Saturday, 28 December 2013


Stories from prehistory 

In a regional newspaper from the North East of England, just before Christmas, there appeared a heartening Christmas story telling how the father of a child with cerebral palsy had created the Heel and Toe charity, one of those truly remarkable local centres in England that have provided free services to children with cerebral palsy, largely on the basis of local fundraising, and still managed to expand*:

The article recounts how Paul Bannister and his friend Doug Long created Heel and Toe – now operating three centres in the North East region of England. Along the way, however, it offers something on the creation of what is now called Conductive Education –
A Hungarian Jew Andras Peto spent significant time with a cerebral palsy sufferer at very close quarters for a number of years during World War II whilst evading the Nazis. As a result he became convinced that certain types of intensive physiotherapy could reap both mental and physical reward...
I have heard this charming little tale many times over the years. It is usually set, by the way, in a cellar, the child being the daughter of a family sheltering András Pető. As with with other vignettes  about András Pető's life, one has to ask where it comes from and how true it is. Actually, at the time when this story was set, András Pető was as much an Austrian Jew as a Hungarian, though I doubt that the Arrow Cross (Hungarian Fascists) would have had use for this distinction. He was a Jew. In 1944 it would not have been Nazis, Germans, whom he was evading, but Hungarians.

Earlier that year in his home town of Szombathly it would not have been Germans who put his mother on a train to Auschwitz but the Hungarian civil authorities. Neither German Nazis nor Hungarian Fascists would have regarded András Pető or his mother as Hungarians  but as subhumans, fit for extermination.

Immediate historical context

The British tend to a mind-set that has the Second World War beginning in September 1939 and running (in Europe) through to May 1945. Americans hold somewhat different dates in mind, and other nations different ones still. In the light of this, plus perhaps understandable ignorance of Hungarian history and of András Pető's post-War evolution of conductive pedagogy, British and American people might accept the above little story about András Pető uncritically, and in a particular way.

But Jews in Hungary experienced a shorter and sharper War than the years of the British 1939-1945, with Budapest presenting a special case.

Hungary had been an ally of Germany for much of the Second World War though the Hungarian Government under Miklós Horthy had largely resisted German urgings to deport Hungarian Jews for extermination. As a result, before 1944 only a few tens of thousands were murdered (the word 'only' is used here as a relative term).

In May 1944, however, Germany recognised that the Hungarian government was considering a separate armistice with the Allies, and German troops occupied Hungary, with Horthy having to appoint  a pro-German government

Within a few weeks, 437 thousand souls were rounded up from the Hungarian countryside and from the towns and cities outside the capital Budapest, and transported to Auschwitz –  most for immediate extermination.  Though Adolf Eichmann commanded this operation he had little more than a hundred German SS-ment under his command, many of these clerks, divers, cooks etc., and the actual work on the ground was carried out almost entirely by the Hungarian civil authorities, the gendarmerie and the local police. In little more than a month Hungary outside Budapest was left almost completely Judenrein (Jew-free). One of those taken in this action was András Pető's aged mother. Then in 9 July, mindful of Allied reaction to what was happening – and of the way in which the War now appeared to be going (i.e. the likely total defeat of Germany) – Horthy stopped the deportations and began further steps to try and pull out of Hungary's alliance with Germany.

The Germans soon rumbled Horthy's intention and on 15 October took Hungary under their direct control, allowing formation of an Arrow Cross government. Over the next couple of months this new Hungarian Government managed to deport perhaps another fifty thousand Jews for extermination, continuing right up until Budapest was encircled by the Soviet army. Perhaps fifteen thousand more Jews were murdered in Budapest by ad hoc Fascist actions. Many others were confined to ghettos. Some were in hiding.

Surviving German and Hungarian forces in Budapest formally capitulated to the Soviets on 13 February 1945. As for András Pető it is likely that, wherever he was in the city, he would have been liberated maybe a month before that. In the months before that András Pető' would have had good reason to keep a very low profile, hide even, the main reason to fear for his life would being not from Nazis (Germans) but from the Hungarian civil authorities and especially Arrow Cross paramilitaries. The German and Hungarian military forces of course had more pressing priorities – trying to withstand survive the Soviet assault.

Myth and reality

After 1945 András Pető seems to have covered the tracks of his life in Hungary before that date (much as he did over in his previous existence, in Austria). As for the prehistory of Conductive Education, that is before he started up his healing practice early in 1945, discernible now are just a few whisps of implausible creation myth, of which the btief vignette recounted in the English newspaper is a rare example.

As with almost every aspect of András Pető's life, almost nothing concrete is presently known about his wartime circumstances in Budapest, either before or after October 1944. One survival strategy for Jews to follow was to move round. The Ákoses told that Adorján Ujhélyi had hidden him at one point, Miklós Kun told that he sheltered at a Red Cross Children's Home in Buda (where the Arrow Cross nearly got him). Absence of corroborative record does not of course preclude his meeting or even spending some time with a cerebrally palsied child during the war years, but the child's reported condition of cerebral palsy rather raises at last the spectre of teleology.

Julia Devai's vivid first-hand account of working with András Pető from 1945 tells a ad hoc adaptation of a natural-healing, spa-style approach to treatment, adopted in the immediate post-war years in default of any other means, applied to combat the effects of paralysis amongst a whole range of debilitating conditions, extending to and then increasingly focussing on paralysis, in adults and children. This is corroborated by reports from others and, vitally for present-day audiences, it is plausible.

Moreover, as an epic of education, it is as exciting as any myth. So who needs myths?

It is a pity, by the way, that the forthcoming film Walking with the Enemy, set during the Siege of Budapest, looks like it might be another myth-maker in the Braveheart school of history.


*   Including Megan Baker House, Heel and Toe, Stick'n'Step, Rainbow House


(2013) North East father founded Heel and Toe charity to provide free therapy, The Journal, 23 December

Devai, J. (2012) Personal memories from the first days of the beginning of Conductive Education, In: G. Maguire and A. Sutton (eds), András Pető, Birmingham, Conductive Education Press, pp. 45-70

Sutton, A. (2013) András Pető: a close brush with destinyI, Conductive World, 24 September

Sutton, A. (2013) András Pető: a close brush with destinyII, Conductive World, 26 September

Sutton, A. (2013) Cinema news – release date: Walking with the Enemy, Conductive World, 6 December

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Blogger Andrew DSutton said...


Tuesday, 31 December 2013 at 08:52:00 GMT  

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