Interview with a former state orphan. Heni is 35 years old; she raised three children on her own. She was nine when her mother left her and her brother at the institution. It was not the end of family tragedies, not long after that her father was imprisoned, her mother died. How was it possible to carry on after such childhood trauma?
Why were you taken to the institution?
Both of my parents had serious alcohol problems, they argued a lot, and my father was violent. We didn’t have money for school equipment, hardly any for clothes. My aunt arranged that we were separated from the family, but being seriously ill, she couldn’t look after us. My grandmother wanted only me, but it was not possible because of her age. First, we were taken to Debrecen, to the GYIVI (Institution of Children’s and Young Adults’ Protection), then to Hajdúnánás, and later to the SOS Children’s Village Kecskemét.
What is your first memory of the first day?
Our parents told us that we were to be taken to an institution. My mother and my aunt took us there. I was left behind the bars, crying hard. I realised then that I must stay there without my mum. I was undressed, washed, and treated with an ointment against lice, I was given new clothes and we were introduced to the community. It was a dog-eat-dog world, but I was lucky. I was taken under the wing of an older child who told the others that I was not to be hurt, I had protection. We stayed there for three months. I don’t remember one occasion that we stepped out of the door. Only bunk beds, the doors with bars, and girls separated from the boys. We could meet only in the classroom. I don’t remember ever playing in the courtyard neither.
Did your parents go to see you?
They came to the institution maybe two or three times. Later they promised to come to see us but they didn’t. they once pleaded until we were allowed to go home at the weekend. My brother was on summer vacation, so I went home without him. I was very happy for that, but when my parents started to drink and fight, I ran away, back to the institution. They never asked again to take us home.
You lived in three different places. Could you stay together with your brother?
The 80’s and 90’s were not the best time for siblings to stay together, but my relatives asked that we both were taken to Hajdúnánás, so that they can keep in touch with us. My SOS parent wanted to bring only me, but she felt sorry for my brother, who was attending a special school since he stopped developing when he was 13, and she said that he might come too.
I have a sister too; she was put into the infants’ home in Debrecen. It was next to the GYIVI. We asked several times that we can go to see her, but we were not allowed, then we were told that she was adopted in a closed adoption, so they could not tell us where she was. When I was nineteen, I met a private detective, I asked him to look for her, then it turned out that she was not adopted, but in fact lived a few kilometres from my place. I did not want to disturb her little life, I thought I would come to see her in secret time to time. Then one time my phone was ringing, and it was her foster-mother. They checked her dossier; this is how they found me.
How was your parents’ life?
My mother died in 1992, and my father was imprisoned then. I did not keep in touch with him. He was sentenced to five years in prison, but he was released earlier because of good conduct. Later he died too.
What crime did he commit?
He cut my mother’s artery, which lead to my mothers death. He was imprisoned for this. It was not considered a murder because my mother was drunk. It is assumed that he cut her; then went to sleep, my mother bled to death by the morning. At the time we were on summer vacation in a camp, and we were not told what had happened, as to not to ruin our holiday. We were not present at the funeral, but I think that was a good decision.
Were you angry with your father?
When he went to prison, he tried to start a correspondence with me but I told him that I didn’t want to keep in touch with him. I was 12 years old. After he was released, I took my sister to see him. When I saw our house I stopped on the corner and took a deep breath. I was thinking about how important it was for my sister to see her father once in her lifetime, as she didn’t have the chance to meet her mother, for whom she was always waiting to come. I told my father how I felt, I was able to stand in front of him and tell him face to face, and so I was able to put an end to it. I asked him why he had done it. He told me ‘I didn’t mean to, believe me my daughter, if I was aware that she was a trouble, I would have helped.’ That was all he said. That was our only meeting, and I didn’t pay attention to it any more.
How was your relationship with your mother?
I was strongly attached to her; she was a very good person. If I could have known that she would die so early, I would have felt sorry for all the time I did not spend with her. I had planned to go to work when I turned eighteen and I send her money.
How could your foster mother replace your mother by blood?
I had a good relationship with my foster mother. I was entering in my teens, so we had our little fights, for example, when I went to work from the disco. It must have been hard for her to make the children open up to her. She was a good parent, she kept us clean, and she was concerned about us. I did not need any more than that. I could have never accepted her as my mother because I knew I had another. Everyone was aware of that. It was similar in all other houses, the sentence “you are not my mother” was often heard. My foster mother always strengthened the feeling of what was our real family and where we had come from.
We are meeting in the SOS Village. Are you attached to this place?
I still come back regularly, but all people of whom I have come to see will leave soon. My foster mother is retired, I do not keep in touch with her, and it’s very rare that we phone each other. I am still in contact with my SOS aunt; I come to see her every couple of days. But this is rather like visiting your former teacher.
What helped you to get through this hard story?
The other children in the institution. We had similar lives. For example when I was taken there, my leg was scarred because I was burnt with hot milk when I was three, I was always wearing socks because I was ashamed of it. We were playing outside in the sandbox and they asked why I didn’t take them off. They asked to take a look at my leg. Then I took off my socks, they caressed my leg and my shame was gone. They could touch me. I was a crybaby at first, I was always sulking about everything, I have became harder now, I can hardly ever cry.
You left SOS Village when you were eighteen. How was your life after that?
I had an SOS sister, with whom I planned to move in with, but she became pregnant and went home, and I stayed in an apartment on my own. I wanted to study as well. I graduated in two years, while I was working in the catering trade. The SOS village supported me but they could not pay for my apartment and all of my needs. I managed to climb the ladder of success. First I studied to become a sales advisor in a store, then I became financial assistant, I graduated and then I finished teacher’s training college. I met my partner when I was twenty, we had a little house and I gave birth to my first daughter when I was twenty-eight. Now our children are four, six and eight years old. We do not live together any more, but we have a good relationship. Now I work as a waiter because I still didn’t take the language exam. My children were born so I had to postpone it, but I will try it in September. If I am kicked out of the door, I will climb back through the window.
It is the English translation of this article.
Translated by Regina Bodonovits
Reviewed by Jessica Mazey Holland