Four decades ago I read a snippet in a British newspaper which so impressed me that I cut it out and pasted it into my cherished notebook of thought-provoking quotes. It came from a Professor Andre Brousson, whose claim to distinction has been obscured by the passage of time. But I still have that notebook, and this is what the Prof said: ‘One must acknowledge the talents of the Hungarians and note the ease with which they rise to the top in intellectually under-developed countries like Britain and the U.S.’
Understandably, this launched me as a lifelong, proud Hungarian flag-waver. True, my family emigrated from Hungary in 1956 and I have spent my life in the West, but that hasn’t stopped me boasting. Just look at us Magyars. We’re incredible! For a small country with a population of a mere 10 million and a really obscure language, we have produced a vastly disproportionate number of world-renowned people, in every field.
However, when I recently mentioned this to a Jewish friend, he countered with: ‘Yes, but they are Hungarian Jews.’
Huh? ‘Liszt wasn’t Jewish,’ I replied, ‘or Bartok or Lehar. Or, um…Bela Lugosi. And I’m sure that wizard footballer Ferenc Puskas – considered amongst the greatest of all time – wasn’t, either.’ So far so true. But on further investigation I realised that, in fact, the majority of famous Hungarians, past and present, have been Jewish. They include: Harry Houdini; Joseph Pulitzer; Sir Alexander Korda, who established the British film industry; Aldolph Zukor, founder of Paramount Pictures and creator of Hollywood; writer Arthur Koestler; war photographer par excellence Robert Capa; playwright Ferenc Molnar; Laszlo Biro, inventor of the ballpoint pen; Erno Rubik (of the Cube); Sir Georg Solti; film stars Leslie Howard and Tony Curtis; film directors Michael Curtiz (Casablanca) and Charles Vidor (A Farewell to Arms); and chess prodigy Judit Polgar, who achieved grandmaster status aged 15 and is considered the greatest female chess player in history.
And then there are the Nobel Prize winners, among them the physicists Eugene Wigner and Denes Gabor (inventor of the hologram); writer Imre Kertesz; and Elie Wiesel, winner of the 1986 Peace Prize. Of the twelve Hungarian Nobel laureates, seven were Jewish or of Jewish descent, not forgetting the American economist Milton Friedman, whose parents were Hungarian Jewish emigres.
So now the obvious question is: why have Hungarian Jews been so markedly successful and influential? After all, there haven’t been so many famous Rumanian Jews, or Bulgarian Jews, or Lithuanian Jews, or Czech Jews – or even Polish Jews, although there was a far greater number of them. Yes, there have been a load of big-name German/Austrian Jews, but they not only came from a much bigger pool, they also had the benefit of a world-language mother tongue.
I believe this phenomenon stems from the cultural, social and political factors governing Hungary during the 19th and early 20th centuries. After the 1867 Compromise with Austria, the newly created Austro-Hungarian Empire was a vast multi-ethnic realm in which the sizeable Jewish population was finally free to flourish. Educational opportunities were open to them, and there was an excellent state school system, with the highest academic standards.
Sure, there was still some historic anti-Semitism, but it was small beer compared to that which existed, say, in Poland, and didn’t stop Jews from playing an ever more prominent role in the country’s cultural life, in business, industry and the sciences – mostly centred around Budapest. So the Jews became better educated, more prosperous and more fully assimilated as Hungarians within the growing middle classes, and indeed in some cases entering the even wealthier landowning class.
It wasn’t until after the First World War and the defeat of the Empire – when Jews became the only remaining ethnic minority in a truncated Hungary, thus making an easy scapegoat – that anti-Semitism began to flare up again. And so in the Twenties and Thirties many talented, ambitious Jews set off for America and all points west. But I believe that the expansive spirit of our so-called Golden Age, 1867 -1918, left a vital mark on the collective consciousness of Hungarian Jewry, which gave them an added oomph, extra vim and verve to help them succeed in whatever they chose to do – their impenetrable language notwithstanding.
Hence the old saying: ‘When a Hungarian (Jew) goes into a revolving door behind you, he comes out in front.’ Yes, we Magyars really are something.
One of my favourites amongst the roll call of illustrious Hungarian Jews was that epitome of Hollywood glamour, the blonde, Budapest-born, nine-times-married Zsa Zsa Gabor. She died three years ago, aged 99. Famed for her witty one-liners, she was once asked how many husbands she’d had, and responded with: ‘You mean other than my own?’ Ha! What a gal.