27 July 2004

Nicholas Nagy-Talavera, requiescat in pace

Perhaps the most interesting raconteur I met in Romania in 1984 was Nicholas Nagy-Talavera, who arrived after we did on an IREX grant, but was assigned to the same apartment bloc on the south edge of town as the Bucharest Fulbrighters. His obituary announcement at Cal State Chico barely hints at what a rara avis he was, especially in academia.
Nicholas Nagy-Talavera, professor emeritus of history, died Jan. 23 [2000]. He was 70. He was born in Budapest and attended one year at the University of Vienna. Starting in 1949, he spent seven years in Soviet labor camps. He completed his education at UC Berkeley. Nagy-Talavera taught Russian and Eastern European history in the CSU, Chico history department from 1967 until he retired in 1991. He is author of Nicolae Iorga: A Biography and The Green Shirts and the Others: A History of Fascism in Hungary and Rumania.
It's interesting that the official biography neglects to mention that he was of Sephardic Jewish heritage, hence the Talavera, and raised in Oradea, on the Hungarian-Romanian border, to a family of timber merchants and furniture makers. (Nagy [pron. Nodge] is Magyar for German Gross, Romanian Mare; just as Kis [pron. Kish] is Magyar for German Klein, Romanian Micu. Every person and place had at least three names back then--like Peaches in Cluj.)

But Nick's life was no bowl of peaches. He survived his Bar Mitzvah in Auschwitz, and later survived the Soviet gulag. He survived the latter by sticking with the Ukrainian criminal gangs that controlled the prisons rather than with the political prisoners. As a result he learned Ukrainian and Russian well enough to pass for a native. In fact, he always insisted that the best place to learn a foreign language is in prison.

Perhaps the story that sticks best in my mind involved a starving prisoner one spring. Stealing food in the gulag was considered a betrayal of one's comrades worthy of capital punishment. Nick described how one desperately hungry prisoner grabbed a loaf of bread and took off running. Nick was among the crowd that ran after him, and he remembered deliberately choosing a piece of wood with a nasty nail protruding from it, the better to kill the thief with. But the thief ran waist-deep into the prison sewage pond, which had thawed in the spring melt, then proceeded to eat the bread, standing chest deep in raw sewage. At that point, the angry posse that followed him had time to stop and think about the level of his desperation, eventually deciding to have mercy and let him live.

Nick also described the hush that came over the camp when the death of Stalin was announced in the spring of 1953--and the genuine sorrow many people felt to have lost the father of their motherland, who had ruled for 30 years, no matter how brutal and capricious he may have been.


Anonymous said...

I studied under Professor Nagy-Talavera at Chico. He was a fantastic professor and an amazing character.

I feel honored to have known him & appreciate your post here.

Unknown said...

I also studied under Professor Nagy-Talavera in Chico 1984-5, in fact due to his influence I made my minor Balkan History as I was an International Relations major. He used to storm and thunder in class working himself up to fever pitch. I could see he frightened some of the students who could not understand how much he enjoyed what he was doing. Sometimes you could see the Auschwitz tattoo on one arm and the Gulag tattoo on the other. In 1985 I told him that Serbia and Kosovo would part ways before 1995 and he told me I was full of bullshit but told me if I really believed it I had better write him a paper on it. So I did, and when I gave it to him he seemed a little surprised. I remember he twisted it into a cylinder and held onto it for the rest of the class. The next class as I was leaving he dropped the rolled up paper on my desk and told me in that impeccably articulated, yet slightly accented english of his: "You make a compelling argument...I have decided that you are not an idiot after all." I could see in his face as he gathered his books something like the gleam of victory. He had made someone think, and for any victim of fascism or Stalin that is the best revenge of all.

Michel said...

i met Nick (he introduced himself to me as Nick)many years ago in Brasil and we stayed in touch for many years. He visited me and my family in Holland some years later. He was an amazing person and i still often think about him. All of a sudden he did not answer our letters, we knew something had happened. Can anyobe please tell me more about the circomstances of his death?
Michel, Holland