Congratulations to Catherine Lukits, the winner of the 2021 Dr. Janet Hyer Essay Prize, which recognizes exceptional achievement by a second-year CERES MA candidate in completing their Major Research Paper (MRP). The prize was established in the memory of Dr. Janet Hyer, a dear friend and former staff member of our Centre who passed away in 2020. 

Tatiana Velickovic, who is currently a second-year student at CERES, sat down to talk to Catherine about her work and the significance of the award for her.   


What does the Dr. Janet Hyer Essay Prize mean to you?

It is a huge honour to receive an award named after someone who was clearly such a force at CERES and so deeply invested in the program. My experience at CERES was life-changing in many ways, and this award is a special way to end my time here.

Sadly, I never had the opportunity to meet Dr. Hyer, but I feel I have gained a sense of her personality from listening to stories and reading tributes from friends and colleagues who knew her well. She was an exceptional person and scholar. I especially appreciated how many people acknowledged her meticulous editing skills and attention to detail. I have found that working with a great editor – someone who will deeply engage with every word and challenge me to think in new ways – is one of the most exciting aspects of the writing process, and I wish I could have worked with Dr. Hyer.

What was your MRP topic?

My MRP examines the role of emotions and emotional memory within the lived experience of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. During the spring of 2021, I conducted oral history interviews with nineteen Hungarians, the majority of whom had come to Canada as refugees following the Soviet suppression of the Revolution. My interviewees all experienced the Revolution in different ways; many actively participated in street demonstrations, some observed the uprising as children or young teens, and others were not direct witnesses but lived intimately with the Revolution through the memories of their spouses or parents. Listening to their reflections, I was struck by how emotional the Revolution was and still is for them. Many people described the uprising as an intensely emotional experience, and it was evident that it continued to impact their identities and lifestyles for the rest of their lives. In my paper, I draw upon their voices to offer new interpretations of the Revolution’s meaning and memory and to paint a fuller picture of the Hungarian diaspora in Canada. I believe that the discussion of emotions can significantly reframe how we understand major historical events, such as the Hungarian Revolution.

How did you end up with this topic? Who helped along the way?

I came to CERES after spending most of my life immersed in the world of classical music (I worked as a professional cellist in orchestras in Germany and Canada). Initially, I gravitated toward research about arts and culture. In December 2019, right before the pandemic, I went on a research trip to Budapest led by Professor Robert Austin, in which I interviewed Hungarians about the current government’s cultural policies. I thought this would become my MRP topic.

Then, in the fall of 2020, I had a strong feeling that I needed to change my topic. The only problem was that I had no idea what I wanted to explore next! At the time, I was taking Professor Anna Shternshis’ course on refugee culture in Europe, in which I was also struggling to find a topic for my final term paper. I mentioned to Professor Shternshis that my father had come to Canada as a seven-year-old Hungarian refugee in 1956 but that I had not grown up around Hungarian culture or hearing many stories about his experiences. To my surprise, Professor Shternshis encouraged me to interview my father and weave his story into the scholarly literature on the Hungarian Revolution – and my father agreed! This was a meaningful experience for me personally, but it also piqued my interest in the Revolution and the stories that people carry with them. As I delved into the academic literature on 1956, I observed that it generally focused on the larger-scale politics of the event and what happened to Hungarian refugees as a group. I knew from my own family that the Revolution had many personal effects that weren’t recorded in scholarship, and I was curious about these untold stories, what happened to people after they fled Hungary, and how the Revolution continued to affect them for decades.

I discussed these ideas with Professor Lilia Topouzova, whose seminar on the communist experience in Central and Eastern Europe I had also taken in fall 2020. Professor Topouzova has worked extensively with oral history in her own research and explores themes such as memory, trauma, and silence in her work. We both felt that there must be many Hungarians in Toronto with stories that had never been shared and that could highlight aspects of the Revolution not generally discussed in scholarship. I was thrilled when Professor Topouzova agreed to be my supervisor, and I officially began my new MRP topic in January 2021. Working closely with Professor Topouzova was an absolute highlight of my time at CERES. She understood completely what I wanted to do with my project and was a constant source of support, motivation, and expertise.

How did you manage to gather all these stories?

I advertised my project with Hungarian cultural groups in and around Toronto. I was not sure how much interest I would receive, as the Hungarian Revolution has been well-documented, especially in Canada, which accepted nearly 40,000 Hungarian refugees. I received many responses, however, and ended up speaking with nineteen people, most of whom had never been formally interviewed. Our conversations varied depending on the person. I wanted my interviewees to have a lot of agency in their narratives and what they chose to share with me. We usually began by talking about their memories of the Revolution, but inevitably the conversation evolved into much more. The other details they shared, from their lives in Hungary and in Canada, allowed me to understand how a historical event is experienced by many different people – and how one person’s experience of that event can evolve over a lifetime.

What was it like doing an oral history project during a pandemic?

My interviews occurred right as the third wave was peaking in Ontario and we were under strict lockdown. While I would have preferred to meet people in their living rooms over a cup of coffee, I was grateful that we were a year into the pandemic, as everyone was comfortable using Zoom and other virtual platforms. I was impressed by how much connection and personality can still be conveyed over the internet – I spoke to some of my interviewees for hours at a time, and their stories were so compelling that I often forgot that we were not meeting in person. In a way, the strangeness of virtual communication broke the ice and was very intimate. I was interviewing a former Hungarian Olympic gold medalist when my building’s fire alarm started screeching. She just laughed and told me to call her back.

It was also wonderful to do oral history during the isolation of the pandemic. It brought me a sense of connection, and I could shut out the COVID news and just be present with my interviewees and their stories.

Why do you think it is important to include emotion in scholarship?

I did not set out explicitly to write a paper about emotions, so when I began my research, I was not very familiar with the scholarship on the history of emotions. There is a lot of scholarly debate about what constitutes an emotion and what role emotions should play within historical analyses. Very often, my interviewees stressed the difference between their lived experience and what they read in history books. One man, who worked as a math teacher after coming to Ontario, told me that he once became enraged while reading a Canadian high school history textbook because he felt that it completely misrepresented the Hungarian Revolution and what he had witnessed first-hand as an eighteen-year-old in Budapest. I found this idea very powerful and wanted to try to bridge the gap between official history and lived experience. As I listened to people’s stories, I felt that emotions – and emotional memory – were a crucial part of their experiences that were so often left out of scholarship.

What is next for you?

During my time at CERES, I really fell in love with research and writing, and I am planning to apply to PhD programs this year or next. I have also been happy to discover connections between my musical background and academia. Rehearsing music and conducting academic research are both about searching for new ways to approach something – to find new angles, perspectives, questions, and interpretations. They also both require discipline and creativity to dig into the same thing day after day. I am excited to continue using these skills that I practised as a musician in my new life in academia.