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Gerő, Katalin

(1853–1944), director of the Girls’ Orphanage of the Pest Israelite Women’s Association and cofounder of the first Zionist girls’ association in Budapest. Katalin Gerő’s mother was Zsófia Benkő, whose family had been successful and respectable residents in the village of Hévízgyörk northeast of Budapest from the eighteenth century. Katalin’s father, László Gerő, was an intellectual and son of a Polish freedom fighter who had found shelter for his family in Hungary. The early death of Zsófia left László with six children and little experience in running the farm. As a result, he quickly became impoverished and abandoned his children.

Gerő left her village and arrived in Budapest in the middle of the 1870s. In the Hungarian capital she moved in with her younger brother, Károly (1856–1904), who later became a well-known playwright. Gerő first earned a living sewing and finally, after escaping organized prostitution, made contact with the Pesti Izraelita Nőegylet (Pest Israelite Women’s Association). In May 1898, the president of that association, Johanna Bischitz (1827–1898), offered Gerő the position of director of the Jewish Girls’ Orphanage in Budapest. Gerő held this position until her death in 1944.

During this period—including two world wars—Gerő took care of more than 1,300 Jewish girls. The orphanage included one of the most progressive teacher-training schools in the country and also worked closely with different vocational training programs for women in Budapest. Besides running one of the most modern orphanages, Gerő is also known as the cofounder of Deborah, the first Zionist girls’ association in Budapest in 1901.

Gerő remained unmarried and childless. She died in embattled Budapest in 1944 at the age of 91. Her literary testimony consists of impressive correspondence with several well-known contemporaries and two publications. In 1929, she published her memoirs, Életem (My Life), in Hungarian. The German translation of 1933 was reprinted twice and sold more than 15,000 copies. In 1937, she wrote a history of the Pest Israelite Women’s Association from 1866 to 1937.

Even during Gerő’s lifetime, several people dealt with her exceptional biography. The Jewish author József Kiss (1843–1921) dedicated his poem Mese a varrógépről (Song about the Sewing Machine) to her. The novelist Elek Benedek (1859–1929) wrote a bestseller titled Katalin (1896) about her. Shortly before her death, Warner Brothers and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer were both interested in producing a film about her life. The project, however, was not pursued further. Instead, a distorted short version of her memoirs was published in West Germany after World War II in which Gerő was depicted as a hard-working, brave, and pious philanthropist who was—above all—passionately anti-Bolshevik. Any reference to her Jewish background was omitted and replaced by an alleged pious allegiance to Protestantism.

Suggested Reading

Julia Richers, “Der Pester Israelitische Frauenverein von 1866 bis 1914: Ein Beitrag zur jüdischen Frauen- und Alltagsgeschichte aus kulturwissenschaftlicher Perspektive” (M.A. thesis, Universität Basel, 2001); Julia Richers, “‘Jótékony rablás’ csupan? A Pesti Izraelita Nőegylet tevékenységi körei, 1866–1943,” in A zsidó nő, ed. Zsuzsanna Toronyi, pp. 65–75 (Budapest, 2002).