Find more information about

at the Center for Jewish History:

NOTE: you will be redirected
to the Web site for the

Pap, Károly

(1897–1945), Hungarian writer. The third child of Miksa Pollák (1868–1944), rabbi of Sopron, Károly Pap was 17 and attending high school when World War I broke out. He volunteered and served as an officer on the Italian front. His earliest drama, Leviát György (George Leviát), written in 1926 but first published only seven decades later, depicts the war as experienced by various types of assimilating Jews against the background of a hostile and prejudiced society.

Following the collapse of the Hungarian Soviet Republic in 1919, Pap, who had served in the Red Army, was jailed for a short time. After a brief emigration to Vienna and a period spent with a touring theater company (experiences that are recorded in some gripping short stories), Lajos Mikes and the founding editor of Nyugat, Ernő Osvát, guided him into literary life. His path deviated completely from those of his contemporaries; he did not even attempt journalism or to live the life of a bohemian artist. With a monastic rigor he devoted his life to literature, for which he paid with desperate poverty. His wife, herself a writer, provided his meager livelihood.

Pap wrote important pieces for both Nyugat and Múlt és Jövő. He valued his literary friendships; in turn, the most significant writers of the time, many belonging to the népi (völkisch) camp such as Zsigmond Móricz, László Németh, and Gyula Illyés, as well as Attila József and Mihály Babits, thought Pap’s works to be of the first rank. Among Jewish critics, József Patai and Aladár Komlós both appreciated and supported his work. The intellectual class of his age held Pap’s efforts to elevate his Jewishness into literature in high regard. His acceptance is still without parallel in Hungarian intellectual life. After his death some of these writers, Gyula Illyés and László Németh among them, founded the Pap Károly Társaság (Károly Pap Society) to preserve his name.

Pap’s first novel, Megszabaditottál a haláltól (You Have Freed Me from Death; 1932), takes place in biblical times but without the pretensions of a historical novel. Written in the language of the Bible, capturing its spirit, it is a variation on the theme of waiting for the Messiah and notions of redemption. The subject of A nyolcadik stáció (The Eighth Station; 1934) is art. Pap uses his hero, a tormented painter, to explore the meaning of art, the artist’s inner life, and art’s reception in the social world. He also wrote a large number of short stories of which only a brief selection appeared in his lifetime, in the volume Irgalom (Mercy; 1936).

Pap’s essay on the Jewish question, Zsidó sebek és bűnök: Különös tekintettel Magyarországra (Jewish Wounds and Sins: With a Particular View on Hungary; 1935) attracted much attention and controversy. Rejecting assimilation, socialism/communism, and Zionism—although he did express his attraction and appreciation of the last—he envisaged the Jews rather vaguely as a sort of ethical minority with a world mission in the Diaspora.

Pap’s greatest novel is Azarel (1937). A roman à clef, it is a heavily symbolic fable of Jewish assimilation in Hungary, as narrated by an extraordinarily insightful child, Gyuri Azarel, a character who would reappear in Pap’s later short stories. In a quasi-biblical bargain, Gyuri is handed over by his parents to be raised by his grandfather, appropriately named Jeremiah, a wild, devout “Yahweh”-fearing figure who rants and rages against the religious and cultural compromises his son, a modern rabbi, has made. After the death of his grandfather, Gyuri returns home and rebels against the conventional lies of his bourgeois family. His father’s high-sounding sermons form a sharp contrast to his petty everyday existence. What was unbearably oppressive for the boy was his father’s pettiness and insignificance, his embrace of spiritually barren surroundings, and the abandonment of the traditional Jewish lifestyle; in brief, the great leap out of the ghetto that the father’s generation believed to be the modern imperative.

Many were scandalized by the depiction of the rabbi, who was identified with Miksa Pollak, Pap’s own father (the pen name Pap means cleric in Hungarian), one of the first graduates of the National Rabbinical Seminary and a serious Jewish historian who had also won recognition for his work on the Bible’s influence on Hungarian literature. The book was subjected to a “literary tribunal”—actually an accepted form of literary soirée; some took the author to task for the shameful ordeal to which he had subjected his father, while others praised the book for its keen analysis and searing critique of Jewish assimilation in Hungary.

During the war years, Pap’s dramas, Batséba (1940) and Mózes (1943–1944), were performed to great acclaim in the theater hall of the Budapest Jewish Community. He continued to write during these years. The Arrow Cross men who ransacked his apartment destroyed the manuscript of a 700-page novel about Jesus on which Pap continued to work even in the compulsory labor camp. He was deported to Buchenwald, and died, possibly in Bergen Belsen, shortly before the camp’s liberation.

Suggested Reading

Pap Károly művei 1–7 (Budapest, 1998–2000) is Pap’s collected works, published in seven volumes by Múlt és Jövő, with scholarly studies on the various genres of Pap’s work in each volume; Tamás Lichtmann’s Az igazságkereső Pap Károly (Budapest, 2001) is a companion to the series; János Kőbányai wrote an afterword to the German and Spanish editions of Azarel.Fények, fénytörések (Budapest, 1968) is a memoir by Pap’s wife, Károlyné Pap; Megváltás in Memoriam Pap Károly (Budapest, 2006), edited by Miklós Csürös, is an excellent collection of largely contemporary studies and critiques.



Translated from Hungarian by Imre Goldstein