Sociologist, pater familias, punster. Born Oct. 15, 1931, in Budapest, died Aug. 24, 2012, in Toronto of lung cancer, aged 80.
A Hungarian Jew who lived through the Second World War only to come under the thumb of the Soviet Union, Ivan Varga perhaps understandably became a sociologist in the early days of this field, which seeks to understand how social forces mould our world.
Ivan was a boy when he and his family were forced to wear the yellow stars imposed by the Nazis on Jews. Risking being shot, he stood in bread lines without his yellow star in order to get a little more food for the family. His good friend was shot into the Danube River and some of his family died in concentration camps.
When Hungary was liberated from the Nazis by the Soviet army and the war ended, he worked to rebuild the country filled with youthful socialist ideals. He even translated for a socialist youth delegation from China. When friends asked how he knew Chinese, he answered that he didn’t, but he knew what the Chinese delegates must be saying at such an event.
He did, in fact, acquire several languages – lecturing, writing and reading in at least seven.
When those beautiful socialist dreams turned to ugly Soviet reality, Ivan became a political dissident and after the Hungarian uprising of 1956 he fled to Poland, knowing he could be arrested or worse.
But he was worried about his mother and returned to Hungary a year later. He was briefly arrested and interrogated and was barred from working.
He earned money translating texts under the table, but it wasn’t until things eased up in the 1960s that he was allowed to work officially as a periodical editor.
He married Eva Launsky, also an editor, in 1961. I was born in 1968, the year he was allowed to leave the country for a four-year stint as a professor at the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania.
It was a taste of Western freedom. Ivan told me that one of the reasons he decided not to return to Hungary was that when he watched advertisements for the British Overseas Airways Corp. he saw young people jetting around the world and wanted that freedom for me.
With nothing but a few suitcases we defected to Germany, where Ivan taught as a professor for a year, before being recruited by Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont.
From there, he continued his international work as a sociologist of religion. Organizing and addressing conferences from India to Australia and throughout Europe, he also edited books and wrote articles with a global reach. He remained honorary president of the International Sociological Association’s religion research committee until the end of his life.
Published in several languages, he also made very bad puns in multiple languages. He was delighted when his six-year-old granddaughter, Alexandra, also started to make puns in two languages. She was the last person he smiled at from his hospital bed.
Christina Varga is Ivan’s daughter.