“[There is] merchandise of very good quality, such as silks and furs. [I] see numerous women wearing fur or fur-like (plush) coats and men in heavy wool coats. [These are] expensive, but people seem to have money, mostly because all adults, including [the] mother, in the family work.” This is what the American photojournalist Harrison Forman noted down with neat and nicely readable letters in his scrapbook in November 1960. Recording such details with the aim of mere documentation, Forman was not very concerned with the fact that getting a salary hardly brought justice and equality to Hungarian women in their homelife, since, as he also noted down, “women work[ed] in two shifts—one at [the] factory, one at home.” He also simply noted that the women of Budapest wore trousers instead of skirts when the cold weather arrived.
Apart from being an excellent photojournalist and writer, Forman was also a member of the American Geographical Society. Between the late 1920s and the mid-1970s, he traveled all over the world from Afghanistan to Tibet and from Oceania to Africa. During all his trips, he took photos and diligent notes of his experiences in his reporter scrapbooks, of which there came to be sixty-two in all. Forman, often referred to as a “modern Marco Polo,” wrote articles based on his travel experiences and his photos for various US outlets, including the New York Times and Reader’s Digest.
In 1960, aged 56, Forman took a trip behind the Iron Curtain of Europe, and spent stretches in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Romania. His photographs of the countries of the Soviet Bloc are outstanding not only because they provide a view of the everyday life of these Eastern countries during the Cold War—or at least of what was allowed to be seen—from an American’s perspective. They are also outstanding because they were taken on color film, which was a rarity at the time andbasically all professionals and lay photographers alike were using black and white film.
“In Sztálinváros [today, Dunaújváros], [I] started taking picture[s] of [a] building construction. [An ] engineer approached, bristling. Gathered, he said—of course, in Hungarian—’forbidden to take photos’. Queried, still bristling, if I was a German. I said no, I was American. He was taken aback, jaw dropped, stepped back and said nothing when I raised camera [and] took [a] picture.” The fact that Forman noted down this story is in line with a recurring observation in his notes taken in Czechoslovakia, Poland, as well as in Hungary: “I seem to be the only American travelling by air in these parts. At least so far, the only American on every plane I’ve flown. Most flights [are] almost empty. Only 5 pass[engers] to Bucharest.”
Hungarian historical and political memory considers the year 1963 the end date of the retaliation for the 1956 Revolution. Up until that year, the Kádár regime took careful measures to get rid of “counter-revolutionary elements,” through the enactment of various, typically socialist, regulations having the force and effect of law, which enabled the government to sentence these people to jail, send them to internment camps, or even execute them. Though at the time Forman arrived in Hungary show trials were going on at people’s tribunals, the American photojournalist steered clear of analyzing Hungarian political reality in his travel diary, noting down only exceptional comments about it. When he did so, he only took note of some facts for the record. “[The] government [is] trying hard to achieve legitimacy and diplomatic acceptance in [the] outside world. [It] claims support from 90% of people, altho [sic] [there are] no more than perhaps ½ million of Communists in [a] 10 million population.” Forman also noted that the exchange rate of the Hungarian forint—or as he wrote it, the “Florint”—was cosmetically enhanced by the leaders of the economy. While the official exchange rate was 1 dollar to 23 forints, the Hungarian airline company MALÉV set the prices of international tickets in US dollars, and if one was to pay in forints for them, they would calculate with a double exchange rate compared to the official one, about 50 forints per dollar.
Forman did not dwell too long in his travel diaries on such details; he came to the curious world behind the Iron Curtain to record everyday life. Thus, what and how he saw things coincides mostly with what the Hungarian writer István Eörsi recorded, with a bitter and ironic undertone though, when he was released under an amnesty, after serving 6 years out of his 8-year sentence in prison from December 1956 to August 1960: “I went to the Palatinus pools in Margaret Island, watched the hula hooping youngsters’ belly moves, and came to the conclusion that, you see, it was worth sitting 3 and ¾ years in prison; all those people executed had not died in vain: hula hooping is allowed here now, unlike during the reign of Mátyás Rákosi!” Eörsi’s recollections were quoted by literary historian Bernadett Morsányi in a study about the 1960s she wrote as a PhD student. In this study, she concludes that the Kádár regime that we see in Forman’s photos as well, “was far from a political democracy; however, from the 1960s on, the techniques of power became more subtle: demonstrative political trials were discontinued, and it was no longer an aim to maintain a sense of fear among the people. People were less at the mercy of official ideologies, and though the Marxist-Leninist slogans remained in use, the political power aimed to depoliticize society and culture. A constant increase in quality of life, the possibility of material gain, and a more liberal political system than that of other socialist countries legitimated the existence of a dictatorship for many; a secure standard of living became the most important value, while democracy and fundamental freedoms ranked lower and lower in the hierarchy of values.”
In his notebook full of neatly written notes during his trip, Forman often compares the conditions he found in Hungary—a country that was still recovering from the hit it suffered after the tragically ended war of independence—to what he had seen in Czechoslovakia and Poland between early November and the 24th of November, the date of his arrival to Budapest. He found that the shops in Budapest had an excellent supply and better quality merchandise than in Poland and Czechoslovakia. He was thrilled by the many baroque buildings of the capital city even though he did notice that they had bullet-holes from World War II and the 1956 Revolution. He also found it noteworthy that compared to Prague or Warsaw, there were fewer churches in Budapest. As a similarity, he found that in all of the East-Central European cities, “at 8 PM, you can fire a volley from a battery of cannon down the wide main street and not hit a moving vehicle […].”
He found his hotel cheap but the restaurants he visited expensive. However, he also noted that “even [the] best of restaurants must offer at least one complete meal at a low budget price, within means of a peasant or low-paid worker who is thus enabled to enjoy [the] luxury of dining in a first-class restaurant.”
Forman tried to map out the typical forms of leisure activities, and thus his scrapbooks are full of such details as the number of books translated to Hungarian per year, of which only 10% was made up of American titles. Among contemporary American writers, the novelist Irwin Shaw had real best-sellers: 30 thousand copies were sold of his titles translated to Hungarian. Forman noted that in theaters and cinemas, many stories and plays featured Soviet soldiers as heroes. These plays were mostly romantic comedies for 3 or 4 actors seeking to convince the audience about the empathetic and compassionate character of the Soviets. Television broadcasting started in an experimental form in 1955, as Forman writes, and from 1957 on, it became regular, airing “4–4,5” hours daily, except Mondays and Fridays.
Forman did not comment or add his own judgment on the conditions he saw in the Hungarian countryside either, in spite of the fact that he had first-hand experience of the effects of the forced collectivization that had been taking place in two phases from the end of World War II to 1961. During his visit to the Petőfi Cooperative in Kápolnásnyék, he did note that by 1960, more than two thirds of the lands had been collectivized and that in the cooperatives, “peasants did the minimum of work required and concentrated on their own land and animals.” “[…] A man may raise [his] own farm products: one cow, two pigs, unlimited chickens and [a] maximum of one Hectare for raising feed for his own animals.” He collected data on the workload of peasants working in cooperatives: in 1960, they spent 56 hours a week, 250 days a year, working on the fields alone.
What Forman did not write about would be uncovered by future scholars digging deeper into the statistical data and case studies produced and quickly hidden from curious eyes in the socialist era. For instance, researchers at the former Humanities Research Center of the Hungarian Academy of Science shed light on such issues as the fact that the collectivization was indeed a forced and violent one: those who incited their fellow farmers to openly protest against it were sent to prison for many years. During the years following collectivization, many people turned away from agriculture and became factory workers in big cities instead. Industrial workers had better opportunities in all aspects of life than farm workers. They received higher family allowance as well as higher maternity allowance, they had a higher salary, and they were able to retire earlier.
Forman did not see anything at all of the violent transformation of daily life in the Soviet Bloc, of the effects of a crushed revolution and freedom fight in Hungary, of the show trials, or of the general terror that permeated these regimes. The fact that he did not notice any of these must have been one of the reasons why he summed up his impressions at the end of his journey to East-Central Europe with the following lines: “No political interpretation[s]. Mostly, on balance, I’d say, my impressions have been favorable; at least it’s not as bad as I—and many others in [the] Western World—expected it to be.”
Text: Balázs Zsuzsanna | Photo editor: Virágvölgyi István | English translation: Nóra Vörös
The Weekly Fortepan blog is a collaboration between Fortepan and the Capa Center. The original Hungarian article can be found at: https://hetifortepan.capacenter.hu/harrison-forman
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