Szeghy-Gayer Veronika: Tost László, Kassa polgármestere [László Tost, Mayor of Košice]. Kassa/Košice, Kassai Magyarok Fóruma, 2022, 220 p.

Péter Váczy, possibly regarded as the “most Slovak historian”2 by the Hungarian minority public between the interwar period due to his connections to both Vrútky and Košice, serves as an undisputed reference point. His 1931 study on local history, when viewed nearly a century later, can serve as a significant starting point for Veronika Szeghy-Gayer’s new monograph on László Tost, and offer a broader interpretation of it.

Váczy’s regrettably relatively overlooked study primarily focuses on the methodology of local history, concentrating on the identification and meticulous analysis and methods while placing the historian’s personality in the background. According to this perspective, the general understanding of history and historiography, which relies on synthesis, fails to consider the nuances of local history. In other words, overarching summaries of social, political, economic, and cultural tendencies are susceptible, and their findings may be reduced to mere outlines because they often neglect the concept of relativity. When it comes to the region (in Váczy’s case, the countryside), he advises against historical generalizations, as they are unable to provide detailed portraits and, being somewhat detached from empiricism, may not resonate with “today’s individuals.” Nevertheless, he does not overly idealize specifics either. Váczy does not perceive a competition between these two historiographical approaches; instead, he suggests that gener alized approaches should draw from the results of local research. The fundamental question revolves around how a historian, when examining local patterns, processes individual “sets of facts.” It is a common understanding that “available sources dictate the path to follow.”[1]

His thought process is indeed inspiring, but I modify one point of it, or rather, my fundamental approach differs: I do not exclude „the variable value of the writer’s personality” from my investigation. This is because I also seek to understand the motivations behind SzeghyGayer’s  research, which is rooted in place and personality (Váczy succinctly phrases it as: “The historian is the one who embodies the current state of historiography in  a non-existing personality”4). However, I also aim to shed light on “the advantages and disadvantages of the local history method.”

Veronika Szeghy-Gayer stands out as one of the most versatile members of the younger generation of Hungarian historians in Slovakia. Her research encompasses the history of the Hungarian and Jewish minorities, the political elite, and variations and changes in Central European memory culture, and also displays an interest in social history-based urban and regional history.

Szeghy-Gayer places the “biographical canvas” on Váczy’s above-mentioned theoretical and local history frame (encompassing the geographical areas of Buda and Košice and the geographical regions of Orava, Sáros, and Zemplén). She meticulously employs all relevant and usable sources to depict the somewhat fragmented, obstacle-ridden, and tragic life of László Tost, along with the history of the family’s former gardening dynasty, spanning from the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries to the 20th century.

The author’s motivation serves as an exemplar (inspired by the former Tost house): by delving into the past, she aims to gain a better understanding of the present while breathing life into history. In a way, her approach resembles that of a novelist: she taps into the power of imagination, as she expresses it: “The unique building was suddenly populated with flesh-and-blood people before my eyes” (p. 11). However, this atmosphere is imbued with the tragic essence of life. Szeghy-Gayer focuses on the intricate interconnections in László Tost’s life, examining a selected slice that is not arbitrarily chosen. She works with small-scale narratives, where the characters – especially the widows, whose fates reveal distinct stories – occupy their rightful places.

It is important to highlight (and the author does not conceal this fact) that she worked with less-than-ideal sources and information. This is because the Tost legacy as a closed archival unit does not exist. Thus, the reconstruction of not only László Tost’s figure but also the history of the Tost family is fraught with interruptions due to limited source material. However, it is precisely this scarcity that has propelled her towards innovative approaches while carefully weighing the significance of general or national historical events. She provides a well-justified explanation for this situation and the associated research challenges at the conclusion of her book.

The book, well-crafted and captivating (with a harmonious blend of text and illustrations), comprises 15 chapters and is accompanied by thorough notes that do not overwhelm the narrative. The volume concludes with a section on sources, a bibliography, and a brief author profile.

Veronika Szeghy-Gayer’s book effectively illustrates that in our narrower geographical context, social history writing is gaining prominence. The previously less favorable scenario, marked by the dominance of political history and the marginalization of social historians, as observed by Vilmos Erős a decade ago,[2] is gradually giving way. The social history perspective is experiencing significant and positive transformations within the realm of historical thinking among the Hungarian community in Slovakia.

Štefan Gaučík