In conversation with …
CHEF is pleased to announce a new addition to its website: In conversation with…
This is a series of first-person encounters with Canadians and their links to Hungarian culture, things, and ideas. It presents an eclectic mix of conversations with people of all ages and from all walks of life. Each conversation will be presented as a readable article that will also contain audio clips. We launch the series with a 2-part conversation entitled:
In conversation with … Oliver Botar - a child of ‘56.
November 5th 2015
Late in 2014, we posted an article about an exhibition of the work of László Moholy-Nagy that was curated by Dr. Oliver Botar, a professor of Art History at the University of Manitoba. The exhibition, Sensing the Future: László Moholy-Nagy, the Media and the Arts was about to move from Winnipeg’s Plug In Institute of Contemporary Art to Berlin’s Bauhaus Archiv Museum für Gestaltung. In July 2015, Kevin Burns, a contributor to the CHEF website, tracked down the Winnipeg based art historian Oliver Botar for a follow-up conversation about his work in art history and how became interested in the work of Hungarian artists of the 20th century.
He recorded this conversation under a clear blue summer sky on the deck of a cottage in Grand Beach, about an hour’s drive to the north-east of Winnipeg. He wanted to learn more about Oliver Botar’s life as the child of two 56ers and also how growing up in an immigrant family helped to shape the career he would eventually follow.
In Part One, we hear about the journey Oliver Botar’s parents began in 1956 and which took them from the violence of Budapest, to the safety of Vienna, to a London still recovering from the Second World War. From there, a year later, they settled in the mining community of Geraldton, on the shores of the Kenogamisis Lake in Northern Ontario. And that was just the beginning for this child of two courageous 56ers.
Part One: Life as a child of ‘56
Like many thousands of their compatriots, Oliver (senior) and Gabrielle Botar fled Budapest where their livelihood and safety were at risk. Oliver (senior), an economist, held a senior position with Hungarian State Railway. Gabrielle, a linguist, worked in the Ministry of Foreign Trade but they soon found themselves on the wrong side history. In the turmoil of the Uprising, and in fear of deportation, they found their way to Vienna and eventually London. That was where the direction of their lives changed forever.
As Oliver Botar (junior) takes up the story, it was through connections with the Canadian High Commissioner in London, that his parents were encouraged to seek refuge in Canada. This decision took them to Toronto, but only briefly, and then to Northern Ontario and the mining communities of Longlac and Geraldton, north of Lake Superior.
Oliver Botar was born in St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto in the fall of 1957, and picks up the story of their life after Hungary: “For them there was no turning back. Until 1963 there was no amnesty and people in Hungary were being put into prison, they were being executed. My father was worried that they would be deported to Siberia, which happened to a lot of people after the Second World War.”
Like most of the 56ers, their new life in Canada is one of adapting to the challenges of a language and culture. It’s also about finding work. His city-born parents found themselves in small mining community. They were not prepared for the extremes of the Canadian climate. His parents arrived in Canada with one child each from previous marriages and the child they had together. In the fall of 1957, Oliver was born in St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto. A new child and a new beginning.
“My dad was thrilled. For him it was like a Karl May novel come alive. My mom had spent time in a refugee camp and when she arrived [in Geraldton] she was in a state of shock. But she was a bit of a tomboy and she soon fell in love with the environment. They were out in, basically, the wilderness. But when my dad eventually got a job with the government of Alberta, it was my mother who resisted the move at first.”
Moving from northern Ontario to Edmonton changed everything.
“Let me set the scene of those early years: Edmonton, a booming town, lots of people are moving in, including a good number of Hungarians from different waves of immigration. Those who came between the two world wars were called the ‘old Hungarians’, then came the DPs, and then the 56ers. They were the largest group and they gave the émigré community a jolt, a shot in the arm, I should say. So, this Edmonton Hungarian community was very interesting. There was a Catholic church and a protestant church and both of them had an active community life. We went to the Catholic church, where there was a very dynamic Salesian priest, Fr. Hammer. He was a musician and he put on plays and musicals. Every Saturday he taught Hungarian School. I went to Hungarian school every Saturday, instead of watching cartoons. From grades 1 to 8. I learned World history, Biblical history, and Hungarian history. It was stern and political and intellectual.”
How did Oliver Botar end up beside Zsa-Zsa Gabor on the stage of Edmonton’s Jubilee Auditorium, in 1967? Let him tell you that story.
Although Hungarian was the language in the Botar household and Oliver was raised listening to his parent’s talk about their experiences in Hungary, it took a while before he decided it was time to learn more about those Hungarian roots. In 1973, he visited Hungary for the first time. It was a life-changing decision.
“This was mind-blowing to me because of this impression of this Hungarian thing being ‘a church basement smelling of onions’ as my father put it. He didn’t like to go to that church basement where all these events were held. Then suddenly, we arrive in this spectacular city where everyone is speaking this language that my brothers and I used to speak as a code in public situations. We visited enormous but run-down apartments, full of everything from Venetian glass to art nouveau furniture. It was a completely different world from the suburban Edmonton I had grown up in. That sparked my interest. We travelled around to visit relatives. I also realized that here was a whole nation of people who shared what I thought were only my family’s eccentricities. What I thought was bizarre in my family was normal there. That was what was interesting to me. Here was a country where I felt I fit in in certain ways, although I didn’t in lots of other ways. Three years later I returned for a second visit.”
Several more visits followed, some for family reasons and others linked to Oliver’s academic studies. Pursuing a degree with a major in Urban Geography and minor in English and Philosophy, he began choosing topics with a focus on Hungary.
“I wanted to learn more about this country. You grow up within an émigré family with a certain image of the country. We had lots of family photographs and they gave a particular image of middle- to upper-class gentry, with beautiful old houses – this was all before the war. Fancy weddings. But whatever we had in those family albums, this was a very different world that I saw there. Not only because this was Communist Hungary, but here were books and publications on this very different world. So, I wrote my first essay in an art history course on Dada Elements in the Avant-garde and another on the transformation of Buda during the Ottoman occupation in the 16th and 17th centuries. Very different topics, but strategically chosen to give me the opportunity to read about the past.”
Slowly, between return visits to Hungary, this under-graduate urban planner transforms himself into a post-graduate art historian. In Canada, he is encouraged by key figures in Hungarian Studies such as George Bisztray, who at that time taught Comparative Literature at the University of Alberta. Through an ever widening circle of academic colleagues he meets other Hungarian-Canadians, including the writer Judy Stoffman and the historian Nandor Dreisziger. And the charismatic poet writer and broadcaster, Robert Zend.
Oliver describes the circle of influence that Judy Stoffman introduced him to,
including Robert Zend:
The tuning point is the university year that Oliver Botar spent, courtesy of the Canada Hungary Exchange Scholarship, billeted with a family in Hungary. In addition to studying Urban Planning, he immersed himself in Hungarian art history, and at the same time, was able to attend to some unfinished family business. His grandfather had owned a building, near Lake Balaton, housing a wine-press. Although the property fell out of the family’s hands, Oliver was able to retrieve some items that had been stored in the attic.
Oliver explains what he found in the attic of a building once owned by the Botar family.
Bringing that rare collection of his grandfather’s books back to Canada set the course for what would happen next.
In Part 2: Connecting all the Strands, Oliver Botar explains what he discovered in 20th century art and the insights about identity and meaning those connections offer to a child of 56ers.