Samizdat Collection at the Hungarian National Széchényi Library
The Closed Stacks Department of the National Széchényi Library (OSZK) was established in 1946. Everything that was not permitted by the censors and could not be part of the public collection of the library was put here. The librarians argued that the task of the national library was to collect every type of publication regardless of its content. The books and journals which were published by Hungarians who fled the country after the Revolution of 1956 added to the number of items. The department became a meeting point for members of the emerging opposition in the 1980s, which created an opportunity to get actual samizdat writings.
Budapest I. kerület, Hungary 1013
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Name of collection
Samizdat Collection at the Hungarian National Széchényi Library
Provenance and cultural activities
The genealogy of the Samizdat Collection cannot be told without a summary of the history of the Closed Stacks Department, as the Samizdat Collection was part of a larger collection which this department came to supervise. In the interwar period, one such closed collection existed. The National Széchényi Library (OSZK) used it for books which were deemed to have erotic content (including the erotic works of Guillaume Apollinaire and the sort) or works which were politically unacceptable to the Horthy regime (for example, writings or propaganda materials by Hungarian communists or fascists, or freemason literature). Naturally, the end of World War II created an entirely different political context. Shortly after the siege of Budapest, the Temporary National Government, which was still located in Debrecen (in the eastern part of the country), ordered the destruction of all fascist, anti-Soviet, and “antidemocratic” literature in libraries, printing presses, publishing houses, and private collections. In April 1945, a committee was set up by the government’s Press Department (Miniszterelnökségi Sajtóosztály) in order to compile a list of fascist publications. The list was published in four brochures, the first of which came out in August 1945 and the last of which came out in November 1946. The lists included titles of works which were hardly fascist. In the summer of 1945, campaigns were launched to collect and destroy the listed items, and even some works the titles of which were not included on the list, but Soviet representatives of the Allied Control Commission SZEB decided to add them, nonetheless. In the face of such measures, József Fitz, the director-in-chief of the National Széchényi Library, and József Györke, his successor as of June 1945, both protested. They tried to remind the authorities that the task of the National Széchényi Library was to preserve all kinds of literature without respect to the contents of the given publication. The authorities, however, were divided on the issue. While János Csorba, the mayor of Budapest, did not allow the National Széchényi Library to be exempted from the law and demanded the destruction of the relevant materials in its collection, the Library had a diverse array of allies, including the Soviet Red Army, the Hungarian political police led by Gábor Péter, and the Ministry of Religion and Culture headed by Dezső Keresztury. These allies appreciated the Library’s claims, and they instructed the director-in-chief to keep a copy of all materials, even though these materials had to be kept strictly inaccessible to the public. Györke’s appeals to keep the publications at their original sites and only restrict access to them, however, were not approved. The Library had to take the objects from their places in the collection and store them in a separate closed stack.
The motivation behind the political police’s support for the Library’s efforts to keep a copy of these publications seems to be clear. They wanted to have access to materials that might assist them in their efforts to track the careers of people who had potentially compromised themselves during the Horthy era. The core of the collection which later became the Closed Stacks Collection was thus established in April 1946, and the materials could be consulted only by police officers with the written permission of the political police. This is how a widely feared organization which effectively supported oppression contributed to the preservation of part of the Hungarian cultural heritage. In 1952, the collection was transferred to a building of the State Protection Authority (as the secret police was called beginning in 1950), but after Stalin’s death, it was transported back to the National Széchényi Library with a large set of new materials collected by the political police itself. The secret police did not give up its oversight over the collection at that time: they sent Mrs. Zsigmond Friedmann to control access.
The first changes to the collection made several publications available in 1955. The collection was partly damaged during the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, and it became rather inordinate. Changes were then made to the collection again in mid-1957, by which time it already had a new supervisor, Györgyi Markovits, who was a committed communist and the wife of the party secretary of the National Széchényi Library, though she was not a political police officer, at least not as far as we know. She had to deal with a new situation. One consequence of the revolution was the significant growth of exile communities which sought to play active political roles and established their own publications with support from institutions and governments in the West. This was not an entirely new phenomenon, as these kinds of fora existed before 1957, but on a different scale. Under the Hungarian Stalinist regime of the Rákosi era, it was rather difficult, however, to collect relevant foreign publications: this was not considered one of the Library’s duties, and any acquisition had to be approved through a complicated process. In practice, interlibrary change was the only way to enrich this part of the collection. Beginning in 1957, however, even the Party could no longer ignore the existence of an alternative Hungarian publishing sphere. The new government, which was backed by the Soviets, established the Information Office (Tájékoztatási Hivatal) in November 1956 with a Press Department (Sajtóközigazgatási Osztály). It was led by the wife of party-secretary János Kádár, Mária Tamáska, whose task was to supervise and classify émigré periodicals. The National Széchényi Library was named as one of the three libraries in Hungary which had the right to collect émigré materials. These materials had to be kept in the Closed Stacks, but according to a 1959 ministerial order, the catalog card had to be placed in the open catalog with a mark indicating its special status, i.e. that it was to be used only for research purposes. Access to the collection was conditional on the written permission of the director-in-chief of the National Széchényi Library, and the Library had to report the users to the Ministry of Culture regularly. A few hundred people visited the Closed Stacks each year, but according to Mária Somogyi, who began to work in this part of the library in 1973, many came only to read émigré periodicals or for an informal chat. One could contend that the Closed Stacks became a public space with restricted access, where people could exchange non-censored information on foreign and émigré affairs.
The classification of publications was the responsibility of the head of the Department of Acquisitions, who sometimes involved the head of the Closed Stacks in the decision-making process. These long processes were sometimes suspended indefinitely, because nobody wanted to take the political responsibility for a decision. Everyone wanted to play it on the safe side. For instance, the “erotic collection” mentioned above was not reclassified for decades: in the 1980s, when pornographic magazines were increasingly everyday, these materials, the eroticism of which was soft by contemporary standards, were still kept in the Closed Stacks. However, this may have contributed indirectly to the special aura of the collection, for one could see the writer Péter Esterházy, who rejected the Realist aesthetics favored by the regime, working on his novel Kis magyar pornográfia (A Little Hungarian Pornography, 1984). The Closed Stacks became a meeting point for members of the emerging opposition by the 1980s. Miklós Vásárhelyi and Ferenc Donáth (who studied the roles of the Workers’ Councils in the 1956 Revolution) regularly spent time in the collection, but according to samizdat publisher János Kenedi, he was also a frequent visitor. Vásárhelyi was a long-time friend of Mária Somogyi, who took over the department in 1983, after Markovits retired. She befriended Kenedi as well, who remembered Markovits as a close acquaintance. Given that employees of the Ministry of Interior were also visiting the Closed Stacks, it was a particularly interesting place where people of radically different political positions and institutional settings met.
While regular revisions in the 1980s ensured that some materials made their way back to the regular collections, at the same time, the Closed Stacks Department had to take in books that could hardly have constituted a significant threat to the political system. For instance, the heads of the two departments clashed over a Hebrew edition of a work by writer György Konrád, a main representative of the opposition. Somogyi, who led the Closed Stacks at the time, claimed that given the low number of Hebrew speakers in the country it was not necessary to restrict access to the book, but the head of acquisitions was not prepared to risk the political consequences of such a decision. A similar case was that of nineteenth-century novelist Mór Jókai, whose utopian novel A jövő század regénye (The Novel of the Next Century, 1872–74) had to be relegated to the Closed Stacks just because the new edition was published in the exile.
As Mária Somogyi claimed in a study reviewing the history of the Closed Stacks, the 1975 Helsinki Accord did not have a profound effect on access to foreign Hungarian-language publications or on the collection. The terminology of the decrees dealing with its status were somewhat modernized, and a ministerial decree in 1981 ordered regular revisions of the collection. In 1982, the Library issued a detailed regulation on how to handle closed materials. This regulation, however, did not address the case of samizdat materials, which the Closed Stacks Department started to collect in 1977.
In principle, collecting samizdat was not supposed to be one of the tasks of the Closed Stacks. Rather, it was to fall within the purview of the Department of Acquisitions. However, this did not happen. In contrast, with the active support of some colleagues at other departments (such as Csaba Nagy from the Department of Bibliography), Markovits and Somogyi took advantage of the fact that visitors to the Closed Stacks were members of the democratic opposition. As Somogyi recalled, when the Bibó Emlékkönyv (Book in Memory of István Bibó, 1980) came out in samizdat, he asked the aforementioned Donáth to bring one copy so that she could make a photocopy. Donáth was outraged: he considered the Closed Stacks as a space created by dictatorship, and he did not like the idea of collaborating in relegating his idol, the political thinker István Bibó, to such a collection. This would have made him a censor, he probably thought. Somogyi was shocked by Donáth’s reaction: she saw the role of the Department very differently. She thought that this would be the only way to save these kinds of publications for posterity: this is the mission of the National Széchényi Library at all times, and she identified with this mission. Miklós Vásárhelyi had to intervene to mitigate tensions, and finally Donáth gave in: he then became an unofficial collector for the collection. Still, until 1982, it was János Kenedi who was the primary mediator between the opposition and the Closed Stacks. As of 1982, when the National Széchényi Library first purchased a samizdat using funds its own budget, György Gadó, who was the main distributor for public libraries in Budapest, brought samizdat to sell. Some National Széchényi Library employees personally visited the “Rajk boutique,” i.e. the illegal samizdat shop in the flat of Júlia Rajk and her son, but these visits were reported by the political police to the Department of Personnel Affairs (Személyzeti Osztály) at the Library, and the National Széchényi Library was warned to cease these kinds of activities.
The directorate of the Library and the Ministry of Interior knew of the clandestine practice of collecting samizdat. Once samizdat materials had begun to become part of the acquisitions, they had to be included in the diary of acquisitions, and monies from the budget had to be assigned to these purchases in the accounting. These acquisitions also appeared in the department’s annusl report. However, the materials did not make it into the catalog, even though the Department of Cataloging prepared the catalog cards and sent them to the Department of Closed Stacks. Employees in the Department of Closed Stacks included all the information on the history of a given item on the topographical catalog cards associated with each acquisition, so these cards would be very significant sources for further research, but they were lost or perhaps destroyed in the 1990s.
They were collecting other materials, apart from samizdat, semi-officially, including any kinds of materials which seemed potentially interesting. For instance, an essay by poet Sándor Csoóri was to be published in the journal Forrás in February 1980. The censors, however, ordered the essay to be cut out from the already printed issue. Having heard this, Somogyi arranged a copy of the cut-out and archived it. In October of the same year, the Attila József Circle of Young Writers (FIJAK) held a meeting, where political issues were also discussed (including the censorship measures taken against the essay by Csoóri), and there was a heated debate on the 1956 Revolution and other sensitive issues. The Closed Stacks manages to secure a copy of the minutes of the meeting. Generally, they aimed to collect everything that did not make it past the censors and did not make its way into the public collection of the Library. At the time of the regime change, they collected flyers and all related documents, including samizdat videos. For example, Márta Elbert submitted a copy of the samizdat video journal Black Box to the Stacks. Somogyi and her colleagues had experience in working with videos, because the interviews by Gábor Hanák were originally part of the Closed Stacks, and they only later came to form the base of an independent unit, the Collection of Historical Interviews.In August 1988, director-in-chief Gyula Juhász suggested that the Ministry of Culture open the collection for research without restrictions and turn it into a Collection on Contemporary History. The Ministry granted permission to do this, but the full dissolution of the collection took place only in November 1989. In the 1990s, Somogyi kept the Samizdat Collection together, and she submitted it as a whole to the Manuscript Collection in its entirety when she retired.
Description of content
- The collection contains over 200 titles (books, periodicals). It does not cover the entirety of the Hungarian samizdat publications, but it is probably the largest collection in the country at the moment. According to statistics from 1988, the collection contained 185 samizdat book titles and 19 periodical titles.
- publications (books, newspapers, articles, press clippings): 100-499
Geographical scope of recent operation
Date of founding
Place of founding
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Important events in the history of the collection
- completely open to the public
Author(s) of this page
- Scheibner, Tamás
Bánfi, Szilvia. "Könyvtári dokumentumok az ÁVH "fogságában"." In A könyvtárak és a hatalom: tanulmányok és dokumentumok, edited by István Monok, 22-88. Budapest: OSZK - Gondolat, 2003.
Somogyi, Mária. A könyvtárak és a hatalom: tanulmányok és dokumentumok. edited by István Monok, 89-162nd ed. Budapest: OSZK - Gondolat, 2003.
Somogyi, Mária, interview by Scheibner, Tamás, June 07, 2017. COURAGE Registry Oral History Collection