in London, just a bite of it because no funds were available for anything else. Our sons successfully avoided any major adolescence crisis.

Since 1953 we had not given up hope that we would leave Hungary for the West.  Vera and I repeatedly applied for passports to emigrate, but were always rejected; the rejections were  sweetened with the phrase: “We are saving you for the country, you are too good to let you leave.”  But since our brief travels, we continued “double bookkeeping.”  We tried to do our best while living in Hungary, but at the same time we worked toward a hopeful future: a Western career.  My work at the university intensified and a large number of scientific papers were published abroad.  While in Hungary, I gained respect as a psychiatrist and at the same time developed a good name abroad.

We had a good family, not much to gossip about; we were left alone and bothered nobody.

We had a dog, a pointer. We had gone to visit my grandfather’s grave in Czechoslovakia. There we noticed a small puppy, as charming as could be and, without any further ado, we bought her. But we did not know how to smuggle her to Hungary. No border crossing was available, but I treated the son of the local “consul” who encouraged us not to wait for the bureaucratic authorities, just do it. So, we did and baby Gillian cooperated, did not make a sound until we were back to Hungary. Gillian was named after the woman of son’s abortive love affair.

When ready to defect, we had to find a good place for her. There was a veterinarian who lived far away, beyond bridges and rivers, where we took her and said a sad farewell. Next day we woke up to a scratching noise, opened the door and our dog fell in, tired to death, but home.  With determination not to break down, we again placed our dog in a safe place. 

Our Defection

Preparing to defect was not a daily routine. Actually, our we argued among ourselves about it for a long time.  We prepared such a move in secret; we pretended, we fabricated stories – we never did anything officially despicable or dangerous.   “What if West would reject us,” we asked ourselves. We did not want to play the role of political escapees, but decided we had to take our chances.  Paradoxically, defecting for us came in the wrong political climate, which actually was positive.  Life had become better: we were respected doctors, comfortable and we loved what we were doing. Vera’s brother, high in the Party’s science division, represented optimism and loyalty to the system: “What is your problem here?”, he asked while opposing the idea to leave the country. Vera and I foresaw, or at least believed, that the Kadar period was not permanent. We had gotten a taste of how to live in a democracy; how to stay in line without being directed to do so; how to enjoy the benefits; how to play fair – the tiny details of civilized life without succumbing to the pleasures of belonging to the socialist elite.

It was in 1968 when we again applied for a tourist visa, this time for a two-week vacation to Italy.  As usual, one of my son’s passport application was rejected, making it impossible to leave as a family.  I complained about this unfairness to an influential Party man whom I had helped in the past as a doctor. (Later I learned he was one of the “untouchables” in the nomenclature.) Because of his connections, we finally had tourist passports for the whole family.    We made every effort to conceal our real plan for defection and so even our closest family was unaware what we had decided.  Even our parents and our sons were kept in the dark so as to avoid any accidental leak.  Mind you, in Hungary social transactions operated mainly on personal connections.  One day in June I received   a telephone call from the Ministry of Internal Affairs.  The call came from a former classmate who actually monitored political life at the universities.  Briefly, he advised me not to wait any longer for my trip, but to leave Hungary within 24 hours.

And that’s what we did, the four of us sitting in our Volkswagen with very few belongings – not even our diplomas, professional documents – in an attempt to avoid the chance that border police might recognize our true intentions.  Two days later we realized why were we directed by a magic helping hand: all the borders were closed due to the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.  By then we were already in Vienna.  It was hard to believe that after so many years of dreaming we had done it.

A first experience after arriving in Vienna was unpleasant: we had sat at a street corner espresso for a coffee and left after I set money on the table without waiting for the waiter. The waiter ran after us, causing a scandal, would not listen and demanded money. This was the last thing that I needed as a penniless Hungarian. Somehow, I shook him off and went to the other side of the street.

Eventually, we found a cheap hotel for the night and I wrote letters to colleagues who might need me, who could give me a job.  Poste restante responses were positive; one among them came from Nate Kline from Rockland, NY.  I was a surprised because I didn’t offer my services to him. Kline was on the zenith of his career with major discoveries, Rauwolfia and iproniazid; fame with two Lasker awards; and research grants. He wanted me to run a new powerful computer system to analyze the mentally ill people in seven Atlantic states. Classic Nate-size ambition. I knew nothing about computers in 1969 and was not an epidemiologist – and most importantly, I looked for a new life with two adolescent sons who already took a very serious look against the Vietnam War. So off hand, I refused. Nate called me in Rome to increase his offer, which I again refused. This went on until Eugene Laska, his deputy, met me in Rome and made me accept the invitation.

Prior to coming to the US, the boys attended a private American school in Rome and we lived in a nice apartment. We enjoyed the apanage of my California uncle Mauricio: $1,000 in 1969 monthly. It was left for me to decide this sum and it was just enough for the boys’ tuition and rent, food. While Vera used the forced vacation time in Rome, visiting every church reachable, I was anxious to leave Europe and start new life.

In Rome we lived using the address of Mrs. Tabor (in Hungarian it means: “camp”). To the gossipy Hungarians back in Hungary, this gave the impression that we were locked up in some detention camp. For those who stayed behind it was a rewarding satisfaction that I failed. In a bitter place, everything tastes bitter except Schadenfreude.  (There is no English word for this.) 

We knew very little about our chosen country

Unfortunately, our defection was not a “magical happening” for our sons. It was a shock for them. The resentment they felt stayed with us throughout our stay in Rome and later in New York, despite our early American successes. Their bitterness melted only years later after their first return visit to their “homeland.”

For them, everything fell apart with the defection: they resented that we tricked them, that we did not trust them, that we fooled everybody, cheated the family. “Let’s go back” was an unspoken slogan. Vera had an added painful burden: changing intermittently with my American-supportive father, Vera’s mother, the “grandmother,” visited us frequently; her old age permitted her to leave Hungary as a tourist. Vera fought daily battles with her visiting mother’s nagging arguments: “If it is good for my son, what was wrong for you?” The son, Vera’s brother, was a talented researcher who also became an ardent follower of the Party. What grandmother really meant was her anger for being left behind in care of her son.

For me, my work was frustrating because I felt unproductive, but I made friends and found a collegial atmosphere. Vera, the strongest in the family, actually liked American life, which I completely overlooked. The practical aspects of the everyday life; the joy of the American kitchen; the luxury of the bathrooms, washing machines, the supermarkets and the open news media contributed to her adjustment to our new life.

For our sons, however, no matter what we did the sensations of American life were rejected, nothing was good enough; our wonderful family was now broken.  Grandmother continued to protest against our new life, but paradoxically, she preferred to stay with us than return to her son in Hungary.  Neither she nor her son had any understanding that without medical insurance you cannot be old in the US; grandmother was not eligible for Medicare.

We met friends Carrol Siegell and Morris Meisner, the mathematician, who went out of their way to help us settle down in New York. Our first stop, Gedney Street in Nyack, was spectacular, with a balcony overlooking the Hudson. Vera, a home builder, wanted a house. She figured that we could get a mortgage and we bought a nice real house. Not much later, not to waste good time, Vera ordered a pool built in the spacious backyard. Vera – I did not know before we set our foot on American soil and most people are surprised when they learned about our life – was a very bold woman.  She stayed away from melodrama or frivolity -  but silently remembered Auschwitz: life can be short, live it in full.

Our lovely home was where our friends and grandparents loved to visit. Soon the Atlantic Ocean was not too big. Family and friends just stopped by to spend time there. Not much after we settled down in our new home in NY and started to work for Nate Kline’s private office, I had the most surprising guest from Hungary: Professor Pal Juhasz, who came with his adjunct, Andras Veer. Juhasz was a solid neurologist and good researcher who knew my past. After Nyiro’s death I had made efforts to promote him as Nyiro’s rightly successor by openly declaring that I did not want to be the chair. Now he came to NY to take me back: “You get back everything that the government confiscated (everything that we owned), get back your career, no punishment.” Of course, we politely sent him back to Hungary

In the meantime, getting to know my research colleagues in the institute, I found out that to do absolutely nothing in research can be just as good and doing something useless. Bright colleagues for years didn’t publish a thing, still they felt just fine since nobody expected them to discover something. I was one who felt obliged to produce for the money and started to publish (on lithium in alcoholism, depression and osteoarthritis). Not that Nate or anybody else was curious about my results, still I felt better having “publications.” Still my salary was not enough for the boys’ tuition and mortgage, I told Nate, who then invited me to work in the evening in his Manhattan office.

It was in the poshest area of Manhattan; Nate would not go for cheaper. The waiting hall was an underground art museum of exotic sculptures that Nate brought home from his Far East travels. Walls were covered with an impressive collection of medals of merit. When you entered the inner sanctum you faced Nate sitting in a deep chair (he was a small man with extra heels and white hairdo), but reflected light made him a radiating magician. He knew how to handle even difficult cases. He was not weak-hearted. I witnessed him efficiently demobilize an irrational husband; I also witnessed him injecting 40 cc IV Valium to a patient in status epilepticus and it worked.  Nate was fearless and he lacked shyness.

I once had dinner with my family in a romantic, dark Pennsylvania restaurant when Nate called me from another table to join him. There he was, sitting with a young woman whom he introduced as Judy. I already knew of another young Judy from the office; they were very intelligent secretaries and looked up to Nate with adulation

One day I felt it was just enough: after a full day of work I asked him to let me have vacation. He was ready with a better idea: “I’ll give you an introductory letter and you travel to London, Paris, Munich and Vienna and report to them on our plans for our computer software system.”

So, I went for my dream trip with my wife as Kline’s representative and spoke in Maudsley; [Pierre] Pichot hosted me in Paris; and [Hans] Hippius in Munich showed me the case records hand written by [Emile] Kraepelin. We lived in decent hotels and ate in real restaurants. I expected to be reimbursed by the end of the tour. Nate did not pay me, but told me I could use the trip on my tax form. Somehow, I never could develop a negative opinion of Nate Kline. He was different, brilliant, always testing the borders.

One of the most interesting geniuses I met in Rockland was Manfred Clynes, who greeted me as an old schoolmate. In 1938 his family had escaped from Vienna to Budapest bringing their wealth with them. We went to the same school and became friends. I remembered that at his birthday party all the invited classmates received a camera, a Voitlander Bessa, as a gift. Manfred became an engineer, inventor, multimillionaire and world class pianist, with unusual ideas about music on the brain. Some computer analyses of different pieces of music were hyper-individual and Manfred monitored only the greatest musicians of the days. One of the first who volunteered for Manfred’s project was Pablo Casals. A letter from Einstein showed how overwhelmed he was after listening to Manfred play piano. Manfred was the only one I know of whose office was forcefully opened at Nate’s order and evacuated. The gossip was that Manfred’s invention might undermine the need for psychotropic medication and the pharmaceutical companies were not enthusiastic. Manfred wanted to be my patient after some personal problems. I declined a professional relationship due to our friendship.

Also in New York, I quietly joined George Simpson’s ECDEU [Early Clinical Drug Evaluation Unit] and participated in decent and important, though inherently tedious, drug evaluations and became a close friend of George. With his intervention I got an exemption from residency training based on a special program “for excellence.”  I worked in his ECDEU and also in the hospital providing acute patient care. 

Five years after our entry to the US, Vera and the boys got US Citizenship; not me. On his own, my son John complained to one the New York state representatives and soon I was invited for an interview. What the Immigration officer wanted to clear up was: “Who is the man who comes frequently to visit you from Hungary?” I told him he was my father. I then joined the rest of my proud US citizen family, but my unshaken trust about governmental information collection was diminished.

I was invited to Princeton to speak about a patient who exhibited a strange syndrome called Klüver–Bucy syndrome. Carrier Clinic was in the Princeton vicinity in a huge cornfield. It was a privately owned, nonprofit establishment with a prestigious past.

At the time when I entered the clinic there, the medical director was Arthur Sugerman, with a British accent. Arthur was the personification of intellectual elegance, with deeply rooted Jewishness.   With the help of Bob Garber, they accumulated good clinicians and eliminated competition by obligatory admission assignment. It was really a well-trained, very intelligent group that handled the most difficult affective patients and acute schizophrenics. The tune of the case conferences was set by the senior members.  They in turn educated some verbose younger psychiatrists about how to respect other peoples’ time, ridiculed pompous attitudes and used efficiently their collective knowledge. There was a sarcastic style which, instead of being destructive, became a sort of funny but respectful educational style. The place was a model of a good clinic. I continued to work there until 1983 when I first retired. When I learned that the Board, without explanation, fired the brilliant medical director George Wilson, I submitted my resignation.

Private practice

I was 57-years-old when I started private practice. Initially with a promising partner, but I soon discovered that we were ill-suited and split. Without lament I went on my own… there was a psychiatrist shortage.

I introduced myself to the local internist, family physicians and started from the bottom.  I made mistakes simply because I was never trained in the US. In my mind, once a patient signed up for my help, all the responsibilities were mine. This I kept in mind when a respected Harvard graduate psychotherapist asked me to take care of one her very difficult, depressed patients while she was on vacation. I took the referral very seriously and when the patient became acutely suicidal I used ECT.  After three treatments the patient came out from depression and continued to do well. When my colleague came back and saw her patient in excellent condition she made a big scene. She was furious: how did I dare, without waiting for her, to use “drastic treatment.” I never received a referral from her again, but I didn’t mind. I used Nyiro’s principal: what is good for the patient, is good for me.

Many referrals came from psychiatrists who still did not feel comfortable with organic treatments. Because of such referrals, I treated very interesting patients. One such case comes to mind. While an internist was happy to transfer his patient to me, I got a call from NIMH about his wife. With apologies, they asked if I minded if they tested my knowledge in psychopharmacology because a VIP patient insisted that I should get official clearance; the Specialty Board certification was not enough.  I took the cases with humor and now I had her and husband both as my patients.

I maintained two offices, one in Somerville the other in Princeton: very different social pictures yet very similar psychopathology. Illness is a great equalizer. One of the most unusual stories came from my Princeton office:

I was on call when a female patient asked to be admitted. She was in her late 40s; a well-dressed, pleasant-mannered woman. Examination revealed she was covered with blue and green spots resulting from a beating.

Her story: She went for a vacation to Barbados (“the place of the most attractive former slaves”) where she was smitten by a young Barbadian bartender. On the first night she became his (“Charlie’s”) lover and soon they left for a travel tour. After a while Charlie got bored, or the money was running low – he left her. She could not forget him; a nonstop passionate desire took over her judgement. It reached the point where, to get rid of her, his pimp beat her severely.

I did a complete neurological and endocrine work up. There was nothing to explain her personality change.

Cognition and insight were normal; no previous psychiatric and family history; there were no abnormalities except the uncontrollable, obsessive sensual desires perceived as love.  I started with antidepressants and small doses of neuroleptics to dull the affectivity and sent her to therapy. After a half year she was able to distance herself from sexual feelings – until “I got the smell.”  Somewhere, she sniffed the same scent and Charlie was back again. This time she followed him to California. She went to a pub where Charlie’s friends usually drank and they offered their sympathy, also recommending a “Woodo.” She was reluctant, but they promised not to hurt him, just to punish him and, along with $100, she gave permission.

Next day, Charlie was shot and killed in Los Angeles by a completely unrelated jealous husband. When she heard about his death, she sent a tape to me crying, blaming herself, describing what happened. She was asking help. There was no return address and her family denied her existence.

A seemingly unimportant vignette which served as education

Simpson recommended helping out at the local Mental Health Center. The director was a respected therapist. The patient whom I was asked to evaluate complained about depression. I spent an hour to explore; he did not suffer from depression, but was angry after being fired. I comforted the man and sent him to a Social Worker. I used the Sine Morbo diagnosis. The director, who had to counter-sign my evaluation, got furious. He asked what the diagnosis meant, which he took as an insult --“Nobody in the US can be diagnosed as ‘No mental illness.’ No such diagnosis exists in this country” and requested me not to return. This was in 1970 during the hegemony of psychoanalysis.

New ideas

I had to relearn the concept of Human Rights. In my Hungarian training, when a manic patient acts dangerously and refuses treatment, the doctor has to treat him against his will.

Not in the US. Here we call on a judge who make such a decision during a mini trial. This happened frequently, most judges were reasonable.  However, one time when I reported why we must treat, the over-protective family hired a lawyer who presented his argument and the patient was discharged against my protest from the hospital.  The next day the police brought him back after he physically attacked the lawyer who argued for his discharge.

 In Europe, the people tolerate poorly anybody who becomes bizarre, disturbed, In the US, I found people far more tolerant..

Pseudonatural categories

In Hungary, I learned that the beauty of life is that on every level, down from cellular, up to human speech, there is communication. Pavlov calls the elementary unit of communication: conditioned reflex (CR). We continue an upward architecture of signal system and name it speech - a secondary signal system, but of course, it is merely a transit station until we discover techniques to open even more complex systems.

The primary CR deals mostly with physiological functions: salivation, lacrimation, blood pressure, etc., functions easily monitored. I used conditioned blink reflexes, fairly easy to set up and monitor. With this method (published in 1961), I targeted affective functions to see if I could build up secondary feelings -- secondary emotions? For me, a less poetic approach was to condition pain, or to decondition it.  The plan was to use a prompt-acting painkiller, like Novocain, and connect its effects to sound. The idea was that the sound of a particular tone should elicit analgesic effect, but the research was not conducted. It was at this point in time that  I left Hungary.

With the use of “homonyms”, i.e., the corresponding words of auditory stimuli I was able to break into the arena of cognitive research to study abstraction.

Finally, my last report

It was over a year ago. I was in grief for my wife Vera of 67 years. Being a psychiatrist, I found myself registering my “psychic experiences”.

I woke up in the middle of the night and saw my late wife sitting on the top of a tall furniture. I felt that I had to help her to get down but knowing that I cannot do that alone I went down to the doorman of our building to ask for his help. He was puzzled   and called the police. By then I realized that something was different. and went back to my suite. Soon the police came.   I apologized for the inconvenience. The police was not interested about details; there was no crime, no victim, so they told me “go back to sleep” and left.

When I woke up, everything was back to normal. I clearly remembered the entire episode and was puzzled how it happened that I did not recognize its unreality. . 

            When I questioned the doorman about what happened, he told me comfortingly that “you had a bad dream.”

            I am aware that many similar episodes have seen reported by psychiatrists in the German psychiatric literature but insofar as I know this is the first self-reported case.


*Erwin Varga released these notes prior to his passing. They have been extracted and edited by Olaf Fjetland for context and comprehension.


May 9, 2019