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Bíró, Lajos

(1880–1948), novelist, publicist, editor, dramatist, and screenwriter. As was the case with other writers of the second generation of Hungarian Jewish literature, Lajos Bíró saw himself not only as culturally Hungarian but also as a modernist in the artistic sense and as a political and social liberal. Members of his generation were active in the antifeudal opposition, a movement that developed and refined socialist liberal values. Most second-generation writers neither worked within Jewish frameworks nor participated in Jewish cultural affairs. When attacked, they defended the role of Jewish intelligentsia and their own attempts to assimilate; following the revolutions of 1918 and 1919, they responded to the counterrevolutionary regime’s open persecution of Jews.

It was under the influence of the latter events that Bíró wrote his historical novel, A bazini zsidók (The Jews of Bazin; 1921). The novel is based on a documented case of blood libel from 1529 that occurred shortly after Hungary’s disastrous defeat by the Turks at Mohács in 1526. Bíró used the historical framework to examine Hungarian–Jewish relations in the context of Hungary’s heterogenous society and the country’s role as buffer state between two major powers. The novel’s parables are transparent; its characters and stereotypical behavior patterns are easily recognizable as alluding to contemporary situations. Bíró’s essay “A zsidók útja” (The Way of the Jews; 1921) marks one of the first attempts by a Hungarian Jew to assess the debacle of assimilation and to acknowledge the uncertainty of Hungarian Jewry’s future. Both the novel and the essay were written in Vienna during the first part of Bíró’s exile.

Bíró began his career as a journalist in Nagyvárad (now Rom., Oradea), a city at the border of Hungary and Transylvania that was the cradle of modern Hungarian literature. Its newspapers and other cultural institutions were the only such publications outside Budapest with nationwide significance. As in Budapest, more than 20 percent of Nagyvárad’s population was Jewish. The prevailing cultural and intellectual atmosphere was facilitated by the city’s liberal Jewish environment, and was suffused with a European worldview that included writers, their patrons, editorial offices, cafés, salons, and love affairs. Bíró, a journalist in the process of becoming a novelist and dramatist, was among the first to discover the great poet Endre Ady. Bíró left Nagyvárad to join the Budapesti Napló (Budapest Daily), a newspaper then edited and published by József Vészi, an outstanding figure from the first generation of Jewish intellectuals who dominated Hungarian political journalism. One of Vészi’s daughters married Bíró; the other became the wife of the writer Ferenc Molnár. Beyond their family relationship, the careers of Bíró and Molnár ran parallel and were typical of their times.

Bíró became the editor and publicist (opinion columnist) of the left-wing Világ (World), and a member of the intellectual circles surrounding Huszadik Század (Twentieth Century), the social science journal of the Hungarian progressive left, and the literary journal Nyugat (West). He served as foreign secretary in the Károlyi government, emigrating after the termination of the short-lived Communist regime.

In exile in Vienna, Berlin, and the United States, it became clear that what Bíró and some of his colleagues had accomplished in modernizing Hungarian literature was, despite their linguistic isolation, adaptable throughout the world. Bíró became a successful screenwriter, and then, in collaboration with Alexander Korda, established the London Film Production Company in which he remained a leading force to the end of his life. He visited Hollywood for the first time in 1912 when he sold one of his stories as a screenplay. In the course of his career, he participated in 40 successful films as screenwriter, story developer, or coauthor. Similar “cosmopolitan” paths were followed by Melchior Lengyel, Ferenc Molnár, and, in part, by Béla Balázs.

Bíró’s short-story collections include Harminc novella (Thirty Short Stories; 1906), Huszonegy novella (Twenty-One Short Stories; 1908), and Gloria (1911). Only a few stories have Jewish subjects; those that do, such as “A bosszú” (Revenge), scorn futile attempts at assimilation. In another short story, “A gyógyulás” (Recuperation), Bíró looks back with nostalgia to an abandoned Jewish life and faith. As was true for many of his contemporaries, he would approach a new theme with a sketch, feuilleton, or report before developing it into a novel or drama. Naturalistic depictions of poverty, illness, and crime were augmented with eroticism, psychological description, or problems of class struggle. Bíró’s language was not very different from that of other Hungarian writers, but in his rhythms, and in his rapid and unerring leaps into the essence of a piece, he created something recognizably new.

Suggested Reading

Aladár Komlós, “Beszélgetések a zsidó kérdésről,” (1925): 390–391, reprinted in Magyar Zsidó szellemtörténet a reformkortól a holocaustig, vol. 2, pp. 123–126 (Budapest, 1997); Tamás Ungvári, “Lajos Biró and the Jewish Question,” afterword to A bazini zsidók by Lajos Biró (new ed., Budapest, 1998), pp. 185–198.



Translated from Hungarian by Imre Goldstein