An Interview with Mihaly Tapolyai
Listening to MihÃ¡ly Tapolyai is like hearing a panoramic of Eastern European history. He is a psychiatrist adventurer who likes to be where the action is. As a young man he resisted the Nazis and the Communists, smuggled Bibles when they were contraband, spent time in prison, took part in several freedom movements, and was present when Russian tanks rumbled into Prague to quell the Czech Rebellion. After the following interview, when war was tearing through Kosovo, he sent me an email expressing his sadness at not being able to get through to Yugoslavia where he has spoken at several conferences and knew people who were in need. One of his books, Hymn from Prison, is a fascinating tale of his faith, dependence on God, and impact on the lives of others during his incarceration for trying to cross a border during the days of Communism.
He has been active in developing the Hungarian Christian Alcoholics Anonymous Fellowship, has worked in prisons, counseled and preached to traumatized victims of war in several eastern European countries, and become a pioneer radio broadcaster, hosting the first call in program in Transylvania, Romania. He has practiced as a Christian child psychiatrist and taught psychology and counseling at the State University of Babes Bolyai as well as the Protestant Seminary in Cluj, Transylvania. Mih ¡ly Tapolyai lives alone in a third floor apartment in Budapest. Standing in his apartment late one night, we looked at the snow covered park below, aglow in the faint light of a street lamp. I stand here often and watch the children, he said. It is a scene that brings peace to a lonely old man. He may be elderly and lonely, but he continues to make a difference as an unsung hero in his part of the world.
*Tell us about your background.*
*MT:* I was born in Hungary, in the region of Tokaj, which is famous form wine. I went to university during the WWII and finished at the University of Budapest Medical School just after the war. It was very hard, but we made jokes about the problems, even about the bombing.
*Was Hungary at war on the German side?*
*MT:* Yes. After the WWI, Hungary was divided into six parts. Some areas went to Slovakia, some to Yugoslavia, others to Austria and Poland. The only part that remained was in the center. It was just for cows and farming. We were surrounded by a federation of anti-Hungarian countries such as Czechoslovakia, Romania, and Yugoslavia, who wanted to divide the country further. But before the WWII, Hitler came down to the Hungarian-inhabited regions to bring us political justice so we were on the German side during the war.
*How did you get into psychiatry?*
*MT:* After I got my diploma in 1947, I became a village doctor, a general practitioner because I enjoyed helping people in the small villages. Then, after three years of country practice, I went to the next town, got my specialization in psychiatry after four years, and three years later I got a neurological specialization. After several more years I got the child psychiatry specialization also. I still like to study, to learn.
*Were you a Christian during all this time?*
*MT:* In 1943, when I was 22 years old, a friend in the dormitory where I lived in Budapest gave a testimony about his conversion and guided me to listen to a very important medical professor who was a believer. I became a believer as well.
*What did you do once you had completed all your training?*
*MT:* I came to Budapest and tried to work here, but slowly I also became involved in rescuing prisoners. My first rescue mission began during the war. The Christian students used to visit the Jews, examine them, and bring them medication. We had to keep passports and switch passports to save people who were guarded by SS soldiers. This was my first inspiration to do this work. And after the war, when the communists took over and the Russians were here, I decided to do something similar with Christians. It started first with my own pastor, who had been sentenced almost to death because he supposedly had formed a conspiracy, but it was not true. I had a team of young people, and we started smuggling Bibles, bread, food, and small written tracks to the many Christians who were put in concentration camps.
*You smuggled things into those concentration camps? How did you get out?*
*MT:* The same way that I got in! Under the wires. That was my mission. I think we helped a lot of people.
*Were you also practicing psychiatry at the time?*
*MT:* Yes, on the weekends, I went to the countryside and visited my clients in the name of the church. Sometimes I took letters hidden in my shoes.
*Did the authorities know that you were doing this?*
*MT:* No. Once I was caught, but I resisted with words. That was in the 1950s. In the 60s, I smuggled Bibles into Romania. One time I was caught at the Romanian border with the Bibles. I was arrested, I escaped, I was again arrested, and I was imprisoned in Poland. I wrote about this in a book called Hymn from Prison.
*Remember how Paul and Silas sang hymns? How long were you in prison?*
*MT:* Three months, but Amnesty International intervened through the help of Dr. Paul Tournier! He wrote this letter: Thank you for your kind letter, and I am in great sympathy with you. I remember with honor your father. I sent your letter forward to Amnesty International, which will be the most able to help. With best wishes to you, very sincerely, Paul Tournier. One of my own children wrote to him.
*So you were practicing psychiatry, doing evangelism, and smuggling Bibles all at the same time. When you were practicing psychiatry, was it uniquely Christian in any way? Did you bring your faith into your counseling?*
*MT:* Of course! For example, we had special healing conferences for a week in the summer regularly. I’ve been doing this for 50 years since 47 or 48. Every morning we have a Bible study, that is problem oriented. Then, later in the morning, I give a lecture. The next conference, for example, has the theme Healing for Nervous People. We will talk about why people are nervous, how to handle loss and frustration, ways to cope, and issues of maturity and identity. After the lectures we do role playing, and in the evening before going to bed, we have a devotional meditation, a short preaching, and praying together.
*When you studied psychiatry, the theories you studied were opposed to religion. You were a Christian. How did you bring your faith and your psychiatry together?*
*MT:* In those early days, the pastors and churches ignored the human soul. They knew much about hermeneutics but did not understand people, emotions, or the causes of human actions. One pastor said to me We learned in the theological seminary that Freud, Jung, and Adler the classical psychologists were not just atheists but occultists. I replied that these people searched for the truth in the occult, ignoring the church. But they were able to explain things that the church could not. For instance, Freud spoke about emotions in ourselves that we cannot control but that possess us.
*Was it difficult to practice Christian psychiatry in Eastern Europe?*
*MT:* Yes, after my arrest I stayed in Hungary for two years, but there were some provocations, and I did not want to die, so I escaped to the West with the help of a Venezuelan Indian doctor. He had come here to learn how to make his country communistic, but he became a Christian through my testimony. He helped me escape. If I had been caught, I would have been in prison for life, because I had already been in prison. Instead I went to Paris and then to America, where I lived for eight years and worked in a mental institution in Cleveland. Later I was invited to be a counselor in a church, but they did not report me to the Social Security people and never paid me anything so I did not have money. Even now I have no pension.
*What you think about Christian psychiatry and Christian counseling today?*
*MT:* Here in Hungary, counseling is very structured, very theoretical. I prefer the practical American counseling system. It is pure, clear, and really helpful. I am trying to make some changes here. Tomorrow evening, for example, some young pastors will come who are very interested in counseling. They are good Christians, but they have lost contact with the world. They cannot relate to the very atheistic and almost demonic world around them. Christians here are overly pious, and therefore isolated from the realistic life. In Hungary, we need teachers who teach sound spirituality.
*I know you have a radio ministry, you still do the conferences, and you meet with pastors, but what else can be done to make Christian counseling better in Hungary?*
*MT:* Hold conferences. But there is a big resistance on the part of the churches. Many of the positions in the churches were filled by the communist party, so they don’t trust others and they are not trustworthy. *What about young pastors of good churches? They teach from the Bible and talk to their parishioners on Sunday. Cant they help individuals or couples who have problems?*
*MT:* They could, but they do so without training or qualifications.
They do what they do instinctively.
*Let me ask you about Hungarian psychiatrists and psychologists. How do they respond to somebody like you being a Christian?*
*MT:* They accept that I am a Christian, but they ignore me. Sometimes I get resistance, most often from Christians. They say, You have this call-in radio program that does counseling. I was born here, I lived always here, but nobody has ever asked me to say a word on the radio. You came here from America and now you are always speaking through the radio. What you do is terrible. You haven’t mentioned your wife.
*MT:* My wife was a nice person, and I loved her. After three years in
Romania, she asked me How long should we live here? That was a big misery at that time. She said to me, You work here among these people who want to stone you . And I said, Well, this is my task, I have to stay. She left me and ran back to America, where she found a counseling position with the Mennonite church. She does not want to come back. But if I go there as a 77-year-old person, what can I do in the United States? I cannot start a new life. I have no Social Security. I have more security here, and I can continue my work in Yugoslavia, Romania, Slovenia, and in other places where people need my help.
*What would you say to Christian counselors in the United States?*
I read American books, but most authors want to please the evangelical mentality. As it happened here with the communists, everybody uses the same phrases, the same words, the same expressions, and thinks in the same ways. We central and Eastern European Christians have experienced such horrors, wars, deportations, and concentration camps that the ideal lemonade pictures we get in books can never grasp us. Find a therapist for immediate help.
These books deal too much with self-justification and turn everyday readers against God. Life is harsh here. We need realistic answers from the Scriptures. I am a Hungarian by birth, but I became also an American, so I know both sides, and I love both. My heart is Hungarian; my mind is mostly American. I like the American lifestyle. But I cannot go back now. How could I exist there alone? So I am here, ready to share in writing, in speaking, in helping. Online therapy can be helpful to get rid of such problems.
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