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NYFS Newsletter 1998-vol19-no3-1
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Spring/Summer 1999 Newsletter

Eniko Farkas: Community Scholar
Karen Taussig-Lux and Deborah Clover

When you walk through the front door of Eniko Farkas’ house and into the living room, your first impression is that you have entered a mini-folk art museum, and it is hard to walk through it without stopping and looking. Displayed in china cabinets, framed and mounted on the walls are exquisite examples of the various types of Hungarian embroideries and laces she has made and collected over the years. Each table is graced with an exquisitely stitched cloth or doily, and brightly patterned embroidered pillows perch on the sofa and chairs. The enchanting smells of goulash, fresh bread and lekvaros bukta (fruit-filled cookies) lure you into the kitchen, where you are confronted with another stunning example of her creativity: a cupboard on which she has painted a stunningly beautiful embroidery pattern of flowers in bold reds, greens, blues, yellows, and purples. The pattern, composed of new buds, opening blossoms and fully emerged flowers, symbolizes the life and growth of a woman.

It is clear from only a few moments in her house that Eniko is a prolific and highly skilled traditional embroiderer, and a fabulous cook. After speaking with her, it soon becomes apparent that she is also a woman of strong intellectual drive who has worked hard to document the story of her community’s past over the years and who has a fascinating life story of her own.

Eniko was born in 1941, and grew up in the town of Vacs in Hungary. At 14, she had completed elementary school but was barred from high school because of her parents’ class position. Her father had held a minor post in city government before the war and faced discrimination under the Soviet-dominated regime because he was considered middle-class. Because he had difficulty securing work, her family struggled financially. Unwilling to be a burden on them, she found a job through her aunt in Budapest, working underage in a rag factory. This circumstance put her in the middle of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. [See Eniko’s description of the events of those days in the Voices’ selection, Crossing the Border: Stories of the 56ers]. Her aunt’s apartment was located in the heart of the rebel district, and Eniko was literally caught in the crossfire, trapped in her aunt’s apartment for days at a time. It was during this fearful yet rather boring time that she took up embroidery. "I taught myself to embroider during the hostilities when there was nothing else to do but to wait to die while the Soviet tanks fired on our apartment building. We didn’t die, and I continued to embroider." Both her participation in this historical event and her passion for embroidery have remained lasting influences on her throughout her life.

The aftermath of the revolution opened opportunities for Eniko; some educational restrictions were eased. "In the spring of 1957, I realized that I was going to soon be 16, and after that regular high school and the possibility of higher education were out of my reach forever. My heart was aching to be in high school like most other children my age. I was also miserable for a lack of intellectual environment. With my aunt’s promise of financial support, I decided to try once more to be accepted for admission by Geologist Technician School. This time I made it in! At the age of sixteen, finally, I was a high school student." Despite high grades and winning a scholastic competition she was unable to continue her studies at the university because of her sympathies with the revolutionaries and the fact that she was female.

Eniko worked as a geologist technician, following her company’s drilling rig around the country, identifying deposits in the drilling cores, and ultimately writing reports at the company headquarters. After working four years she became interested in learning English so that she could translate scientific articles in her field; no one in her company could read English. Her aunt, who had fled Hungary after the revolution and immigrated to the United States, invited her to visit. While staying with her in Ithaca, New York, with its large Hungarian community, she met Louis Farkas, fell in love, and decided to marry him and stay.

With no job in this country and as yet, little English, Eniko turned to embroidery for a creative outlet, and this time her interest deepened. v "At first [doing embroidery] was somewhat painful [because of her homesickness]. But I enjoyed doing the embroidery so much and seeing the colors and the designs emerge, that at one point it was no longer painful, but it was something to look forward to very much. It was a sort of relaxation. It was not only for enjoyment; it was also for disappointments. When there were problems I would sit down and embroider. After a while I would get rid of some amount of frustration by doing the embroidery and enjoying it."

Over time, she taught herself stitches and styles from every region in Hungary and became well known as an expert on many different types of embroidery. She has been a teacher for the Embroidery Guild of America, for whom she developed a national correspondence course, has published numerous articles on lace making, and has published a bibliography of lace-related literature. Her work has been featured in a number of exhibitions, and she is in demand as a speaker and demonstrator.

While Eniko is well known as an embroiderer, needle skills comprise only a part of her interests. Her intellectual curiosity has remained a propelling force. "The embroidery was not enough. I started to take courses at Tompkins-Cortland Community College. And whenever I took a course, I was hoping it was going to improve my various work situations. And in the end it turned out that I actually took enough courses to think about compiling a degree." Her last position (she is now retired) was as a book preservation technician at Cornell University Library, which enabled her to take courses there. She fulfilled her dream of receiving a university education, ultimately earning a B.A. degree in Art History from Cornell in 1997. At the same time she initiated a number of projects documenting the history and culture of Hungarians in Tompkins County.

"My early life in Hungary, surrounded by the stories and history of the time ignited my lifelong interest in the experiences of the Hungarian people. Following my immigration to the United States in 1965, my interest took a scholarly form when I discovered that, in addition to the 56er immigrants [refugees from the 1956 Hungarian Revolution], Hungarians comprised the largest pre-WWI immigrant group in my new home of Ithaca, New York. Yet, despite their presence and history in the region, there had been no public discussion or presentation of them as an ethnic group. After waiting 10 years for someone else to write our history, I realized that, if we wanted to be visible with our history and contributions recorded, we needed to document ourselves."

"I began learning how to do oral history interviews, and in 1986, self-published the booklet They Were Not Well To Do People, But Having a Piano Was Important, a collection of interviews with Ithaca Hungarian immigrants. I knew the people and language, and I understood the history and culture, but lacked training in interpreting and presenting my findings. It was disheartening that, at the time, no one in a position to help me took an interest in my work. Additional training was not available to me. It was another 10 years before I was finally encouraged and supported in pursuing my idea of collecting the border crossing stories of Ithaca Hungarian 56ers. I’ve now renewed and expanded that research to include 56er immigrants living in other Central New York communities."

She received this encouragement in a class she took at Cornell on local history with social historian Carol Kammen. Carol directed her to the New York Folklore Society. Since then, NYFS and Eniko have been engaged in a mutually beneficial relationship, with staff offering suggestions and encouragement on her documentation projects and Eniko, in turn, advising NYFS on its various community outreach projects. Through the society’s Mentoring Program, she has received training on interviewing skills from folklorist Yvonne Lockwood and with her own mentorship taught members of the Hungarian Club of Rochester how to collect 56er stories in their community.

Another recent project of Eniko’s is the publication of her cookbook, Hungarian Cuisine and Personal Memories: Everything from Budget Cooking to Elegant Dining, a collection of succulent recipes learned from her mother, interwoven with recollections of daily life from her youth. [See Eniko’s Hungarian goulash recipe here.] In a future project she plans to interview and document the lives of other embroiderers in Central New York State who immigrated to the United States from another country. She is also involved in planning an exhibition about Hungarians in Rochester. This fall she will make a presentation at the American Folklore Society meeting in Portland, Oregon.

Reflecting on the work she has done over the years, Eniko comments, "One thing that I think would be extremely useful—that people who are professionals in their fields would have a really accepting and encouraging attitude to us—people that they run across by accident. Because I think community scholars have a very important place—not the only place. You know it’s like the way Michael Kammen, my history professor from Cornell, used to say, that history is like a compilation of points of view. There is not one correct point of view, and not only one point of view about history. It’s always the summation of various situations. Community scholars have one voice, other people have a voice too."

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“...Hungarians comprised the largest pre-WWI immigrant group in my new home of Ithaca, New York....After waiting 10 years for someone else to write our history, I realized that, if we wanted to be visible with our history and contributions recorded, we needed to document ourselves.”
—Eniko Farkas
Photo of Eniko Farkas
Eniko Farkas demonstrating Hungarian embroidery at Schweinfurth Art Center, Auburn, NY

Photo of embroidery display
Interpretive embroidery display, Eniko Farkas, Schweinfurth Art Center, Auburn, NY. Photograph by Karen Taussig-Lux.

A community folklore scholar is an individual who has shown a significant contribution to the collection, preservation and presentation of traditional culture in a community or region, without formal training in folklore or an allied field.
—Betty Belanus, Community Scholar Survey: A Report on Responses and Preliminary Database, Center for Folklife Programs and Cultural Studies, Smithsonian Institution, 1995.

From her own experience Eniko knows that people who document their own community often need training and other forms of assistance. The following are some of the types of support she and others have found to be particularly important:

Mentorship. An ongoing relationship with a professional who can look at the community project, assess its strengths and weaknesses, give advice on how to proceed, and offer encouragement.

Training opportunities for developing interview and research skills—including workshops on folklore and folklife and library and Internet searches.

Technical training in audio recording and photography. Information on various ways to present documentation to the public, such as demonstrations, exhibitions, festivals, and archives.

Information on how to make the results of a documentation project publishable; how to find a publisher; how a community group or individual can self-publish.

Bibliographies on folklore, folklife, and the specific subject of the project.

Locating potential community scholars and encouraging them to research their group.

Networking opportunities—ways to meet and communicate with peers in other communities.

Funding sources for community projects.

Grant writing and fundraising skills.

See Eniko’s own recollections of the Hungarian Revolution along with her interviews with refugees who fled to America in Crossing the Border: Stories of the 56ers.

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