A hyphenated revolutionary

As told to Harriet Torry
Financial Times, February 7 2009

Arpad "Art" Szoczi, 53, is an award-winning Canadian TV producer and sports presenter. Born in Toronto to Austro-Hungarian parents, he studied journalism and worked for CBC and CTV in the 1980s and 1990s. He moved to Berlin, Germany, in 1996, where he lives with his wife, Pam, and two young children. His part in Romania's Timisoara uprising in 1989 has inspired him to make a documentary film on the roots of the revolution.

I always felt European, even though I was born and raised in Canada. My father, a Hungarian, was arrested by the secret police in Budapest in 1951 for working for the British Embassy. He and my uncle were sent to a labour camp but they escaped and trekked across the border to Austria and then came to Canada. My father arrived in Toronto in January 1952 with C$3. He only knew two words in English -- yes and no -- but sometimes he forgot the difference between them. One day he went to visit his brother at a boarding house in Toronto and pressed the wrong buzzer. My mother, an Austrian refugee, came downstairs. They were married for 41 years.

I grew up speaking German at home. When I was a young boy, stupid things were said to me. "Here's the Nazi" and stuff like that because they heard me speaking German with my mum. So I had a lot of fights after school. I often think that the problem with Canada is that we're all hyphenated: Italian-Canadian, Hungarian-Canadian, Bengali-Canadian or whatever. I saw loyalties split a lot.

I came to Berlin 12 years ago. In 1995 I started getting more in tune with my background and my ethnicity. I missed speaking German as my mother had passed away, so I took a course at the Goethe-Institut in Toronto. In 1996 I won the institute's annual scholarship to study for three months in Freiburg [southern Germany]. At that time I wrote to Germany's international broadcaster, DW-TV in Berlin and was offered a job.

I wouldn't have come to Berlin if it hadn't been for the job. I'm a producer for DW-TV's Euromaxx show and I've been a sports anchor for around four years now. I enjoy being a sports reporter. My life hasn't changed, apart from a couple of people recognising me.

I spend about five days a month in Romania or Hungary. For the past year and a half I've been working on a documentary film called Dracula's Shadow, the Real Story Behind the Romanian Revolution. I'm making it because I wanted to come full circle with my past. In 1984 I became head of the Canadian chapter of the Hungarian Human Rights Foundation, a non-governmental organisation that used to supply the media with news reports about the Hungarian minority in Romania. I worked as a television producer during the day and at night or on the weekends I would volunteer for the NGO, collecting information about the communist dictatorship and disseminating it to reporters.

Romania was a sealed country but we had a courier system that was second to none. The Romanian secret police were trying desperately to find out how the information was getting out but they never figured it out.

From 1985 onwards there were a lot of negative articles about the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu in the western press. I was quoted in one and after my name appeared in the paper a guy called me up at one o'clock in the morning and told me he was going to kill me, swearing at me in Romanian. The next day I went home and found a bag outside the door with a dead squirrel in it. I called Canada's secret intelligence service, CSIS, and never got bothered again.

In February 1989 two French-Canadian journalists approached the NGO and said they wanted to do a TV interview with Laszlo Tokes [now an independent member of the European parliament]. Back then he was an ethnic-Hungarian priest in Timisoara, Romania, who simply used his pulpit to try to tell the truth and wouldn't be intimidated. My father and I raised $1,000 from a few Hungarian businessmen in Toronto for the secret mission and, against all odds, the journalists did the TV interview. The tapes got out of Romania and then, one by one, the journalists were able to get out. The interview was broadcast on July 21 1989. It was an absolute bombshell. The Romanian revolution was born.

The interview started off a chain reaction in Romania that resulted in bloodshed. I thought that telling the story would help me get over things. With the recent opening up of Securitate [Romania's communist secret service] files, I thought I could update one of the greatest cold war stories: the truth behind the Romanian revolution.

I financed most of the film myself. I have no name in the film business, which is a problem. I had to take a loan out on one of my apartments and even then I'll just barely make it. I'm writing a book too.

These days I go back to Canada about every three years. I miss four good friends in Toronto. In Europe I haven't really had time to have friends. Another thing I miss about Canada is the wide outdoors. I miss nice little drives into northern Ontario through open spaces, lakes, little towns and resorts. You've got that outside Berlin too, in Brandenburg, but we don't have a car so we don't get out of the city enough.

I like Germany a lot. German's my mother tongue so I slid into Berlin like I was born here. I was very moved by the German Historical Museum when I first came to Berlin. I don't think any other country has dealt with their past so well as Germany. That deserves respect.

I think the Germans are more rigid than North Americans in the way things have to be done. I don't understand the opening hours here sometimes. You can't just call someone during working hours, you have to check beforehand what time they will accept a phone call. But, on the other hand, you get paperwork done quickly.

My wife and I met at a Christmas party in Toronto in 1993 and married eight months later. My daughters are five and two. They were both born in Berlin. My wife speaks to them in English, I only speak to them in Hungarian and they go to a German kindergarten. I became a father late, at 47, but being a dad is the best job in the world.

When I have time I like to go to the movie theatre in the Sony Centre and watch the original English version of a top film. I'll go for the 11pm show; there are about four people in the audience and I just crash there with popcorn and relax. The film ends at 1am, I walk out to the bus stop, the bus comes at 1.15am and I'm chauffeured home.

I have no desire to go back to North America at all. Where ultimately I will live and retire might have to do a lot with the girls' schooling. I'd be happy here or in Budapest. Right now, we have no plans to move. Our home is in Berlin.

Copyright © 2009 The Financial Times Limited

Printed with permission from The Financial Times.