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Jewish Budapest and Hungarian National Identity

Martha Roth
February 1, 2017

by Martha Roth

Discussed in this essay: The Invisible Jewish Budapest: Metropolitan Culture at the Fin de Siècle, by Mary Gluck. University of Wisconsin Press, 2016, 272 pages.

BEFORE WE GET to the Budapest of café society, cutthroat rounds of klabriatsch (a card game of legendary difficulty), bosomy beauties, wine and song, a little history seems in order: Austria-Hungary formally became a nation in 1867, when the Hapsburg imperium annexed its fertile plains. Budapest, Hungary’s largest city, was formed six years later, in 1873, from the pretty village of Buda, the commercial town of Pest, and the suburb of Obuda, spanning the Danube. A quarter of the city’s inhabitants were Jews, whose complete political emancipation also dated from 1867.

Hungary in the mid-19th century had a landed aristocracy of booted and spurred horsemen/hunters, and a peasantry that worked the huge estates and served as domestics, but it lacked a native bourgeoisie. The middle class of merchants, accountants, physicians, and lawyers came from other parts of the empire, and increasingly from those “rootless cosmopolitans,” the Jews. In her fascinating, well-documented history of short-lived Jewish Budapest, Mary Gluck presents the questions of modernity and of Jewish identity as the central dynamics of this culture or, as she says, “the development of a uniquely Jewish modernity that became part of the Hungarian cultural landscape.”

The rise of this Jewish bourgeoisie -– like Hungary’s transition to modernity from its semi-feudal state –- was not easy. Periodically Jews were accused of child-murder, the ancient blood libel. Merchants and shopkeepers and their wives preferred the city to the villages, although the aristocrats spurned it. Budapest was co-capital of the empire with Vienna. Antisemites, who were plentiful, called the city “Judapest,” and it had an increasingly louche reputation as a sinful city. As Gluck says, “The idea of a degenerate and rapacious Jewish modernity that had despoiled Hungarian national culture became the toxic inheritance of rightwing Hungarian politics.”

Jews did create a special culture in the city, and Gluck, who is a professor of history and Judaic Studies at Brown University, has written a delightful, detailed history of this culture and its disappearance in the imperial breakup after World War I. “[T]he story of Jewish modernity,” she says, “is best studied … through the everyday narratives, informal practices, and popular rituals of urban life.” She describes a culture of humorous magazines -- Borsszem Jankó (“Johnny Peppercorn”), A Hét (“The Week”) and Fidibusz -- of coffeehouses (Támás Kóbor, editor of A Hét, said the coffeehouse was “as much a cultural symbol as a place”), and of music halls.

“Music hall lyrics,” Gluck writes, “were invariably risqué and titillating, light-heartedly exposing the hidden underside of modern urban life that everyone knew about but no one talked about in public. . . . elliptical tales about working-class girls who end up in fancy brothels; unemployed lawyers who pray for the indefinite prolongation of their court cases; … amorous couples who sing the praises of unavailable birth-control devices…”

THE HUNGARIAN attitude toward the “Jewish culture” of coffeehouse and music hall sounds very much like the white American attitude toward black culture, specifically jazz. Gluck gives us a glimpse: “The Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) came in strict incognito, along with the Archduke Rudolf… and a whole company of aristocrats who were all in love with the two famous songstresses…. These ladies caroused with their illustrious guests from dusk to dawn. The owner of this famous night spot was a man called Katzer, hence the name, ‘Blaue Katze’” (quoted by Gluck from István Bródy, “Old night spots of Pest). The “songstresses” were Jewish women, “Fraulein Frici Edelweiss and Jeanette Waldau.”

Among the best-known music hall entertainers was Sándor Rott, “generally recognized as the greatest comic artist of his age.” “Though frequently compared to Charlie Chaplin, Rott’s stage persona had a distinct quality that unmistakably reflected a Central European Jewish stereotype…. Rott’s reputation transcended the world of Jewish music hall. Prestigious drama instructors from the national theatre sent their students… to observe and learn from the technique of the great comic.”

Another great star was Szőke Szakáll, a songwriter, performer, and impresario who made a successful transition to Hollywood where he was known as S.Z. ‘Cuddles’ Sakall. He had a reasonable career in movies, where he shook his pendulous dewlaps as shamelessly as any music-hall performer.

Gluck’s argument, as I understand it, is that the Jewish question –- could Hungarian Jews be Hungarians, or were they ineluctably and only Jews? -– was central to Hungarian identity during the period she writes about, from the 1870s to World War I, and the special character of Budapest culture involved the performance of this question.

What about that “Hungarian national identity” that the Jews supposedly “despoiled”? When I was a child, I loved the books of Kate Seredy, a Hungarian-American writer and artist who spun tales of a feudal land peopled with powerful men and women who rode across continents on glorious horses, conquered everyone in their path, and died in splendor. According to Seredy, they descended from Hunor and Magyar, twin sons of Nimrod, the biblical hunter who was Noah’s grandson. These mighty twins mated with the Daughters of the Moon –- beautiful, strong and as fierce and faithful as the men –- and begat the Huns and the Magyars.

I was a Jewish child in 20th-century Chicago, and had no idea I was reading late-Romantic propaganda of the kind that swept Europe in the wake of the Napoleonic conquests, leading the French to idolize the chieftains whose kingdoms became France, and the Germans to fabricate an “Aryan” past, with well-known consequences. Throughout Europe these late-Romantic stories gave rise to movements that all had a strong tinge of antisemitism.

So “Jewish Budapest” vanished in the wreckage of the Austro-Hungarian Empire after the First World War. A brief Bolshevik revolution in 1918 was quelled in 1919 by Admiral Horthy and his fascist regime, for which antisemitism was official policy. But Gluck makes it sound like a wonderfully amusing place. Her book, which manages to be both scholarly and entertaining, includes plentiful illustrations, some of them drawn from the pages of the magazines she analyzes, and others copied from music-hall programs and posters. Disappearing Jewish Budapest appears in the University of Wisconsin Press’s George L. Mosse Series in Modern European Cultural and Intellectual History.

Martha Roth moved to Canada a year after George W. Bush was reelected in her native U.S. She is a founding member of Independent Jewish Voices Canada.