The Smell of Wet Soil

An interview with Paul de Vladar Teleki.

by Harold P. de Vladar, 2014. 122 pp. Color.

Genre: Interview, including historical photographic plates and other documentation material.

Synopsis: Paul de Vladar Teleki (née Muthnai és Nagycsepcsényi Vladár Pál, 1925-2013) faced a fate not uncommon to many other Hungarians of last century. When 17, he had to suddenly leave the country just before the borders were closed by the upcoming communist regime in 1943. Having had an aristocratic upbringing he and his family were political targets. They had to find their way out of their native country to –unexpectedly– land in the Latin America. The book “The Smell of Wet Soil” is an interview to Paul, performed by his grand son Harold P. de Vladar. In it, Paul explores his roots, which coalesce back not to decades but to centuries. In this lieu de mémoire Paul recounts personal views, experiences, family histories and looks back not only to his life and lost land, but also reflects on a path followed by many Hungarians that ended up scattered across the globe. What is for Paul and others with a similar fate to be Hungarian? This interview is a result of a juxtaposition of cultures, that exposes particular –or even peculiar– standpoints regarding Hungarian heritage. Also, Paul tells us personal stories of historical value, such as personal perspectives on Teleki Sándor and Teleki Pál. These are in contrast with the scholastic and academic material that can be found in libraries, articles and on the internet. The book is enriched by unpublished photographs of his childhood and of historic characters of the Vladár and Teleki families.

The interview took place on three consecutive days and is organized into three parts.

Part I: The smell of wet soil recalls memories of Paul’s childhood in Hungary and Transylvania, remembering his relationships with his Vladár and Teleki grandparents. The chapter opens with his first return to Hungary and goes back to his former house in the north-east and how he relates with the people there. His personal impressions of the first trip blend with the earlier experiences of his youth. Paul explains how he escapes from Hungary right after Mussolini’s defeat in Italy and closure of the Hungarian borders were imminent. After that, the story moves on to the first part of his life in exile in Switzerland and Holland, and how, unexpectedly, he ends up with a Venezuelan resident visa.

Part II: On the continental divide starts with a poem by his friend the Hungarian poet Tollas Tibor. This poem addresses the dual identity of exiled Hungarians and how this multi-cultural background shapes not only his new life, but also the lives of other Hungarians that he meets along the road. With some them he creates the Hungarian community, the Venezuelai magyarház and establishes the Protestant church in Caracas. Paul also tells how he manages to survive and to establish himself in Caracas. After some time, Paul travels around South America for pleasure and to meet his parents, Vládar Ervin and Teleki Ella, who live at that moment in Uruguay. (Eventually, his parents and brother also establish themselves in Venezuela). On his return to Caracas he settles down and starts a family. Due to his sense of responsibility and aristocratic upbringing, he gets involved –largely ad honorem– into high-end public service. This leads him to be awarded with the highest national honours and decorations, some of which are conveyed personally by the President of Venezuela on the recognition of his dedicated labour to the country.

Part III: Thanks to life that gave me so much looks back not on his life, but on the life of his family and ancestors. These stories range from personal experiences, such as his brief meetings as a kid with his godfather Teleki Pál (the former Hungarian prime minister), to stories of his great-grand father Teleki Sándor told to him by his Teleki grandparents. Paul comments: “…whilst I was sitting on [his grand father Vladár Ervin’s] knees, [he] talked to me about the 1846 anti-Habsburg revolution. In this way I obtained a historical perspective that helped me directly […] in the course of my life.” He mentions later, “this was a historical perspective I had to face” and also that “the historical perspective that I had […], I can say was my education”. This testifies where his sense of responsibility comes from. However, it also confesses the moral burden that he inherited from two families that had a representation in Hungarian history.  Somehow, he had to reconcile these aspects together with living in exile.

The reflection of such duality on Paul’s grandson (the interviewer) was the triggering factor for performing the interview. For good or for bad, such sense of historical responsibility has been passed across generations.