Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 0, No 2
5 October 1998

C S A R D A S:
Another Brick in the Wall

Gusztav Kosztolanyi

Thursday, 3 September, was just a normal schoolday like any other for the children at Imre Foldi Primary school in Hajduhadhaz, Hungary. Until the lunchbreak, that is, when, assembling in the refectory, they were subjected to a vicious attack by a teacher, Annamaria Rapcsak, who slashed eight of the pupils with a breadknife, also injuring three adults before her rampage ended and she was arrested for questioning. Although some of the children were kept in hospital overnight for observation, no-one was seriously injured.

Beyond the undeniable element of tragedy, the case contained a number of other disturbing features that impressed themselves on the public consciousness. Firstly, the scene: a small settlement of some 13,000 inhabitants, of whom 2,500 are Roma. Secondly, the perpetrator: a young, single Hungarian woman in her early thirties of hitherto unblemished reputation, daughter of Mr Andras Rapcsak, the Mayor of Hodomezovasarhely and a member of Parliament (Fidesz). Thirdly, the victims: Roma from the remedial class in the annex to the main building. Fourthly, the timing: a month before the local government elections (a fact that doubtless did not escape the government's attention. The official response was swift, with Minister of Education Zoltan Pokornyi being dispatched to the school immediately).

All the ingredients of a potentially explosive cocktail are in place: ethnicity, arbitrary violence, female aggression, segregation, underachievement, exclusion, deprivation - a veritable catalogue of social taboos that prompted an earnest bout of soul-searching in the media: could the incident be dismissed as an isolated outbreak of individual madness or was it the symptom of a deeper malaise?

The psychological profile of Ms Rapcsak that emerged has a depressingly familiar ring to it from similar occurrences elsewhere. She was a loner who had not lived with her father since she was three years of age. She was quiet, religious and kept to herself. There were no prior indications that might have led anyone in her immediate circle of acquaintances to suspect that she could be a danger to herself or others. Shock and disbelief characterized the reactions. Her possible motives remain a mystery, although any suggestion of ethnic antagonism can be safely dismissed along with the wilder speculations that circulated in the aftermath of the assault, such as the rumor that she had been driven to work that morning by a couple of sinister heavies in a car with tinted glass windows who promised rewards in return for the bloody deed or that she had been spotted pouring white powder into her coffee (the subsequent toxological investigations having revealed no traces of either alcohol or drugs).

Conspiracy theories appear increasingly implausible with each passing day now that the initial indignation and outrage have subsided: although the pupils were Roma, this was more a matter of coincidence than design since they were assigned to Ms Rapcsak and presumably any child in her care would have been at risk. Nor can any reasonable inferences be made on the basis of the institution of the remedial class itself whose members are, naturally enough, drawn from the most underprivileged stratum of the local population, in this instance, the Roma. In all the 36 years that it has existed to serve the purpose of allowing its tender charges the opportunity to acquire the skills and knowledge to catch up with their peers with a view to integrating them into the mainstream at a later stage, this is the first serious problem to have arisen. (Though, regrettably, the remedial class has all too often ended up as an intellectual dead end, being far harder to graduate from in practice than in theory, as a report in Magyar Narancs points out. The term "remedial" thus has misleading connotations in that it is not assumed that the children are less able than their more fortunate counterparts, merely that they, for a variety of reasons, have not had the benefit of, say, attending nursery school or of speaking Hungarian in their home environments)

In searching for the wider implications of the events of that afternoon, we must examine our innermost, unarticulated anxieties because it is from them that the quality of primordial drama is derived. What we encounter is a dual transgression, of gender and professional roles, a reversal and betrayal of the assumptions upon which our social transactions are founded. Instead of the nurturing, caring figure of the mother, we are presented with the specter of a deranged, female predator massacring innocents; the teacher to whom we entrust our most precious assets, our own children, who is respected as an instiller of values, an educator, is transfigured into a monster of depravity, a perversion of the kindly Ersatzmutter of our expectations. Against this onslaught there is no defense: our very system of regulating relations is exposed as vulnerable, bankrupt.

The only questions that remain are as to whether the tragedy could have been foreseen and prevented. Could an improvement in the vetting procedures for appointments help to avoid a repeat of this nightmare? Reluctantly, I would have to confess that the likelihood of mustering sufficient resources to implement such measures is very small. Furthermore, I feel that, no matter how sophisticated or ingenious a system humankind can invent, not every contingency can be anticipated, such is the might of happenstance.

In Hajduhadhaz the spiritual as well as the physical wounds are healing slowly. It is a tribute to the community that this process has not been disrupted by rancor or poisoned by a thirst for vengeance. We can all draw lessons from this forbearance.

Gusztav Kosztolanyi, 5 October 1998


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