Actress Mari Törőcsik on racism and refugees

One of Hungary’s most celebrated actresses, Mari Törőcsik, is turning 80 this month. When she was approached by the conservative Mandiner website for an interview, she indicated that speaking about contemporary politics was not something with which she felt comfortable. “One side kicks me, while the other lifts me up onto a pedestal–that’s not something that I need,” said Ms. Törőcsik to Mandiner journalist András Stumpf, explaining that up until now, she managed to avoid being perceived as an artist with specific party political leanings, and that she wanted to keep it that way. It is, however, fairly clear that Ms. Törőcsik’s own worldview is generally liberal or perhaps more appropriately, humanistic.

Mr. Stumpf, who argued that he was not adequately versed in the world of professional theatre to conduct a meaningful interview on this front, inquired about Ms. Törőcsik’s decision, many decades ago, to adopt a Vietnamese boy called Son, following the Vietnam War and did so as a way of having her broach the subject of refugees today.

By the early 1960’s, Ms. Törőcsik had built a national reputation as an actress, thanks to her starring role in the film Körhinta (Merry-Go-Round), from 1956, which was nominated for a Palme d’or at the Cannes Film Festival. In 1976, Ms. Törőcsik received the best actress award at the Cannes Film Festival for her role in the film Mrs. Déry, where are you?  The film was directed by her husband, Gyula Maár.

By  the time of the Vietnam War, which she followed closely and which horrified her, Ms. Törőcsik was one of the country’s most prominent actresses, both in theatre and film. In a completely matter-of-fact manner, Ms. Törőcsik recounted to Mandiner, how she contacted the upper echelons of the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party (MSZMP) leadership, wanting to see if they would allow her to adopt a child from Vietnam.

“My name is Mari Törőcsik. Now tell me: Am I allowed to adopt a foreigner?”–the actress inquired over the phone from János Berecz, a member of the MSZMP Central Committee. She was told that as far as Hungary was concerned, she could adopt whomever she wanted, but was quickly warned that the Vietnamese, in particular, were unlikely to give anyone up for foreign adoption.

Ms. Törőcsik would not give up. She phoned Hungary’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Frigyes Puja, who was able to intervene and, adding to her good fortune, Vietnam’s foreign minister at the time had previously served as ambassador in Budapest, where he had seen Ms. Törőcsik on stage. He was so impressed with her acting, that Ms. Törőcsik was told that if she travelled to Vietnam, she could select any orphaned child for adoption.

Ms. Törőcsik, however, refused to select a child from thousands of orphans, and so she was simply “given” one by Vietnamese authorities.

The boy, named Son, moved to Hungary to live with Ms. Törőcsik and her husband, Gyula Maár.

Mari Törőcsik

Mari Törőcsik

One of the most intriguing aspects of the interview was when Mr. Stumpf asked Ms. T0rőcsik about racism and whether any was directed at her adopted son. Ms. Törőcsik was quick to note that Son was well-liked in her small home town, yet it was clear from her words that as a visible minority, Son was the target of some intense discrimination.

“Listen here,” Ms. Törőcsik  told Mr. Stumpf, “they loved my son in the village. We lived there at that time and Son had never seen snow. When we took him sledding for the first time, they applauded him. They taught him and played with him. They not only loved him in elementary school, but also in the Petőfi Secondary School. ”

The problems, however, started at the time of the change in regime, in 1989. Skinheads made an appearance in Budapest and elsewhere in Hungary during the nineties.

“He was walking down Váci Street one day and behind him were skinheads. Nowadays, there aren’t too many of them, but back then this was more common. ‘Dirty gook-eyed Asian bastard, you’ll be kicked out of here!”’ recounts Ms. Törőcsik what they told her son.

But it wasn’t just this incident that ultimately convinced Son to leave Hungary. On one occasion, he was stopped by police, who were clearly engaging in racial profiling, and asked to show his ID. When the officers saw that Mari Törőcsik was listed as Son’s mother, they automatically assumed that the ID must be fake and simply could not fathom that the prominent actress could have a child adopted from overseas. The police phoned Ms. Törőcsik to see if this was true, and while on the phone, the actress could hear at the other end another officer yelling at her Son: “Yeah sure, we’ll believe you, you dirty Asian idiot!”

One of Son’s teachers disliked  him as well. When Son asked his mother if the hatred stemmed from the fact that he was of Vietnamese origins, Ms. Törőcsik told him that this was not necessarily the case. “Maybe the teacher just hates me,” she told Son, perhaps to console him somewhat.

Then when Son started courting a Hungarian girl in the Budapest suburb of Budakeszi and her parents realized that their daughter’s potential boyfriend was a visible minority, they made a racial slur, calling him “a dirty Asian animal” and indicated that he would never be allowed in their home.

Son ended up returning to Vietnam to attend university. Despite living in a loving home and while he was generally well-liked in his mother’s small home town, racism–some of it systemic–convinced him to leave Hungary.

Mr. Stumpf used this story to fairly naturally broach the topic of Syrian refugees in Europe and whether the EU should accept more.

“This is such a complicated question, that one cannot answer with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ I am very old…” said Ms. Törőcsik, and then added: “I love Gáspár Miklós Tamás so much, that words can’t even express. But I sit there in front of the television set, arguing with him loudly.” Ms. Törőcsik was speaking about the prominent left-wing political philosopher, who had called on Hungary and the EU to accept large numbers of refugees. Ms. Törőcsik’s concern with the refugees is not that she is worried about them changing the cultural make-up of the continent, but rather the EU’s inability to cope with the massive influx and the growing issue of homelessness on the streets of German cities.

“It pains me terribly. You known, when you’re young, it’s possible to get over things very easily. At that point in one’s life, you are still just finding yourself. But now that I am on my way out of life, human suffering is terribly painful for me to witness,” said Ms. Törőcsik.

Despite not being deeply involved in the world of sophisticated politics and savvy political communication or deep philosophical discourse, Ms. Törőcsik’s humanism really comes across, often in simple words and through anecdotes, in her most recent interview.


  1. Racism is so prevalent in Hungary. People often speak about racism directed against Roma, but try being a black person or an Asian in Hungary. It’s racism mixed with open mockery, and nobody thinks that this is inappropriate.

  2. Racism or racial discrimination? For me those two things are not the same. And toward whom? And with or without reason? Based upon hatred or fear?

    Hungarians discriminate or hate Vietnamese, Muslims, Gypsies, or the yellow or black? So what? Do They like the Hungarians? Are THEY free from racism, or racial or religious discrimination. Try to live among the Arabs, the Muslims if you want to learn about racial or religious discrimination. Why to go there on the other hand? They come to Europe and build their own Muslim societies and isolate themselves in their living districts in big European capitals. Try to enter their living quarters, you never come out alive. That’s what you get in your very own homeland. Try to put on your necklace with a little cross. That’s what you get.

    On the other hand look at the long list of the Gypsies the Hungarians are proud of. There is no racial discrimination for them. Because they are just great and no one cares if they are Gypsies or not. Not everybody are racists. There are many nice people.

    Racism and racial as well as religious discrimination exists and is not a specifically Hungarian thing, therefore it cannot be cured locally. What’s more, when it comes to cure it, they should begin with the most extreme countries and I am sure the smaller countries like Hungary would follow the good sample soon.

  3. No racial discrimination against Gypsies in Hungary? What fairytale land is Richard from?

    Random anecdote: I remember when I went looking for a cheaper apartment, and found an ad for one on Nepszinhaz street that looked okay. The apartment was pleasant and well-kept, if small; the owner was very friendly. When we walked down the stairs after my visit, he gestured reassuringly at the surrounding apartments: “oh, and this is a ‘clean’ building!” I looked back at him, uncomprehendingly, though I’d kind of guessed what was coming. He didn’t mean “clean” in the literal sense, but in a metaphorical way. “There are no gypsies!”

    Random other anecdote: A friend of mine had a Roma father and a white Hungarian mother. She looked white and didn’t dare tell her schoolmates she was half-Gypsy, because she knew what their reactions would be. So instead she sat in the bus and looked away while schoolmates pointed at Roma people outside and said they were dirty thieves.

    • No, no, no. I did not say there is no racial discrimination against Gypsies in Hungary, I said there is no racial discrimination for those Gypsies the Hungarians proud of. This is just one of the differences between pure racism and racial discrimination. Selective. 🙂

      Also, I said “Not everybody are racists. There are many nice people.” This is true as well. Not only Torocsik. How many helping hands we could see feeding the refugees in the midst of the billboard hate campaign. That’s why I don’t like the generalization of Hungarians are xenophobe and racist. Not all, many of them are not, why to hurt them.

      And although the headline used the word “racism” Torocsik used a more proper word reflecting on this issue, expressing herself saying “Son was the target of some intense discrimination.”

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