Sunday, March 25, 2012

Budapest Reading

I've been continuing with my project to read about cities that fostered a secular Jewish culture. Having read some about Odessa and Vienna, I've proceeded with Budapest. The three books I have read:

John Lukacs: Budapest 1900: A Historical Portrait of a City and its Culture
Kati Marton: The Great Escape: Nine Jews Who Fled Hitler and Changed the World
George Lang: Nobody Knows the Truffles I’ve Seen

Lukacs describes the golden age of Budapest accomplishment. As the twin of Vienna, Budapest grew from a small town to a major capital in the course of the late 19th century. The physical similarity and the intellectual similarity between the two cities is not a coincidence -- some of the same people even played a role in both cities (notably, Theodor Hertzl). In a way Budapest offered even more opportunity to middle class and poor but able residents and newcomers. For one thing, the nobility and gentry of Hungary – though powerful – were less dominant than Austrian upper classes in Vienna.

As Budapest grew it reflected the spirit of the emerging Hungarian nation – the use of the Hungarian language especially grew, while the use of German declined. Lukacs emphatically acknowledges the role of Jews, especially secular Jews, in the development of Hungarian culture. The Hungarian government invested heavily in expanding the school system, improving literacy rates, and making education accessible to all, including to the numerous Jewish families who immigrated from Hungarian regions and from other eastern European areas within the Austro-Hungarian empire seeking to better their lives in a more open and welcoming environment. This age of building a remarkable society full of opportunity and optimism began with the reforms of 1867, as in Vienna.

The Great Escape describes the lives of nine men whose personal accomplishment started within the society and the educational system that Lukacs documented. (She summarizes the background -- the two books are complements to one another.)

Marton asks the question: how did Budapest manage to produce such a large number of gifted physicists and creative people in the early 20th century? And how did it happen that all were Jews, mainly secular Jews, a few converts of convenience. In historic order, Marton describes the history of the Jewish community of Budapest, and then intertwines the nine stories. Every one of them did their stellar work outside of Hungary, thanks to persecutions by fascists in the 1920s and 30s and to the Nazis in the 1940s. One part of her story is that the amazing conditions that produced this renaissance were destroyed utterly and will never happen again, leaving Hungary without the promise it had a century ago.

She chose four physicists/mathematicians (Eugene Wigner, John von Neumann, Leo Sziliard, Edward Teller); two photographers (Robert Capa, Andre Kertesz), two film directors (Andrew Korda, Michael Curtiz) and a writer (Arthur Koestler). She mentions others, and I can quickly think of several more such as mathematicians Paul Erdős (1913-1996), Gabor Szegö (1895 - 1985), and George Polya(1887-1985); George Lang (1924-2011), restauranteur and cookbook author; and George Katona (1901-1981), economist. In fact, once you start thinking about the contribution of Hungarian Jews you can really get carried away. Houdini! Tony Curtis!

I liked Marton’s discussion of Casablanca (directed by Curtiz) and the Hungarian echoes in it, as well as noting how many of the actors and others involved in making it also had Hugarian roots. She made an interesting point about the film makers and author (Korda, Curtiz, Koestler) having special understanding and sympathy for the danger to Jews and to freedom that came out in their works. She supports the idea that the threats and dangers of fascism in Hungary from the 1920s onward formed a particular point of view in these men, whether they were in science or in the humanities.

Lang's book is very different: he grew up in a village not far from Budapest. He could take the train to his violin lessons there as a young man. He was born soon after the golden age of education and opportunity for Jews ended, at just about the time that the antisemitic fascist regime took over Hungary. Lang lived in Budapest during the nightmare of Nazi occupation in World War II; his book includes the horrors of his work camp experience, the loss of his family, and his continuing persecution by the Russians/communists after the war. He tries to explain what made Hungarian Jews so loyal, optimistic, and willing to stay as their fate became more and more dismal, and to show how willingly even the friendly non-Jews blamed his fellow victims of repeated mistreatment and persecution.

With help from uncles who had left before the war, Lang escaped to New York; his nightmare turned into a kind of fantasy! He became a restaurant consultant; he invented many of the modern conventions of elegant 20th century restaurant dining, as well as meeting many celebrities. At the end of his life, he returned to Budapest to restore the glory of its most famous pre-World War I restaurant, Gundels.

This is only a summary of my recent reading. Many people including myself have wondered what were the conditions in Budapest in the early part of the 20th century that enabled so many Jewish Hungarians to become world-class scientists, film makers, actors, writers, and other creative types. One wonders if the improved opportunities and the educational system were enough.

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