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  • Beth Lantinga

Ilona Racsok - Chemist and Pastor

At the end of his life, Jozsef Berenyi saw reasons for hope, and one sign was his daughter, Ilona Racsok. Only after the changes of 1989 when the communist regime collapsed, Ilona could follow her goal of earning a seminary degree. By 2003, she was a full-fledged pastor. One beautiful June afternoon my colleague Janos Erdos, Ilona's daughter Gabi, and I set off for a conversation with her mother. First we walked through her large garden planted with vegetables and drifts of bright flowers. And then we settled in her living room for a more formal conversation.

We learned that as a young person, she was not allowed to fulfill her life’s dream of becoming a pastor. It was feared that she would corrupt young people with the reactionary thinking of her father. Instead, she was only allowed to train in the natural sciences and went on to become a chemist.

Yesterday I spent a good deal of time looking for the disk holding photos from our visit to Ilona Racsok, but alas, I could not put my finger on it. So I'll describe her from memory. Ilona was a slender woman with shoulder length grey hair and weary eyes. Her garden was one of great

beauty, and she created lovely needlework. Many hours of her day were spent tenderly caring for her ill daughter. I was a recipient of her generous spirit and carried home a needlework from her hands. She spoke with quiet determination.

Sugar Factory Chemist

“So, I became a chemist and got a job at the Szerencs Sugar Works. We moved to the town of Szerencs because the secondary school where my husband had been teaching had closed. I went to the personnel director at the sugar works to apply for a position. He had some tough questions for me. When I told him that I was a Christian and I attend church, he asked how it was possible that I had been able to complete my studies at the university. I must have had a strange expression on my face when I told him that I didn’t know that the two things were related. Then he asked me what I would do if he referred me to further ideological training if that was a part of my laboratory manager position. I told him if that was a part of it, I would take the training since I had been able to learn those ideological subjects at the university as well. It is another question how one stores and selects those things in her heart or mind.

At my work it soon became clear that how we did our work didn’t really matter. What mattered was the results we reported. For example, my supervisors insisted on ‘measuring’ the sugar content of sugar-beet in its crystalized form. I complained that this was nonsense. My fellow workers warned that I would have to pay for my honesty. I asked why. One worker told me I wouldn’t get a bonus. I told them, ‘So what? It would not be the end of the world.’ They also told me that I would be fired if I was not willing to falsify the data. However, to my great surprise at the end of the year I received the highest bonus, and I did not have to attend the ideological training, although it was promised that I would. Even today I do not know how all that happened.

And Finally a Pastor

After the change in the early 1990s, Ilona fulfilled her life’s dream and completed a seminary degree. Now she preaches regularly in a small Reformed congregation. At the time of our conversation, Ilona was reading and typing her father’s memoir, and was troubled to discover just how terrible the times had been. To see how the communist-inspired church leadership had treated her father and many others was disturbing.

Life in the Village of Bojt

“Reading my father’s notes, I was pondering that for us children, our time in the village of Bojt was one of the most peaceful periods of our lives. As children we did feel something of the fearful atmosphere of ’56. There were guns shooting, darkness. But after that we experienced those years in an unbelievably peaceful atmosphere. Yet, it’s true, I saw my mother cry many times, but I didn’t ever see my father cry. At that time wise parents said nothing to their children. A child cannot really know what is happening, and if we had spoken out of turn, it could have led to the imprisonment of our parents. We were very young then. I was 13 when we moved from Debrecen. So, we could not know about particular things: why father is leaving? why the police are here? We did not know the painful details; we only knew that we had to live this way.

There’s a Hungarian movie called, Soha, Sehol, Senkinek, meaning never, nowhere, to nobody. The film is about the tragic life of a family who were deported from Budapest to a controlled territory in the country. In the film the father explains to his son that whatever he sees or hears at home, he should never and nowhere tell anybody anything. That’s how we lived.

I have one memory about the police coming to our home in Debrecen. We were sitting in the kitchen - we had a large kitchen – and then two policemen came, making a fuss and shouting. I don’t remember what they said, but I know we children were frightened. Later when we had moved to Bojt, I remember that one time my six-year-old brother said, ‘Father, why did we move here if the police find us here too?’

In Bojt the police came three times a week. I remember something else. We did not have a gas cooker in our kitchen just a gas ring. I remember my mother and her best friend standing there in the kitchen. I heard them speak about a verse they received that morning from Isaiah 54: ‘No weapon forged against you will prevail.’ When we moved to Bojt, it was comforting to have that verse on the wall, hanging above a table in the vestibule. And indeed, no weapon forged against us did prevail.

I have vivid memories of a professor at the Debrecen Reformed Theological Seminary. When my father was on his forced study leave, this professor was his supervisor. We had been friends with their family and often visited each other. I do not know whether they called each other friends, but there seemed to be a good relationship for we often met. As a child I knew nothing of the fact that this professor betrayed my father. When I stayed at the Debrecen College, I regularly looked after the children of this professor. When the parents had an evening program, they just sent for me upstairs in the dormitory and I went to help.

I think it was a noble gesture on my parents’ part that they did not tell me about the professor’s actions. I learned about it only many years after. About ten years ago I met this old and aged professor. When we met, he recognized me and embraced me with tears on his face. He asked me to forgive him. I can say honestly that I have never felt judgmental or angry toward him. But still it was good that we met then. It gave him peace, I think. He also met my father and they settled the matter between the two of them.

Young Hope

I think my generation was influenced by a lot of worldly things and the popular theology, but the seeds of the revival were also planted in us. When I am negative about the condition of our church, I tend to say that our generation must die out and only then can renewal come. We are not willing to bow/yield, to humble ourselves. There is nothing else God can do with us. I think this is also true of the world: our generation must disappear. It is our children and grandchildren through whom God will do something. I think it is God’s grace that we have an insight, a vision through our parents’ lives. It is by the grace of God that in today’s world and in the present state of our church our children are Christians. I am more and more convinced that we should pray for revival.”


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