Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Ilí Szekély in 1972-3

A parent reminisces

Mention of Ilí Szekély has prompted a personal reminiscence from Emma McDowell, who writes about when she first took her son George to the then State Institute in Villányi út, in April 1972 –

Székelyné (as I always heard her referred to) was an attractive-looking woman even when I first met her. (she must have been then about fifty). Székelyné had enemies within the establishment. I know that because it was she who was made responsible for admitting George [to the State Institute] in spite of the fact that he had a British father and name. George, at three years of age, attended the toddler group and then I myself went back in Belfast. Then in November 1973 my mother was called in to 'remove' George because he was there 'illegally' (in other words, free), as a Hungarian child.

My mother found Székelyné in her office, looking over dozens of pictures of George, that have been taken regularly at the Institute to follow his development. She was nearly in tears: 'I only looked at the child and not at his passport,' she told my mother. My mother had to go with Székelyné into the group and take George home. (He was crying at being taken out like this!)

Upon my mother’s frantic telephone, I then took trains and ferries to travel to Budapest and tried my best to plead at the Andrássy Útja (then called Népköztársaság Útja) Office for Registering Foreigners, for George to be allowed to stay, since all his papers were valid and my mother was 'officially' looking after him, and 'officially' receiving an allowance from me to do this (my father was dead by then.). I was coldly told that George and I would have to leave immediately but, upon obtaining some totally different papers and paying a huge bill for the time that he had already spent at the Villányi, he might be allowed to return…

We flew back to Belfast. It took me another year – and strong Party influence through my sister’s colleague’s husband who had a military rank – before we could go back to the Institute, with an official assurance that 'George can attend the Institute free as long as he needs to do so'. No money was asked, until 1988.

Please take this as a graveside speech for the late Head Conductor.


Indeed, I can go a little further, since Emma's email reminded me of an article that she wrote a little nearer that time, back in 1988, with a little more to capture that decisive day from the mists of memory –

George's assessment was undertaken by a lady in her mid forties who concentrated on him during the whole time. Questions, medical history, etc. were taken down by another, younger girl, also in a white coat, at a corner desk. My father asked this second lady beforehand what we should call the lady in charge (in Hungary professional persons are always addressed by their professional title).

'She is the Head Conductor', came the reply. This title, however, being totally strange in sound and usage to my father, he continued to address the nice, energetic auburn-haired woman as 'Head Doctor'.

Whatever she was, she performed magic over George. Turned over on a low, blanket-covered bed he stayed on his tummy without crying. Then she turned up the blanket, manoeuvring him on to the wooden laths underneath till he actually pulled himself forward. He crept a few inches for the very first time in his life! I as definitely won by the Pető system!

The lady seemed as happy as we were when she announced that George showed every sign of 'wanting and willing to be taught' and promptly offered us a place in their 'Mother and Child' group the next day.

After the interview my father stayed behind a minute: 'Doctor, do you believe he will walk?' he asked her, and the answer was a very confident Yes.

My father died a year later of heart disease and I am to this day very grateful to that Head Conductor for the hope and trust that she gave him for the future of his first grandson.


McDowell, E. (1988) Standing up for George (Memories of a Pető parent), The Conductor, vol. 1, no 1, April, pp.14-15

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