Erika Brathwaite was born and raised in Canada. As her mother is of Hungarian origin, she is proud of her Hungarian heritage as well. Erika is now in Hungary pursuing a degree at the University of Debrecen and searching for her roots. In order to reach out to the extended families of readers of the Kanadai Amerikai Magyarság who do not speak Hungarian, we are pleased to publish her blog posts on these pages.
I stood gingerly at the back of the train with my three obscenely heavy suitcases, puzzling over how I could get them off the train in an orderly manner without embarrassing myself too badly or injuring any fellow travelers in the process. A man appeared behind me as I began to haul the largest one towards the door – what he said to me in Hungarian I couldn’t tell you, but him and another took the two largest of the suitcases and lifted them off the train for me with a kindly smile. I sighed with relief and gratitude and thanked them. I looked around the platform of the railway station, my eyes purposefully skipping over the ominous looking stairs in search of the elevator. It didn’t take me long to realize that I was out of luck. As I dejectedly began schlepping my burden towards the seemingly endless stairs, the two heroes from the train appeared once more, taking a hold of a giant suitcase each and carrying them down the staircase for me. This was my very first experience in the city of Debrecen. I was home for the next three years, and I was dazzled by the kind and polite actions of my anonymous guardians.
The Debrecen Railway Station is a tired looking, soviet-style building constructed after the second world war following the destruction of the original edifice. The city of Debrecen was almost entirely destroyed during the second world war although the traces of that tragedy have long been erased. Debrecen has suffered complete destruction many times over the course of its history – it aptly has a phoenix in its official coat of arms, representing the literal rise from the ashes the city has been forced to make time and again.
One of the oldest settlements and the second largest city in Hungary, the city of Debrecen began developing exponentially in the 13th century. The settlement was given special self-governance status by King Louis I and became a financial hub in the region as a market town. The farmers and livestock barons that populated the city thrived, making Debrecen one of the richest cities in central Europe. The vestiges of Debrecen’s agricultural past can be seen all over the city – the main downtown street Piac Utca, meaning “market street” in Hungarian, is wide and spacious – atypical of traditional European streets – which facilitated the transportation of livestock to the market. Along other main streets in the downtown area, the 19th century buildings are pocked with wide doors and courtyards where animals were kept in the evening once business was done for the day.
Debrecen has always been a hub town for education as well. The University of Debrecen – my alma matter – was founded in 1538 and was historically the most important cultural center in the country where many famous authors, scientists and thinkers were educated. Even today, the university houses some of Hungary’s most important and treasured historical documents and is one of the pre-eminent educational institutions in the country. There is a large international student population at the University of which I am a member, and Hungary offers many generous scholarship opportunities for students who come to study here from abroad. One of the most exciting opportunities that students at the university have access to is the Hungarian Diaspora Scholarship which provides students like me an opportunity to come to Hungary and pursue a degree while learning Hungarian language and culture. I am privileged to have been accepted into this scholarship program and the culture classes given at the University of Debrecen have offered me incredible insight into the history of the country and the city itself.
The crown jewel of Debrecen is the unmistakable Nagy Templom, or Great Church, which stands majestically overlooking the newly renovated downtown core of the city. The previous church burned down in 1802 during the great fire of Debrecen; the current one being the fourth church to stand in Kossuth Square after fire destroyed each previous iteration. The interesting thing about this church is that it is a Protestant church – the largest one in the country and boasts the gigantic Rákóczi Bell in the left tower. Debrecen is known as the “Calvinist Rome”, having been the center of the reformation in Hungary. As a result, printing flourished in the city, contributing to its status as an important intellectual center. The City of Debrecen served as the capital of Hungary during the revolution in 1848-1849 (as well as following the second world war) and it was from this church that Hungary’s declaration of independence from the Habsberg Empire was read. Certainly, a fascinating development in what is predominantly a Catholic country.
As demonstrated by the story at the outset, people in Debrecen in general are polite and courteous. The streets and squares are filled with music, traditional markets, and events throughout the summer – there is plenty to do year-round in the city as well. The Deri Museum offers an eclectic look at fascinating historical artifacts, the Csokonai Színház (closed for renovations now) which opened in 1865 has a resident orchestra, the Kodaly Philharmonic, and has a full program of various performances throughout the season. Movie theaters, shopping malls, bars and clubs, and of course the sports stadium, offer everything anyone could ever want in a major European city with an endearing small-town atmosphere.
Debrecen has shaped up to be the perfect place for this half-Hungarian Canadian to connect with her roots and further her educational goals at the same time. It’s incredible to see how far Hungary has come from the old Soviet days – the English and American Studies department where I am a student was once stuffed away in the attic of the main building, hidden from the student body so as not to taint Communist ideals with Western influence. Now, the department greets all who enter the century-old Eclectic and Neo-Baroque style building. Whether we will return to in-person classes in the fall or not is still unclear, but the city of Debrecen and the university will be there to welcome us when we do.