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A Man of phenomenal Achievements: John Miska

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In the early seventies, in Premier Lougheed’s Alberta, Cowtown Calgary has just become Houston North and the arteries of the province began to pulsate with liquid black gold.  Lougheed, one of the best  premiers  of  the  province, a  far-sighted  man, was looking ahead into the future. He wanted his province to use the oil money to secure that future by diversifying, and by investing in science and research. To achieve his aims, he knew he had to spread the money around.

Not far south of Calgary, in the city of Lethbridge, was a  reputable  but  modest  research station, established in 1906. It was about to be reestablished as an ultramodern research facility, the largest of its kind in Canada, staffed by the best brains money could attract. It was to house 350 employees, including 75 research scientists in plant, animal, soil, and the veterinarian sciences, some of them leading experts in their field, and numerous provincial departmental staff. The station was destined to receive a new and modern facility, capable of serving researchers located all over Alberta. Needless to say, the heart and soul of such a place would be a large, modern library yet to be set up. To do the job of setting up such a library they needed not just an experienced librarian capable of integrating the existing library into a much enlarged new one, they had also to find a heart and soul kind of a man, with boundless energy and vision. The man they found was John Miska.

“Naturally, there were several applicants for the job. Once again, being at the right place at the right time, I succeeded and won the competition.” Says John modestly.

And succeed indeed he did, for he headed the facility for eleven years and set it on the sound footing the facility functions today. Remembers Miska:

It was a stimulating environment for a young person ready to conquer the world. I loved the industrious atmosphere. Here one did not have to apologize for being ambitious. As far as the staff was concerned, the LRS resembled the United Nations. There were people working there from all over the world. When compiling the ethnic and Native Canadian bibliography, I had no language problem whatsoever, as there were in-house language experts from practically every one of the 65 nationalities covered by the bibliography.

The scientists and the staff found Miska and his Estonian-born German wife, Marie, (née Maria von Brockhausen), opening their lovely spacious home, from where on Southern Alberta’s many clear days one could see across the golf course to the snow-capped Rockies,  to social events, often resulting in the cross-pollination of ideas among the different scientists. At work, they found not only fast and efficient service, but a librarian that knew what they were doing and often anticipated their needs. One of the soil scientists, working on solonetz or salty soils, was blown away when, coming to John for help, the latter handed him a complete bibliography on the subject from libraries all over the world and wondered how John knew so much about this rare soil. He need not have wondered. Indeed, Miska was born on such a soil.

John Miska was born a dirt farmer’s son on the solonetz soils of the far eastern part of the Hungarian plain. That same plain consists mostly of fertile alluvial soil, where a good farmer can grow a lot of crop on a little piece of land, but those solonetz soils on the eastern edge of the plain with its wind-blown sand drifts were something else. There young János  (our John) had to work hard alongside his parents and siblings on several acres of mostly leased land scattered around  his small village and the family had to be enterprising, just to survive.

This fascinating man has come from a fascinating family. His father was a smart, good-looking, athletic man, just the kind a well-to-do young lady would fall in love with, and marry – no matter what. So Teresa chose a life of toil to be with Mihály and bore him five children, four of them survivors. Life was tough in the dirty thirties in Hungary as well, and midwives delivered children in the middle of winter when the snow would drift into the house under the door. The Miska children were survivors indeed, and then some!

And talk about sibling rivalry! The eldest, Emma, was an outstanding student, diligent and responsible, and took charge of the little store the family ran as soon as she could reach the till. She would end up in a Budapest factory as a supervisor. Tony was handsome and athletic like his father, and no less charming than he. He was also bright of course but not studious, a born actor, who could imitate anybody and entertain the neighbors who would come over in the evenings until everyone was in stitches. He was Teresa’s darling boy, who repaid her later in style in New York where he became a head waiter in a fancy restaurant frequented by the Kennedys. There Teresa was to live later like the lady she was, adorned with expensive jewelry, and spoiled by an attentive son.

John found himself sandwiched between these two. Luckily he could almost match Emma in responsibility and smarts and his brother in good looks and athleticism. Coming home from the fields in the evening, he could sing along with his brother as his equal. Still, he needed something to distinguish him from the others. First, he tried soul. He was a hit as an altar boy, but that did not cut it, even while it lasted. Then he tried being his little brother’s mentor. That worked, as little Károly (king in Hungarian) worshipped John as if he were the King. This was a good thing, because Károly, too, grew up to be an ambitious enterpreneur, leaving childhood poverty far behind. However, when his brothers left, leaving him behind as being too young to go with them, he was devastated. As he put it later, he had to mourn his mentor brother alive as if he were dead to get over his hurt.

For John, playing the role of mentor was unfulfilling also. And so at sixteen, John left his village – and his childhood – still striving for his place in the world, with a deeply rooted ambition to prove himself, and just enough of a lingering insecurity of one  barely being bested on both sides, to try harder. Ironically, his own special edge was there all along. It was his boundless energy. It probably did not stand out in a family that worked hard from morning till night. And, as the kerosene lamp was blown out and all had to go to bed John could easily have missed it himself. But as he was soon to discover, he could work day AND night. In all likelyhood John’s competitors for that head librarian’s job could match his experience, could match his ambition, could probably match his vision as well. None of them could match his energy.

Almost all of the qualities that got John that job as head librarian at the Lethbridge Research Center he had brought with him as a result of a keen sibling competiton between three gifted rivals and the hardships imposed on an intelligent, energetic, and resourceful family to eke out a living on the harshness of that faraway solonetz soil. No doubt the spirit of cooperative work, ingrained in John while working on the difficult family farm has also helped.

These qualities and a driving ambition coupled to his boundless energy may have qualified him to be the heart of Canada’s most up to date research facility, but only the heart. If the library was to be the heart and soul of this institute, the soul also had to be there with it, and right at the top. Here, too, Miska would have it all – in spades.

Indeed, there was something else beyond ambition that drove John to apply for that job in the first place. This was his patriotism he was to transfer from his Hungarian self to his Canadian one. As always, he was prepared to fight the fight of an underdog and to overcome adversity, to fight for fairness with the fierce determination of a proud man who has been unfairly treated. In part, that also came from the old country, and it, too, came deeply ingrained.

John’s home town of Nyírbéltek (the “ny” as in canyon, the “é” as in eh), lay near the Trianon-imposed border that ran like an unhealing scar all around Hungary, cutting deep into the flesh of the Hungarian nation. Late into those kerosene-lit evenings of his childhood, past Tony’s entertaining, past the bottle of wine shared by all, the men fell silent, the mood turned brooding. Quiet talk then turned to hardship stories, stories of storms and devastation, of  wars and oppression, of the blows borne time and again by Hungarians. There the boys would listen with growing eyes, listening to the stories of invasions comparable in number to those of the Holy Lands. History’s conquerors have all been here: the Romans, Ghinghis Khan, Suleiman, numerous Tzars of Russia and Kaisers of Austria, Napoleon – indeed the misguided Christian Crusaders had to to be fought off here who mistook Catholic Hungarians for Saracenes.

John and his brothers took the stories all in, and slowly a concept of being Hungarian, what it meant to be Hungarian solidified in their conscioussness. Their imagination did the rest. They listened to stories of Hungarian heroes who fought off the invaders, who fought for freedom and independence, faught for the dignity of nationhood and identified with them. Indeed, it was this strong sense of belonging to the land that farmers know everywhere (along with their renowned horsemanship and sabres), that has been enabling Hungarians to hold on to the land and not be driven away by all those invaders for a thousand years, that made Hungarians and Hungary last. Hungary, the boys were proud to learn, was older than Germany, older than France, older than England, older than Italy. Much older. And Hungarian men were always ready to answer the call, to be ready for sacrifice, just as these boys would be when their time came. Most importantly, as Europe was a large battlefield throughout history, Hungarians have always held their own against all their neighbors in a fair fight.

And this was what hurt the most, that those veterans could not forget or forgive: the unfairness of it all. When the hostilities of WWI were over, while the Hungarian Army was armed, these mostly slavic neighbours were indeed slovenly. When the hostilities ceised, there were no foreign invaders anywhere in Hungary. No Slovaks, no Serbs, no Romanians. In fact, these veterans were fighting on behalf of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in Italy. That, too, was a traditional role the nation played, making sacrifices not only for itself but serving as a bastion of Catholic Europe. When Suleiman himself came with a huge army to conquer Vienna, the little castles of this little nation put up such a fight, held him back so long, that he did not arrive at the gates of Vienna until the snow fell. He had to turn back without laying a siege. But there never was a Chechoslovakia or a Yugoslavia in history. Until Trianon, that is. Yet these phantom, yet-to-be-created countries had representatives at the table where the Hungarians, who had a real country about to be taken away, were not allowed a representative. Was this by design? There is no court in the world where the judge listens to the prosecutors only, where the defendant is not allowed in the courtroom to defend himself. And there can be no negotiation when one of the parties is not present to negotiate. We can not even imagine that a man should be tried for the same alleged crime in two courts at the same time and be thrown the book at in both courts in his absence, without one court knowing what the other was doing. Yet all of those things took place in Trianon.

“There was no peace treaty for Hungary in Trianon,”  summed  up one of the veterans, “there was only a malicious, horribly unfair dictum. Not only did the allies give away two thirds of our territory and almost three quarters of our natural resources that never belonged to them, they assigned more war reparation payments to the rump they left than they did to Germany. Explain that!” [i]

The children could not. At school all they heard about was that WWI was the war of the imperialists, but that there was a glorious Communist revolution that took place then which was brutally crushed by the capitalists. At home, they have heard all the stories already but were still incredulous.

“And this happened after the war? After our army was disarmed? This happened in peace?” Young John asked, just to be sure.

Heads were nodding again, and there was a collective sigh. After a pause the veteran continued. He sat with only half his face illuminated by the lamp, the deep wrinkles of his face and forehead casting their own shadows onto his features, the other cheek in the shadows, his whole frame casting an enormous shadow on the wall. He spoke heavily, as if the words themselves weighed so much it was hard to get them out. “The Slovaks, the Romanians, the Serbs – all took full advantage. After we were disarmed they took possession of the lands with invading armies, coming from all sides at once. These armies massacred our unarmed men, violated our women – all this while ‘the peace talks’ were still going on – and moved right in.” He motioned towards the border. “Only Hungarians used to live there. The Romanians chased them out of their homes and brought Romanian settlers in from hundreds of kilometers away, from Romania proper, ‘to secure their borders,’ they said. They renamed all our historic towns with the Hungarians still in them, including villages that do not contain a single Romanian to this day, and are busy erasing all what is Hungarian there. The Serbs and the Slovaks are doing the same. They are making life as hard for Hungarians as they can to make them leave. They have been doing that ever since they took over and will keep on doing it.  I am telling you, they will never give our country back.” He paused. “And now this!”

He did not have to explain. “This” referred to the Soviet occupation and communist rule. To the people here Soviet occupation was equal to, if not worse than Trianon. If the aftermath of Trianon was bleeding the Hungarians to death, Communism was like being choked to death.

John was to get a full dose of this and, like his countrymen, he felt he had to come up for air in 1956. Thanks to his parents’ and those veterans’ stories, he never became a communist. Not at high school, not at the university. Imbued with a strong sense of responsibility to his country, he participated in the revolution from start to finish. He marched with his fellow students and followed the growing crowd to the Parliament. It was October 23, 1956. The Hungarian Revolution that sounded the death knell of the Soviet Union began that day. John has helped pull the rope of that knell.

To participate in a revolution is dangerous business. Lives are on the line. Before the day was over, John had his first close call. Unarmed himself, at the radio station he was showing a young worker who would not part with his rifle how to use it (thanks to his athleticism, John has become a sharpshooter in the Army), when he noticed they were being fired on. He had an even closer call the next day. On that day the secret police opened fire on the demonstrators who followed a tank to the Parliament Building. John and his friend were saved only because his friend was nauseated by the tank’s exhaust – they were right behind it – and the two of them moved to the sidewalk. Within a couple of minutes those who were following the tank were mowed down by machine gun fire.

When the hostilities ceased briefly, the university students who came from outside of Budapest were sent out by the University’s Revolutionary Committee to help organize similar committees everywhere. John became an organizer. He went to the city near his hometown he had got to know well while doing his university practicum as a news correspondent, and helped organize one of the revolutionary councils there that began  arising all over the country. By this time he was in it deep. Fearing the communist retribution that indeed followed, when the resistance was broken he left Hungary.

Arriving in Canada without speaking English, John’s unrecognized special quality among his siblings, his great energy, proved to be his savior. He could hold down a job, go to a language school, and attend university –  all at the same time. He was in his senior year at ELTE in Hungary and here he had to start school anew, but a few years later, in Hamilton, he had his B. A. in History and Philosophy. Armed with that, he was accepted at library school in the University of Toronto. Miska was thirty when at last he could start his career, but what a career it was!

He started as an assistant library director in Winnipeg, then moved to a become a department head with Agriculture Canada in Trudeau’s Ottawa, serving as Chief of Collections Development and Acquisitions. Consequently, he became responsible for a million-volume network system housed in the Sir John Carling Building. He was also in charge of the collections development of 30 research station libraries across Canada, before he came to Laugheed’s  Lethbridge. Why?

To  most people in Ottawa, “Ottawa was where it was at,” where those “who have arrived” in Miska’s field, stayed. All the national libraries were located there amid amenities, of which there were many. If Alberta was abuzz with excitement, Ottawa was no less. Laugheed was a visionary leader for Alberta, but Trudeau was a visionary for the whole country. And there is evidence that John felt to be a Canadian already in Toronto. To quote Miska’s memoir:

The U. of T. did more than just train me. It was there that I have grown to become a devoted Canadian. The early sixties marked the beginning of a national awakening in Canada, in which the University of Toronto played a major role. At our faculty, textbooks imported from the United States were no longer in use. And there were no more history classes glorifying… the British Empire. [Our professors] were radiating national pride and self-esteem. [Enthuses the memoir:] What a wonderful experience it was to have among the visiting lecturers Canada’s leading poets and novelists… [along with] the patriotic publishers and book dealers!

So why would this already patriotic and ambitious man apply for a job that many of his colleagues at the time may have considered a demotion? If he was driven by patriotism, why was Miska not satisfied with being a patriot in Ottawa?

The Miskas loved Ottawa. In John’s own words

Ottawa was a vibrant city. There were all kinds of intellectual and cultural activities. My diary is full of exciting events we attended: literary readings held in the National Library and cafés; conferences at the two universities; performances in the National Arts Centre; official openings of new museums and other government amenities and on and on. Canada has reached its national maturity in the ‘seventies and the ‘eighties. New universities and research institutes were established across the country, and the established ones had grown tremendously. Canadian publishing houses came into existence, sponsoring books by Canadian scholars and writers. It felt wonderful to be Canadian.

Then, as always, there was the ethnic side. Miska felt very much at home and was heavily involved in the life of his ethnic Hungarian community. His participation in social events were limited as, like most professionals, he did a lot of his work at home. But he often spoke during commemorative events and was well known in Hungarian communities everywhere. As he remembers it:

It was an honor to be a person of ethnic origin. Canada has been generous to its immigrant people. It has provided fertile soil for the cultural activities of immigrant Hungarians as well. My bibliographies listed scores of Hungarian university teachers, researchers in the scientific and technical fields who made remarkable contributions to their professions. Furthermore, my book: Literature of Hungarian Canadians, published in 1991, registers more than 90 Hungarian-Canadian authors of books of poetry, fiction and drama, published in Hungarian, English and French. This number does not include the ones, and there are many of them, who published their work only in [ethnic] newspapers, periodicals and anthologies. I have edited a series of anthologies put out by the Hungarian-Canadian Authors’ Association. Our volumes were sought-after by the libraries and book stores. When our volumes, for some reason, were delayed, reminders were coming in from libraries all over the land…

(John does not mention here that the Hungarian-Canadian Authors’ Association he is referring to was the one he himself has founded, that he was its president the first five years of its existence, that decades later it still exists, or that its members have voted him their Honorary President – for life.)

That the Lethbridge Research Station, looking for a man to set up a top notch research library of its own should want Ottawa’s Chief of Collections Development and Acquisitions to do the job for them is not surprising. That the Chief came, is. Was it the money?

No, money was not the attraction. It was good, but not more (though nor less, either), than what he was already making. Besides, money has never meant a great deal to Miska. In fact he was prepared to give money away. While President of the Hungarian Canadian Writers’ association, John (and Marie) were subsidizing its anthology. As he recorded in his memoirs:

The authors contributed $40 each per volume and received 40 copies in return. The contributions covered about half of the printing and shipping costs. We, my wife and I, paid the rest. Working on a shoestring budget, we had to find the cheapest printers. When the shipments arrived, they came in large wooden containers from the printer in Rome. We did the portioning, carried the heavy packages to the post office and mailed them to addresses across the country.

Slowly the clues add up. Miska is a patriotic Canadian, but he is also a Hungarian patriot, helping his fellow Hungarians in Canada as he would help them in Hungary. Patriotism – in spite of the lingering myths of colonial days – is a noble and ennobling feeling, enabling the individual to be altruistic and service-minded for the cause of his fellow citizens, capable even of great sacrifices as Canada’s own veterans have found out in WWI – an event considered by many to be the first when Canada showed itself on the world stage as a country and not as an indistinct colony of the British Empire. It was the very distinction with which they served in the war that gave Canadians their first international profile. Thanks to them, it was a profile in courage. John Miska has shown himself to be a courageous and service-minded patriot of both countries in his own right – a patriot in the best sense of the word.

Indeed, John took the job in Lethbridge with both patrias in mind. The Canadian one because he accepted both Trudeau’s nationalism and Laugheed’s good sense of spreading the goods around, and so he came to provide outstanding service to Alberta. The Hungarian one, for he came out west to pursue the life project his advisor encouraged John to undertake in library school, knowing it to be a research area promising but wanting, which meanwhile had become a Canadian Centennial project as well: to research and collate Hungarian Canadiana. He received no pay for this, and at work he had no time for it. He sacrificed his annual leaves for a decade and traveled extensively to unearth material on the subject never listed anywhere before. It was an enormous, groundbreaking work, done in the volunteer service of both of his countries. According to the memoir, the Hungarian author Gyula Borbándi was to write in his Hungarian language Emigráció és Magyarország (1995), [Emigration and Hungary] that “in all of western Hungarian literature, the Canadian is the most accessible, thanks to John Miska’s research and  organisation.”

It was to be published, then updated three times. First in Ottawa (1992), then in Budapest (1995), last in Toronto-Budapest (1998), with the next update currently being prepared for a major Hungarian publisher. It is indeed a life project. The breadth of the material can be gleaned from some of its subtitles: Reference Works, Commercial Relations between Canada and Hungary, Economy, Literature, Immigration, Integration versus Assimilation, Demography, Religion, Refugees of 1956. Adds Miska: “The subject arrangement, complete with author/title and subject indexes, makes the compilation user friendly and accessible.”

More than 1300 primary and secondary sources had to be found, at least cursorily read, appraised, written about, organized, compiled, and referenced by Miska. The original work, entitled Canadian Studies on Hungarians, 1886-1986: An Annotated Bibliography of Primary and Secondary Sources, was reviewed internationally. The Papers of the Bibliographic Society of Canada wrote among others that

This is a bibliography that deserves to be on library shelves and in the scholars’ libraries. It is comprehensive, well organized, easy to use, and will be the standard bibliography for Hungarian-Canadian studies for years. […] It attests to the contribution to Canadian society that a small number of highly literate people can make…” (PBSC XXVIII).

The Hungarian Academy of Sciences was so impressed they elected Miska a member of their society. And the man has done it all as a labor of love on his holidays!

And his work at work! “It’s staggering today to realize the amount of workload I carried during those days,” recalls Miska, himself incredulous as he describes in his memoirs the scene that awaited him at Lethbridge Research Station before the new building was built:

The library was housed in an old building loosely connected to the administration, the plant pathology and entomology sections. It was adjacent to the auditorium, also used as the cafeteria, making the library easily accessible and well frequented by the staff. It was cramped, books and periodical volumes piled all over the place in complete disorder, on top of the shelves reaching to the ceiling. The staff included two professional librarians and six clerks. The assistant librarian did the acquisitions, cataloguing and processing of material, as well as some reference and information service. The clerical staff did public service, such as circulation of books, interlibrary loans, light information and circulation of current periodical issues to individual scientists, thousands of pieces per month. The management and record keeping of this alone was a formidable job. People in the technical services area did processing, typing, shelving, filing and other related duties. My predecessor, an able librarian, had generated a large unified card catalogue for the entire area. This was a vital source of information, registering records of all library material held by the other research station libraries in Alberta.

So the new boss arrives, sees that by and large things are going well, the business is carried on by his staff, there are no undue lineups, no panic. Good. He calls a meeting together, smiles, introduces himself, compliments his staff on having done a good job, remarks that soon they will be doing even better, gives a little pep talk about the importance of their work in helping all these important scientists, the country, the world; tells them what a privilege it is to be working in a place such as this, breaks the good news they already know about the coming facility, points to those piles of books on the tops of the shelves and says soon something will have to be done about them, then says “Carry on!” and retreats to his office to find out what it is he is supposed to be doing, mostly to clear the stuff that’s piled up on his desk. Right? Wrong!

Indeed, Miska does have a lot to do. So much in fact, most people could work around the clock and still fall behind. As John notes:

I was responsible for the management of the LRS Library: planning, budgeting, administration, performance appraisals, writing monthly reports sent to station administration and to headquarters in Ottawa. Duties included participation in meetings of station administration and research project meetings. This enabled me to be familiar with ongoing and upcoming projects. It was amazing to watch the complexity of the projects, each involving several researchers from different disciplines, some of them connected to similar researches elsewhere in the country. Also, I was to coordinate services to four other research institute libraries, one, the Animal Diseases Research Institute a few kilometers west of town, one in Lacombe, another in Beaverlodge in the Peace River country, and one in Vegreville, east of Edmonton. I made frequent visits to the above three. (Memoirs)

Most telling is John’s comment embedded in the list of his duties. He faces the complexities not with trepidation but with appreciating wonderment. Yet that was only about the official work. Then there is volunteer work. Recounts John:

Some of the duties we added to our regular services were impressive. The revising of references listed by researchers at the ends of their innumerable manuscripts; the setting up of a research station archives and a photo collection; the planning and organizing of a display series pertaining to research projects and individual accomplishments were only a few of the work we did on a volunteer basis. I served on several committees, including the selection of research scientists for nominations for national and international awards and recognition. When the research station directors from Western Canada had their meetings at the LRS, I was often invited to talk about new advances in information sciences. When the Director Generals across the Department had a session in Ottawa to revise staff classification methods, I was approached to send in some suggestions on the subject. In addition to my regular duties, I gave seminars, offered interviews for the media. My proposal for the establishment of a departmental database for scientific publications was hailed by the Research Branch.

It is not hard to read between John’s lines. Instead of pep talk, he is leading by example and his staff, carrying on their regular duties, is inspired to do volunteer work as well. Instead of a boss sitting in his office, pushing paper around on his desk John is all over the place, not just encouraging but doing, making things happen – even in Ottawa! (Oh what Premier Lougheed would have given only to be able to achieve that!) The list of responsibilities concludes: “I taught an evening class on Hungarian language at the Community College.”

John’s Hungarian friends in Ottawa have tried to discourage John from moving to Lethbridge, just as his Hungarian friends in Winnipeg were advising him not to move to Ottawa. In Winnipeg, John heard that he was a prairie boy, he would never feel at home in the capital. In Ottawa, he was warned that he would be exiling himself from Hungarians in the boondocks at Lethbridge. But John has found a very active Hungarian community in Lethbridge, with a library of their own “larger than the one in Montréal” (J. M.), and before long John had resumed his “double life,” as indeed he did wherever he went, participating significantly in both the Canadian and the Hungarian communities. Keen as he had been on fitting in and shaping his Canadian self right up to the level of true patriotism, he has never lost his patriotism for the country he felt he owed so much to, whether the communists chased him out of it or not. There is no better way to appreciate the tremendous energy of this man than this: that he could serve two countries with the whole of his being given to each.

Amidst all his duties (official, volunteer, consulting, teaching, social) at work he completes two major bibliographies for the scientists, “one on irrigation practices of the world, a 4-volume compilation with annotations, the other, cold hardiness and winter survival of plants, both over 400 pages.” (J. M.) Then there is the not so little matter of the new facility being built and the integration of the old library into the new one. Relates Miska:

When I started the job, the planning of the new $42,000,000 facility was well under way. I was given full authority to work with the architects in planning and developing the library quarters. [The not-so-little matter above.] The library was allotted 10,000 square feet of space… I spent months preparing the floor plans and getting the large collection scattered all over the place ready for the relocation. Assisted by my staff, when the time for the move arrived, I knew the exact space and location of practically every one of the more than 100,000 items. [Remember those disorganized piles on top of the shelves?] When the constructions were completed and the relocation took place in the bright space over the administration wing, the library became the pride of the station. It really was a showcase. The spacious reading room with fine wooden tables, the stack area with new shelving in the centre, the comfortable carols located along the large windows overlooking the picturesque experimental plots, the city and, on clear mornings, Chief Mountain from 80 kilometers away was an unforgettable experience. The users considered it a haven in which to do research or casual reading.

If the head librarian of the Lethbridge Research Centre became a CEO instead, he would have become a millionaire and lived in a mansion. The Miskas never became millionaires, but in Lethbridge they did live in a mansion. It was built for the first president of the then newly built University of Lethbridge on 32O6 South Parkside Drive, overlooking Henderson Lake and the golf course. It’s huge garden featured an exotic glass birdhouse, ten large apple trees, a huge landscaped garden and lawn, with room for a large vegetable garden in the back. The lot was large enough for a park.

The building was a four level split, with the kitchen and dining room on the ground floor, from it, half a floor up the living room, half a floor down the large family room. Half a floor above the living room were three large bedrooms. Larger parties were housed at two levels in the living and dining rooms with guests often spilling into the family room as well in the winter. Up towards the bedrooms was a landing with a railing overlooking the living room (not unlike a pulpit in a church), that was used for readings and performances. John has always had a good lyric tenor voice and intermittent musical and literary evenings alternated perhaps with special occasion gatherings thrown to honour important visitors, to celebrate the successes of colleagues, to saying goodbye to old ones or welcoming new staff.

The 1974 publication of The Sound of Time – An Anthology of  Hungarian-Canadian Authors – one of two English language anthologies (edited by Miska, along with half a dozen in Hungarian), was well received nationally and the selections read from the landing landed on appreciative ears. The stories often gave rise to lively discussions about the events brought to life by the poems and short stories shared, especially the ones that took place behind the Iron Curtain. Everyone knew about the Hungarian revolution and wanted to know what drove the Hungarians to it. Miska has been ducking the question with short answers, but during one of those gatherings he found himself trapped in his own house in front of a captivated audience, having to deliver a sermon on Life under the Communists from his “platform  pulpit.”

“It’s a long story, but I’ll make it as short as I can,” he began. “After it gained control of the country in 1947, step by systematic step, the Communist Party concentrated all power in its own hands and made everyone almost completely dependent on the state. From the outset, all dissension was outlawed and treated as treason against the state. People complaining about the government or its leaders found themselves arrested, accused of  being the enemy of the state and sentenced to labor camps. It proved to be an effective way of silencing all opposition.

“Soon the state controlled everything. In the state-run Employment Agencies communist officials assigned the individual to its place of work, and assigned his next place of employment if he quit. He was assigned to worse and worse jobs until he learned not to quit. Labor was compulsory; not working was against the law. In Budapest, the state came to assign not only one’s place of work, but his housing as well. Citing shortage of housing, those who had lived in larger apartments found themselves with a state-designated tenant. Petty officials took sadistic pleasure in housing known drunks in the homes of former middle class “bourgeoisie” and intellectuals to further their ‘social education.'” John paused. How to explain this?

“Imagine, if you can, that the Conservative Party, who now completely controls the Albertan Government, assigns someone to you, a complete stranger, that you now must accommodate in your apartment (now owned by the state), share your kitchen and bathroom with him and his family, and give the family your kids’ bedroom with whom now you will have to share your own bedroom. Now imagine that this tenant is perchance a known criminal or a drunk and you will have some idea of the feeling of helplessness and vulnerability one could feel under communist rule because, you see, you can do nothing about this but to complain to the government official who sent your tenant to you in the first place, who will tell you that you are just doing your share of social responsibility in aiding the working class. Yet this is what happened to many in the middle class who were now seen as ‘bourgeoisie’ and therefore ‘a class enemy’ by the communists.” John paused to let it sink in.

“Now imagine, if you can, that your communist boss has the power not only to fire you but to ensure that your next job will be a worse one and, if you lived in a desirable location, you may be transferred out of your house as well, and you get a sense of the completely dependent situation you may find yourself under communist rule… But there is more.

“The state set prices of all commodities and set all wages, and could change both at will.  There was no television. There were two radio stations and a few newspapers. All became channels of Communist party propaganda, from which there was no escape. Large tenements had wired in speakers ‘for public education,’ the tenants listening to a radio they could tune out, but could not turn off or down from six o’clock in the morning till ten o’clock at night.

“All the country’s resorts were taken over, and workers were told when to take their holidays and where. This power was delegated to the communist-run labor unions, which exacted a fee from every worker as membership was compulsory. Needless to say the best resorts and the longest holidays were assigned to party officials. When the state issued bonds, workers were told how much they should subscribe for. (There was great pressure applied to subscribe for a month’s wages as a minimum) The money was deducted from their paychecks.

“Most galling and humiliating, everyone was required to play the communist charade of pretending to rejoice at every resolution the Party made. These were announced over the radio and the papers were full of the details, but your local party boss called a meeting after work to explain it to you in person and watch your rhythmic clapping of approval. You were to stand there and clap until he signaled that you may stop. You were also to show up enthusiastically on weekends to perform ‘socialist work’ without pay, to turn up on state holidays to parade in front of the communist leaders carrying state-issued placards and to smile and wave enthusiastically. The personality cult of Stalin was mimicked by the personality cult of Rákosi, ‘our wise and revered leader’, ‘Stalin’s best pupil,’ according to the endlessly repeated propaganda –  this being a fat, bald, middle aged, beardless and godless Muscovite Jew.”

John turned sharply on those who laughed.

“This was not funny. You had to pretend you believed it, and say it yourself as if you believed it until some actually did. All clubs and organizations were outlawed unless they were set up and run by the Communists. There were no independent dance troupes, for instance, no choirs, no privately owned press, not even duplicating machines available to the general public. I could not organize a large literary reading circle in my own home as I am doing here now. Literary reading circles were also state run or not run at all.”

There was an involuntary, incredulous gasp from the audience. But John also had audience support to what he was saying.

“It is true, they used the same system in Finland while they were there.” Said Leo Niilo, the Finnish animal researcher, confirming Miska’s words. Niilo himself had escaped from Finland from the Soviets, as his country, too was overran by the Russians. “All organizations were viewed as possible cover for potential seeds of resistance,” Leo explained. Miska went on.

“The leadership of Churches of all denominations were coerced and threatened, secret pacts had to be agreed upon to allow churches to stay open. A system of informants was introduced where lower ranked priests reported on their superiors and on their congregation. There was no escaping the informants, who often had to become informants to escape themselves. Threats and blackmailing was used in recruitment more often than bribes as these cost less. A number of former fascist, experts in murder and torture, were retained by the regime this way. Only important spies were paid. Anti-religious propaganda was widespread. Church leaders who refused allegiance to the Communists, were jailed.” John paused.

“I saved the worst for last. All along a concerted campaign of intimidation was carried on mercilessly. At least one person from almost every city block was dragged out of his bed at down, tortured and interrogated to confess to whatever trumped-up charges the interrogators accused him of. This left the whole block speculating what he had done, what he might have said. The informers themselves were scared. They found themselves having to report innocent people just to show that they were still ‘vigilant,’ because those who did not report frequently on others became suspicious, and were exposed to charges of ‘collaborating with the enemy.'”

John summed it up.

“Soon the atmosphere of fear and mistrust permeated everything, as people became afraid to say anything in front of anybody, sometimes their own friends or family members, as nobody could be trusted. The burden became unbearable. Something had to give.” He shrugged his shoulders and spread his palms.

“We just could not take it any more.”

John’s congregation took it all in and peppered him and Leo Niilo with questions. It was a high-powered group, many of its members obtaining leading administrative positions all over Canada, after leaving Lethbridge. Leo, who was himself conducting animal research at the nearby Animal Diseases Research Institute, whose history he was to write later, was a fascinating man in his own right. He was an excellent photographer and film-maker; he even made his own miniature muck-ups. The scientist who came to see John about solonetz soils, Johan Dormaar, a tall, thin, bearded Dutchman from South Africa was also there. These men nominated John to receive an honorary doctorate degree from the University of Lethbridge. (John is still in the lineup.) John’s closest friend at LRS was Dr. David Bowden, a researcher in animal breeding, a tall, blond man with handsome features who wanted to know more about John’s writing career.

John wrote in Hungarian, but some of his stories were translated into English and German. One of his better known short stories, “The Homecoming,” was featured in the anthology. It was a story of an old time Hungarian Communist, living in Toronto, visiting the Communist state in Hungary. He comes back a changed man, though he would not let on. The story is full of juxtaposed situational and character-based irony (the communist who is not a church-goer in Christian Canada goes to church in Communist Hungary, for instance),  which comes across in English as well, but what makes Miska’s writing uniquely enjoyable, the subtle sophistication of his folksy language, is completely lost in the translation. Miska’s stories are based, in part, on his childhood experiences in Hungary, and in equal part of his experiences among Canadian immigrant Hungarians. His literary works are published in his own books:

Egy bögre tej [A Mug of Milk, stories], A magunk portáján [Mending Our Fences, essays], Kanadából szeretettel [From Canada with Self-respect, essays], Literature of Hungarian Canadians, essays, bibliography, Földiek között [Amongst Compatriots, essays, stories, memoirs], Lábunk nyomában [In the Wake of Our Footsteps, essays, stories, memoirs], Jelenlétünk Kanadában [Our Presence in Canada, essays.] Most of his stories were written in Winnipeg. As Miska remembers it:

Most of my stories date back to the Prairie Capital. I spent my free time on street corners listening to people conversing in Ukrainian, Polish, Greek, German, Yiddish. Emulating our great novelist Zsigmond Móricz, I carried a notebook in my shirt pocket and jotted down segments of conversations and memorable expressions that later made their way into my stories. I wrote about characters that I could identify with.

These books were well received, some of them have won awards, including an Alberta Achievement Award for Excellence in Literature, and a silver medal from the Árpád Academy in Cleveland, Ohio, and have all been written about. Miska’s well organized bibliography alone is fourteen pages long and may be found, among other places, on his home page. It is well worth the look. The subject range alone is impressive. Miska’s own publications include history, editorial works, translations, bibliographies, and original works both in the sciences and in the humanities. He has written 28 literary essays, 11 scientific and 10 of history and/or education. The bibliography also lists secondary material, publications written about Miska. There are forty-nine such entries in the Bibliography.  The source lists four translations of literary works as well, including one entitled: The Best Stories from English.

Obviously, David did not know what he was asking, but good-naturedly accepted his host’s response: “Let’s leave this topic for another time!” Indeed, the party was already over.

We may recall that the committee charged with hiring a head librarian for the Lethbridge Reseach Center was looking to hire a person with a vision, as one of its criteria. Was Miska a man of vision? Well, he was and he was not. Certainly in the sense of a dreamer he was not. As a technological  innovator  perhaps? Definitely not, although he learned. His genius was that of a practical man, who was very involved with what was happening on the  ground  floor. It  was here  that  he saw the new  trends  developing, where he perceived the need to be filled and, because he was a man of action, he acted on it fast, often before others did. He was a visionary in the sense that he was often anticipating, and making things happen.

Actually, Miska’s most natural role has always been that of an activist. He made full use of his expertese and connections to ensure that Hungarian Canadian writers were published in English language magazines and anthologies, that they and their books were included in professional bibliographies, catalogues and lexicons both in Canada and in Hungary as well. (He has also written profusely as a publicist, helping struggling or beginning authors to become better known, including this writer.)

At work he took in what the scientists were doing and saw the paractical needs that would have to be filled, sometimes before they saw it themselves. Lastly, as much as he was involved with the LRC and its scientists, he was a visionary in the sense that his gaze was also cast on the wider horizon. This could be wide indeed for when multiculturalism arrived, he saw the national need as clearly as he saw the needs of his workplace. And, as usual, he acted on it.

Indeed, when Miska saw, as he relates in his memoirs, that

multiculturalism had become an integral part of Canadian life. Studies such as ethnicity, nativism, minority literatures and cultural pluralism constituted a good portion of our school curricula and media output. Extensive studies were devoted to literatures in the non-official languages. [There was] an ever increasing demand for information on ethnic literatures expressed by educators, librarians and other information specialists,

– he took it upon himself to answer the need. There is an old Cantonese saying that “you know the size of the man from the size of the tasks he addresses himself to.” By this measure John Miska has shown himself to be a very big man indeed, for he undertook the huge task of filling the national need created by multiculturalism, involving sixty-five nationalities. It was a ten year project.

The  first  edition, entitled  Ethnic and Native Canadian Literature, was  published  in 1974. The 500 page annotated bibliography was put on microfiche. “Hundreds of copies were  sold to university and public libraries  and  government  establishments,” says Miska. He began the work on an IBM typewriter and finished it on a state of the art computer, he remembers.

I did the gathering, organizing and formatting of the material. In addition to using the national and the major university library holdings, as shown by the published bibliography, I have consulted more than a hundred reference sources (encyclopedias, directories, bibliographies), and 139 related books, monographs and research studies. During my research I have come across more than 300 periodical titles in many languages that were important enough to be listed, with their abbreviations, at the head of the book.

Once completed, the author/subject index contained the names and reference numbers of 3100 authors, some of them having published multiple volumes of poetry, fiction or plays. The arrangement was going to be by subject, alphabetically by nationality, each containing basic references, lists of anthologies, followed by the individual authors, giving first their publications and writings about them. The latter gave the bibliography a truly reference value, as most of the book reviews, studies and short biographical articles were published in newspapers not indexed or listed anywhere. I have obtained most of this information directly from the writers by telephone, correspondence or personal visit.”

Some of the problems and challenges are also recorded in the Miska memoir.

The following basic bibliographic information was to be provided: author(s)/title in the vernacular with English translation/place of publication, publisher, date and genre. Short biographical notes were given about each author. Most of the citations were annotated. There were a number of problems to be solved. For example, some countries such as the former Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, and India used more than one language. Another challenge was to create an acceptable method of transliterating the Cyrillic and oriental symbols into the Latin alphabet. In this I have succeeded so well that some Canadian encyclopedias adapted the system I have created.

The summing up of the account on this ten year project is that of a practical man:

The bibliography was published by the University of Toronto Press under the title Ethnic and Native Canadian Literature: A Bibliography. The 445-page book was on the market for ten years. It sold for a pricey $130 and generated an overturn of $40,000. I received as honorarium 5 {284079cb216e78436ec1708acb1871ef19e22d1b7d9aed60d88ab618f2c16fd7}. It is still considered a pioneer publication.

Pure visionaries tend to think big and act small. Miska thinks small but sees wide and acts big indeed!

As it must be evident by now, John Miska wore many hats in his distinguished career, but none better than that of an eminent librarian. His biographies have filled voids difficult to even fathom. For his achievements he has received many awards besides those already mentioned, among them more than a dozen Canadian university and government grants. But the most impressive award he has received was “for his distinguished career in librarianship: the Queen’s Jubilee Silver Medal.

John Miska could not have received that distinction without having kept abreast with developments in his professional life that had spanned decades. As he himself recalls:

To keep abreast of scientific, professional and departmental matters we were expected to attend scientific and technological seminars. I have a file containing the certificates of advance courses that I had taken in Time Management, Process Skills,  Focus on Management, Management by Objectives, Management Orientation Program. Some of these courses were conducted out of town and were most stressful, some of them lasting for weeks.

For a man who learned to become a librarian in the University of Toronto, doing hand-written index cards, to become an expert user of automated computer retrieval systems is a large step indeed. The little man who was born by the light of a kerosene lamp has traveled a road from an almost medieval village to the electronic Information Age. The power of television notwithstanding, the front line workers of the Information Age are the providers of that information: our librarians. The Planners of the Lethbridge Research Center knew this. This is why they invested so heavily in the library there, this is why they considered it “the heart and soul” of their institution. Their chosen head librarian did not let them down. Under his leadership the library there became one of the country’s state of the art libraries of its kind. This has meant keeping up with the times, and then some. Relates Miska in his memoirs:

Courtesy of Canada Institute for Scientific and Technological Information, the former National Science Library, a new service known as the Canadian / Online Services (CAN/OLE) was introduced. We prepared interest profiles in collaboration with the individual research scientists, preparing an outline of the basic key words that covered their field of interest. The profiles were submitted to CISTI in Ottawa, where using specific databases with access to thousands of related periodicals, printed lists resulted and mailed back to us within a few days. Another system which was an improvement over the previous one was also developed by CISTI. It was called Selective Dissemination of Information (CAN-SDI). It did similar searches as CAN/OLE, except that CAN-SDI did the work continuously

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