Mária Somogyi grew up in Sárbogárd, a rural town to the south of Budapest. She graduated from the local high school in 1954 and studied literature, history, and philosophy at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest (ELTE). She took a teaching position in the city of Székesfehérvár, but she moved to Budapest with her husband, biologist Pál Somogyi, in 1968. She started to work at the Library for Historical Studies (Történeti Könyvtár) at ELTE, and she did work towards a dissertation on the politics of education in the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. She never completed her doctorate, however, as she gave birth to their first child and then found a permanent job to help her husband to make a living. Her friend, historian László Márkus, let her know about an open position at the National Széchényi Library (OSZK). In 1973, he joined the exclusive staff of the Closed Stacks Department (Zárt Kiadványok Tára), led by literary historian György Markovits.
Somogyi joined the Party’s branch organization (alapszervezet) at the National Széchényi Library, and as a new member, she was persuaded by the fellow party members to take the position of party secretary. She agreed, even though she admitted in retrospect that she was not a committed communist. She had a leftist inclination, but she did not identify with the ruling Party, and she was aware of the crimes committed by the Party and the lies it told. Criticism of the Party was an everyday experience in the household in which she grew up. As Somogyi recalled, her family listened to the Rajk trial on the radio and discussed the case within the family, and it was clear to at the time that Rajk’s trial was a political show trial. Accordingly, the first book Somogyi read in the Closed Stacks was Béla Szász’s Without Any Compulsion, a prison memoir by an author who was sentenced in the same series of trials as Rajk.
Somogyi’s family was then directly involved in the 1956 revolution. Her father had been elected (against his will) to serve as president of the Revolutionary Council in Sárbogárd, and he was subsequently sentenced to prison, though the sentence was suspended. It was always obvious to her that the official discourse on 1956 was untrue, and the uprising should best be regarded as a revolution, not a counterrevolution. Somogyi developed a good relationship with Miklós Vásárhelyi, one of the most significant figures of the political opposition and a former prisoner himself (because of his involvement in the revolution). She had regular discussions about 1956 with Vásárhelyi which were also formative for her. But Somogyi also learned to see the drawbacks to the revolution. In Sárbogárd, there was a Russian village in the neighborhood where people who were stationed at the military headquarters lived, and she witnessed that it was not safe for innocent Russian citizens during the uprising.
All in all, her personal experiences prompted her gradually to develop a very critical approach to all political movements or parties, but in the 1970s, she still clung to the hope that she could do more by taking an active role within the Party. Accordingly, she participated in discussions of professional issues at Party branch meetings, which was against the rules. She resigned as a party secretary in spring 1988, when Zoltán Bíró and three other prominent intellectuals were expelled from the Party, and since Bíró was an employee of the National Széchényi Library, the higher Party officials wanted Somogyi to lead the proceedings as the party secretary at Bíró’s workplace. She refused, and she gave up her position.
Somogyi began to play a key role in the late 1970s in introducing the practice of collecting samizdat. This initiative was tolerated by the directorate of the Library and the political police. As Somogyi revealed, she was never approached by the secret police to report to them, and her name does not appear in the reports, as she discovered when the relevant archives were opened. She remembered, however, that Markovits regularly had to consult with officers of the political police. When Markovits retired in 1983, Somogyi became the head of the Closed Stacks Department, and she gradually rose in the institutional hierarchy, ending up as a vice-director of the National Széchényi Library. Since 1982, the collection of samizdat became semi-official, since she acquired the materials using monies from the Library budget, and this required administration. She managed to build up arguably the largest samizdat collection in Hungary, comparable to the one located in the Petőfi Literary Museum.Somogyi also made considerable efforts to bring Hungarian émigré collections to the home country. She spent a great deal of time abroad with stipends in the 1980s, and also because her husband took a position in Cambridge and she often visited England for family reasons. Her greatest catch were the papers of the Hungarian National Council in New York, but she brought home several personal collections as well, including the papers and library of émigré diplomat Mihály Hőgye, whose library ended up in the Ráday Library in Budapest. Somogyi also assisted in cataloging the papers of prominent émigré politician Ferenc Nagy at the Columbia University Archives. Other personal papers held in the National Széchényi Library include writings by literary critic Gyula Schöpflin, poet György Gömöri, and journalist Béla Szász. Somogyi is currently retired.
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Author(s) of this page
- Scheibner, Tamás