BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — Gyorgy Konrad, a writer and sociologist who was an iconic figure of Hungary’s dissident movement while the country was under communist rule, died Friday at his home in Budapest. He was 86.
Konrad’s family said he had been gravely ill, but gave no specifics.
Known internationally for books like his 1969 novel “The Case Worker” and his 2007 memoir “A Guest in My Own Country: A Hungarian Life,” Konrad was considered a steadfast advocate for individual freedoms. He was president of the writers’ association PEN International from 1990 to 1993 and president of the Academy of Arts in Berlin in 1997-2003.
After the communist regime lifted a publication ban on him, Konrad described himself in a 1990 piece: “A 57-year-old novelist and essayist. Hungarian in language and citizenship. Of the Jewish faith. The father of four children from two marriages. Wardrobe rather modest, but does own several typewriters.” He later had a fifth child, born in 1994.
Konrad was a widely respected and beloved figure with a soft-spoken radicalism that allowed him to bridge any generation gap. Under communism, with its emphasis on “the masses” and subjugation of the individual to the collective, his ideas about respect for the individual and a firm belief in the sovereignty of each and every human being were subversive.
Born to a prosperous Jewish family on April 2, 1933, in Debrecen, eastern Hungary, Konrad and his immediate family survived the Holocaust, which claimed the lives of numerous relatives. He spent his childhood in Berettyoujfalu, near Debrecen, until his parents were deported to Austria in 1944.
Allowed to visit relatives in Budapest, Konrad and his sister Eva, along with two cousins, survived by finding refuge in a safe house under Swiss protection. A day after their departure from Berettyoujfal, the remaining Jewish residents of the town were deported and nearly all killed in Nazi death camps.
In Budapest, he studied at the Department of Hungarian at Eotvos Lorant University and finished his studies in 1956 despite being expelled twice. As punishment for his role in the aborted anti-Soviet uprising in 1956, he lost his job and was unemployed from 1957 through 1959. He had joined the National Guard during the uprising, but, as he wrote, “never used my gun, only took it for walks.”
In the early 1960s, Konrad got work as an editor at a literary monthly, then between 1965 and 1973 switched to social work and wrote studies on urban sociology.
His first novel, “The Case Worker,” was inspired by his job as a children’s welfare officer and did not receive universal acclaim — Communist Party hacks hated it.
“This is a bad novel,” wrote Pal E. Feher in the party newspaper Nepszabadsag, criticizing it for painting “too dark a picture.”
The book described the lives of the poor in a working-class district, painting a picture in stark contrast with the official line about the “happy workers building socialism.”
The novel, published in 6,000 copies, sold out in days and but a second edition was not allowed until after the collapse of communism in 1989.
Konrad was blacklisted almost permanently between 1973 and 1988 and many of his works were first published abroad.
The essay-like “The City Builder,” a perspective of totalitarianism through the experiences of an architect, was banned for political reasons in 1973, though a heavily edited version appeared in 1977.
Along with friend Ivan Szelenyi, Konrad wrote “The Road of Intellectuals to Class Power,” but the manuscript was confiscated by the secret police in 1978 because it dared to contradict the party notion that workers constituted the ruling class.
Konrad and Szelenyi were both arrested and held for a week. They were given the option to emigrate and Szelenyi left. Konrad by then had thrown in his lot with the dissident movement, the democratic underground, and opted to stay, publishing his books in the alternative — and illegal — “samizdat” press.
His work was rewarded with the prestigious Herder Award, conferred by German and Austrian universities, in 1983, an event not announced in Hungary at the time.
He and his family survived partly thanks to royalties gained from publication of “The Case Worker” in English and around a dozen other languages.
After the collapse of communism, Konrad played a high-profile role, seemingly speaking everywhere, but he refused invitations to become a full-time politician. He did become a member of the National Committee of the liberal Alliance of Free Democrats, which included many of those who had been him in the underground opposition.
During his stint as president of Berlin’s Academy of Arts after the fall of communism, Konrad worked to promote writers and artists from Eastern Europe. He also received high state awards from Hungary, France and Germany as well as numerous prizes in recognition for his literary and human rights activities.
Konrad is survived by his wife, Judit Lakner, and his children.
Alex Bandy, a retired reporter for The Associated Press, contributed to this obituary.