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Zsolt, Béla

(1895–1949), writer, poet, editor, dramatist, publicist, and member of parliament. As a second-generation contributor to the modernist journal Nyugat (West), Zsolt followed a career path similar to that of writers from Nyugat’s first generation. He began as an admirer and imitator of Endre Ady, and became a journalist and editor in Nagyvárad (mod. Rom., Oradea). In 1925, he moved to Budapest, where he wrote spirited political pieces for several newspapers. In 1929, he became editor in chief of A Toll (The Pen), a bourgeois-liberal periodical.

Until 1939, Zsolt did not publish in Jewish periodicals. When the second anti-Jewish Law was passed in 1939, he was through the spring of 1945 a regular contributor to the Ararát yearbooks edited by Aladár Komlós. Yet almost everything Zsolt wrote was concerned with Jewish assimilation. He was the chronicler of the Jewish bourgeoisie and its merciless inside critic. His incisive essays advocated equality before the law and demanded the application of European humanist values. His novels show both keen insight and a rather hopeless view. They acknowledge the impossibility of assimilation and ridicule the Jewish citizen who hopes to please the hostile, semifeudal world around him.

While Zsolt’s works of fiction are more politically charged than aesthetically satisfying, they still provide an abundance of brilliant observations and psychological analyses. He was a pioneer in discovering sexuality as a field of collision between social classes, or between Christians and Jews—an approach that played a dominant role in every one of his novels: Gerson és neje (Gershon and his Wife; 1930); Bellegarde (1932); Kínos ügy (A Delicate Affair; 1935); A dunaparti nő (Riverside Woman; 1936); A Wesselényi utcai összeesküvés (The Wesselenyi Street Conspiracy; 1937); and Kakasviadal (Cockfight; 1939).

Following the pattern of his contemporaries, Zsolt wrote an autobiographical study of his more immediate surroundings, the Jewish bourgeoisie of a small town (Villamcsapás [Lightning Strike; 1937]). In his play Oktagon (1932), which is still staged today, he portrays the disintegration of a Jewish petit-bourgeois family with more sympathy. His collections of political essays include some of the finest examples of Hungarian journalism—Kőért kenyér (Bread for Stone; 1939); Tanulságok és reménységek (Lessons and Expectations; 1942). In the latter, he follows the process of Jewish disenfranchisement with sadness and bitter sarcasm.

Zsolt is among the few Hungarian Jewish writers who survived the Holocaust. After escaping forced labor in Ukraine, he was thrown into prison and rounded up in the Nagyvárad ghetto. He was sent to Bergen-Belsen but was rescued as part of the Kasztner transport and taken to Switzerland. In 1947, he described his experiences in the Nagyvárad ghetto in an incomplete, novelistic newspaper report. In addition to its documentary value, Kilenc koffer (Nine Suitcases) is interesting as a series of sociological observations and fine character descriptions. Discovered and published in 1980 during a period of political and cultural thaw, the unfinished work became a revelation to a generation largely ignorant of the Holocaust. Thanks to its publication in German (Neun Koffer; 1999) and in English (2004, 2005), the book became well known outside of Hungary.

Zsolt was one of the founders of the Magyar Radikális Párt (Hungarian Radical Party) after 1945; beginning in 1947 he served as its parliamentary representative. He died “in time,” just before the totalitarian regime came to power.

Suggested Reading

Paul Ignotus, “Radical Writers in Hungary,” Journal of Contemporary History 1 (1966): 149–167; Aladár Komlós, “Zsolt Béla, A Toll, 1934,” in Magyar-zsidó szellemtörténet a reformkortól a holocaustig, vol. 2, pp. 263–270 (Budapest, 1997); Sz. Péter Nagy, Zsolt Béla (Budapest, 1990). See also Ferenc Kőszeg’s introduction to the 1970 Budapest edition of Kínos ügy, and his notes to the publication of Kilenc koffer (Budapest, 1980).



Translated from Hungarian by Imre Goldstein