Washington, DC – Members of the Hungarian American Coalition (Coalition) are deeply saddened to learn that Árpád Göncz, former President of Hungary, passed away on October 6, 2015, at age 93. Árpád Göncz was a politician, writer, and literary translator, who played a major role in reawakening Hungarian democracy during his ten years in office as Hungary’s first democratically elected President after the fall of Communism.
Árpád Göncz was born on February 10, 1922 in Budapest. He received his law degree at Pázmány Péter University in 1944. During the Second World War, he was drafted and served in Germany. He soon deserted and joined the resistance movement as a member of the Freedom Front of Hungarian Students. Although he was captured by the Soviets several times, he always managed to escape.
His political career began in 1945, when he joined the Independent Smallholders Party; he became the leader of the youth organization in Budapest and then General Secretary to party leader Béla Kovács. He married Mária Zsuzsanna Göntér, and they had two sons and two daughters. After the forced dissolution of the Smallholders Party, he worked as an unskilled worker, and from 1952 he attended the Agricultural University of Gödöllő.
During the revolution of 1956, he worked for the Federation of Hungarian Farmers, negotiating with members of Imre Nagy’s government and the freedom fighters. He participated in preparing memoranda of the Hungarian Democratic Independence Movement, and helped to send abroad the manuscript of Imre Nagy entitled “In Defense of the Hungarian People.” In 1957 he was arrested, and on August 2, 1958, he was sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of appeal. He was in prison for more than six years, and was finally released under the general amnesty of 1963.
In the 1980s he renewed his political activities, first as a founding member of the Committee for Historical Justice, and later of the Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ) in 1988. In May 1990, Göncz was elected Member of Parliament, and served as Speaker of the National Assembly of Hungary between May and August 1990. Under the Constitution, this also made him provisional president of Hungary. On August 4, 1990, he was elected for a 5-year term as President by the National Assembly. He was reelected in 1995 for a second 5-year term. Árpád Göncz was granted many honors and recognitions in his life; he received honorary doctorate degrees from several prestigious universities as well as he became honorary citizen of many cities. He was also a member of the international advisory council of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation. Upon the occasion of his ninetieth birthday in 2012, his children set up the Árpád Göncz Foundation to celebrate his life of work as writer, literary translator and politician, as well as promoting the memory of the 1956 revolution, cherishing Hungarian democratic and liberal traditions.
Göncz learned to speak English during his years in prison. In subsequent decades, he translated over a hundred literary works. In 1989 he became president of the Hungarian Writers’ Association. One of his most famous translations is J.R.R. Tolkien’s ‘The Lord of the Rings’, published in Hungary in 1981. He also translated Arthur C. Clarke’s ‘Space Odyssey’ series and the works of Faulkner, Golding and Updike. Árpád Göncz wrote several novels and dramas that were widely performed by Hungarian and foreign theaters, radio stations and television channels.
The Hungarian American Coalition was a committed advocate and participant in NATO enlargement, and is deeply grateful to President Árpád Göncz who was instrumental in supporting the process. Just prior to the Hungarian referendum on joining NATO scheduled for November 1997, the Coalition organized conferences in three cities of Hungary, entitled “Hungary in an Expanded NATO: Benefits and Responsibilities – An Open Discussion with the Hungarian People.” When President Árpád Göncz opened the first conference at the Hungarian Parliament on November 6, 1997, all Hungarian political parties declared their support for Hungary’s NATO membership. In 1999, President Bill Clinton, a supporter of NATO enlargement for Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, honored President Göncz with a White House dinner. Chair Emerita of the Coalition, Edith K. Lauer, was seated between President Clinton and Hungarian First Lady Zsuzsanna Göncz.
The Hungarian American community mourns the death of Árpád Göncz, a truly historic figure. As a patriot, a champion of human rights, and a writer, he enjoyed the friendship and respect of many Hungarian Americans in the United States.