COLUMN

An enduring vein of courage

George Gabori's resistance against evil celebrates the human spirit

Barbara Amiel June 29 1981
COLUMN

An enduring vein of courage

George Gabori's resistance against evil celebrates the human spirit

Barbara Amiel June 29 1981

An enduring vein of courage

COLUMN

George Gabori's resistance against evil celebrates the human spirit

Barbara Amiel

This is a story that belongs to Canada. Today’s political upheavals have made Toronto a safe place for survivors, dreamers—and heroes. Such a hero is George Gabori, a 56-yearold Toronto taxi driver, a wiry 125 pounds consisting largely of freckles and red hair. About a month ago, his life story appeared in a book called When Evils Were Most Free. The book was rightly celebrated the moment it appeared. As Globe and Mail critic William French accurately put it, it is a “triumphant” book.

Without any heroics or posturing, Gabori’s story gives meaning to the Latin phrase ecce homo—behold the man. Like a character from commedia dell’ arte,

Gabori is a stereotype of the impertinent little Jew: all smart-alecky chutzpah, with a compulsion to point a finger at the emperor with no clothes. Perhaps any quality displayed at the right time can become a quality of moral significance. Gabori turned chutzpah into such a virtue, pointing out time and time again the nakedness of evil, indifferent to truncheons and electric shocks.

Being a Jewish activist in the left wing of Hungary’s Social Democratic Party when Hungary was Hitler’s ally was an act of sheer, courageous lunacy. Needless to say, it led Gabori to the Dachau concentration camp and then to the Turckheim death camp in Germany. The miracle of his survival ought to be read rather than summarized. But back in Hungary after the war Gabori’s chutzpah was not exhausted. His Social Democratic activism led to the torture chambers of the Communists and then to their forced labor camp at the stone quarries of Recsk. One of the great moments of irony in the book comes when the AVO (Communist secret police), infuriated at being called Nazis by Gabori, explain to him in a hurt tone that they will now torture him until he understands the difference between them and the Gestapo. It was an understanding Gabori refused to reach; he had also instinctively arrived at Solzhe-

nitsyn’s great understanding that if you do what the devil wants, things will not necessarily become better. Had he signed a confession to avoid further torture, he would likely have been executed as a spy, as others had been. No metaphors can do justice to the physical and moral bravery displayed by this man, nor celebrate more convincingly the power of the human spirit.

But there is a further cause for celebration. Though the book is noted as an autobiography, in a certain sense it

would be more accurate to describe it as a biography. A couple of years ago, at the urging of friends, Gabori jotted down his memoirs in more than 800 pages of stream of consciousness, virtually unpunctuated Hungarian. The chances of it ever becoming a published book seemed remote. But as it happened, Gabori is not the only remarkable person living in the city. In downtown Toronto the Hungarian poet George Faludy, 70, and a man named Eric Johnson share a tiny apartment with goldfinches, wild plants and the odd first edition of Erasmus. Johnson, 43, an ex-ballet dancer, ex-English-language sportscaster for Hungarian radio, ex-candidate monastic as well as ex-desk clerk at Toronto’s King Edward Hotel, is also a classics scholar currently at work on a novel in Latin. George Faludy, considered by many the greatest living Hungarian poet, became Gabori’s mentor when they met in the Recsk labor camp. Coincidentally, they both chose to come to Canada. Though it

requires little money to live as Faludy and Johnson do, it came to Gabori’s attention around the time that he finished his 800 pages of notes that the financial position of Faludy and Johnson was unusually precarious. The two men were debating whether or not to reduce the goldfinch population. True to his record of sharing every crust, Gabori’s concern became not whether a book could be created out of his notes but how he could procure some money for his friends.

It was then that Gabori became aware of a seemingly obscure fund that the secretary of state has available for the translation of multicultural material into one of Canada’s official languages. Consequently, Eric Johnson—a man of peculiar brilliance—took the 800 pages of Gabori’s material and turned them into 290 pages of superb, lean, ironic English prose. Somewhat like the Holy Ghost, hovering over Gabori’s thoughts and Johnson’s pen, was the guiding ¡2 spirit of both, the humanlist and poet George Faluydy. These three people in a mrare triumph of collaboration produced this extraordinary book to save some goldfinches from starving.

It took another maverick to complete the task. From the rolling lawns and inedible beef of Old Establishment Ontario came free-lance scholar and editor Ramsay Derry. He looked at the manuscript, shouted eureka and shepherded it into the relatively small publishing house of Deneau Publishers. As a condition of the multicultural grant, it was necessary that the book have some “Canadian significance.” And so an epilogue was tacked on noting the fact that many of the graduates of Dachau and Recsk have come to Toronto. The epilogue happened to be true. In what other land today, under what system but ours, could courage and eccentricity thrive so splendidly, driving taxis, feeding goldfinches, writing novels in Latin, encouraged by scions of the establishment and subsidized by the secretary of state. O Canada, as Gabori urges in his conclusion, we must stand on guard for thee.