Marie Helene Dorothea Angela Vlasta Duczynska, known to friends and family as Ilona, was born in Maria-Enzersdorf, near Vienna in 1897. Her father Alfred Von Duczynsky was an Austrian of Polish descent whose family had served in the Imperial Army of Austria-Hungary. He has been described as an independent scholar, inventor, atheist, and aristocratic anarchist, employed in the head-office of a state-owned railway company in Vienna. Her mother Helena Bekassy was an impoverished member of a family of large land-owners in Western Hungary. Ilona grew up in Vienna with prolonged stays at one of her grandfather’s properties in Hungary. As an independent minded young person with socialist convictions, Ilona enrolled in the Technical University of Zurich in 1915 to study mathematics and physics. At that time it was not possible for women to study Natural Sciences in the Austro-Hungarian Hapsburg empire. Zurich was the meeting place of leftist representatives of European Social Democratic parties opposed to the First World War because Switzerland was neutral territory. There, Ilona became acquainted with leading figures of the anti-war movement, including Angelica Balabanoff.
After the soldiers and sailors of Petrograd laid down their arms in the Russian Revolution of February 1917, Ilona decided to take the declaration issued by the Left wing of the International Socialist Committee of the Zimmerwald Movement to Vienna and Budapest. With the assistance of other young people, including Tivadar Sugar who was briefly her first husband, she composed an appeal to the soldiers and workers of Budapest to follow the lead of the Russian revolutionaries. Ilona organized the printing and distribution of the literature to war factories and army barracks in connection with a general strike in January 1918. Ilona and Sugar were arrested, imprisoned, charged with high treason, sentenced to several years in jail, but liberated by the Hungarian revolution of October 1918 which ended the war and the monarchy, and established the First Republic of Hungary. She joined the Communist Party of Hungary but did not stay in Budapest for long after the start of the short-lived Revolution of the Councils. As a well-educated comrade fluent in French, English, and German she left Budapest for Zurich in May 1919, three months before the collapse of the Commune. In 1920 she went to Moscow to assist the leaders of the Communist International in the organization of the Second World Congress of the Commintern. She left Moscow for Vienna in September 1920. Two years after her return to Vienna her pressure for more internal democracy within the Hungarian Communist Party in exile led to her expulsion.
She met Karl Polanyi in 1920 and they were married in 1923. She resumed her university studies but continued to be motivated by political action. The ascent to office of Hitler in January 1933 and the rising tide of Austro-Fascism resulted in her husband Karl Polanyi’s relocation to London. Following the defeat of the workers of Vienna in February 1934 and the arrest and exile of socialist leaders, Ilona sent her daughter Kari to England. She remained in Vienna as an editor of Dersprecher, the journal of the now-illegal autonomous Schutzbund, and engaged in other underground activities. She also participated in training Schutzbund volunteers to fight with the international brigades in the Spanish Civil War until she joined Polanyi and their daughter in England in 1936. During this period, she joined the Austrian Communist Party but was expelled on orders from Moscow in 1937 for reasons not stated.
In England, Ilona established a home near Seven Oaks, Kent. Karl worked as a lecturer for the Workers Educational Association in the counties of Kent and Sussex, until he left in 1940 for the United States. Ilona joined him in Bennington, Vermont in 1941, where ‘The Great Transformation’ was written, until their joint-return in 1943. She worked for the Political Intelligence Department of the Foreign Office composing texts targeted at the German population and later for the Royal Aircraft Establishment testing jet propelled aircraft engines until the end of the war.
When Karl accepted the appointment as Visiting Professor at Columbia University in 1947 and Ilona was barred from entry to the United States on account of her brief membership in the Hungarian and Austrian Communist Parties, she established a home in Canada at Rosebank, near Pickering, Ontario in 1950. Throughout the years, whether in England, the U.S., or in Canada she assisted Karl in his work and organized Polanyi’s manuscripts, publications, lecture notes, and extensive correspondences which constitute the Karl Polanyi Archive at Concordia University in Montreal.
In response to the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, Karl and Ilona collaborated in the joint production of the ‘The Plough and the Pen’ a collection of Hungarian poetry in English translation (1963). She also actively supported and lobbied for a more open, democratic governance in Hungary by supporting such dissidents as Miklos Haraszti, who wrote a critical study of the deplorable conditions in the Red Star Tractor Factory of Csepel. Ilona and Karl visited Budapest together a year before the death of Karl in 1963. Now they rest there together. Space does not permit an account of Ilona’s life between Canada, Vienna, and Budapest following the death of Karl in 1964, including her historical account of the Austrian working-class movement, translation of six Hungarian novels to English, autobiographical writings, or her role as a cult figure in the encouragement she gave to dissident intellectuals in Hungary in the 1970s.
On a visit to Montreal in the early 70s Paul Sweezy met Ilona and persuaded her to permit him to publish an abbreviated English edition of her account of the role of the Schutzbund, the paramilitary arm of the Austrian Social Democratic Workers Party from its’ origin in 1918 and its resistance to Austro-Fascism in 1934. The book appeared as ‘Workers in Arms’ (1978) with a preface and tribute to the author by Eric Hobsbawm. But no words can speak better to Ilona’s spirit as a sovereign revolutionary than the dedication she wrote: ‘In Memory of all who worked and died true to social and national revolution – socialists, communists, guerrillas of all countries, believers in all faiths’.
Kari Polanyi Levitt
June 14th, 2015
Revised December 2018