Borsszem Jankó (Tom Thumb). Budapest, 17 March 1907. A humor publication founded and in its early years edited by Adolf Ágai. (General Research Division, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations)

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Hungarian Literature

Magyar was not the first modern literary language of Hungarian Jews; few were conversant in that language before the mid-nineteenth century. Jews in Hungary had undergone an earlier stage of linguistic assimilation toward the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth centuries, shifting from Yiddish to German, the medium of instruction of the schools initiated by Joseph II (1780–1790), as well as the language of the kingdom’s more important trading centers populated largely by German burghers.

The first generation of Jewish writers writing in German appeared in Hungary in the 1820s. The sphere of their activity was mainly in the publication of German-language periodicals such as Der Spiegel and, later in the 1840s, the Pressburger Zeitung (and its literary supplement Pannonia), Der Ungar, and a dozen more short-lived newspapers of 1848–1849. The Rosenthal and Saphir families were strongly represented as writers, editors, and publishers. Journalism and literature were not sharply separated, as nearly every journalist wrote poems, aphorisms, reports, travelogues, short stories, and humorous skits in addition to editing and translating. Through the medium of the German language, the public had access to a European culture that was far broader in scope, higher in standards, and more varied in content than its provincial counterpart. Being at home simultaneously in two or more cultures also promoted a critical attitude in Hungarian Jews; hence, the major force and originality of this generation lay in the genres of humor and criticism. Being at home in German also provided a means whereby two outstanding writers—the humorist, critic, and editor Moritz Gottlieb Saphir (1795–1858) and the poet Karl Beck (1817–1879)—could find a wide reception and at times even a home in Germany and Vienna.

A generation coming of age in the pre-1848 era, educated and writing in German, took steps toward Magyarization, attempting to speak and write in the native language of the country. Jews were not alone. As late as the beginning of the nineteenth century, broad segments of Hungarian society such as the high aristocracy and the urban burghers could not speak the language. A nationalist movement of renewal of the Magyar language and literature, organized by the poet and translator Ferenc Kazinczy (1759–1831), began only in the early 1800s. It was followed by a series of cultural and social projects initiated by Count Stephen Széchenyi that inaugurated the so-called Era of Reform (1825–1848). It was this reform generation that proposed the emancipation of Jews in return for their national allegiance, achieved through cultural and linguistic Magyarization.

Accordingly, the first Jewish literary experiments in Hungarian were linked to political issues and what was considered their corollary, adapting the Jewish religion to Hungarian conditions. Moritz Bloch, later Mór Ballagi (1815–1891), who acquired Magyar only as a young man, began as a journalist for the German-language press. In enthusiastic response to the liberal deliberations of the Hungarian Diet that had taken up the cause of Jewish emancipation, he wrote the first significant book by a Jew in Hungarian, A zsidókról (On Jews; 1840). In it, he presented a summary of the history and religion of the Jews for the educated Hungarian reader. In a flurry of literary activity, Bloch also translated and provided commentaries to the Five Books of Moses (1840–1841) and translated the prayer book Jiszrael könyörgései egész évben, I. rész (Israel’s Prayers for the Whole Year, Part 1, 1841). In one of his articles, he outlined a plan, supported by several well-known Hungarian aristocrats, for a Jewish institution of higher learning that would ensure the training of Jewish religious leaders and intellectuals in the spirit of Hungarian modernity. In the fall of 1840, he became the first Jewish corresponding member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. His conversion to Christianity three years later came as a surprising blow to the reforming elements in Jewish society.

By then, several organizations were being set up with the goal of integrating into Hungarian society. In 1842, the Pest community established the Magyar Izraelita Kézmű és Földművelési Egyesület (Hungarian Israelite Handicraft and Agricultural Association; MIKÉFE), which turned out to be the longest-functioning nonreligious Jewish institution, operating until the Holocaust. Besides promoting productivization, the association’s goals included cultivation of the Hungarian language. Two years later, the Magyarító Egylet (Magyarization Society) was established by Jewish medical students of Pest University. This society sponsored Hungarian-language courses and maintained a Hungarian-language kindergarten and a library in the interest of spreading Hungarian culture. It also published the Első Magyar Zsidó Naptár (First Hungarian Jewish Almanac) on the eve of the 1848 Revolution to represent the first generation that had embraced Magyarization. The almanac was on par with other Hungarian literary endeavors of the time, if not in the mastery of the language, at least in its spirit.

The writing and editing of Első Magyar Zsidó Naptár brought to the fore three young men: Márton Diósy (1818–1892), journalist and dramatist; Mór Szegfy (1825–1896), novelist, journalist, editor, and teacher; and the rabbi and journalist Ignác Einhorn, later Eduard or Ede Horn (1825–1875), one of the most brilliant figures of Hungarian Jewish history. Einhorn began his career publishing reports in the Jewish press in Germany (Der Orient and Allgemeine Zeitung des Judentums) and in the native Pressburger Zeitung edited in the 1840s by the influential Adolf Neustadt (1812–1875). Einhorn also took part in reform-era debates in German and Hungarian periodicals.

Another staunch advocate of Magyarization within the synagogue was the Reform rabbi Leopold Löw (1811–1875), originally from Moravia, who had become a master of Hungarian in a short time and had pioneered preaching in that language. The style of his homilies, which also appeared as separate publications, is still appreciated today. Löw published the first Hungarian Jewish periodical, the single-issue Magyar zsinagóga (Hungarian Synagogue) in Pápa in 1847. The first poems by Jews in Hungarian were also written on the eve of the 1848 Revolution. These included the works of Mihály Heilprin (1823–1888), who had only recently immigrated from Poland; Salamon Rosenzweig; and Ignác Reich (1821–1887), writer, translator, and teacher.

This same generation began to play an important mediating function by translating Hungarian literature into foreign languages. The most important person in this field was the novelist, journalist, and editor Adolf Dux (1822–1881), who translated into German the poems of Sándor Petőfi and József Eötvös, and the Hungarian national drama Bánk bán (Viceroy Bán) by József Katona. It must be noted that not a few who belonged to this cohort of Jewish journalist-writers converted to Christianity, among them the writer, journalist, critic, and editor (and sometime informer and spy) Gusztáv Zerffi who translated into German the works of Lajos Kossuth and the Nemzeti dal (Song of the Nation) by Petőfi; the journalist Mór Gans-Ludasi (1829–1858), who translated the poems of Petőfi and Mihály Vörösmarty; and the future politician Ignác Helffy (1830–1897), who rendered into Italian prose works by Mór Jókai and József Eötvös. Many of this intellectual generation took part in the 1848–1849 War of Independence, and when compelled to emigrate, were propagators of the cause of Hungarian independence.

Flowering: The First Generation

The 1860s saw the brief appearance of several Hungarian-language Jewish weeklies published by opposing sides of the Jewish cultural wars. The manifestation of Jewish Hungarian literary talent also began in that decade with the appearance of the poet and editor József Kiss (1843–1921), and the humorist and journalist Adolf Ágai (1836–1916), the editor of the satirical weekly Borsszem Jankó.

By 1875, the literary quality had fully matured in Kiss’s literary anthology, Zsidó évkönyv az 1875/76-os évre (Jewish Yearbook for the Year 1875/76). In that edition, Kiss published his famous ballad “Judith Simon,” which in its tones and form hearkened back to the great classical Hungarian poet János Arany, while the classical and Hungarian framework was filled with Jewish content. In the same issue, one could read Kiss’s short story about a Jewish peddler, “Jokli,” to this day a seminal masterpiece of prose that dealt with nostalgia for traditional Jewish life and expressed heartfelt solidarity for the poor persecuted Jew. Ágai’s short story, “Zsidó mennyegző falun” (Jewish Country Wedding), is also tender and nostalgic in its tone, with a certain ironic reservation. The study on Baron Eötvös and the Jews by the historian, novelist, and publicist  Ignác Acsády (1845–1906), and Löw’s essay on the Jewish oath pointed toward the tradition that the first generation of writers of literary merit had hoped to establish—namely, to accommodate themselves to the society of liberal Hungary and at the same time remain faithful to the reformed Jewish identity, whose voice was now heard in Hungarian. This intention was underscored by a pro-Magyarization article on Jews and the other nationalities from the pen of Sámuel Kohn (1841–1920), a rabbi and distinguished historian of Hungarian Jewry, and by a study on the history of emancipation by Löw’s jurist son, Tóbiás. Ignác Goldziher (1850–1921), later a world-famous orientalist, contributed an interesting essay on the development of the religious idea among the ancient Hebrews, while the aesthetician and publicist, Adolf Silberstein, later Silberstein-Ötvös (1845–1899), probed the possibility of reconciling modernity with faithfulness to tradition in his essay on the concept of the Jewish mission.

Zsidó évkönyv could not continue for lack of a sizable receptive audience with a high standard of expectations. In the years following the constitutional compromise of 1867 between Austria and Hungary (the beginning of the Dual Monarchy), the Jewish presence in journalism and newspaper editing made itself felt, especially in feuilletons and humorous pieces. It took an approach that flowered into a whole new genre in the publication Borsszem Jankó (Tom Thumb; 1868–1936), established and edited by Ágai. Although by 1890 Jews constituted about one-third of all journalists in the country and had made their appearance on the literary scene, in the relatively peaceful period from the compromise of 1867 to the end of the century there were no outstanding Jewish accomplishments in literature. Nevertheless, mostly Jews, using their own printing presses, or often growing out of a printing business, established the great Hungarian publishing houses of this period. Károly Légrády (1834–1903) established the Légrády Press and the periodical Pesti Hírlap (Pest Daily; 1868– ); Fülöp Wodianer (1822–1899) was the founder of numerous publications. Also noteworthy were the Révai (1880) and the Singer & Wolfner Publishers (1885).

These were also the decades when Jews began to enter the academic world and made remarkable contributions to the fields of Hungarian linguistics, history, oriental studies, jurisprudence, philosophy, and pedagogy. Judaic studies flourished in Budapest, especially in the rabbinical seminary that was established in 1877. The seminary began to publish the Magyar Zsidó Szemle (Hungarian Jewish Review) in 1884; it ceased publication only in 1948. In the enthusiastic response to the challenges of Hungary’s millennial celebration in 1896, and with the approaching new century, Hungarian Jewry established its own cultural institutions. Izraelita Magyar Irodalmi Társulat (Hungarian Israelite Literary Association; IMIT) was formed in 1895; it published an annual yearbook and a series of books on Jewish subjects along the lines of the Jewish Publication Society of America and such endeavors in other countries. IMIT also had its spiritual base in the rabbinical seminary, whose books included a complete Hungarian translation of the Bible, educational textbooks, history books dealing with Hungarian Jewry, and translations of medieval Hebrew poetry.

Other literary journals and almanacs made their appearance in the years before World War I, the most important of which were the Jewish cultural periodical Múlt és Jövő (Past and Future, 1911–1944), edited by József Patai and published for the Országos Magyar Izraelita Közművelődési Egyesület (National Hungarian Israelite Educational Union; 1909–1944). Another Jewish periodical, Libanon (1936–1943), was a product of the Hungarian Jewish Museum, whose establishment had been decided on in 1908, but realized only in 1916.

The spirit of the time was most expressively seized in the poem “A 137. Zsoltárhoz” (To the 137th Psalm) published in the IMIT Yearbook of 1896, by the poet Ignotus (Hugó Veigelsberg; 1869–1949):

I no longer understand the word,

The song of my forebears,

No longer moved by the feeling

For which they defied death—

My mind is alive with ideals of the West

Its rallying cry sets my heart afire.

Still, unconsciously,

Secretly, in my dreams

My soul weeps for the lost homeland.

Let my right hand forget her cunning,

Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth,

If I forget thee, O Jerusalem.

A Defining Cultural Role: The Second and Third Generations

The Jewish intelligentsia’s exit from the Jewish cultural sphere coincided with the beginnings of modern Hungarian literature—and by no means only symbolically. This exit occurred with establishment of A Hét (The Week) in 1890, a periodical founded by József Kiss, who edited it with the help of two Jewish intellectuals, his brother-in-law Tamás Kóbor (1867–1942) and Emil Makai (1870–1901). A Hét was also the launching pad for two editors—the aesthete Ernő Osvát (1876–1929), and the poet, novelist, editor, publicist, and translator Ignotus—who later established Nyugat (West), the most important and influential modernist periodical in twentieth-century Hungary, with the declared aim of attempting to jolt Hungarian literature out of its conservative and backward position. Modern Hungarian literature began to attract new masses of readers. The task of building and popularizing an infrastructure for this literature, the enlargement of the circle of its creators and consumers, its financing and sponsorship as well as its marketing, were all tasks undertaken by Jews.

Relying on liberal ideals, those Jews who undertook the task of introducing modernity into Hungary believed that literary activity would make them Hungarian, or that literature written in the Hungarian language would be considered incontestably Hungarian. But few others held the view that the overriding presence of Jews in Hungarian literature was a positive phenomenon. Non-Jewish Hungarian literary society was nearly unanimous: Jews—whether accepted or rejected—were viewed only as Jews, and if there were to be a dialogue with them, it would have to be conducted as a dialogue only with Jews.

Múlt és Jövő, September 1916. (YIVO)

Nevertheless, the majority of the Jewish intelligentsia, including its most talented members, was moving toward a completely secular, universal position that meant a total break with Jewishness. This was reflected in the cultural supplements of A Hét, Huszadik Század (Twentieth Century), Nyugat, later the Szép Szó (Fine Word), Toll (Pen), and many other publications. Most of these were established, written, edited, and read by modern and secularized or converted Jews, giving rise to the question, at times futilely repressed, of whether modern Hungarian literature was Jewish or Hungarian.

Could modernity, urban lifestyle, and acquaintance with foreign literature—including the use and adaptation of its influences—in themselves be considered a Jewish phenomenon or concept? No serious creative artist, Jewish or not, could avoid the question. And the answer was given in many different ways and in many forms, including in the abundant literature to which the extensive inquiry into the “Jewish Question” in Hungary (initiated by Oszkár Jászi and his Huszadik Század, published as A zsidókérdés Magyarországon [1917]) gave rise.

From the end of the nineteenth century until the end of World War I—including the postwar civil and Communist revolutions—Jewish literature and literature created by Jews in either their own or in the universal cultural sphere had a hopeful atmosphere. This literature, with an increasing tendency for expansion, included ever-wider areas among its subjects, such as social and existential problems, sexuality, psychology, the achievements of the various isms, philosophical thinking, and fashion—and above all the phenomenon of the metropolis. The most significant writers of prose were Sándor Bródy, Tamás Kóbor, Béla Balázs, Ferenc Molnár, Lajos Bíró, Ernő Szép, Sándor Hunyady, Jenő Heltai, and Lajos Hatvany; in poetry: Ernő Szép, Zoltán Somlyó, and Géza Szilágyi; while in drama they included, above all, Ferenc Molnár, Menyhért Lengyel, and Jenő Heltai. Almost all of these figures were at once journalists, novelists, and dramatists.

Two other personalities must be mentioned who, each in his own way, established a literary genre that can be linked only to their own names. Frigyes Karinthy (1887–1938), journalist, novelist, translator, dramatist, poet, critic, and humorist, was the premier and most influential practitioner of the famous Hungarian humor. Although he had hardly ever written on Jewish subjects (the Jewish origins of his family were long suspected, but only recently confirmed), his double-layered perception, his critical attitude imbued with parody, and the profound philosophy of his humor produced the supreme realization of the “Jewish spirit” in Hungarian literature. (One of his famous aphorisms was: “I’ll have no joking with humor.”) Not only was he influential among his followers who made use of his literary inventions (dozens of such humorists may be mentioned, some of whom, like Ephraim Kishon and Georges Mikes, became world famous), but Karinthy’s works also left a permanent mark on Hungarian thinking as well as on the Hungarian language.

The second such figure was the novelist, journalist, dramatist, and cabaret emcee Endre Nagy (1877–1935), who was singlehandedly responsible for bringing to life the genre of the cabaret. It was not without justification that these activities were called urban, or “big city,” or just Budapest culture. The second most important city with respect to modern and Jewish literature was Nagyvárad (Oradea), or, as it was dubbed for its extraordinary intellectual influence, Paris on the Pece. (Endre Nagy documented this intellectual ferment in his Egy város regénye [Novel of a City, 1936].)

In political terms, the second and third generation of writers saw as their main task the radical revision of Hungarian society and the achievement of democratic and social reforms. They took the lead in the political and cultural movements organized for this purpose, and formed the intellectual home front of the 1918 civil revolution. Their most progressive deed may have been the role they played in elevating the great revolutionary poet Endre Ady (1877–1919), who appeared on the literary scene after half a century of dreary silence following the Reform Era, and rose to the pinnacle of Hungarian literature. (They played a similar role in supporting the career of Béla Bartók.) After the dictatorships of the left and the right in 1919, most of these intellectuals continued their lives in exile, and died away from their homeland.

The so-called Horthy era—named after Miklós Horthy (1868–1957), the regent of Hungary from 1920 to 1944—inaugurated a very different period, characterized by frustration, chauvinist nationalism, xenophobia and, above all, antisemitism. For this reason, every aspect of Jewish intellectual life was characterized by a loss of self-confidence and became defensive. A peculiar feature of this era was the appearance of a new stratum in Hungarian literature: the peasantry, the so-called “populist writers,” the camp of populist intellectuals that brought a new color and viewpoint to literature. This camp proposed a “third way” between capitalism and communism whose leading force would be the peasantry and the populist intellectuals growing out of its ranks. They were the ones who had debated most vigorously, pro and con, the Jewish “problem” (or “question”). They saw a partner in Jewish populism, but considered assimilating or capitalist Jews to be the enemy. Their most notable representatives of this movement were Gyula Illyés, László Németh, Géza Féja, and József Erdély. In no circumstance would they accept the leading role of Jews in literature.

In retrospect, the most characteristic fact about the life of the third generation was that its career was cut off by the Holocaust. Most of its members died young, their works remaining only a promise. A decided move to the left occurred in their political orientation (as evidenced by Andor Gábor, Tibor Déry, Zoltán Zelk, Andor Németh, Ferenc Fejtő), and some converted to Christianity. Others even embraced a neo-Catholicism (Sándor Sík, István Vas, Antal Szerb, Miklós Radnóti). Their orientation, alongside the traditional German one, was primarily French—seen as most effectively countering the German threat—and English, a relative new influence in Hungarian literature. Creatively, they joined the avant-gardisms of the twentieth century. They were the ones who, as they did with Ady, canonized the other great genius of Hungarian literature, Attila József, though—having lost some of their influence—less effectively. With the financial help of Bertalan Hatvany, younger brother of Nyugat founder Lajos Hatvany, and with Pál Ignotus, son of Ignotus, as editor in chief, they established a new periodical, Szép Szó (Fine Word; 1936–1939), because Nyugat, now no longer in their control, refused to publish József’s work.

In this second period, the basic tone of non-Jews depicting Jews was set by Dezső Szabó’s novel Elsodort falu (Swept-away Village; 1919). Published in many editions and exerting great influence, the book was antisemitic, claiming that German and Jewish intellectual expansion smothered Hungarian identity and opportunities. Mihály Babits, poet, novelist, editor, translator, and essayist, one of the major authorities of the Hungarian intelligentsia, in his novel Timár Virgil fia (Virgil Timár’s Son; 1922), rejected—albeit in very civilized tones—the role of Jews in Hungarian culture. He modeled his novel’s hero, the seductive father figure, on Ignotus, the most controversial participant in the Hungarian–Jewish or urban–populist debates of the time. (Ignotus was Babits’s predecessor as editor in chief of Nyugat.)

There was very little consolation to be found in the novel Kivilágos virradatig (Until the Breaking of Dawn; 1926), by the Hungarian novelist Zsigmond Móricz, though it had achieved great force and aesthetic heights by stating the many-faceted truth in no uncertain terms, namely that for historical and psychological reasons Jewish and Hungarian coexistence was nigh impossible. Móricz, partly of peasant extraction, was a most sincere friend of Hungarian Jewish writers and of Hungarian Jewish literature; in many of his articles he encouraged Jewish writers to base their works on the Jewish experience and on their own psychological traits. His article, “Zsidó lélek az irodalomban” (The Jewish Soul in Literature; published in Nyugat in 1930), in which he hailed András Komor’s novel Fischmann S. utódai (Successors of S. Fischmann; 1929), was not only a theoretical summary of his ideas but also marked the beginning of a debate around the concept and role of Hungarian Jewish literature.

Other representative works were historical essays. Gyula Szekfü’s book, Három nemzedék (Three Generations), the 1934 edition of which, Három nemzedék és ami utána következik (Three Generations and What Came After), was expanded by a chapter titled “Trianon után” (After Trianon). This text devoted four chapters to the Jewish presence in Hungarian life—and sharply rejected it. A book by Szekfü’s student, Gyula Farkas, Az asszimilácio kora a magyar irodalomban, 1867–1914 (The Age of Assimilation in Hungarian Literature, 1867–1914; 1938) paints a distorted and uniformly negative picture of the Jewish presence in Hungarian literature. It was under the influence of these works that Laszló Németh wrote his book-length essay Kisebbségben (In the Minority; 1939) on the same subject, and in the same spirit—from the viewpoint of populist writers. The reaction generated by these works, and the discourse following Gyula Illyés’s travelogue of Baranya, Pusztulás (Ruination; 1934), are referred to as the “népi-urbánus” (populist-urban) conflict in Hungarian literary as well as social history. (To this day, the code-name for “Jew” in Hungarian literature is urbanus.)

The change that occurred as the result of these debates was defined by Jenő Zsoldos as the “awakening of Jewish self-awareness.” The outstanding representatives of this new attitude were three Jewish writers who were accepted in both Hungarian and Jewish literary spheres. Károly Pap devoted his entire career—prose, essays, and dramas—to determine which strategy might best be adapted by Jews and by Jewish intellectual activities to survive and retain Jewish identity in the shadow of approaching doom. His ideas are found in his novel, Azarel (1937), addressing the problem with great artistic skill and analyzing it from inside the Jewish experience. His essay, Zsidó sebek és bűnök (Jewish Wounds and Sins; 1935), an inquiry into alternatives in Hungarian–Jewish relationships, created a great stir. The liberal-socialist Jewish intelligentsia rejected it; the reactions of other Jewish intellectuals were divided, but Aladár Komlós, Jenő Zsoldos, and József Patai appreciated his views, while populist intellectuals, led by László Németh and Gyula Illyés, engaged him in a respectful debate. András Komor (1898–1944), novelist, poet, and translator, wrote his novel Fischmann S. utódai as a family saga against the background of Jewish capitalism in which he depicted Jewish life in the country and in the big city, describing through brilliant observations the two different lifestyles, foreshadowing the moral and material fiasco of artificial and spineless assimilation. In a three-part lecture series on Jewish problems in Hungarian literature, which he presented at the Free University of the Budapest Jewish community (only recently published as an appendix to the new edition of his novel), he surveys positively and approvingly the antecedents of Jewish literature, holding the view that Jews ought to rely on their Jewish identity if they hope to create works that can be universally appreciated.

Both these writers had given serious thought to the possibilities offered by Zionism. They accepted Zionism as an alternative (as for example, in Károly Pap’s essay on József Patai’s biography of Herzl, Nyugat; 1933), but ultimately they rejected the movement, as they did not wish to become, not even on a Jewish basis, a nation like all the other nations. On the other hand, the young generation of Jewish essayists gathered around the publication Libanon (1936–1943) was increasingly drawn to Zionism and the New Hebrew culture. The nucleus of this group included such young rabbis and teachers as István Hahn, Pál Vidor, and Imre Beneschovsky, the writer and critic Imre Keszi, the philosopher József Grossinger, but among those publishing frequently in Libanon were also Jenő Zsoldos, Aladár Komlós, and the musicologist Bence Szabolcsi. The Hebrew-language cultural journals of Palestine were regularly reviewed; studies were written about Franz Rosenzweig and Martin Buber as well as about Ḥayim Naḥman Bialik, Sha’ul Tchernichowsky, and Yosef Klausner. Modeled on the series of Schocken publications in Germany, Javne Könyvsorozat (Javne Books) made basic Zionist works available in Hungarian translation, among them those of Ahad Ha-Am, Shemu’el Yosef Agnon, and Buber.

The threatening atmosphere of this period also gave birth to publications that collected the achievements of Hungarian Jewish intellectual activity, including the Magyar Zsidó Lexikon (Hungarian Jewish Encyclopedia) in 1929, edited by the writer Péter Újvári (1869–1931). For all its flaws and omissions—many authors made great efforts not to be included—this is still the great encyclopedia of the Hungarian Jewish cultural spirit. In his study and collection of documents titled Magyar irodalom és zsidóság (Hungarian Literature and the Jews; 1943), the literary historian and teacher Jenő Zsoldos (1896–1975) provides an extensive scholarly summary of the portrayal of Jews and their role in literature. He begins his survey with the relationship between Hungarian literature and the Bible. The ever-increasing shadow of the Holocaust also brought Aladár Komlós, who had taken part in most of the debates concerning the Jewish question, to write his synthesis, “A Magyar zsidósag irodalmi tevékenysége a XIX. században” (The Literary Activity of Hungarian Jewry in the Nineteenth Century). (One can only speculate why he left the manuscript, whose exact date is uncertain, unpublished; found in a cellar, it appeared in print only in 1997.) Komlós also edited Ararát, a series of almanac anthologies (1939–1944), after the anti-Jewish laws, beginning with 1938, had barred Jews from non-Jewish intellectual activities. The most characteristic document of this period, the diaries of the poet Miklós Radnóti, has also only recently been published (Napló; 1993). They shed light on the debate between Radnóti (1909–1944) and Komlós. The poet, who would write, arguably, the most representatives poems of the Holocaust experience, informed the editor of Ararát in 1942 that despite the undeniable expulsion of Jews from Hungarian literature he refused to be identified as a “Jewish poet” and to be included in an anthology written only by Jews for the succor and mental encouragement of Jews. Indeed, he converted to Catholicism the following year, just before his deportation and tragic death.

It was also with the intention of a summary, with messages for posterity, that the anthology Száz év zsidó magyar költői (A Hundred Years of Jewish Hungarian Poets, edited by Hugó Csergő; n.d.) was published; it collected the fruits of Hungarian Jewish poetry from the Reform era to the 1940s. In the same period there appeared a large number of publications, printed by the religious communities or by organizations affiliated with these communities; some were published privately—all were documents of a desperate agony. These books shared the almanac–calendar format that had characterized Hungarian-language Jewish literature introduced in 1848. With this symbolic format, the 100-year history and literature of Hungarian Jews, again relegated to the Jewish cultural sphere and to the separate Jewish history, had come to an end. At the memorial service for Hungarian Jewish writers held in 1946, Aladár Komlós in his “In memoriam . . .” (1947) recalled by name the memory of more than 60 Jewish writers among the victims, noting that the list was by no means complete.

The literature born of the Hungarian Holocaust is not treated here because its psychosociological criteria are very different from those that were valid for the previous 100 years surveyed above. Most specifically, in this recent period the history of Hungarians and the history of Jews parted ways and the dialogue between them ceased.

For the same reason, this article does not include a discussion of the Jewish aspects of postwar Hungarian literature, which is to say the literature of the Communist era, or the literature of the so-called “Jewish Renaissance” period that began with the collapse of communism in 1989. This is partly because the Holocaust caused such profound damage to Hungarian intellectual and spiritual life: the bloodletting was so extensive in human lives and in intellectual potential that it would be not only unscholarly to presuppose an organic continuation, but also, when measured against the rich accomplishments of the 100 years reviewed above, inequitable and disrespectful.


Gelléri, Andor Endre

(1907–1945), interwar-era novelist who can be compared only to Károly Pap. Gelléri’s Gőzmosoda (Steam Laundry; 1931), published when he was 23, is close to a masterpiece, replete with brilliant, expressively distorted and clever grotesque figures, most of them Jews. In his personal life and in his writing he avoided the sphere of Jewish culture. However, the unfinished autobiography that he began to write in 1942 while serving in a forced labor battalion, Egy önérzet törtenete (One Man’s Self-Esteem; 1957), depicts extensively the injurious treatment he received for being a Jew. Gelléri lived to be liberated in Mauthausen, but died in an American military hospital. An edition of his works, Összegyüjtött novellái (Collected Novellas) was published in 1962.

Heltai, Jenő

(1871–1957), writer, journalist, poet, and playwright. Jenő Heltai (cousin of Theodor Herzl) was among the first poets to abandon weighty material concerned with national fate and identity; instead, he composed light, often frivolous songs on mundane situations, dissecting moral problems and existential phenomena against the background of the metropolis. A novel, Kiskirályok (Little Kings; 1913), deals with the nature of imperialist wars, while a play, Néma levente (The Mute Warrior; 1936), set in the fifteenth-century reign of King Mathias, has gained the status of a national drama. Heltai also wrote the lyrics for the popular musical János vitéz (The Hero János; 1904). He survived the Holocaust unscathed due to the intervention of Miklós Horthy and received the highest award for literature, the Kossuth prize, in the year of his death.

Kaczér, Illés

(1887–1980), novelist and journalist. A prolific contributor to the Jewish press in Budapest, Illés Kaczér lived in Vienna, Cluj, several cities in Slovakia, Berlin, London, and finally Tel Aviv. He wrote Hungarian Jewry’s great narrative tetralogy, the saga of Jewish families who in their covered wagons had come across the Carpathian Mountains: Ne félj szolgám Jákob (Fear Not, My Servant Jacob; 1953); Jericho ostroma (The Battle of Jericho; 1954); Három a csillag (Three Are the Stars; 1956); and Kossuth Lajos zsidaja (Lajos Kossuth’s Jew; 1957). The adventure-filled narrative stream is somewhat old-fashioned in the tradition of Mór Jókai.

Komor, András

(1898–1944), writer, poet, and critic. András Komor’s most significant work is the 1929 novel Fischmann S. utódai (Successors of S. Fischmann), a panorama of Hungarian Jewish capitalism and assimilation viewed from a Jewish standpoint, written with unsparing self-reflection. The book is associated with a debate in the annals of Hungarian literary history on the state and nature of Jewish literature. Komor also conducted a three-part lecture series in 1935 at the Budapest Jewish Community’s Free University, titled Zsidó problémák a modern magyar irodalomban (Jewish Problems in Modern Hungarian Literature); the text of the lectures appeared in the appendix of the second edition of Komor’s novel, with notes by Petra Török (Múlt és Jövő; 1998).

Lesznai, Anna

(1885–1966), writer, poet, and industrial artist. Anna Lesznai’s reply to the Huszadik Század’s famous inquiry in 1918 on the Jewish question—initiated by Oszkár Jászi, her husband between 1913 and 1918—provided a profound analysis of the impossibility of assimilation. In her childhood, Lesznai had converted to Calvinism, but during the period of increasing antisemitism in the 1920s and 1930s, she declared that she belonged to her people, the Jews. Lesznai’s major work, Kezdetben volt a kert (In the Beginning There Was the Garden; 1966), appeared in the last year of her life; it is a roman à clef in which she critically depicts the brief flowering and the rapid dissolution of the Jewish upper middle class. The novel’s broad canvas is similar to that found in her cousin Lajos Hatvany’s work, Urak és emberek (Gentlemen and People; 1963).

Marovits, Rodion

(1888–1948), novelist. Rodion Marovits’s Szibériai garnizon (Siberian Garrison; 1927), a “collective report-novel”—the author’s own subtitle—was immediately translated into major languages and was a huge success. It is the prototype of the lager-novels; set in the confines of a Russian prisoner-of-war camp, it depicts the hierarchies of Austro-Hungarian society. The Jewish experience of World War I emerges as a failure of assimilation, revealing that Hungarian–Jewish coexistence is imaginable in the common political and cultural space, but is impossible in critical situations. None of Marovits’s subsequent novels reached the level of his earlier success.

Molnár, Ákos

(1895–1945), novelist. Ákos Molnár’s major work, A hitehagyott (The Apostate; 1937) is a historical novel about Imre Fortunatus, King Mathias’s banker, whose dramatic lapse of faith is drawn as a series of conflicts and decisions (the novel suggests sexual desires and craving for possession as reasons). Molnár shows with great psychological power the breaking away from both the Jewish family and the Jewish community—motivated by longing for a career—and the wrenching process of return. He conducted serious historical research, consulting primary sources to which he refers in his preface and endnotes.

Nagy, Endre

(1877–1937), writer, journalist, and a creator of Hungarian cabaret. Endre Nagy was a unique member of the very influential bohemian circle of Nagyvárad that gathered around the poet Endre Ady. Nagy was a journalist first in Nagyvárad and then in Budapest; he also wrote novellas (many with Jewish themes), sketches, light plays, and novels. His most noteworthy accomplishment was his establishment of the cabaret genre; this form relied on literary values and on the indispensable presence of a master of ceremonies, who conducted improvisational dialogues with the audience. Nagy founded and until 1913 directed the first of these forums, the Modern Színpad (Modern Stage), to which many Jewish writers contributed material. Later he was artistic director and manager of several similar cabarets.

Rejtő, Jenő

(1905–1943), pulp-fiction novelist; also wrote under the pseudonyms P. Howard and G. Lavery. No other Hungarian writer has affected current Hungarian usage as Jenő Rejtő has with his characters, jokes, witticisms, and wordplay; and no writer from that country has had such a wide reading public, from the near illiterate to the most sophisticated of literary connoisseurs. His genre was the private-eye and pulp-fiction novel imbued with the cabaret culture of Budapest and the humor and linguistic playfulness characteristic of the early period of Hungarian Jewish literature. In his last published work, Csontbrigád (Bone Brigade), published from found manuscripts in the 1970s, some of his experiences in forced labor service spill into the world of the French Foreign Legion.

Révész, Béla

(1876–1944 [year of deportation]), writer and editor. Béla Révész was the first Hungarian Jewish writer to show interest in socialism. He may have been poet Endre Ady’s closest friend; and Révész’s current recognition is due mainly to his reminiscences of Ady, published as Ady Endre életéről és verseiről (Of Endre Ady’s Life and Poems; 1922); Ady és Léda, (Ady and Leda; 1934); and Ady trilógiája (Ady’s Trilogy; 1938). Several of his novellas deal with Jewish themes. In his last work, Max Nordau élete (The Life of Max Nordau; 1943), which he wrote on the basis of in-depth research conducted while he was denied work and publication, Révész reveals many new aspects of Nordau’s family background and the beginnings of this renowned thinker’s career in Budapest.

Somlyó, Zoltán

(1882–1937), writer, poet, journalist, and translator. Success came to Zoltán Somlyó with his second volume of poetry, Dél van (It Is Midday; 1910), which also earned him the friendship of Dezső Kosztolányi and Frigyes Karinthy. Somlyó led the life of a bohemian poet. His simple and modern poems are sensual and have the ease of folk songs. Perhaps he reached his peak in the poem “Hajnali ima” (Dawn Prayer; 1911), often recited even today. His selected poems first appeared in 1962 and have been published several times. Neither these, nor the volumes he published on his own, contain the myriad poems that he published in the Jewish cultural press. He also engaged Aladár Komlós in debate on the state of Hungarian Jewish poetry (in Múlt és Jövő; 1929).

Vészi, József

(1858–1940), writer, journalist, poet, translator, and editor. József Vészi was editor in chief of several important newspapers. The most enduring feat of his career, however, was his discovery of new talent. He brought the poet Endre Ady to Budapest and secured both a livelihood and the possibility of publication for him; it was to Vészi’s daughter, Margit—later the wife of Ferenc Molnár—that Ady wrote the poem cycle Margitta élni aka (Margitta Wants to Live; 1912); Vészi’s other daughter was married to the writer Lajos Bíró. Details of the autobiography of his granddaughter, Márta Molnár (poet György Sárközi’s wife), paint a lively picture of the colorful bourgeois Jewish salons in Budapest; these are found in Ágnes Széchenyi’s work, Márta Molnár (2004).

Zsoldos, Jenő

(1886–1972), literary historian. Along with Aladár Komlós, Jenő Zsoldos was the most prominent researcher and critic of Hungarian Jewish literature (he and Komlós wrote the literary entries in the Hungarian Jewish Encyclopedia). Zsoldos dedicated his life to the world of Jewish culture. From 1919 he was a teacher and from 1939 the principal of the Budapest Jewish Gymnasium. He edited the periodicals Zsidó Szemle (Jewish Review; 1925–1926), and Libanon (1936–1943). His main area of exploration was the relationship between Hungarian literature and Hungarian Jewry. He wrote countless studies of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Hungarian authors’ perception of the Bible and of Jews; and also examined the nineteenth century with particular interest in the Hungarian reform era. A summary of this work, hastily arranged and published in the shadow of the Holocaust, is the study Magyar irodalom és a zsidóság (Hungarian Literature and the Jews; 1943). This collection is not widely known, but its bibliography is indispensable to anyone working in this field. In his introductory essay to his document collection, 1848–49 a magyar zsidóság életében (1848–49 in the Life of Hungarian Jewry; 1948), Zsoldos points out that Jewish assimilation had remained illusory because the emotional criteria for acceptance had never been present in Hungary. With József Turóczi-Trostler he also edited Az első magyar zsidó irónemzedék (The First Generation of Hungarian Jewish Writers; 1940). Zsoldos’s bibliography was published by Sándor Scheiber in volume 14 of Magyar Zsidó Oklevéltár (Hungarian Jewish Archives; 1971).

Suggested Reading

Miksa Grünwald, Zsidó biedermeier (Budapest, 1937); János Kőbányai, ed., Zsidó reformkor (Budapest, 2000); Aladár Komlós, Magyar-zsidó szellemtörténet a reformkortól a holocaustig, comp. János Kőbányai, 2 vols. (Budapest, 1997); Miklós Lackó, “Zsidók a budapesti irodalomban, 1890–1930,” Budapesti Negyed 2 (1995): 107–126; Imre Monostori, “A zsidó kérdés változatai a magyar folyóiratokban a huszas évektől a zsidótorvényekig,” in Helykeresések, pp. 11–146 (Budapest, 2004); Rózsa Osztern, Zsido újságírók és szépírók a magyarországi németnyelvű időszaki sajtóban, a “Pester Lloyd” megalapitásáig, 1854-ig (Budapest, 1930); Petra Török, ed., A határ és a határolt: Töprengések a magyar-zsidó irodalom létformáiról (Budapest, 1997), also in German as Angezogen und abgestossen: Juden in der ungarischen Literatur (Frankfurt a.M., 1999); János Waldapfel, “A magyar zsidó kultúra,” Zsidó évkönyv (1927/28); Jenő Zsoldos, ed., Magyar irodalom és zsidóság (Budapest, 1943).



Translated from Hungarian by Imre Goldstein