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Szép, Ernő

(1884–1953), poet, novelist, playwright, and journalist. In a letter written to fellow writer Gyula Krúdy, the young Ernő Szép lamented: “Why did I have to be poor and Jewish?” The son of a schoolteacher and one of nine children, Szép was born in the multiethnic town of Huszt in the Subcarpathian region, now part of Ukraine, which had a sizable, mostly Orthodox Jewish population. Szép was one of a number of Hungarians of humble Jewish origin who by the early years of the twentieth century had established themselves as poets, journalists, and artists in the burgeoning capital city of Budapest.

Szép and his cohorts enthusiastically embraced the Hungarian language and culture, but added accents, inflections, inversions, and sarcastic under- and overtones that bespoke their Jewish past. Indeed, the somewhat stylized, literary version of their Budapest vernacular remains a living language. Szép’s best plays, Patika (Pharmacy; 1918), Lila akác (Wisteria; 1921), and A vőlegény (The Bridegroom; 1922) are to this day staples of the Hungarian stage, while the dramas of some of his echt Hungarian contemporaries, pronounced masterpieces in their day, have long fallen into oblivion.

In Szép’s plays, novels, and short stories, the audience often meets figures from the lower middle class who, tired of their drab lives, forever dream about bigger and better things. He rarely deals with specifically Jewish subjects or describes Jewish characters, and when he does they are premodern, folkloric Jews. For example, in one of his lesser-known plays, Az egyszeri királyfi (The Prince of Yore; 1913), an Everyman story in a peasant environment, the Jewish peddler becomes just another familiar figure in a typical Hungarian fairy tale.

Ernő Szép first made his name as a poet of subtle moods and nostalgic evocations. As was the case with many early twentieth-century poets in Hungary, he was influenced by the French symbolists and decadents. But Szép’s guilelessness and self-effacement as a poet are part of a carefully cultivated literary persona. Like many a Central European writer, he was a superb ironist with an eye for all that is odd and irregular. At the same time, he was a quintessential bohemian artist, a naïf, who could not manage his own life. He never married (his stories and plays are filled with fleeting romances with chorus girls and dancers); he never had a place of his own and lived in hotels most of his life; and despite major successes, he was perpetually plagued by financial problems. What is more, his writings exude a childlike innocence and charm as well as a wise understanding of life’s vicissitudes.

In his last important work, Emberszag (The Smell of Humans: A Memoir of the Holocaust in Hungary), first published in 1945, Szép relates a three-week ordeal he endured in October 1944, when during a reign of terror unleashed by Hungarian fascists, he was led, with hundreds of other elderly Jews, on a forced march to a village near the capital, where they were forced to dig trenches as a last line of defense against the approaching Red Army. Emberszag is a gripping, harrowing book, though even here Szép, ever the loyal and patriotic Hungarian, muses whether all this happened because he wasn’t loyal and patriotic enough. The memoir also intimates that its author, as was the case with so many assimilated Hungarian Jews, experienced a crisis of identity in 1944 about which he could not be completely open—the hurt was too deep for words.

For partisans of the new Communist regime, installed in 1948, Szép was a holdover from a bygone world; they weren’t interested in what he had to say. He lived out his remaining years in poverty, dying a broken man at age 69.

Suggested Reading

Gyula Purcsi Barna, Szép Ernő (Budapest, 1984); Dezső Tandori, “‘Please Forgive Me . . . ,’” in The Smell of Humans: A Memoir of the Holocaust in Hungary, by Ernő Szép (Budapest, 1994), pp. xiii–xxv.