Nicholas Nagy-Talavera, professor emeritus of history, died Jan. 23 . 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.