Gyorgy Konrad, Writer and Dissident in Communist Hungary, Dies at 86

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BUDAPEST — Gyorgy Konrad, a writer and sociologist who was an iconic figure of Hungary’s dissident movement under Communist rule, died on Friday at his home in Budapest. He was 86.

His family said he had been gravely ill.

Known internationally for books like his 1969 novel “The Case Worker” and his 2007 memoir “A Guest in My Own Country: A Hungarian Life,” Mr. Konrad was considered a steadfast advocate for individual freedom.

After the government lifted a publication ban on him, Mr. Konrad described himself in a 1990 piece as “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 beloved figure with a soft-spoken radicalism that allowed him to bridge any generation gap. Under Communism, with its emphasis on subjugation of the individual to the collective, his ideas about the sovereignty of each and every human being were subversive.

Gyorgy Konrad was born to a prosperous Jewish family on April 2, 1933, in Debrecen, eastern Hungary. He 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, Mr. 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 Berettyoujfalu, the remaining Jewish residents of the town were deported and nearly all killed in Nazi death camps.

After the war, he studied at the Department of Hungarian at Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest, and finished his studies in 1956, despite being expelled twice. During the uprising of that year, he joined the National Guard that sought to face down Soviet power, but, as he wrote, “never used my gun, only took it for walks.”

His role in the uprising cost him his job and he was unemployed from 1957 through 1959. In the early 1960s, he got work as an editor at a literary monthly, then between 1965 and 1973 switched to social work and urban sociology.

His first novel, “The Case Worker,” was inspired by his job as a children’s welfare officer in a working-class district, painting a picture in stark contrast with the official line about “happy workers building socialism.”

The 6,000 copies of the first edition sold out in a day, but a second was not allowed until after the collapse of Communism in 1989.

Mr. Konrad was blacklisted between 1973 and 1988 and many of his works were first published abroad.

The essay-like “The City Builder,” examining totalitarianism through the experiences of an architect, was banned in 1973, though a heavily edited version appeared in 1977.

Along with his friend Ivan Szelenyi, Mr. Konrad wrote “The Road of Intellectuals to Class Power,” but the manuscript was confiscated by the secret police in 1978 because it contradicted the party notion that workers constituted the ruling class.

Mr. Konrad and Mr. Szelenyi were both arrested and held for a week. They were given the option to emigrate and Mr. Szelenyi left. Mr. Konrad by then had thrown in his lot with the dissident movement, the democratic underground, and opted to stay, publishing his books in the 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 from publication of “The Case Worker” in English and around a dozen other languages.

After the collapse of Communist rule, Mr. Konrad played a high-profile role, seemingly speaking everywhere, but declined to become a full-time politician. He did join the national committee of the liberal Alliance of Free Democrats, which included many of those who had been with him in the underground.

Mr. Konrad was president of the writers’ association PEN International from 1990 to 1993 and of the Academy of Arts in Berlin from 1997 to 2003. He also received high state awards from Hungary, France and Germany, as well as numerous prizes in recognition of his literary and human rights activities.

He is survived by his wife, Judit Lakner, and his children.


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