Arts & Culture

A Book Review

By Rory Winston

 

“That’s him. Definitely him,” exclaimed my mother knocking her glasses off her nose as she struggled to show me a page from the massive book she was reading. “My grandfather, you’re great grandfather – there. Look. Look”, she uttered in a voice that caromed from exhilaration to litany in a matter of moments. There he stood, the gaunt figure in a long black overcoat, one arm dangling to his side, another holding a book of prayers as he marched towards the camera in what appeared to be a Jewish funeral procession. The photo was captioned: Budapest, winter of 1938. This was just months after the first anti-Jewish acts were passed in parliament and years before the deportations responsible for the annihilation of hundreds of thousands in Auschwitz. This was the first large sized photo my mother had seen of him. She placed a small worn out photo she had kept in her purse next to the one in the book. It was a photo of her own mother, grandmother and the very same man she had pointed out in the book entitled, An Illustrated History of Jews in Hungary.

The publication was a comprehensive undertaking – one that encompasses everything from discovered Jewish gravestones dating back to the third century to the recent Jewish revival that has incrementally grown since the demise of the communist regime in 1989. The illustrious tabletop extravaganza not only documents Jewish life in Hungary but is a testament to Jewish contribution to Hungarian culture as well as to the signature left on local Judaism by its host country – a legacy that left its mark on contemporary society as a whole.

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From newspaper magnate Joseph Pulitzer (of Pulitzer prize repute) to physicists like John Von Neumann, Edward Teller and Leo Szilard, Hungarian émigrés in the US have made their presence felt. In photography, there was Robert Capa – who altered the course of photojournalism – as well as Andre Kertesz whose groundbreaking compositions left its impression on future of the entire art form. A famous sign at MGM studios once read: It’s not enough to be Hungarian, you also have to have talent. Renowned Hungarian Jewish directors included George Cukor, Michael Curtiz, Alexander Korda, Emeric Pressburger, Adolph Zukor (founder of Paramount) and William Fox (Fox Film Corporation), Joe Pasternak and, more recently, Istvan Szabo. In terms of music, the influence was readily felt in names such as Sir George Solti, George Szell, and György Ligeti and the hundreds of Franz Liszt Academy virtuosos that still pop up in symphony orchestras world over. Equally prominent stand the business tycoons such as George Soros, Robert Maxwell and Paul Reichmann. When it came to disappearing from the old world and reappearing to great applause in a new one, Hungarian Jews were as adept at the act as Harry Houdini (incidentally, one more in the Hungarian Jewish clan).

Whether it is Theodore Herzl whose visions of Zionism eventually helped bring about the state of Israel, Arthur Koestler whose novel Darkness at Noon became a literary watershed in its warning about totalitarian regimes, or Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel whose universal understanding for the holocaust stands as an eternal warning to indifference, the Hungarian Jewish contribution to contemporary western perception can’t be underestimated. As for An Illustrated History of Jews in Hungary, it shows clearly how the contributions of all these thinkers and innovators are integrally tied in with the world from which they had come, their vision palimpsests of a lost community’s aspirations.

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Hungarian Jews throughout the ages were a numerous and highly versatile lot. Prior to the Hungarian tribes that settled in the region of Pannonia, Jews had been in the region as early as 100 AD. Although during the middle ages Jews everywhere were subject both to purges and being burnt at the stake, in general, Hungarian Jews were afforded more protection than in other parts of catholic Europe. Jews from many different countries settled in the land and with each invasion, it was often they who bore the brunt of a new regime’s vengeance. Communities were built and rebuilt. Neighborhoods, synagogues, and schools were born, destroyed and returned anew. By WWI Jews were for the most part integrated into society. The country was dotted with Jewish communities whether Chassidic, orthodox, reform or those who had entirely assimilated.

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An Illustrated History of Jews in Hungary is a journey through the countryside shtiebels, large synagogues, rabbinical seminaries, religious academies, secular universities, businesses and marketplaces. It is a collection that pays homage to a lost world as much as it celebrates a renewed one. Vince Books, an illustrious Hungarian publishing house specialized in Judaica and art, brings us a tabletop masterpiece – one capable of showing us Hungarian history through a Jewish mirror and Jewish history through a Hungarian one.

Having recently been translated from Hungarian, the English version will soon be available in the US. In the late 1930’s, my great grandfather had unsuccessfully tried to convince his family to emigrate from Hungary. Staring at his portrait in the book, I was overcome by an absurd notion: after years of waiting, he would finally be coming to New York.

 

 

 

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