An excerpt from
One Must Also Be Hungarian
Introduction to the English Edition
I had two reasons for writing this book. The first is my love of writing. Although I earn my living as an art book publisher, an endeavor taking up the better part of my time, writing remains for me an inexhaustible source of happiness.
The second reason for undertaking this reflection on my family’s history was my father’s death. His passing meant the end of an old Hungarian family in Hungary, a Jewish and Hungarian family, that is, a Jewish but Hungarian family—my own family. Its history is now continuing elsewhere, in France where I live, and where my two daughters and my grandson Ulysse were born. Thus, at this historical moment, I wanted to take stock and put down for Ulysse and future generations what I knew about my family as it had been, then and over there. I wanted to tell the story of a world and a time now gone.
But my need for literature kept me from doing research and transforming this writing project into a scholarly work of history. I felt that it was unnecessary, and particularly that it was not my place to tell the history of Hungary, to give the location of the Tisza, to study the relations between Romanians and Hungarians . . .
But I was wrong. I cannot expect the American reader to know more about the great Hungarian plain or Transylvania than I know about Milwaukee or Nebraska. My publisher thus convinced me to provide keys to help make the book understandable on the other side of the Atlantic.
Allow me to tell two stories that give a clearer view of Hungary than any sociohistorical study could. The White House adviser for Eastern Europe asks to see President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1942.
“Mr. President,” the adviser announces, “the kingdom of Hungary has declared war on us.”
“Who is the present king of Hungary?”
“This kingdom doesn’t have a king. It is ruled by a rear admiral.”
“Mm . . . a rear admiral . . . How strong is the Hungarian navy?”
“There’s no navy. Hungary has no sea.”
“Wars are often waged for religious reasons. So what is the main religion there?”
“So this Catholic rear admiral . . .”
“He is Protestant, Mr. President.”
“So I assume since Hungary has declared war on us it has some territorial claims against the United States?”
The adviser replies, “It has none.”
“So, it must have some against one of our allies, the Soviet Union, England . . .”
“So, against whom?” asks Roosevelt.
“Against Romania,” says the advisor.
“So Hungary has declared war on Romania?”
“No, Mr. President. Romania and Hungary are allies.”
This gives an idea of the complexity of the country that was mine, located as it is in the heart of Europe, between the Germans and the Slavs.
So what is it that we should know? The Hungarians (they call themselves Magyars) are not Slavic. They settled down in their present country in the Carpathian basin during the ninth century. They came from central Asia, from the shores of the Caspian Sea. In spite of their name, they are not the descendants of Attila’s Huns. They speak a language thought to be difficult because it is not Indo-European. Hungarian along with Finish and Estonian (and some Siberian languages) make up the Fino-Ugric language family, and along with Basque, which defies classification, are the only European languages that do not belong to the Indo-European group. The Hungarian people, only ten million strong, created an extraordinary literature with their language that is so rich, expressive, and melodious. Hungary has produced an abundant number of great musicians equal to that of its great poets. In a different domain, Hungarians played a prominent role in the creation of Hollywood, the main vehicle of American myths. Names such as Korda, Cukor, Curtiz, Toth, Lengyel, Molnar readily come to mind—and then of course the Bartok sisters and Zsa Zsa Gabor, and Tony Curtis, and let’s not forget Bela Lugosi in his infamous role of Dracula, the Transylvanian prince (Transylvania is my homeland). The story goes that there was the following sign above the door of a Hollywood studio: “It’s not enough to be Hungarian to make films. One must also have talent.” Capra is said to have turned this phrase around: “It’s not enough to have talent to make films. One must also be Hungarian.” Hungarians also hold a prominent place among the great photographers of the twentieth century, foremost among them: Brassaï, Kertész, Moholy-Nagy, Munkacsi, Capa. Vitamin C was discovered by the Nobel prize winner Albert Szentgyörgyi, and there were two Hungarians, Teller and Szilard, among the fathers of the American atomic bomb. And of course, who hasn’t heard of George Soros, or of Theodor Herzl, the founder of the state of Israel, who was born in Budapest, on the very spot of the great synagogue? And of course we had Béla Bartok, Zoltán Kodály, George Solti, and Eugene Ormandy.
Hungary was independent till 1526 and then was occupied successively by Turks, Austrians (for four hundred years), Germans (at the end of World War II) and finally by the Soviet Union (from 1945 to 1989). It picked the wrong side in both world wars and thus lost both. It lost two thirds of its territory in the treaty of Trianon in 1919. It also picked the wrong political regimes: feudalism till 1918, a right wing semidictatorial regime till World War II, the Nazi terror at the end of the war, a bloody Communist regime till the Revolution of 1956, and then a more tempered one till the fall of the regime.
Hungarian history is tragic. And so, here is the second story. A Hungarian, unprepared for the Chicago cold, goes to a shop to buy a scarf. He chooses the least expensive one, and when it is time to pay for it, he realizes that he left his wallet at the hotel and has only Hungarian currency, forints, in his pockets. The shopkeeper will only accept dollars. He is really sorry so he offers to save the scarf till his customer comes back with American money. But the shopkeeper can’t help being curious and asks to see the forints. He has never seen any and doesn’t know if he will ever again have the opportunity to see what they look like. The Hungarian shows him the first bill featuring the portrait of a proud man, with a big moustache wearing a fur hat.
“This is Rákoczy, a Transylvanian prince. In the seventeenth century he led a revolt against the Habsburgs who were then ruling Hungary and Transylvania which was a part of it.”
“Did he succeed?”
“Not in the least. His army was crushed and he died in exile in Turkey.”
“Ouch! How about this other guy with the beard?”
“That’s Count Széchenyi István, a moderate nineteenth century revolutionary. The Habsburgs had him thrown in prison. He died insane in a mental asylum in Austria—though it is suspected he was murdered.”
“Gosh, this is horrible! And what about this youngish one?”
The customer gets excited:
“Ah, this is Petöfi Sándor, the greatest Hungarian poet of the nineteenth century . . .”
“And why is he depicted so young?”
“Because he died at age twenty-six, killed on the battlefield. His body was never found.”
“But this is all so horrible. And who is this last one, looking so ferocious?”
“That’s the twenty forint bill with Dózsa György, the leader of a peasant rebellion at the beginning of the sixteenth century whom the nobles had burnt alive on a burning throne. His companions were forced to eat pieces of his flesh.”
The Chicago salesclerk thought a moment before exclaiming, “Good grief! You poor man! Put these horrible bills back in your pocket, take this scarf and get out of here. I don’t ever want to see any of these bills again!”
Today Hungary is a poor country. It isn’t easy for it to enter the twenty-first century but since the fall of the communist regime it has become a member of NATO and on May 1, 2004 it joined the European Union. Will the country be able to bring up wages and pensions to the European level, rather than just prices? Will it be able to do away with the new inequalities created by the change of regime and the advent of the market economy? Will it be able to stem the tide of xenophobia and anti-Semitism that now openly reaches up to the parliament? (Hatred of Jews has existed in Hungary only since the nineteenth century, or rather, Hungarians were no more anti-Semitic than other nations. However, anti-Semitism rapidly grew to major proportions and during World War II, Eichmann was able to perpetrate his harm with the support of the authorities, the police, and, it has to be said, with the indifference and often with the collaboration of the population. Hungary was also Hitler’s last ally and was liberated by Soviet troops on April 4, 1945, just one month before the end of the war while Paris was already freed in August of 1944).
There were a million and a half Jews living in the territory of the greater Hungary before Trianon. They were mostly urban and they largely participated in the intellectual, artistic, commercial, and industrial life of the country. They were nationalist patriots who spoke only Hungarian, except for a Yiddish speaking minority in marginal areas. This comes out again in Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz in which he notes that, at one time, only Hungarian was heard in Auschwitz. At present, about 60,000 Jews live in Hungary, most of them in Budapest, the capital.
The Hungarian national anthem is the only sad and desperate anthem in the world. It was written in the nineteenth century and even the communist regime kept it. Instead of the usual lyrics claiming “we are the best,” “our fatherland is above all others,” “we shall win against all,” it states, “This nation has already suffered the price for the past and the future.”
paris, may 2004