From the End till a New Beginning
Contemporary Jewish Writing in Hungary
Jewish identity in Hungary stands as the focal point of works by 24 of the country’s best authors in Contemporary Jewish Writing in Hungary: An Anthology.
This book published by the University of Nebraska Press is the latest volume in a series of books on Jewish writing in the contemporary world. After an overview of Jewish literature in the United Kingdom, Austria, Germany, Poland, South Africa and Switzerland, the writers and poets in this volume looked into what it means to be Jewish in post-Holocaust Central-Eastern Europe.
The volume contains works by internationally known Hungarian authors such as winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2002 Imre Kertész, but also György Konrád, György Spiró and Péter Nádas. However, some of the poetry, long and short stories in the book have been published in English for the first time by authors virtually unknown to the average Hungarian; whereas Zsófia Balla, Mihály Kornis, Péter Lengyel, István Örkény, Erno Szép and István Vas are among the well-known Hungarian writers featured in the book.
Edited by Harvard University Professor Susan Rubin Suleiman and UCLA visiting professor Éva Forgács, the anthology kicks off with a comprehensive 62-page introduction helping to understand contemporary Jewish literature by providing historical background. The short stories, excerpts and poems then try to follow a timeline, starting with recounts of the Shoah, moving on to different reactions of various Jewish personalities to the traumatic events that they had not been involved in directly, finishing at seemingly everyday topics imbued with a hint of the tragic fate of fathers or grandfathers. In this way the stories cover the whole period between the Second World War and the formation of the new capitalism in Hungary, stopping at important or tragic milestones such as the mass execution of Hungarian Jews in 1944 and the unsuccessful revolution of 1956.
The editors of the volume underline that even if two thirds of Hungary’s Jewish population perished in the Shoah, Hungary still stands out among Eastern-European countries in the sense that the largest proportion of Jewish people decided to stay after the war. The reasons for Jewish families remaining in Communist Hungary are discussed by some of the stories featured: György Dalos’s A körülmetélés (The Circumcision) tells the story of a young Jewish boy trying to make friends with the gentile Hungarians, as above everything he feels Hungarian. This strong sense of patriotism, often at the expense of disregarding common Jewish origins, was frequent among Hungarian Jewry to which the “betrayal” of the Hungarian nation experienced during the Holocaust was a profound shock. The origins of the wish to integrate and assimilate are discussed by Suleiman and Forgács. They explain that after the Compromise of 1867 had given a large degree of autonomy for Hungary under the Dual Monarchy with Austria, “the liberal nobility gave Jews enormous opportunities for advancement in the economic and cultural spheres” but the price to pay was to strive for complete assimilation into the Hungarian community.
Many Jews in cosmopolitan Budapest were eager to pay this price, making the period between 1867 and the First World War a golden age of Hungarian Jewry concentrated in the capital. With economic prosperity came the consumption and production of culture: the populist anti-Semitic rhetoric after 1918 did not fail to point out the cultural and economic domination of Jews in Budapest.
Indeed, the single most influential literary journal of the period, Nyugat (West), was founded by two assimilated Jews, and regularly published short stories by Jewish writers. However, the authors of these stories rarely if ever dealt with exclusively Jewish themes. Other, less emblematic but equally important journals followed a different path: founded by poet József Kiss, the weekly A Hét (The Week) for example published many urban Jewish writers and poets who handled more topical themes.
By the 1930s the anti-Semitic climate fed by populist themes was flourishing in Hungary with increasing intensity which finally allowed for the systematic deportation of Hungary’s Jewry from March 1944, the start of German occupation. Several of the published stories of the anthology remember these tragic times: Erno Szép’s Emberszag (The Smell of Humans) was written immediately after the war was over, giving an account of his experiences in the spring and autumn of 1944. Having to move to designated houses where families were crammed together en masse, having to obey particular curfews, being the victims of identity checks – Szép describes the everyday trials of war-stricken Hungary under the rule of the Arrow Cross party, the local version of Hitler’s National Socialists.
Another recount of the Second World War years is that of Béla Zsolt. In the excerpt from his unfinished autobiographical novel Kilenc koffer (Nine suitcases) he tells about his train journey to Budapest with his wife, pretending to be gentiles to escape persecution. Zsolt describes with serenity the deadly threat lurking in the small talk conducted in the compartment that a fake notary, a disguised Jew himself, almost falls victim to.
Szép and Zsolt published the two novels in the interval between the end of the war and the Communist takeover in 1948. Like many other Jewish writers who survived the Shoah, they express their profound trauma and losses, as well as their shock at being left alone by the Hungarian nation.
Over the following years until the change of the political system in 1989 the theme of the Holocaust and the role of Hungarians was covered by thick silence. The editors point out: the “discussion of the Holocaust was positively taboo between 1948 and 1956 and remained largely a subject of embarrassment and circumlocutions right up until the fall of Communism” (xl). To some writers not writing about their experiences of persecution was a relief; but others had to find a way to express the unspeakable horrors. István Örkény invented the format of one-minute stories and four of the brief narratives are included in the volume. The absurd and ironic stories published in the 1960s convey the pain and horror, despite their detached tone.
Of the generation that survived the Shoah as children or adolescents, probably the best-known Hungarian writer is Imre Kertész. He represents the group of Hungarian Jewish authors who are responsible for the most powerful autobiographical recounts of the Shoah: Mária Ember, György Konrád, Ágnes Gergely and Ottó Orbán, all featured in the volume, are among the major novelists and poets born between 1929 and 1939 who started publishing during the 1960s and ’70s, and whose writing shows the formative experiences of loss or persecution in 1944. Of Kertész, the volume includes the final chapter of the Nobel winning book Sorstalanság (Fateless), written in 1975. The hero, a young boy recounts his trip back from the concentration camp to Budapest. The excerpt gives an explanation to the strangely resigned and distanced tone of the novel as well as the main character’s understanding of fate and freedom. In Kertész’s classic Holocaust novel, the hero, an alter ego for the author deported to Auschwitz and to other camps at the age of 15, moves through the step-by-step process that led inmates to either perishing or surviving.
Isván Gábor Benedek, a survivor of Bergen-Belsen, moves on to another tragic event of Hungary in the 20th century: seen through the eyes of a provincial cantor who came to Budapest to replace the dead Torah scroll of Tótkomlós with a new one, we find ourselves in the turmoil of the 1956 revolution. Despite its humorous tone, the A komlósi Tóra (The Torah Scroll of Tótkomlós) is one of the most heart wrenching stories of the volume: by the time the cantor reaches home, his mission to buy the scroll has lost its point.
In the years of Communism, primarily at the end of ’40s and the ’50s, any sort of differences: being gay, religious, or belonging to the intelligentsia was a taboo in the uniform society of equals. Reminding the society of its own history of betrayal, guilt and weakness in the years of Holocaust was even more unspeakable. Discussion of Jewish identity was out of the question, but the official line was reinforced by the Jewish community itself as well. Read the expert from Dalos’ novel The Circumcision, and you will see how the party functionary, himself a Jew, winces at the word Jewish, and advises to the protagonist to forget about his Jewishness: it is enough to be Communist. In other stories we can see how Jewish families themselves, in fear of the unimaginable happening again, tried to hide from their offspring their roots, emphasizing being Hungarian, and, in many cases, and out of gratitude toward the Soviet troops which literally saved their lives, Communist.
For this generation of Hungarian writers learning about their background, hidden from them in one way or another, was a conscious and laborious work. Of the generation, Péter Nádas is the best known, his work having been translated into many languages. The volume contains the short story A bárány (The Lamb), a symbolic tale of a countryside settlement in the ’50s with its population divided into rigid castes, under the rule of a fat, greedy and lazy couple, and with a single Jew who has to survive the malice of the children as well as their parents. The story looks into the returning general perception, imbued with a blend of fear and hatred of Communism, of the Jews holding all strings, occupying all-important positions.
The end of the Communist regime saw the opening up of dialogues on Jewish identity after the era of forced secrecy. On the one hand immediately after the change of regime openly anti-Semitic literature appeared, the most shocking such publication being an article by the until then highly respected poet Sándor Csoóri. But on the other hand, Jewish culture got a new impetus, with periodicals launched and cultural and religious events organized. Contemporary authors, not bound by the secrecy forced on the previous generation, discuss problems of Jewish identity today: In Gábor T. Szántó’s short story A tizedik ember (The Tenth Man) the young man finally does not participate the minyan despite the pleading of the old cantor and despite his own promise to do so. Although he does know how to pray, he is not tied to the community anymore: he angrily snatches the yarmulke off his head when it attracts the attention of a child.
Apart from the works of 24 contemporary writers and poets, the editors included a few paragraphs about each author preceding their work in order to give the reader context and make the experience complete. A wonderful, often heart-wrenching book: Contemporary Jewish Writing in Hungary provides a comprehensive and sensitive overview of the last century’s Jewish history in Hungary.