Films of the Holocaust and non-Jews


Two documentary films, each touching the Holocaust era and celebrating the courage and devotion of non-Jews, are screening in Los Angeles.

The first is about Leopold Engleitner, bright-eyed and lucid at 107, who spent 11 years in and out of prisons and Nazi concentration camps, and, after a flight from Vienna to Los Angeles, is ready for his personal appearance tour.

He is the central figure in “Ladder in the Lions’ Den,” a tribute to the man and to the steadfastness of thousands of Jehovah’s Witnesses during the Hitler regime.

Engleitner, born in 1905, was an Austrian peasant farmer in a small village near Salzburg when he joined a Jehovah’s Witness study group. He soon became a full member, accepting the movement’s belief in complete separation from secular governments, including refusal to salute the flag or serve in the army of any nation. 

He got his first taste of prison in 1934, under the authoritarian regime of Austrian Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss, and when the German troops marched in in 1938, Engleitner’s fate was sealed. He wouldn’t raise his right arm in the Hitler salute, and after refusing army service was shipped off to Buchenwald as the first in a series of concentration camps. 

There, some 400 Jehovah’s Witnesses were kept in separate barracks from Jewish prisoners, with whom, according to Engleitner, the Witnesses shared some of their food.

From time to time, the Nazis, badly in need of manpower, offered Engleitner his freedom if he would sign a document affirming his loyalty to the Third Reich.

His courageous refusal to do so is followed in the film by the tactless insertion of a Jewish inmate, who affirms, “I would have signed anything to get out.” This statement, just a few seconds long, is one of the few allusions to the extermination of the Jews. That omission may be hard to swallow, but seems pardonable given how many books and films have recorded the Jewish holocaust, and how few the fate of other groups.

All in all, according to the film’s postscript, there were 20,000 Witnesses in Germany and Austria before Hitler came to power, of whom 9,270 were imprisoned, 1,130 died and 310 were executed.

When Engleitner finally returned to his village, he was scorned by most of his neighbors as a coward for his refusal to serve in the army, and as a likely criminal given his imprisonment in concentration camps.

His story might have died with him, but for a chance meeting with Bernhard Rammerstorfer, a fellow Witness and later the executive producer and co-director of the film. Rammerstorfer persuaded the centenarian to tell of his experiences in a book titled “Unbroken Will,” (a title more apt than the movie’s) and then created the 39-minute documentary. 

Credits include co-producer A. Ferenc Gutai, actors portraying Engleitner and others as young men, and Frederic Fuss, an Angeleno, as the English-language narrator. There are some rough edges to the documentary, pointing to a slim budget and the inexperience of the filmmakers, but it is a story well worth telling.

As Fuss noted in an interview, “The film shows the difference that one man can make.”

“Ladder in the Lions’ Den” will screen daily Nov. 9-15 at 12:30 p.m. at Laemmle’s Town Center in Encino, with Engleitner scheduled to be in attendance.

 

A second film centers on Gyongyi Mago, a Catholic high school teacher in the Hungarian town of Kalocsa, who, through sheer conviction and persistence, wills her largely indifferent community to resurrect and honor the memory of its murdered and exiled Jewish citizens.

Her story and that of an extinguished but once content and assimilated Jewish community, are documented by veteran Los Angeles filmmaker Gabor Kalman in the full-length feature “There Was Once…”

Kalman is both the creator of and a participant in the film, which is told with affection but not sentimentality, while also warning that the anti-Semitism and fascism pervading much of Hungarian society in the 1930s and ’40s remains a constant today.

Born in Kalocsa 78 years ago, Kalman received an e-mail from Mago in 2008 asking for his help in her research on the once 600-strong Jewish community in his birthplace. The effervescent teacher had found Kalman’s name on the “Jaross List,” compiled by a local official who conscientiously put down the names of all Jewish residents slated for extermination.

Kalman was so impressed by Mago’s project and dedication that he flew to Hungary, rounded up a camera crew and started interviewing elderly Christian residents who still remembered their former Jewish neighbors. He followed up by talking to a handful of the town’s Jewish survivors and their descendants now living in Canada, the United States and Israel.

The camera follows Mago as she exhorts and mobilizes her high school class to bear witness to the lives and fate of the town’s Jews, scours church archives for the history of the first Jews to settle in Kalocsa, and explains to those who wonder why a Catholic should care about dead Jews, “I have always felt for those who were humiliated.”

She then persuades the powerful local archbishop and the town’s mayor to back her plan to put on a commemorative ceremony in 2009, exactly 65 years to the day that the Holocaust caught up with Hungary’s Jews.

The ceremony, attended by seven survivors and their children and grandchildren, is the moving highlight of the film. In stark contrast are scenes of Hungarian Nazis in uniform, demonstrating a few blocks away.

The film is marked by thorough research, moments of high drama, and innovative cinematography and graphics. For example, in one Jewish grade school picture, five survivors are highlighted, while the 10 victims remain in dark shadows.

Kalman and his parents survived the war, largely in hiding. Gabor participated in the abortive 1956 Hungarian Revolution against the Soviet occupiers, and then immigrated to the United States.

After graduation from UC Berkeley and Stanford, Kalman established himself as an award-winning documentary filmmaker and teacher at USC, Occidental College and currently at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. 

“There Was Once…” will screen as part of the local Hungarian Film Festival on Nov. 19 at 7 p.m. at Laemmle’s NoHo 7 Theatre in North Hollywood.

Tickets are $6 per person and can be purchased in advance by phoning Laemmle Theatres at (310) 478-3836 or the Hungarian Film Festival at (818) 564-4228. 


For more information about “Ladder in the Lions’ Den,” visit unbrokenwill.com.

For more information about “There Was Once…,” visit  therewasoncefilm.com.

Jobbik chief out to prove that Hungarian party isn’t anti-Semitic


Days after one of his colleagues admitted to having Jewish roots, a far-right Hungarian politician challenged the country’s Jewish communal leader to a debate.

Gabor Vona, the leader of the Hungarian nationalist party Jobbik, said he wants to show Slomo Koves, who heads the Unified Hungarian Jewish Congregation, that Jobbik is not anti-Semitic.

“Jobbik has never had and will never have any program point, proposal or idea which discriminates between Hungary’s inhabitants on the grounds of ethnicity and religion,” Vona told the website Politics.hu.

Jobbik members have used anti-Semitic rhetoric repeatedly in the past. Politics.hu reported that Koves wants to organize Jews and other Hungarians to combat anti-Semitism.

Last week, a regional leader of Jobbik, Csanad Szegedi, revealed that he is of Jewish descent.

With Tony Curtis profile, docs shine at Jewish fest


For its opening night on May 3, the Jewish Film Festival appropriately returns to one of Hollywood’s golden ages and to one of its most celebrated Jewish stars, Bernie Schwartz, aka Tony Curtis.

The documentary “Tony Curtis: Driven to Stardom” covers a lot of ground, much of it rocky, in 96 minutes.

Born in the Bronx to Hungarian-Jewish immigrant parents, Bernie had a difficult childhood. His schizophrenic mother beat him regularly, his father flitted from job to job, the family was evicted when it fell behind in the rent, and Bernie blamed himself for the accidental death of his younger brother.

His escape was the neighborhood movie theater, where his idols were Errol Flynn and Cary Grant, and the boy modeled himself on the Dead End Kids.

At 15, he falsified his age and enlisted in the Navy, serving in the Pacific on a submarine tender. After discharge, with the help of the GI Bill, Curtis enrolled in the theater workshop of The New School for Social Research.

His classmates were the likes of Marlon Brando and Harry Belafonte — the latter a lifelong friend and co-star of the color-barrier breaking “The Defiant Ones” — who narrates much of the documentary.

After a slow start in Hollywood, Curtis became a megastar and sex symbol of the 1950s and early ’60s; his bouffant hairstyle was imitated by Elvis Presley, James Dean and millions of teenage boys.

With changing tastes and advancing age, Curtis transformed himself from just a pretty boy into a character actor (“Sweet Smell of Success,” “Spartacus”), but, as time went on, his career arc turned south. He started freebasing cocaine, married and divorced five wives and had six children, who mostly disliked him.

Eventually, he sobered up and, in a lengthy interview, an older and wiser Curtis acknowledged his missteps and his lifelong addiction to fame. He died in 2010, at 85.

Bernie Schwartz’s Jewishness comes up in the film, such as the anti-Semitism of his Bronx childhood and the mandatory name change when he arrived in Hollywood (he first opted for “Anthony Adverse”), but it is not a major theme emphasized by director Ian Ayres.

Late in life, Curtis rediscovered his Hungarian-Jewish roots and spent generously to help restore the Great Synagogue in Budapest and other synagogues and cemeteries in Hungary.

“Tony Curtis: Driven to Stardom” screens at 8 p.m. on May 3 at the Writers Guild Theater in Beverly Hills, and reprises May 6 at 7 p.m. at Laemmle’s Town Center in Encino.

Israeli violin maker profiled in ‘Wartime’

Amnon Weinstein is a third-generation violin maker in Tel Aviv, a man with a rugged face, white shock of hair, handlebar mustache, and the heart and soul of “Violins in Wartime.”

“Wartime,” in this case, is the Second Lebanon War, starting in 2006, during which Haifa came under repeated rocket attacks and children in northern Israel were evacuated to safer parts of the country.

One mile south of the Lebanon border and six miles inland from the Mediterranean coast lies Kibbutz Eilon.

Founded in 1938 by immigrants from Poland, the kibbutz is now best known for its Keshet Eilon Music Center and annual master course, drawing 50 talented students from around the world.

Weinstein was one of the founders and is a continuing catalyst of Keshet Eilon, so when the fighting started at the border, he and musical director Shlomo Mintz were asked whether the three-week course should be called off.

No way, said Weinstein and Mintz, although they agreed to move out of rocket range to Beit Berl in central Israel. Soon the students arrived, as did 83-year-old master violinist Ida Haendel, who flew in from Miami to teach and perform.

But Weinstein was also wrestling with some personal problems. His son Avshi, carrying on the family trade into the fourth generation, had been called up for army duty, and his parents worry constantly about his safety.

The interplay of the war’s canon fire and the violin’s small voice is a curious one, but then the violin has deep roots in Jewish tradition.

One reason may be that during pogroms and expulsions, the violin could be easily carried and would always be in demand at weddings and bar mitzvahs. This may explain why 90 percent of all great violinists are Jews, as one musician maintains in the film.

The statement seems unduly boastful but may be validated by scanning such names as Heifetz, Menuhin, Stern, Perlman, Milstein, Zuckerman, Oistrakh, Shaham and many others.

Director, producer and writer of “Violins in Wartime” is multitalented Yael Katzir, a Tel Aviv native and UCLA graduate. Executive producers are her son, Dan Katzir, and Ravit Markus, who will participate in a Q-and-A exchange with the audience at the film’s screening on May 8 at 7:30 p.m. at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills.

‘Rescuers’ pays tribute to World War II gentile diplomats

“The Rescuers” documents the powerful stories of 12 gentile diplomats from 11 countries, who, against the orders of their governments, and along with other envoys, helped save an estimated 200,000 European Jews during World War II.

The film is the work of three unlikely collaborators: The British historian Sir Martin Gilbert, biographer of Winston Churchill; Michael King, an African-American documentary filmmaker; and Stephanie Nyombayire, a Rwandan human rights activist, who lost more than 100 family members in her country’s genocide.

Among the rescuers, only the name of Sweden’s Raoul Wallenberg is widely known, but the group includes a member of the Nazi party and a Turkish Muslim, as well as two Britons, two Americans and former envoys from China, Japan, Poland, Holland, Switzerland, Portugal and Italy.

King is a film teacher and producer, best-known for his documentaries on inner-city teenagers. He won an Emmy for the PBS special “Bangin’, ” which dealt with youth violence.

It may be quite a stretch from Los Angeles’ mean streets to Holocaust rescuers, but the 53-year-old, dreadlocked King quickly makes the connection.

“I’ve always made socially conscious films and I have always been fascinated by the mystery of goodness,” he said.

“The story of the rescuers, who risked their careers by choosing God over their government, has universal significance,” he added. Besides, he added, “If Steven Spielberg can make ‘The Color Purple’ (on the lives of black women in the South), why can’t I make a film about the Holocaust?”

“The Rescuers” will screen May 8 at 7:30 p.m. at Laemmle’s Town Center in Encino. Director King will participate in a panel discussion.

Far-right Jobbik gains in Hungarian elections


Hungary’s openly anti-Semitic nationalist Jobbik Party secured 47 seats in the 386-seat legislature in the second round of parliamentary elections.

Jobbik, which had no seats in the previous National Assembly, in Sunday’s elections improved upon the 26 seats it had won in the first round of voting earlier this month. Jobbik deputies have threatened to march into the new Parliament session wearing the black uniforms and red insignia of the banned paramilitary Hungarian Guard organization.

As expected, the populist, ultra-conservative Fidesz Party grabbed the lion’s share of the vote Sunday, winning 263 seats, after garnering 206 in the first round. Fidesz, which held 163 seats in the last government, now holds more than the two-thirds parliamentary majority required for changing the Constitution in the absence of cross-party accord.

The ruling Socialist Party took 59 seats after taking 28 in the first round of voting—down from 190 in the previous government. Its erstwhile coalition partner, the Liberal Party, which once enjoyed strong Jewish support, lost its parliamentary presence. A new Green Party won 16 seats.

Political and economic analysts fear that the electoral success of Jobbik will undermine Hungary’s nascent recovery from the worst recession since World War II.

The Association of Hungarian Jewish Religious Communities, the largest Jewish organization in Hungary, has formally called on the democratic parliamentary parties to defend the country’s human rights tradition by isolating the incoming racist deputies. Fidesz chief Victor Orban has promised to curb the rise of the neo-Nazis.

Rightward swing in Hungarian elections


A far right party, Jobbik, won 26 seats in Hungarian parliamentary elections Sunday, to the dismany of Hungarian and European Jewish leaders.

The winner in Sunday’s election was the conservative Fidesz party and its ally the Christian People’s Party, which together took 206 seats in the 386-seat Parliament. Fidesz now has until June to form a government.

The ruling Socialists suffered a humiliating defeat, with only 28 seats left in Parliament. Jobbik’s success shows that “acceptable” anti-Semitism, xenophobia and racism are still alive and well in parts of Europe, a statement issued by the European Jewish Congress said.

Moshe Kantor, president of the EJC, called the results a real blow for tolerance in Europe. “This is an example of the political fragility of certain societies in Europe,” Kantor said. “As a result of the economic crisis, certain extreme parties are able to deliver a scapegoat upon which to blame all their ills.

“This growing popularity of racist, xenophobic and anti-Semitic parties in Europe pose a grave danger to the fabric of Europe and could drag us back to the dark days of the past. We must act now,” Kantor said.

You don’t have to be Hungarian, but it helps


“One Must Also Be Hungarian” by Adam Biro, translated by Catherine Tihanyi (University of Chicago Press, $20).

After the death of his 95-year-old father, Imre, and the birth of his first grandchild, Ulysse, Hungarian-born French writer Adam Biro decided to write a book about his family. He called it “Les Ancetres d’Ulysse” (“Ulysses’s Ancestors”); fearing, however, that the American reader knows little of the glories of the Hungarian past — and worried, perhaps, that an unknowing bookstore clerk might shelve the title alongside Homer’s “Odyssey” — Biro added a new introduction to the English edition and changed the title.

The new title comes from Hollywood’s Golden Age, a time when Tinseltown was lousy with Hungarian emigres. So profound was the Hungarian presence that — according to one, perhaps apocryphal, story — a sign above the door to one movie studio read: “It’s not enough to be Hungarian to make films. One must also have talent.”
Italian-born director Frank Capra supposedly turned the phrase on its head.

“It’s not enough to have talent,” he allegedly sniffed. “One must also be Hungarian.”

Biro’s attitude toward his ancestral land is complex. He is enchanted by its mysteries, disgusted by its villains and, ultimately, bereft in the face of what he sees as its disappearance.

The part of Europe “from where I am so proud of hailing,” he writes, “is no longer the source of dark geniuses like Kafka, of Hungarian suicides and musicians, of Dr. Sigmund and other Austro-Hungarian kindred spirits…. It has now joined the chase for the buck, and this is so sad, so lonely.”

The book, elegiac yet witty, gains in complexity as Biro grapples with the fact that his ancestors were not only Hungarian but also Jewish, or, as the author puts it, “Jewish but Hungarian.” And nowhere is the complexity of this dual existence more fully on display than in the stories that Biro tells of his maternal grandfather, a man who was born Jewish, became a Catholic and died a Jew once more, albeit a nonbelieving one.

Biro, who in 2001 published a well-received collection of reworked Old World anecdotes under the title “Two Jews on a Train” (University of Chicago Press), opens here with an early 19th-century great-great-grandfather, but he quickly shifts his focus toward the maternal grandfather, who was born Jeno (Hungarian for Eugene) Finkelstein to a poor seltzer deliveryman in 1883. The family doesn’t have the means to support the boy, so he is adopted by a Catholic widow who has him baptized. The boy, now named György (George) Luy, becomes a lawyer. At trial one day, he meets a charming Jewish witness whom he ultimately marries and for whom he converts back to Judaism.

Strong, cultured and fun loving, Luy emerges a larger-than-life figure — a virtually indestructible one, to boot. He’s hit by a bullet during World War I and by a car during the ’50s, and though an eye and an ear were lower on one side of his head than on the other, and his right arm stayed numb from the bullet wound, he remained vital till the end.

The contrast with Biro’s paternal grandfather could not be starker. A school principal who changed his name from Markus Braun to Mark Biro (Hungarian for judge), he was murdered just a few weeks before Budapest’s liberation in 1945. Following their torture by members of the Hungarian Nazi party, the Arrow Cross, Mark and his son, Jozsi (the author’s uncle), were tied together on the shores of the Danube and shot.

After offering portraits of some more-distant relatives — a cigar-chomping great uncle who moved to San Francisco in 1905, a tragic aunt who never found a place for herself in the world — Biro turns to his parents. Unlike his more-distant relatives, who are drawn in epic style, Biro’s father and mother emerge muted and small — as if viewed through a telescope’s wide end. The two are certainly survivors: They remain in the same Budapest apartment from 1937 until the century’s end, but, emotionally speaking, they are victims of the century’s vicissitudes — and the emigration, in 1956, of their only son.

Throughout his mournful and evocative book, this émigré son, who left Hungary when he was 15, tries to come to grips with why his unhappy heritage continues to have such a hold on him. Amid his discussion of his father’s father — a great patriot betrayed by the country he loved — Biro offers a possible explanation.

“One day,” he writes, “my father told me, ‘Jews are very intelligent, Hungarians very creative, so, a Hungarian Jew is the apex of the human species.’ I believed him for a long time. And, all shame set aside, I must confess that I might still believe it.”

Gabriel Sanders is the associate editor of the Forward.

Hungarian Novelist Takes Manhattan


 

When Imre Kertesz was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 2002, few Americans had read the work of the Hungarian novelist, the first survivor of the concentration camps to be awarded the literary prize. Even in his own country, his works were not well known; his subject, largely the Holocaust, was not popular.

Since the prize, his works are more widely available in Hungary and this season new translations are available in English. To mark the publication of the new American editions, the Nobel laureate made his first visit to New York City since winning the prize, and he spent several days last month doing public presentations, interviews and being celebrated.

An eloquent man of charm, grace and modesty, Kertesz, who speaks English through a translator, seemed nonetheless to enjoy the attention. For members of the Hungarian Jewish community in New York — many of whom had indeed read all of his work — it was homecoming week. Many followed his crosstown schedule, from an evening at the 92nd Street Y to an afternoon at Columbia University to an evening reception at the Hungarian consulate, trying to get a photograph, autograph or just a few minutes of his time. When he spoke, they’d laugh or nod knowingly before the translator got the English lines out.

Interviewing Kertesz through his interpreter, Zoltan Saringer, is triangular, but quickly feels quite natural. Kertesz speaks, and Saringer smoothly jumps in where he infers commas, picking up the emotions of the novelist’s words. This visit is the first time Saringer and Kertesz have met, but it’s as though the interpreter is channeling Kertesz’s words.

In person, Kertesz is cheerful, outgoing and funny, in contrast to the darker persona of his novels — which he insists are works of fiction, not memoir, in spite of parallels with his life.

“A writer can only write out of pure joy,” he said. “The whole joy of creating. It gives one real hope. You really have to overcome suffering in order to establish real contact. It’s quite evident that being able to write is a huge liberty from life.”

Kertesz was born in Budapest in 1929. In his Nobel lecture, he described his family background: “My grandparents still lit the Sabbath candles every Friday night, but they changed their name to a Hungarian one, and it was natural for them to consider Judaism their religion and Hungary their homeland. My maternal grandparents perished in the Holocaust; my paternal grandparents’ lives were destroyed by Matyas Rakosi’s Communist rule, when Budapest’s Jewish old age home was relocated to the northern border region of the country. I think this brief family history encapsulates and symbolizes this country’s modern-day travails.”

In 1944, the 15-year-old Kertesz was deported to Auschwitz and then to Buchenwald, and was liberated by American troops in 1945. (He and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, who won the peace prize, do not know each other, but were on the same transports and in the camps at the same time.) He then returned to Budapest, and his first jobs were in journalism, but he was dismissed from his position in 1951, when the newspaper adopted the Communist party line. After that, he began writing and translating German authors into Hungarian.

Kertesz has survived not only Hitler, but also Stalin and the Hungarian Revolution and its aftermath. For 40 years, he had no passport and couldn’t leave Hungary, nor did he have access to the work of many major Western writers.

“It is a kind of a literary miracle that he’s here,” said novelist Thane Rosenbaum, who interviewed Kertesz on stage at the 92nd Street Y (with Saringer translating). “That he appears in America, having won the Novel prize — given the multitude of murderous enterprises that were determined to eradicate him and silence his voice.”

The program at the Y also featured pianist Andras Schiff, who was born in Budapest and began his music studies there. Schiff is the son of Holocaust survivors and a friend of Kertesz; the two embraced on the stage after the pianist’s performance.

Kertesz has an extraordinary facility with words; he explains that he doesn’t so much create characters, but he creates a language for them. At the Hungarian consulate, Andras Koerner, a Hungarian-born architect, author and fan of the Nobel Laureate, commented, “He’s a master of the quotation without the quotation marks. He uses words as in a collage, taking from one reality and placing it in another.”

Although he uses his own memories as raw material in his work, Kertesz explained that “fiction and reality become tangled. By the time a book is ready to go, I have completely different memories. You rid yourself of your memories when you write.”

He said that his Jewish identity is primarily one of solidarity. As a boy before the war, he attended weekly religious classes in school, but after the war he was not interested in religion.

“I considered and expressed myself as a Jew,” he said. “How strange it may sound, but my Jewish identity is based on my experiences of Auschwitz, on my experience of the Holocaust. I am not the only one in Europe like this. The Holocaust has managed to tie an abundance of people to Jewish identity. I think that in essence everyone is a Jew. Everyone who writes. Everyone who makes art is forced to become a Jew. There’s no other choice.”

He thinks of himself as “a writer who completely by chance has the Holocaust as his topic, his source. It doesn’t narrow my perspective — it definitely makes my perspective universal.”

In an article that appeared in Die Zeit after a trip to Israel a few years ago, he was critical of those intellectuals who criticize Israel in its dealings with the Palestinian uprising, noting that they’ve never bought bus tickets from Haifa to Jerusalem. When he read the lines of his prepared text at a conference — lines he has repeated before, suggesting that someone like him, who knows no Hebrew, barely knows the sources of Jewish culture and derives his primary Jewish identity from Auschwitz, should not be called a Jew — he felt somewhat ashamed.

Both his first novel, “Fatelessness” (the previous English translation was “Fateless) and “Kaddish for an Unborn Child” (previously “Kaddish for a Child Not Born”) — are newly available in Vintage paperback editions, in new translations. In addition, Knopf is publishing a hardcover edition of another Kertesz novel, “Liquidation.” Never before available in English, it is the story of a novelist who survives Auschwitz and Buchenwald and Hungary’s Communist regime, to kill himself a decade after the fall of communism. The death causes the man’s circle of friends to examine their own history and memories.

All three books are translated by Tim Wilkinson. Kertesz finds Wilkinson’s translations to be excellent. Looking back on his own experience as a literary translator, Kertesz said, “It’s not enough to translate verbatim. You have to be very knowledgeable of the mother tongue into which you are translating. You have to understand the tune and the tone. Those are the most important. Any other mistakes can be corrected. When you have a master pianist playing, he might make one mistake, but it doesn’t invalidate the final effect.”

The Hungarian writer who has also worked as a librettist to support his writing of novels, frequently makes musical references. (As an aside, he notes that he doesn’t see his librettos as having literary value — he would have worked as a lumberjack if he was “strong enough and had the audacity to do it.”) He looks at his novels as pieces of music, and it’s not only the musicality of the sentences that interests him, but the structure.

For Wilkinson, who has been translating from Hungarian to English for more than 30 years, what’s particularly distinctive about Kertesz’s writing is that “although it is an attribute shared with all truly good writers … Kertesz is able to conjure up what he wants to write about with just a few deftly chosen worlds.”

The London-based Wilkinson said that in translating Kertesz, there’s an advantage to having a familiarity with the totality of his writing, as there are many allusions to works by such other writers as Nietzsche, Rilke, Kafka, Camus, “that are not flagged at all but for which clues are to be found. Sorting these out is hard work but ultimately hugely rewarding because it gives a real sense of the tradition of great writing into which Kertesz fits.”

A reader encountering Kertesz for the first time would do well to begin with “Fatelessness,” first published in 1975. He worked on that novel for about 13 years, and then it took several years to find a publisher. The book is a narrative of a young man being sent to and surviving a concentration camp; the voice of the child is unforgettable, reporting with innocence and without judgment on what he sees.

The novel is now being made into a feature film by award-winning Hungarian cinematographer Lajos Koltai (“Sunshine” and other films). Kertesz laughs when he says that 30 years after working for so many years on the book, he spent eight weeks writing the screenplay.

“Kaddish for a Child Not Born,” published in Hungarian in 1990, is the meditation of a man who chooses not to bring a child into a world that could produce Auschwitz and Buchenwald.

When told that a friend of The Jewish Week in Budapest expressed her hope that Kertesz’s books would now be required reading in all Hungarian schools, the Nobel laureate smiles and said that he’d never want to be mandatory: “If anything, I’d want to be discovered as the book students are reading in secret during class, hidden under the table.”

Sandee Brawarsky is the book critic for The Jewish Week.

 

Hungarian Baker Rises to Success


Since Meir Jacobs bought the J&T Bread Bin 34 years ago, the bakery hasn’t changed much. Nestled in the center of the Farmers Market at Third and Fairfax, it retains its old-world charm — the original glass showcases line the store’s perimeter, and the original orange "Bread Bin" metal signs hang on both sides of the store. Handwritten yellow notes advertise the goods: chocolate danishes, raspberry hamantaschen, sprinkled cookies, lemon bars, macaroons and more.

It’s the Hungarian treats that reveal the bakery’s hidden history. The loaves of glazed cinnamon raisin bread, the apple squares and the three-flavored puff pastries called kalaches give meaning to Jacobs’ words: "This is a very old-fashioned-style bakery."

An old-fashioned Hungarian bakery fashioned after its owner.

Born in Hungary 85 years ago, Jacobs spent his childhood attending yeshiva. At age 15, he dropped out of school to become a baker’s apprentice. Three years of laboring for no money and sleeping on flour sacks in a storage room earned him his baker’s certificate. Credentials in hand, Jacobs went to work for a bakery in Budapest.

What happened next remains a secret. Jacobs said his parents, brothers and one of his sisters died in the gas chambers. But he managed to evade the concentration camps. Jacobs refuses to talk about how he survived the Holocaust, citing the need to protect those who helped him.

A few years ago, Jacobs returned to Hungary. He visited the house where he grew up and was upset to find another family living there.

"My hate was so big," he said, that he could stand no more than four days in Hungary.

"Just get out," he told himself.

After World War II, Jacobs married and then moved to the United States in 1958 in search of "the good life," he said. He arrived in New York, which he found too cold. Days later, he moved to Miami, which he found too hot. He then hopped on a train to Los Angeles, which he found just right.

Jacobs got a job at a kosher bakery, which bent the rules for him, allowing him to work on Saturdays: "They closed the window shades so nobody could see."

After working "here and there" for a few years, Jacobs decided to buy his own bakery. With a business partner, Jacobs purchased the Brown’s Wilshire Bakery & Deli. Three months later, he and his partner had a falling out, which resulted in Jacobs buying his partner out to become the sole owner of Brown’s, which Jacobs still runs today.

The Brown’s bakery was funneling bread and pastries to a shop in Farmers Market. Jacobs reasoned that if he owned the shop, he could increase sales of his baked goods.

"It’s important to have a ‘cold spot’ when you have a bakery," he said. "You sell more that way."

So, Jacobs bought the store and renamed it J&T Bread Bin. The "T" stands for his daughter’s married name, since she and her husband are partners in the business.

"I made it bigger, more professional," he said. "I brought in European-style Hungarian strudel, Jewish hamantaschen, mandel bread, challahs."

Today, regular customers flock to Bread Bin. They know Jacobs by his Hungarian name, Mike — "pronounced like the Mickey in Mickey Mouse," said Ausencia, who has worked as Jacobs’ assistant for four years.

Ninety-year-old Sally Goldfarb has been shopping at Bread Bin a few times a week, whenever she needs bread, for more than 15 years.

Another regular, Bob Leve, 53, calls Jacobs "part of Hollywood history." Leve likes the onion pockets, which, he said, "melt in your mouth."

Jon Guzick, 33, who used to go to the bakery as a child with his family, now comes back for the black-and-white cookies, which remind him of being a kid.

The personal connections are important for Jacobs. He likes to schmooze, he said. When customers share with him their personal problems, he tells them, "Nothing is forever. No good thing is forever; no bad thing is forever. The sun goes down; the sun comes up."

And with every sunrise, Jacobs goes to work. He arrives at Bread Bin at 7:30 a.m., seven days a week. He goes home to rest in the afternoon but returns to the market at 6 p.m. to determine what needs to be ordered for the next day. Then, he stops by Brown’s bakery to place the orders. When will the 85-year-old retire?

"When the Messiah comes," he said with a smile.

J&T Bread Bin Bakery is located in spot 330 at Farmers Market on Third Street and Fairfax Avenue. For more information, call (323) 936-0785.

Meir Jacobs’ Lokshen Kugel

Take one package of noodles, not too wide, not too narrow.

Put a little salt in water, and cook the noodles for 1/2 hour.

Strain the noodles from the water.

In a bowl, mix three eggs, two teaspoons of cinnamon, 1 cup of sugar and 1 1/2 sticks of margarine.

Put the noodles into the bowl, and mix the contents.

Take another bowl and spray it with cooking spray. Put some whole almonds on the bottom of the bowl. Then, pour the mix of noodles, eggs, cinnamon, sugar and margarine into the bowl.

Put the bowl in the oven.

Bake at 350F for one hour.

Epic Proportions


“Sunshine” is a massive, sprawling film that spans 120 years in the lives and loves of four generations of a Hungarian Jewish family.

It is part history course, part lust among the bourgeoisie, and an all- around object lesson on the ultimate futility by Central European Jewry to shed its roots and assimilate into the surrounding society. The film starts around 1840, when orphaned 12-year-old Emanuel Sonnenschein (German for “Sunshine”) sets out for Budapest carrying as his only endowment the secret recipe for a herbal tonic bearing the family name.

Emanuel and his tonic lay the foundation for the family fortune. His son Ignatz, living during the heyday of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, becomes a lawyer and powerful judge, changing the family name to Sors to advance his career.

In the next generation, Adam Sors becomes a champion fencer and converts to Catholicism in order to be admitted to the elite Hungarian military fencing club. He wins a gold medal for his country at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin and is hailed as a national hero.

A few years after his triumph, Adam is arrested by Hungarian fascists and killed in a particularly sadistic way in front of his son Ivan.

Ivan survives concentration camps, and as Hungary becomes a Soviet satellite, he wreaks revenge on real and fancied fascists by joining the Communist secret police. However, when he is ordered to root out a trumped-up “Zionist conspiracy” against the Communist regime, Ivan has second thoughts.

In 1956, he becomes a leader of the failed anti-Soviet uprising and is sentenced to five years in prison. Upon his release, he immediately goes to the city registry and asks that his name be changed back to Sonnenschein, signifying his return to his Jewish roots. The Sonnenschein men are matched by even stronger women, and there are a great number of intrafamily sexual liaisons and betrayals.

“Sunshine” was created and written (with playwright Israel Horovitz) by Hungarian Jewish director István Szabó well-known for melding historical and personal themes (“Mephisto,” “Colonel Redl”), who drew in part on his family history in making the film.

The length of the film (three hours) and size of the cast are of near epic proportions, but the focus is relentlessly on Ralph Fiennes, who, in a three-generational role, portrays Ignatz, the judge; Adam, the fencer; and Ivan, the Communist interrogator.

Fiennes, who first came to international attention as the sadistic SS commandant Amon Goeth in “Schindler’s List,” here pictures three assimilated Jews convincingly. Nevertheless, having the same visage, with only minor alterations in facial hair styles, appear in three roles confuses rather than unifies an already densely plotted and populated film. Among the cast members are William Hurt, Miriam Margolyes, Rachel Weisz, Jennifer Ehle, Deborah Kara Unger, James Frain, Molly Parker, John Neville and David de Keyser. Outstanding is Rosemary Harris as the matriarch who survives all vicissitudes and binds together the three generations. “Sunshine” opens June 9 at the Cecchi Gori Fine Arts in Beverly Hills, Laemmle Monica in Santa Monica, and Landmark Rialto in South Pasadena.

The ‘Sunshine’ of Szabós Life

PHOTO
István Szabó, right, directs Jennifer Ehle on the set of “Sunshine,” his epic film about 120 years in the life of a Hungarian Jewish family. Photo courtesy Paramount Classics

Like the characters in his three-generational saga “Sunshine,” director István Szabó is descended from a highly assimilated Hungarian Jewish family.

“For five generations, my ancestors have been doctors and lawyers in Budapest,” says Szabo, speaking by phone from the Hungarian capital.

Yet, despite the surface parallels between the Sonnenschein (German for “Sunshine”) and the Szabó families, the three-hour movie is not autobiographical, the director and screenwriter insists. Each character in the film represents a composite of five or six people whose lives or stories Szabó has encountered during his 62 years.

It might have been fascinating to delve deeper into the life of Szabó, recipient of 60 international awards and an Oscar for such penetrating movies as “Mephisto,” “Colonel Redl” and “Hanussen.” But Szabó would have none of it. After reluctantly acknowledging that he was hidden by nuns during the Holocaust, he declares firmly, “I am not happy talking about myself.”

Discussing the film, though, is another matter. Although Ralph Fiennes, in the triple role of grandfather, father and grandson is the obvious star of the film, the key character, according to Szabó, is the family matriarch, Valerie.

Played by Jennifer Ehle as a young woman and by Rosemary Harris as an older one, Valerie survives the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Nazi occupation, and Communist rule, all the while remaining true to herself. “She is the most courageous person of all, the only one who remains faithful and never denies her origins,” Szabó notes. “It is her example that allows her grandson to find himself and return to his roots.”

To understand the attitudes and changing fortunes of the Sonnenschein family, it is important to know about the role of Jews in Hungarian history. “In 1848-49, when Hungarians revolted against the Austrian Hapsburg monarchy, 20,000 young Jews joined the revolution, and many of them were imprisoned after the Hapsburg victory,” says Szabó. “So the Hungarian Jews were very nationalistic and felt that the ‘invisible wall’ that, for instance, separated German Jews from their gentile neighbors did not exist in Hungary.”

To illustrate the point, Szabó points to the town of Kecskemet, about 45 miles from Budapest. “There the main square is surrounded by seven different houses of worship, which were all built toward the end of the 19th century,” Szabó recounts. “There is a baroque Catholic church, a Christian Orthodox church, a Protestant church, an Evangelic middle school, a synagogue and another Catholic church. And in the middle of the square is a coffee shop for everybody.”

Szabó says that he always envisioned that the Sonnenschein men, over three generations, would be played by the same actor, and he rejects the suggestion that this triple-casting might confuse viewers. “By using the same face for grandfather, son and grandson, I wanted to show that the challenges of history, the Jewish struggle to be accepted by society, repeated itself in every generation,” Szabó notes. “However, I needed an actor who could create different characters, and I think that Fiennes has succeeded admirably.”