The following recollection is based on an April 23rd, 2007 interview with Agnes Laing, successful club owner and director of the Nepean Corona School of Gymnastics (www.coronagym.ca), coach, proud mother and grandmother. As founder and Executive Director, Agnes brings a wealth of experience both from a business point of view and her pedagogical approach. She has been a pioneer on the local sports education and gymnastics marketing scene. She was among the over 35,000 Hungarian refugees who arrived to Canada in the years following the 1956 Revolution.
Our discussion centered on the conditions and circumstances of Agnes’s departure from Hungary, the journey that led all the way to Canada, first impressions, differences and similarities, expectations and accomplishments in the new country, and touching also on the problematic question of identity.
Like so many Hungarians fleeing after the 1956 Revolution, Agnes Laing (nee Klauberg) escaped by foot across the border with Austria. It took four days to reach the border. For security reasons the family split: Agnes’s father and her sister left together and Agnes left with her mother. At six and a half she was well prepared for the trip: she knew that, if stopped by the Russians she had to pretend to be going to the country to recuperate after chickenpox.
At this very young age, Agnes was well prepared by her parents, Holocaust survivors who did not want to be caught unaware again, to be unprepared for the unknown dangers the family might encounter. Agnes had a $5 US bill sewn in her clothes, and although she was frightened during the trip, as she had been in the family home’s cellar in the IX district’s Baross Street during the shooting, she knew she had to be quiet when crossing the border.
The family prepared for the trip: they said a painful good bye to the grandparents staying behind, although Agnes’s paternal grandmother was the only family member on her father’s side to have survived the Holocaust. There weren’t any secrets that the parents kept from Agnes and her older sister: they knew that if the other members of the family were more than two hours late, they should report to the police in order to be reunited with the family as being late probably meant that the other family members had been caught.
The night-long crossing, despite the dangers, was successful-although in the early hours of the morning Agnes’s mother thought that all was in vain, they had been fooled despite having paid most of their savings: someone greeted them in Hungarian after they crossed the border – they didn’t make it after all! It turned out that the Austrians got quite well organized after the arrival of the first refugee waves- they had Hungarian speakers greet the refugees upon arrival. The refugees were bussed to a camp where, although overcrowded, children could go to school, and where motivated, goal-oriented and determined –or talpraesett one would say in Hungarian - adults such as Agnes’s father could (and did) learn English in the 7 months they spent there. He knew where he wanted to take his family: although refused a US visa upon admitting he was- as most Hungarians in those times- a member of the Communist Party-, he quickly learnt the lesson, did not give up and applied for a Canadian visa.
Canada- the new home
Canada initially seemed a vast space while traveling by train from Moncton to Montreal, an endless travel without much to look at –as Agnes remembers. In Montreal the family initially lived in a rooming house on St Catharine Street. Agnes’s mother was extremely happy to have a place just for themselves- compared to the 30 people with whom they shared one room in the refugee camp.
At the beginning Agnes’s parents and her older sister worked in a factory. Agnes’s father, due to the fact that he was already familiar with the language, managed to quickly get work in his profession as an insurance broker, the same position he had in the old country when working for the government.
As everyone on the family was working, Agnes, now 7, was sent to daycare where she faced the problem most new immigrants were confronted with upon arrival - the language barrier. At first she couldn’t even say her name in English so her parents put a tag on her with her name and address. Even then, Agnes was aware of fundamental differences between her and her family and the other children around her. She remembers little things from a child’s perspective-such as not having a two piece bathing suit, an obvious must for a Canadian young lady.
Initially school was not a pleasant experience - it started 6 weeks after the family’s arrival in Canada, not giving Agnes enough time to pick up the language. Her grade two teacher didn’t help at all, on the contrary. Agnes was fascinated by pencil sharpeners during her early Canadian school experiences as well as by the fact that kids could just go anytime if they asked for permission to sharpen their pencils. Agnes eagerly tried to memorize the English words necessary to finally experience this available Canadian school equipment, but the first time she gathered the courage to raise her hand, she choked and couldn’t finish the sentence.
Agnes’s other school-time memory is a pleasant one: Ethel Entuss, her grade three teacher was a kind and helpful educator who made up for all the suffering of grade two and even wrote a poem for Agnes.
By grade four, Agnes felt Canadian although not at home, where she had her grandparents living with the family by then; they had no car, no television like all Agnes’s schoolmates did; they didn’t go out for Sunday dinners like Canadian families; they had family dinners with Hungarian foods at home.
Nevertheless even the parents seemed to have integrated mostly due to the fact that they found their place and became active within the Montreal Hungarian –Jewish community: Agnes’s mother founded a sisterhood, Agnes’s father (Vilmos Klauberg) became a pillar of the Jewish community of whom Agnes was extremely proud.
The parents tried to recreate the socio-cultural life they had left behind in Budapest: they entertained friends, mostly Hungarian speaking friends as Agnes’s mother hadn’t learned English well - a reason why Agnes couldn’t just go out to meet and have lunch with her mother as her friends did, her mother not being comfortable with the new country’s habits, language and society. Nevertheless, probably unlike most Canadian children, by age seven, Agnes had frequently attended performances, operas, ballets, several events at Montreal’s Place des Arts.
Canada has always seemed like a peaceful country where all are free to be. Agnes’s father, who held a doctorate in political science, had always wanted a place for the family where they could be free as Jews and free to be and think whatever they wanted. Family dinners were always a good occasion to discuss such issues and anything else that concerned the family with only one exception: Agnes’s mother’s Holocaust experiences were a taboo topic. To this day Agnes regrets the fact that her mother had tried to erase that part of her life without trying to ease the burden of such trauma.
Despite the initial childhood experiences, Canada has always felt like home, a safe home for Agnes. Hungary is a place the family had to leave although Agnes confesses that, as the years pass, she feels more and more linked with the old country. And this connection is very apparent in what her parents had envisioned for her, the way they raised her. Success meant education, there was no question about studying and going on to university, that was the norm. It was always expected that she would make something of her life.
Unfortunately Agnes lost her parents at the young age of 18. Her mother passed away only 8 years after their arrival to Canada. Laszlo Barna Sr. became Agnes’s legal guardian until the age of 21.
Agnes’s children are Lianne, a well-known sports anchor-reporter at a local TV station also a former elite gymnast, provincial champion and NCAA scholarship recipient and a mother, and Russel, a successful associate lawyer with an established Ottawa law firm, a fomer gymnast and champion of the School. They also feel they have been denied grandparents, an extended family with the early loss of Agnes’s parents.
Changes in lifestyle in Canada
While their whole life has changed, Agnes has always felt that their family traditions have not. Education has remained an important means to achieve this, it was always understood that Agnes and her sister would study.
Agnes always knew she would be either a physiotherapist or Physical Education teacher. And indeed she started to coach at 17 after a background in dance and gymnastics. She graduated from McGill university, got married and moved to Ottawa. She became the head coach of the University of Ottawa’s gymnastics team. Agnes was an active intercollegiate coach during the pioneer years of gymnastics emerging as an amateur sport in Canada, trying to turn “clumsy elephant feet into graceful gymnasts”.
Agnes started the School with 40 gymnasts and over the years the number of her pupils has reached over the ten thousand mark. Currently the yearly registration at Corona reaches 2000. The Corona School of Gymnastics actually started at Brookfield High School at the end of November 1972. The next year the program expanded to Canterbury and Brookfield High Schools, with Agnes being the only coach. By the time the program moved to Sir John A MacDonald, Agnes had 10 coaches and had started competitive and recreational programs.
In 1979, after a year of negotiations as no one dared to lease a space of this size (10,000 square feet) to an unknown entity, the first such facility in the area with state of the art Olympic caliber apparatus including a 40' by 40' spring floor mat, three trampolines, two large foam filled pits all to ensure children’s safety, opened at the current location. Agnes with the help of her first husband, Jeffrey Laing, took pictures of other facilities, modified the gym, set up the administration.
Agnes has always had an innovative business sense and she introduced new marketing concepts for the sport of gymnastics at a time when the Canadian public was only used to hockey, football and skating. Another concept that she has had to learn was coaching her own child. She has introduced new programs such as gymnastics and fitness programs for preschoolers not available before but possible in such a child safety oriented huge facility. Of course this involved an extremely busy schedule - especially at the beginning but Agnes’ disciplined background and an understanding and cooperative husband helped.
Agnes wanted to change people’s view at the time that coaching is not really a profession. She had a vision of changing the sport and the way it is viewed and marketed. Her business goal was to make the sport a profitable business as well as to raise the reputation not only of her club but also of her profession.
She has cooperated extremely successfully with her partner and the Assistant Director of the school, Penny Fyfe, who has been Agnes‘s student from the beginning at Brookfield High. They have been working together for 35 rewarding years, sharing many achievements. For a detailed list of achievements and accomplishments of the school and its athletes please go to: http://www.coronagym.ca/aboutus.htm
The club has produced many regional, provincial and national champions, in either the all-around or individual apparatus. Several Corona athletes have been offered full or partial athletic scholarships at the NCAA level. Over the years the club has hosted a wide range of competitive events, ranging from interclub recreational to provincial and elite level. The club has twice been involved in the hosting of the Canadian National Gymnastics Championships, here in Ottawa.
The successes however, are not limited to the competition floor. The values instilled in all the member athletes, competitive and recreational alike, have led many former members to be leaders in the community. It is part of the club's philosophy that expanding the mind as well as the body of children creates the basis for success, both in sport and in life.
The club is involved and proudly supports the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario, Breast Cancer research and the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation. The club is committed to remaining a strong pillar in the Ottawa community and to upholding the club’s philosophy - The Pursuit of Excellence.
The question of identity is not an easy subject for Agnes, especially when one probes deeper into it. Subconsciously she considers herself a Hungarian Jewish Canadian. If she puts more thought into the issue she considers herself a Canadian Jew born in Hungary. When traveling abroad she is a proud Canadian and coming home to Canada is the best feeling. She admits however that her underlying identity is more Hungarian than she actually thinks it is. In her heart that Hungarian identity brings her back to her parents, her family, she is rooted in that European upbringing but her she identifies Canada as her home. She is not interested in Hungarian politics but the recent 1956 celebrations and demonstrations were upsetting to her as they brought back memories. At the same time this duality is apparent in her sport: she empathized with Henrietta Onodi, the well-known Hungarian gymnast and Olympic champion; at the same time she cheered for the Canadian team to make the Olympic qualifier.
It was when we met at the Canadian premiere of Freedom’s Fury when I first thought of the possibility of hearing Agnes’s own story.
The movie stirred things up for her and her family. She really enjoyed the movie despite the mixed memories it brought back and felt proud at the successes of the Hungarian Olympic water polo team. Her daughter Lianne seemed removed but only because of her conscious ability to separate pain from such introspective identity issues. Although an extremely sensitive and considerate person, in this issue she took the cool athletic point of view of removing herself from the debate and viewing it as an external observer. On the other hand, Russell, Agnes’s son, viewed the movie very introspectively while Ann, Lianne’s mother in law, took it the Canadian way of learning from anything you see or read. Jack, Agnes’s husband was swept up by these events and empathized deeply with Agnes and the circumstances and events she had gone through.
For more information on the Nepean Corona School of Gymnastics please visit www.coronagym.ca