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János Rétey | Memory Project

János Rétey

Interview by Réka Pigniczky


(This interview was conducted in cooperation with the Collegium Hungaricum Berlin (CHB) as part of Memory Project Germany.)

János Rétey was born on February 4, 1934 in Szeged. His father was a military officer and so the entire family moved to Budapest in 1936. The family bought a large villa in Buda, and János grew to love gardening. During WWII, his father was a communications officer and did not see active duty, although he was still deported to Ukraine for three years after the war. During the bombing of Budapest in WWII, János and his mother were moved to Kőszeg on the Austrian border and stayed with his aunt who owned an officer's club there. Kőszeg was also the headquarters of the Hungarian Arrow Cross (Nazi) party and János often saw Ferenc Szálasi, the Prime Minister during the Government of National Unity (1944-45).

The Rétey family returned to Budapest in 1948 but was internally deported in 1951 by the communist regime for being enemies of the state. In his interview, he talks extensively about how his family was sent with barely any belongings or money to a tiny farm (tanya) in Kardoskút, where there was no water or electricity and where they were forced to share a small house with the farmer there. They worked the fields and only rarely went to town (Orosháza). In 1953 they were allowed to return to Budapest, and János graduated high school in 1954 with excellent marks. Still, he was not allowed to attend the technical university, although he was admitted to the gardening college in Buda. He attended this college for a year before the Revolution broke out.

János joined other students in protesting the brutal communist regime of the 1950's, taking part in demonstrations and being issued a gun as a national guardsman. On November 4th he was captured by Russian soldiers and handed over the Hungarian secret police for three days of interrogation. Luckily, he had no weapon on him and was released. He fled to Austria on November 22nd, fearing retribution by the Kádár government that took over after the Revolution was crushed. He spent his first years studying in Switzerland. He married a Swiss woman and they had three children, moving to their current home in Karlsruhe in 1972.

Professor Rétey studied chemistry at the ETH in Zurich and carried out his PhD work under the guidance of V. Prelog (1963). After a postdoctoral fellowship with F. Lynen at the Max-Planck-Institute in Munich (1963-1965) he returned to ETH, where he worked with D. Arigoni on the stereospecificity and mechanism of enzymic reactions. 1971 he was awarded the Alfred Werner Prize of the Swiss Chemical Society. 1972 he accepted his present position at Karlsruhe University.

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