Between 1938 and 1978, a dedicated pedagogue named Eszter Leveleki oversaw an unusual children’s summer camp at a location 60 km from Budapest, in the Nógrád County community of Bánk. Over the span of four decades, this operation hosted a total of over eight hundred children, whose days at the lake would generate a wealth of memories recorded in the form of diaries, photographs, and other documentary paraphernalia. Today, the phrase “summers in Bánk” has risen to the status of a concept – a mental amalgamation of people, games, traditions, nicknames, friendships, location, and – perhaps most importantly – a personality type and state of being participants dubbed “klassz,” meaning “cool”: a special brand of “cool” found only in Bánk.
The story of the Bánk summer camp is framed by the circumstances of history: the Second World War, the Rákosi regime, the 1956 Revolution, the Kádár era, and the political storms of the age were all forces that in some ways penetrated life at the camp, and in others did not. Born in the spirit of pre-war reform pedagogy, the enterprise drew the majority of its participants from middle-class families. By the 1950s, it had become something of an experiment: a phenomenon that ran both parallel, and counter to the official educational norms and “pioneer” camps of the time, organised in the then-usual informal, semi-legal fashion, and operated as a small community based on strong personal ties. Life in Bánk was characterised by spontaneity, individual and group creativity, and the power of the human community to shape experience. During the Kádár era, the camp developed a subcultural feel and, indeed, began to define itself expressly in terms of a counter-culture – one that drew on the strategies typical of the Interwar upper-middle-class and intellectual milieu. Thus, the culture it embodied was one of resistance and compromise, the maintenance of an elite position, and the gestures of acceptance and exclusion, whose conscious aim was to reinforce the fine mechanisms associated with life as a member of the intelligentsia through the experiences, games, activities, and documentary habits of childhood.
The four decades of summers in Bánk witnessed a succession of four separate eras, both in the history of Hungary – the Interwar period, the Second World War, the age of Stalinism, and the Kádár era – and the life of the camp – the entrance onto the market of modern educational opportunities; the founding, expansion, and golden age of Pipecland; closure; and, finally, the reign of heirs and successors. The traditions and customs that would become the hallmark of a vacation in Bánk – the games, heroes, mythology, “serious” games, and accompanying symbolism and material culture – were developed early on. Together, these would compose the world of an entire string of original, creative, courageous, extroverted children and teens who would come to think about life in terms of community; whose democratic lakeside land of play was at once real and imaginary, ingenious and wild, binding and exclusive, finite and everlasting; in short, very, very “cool”.