≡ Menu

Memoirs of a Maverick Mathematician Chapter 2. The Beginnings

© 1999, Zoltan P. Dienes. All rights reserved.


The year 1916 found the world, but particularly Europe, in a turmoil. The Central Powers and the Allied were locked in mortal combat on the Eastern and on the Western fronts, neither side being able to achieve a breakthrough, in spite of enormous losses on each side. Although aeroplanes were taking part in the battles, they clearly only had peripheral use, so that behind the lines the populations at large were only aware of the carnage through the news published daily in the newspapers and of course through the ever heavier losses accruing to families in the belligerent countries. There were some scarcities, but the allied blockade never really succeeded in “starving” the populations of the hinterland of the Central Powers. So life went on in a pseudo-normal way, everybody hoping that the killing would soon end and that some sort of magic post-war peace would descend on Europe. Such was the general situation in Budapest, capital of Hungary, which was then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire.

As fate would have it, I was born into that tumultuous scene. My father was a secondary school teacher of mathematics, with a right to give courses in Mathematics at the University, my mother had been through University in Mathematics, Philosophy and Music, with combined experiences in Budapest and Paris. My parents were friends with prominent members of the Hungarian intelligentsia, and being born into such a milieu, was bound to have a profound effect on the way my life eventually evolved. Apart from hazy memories of the layout of the apartment in which we lived, together with memories of somewhat personal scenes such as feeding from my mother’s breast and being placed on a pot for lengthy periods for the purposes of toilet training, my first definite recollections were about going to see my father on the top of a mountain. This was because he had had to go into hiding in 1919, as he had taken part in the abortive communist regime of Bela Kun, being given the job of reorganizing the University so as to enable working class people to receive tuition there. When the “red terror” was replaced by the “white terror”, people who had taken part in the former, however “innocently”, were hunted down and executed.

I remember telling my friends “My father lives on top of the mountain!” and I remember that they were duly impressed! My father had shaved off his beard, and was hidden in a friend’s apartment, where he was confined to a cupboard, his sole consolation being that a beautiful young girl brought him his food there at regular intervals! He was later to marry this beautiful young girl, which circumstance again had a great deal of influence on what would or would not happen to me in the years of growing up. Eventually a way was found of getting him out of the country. My mother was introduced to the captain of a river boat on the Danube, that was to make the trip to Vienna. The captain was asking an enormous sum of money in return for smuggling my father out of the country. The only way the money could be raised was by selling everything, including a very unique and valuable library. But the money was raised, the captain paid, and my father was smuggled on to the boat at night and hidden for a time in a wine barrel, so as to avoid detection by the customs. As a matter of fact he stayed in the barrel until the ship sailed away upstream from the last Hungarian port of call, and made for Vienna. He was put ashore in Vienna with nothing but the clothes he was wearing.

It was not long after that, that my mother, my brother, who was but two years older than me, left Hungary for Vienna. This was in the autumn of 1920, the peace treaties had been dictated and signed, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was carved up, Austria being reduced to its present state of a little country, and Hungary too being reduced to one third of its pre-war size, with the so-called successor states taking over the territories taken away. Of course my parents were more concerned with problems of survival than with the eclipse of empires. My father found employment in crowd work in a film studio, while my mother managed to put us children into a Montessori Children’s Home, where we could stay without fees, in return for which she had promised to give the children dancing lessons, following a system that she had elaborated, on the lines of musical scales. I distinctly remember my first night in the “Kinderheim”, I lay on a small bed and sobbed and sobbed all night, not knowing what was happening, and one of the members of staff stayed with me all night and held my hand and tried to console me, of which I of course understood not a word, as it was all in German. But I did realize that she was trying to be kind, and I am eternally grateful for her patience with me on that first terrifying night.

Of course children are very resilient, and my brother and I soon got used to the place, we soon learned to understand and to speak German. We saw our mother every day, as she had to come to give the dancing lessons. My brother was with the “big ones” who had “lessons”, and they were learning to read and write. The “big ones” were pretty contemptuous of the “little ones”, and used to come round teasing us shouting at us “Die Kleinen, die Kleinen!”, which was not helpful in getting me to settle, but children seem to get over most things, so we “little ones” learned to ignore the “big ones”. We concentrated on learning our nursery rhymes, which we all enjoyed singing. I remember one was about a hunter and a hare, who had a long conversation about whether the hunter should shoot the hare or not, and we often seriously discussed the problem faced by the hunter!

Our life in the Kinderheim lasted about a year. Then my mother heard through the grapevine that Raymond Duncan, Isadora’s brother, had set up some sort of a “commune” in Nice, and he was asking people to join in a “new age” type of social experiment in living, to use modern terminology. It was soon decided that we should go. In the meantime my parents got divorced, as my father wanted to marry the beautiful girl who had looked after him in the cupboard. Soon after their marriage in Austria, he received an invitation to join the University of Wales at its Aberystwyth College, which was a godsend for him and his new wife, so while they started their new life in Wales, we started ours in Nice. I have some fairly precise memories about how the commune functioned.

The first thing that seemed rather strange to a child was that you were not allowed to call your mother “Mother!”, everyone had to be addressed by his or her first name. So Mother became Valerie, and all the children were “owned” in common. Whenever we went out, all the children had to go out together, we were considered as one unit, not to be separated. Since children are really social animals, I did not find this at all difficult, and soon it never occurred to me even to want to go out without the other children. We were taken down to the Promenade des Anglais every day, and put out to play on the beach. I did not always want to play all the games, nor was I made to. Sometimes I would sit or stand, gazing out to sea and watching intently the waves coming towards the shore, and sometimes splashing up into little fountains. I remember wondering why the little fountains simply never happened to form where I was standing! I kept standing in different places on the edge of the water, but every time the little splashing fountains sprang up somewhere else!

Another aspect of the commune was the dress. We all wore Greek chitons and Greek sandals, adults and children alike. The local inhabitants were quite used to us and after a while took us as much for granted as the postman or the milkman and did not stare. The climate in Nice is mild, and the scanty clothing did not seem to result in any physical inconvenience, in fact for the adults it must have made life a lot simpler. Looking back, another unusual feature was the furniture. The only furniture in the place that I can remember was the bench or form, but without a back. We slept on these forms, we sat on them, and we also ate on them, which we did by kneeling up to two forms placed together to make a table. I assume this was also done in order to simplify the details in life that tended to get too complicated with no readily observable advantages.

This went on for several months, by which time my brother and I forgot to speak German and learned to speak French. Then suddenly Raymond decided that we should move to Paris. He had been on several lecture tours to the United States, where he was often hailed as a messiah, and came back with a lot of funds, with which he purchased a property in the rue de Colisé, just off the Champs Elysées‚ and whether the communards liked it or not, we all had to pack our bags and move to Paris. All the children were taught to memorise the address, in case they managed to get lost, although the rule of going out together continued to be strictly observed. I still remember the address clearly, it was “Rue de Colisée trente-quatre.”

The building in which the commune was housed was much more extensive than the one in which we had lived in Nice. It seemed that there was quite a labyrinth of rooms and passages, and one enormous big hall with a stage. On this stage Raymond Duncan held forth every Sunday, preaching his version of salvation for the world, and the auditorium was always packed. Sometimes these speeches were interspersed with performances, which were invariably taken from the classical Greek period, everyone wearing the classical Greek attire. I remember one such performance when my brother Gedeon was given the part of Ganymede, who gave the gods of Olympus their daily nectar ration. The other children just sat in the front row, gazing up at the stage in envy and admiration. Some of the performances involved dance. Raymond Duncan, possibly so as not to be outdone by his much better know sister Isadora, produced what he considered to be the genuine ancient Greek type of dancing, having accumulated the evidence on many previous visits to Greece, as well as to museums all over the world, in which he studied ancient vases on which dancing figures had been depicted.

My mother became extremely interested in this, and began to incorporate some of these Greek ideas into her evolving system through which she was attempting to describe the whole gamut of possible human movements. The development of this system of movement, called orchestics, was to occupy the major part of the rest of my mother’s life, after our eventual return to Hungary.

Life in the commune went on in a very regular way, following a daily and weekly rhythm. I remember being taught to read and write, and having much pleasure in being able to read stories to myself. For a present I remember once getting a beautiful big illustrated edition of the Arabian Nights, while my brother Gedeon received Hans Anderson’s tales, in much smaller print, and so with many more stories! I thought this was totally unfair, thinking that you could not read the pictures, that they were really a waste of space, and that my brother had the best of the bargain. So I used to secretly read the Anderson stories while no one was looking, and would quickly go back to the Arabian Nights, if I felt that there was any danger of being detected. The story that had impressed me most was called “La vierge des glaciers”, and I would read that through time and time again whenever I had the chance! I had carefully kept my original reading book, out of which I had learned to read. My favourite little story in that book was called “Les premiers pas”, which was about a baby trying haltingly to take his first steps. Gedeon was always jealous of my reading, as he did not read that much and was more of a sociable creature than I ever was, and one day came over as I was looking at the page on which “Les premiers pas” were printed and tore the page out and crumpled it up. I burst into tears, trying to unruffle the page, and I found it quite impossible to forgive this most heinous crime. I found writing more difficult than reading. I remember that I had to keep asking : “Est-ce qu’il y a une E à la fin?”

We also had to write a weekly letter to our father, and I remember writing “Mon cher père” at the top of the page and sitting there staring at the empty page for hours, as it had seemed to me, not knowing what and how to write! But eventually I did learn to write and lost my fear of it, and began to enjoy the possibilities that it opened up to me. One part of the daily routine was for the children to sing Greek songs. These were, I believe, in modern Greek, and we all learned to sing the catchy tunes, vocalising the words as best we could, but Duncan forgot to tell us what the words meant, and to this day I remember some of the words, but have absolutely no idea of what they mean! One day Duncan’s mother died. Duncan wanted the children to learn about death, and so we were all ushered into the room where she was laid out, and we were asked to sing some of the Greek songs, which we did. I remember hearing some of the adults whispering to each other that it was not right to bring children like that to a dead body, but we just sang merrily on, without of course realizing what we were singing! As far as I know, nothing harmful ever resulted from our contact with the dead Mrs. Duncan!

One of the weekly routine events was a trip to the Bois de Boulogne. I am not sure what day of the week this happened, but it was probably on Saturdays. On a fine warm day we wore our usual chitons and sandals, but if it was cold, we were provided with fur coats to wear over the chitons. A couple of taxis would draw up and the adults whose duty for that day was to mind the children would pile in with the children and we drove up the Champs Elysees‚ past the Etoile, to the Bois de Boulogne, where we were “put out to grass”. We created a certain amount of sensation in the Bois, especially on snowy days, when we still wore our sandals, and rolled in the snow and played snowballs, with the onlookers shocked to the core at such cruelty to children. In fact I do not recollect any of us getting even a mild cold, as we were fed on very healthy food, on a diet much ahead of the times, and we had plenty to do in helping to run the commune.

I do not remember the discipline being very strict, but of course we had to do what we were told. I do not remember ever being punished for anything, and it is unlikely that I could have been such a model child that I would not have needed the occasional correction! The only time I remember witnessing punishment was when Ligois, one of the girls, was caught masturbating and she was beaten. I remember she kept trying to run away, but Aia, her mother who was beating her, kept catching her, beating her some more and screaming at her “Cela ne se fait pas! Cela ne se fait pas!” The memory of this somewhat severe chastisement has stayed with me in vivid imagery to this day, and I remember feeling so sorry for poor little Ligois, with whom I had played happily on many occasions.

Our life at the commune went on following a regular pattern. The adults were employed in making enormous pictures on canvas, which Duncan himself had designed. They also engaged in spinning and weaving, and in making sculptures. These were sold to the public, and no doubt the commune lived on the proceeds. There was some kind of unwritten contract between Duncan and the members of the commune that was to last a life time. Duncan would undertake to provide, and the members of the commune had to undertake to do the necessary work, so that Duncan could in fact provide. How legal such a contract was, nobody quite knew, I do not suppose it would have stood up in a modern court of law.

To cut a long story short, one day our mother called us, namely Gedeon and myself, and carrying just a small bag asked us to come outside with her. This was of course unheard of, and we both exclaimed “Mais où sont les autres?” Our mother replied simply : “On va faire une petite promenade” This little statement was to become a password for decades to come, and I used to ask my mother “C’est toujours la petite promenade?” and she would answer that indeed it was, and that the whole of Life was a “petite promenade”, leading us somewhere that we cannot yet know, but that we will know one day! We eventually reached a railway station. I remember there were a number of trains standing at the platforms which were “double deckers”, and there was just one with ordinary carriages. I fervently hoped that if we were to travel on a train, we should travel on a “double decker”. Of course these were the local commuter trains, and the only long distance train standing at the station was the one which had the normal carriages! So this is where we went. So much for my dream of a “double decker” trip! The train soon moved off, but our mother kept strangely silent. No doubt she was worried that she was breaking the “contract” and that we could be legally made to go back and made to rejoin the commune! Whenever we asked if this was still the “petite promenade”, she just nodded. So we concentrated on looking out of the window and seeing the trees, towns, villages and everything else flash by. Soon we reached the border between France and Germany. It did not seem to take long to get through the formalities, but as soon as we were in Germany our mother said to us, almost in a whisper :

“Dès maintenant il ne faut pas parler en français!”

Gedeon and I looked at each other in amazement. Naturally, by this time we could only “parler en français”, so if we could not speak in French, we both logically concluded that we had to keep quiet, and wondered why our mother had chosen such a complicated way of telling us! It must be remembered that this was happening only a few years after the most bloody war in history. Germany had been defeated on the battlefields, was humiliated by the Versailles treaty, and was made to pay “reparations” out of what little was left after everything had been spent on the war effort. It would have been useless to tell Germans that we were really Hungarian children, Hungary having been a “loyal” ally of the Germans during the war. How come that they are chatting away in French? Clearly our mother could foresee what might happen, and wished to avoid it. But she could not expect her two small boys to understand such twists and turns of world history and how it tied people in knots who had been involved in it, if only on the sidelines! So we had to be kept quiet!

The end of this particular journey was the Bavarian town of Oberammergau, famed for its Passion Play of the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Here we met our father and his new wife Sari. With the favourable exchange rate as between the English Pound and the sliding German Mark, we were able to rent a large house and live very well while we stayed in that picturesque part of the world. As children, of course we were not aware that the “menage à trois” must have been quite difficult for the adults in charge of us, but as far as I can remember we were not disturbed at all by any difficulties they may have had. Life in Oberammergau, however, was life in limbo! We did not know whether we would be going back to France, or whether it would be possible for us to go back to Hungary; everything hung in the balance, but it was Summer, the country was beautiful, the people were friendly, and we children had begun to learn to speak German again!

We were taken to climb the surrounding peaks, which we all thoroughly enjoyed, except for our mother, who preferred to stay at home. There is just one occasion I remember when I was really frightened climbing up a mountain. We were on the last part of the ascent of the Ettaler Mandel, which involved a certain amount of discreet rock climbing. At one point I remember I could not find another foothold, nor another hand hold to pull myself up and I sadly informed my father who was climbing up behind me

“Papa, j’y resterai toute ma vie!”

This was another logical conclusion which I had drawn from the premises that I could go neither up nor down, and that the only possibilities were up or down or staying where you were. I concluded logically that I would stay where I was for the rest of my life! . In spite of the correctness of the reasoning, the premises turned out to be false, as in fact I did in the end manage to climb up. We all reached the top, which consisted of a few square meters of level rock, on every side surrounded by almost vertical drops. Gedeon and I dangled our feet down, looking down at least one thousand meters onto a beautiful lake below!

This was the time when the German mark went mad. I remember being given 100 000 Mark notes to play with, as they were no longer any use for buying anything. This did not affect us, as we were living on English Pounds, earned in Aberystwyth by our father and we never changed more than as much as we would need that day, as the next day the same money would only buy less than one half of what it would buy today! Time flew, Gedeon and I learned German again, but we tended to speak a kind of mixture of French and German, more German when we were playing with local children, more French when we were alone or with our parents.

It was finally decided that when our father and Sari had to go back to Wales, that we would go back to Hungary and stay with our grandmother in the country town of Pápa. I remember buying my last sugar bun for 7 000 000 Marks, which would have been only 1 000 000 Marks the day before. Our train steamed off in an Easterly direction, and Gedeon and I enjoyed looking out of the window, surveying the world as it passed by. We particularly enjoyed some of the “little trains” on narrow gauge tracks, and as soon as one of us spied such a track, we would exclaim “Regarde, le ptiten train ses rails” the made up word “ptiten” being a Germanized version of “petit”. Probably the word “ses” stood in stead of the “s” in the German genitive, but I am not sure. But this sentence, in bastardized French, still keeps ringing in my ear, every time I look back on that journey. We finally arrived in the town of Pápa, where we were taken in a carriage drawn by two horses, to the apartment occupied by my mother’s mother, namely by our grandmother, who welcomed us like lost souls. Fortunately she could speak French fluently, and so we felt welcome, and at last relatively safe. So far.