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


  1. Hungarian school children would benefit greatly from class visits to such an exhibit. This way from a young age, the next generations of Hungarians will realize that Hungarian Jews are integral parts of the Hungarian nation and that Jewish Hungarians have contributed greatly to the development of a capital that most around the world would agree is among the most beautiful of cities.

  2. Dear Sándor. I frankly cannot understand this tralala of yours, or why you would want to turn to the President of the Association of Hungarian Jewish Religious Communities (MAZSIHISZ) with your idea of organizing an exhibition on Hungary’s Jewish history. Don’t you know that this is not his beat ? I am frankly amazed that he actually spent one and a half hour with you, instead of simply directing you to the right place. He must have been at loose ends.

    Here is my advice: Go to the Hungarian Jewish Museum and Archives (Director Toronyi Katalin, a very able young woman who recently visited here in Montreal.) Budapest 1075, VII., Síp utca 12. The museum has a long and prestigious history – it was founded in 1909. In 1942 two employees of the Hungarian National Museum hid the valuable artefacts of the Jewish Museum in the cellar of the National Museum. Thanks to their bravery the entire rich collection exists today. This permanent exhibition was rearranged in 2017. Check it our before you try to reinvent the wheel. http://www.milev.hu/kapcsolat.html

    Also: Go to the Budapest Holocaust Memorial Center, which is an internationally renown center for scientific research education and culture on Hungary’s Jewish past. It welcomes visitors with interactive permanent and special periodic exhibitions, experience-based museum pedagogical programs and cultural performances. (Pava utca 39, Budapest 1094, Hungary. +36 1 455 3333.)

    Sándor ! There are many talented scholars working on Hungary’s Jewish history, and there are very talented museologists as well, who could help you, first of all by enlightening you to what are the best avenues and how to proceed along them. If you tell them I sent you they may give you the Kishka that was stolen from the butcher shop. 🙂

    I recommend for you and anyone interested an excellent though somewhat outdated book on the magnificent contribution of Hungary’s Jews to Hungary’s political, economic and cultural development after the 1867: Lajos Venetiater. A Magyar Zsidóság története. Budapest. 1986.

  3. Avatar Sandor Kerekes says:

    András, you give me too much work just to answer your suggestions.
    But let me go in order!
    The most interesting suggestion is concerning the Venetianer book. By mentioning it you start in me a whole flood of reactions and memories. This book was first published in 1922. The author was the rabbi of the Újpest synagogue and I valued this book so much that some ten years or so ago I searched out, found and got in touch with the grand son of his, the eighty odd years old Mr. Venetianer in Brasil. That was a marvellous conversation. (By the way, Vándor Sándor, the choral conductor and founder of the ”worker’s choire” was the author’s son)
    Komoróczy Géza more recent and much more scientific book is just a few years old and suitably, over two thousand pages and yet it is far from sufficient to consider it as comprehensive enough. Of course, it was not intended as the basis for any exhibition.
    The director of the Jewish Museum, Toronyi Zsuzsanna, and even her predecessor, were and are personal acquaintaces of mine, and I am also familiar with the museum as well. (We are even connected on facebook.) There simply are not enough personal, scientific and financial resources to create the exhibition in question. The task is monumental and delicate at the same time. I only wish to refer to the most recent Jewish museums, the one in Philadelphia, the other in Warsaw, they both were constructed, intellectually, over a period of ten years!
    A certain Dr. Feuerstein Emil in Israel produced a series of articles, later collected and published in book form (titled: ”Egy marék virág” and presently found in my library under h277-280), four volumes and more than fourhundred notable Hungarian Jews’ biography collected in them. It is my contention that this collection doesn’t even scratch the surface!
    The assembly and execution of such an exhibition is beyond the capacities of the presently operating Jewish institutions. Even if they all banded togather they would not be able to pull it off. This require a much larger effort. The reason, therefore, to go to the President of Mazsihisz was to start at the place where the decision to do or not to do is made most of all. If it is not encouraged there, there is no point going anywhere else. I got my answer, for now, and there is really not much point pursuing it any further.

  4. Dear Sándor. Don’t take my words as discouragement. Au contraire.

    I’m happy to hear that you are in touch with Toronyi, and that you also admire the work of the great Venetianer. The latter constructed an ageless monument to the contribution that the sons and daughters of Abraham made to Hungary’s economic, social, cultural and moral fiber, and to her attempt to step into the modern era.

    Instead of celebrating the Jews or encouraging them, Horthy’s administrations hindered them, by introducing Europe’s first anti-Jewish laws in 1920, followed by many others, and ultimately by deporting 460,000 to the gas chambers. It is the ancien, and fundamentally anti-Semitic Horthy regime that is the self-professed model for Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s current ruler.

    Ethnic cleansing in Hungary comes in many guises. In its mildest form, it compels non-Hungarian migrants to change their family names into names that sound Hungarian. Petrovich, Hungary’s national poet became Petőfi. My great, great grandfather on my mother’s side was a migrant from Switzerland (from Menzingen). He was a decent Catholic, whose family name was Staub. My grandfather changed his family name to Szentjóby in order to get ahead. On my father’s side we are German protestant migrants. I’m pleased that on my father’s side of the family we did not give in to the pressure of voluntary ethnic cleansing that became a fashion at the turn of the 20th century.

    Orbán has only two problem with the current EU leadership. It won’t allow him to engage in ethnic cleansing that breaches universally valid norms of Human Rights, and does not take kindly to his embezzlement of EU subsidies. It is his great good fortune, that he has a friend in America, in the person of Donald Trump, who shares his negative views of the EU, and is as eager to undermine the values of the Western alliance as he is. Just sit back and wait for the public praise the Donald will heap on Orbán’s head when he finally accomplishes his boyhood dream -stepping foot inside the White House and being hailed as a hero, who loves his people at least as much as the leaders of North Korea, Russia or China.

    If you ask me, I don’t think that the heroes of ’56 sacrificed their lives for this hoax. No wonder, the statue of the executed revolutionary leader Imre Nagy is being shuffled out of sight from its current place as I write these lines.

  5. Avatar Pityi Palkó says:

    In Hungarian history of culture, architecture, sculpture and painting, Hungarian Jewry always played an immense role. We could list world famous economists, scientists, engineers, physicians, financiers, craftsmen, inventors, and dozens of Nobel laureates. In my opinion, Jews of Hungary is one of the most desirable individuals and most valuable citizens of the Hungarian society – our Jewish writers, poets, artists, actors, film and theater specialists – Hungarian Jewish compatriots – their name is deeply engraved in Hungarian culture.
    Despite this fact, the burning question remains: how is it possible that the Hungarian Jewish compatriots’ cultivated, diligent, honest, richly optimistic historical contribution to Hungarian culture etc., is not lovingly and enthusiastically engraved in Hungarian consciousness ?
    This question is answered by Ákos Kertész, a Hungarian writer who lives in Canada; ‘The Hungarian is a genetically subject … (A magyar genetikusan alattvaló), the Hungarian does not even feel the scourge of conscience in spite of the worst of historical sin………etc., etc.,

  6. @ Pityi Palkó

    Mr Kertész is a great writer and one who has been badly treated by the autocratic Hungarian regime. I have tried to dissuade him from venturing into areas of the social sciences, where he is a rank amateur, but alas, he, will not listen to me. (I fully respect his right to do as he pleases.) I would advise you, however, to be cautious with the great writer’s pronouncements in the realm of anthropology.

    One of the charming, at times frustrating aspects of Hungarian political culture is its admiration for mixing apples and oranges. (e.g. “Illiberal democracy”.) This may explain why Hungarians appear to be so inept at keeping on the path that leads towards justice, the rule of law and sustainable economic development.

    Far too many Hungarians, and especially members of its artistic communities, feel that if they are able to recite or write poetry, they are, ipso facto, entitled to rapt attention, when they venture into the political arena. Mr. Kertész’s unfortunate diversion into the field of genetics, didn’t serve him well. That ill advised detour also didn’t do very much to turn Hungary back towards democratic governance. Au contraire, it simply added more fuel to the fire. But that’s another story…… I wish him well. He has much to say and share with Canadians.

  7. Avatar sandor kerekes says:

    Not just yet András, not just yet!
    in fact there is a movement afoot trying to get the ambassador of Canada involved, becase the statue was actually paid for by two Canadians and on Hungarian.
    Could I please ask you to get involved and write to the embassy? If so, I shallbe glad to send you the address and thenames involved.

  8. Avatar Pityi Palkó says:

    @ András B. Göllner

    ‘Far too many Hungarians, and especially members of its artistic communities, feel that if they are able to recite or write poetry, they are, ipso facto, entitled to rapt attention, when they venture into the political arena.’
    Mr Göllner ! Would you have also tried to dissuade Petőfi from venturing into areas of the social sciences, whose poems became renowned for its fierce tone, fearless uncompromising stance towards the Kings and leaders and institutions of the 19th century ?
    Or perhaps advised Mark Twain, the American writer, humorist, lecturer etc., who wrote; ‘When I finished Carlyle’s French Revolution in 1871, I was a Girondin; every time I have read it since, I have read it differently – being influenced and changed, little by little, by life and environment … and now I lay the book down once more, and recognize that I am a Sansculotte ! And not a pale, characterless Sansculotte, but a Marat.’ – that it is dangerous to think along those lines, don’t rattle the cage too violently, keep your voice in check and get your writings contents “approved by a controlling authority” before publications ?
    I am convinced that writers and poets world wide have a duty to the rest of us to be as daring as they ought to be – since the more daring they are the surer the world will gain the benefits of their expectations.

  9. Dear Sándor.

    I did not leave Hungary to re-immerse myself into her domestic affairs from Montreal’s Little Italy. On matters having to do with Hungary, I now restrict myself only to initiatives that hinder the spread of the Virus Hungaricus to my adopted home, Canada.

    If the people of Budapest want the statue of the man who sacrificed his life for their freedom, to remain at its current and rightful place, they should chain themselves to it in sufficiently large numbers, and dare the pocket dictator to move them along with the monument. If I was a citizen of Budapest, that is what I would do. I’d organize thousands of volunteers to take turns, making sure that at any one time at least 56 would be on guard, chained to the icon, that represents to this day the memory of those who sacrificed their lives for the preservation of justice, constitutional rule, and Hungarian sovereignty . Unfortunately, I am no longer a citizen of Budapest. If I were, I guarantee you, the statue of Imre Nagy would not be moved ! The icon would not be left unguarded, until the current Mayor and PM issued a written public declaration, that they will respect the memory and sacrifice of Imre Nagy, and allow his statue to stand where it is.

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