A Hundred Turbulent Years

Some three years ago I was visiting Prague and there, amongst the few remaining Jewish monuments was the relatively new, elegant Spanish Synagogue. Despite its elegance and attractive style, my interest was rather caught by the representative exhibition in the women’s gallery showing the ample contribution the Jews of Prague provided to Czech and European culture at large. It was a very nice, impressive exhibition, worthy of the venue, but afterwards at lunch somehow we, my wife and I, were somewhat nonplussed. Surely, it had to do with the fact that most of the subjects of the exhibition were beyond reach for those visitor uninitiated in Czech culture and language, as well as in the the restrictions the Austro-Hungarian Empire imposed on the then budding Czech national ambitions.

These national ambitions were justifiably intense at the time, considering that the civil service of the Empire was to a large extent staffed with Czech beaurocrats. So much so, that by the turn of the century the K.u.K. (Kaiserlich und Königlich) administration was disapprovingly regarded by many as a Czech monopoly (harking back to those times the disproportionate number of people bearing Czech names in Vienna). Concurrently, as a result of centuries of economic development, the Czech provinces – Bohemia and Moravia – were generally regarded as the industrial heartland of the Dual Empire. It is not surprising therefore, that the sudden economic and political prosperity had its cultural dividends and that it was Prague and the Jews of the city taking some initiative. Of course, it is also true that since the beginning of the 19th century there was a strong romantic, revivalist cultural ferment that, not unlike in Hungary, produced considerable cultural accomplishments, just to mention the composers Smetana and Antonín Dvorák. The somewhat belated literary effect was the appearance of the notable Franz Werfel, Stefan Zweig and Franz Kafka, all from the Prague ghetto.

Concurrently, the events in Hungary also took a similar turn: the language renewal movement, the reform parliaments and some initial attempts to establish periodical press products successfully fostered the romantic literature movement. However, retribution for the 1848 Revolution was a setback for Hungary which chilled all development for almost twenty years. The pent up energies for development of all kinds finally received their opportunity with the Compromise in 1867 and Hungary at last embarked with a vengence on the business of catching up. The impetus for the process of turning the still agricultural and still somewhat feudalistic country towards the capitalist transformation was the fortunate, unpredictable invention of the cylindrical mill by Abraham Ganz, a Swiss immigrant. The ingenious Abraham Ganz, the initiator of innumerable industrial inventions and the owner of a rapidly expanding industrial empire, copiously contributed to the transformation of Budapest (only incorporated in 1873), into an industrial power house. So much so, that whereas there had scarcely been any grain grown in the vicinity of the city, the mills soon lined up on both shores of the Danube and elevated Budapest to be the milling capital of the continent. (Eventually this technology, of course, spread out in all directions, including the USA, and was instrumental in making Chicago its grain capital and the local for the commodity market to this day.)

All these feverish developments and activity were strongly supported by the just recently (1867) emancipated Jews in the form of financial as well as organizational and enterpreneurial abilities. The forty years following the Compromise were the most productive and most fondly remembered period of this country, still mentioned either as the Golden Age, or as the „happy old peace times.” Of course, there is a lot of nostalgia tainting those contrived memories, but in fact, the results and the production do provide some justification for these epithets. At the turn of the century, the output of Budapest’s GDP was 15-18 times that of the „industrial heartland,” Moravia and Bohemia, thanks to the spectacular growth and production of mills, railroad building and their servicing industries. The lion’s share in instigating and in financing all that break neck development came from Jews, who found opportunities for investing in almost all sectors of the economy: the buildings of Budapest; the prospecting, opening and cultivating of mines; laying railroads; banking, etc. These feverish years were the formation of Budapest, for the most part as we know it now: its size, shape and style.

Naturally, the bustling economy and peaceful political climate produced a sufficient market and demand for cultural pursuits, and the Jewish citizenry, by now eager to participate and contribute, demanded their share. Perhaps the signal for the start came from Kiss József, a journalist who, by starting a weekly literary journal A Hét (The Week), in 1890, set the liberated tone for all others interested in cultural endeavour.

Perhaps this was the time when the gates opened wide enough for the Jews to stampede out of the restrictions and taking up an ever expanding territory of the cultural, scientific and social fields with increasing effect. In the coming decades, sometimes with more, sometimes with slightly less intensity, the Jewish community produced an astounding output of talent and accomplishments, almost irrespective of political circumstances. This outburst of collective talent, productivity and ambition led to an unprecedented richness and quality of intellectual fecundity.

My visit to the Spanish Synagogue in Prague, and the exhibition I saw there, not to mention my awareness of the parallel histories, gave me the idea of trying to produce a similar exhibition in the Hungarian context, introducing the accomplishments and contributions of the Jewish community to the life and culture of Hungary. At first, I didn’t realize what a monumental task this would be. For example, a Hungarian journalist in Israel was writing a series of articles for several years in the Hungarian weekly Új Kelet about notable Hungarian Jews. Those articles, when eventually published in book form, amounted to over four hundred items. And the list was quite truncated, far from even being semi-satisfactory. The intended exhibition was expected to deal with the personal lives, the importance and the achievements of well over a thousand people! And this list should have to include some heretofore obscure, but eventually very influential people, like László Biró, the inventor of the ballpoint pen, or the long-forgotten orientalist and British colonial education supervisor, Aurél Stein, or the equally obscure writer, medic and polymath, Sándor Lénárd who, almost singlehandedly revived the interest in the Latin language. Not to mention the astonishing number of world famous scientists and Nobel Price laureates! This was obviously, even at the most superficial first glance, a staggering task to take on. But, at the same time it seemed most inspiring, since in the somewhat hostile climate of anti-Jewish sentiments it was promising an opportunity to foster reconciliation and also, for the long demanded, but also studiously avoided historic reckoning with the Jews and their place in Hungarian society.

Detail of a building in Fecske utca, Józsefváros. Source: Új Kelet.

I had met years before the secretary of the national Jewish organization, MAZSIHISZ, so, I phoned her and asked for an appointment with the president, to present him with the idea of the exhibition. The president is a fine, cultured man whom I came to respect after hearing him speak here and there and found to be quite to my liking in his intelligence and personable disposition. All that, however was not enough to get me the requested appointment. At first, I was put off with explanations and excuses, but then the whole matter fell into limbo for a long time. After about two and a half years I became impatient, and applied pressure. That eventually lead to email exchanges with the president. His transparent attempts at evasion I unmasked and rejected and insistence to see him, were followed by mocking recriminations over my excessively pushy demeanor („There is no pushier pen-pal than you anywhere,” he wrote, as he acquiesced to the meeting.) Finally, at long last, on the 18th of December, 2017, the appointment!

Considering that I asked for a mere twenty minutes to explain my concept, I regarded my request as modest and the president, András Heisler, after realizing that I wasn’t really the type of maniac he had expected and feared, generously attended to my presentation. We had a very pleasant and rewarding conversation that lasted an ample hour and a half. When he gallantly walked me to the door, we agreed that I shall present my concept in writing by a certain deadline. The deadline was to be some time in mid April, and my concept, written in a concise, clear, itemized, if somewhat dry manner, was in his inbox on the 25th of March. And the new waiting game ensued. Not much later we ran into each other at a social function and he told me that he had read and liked my proposal and would soon answer it. And answer he did.

But before I relate the rest of the story, I would like to elucidate the concept of this exhibition, which I intended to be the „permanent” exhibition of an imaginary museum. To write the Plan, I researched the internet to find out how these kinds of plans are constructed, and settled on the template used by the Smithsonian Institute. I started my four-page document with a complaint saying that this exhibition is late; it should have been built fifty-sixty years before. I suggested that after an approximately year-long period the exhibition should be disassembled into specific units and circulated around the country in parts, so the entire Hungary could become acquainted with its message. I pointed out emphatically that this exhibition should speak to everybody in the hope that it will engender a new kind of social cohesion for the entire Hungarian Society similar to that of the Millennium Exhibition of 1896. After the mention of technical aspects and considerations, I also called attention to the presently empty and idly waiting exhibition building in Józsefváros, that by its size and original dedication to Jewish themes would be suitable to house the exhibition. I also reminded the President that the centenary of the reviled Numerus Clausus law was only two years away and that the opening of this exhibition on that day in 2020 would be an auspicious beginning to this event, which I regard as one of the greatest cultural enterprises ever that Hungarian Jews would have undertaken.

Oh! Yes, the President did reply at long last. I didn’t resent at all the delay in answering, because I heard through the grape vine that MAZSIHISZ is going through one of most critical periods in its history, wracked with dissension and strife; and also, the term of his presidency is soon ending and he is probably busy with a thousand other, most pressing cares. His answer informed me that his colleagues are working on a similar concept to be realized in a now defunct synagogue, which in several respect coincides with my concept. I am still trying to apply myself to decipher the method of speaking and writing that was developed over some decades in my absence, and which I call ‘new Hungarian,’ that is most specifically recognized by its avoidance of addressing the subject at hand. The president could have said a number of things, any one of which could have sufficed to mean ‘yes’, or ‘no’, but he followed the local custom of not saying what he meant and I am now at liberty to interpret his answer any way I please. However, since it is easier and less work to do, provisionally I interpret the answer as a ‘no’, and if anything changes in the future I shall reinterpret this answer.

I am closing this report here with the same thoughts I closed my proposal with: I expect that an exhibition of this kind would receive unjust and indignant attacks from some quarters, but these would only confirm my conviction that this exhibition should and must become a reality. However, if it cannot be realized for the first centenary of the Numerus Clausus, then let someone else build it for the second centenary.

Sándor Kerekes

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *