Tamas Zalatnai dances with a Hungarian dance troupe after serving with the Hungarian Air Force in the late 1960s. (PHOTO COURTESY OF TAMAS ZALATNAI)

Tamas Zalatnai dances with a Hungarian dance troupe after serving with the Hungarian Air Force in the late 1960s. (PHOTO COURTESY OF TAMAS ZALATNAI)

THEN AND NOW: Port Alberni man’s military memories too painful to keep mementos

Conscription in Communist army forced Tamas Zalatnai to make life-changing decision

BY SONJA DRINKWATER

Special to the AV News

For the third year in a row, freelance writer and photographer Sonja Drinkwater is telling the stories of Alberni Valley veterans. But this year’s special section looks a little different.

In previous years, Sonja approached veterans and asked them to share a photo from when they served with their respective military branch. She then took a photograph of the veterans as they are now.

This year, 2021, some of the veterans featured are no longer with us, but their memories are kept alive by their families and friends. Another veteran has no photos from his military service, because the memories are far too painful.

If you know of a Port Alberni veteran who deserves to be featured in a future edition of Then & Now, please contact Sonja Drinkwater at sonjadrink@shaw.ca.

Tamas Zalatnai’s memories of serving in the military are so painful he has no photos of himself in uniform—he threw them away.

Zalatnai, now a retired master goldsmith living in Port Alberni, was born in Hungary at a time when the Communist regime required youth to complete a certain amount of military service. “It was in 1966 that I was in the Hungarian Air Force and was there until 1968 as part of the ground crew as a dispatcher,” he said.

“All men were recruited, there was no choice.”

A tragic incident more than a decade earlier had already begun to shape Zalatnai’s opinion of military conflict and Communism in Hungary. In 1953 his father, who was an opera singer with the Budapest State Opera, was executed. He does not talk about the details.

Zalatnai grew up in the world of theatre, and his father was a great influence; since he was a child Zalatnai spent hours backstage at the opera. When he was 10 he started taking dance lessons, and gravitated from classical ballet to folklore dancing, which was better suited to his short stature.

Zalatnai studied silver and goldsmith work at the Budapest Trade School after he left high school, and that work led him to a stint at the Mint, where Hungarian currency was made. He also performed with the University Folk Dance Group. “I was a dancer in Hungarian folk dance and as such we travelled to many different countries. It was on one of those trips that I defected to Austria.”

Disillusioned at having been forced into military service for two years, Zalatnai waited until the dance group was performing in Krems, near Vienna, then he left.

“I had a passport of service so I could register as a refugee in Austria. Dancers had this type of passport and it was good in all countries. I worked right away with the Catholic Immigrant services,” he recalled.

His girlfriend was living in Vienna, so he met up with her. Zalatnai was just 24 years old.

The couple married and moved to Montreal, Quebec, where Katharina had already moved to be closer to family. Zalatnai used his talent working with precious metals and making jewelry to find a job with a prestigious company in Montreal.

“My sweetheart left to Canada, women could leave much easier than men,” Zalatnai said. “She had moved to Montreal, as she had family living there and she came to Austria and we got married there and then went to Canada.”

The couple eventually moved to Vancouver, where Zalatnai became renowned for his jewelry-making and teaching skills.

He now lives in Port Alberni with his life partner, artist Colleen Clancy, and is retired.

Alberni-Clayoquot Regional DistrictHungaryPort AlberniRemembrance Day

 

Tamas Zalatnai poses for a photo after swimming at a European beach in his 20s. (PHOTO COURTESY TAMAS ZALATNAI)

Tamas Zalatnai poses for a photo after swimming at a European beach in his 20s. (PHOTO COURTESY TAMAS ZALATNAI)

Renowned artist Tamas Zalatnai is now retired in the Alberni Valley<ins>, but still dabbling in metalsmithing</ins>. (SONJA DRINKWATER/ Alberni Valley News)

Renowned artist Tamas Zalatnai is now retired in the Alberni Valley, but still dabbling in metalsmithing. (SONJA DRINKWATER/ Alberni Valley News)