Ottília Solt (1944–1997) was a Hungarian sociologist, journalist, educator, a member of the democratic opposition, and an MP of the first freely elected Hungarian Parliament in the term of 1990–1994.
She was born in Budapest into an intellectual family: her father was a doctor and her mother a teacher. In 1967 she graduated with a degree in Hungarian philology and Philosophy and started to work at the Institute of Economic Studies. She took part in research conducted by István Kemény on the living conditions of the poor and helped organize the social science and economics lectures that Kemény gave, initially at the university and then in his own home. In 1972 she left the Institute of Economic Studies and took up a position at the Institute of Education, where she continued her sociological research. Kemény participated in this research illegally and under a false name, because he had been dismissed and was banned from publishing the results of his own work. In the summer of 1977, Ottília set out for Paris, where Kemény was then living in exile, in order to hand him several articles and publications forbidden in Hungary. At the border the material was confiscated and she was arrested. Her trial ended with a warning from the police, the loss of her job, the withdrawal of her passport, rigorous surveillance, and the risk of a penal trial if she committed the same offence again.
Despite the dangers, Ottília was not deterred: she took part in numerous initiatives organized by opposition circles and in acts of solidarity with the signatories of Charter ’77 in Czechoslovakia. She worked in a primary school and then as a librarian. In 1979, along with other members of the Kemény circle, she set up the “Fund for Aiding the Poor.” In 1981 she lost her job definitively and suffered constant threats of house searches, arrests, and fines from the police, but she refused to be intimidated: she joined the editorial staff of the underground magazine Beszélő (Speaker), where she published the most important programmatic documents of the democratic opposition, especially in the field of social and political analysis. She was signatory to all the protests against human rights violations and joined the main opposition initiatives organized to mark the anniversary of the 1956 revolution and Hungary’s National Day of the 15th of March.
Despite constant surveillance by the police, tapping of her telephone, and repeated searches of her home, in 1988 she played a decisive role in setting up the “Network of Free Initiatives.” She also helped draw up the programmatic declaration entitled “There Is a Way Out,” published in the same year in Beszélő, in order to turn the network into a political party with the name “Association of Free Democrats” (SzDSz). She was a member of the party’s National Council right from its inception. On 15 March 1988, she was stopped by the police and interrogated at length. In 1989 she took up a research post at the Budapest University’s Institute of Sociology and helped the samizdat Beszélő emerge as a legal weekly. She remained a member of its editorial staff until 1995. In 1990 she was elected a member of parliament and joined the social commission, acting as vice president until 1994, the year in which she withdrew from political life.Her passionate interest in public affairs never lost its intensity, even though she suffered from grave and painful illnesses during her final years. She remained a brave mediator as well as protector of the poor and the powerless till the end of her life, ardently criticizing the lack of a just social policy in the time of new democratic parties, included her own, the SzDSz. She passed in 1997, at the age of 53. Her selected works were published in two volumes a year later with the title Méltóságot mindenkinek (Dignity for All) by her friends and colleagues.
- Budapest, Hungary
Katalin Somlai (1968–) is a historian. She graduated with a degree in Italian and History, and after a short teaching career, she began to work at the 1956 Institute in 1993. She joined the interviewing project, and she has taken part in the editing of numerous publications. She is the main editor of the webpage: visszaemlékezések.hu – Személyes törénetek a XX. századból (Remembrance.hu – Personal Stories from the Twentieth Century).
- Budapest, Hungary
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.
- Budapest, Hungary
Ülo Sooster was an Estonian artist. He began to study at the Pallas Higher Art School in 1943 during the German occupation. Soon afterwards, his call-up to the army interrupted his studies. He returned a year later, and studied at the National Art Institute of Tartu, where he formed a group of artists, the Tartu Circle. In 1949, some of its members, including Sooster, were arrested and accused of plotting against the state. He was sent to the Dolinka prison camp in Karaganda, Kazakhstan. He was freed in 1956. He met his future wife Lidia in the camp, with whom he moved to Moscow after being set free. He worked there as a freelance artist and book illustrator. Nevertheless, his connections with friends in Estonia remained strong. Sooster influenced strongly the work of the Tartu Circle. His work is Surrealist and abstract, forming an interesting part of Estonian art history.
George Soros (born in Budapest in 1930), an American businessman of Hungarian descent, is one of the world’s foremost businessman and philanthropists, having given away over $12 billion to date. His funding has supported individuals and organizations across the globe fighting for freedom of expression, transparency, accountable government, and societies which promote justice and equality.
His efforts have often focused on those who face discrimination purely for who they are. He has supported groups representing Europe’s Roma and others who have been pushed to the margins of mainstream society, such as drug users, sex workers, and LGBTI people.
Soros experienced intolerance firsthand. Born in Hungary in 1930, he lived through the Nazi occupation of 1944–45, which resulted in the murder of over 500,000 Hungarian Jews. His own Jewish family survived by securing false identity papers, concealing their backgrounds, and helping others do the same. Soros later recalled that “instead of submitting to our fate, we resisted an evil force that was much stronger than we were—yet we prevailed. Not only did we survive, but we managed to help others.”
As the communists consolidated power in Hungary after the war, Soros left Budapest in 1947 for London, working part-time as a railway porter and a nightclub waiter to support his studies at the London School of Economics. In 1956, he emigrated to the United States, entering the world of finance and investments, where he made his fortune.
In 1970, he launched his own hedge fund, Soros Fund Management, and went on to become one of the most successful investors in the history of the United States.
Soros used his fortune to create the Open Society Foundations, a network of foundations, partners, and projects in more than 100 countries. Its work and its name reflect the influence on Soros’s thinking of the philosophy of Karl Popper, which Soros first encountered at the London School of Economics. In his book Open Society and Its Enemies, Popper argues that no philosophy or ideology is the final arbiter of truth, and that societies can only flourish when they allow for democratic governance, freedom of expression, and respect for individual rights—an approach at the core of the work at the Open Society Foundations.
Soros began his philanthropy in 1979, giving scholarships to black South Africans under apartheid. In the 1980s, he helped promote the open exchange of ideas in the communist Eastern Bloc by providing photocopiers with which people could make copies of banned texts. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, he founded Central European University as a space to foster critical thinking, a concept which at the time was alien to most universities in the former Soviet states. He funded cultural exchanges between Eastern Europe and the West, playing a pivotal role in helping the Soviet society he himself had briefly lived in open itself to the world.
With the Cold War over, he expanded his philanthropy to the United States, Africa, and Asia, supporting a vast array of new efforts to create more accountable, transparent, and democratic societies. He was one of the early prominent voices to criticize the war on drugs as “arguably more harmful than the drug problem itself,” and helped kick-start America’s medical marijuana movement. In the early 2000s, he became a vocal backer of same-sex marriage efforts. Though his causes evolved over time, they continued to harmonize with his ideals of an open society.
Over the years, Soros has supported paralegals and lawyers representing thousands of unlawfully held individuals, underwritten the largest effort in history to integrate Europe’s Roma, and provided school and university fees for thousands of promising students from marginalized groups. And he has reached beyond his own foundation, supporting independent organizations such as Global Witness, the International Crisis Group, the European Council on Foreign Relations, and the Institute for New Economic Thinking.
Now in his 80s, Soros continues to take an active personal interest in the work of Open Society Foundations, traveling widely to support its work and advocating for positive policy changes with world leaders both publicly and privately.
But throughout Soros’s philanthropic career, one thing has remained constant: a commitment to fighting the world’s most intractable problems. He has been known to emphasize the importance of tackling losing causes. Indeed, many of the issues Soros has taken on (and he would be the first to admit this) are the types of issues for which a complete solution might never be found.
“My success in the financial markets has given me a greater degree of independence than most other people,” Soros once wrote. That independence has allowed him to forge his own path towards a world which is more open, more just, and more equitable for all.
Today, Soros is considered one of the 30 wealthiest men in the world, though he has lately donated two-third of his private fortune as down-payments for public humanitarian projects undertaken by philanthropic and human rights institutions worldwide. Although he continues to be passionately attacked by countless nationalistic propagandists and populist governments in several countries, he has remained a devoted defender of democracy, human rights, and social justice.Soros has written several books, including: The Alchemy of Finance (1987), Soros on Soros (1995), The Crisis of Global Capitalism: Open Society Endangered (1998), The Age of Fallibility (2006), The New Paradigm for Financial Markets: The Credit Crisis of 2008 and What It Means (2008), My Philanthropy (2012) and The Tragedy of the European Union (2014).
- New York, United States