Zsolt Bánki grew up in Budapest in a middle class Catholic intellectual family. His parents did not join the party, and in general their home was an isolated world of dissidence. This deeply affected Bánki, who developed an interest in everything that was forbidden by the regime. In high school, for example, he developed a vivid interest in the 1956 Hungarian revolution.
Catholicism played a significant part in his life: he belonged to the Regnum Marianum community. He was aware at an early age of what it mean to be under surveillance to be suspected of conspiracy: the community was monitored by the political police, and Bánki remembers officers waiting for the children to come out of the parish church and counting them. He also attended church camps, from where the participants were not allowed to send postcards, and taking photographs was strictly forbidden: organizers wanted to prevent the secret police from gathering information on the members, activities, and locations of the camp. Bánki's parents were reading and collecting theological and religious typescripts and mimeograph printed materials. Some of them were printed by OMC Verlag or Krupp Verlag and smuggled into Hungary.
Naturally, Bánki himself kept a distance from the party. He did not join the Hungarian Young Communist League until a couple of months before his university entrance exams. This did not help, though, as he was not accepted. In high school, one of his greatest fears was that he would not be allowed to continue his studies because he had had some run-ins with the authorities. On the 25th anniversary of the outbreak of the 1956 revolution, on 23 October 1981, he and his friend visited the statue of Józef Bem, a symbolic site of the uprising. His friend placed a rose at the feet of the monument. As a result, his friend was excluded from higher education, and was only able to get a degree only after the change of regimes. Two years later, he was caught in the course of a police raid in the Rajk Boutique, a famous illegal shop of samizdat materials which operated out of László Rajk's flat at 3 Galamb Street.
The world of samizdat was opened to Bánki by journalist Sándor Révész, who prepared Bánki for the university entry exams. Révész invited the young Bánki to join him and go to the boutique: this was a formative experience for Bánki. He kept on going back, but once in the spring of 1983, he ran into political police officers, who took Gábor Demszky away in handcuffs, and Bánki was summoned to the police station. He was frightened, thinking that his dreams about university studies would be ruined. Arriving home, he destroyed his significant samizdat collection with the exception of a treasured book of poetry, Eternal Monday, by György Petri, and the poem One Sentence on Tyranny by Gyula Illyés. He also called Révész to tell him that he would give him up, but in the end he told the police that he had heard about the boutique on Radio Free Europe. He was let to go.
In 1993, he started to work at the Special Collection of Contemporary History at the National Széchényi Library. This was practically identical with the collection that was called the Closed Stack of Publications before the change of regimes. He is currently head of the Department of Library and Informatics at the Petőfi Literary Museum.
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- Budapest, Hungary
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- Scheibner, Tamás