"REMNANTS OF HIS CHILDHOOD"
BY ELAINE SILVER
FOR THE ARGUS-COURIER
OCT 2, 2012
Edgar Haris is the postcard image of a Northern California artist/artisan. Healthily handsome, relaxed, intelligent and comfortable in his environment as he leans back in his chair outside his studio on a sunny Petaluma day, this sculptor and metal worker is exactly who one would expect to meet in any North Bay café. But Haris’ powerful works betray an unexpected past. There is a sculpture of a building torn apart, destroyed. There’s another of an altar draped in black with the air of death. These are dark and violent images that sit in Haris’ consciousness, playing hide and seek with his reality of today. They are remnants of his childhood in Hungary under Communism and of being witness to the violent 1956 October Uprising in Budapest that for brief moments, overthrew the Soviet occupation of Hungary.
56 years after fleeing his homeland with his mother and brother and arriving in San Francisco at the age of 12, Haris’ story has importance as the record of an eye-witness to history. “On October 23rd, 1956, I came home from school and my mother said that there was a big gathering downtown,” Haris remembers, “We went to Parliament Square. There was a huge crowd. The premier of Hungary was trying to give a speech but the crowd was too noisy. Finally he got to talk and he said ‘Comrades’ and everyone started booing (comrades was the way the Soviets required that people address each other), so then he switched to ‘Fellow Hungarians.’” Soon after Haris remembers hearing gunshots and people started saying that the secret police were shooting into the crowd at the Radio Budapest. Before the uprising, life under the Soviets was oppressive, even for a child. Haris says that “everyone knew to be careful with what you said in school because there were Communist kids who would inform on classmates and on their parents. One time, a kid in my class asked the teacher why we manufacture locomotives in Hungary and they all go to the Soviet Union. The teacher could not answer. A wrong word could have gotten him killed.” Haris’ mother Susanne, he says felt the brunt of the oppression. With his father out of the picture, his mother worked for State Auto Repair Shop # 8. “For the price of cooking oil, she worked for three days,” he says. Once during the revolt, we stood in line for a day for a loaf of bread. “My brother and I had to be there with her when she waited in line because they would only give out food if each family member was there,” he remembers. But it is the uprising that is seared into Haris’ psyche. “People went after everything that smacked of Communism,” he says, “They killed everyone associated with the police or Communism. Some of them they hung from light poles. A scene of men being paraded through the streets on their way to possible death still asserts itself in Haris’ consciousness all these years later. “I grew up too fast,” he says. “No one should experience that kind of violence and turmoil, especially kids. I lost my innocence when I saw what people were capable of doing to each other. I saw humanity at its worst.”The October Uprising was quelled quickly with the Soviets reasserting their power by November 10th. But before that happened, Haris’ brother, Nino came home and reported that the borders were down and they should get out. Haris’ mother took the chance and the opportunity. Once on the train she made a deal with the conductor to connect them with a border patrol man who would guide them across. She paid the man about four months wages, culled from savings and from selling everything she could to the neighbors-- for each of them to get them to Austria. They walked a long, cold walk at the border. “But,” Haris says, “At least we weren’t being shot at.” The family spent several months in a refugee camp in Austria before making their way to Bremenhaven, Germany. An old school mate of his mother’s sponsored their entry into the United States and before long they were on a troop carrier across the Atlantic and then onto San Francisco where the family lived. Noe Valley and Haight-Ashbury were far cries from Budapest and Haris was awed by the flood of consumer goods and which appeared to him as waste of wealth and food. “I had come from a place where we had been getting our mail by horse and drawn coach. It was stark contrast he says he says.Haris’ sensitive eye sees the violence in excessive capitalism too. “It is brutal,” he says, “It is all about money and not about humanity.” And, experiencing the weeks after the attacks of September 11th,” he says, brought back to him what it felt like in 1956. “Now,” he says,” I feel like am a citizen of the planet, past nations, patriotism and all that stuff”.But the events of the Hungarian Uprising still surprise Haris in their insistence to be honored in his memory and through his art. “I want these pieces to wind up in a public place,” he says. It is his way to reminding others of the terrible effects war and violence have on all people. Haris says that he has shed a fair amount of tears making the pieces. One was inspired by the cease fire on All Soul’s Day, a week after the Uprising. “It was so nice not to hear the guns that day,” Haris says. He had passed a pair of big apartment house doors swathed in black and the image wouldn’t leave him. “I actually put 40 rounds of bullets into these doors of the sculpture. Drilling holes just didn’t seem to be the way to go. The pieces are part of my salvation. It felt really good to finish them and they are a way for others to experience what I have experienced.”