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Komlós, Aladár

(1892–1980), writer, poet, literary historian, high-school teacher, and university professor. A member of the second generation of the preeminent literary journal Nyugat (West), Aladár Komlós was among Hungary’s most important literary historians. Both his regular work as critic and his collections of essays, Új magyar líra (New Hungarian Poetry; 1928) and Írók és elvek (Writers and Principles; 1937), were of seminal importance in setting critical standards for Hungarian poetry. His historical study A magyar líra Petőfitől Adyig (Hungarian Poetry from Petőfi to Ady; 1959) is still the primary monograph of that era.

Komlós was also a significant educator. As a teacher of Hungarian language and literature at the Jewish Gymnasium of Budapest, he was instrumental in providing the educational and cultural foundations for scores of Hungarian Jewish intellectuals. His only novel, Néro és a VII/A (Nero and Class VII/A; 1935), is a splendid description of the student–teacher relationship. After 1945, as a university professor and research scholar in Budapest, his influence extended to literary historians over the succeeding decades.

As did his work, Komlós’s life spanned both Jewish and Hungarian culture. For Komlós—joined in this respect by a small number of Jewish writers including Károly Pap and Imre Ámos—Jewish and Hungarian interests did not manifest themselves in separate thinking and activities but merged in a natural synthesis. Komlós represented the Jewish world on the national scene, and he wrote several reviews of Jewish authors for Nyugat and participated in debates about Hungarian Jewish literature. At the same time, he introduced the themes, viewpoints, and, most important, the standards of Hungarian and European culture into the framework of Jewish culture. The self-definition that he provided in the pamphlet that launched his career, “Zsidók a válaszúton” (Jews at the Crossroads; 1921, under the pseudonym Álmos Koral), held true for his entire life: “My blood is Jewish, my skin is Hungarian, and I am a human being.”

Komlós began contributing to Múlt es Jövő (Past and Future) from its first issue in 1912, publishing in a variety of genres. He also wrote for the yearbook of IMIT (Izraelita Magyar Irodalmi Társulat [the Israelite Hungarian Literary Society]) and Libanon. Together with Jenő Zsoldos, he wrote all the articles on literature in the Magyar zsidó lexikon (Hungarian Jewish Encyclopedia; 1929), edited by Péter Újvári.

Komlós fought relentlessly to hold Jewish thought and literature to higher standards, as well as to transcend confessional boundaries. In the shadow of the impending Holocaust, when Jews were cast out of Hungarian public life, he maintained that the tragedy had to be turned into a source of strength and purification. If destruction were inevitable, it had to be faced with dignity in a way that would enhance Hungarian Jewish culture. Komlós elaborated these ideas in numerous encouraging articles. In the same spirit, he edited the Ararát yearbooks (1939–1944), an annual collection of articles by Jewish intellectuals, with broad-ranging and insightful perspectives intended to give consolation to both authors and readers. He was saved from physical annihilation by the Kasztner Train, which transported a number of prominent Jews to safety in Switzerland, and later did not want to return from that country. As his friend Ferenc Fejtő related in a 1990 interview, Komlós wrote in a letter that he had been mistaken about the Hungarian people; their traditional hatred for Jews, which he had experienced firsthand, was so deep-seated that he had neither the hope nor the strength that would enable him to return to the scene of his humiliation and continue to serve the nation and its literature.

The basis for this statement lay not only in Komlós’s personal experiences but also in his research. During World War II, he began an enormous project to document the totality of Hungarian Jewish intellectual achievement. Judging from a single article published in Libanon (“Egy megirandó magyar zsidó irodalomtörténet elé” [Toward a Hungarian Jewish Literary History Yet to Be Written]; 1936), one can assume that his plan was to analyze systematically the literature that began in 1890, with József Kiss and his journal A Hét (The Week). Komlós’s project was never completed. Some of the highlights, theoretical principles, and portraits of primary figures appear in a posthumous two-volume collection of Komlós’s works on Jewish subjects, Magyar zsidó szellemtörténet a reformkorszaktól a Holocaustig (Hungarian Jewish Intellectual History from the Hungarian Reform Era to the Holocaust; 1997). In these studies, he traces the intellectual beginnings of Hungarian Jewry and the events preceding its leap into modernity. Following In memoriam (1947), a eulogy for the Jewish dead of Hungarian literature, he did not write additional works on Jewish subjects.

Suggested Reading

János Kőbányai, “A lélek válaszútján,” in Magyar zsidó szellemtörténet a reformkorszaktól a Holocaustig, vol. 1, pp. i–xx (Budapest, 1997), also in English as “At the Crossroads of the Soul,” Hungarian Quarterly 38.146 (Summer 1997): 130–134.



Translated from Hungarian by Imre Goldstein