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Strangers at Home


a film directed by István Szabó


Arthur Koestler, by origin a Jewish Hungarian, tells us in his autobiography of the many countries he lived in during his youth, often under terrible regimes, either in enviable comfort and in touch with Europe’s best minds, or in prison or a concentration camp. His tale ends in 1940, when, after entering Great Britain illegally, he is released from an English jail. “At this point,” he concludes, “ends this typical case-history of a central-European member of the educated middle classes, born in the first years of our century.”1

Like Koestler, the members of the Jewish-Hungarian Sonnenschein family, whose history is recounted in István Szabó’s film Sunshine, share in the extremes of a Central European life. Unlike Koestler’s, most of their adventures, from the sublime to the catastrophic, take place at or near home. In fact, one of the few fixed elements of their complex story is the grand bourgeois apartment in Budapest of four generations of Sonnenscheins (although, as Hungary falls into ruin again and again, the apartment, too, becomes shabbier and shabbier).

Sunshine” is the English translation of the word Sonnenschein. István Szabó, who made the award-winning Mephisto, among other remarkable films, wrote the script with Israel Horovitz. Apart from many Hungarians, the cast includes several famous American and British actors, among them Ralph Fiennes, who plays the grandfather, son, and grandson of the family, as well as Rosemary Harris and her daughter, Jennifer Ehle, who play the young and then the aging Valerie, the beautiful Sonnenschein who marries her cousin and, more than anyone else, holds the family together.

Szabó’s is an invented story, yet it is based on true incidents. It takes us from Emperor-King Francis Joseph’s liberal and booming Budapest, through Admiral Miklós Horthy’s impoverished counterrevolutionary Hungary in the 1920s and 1930s, to the Holocaust, then to the post-World War II Stalinist regime, the anti-Soviet revolution of 1956, and, finally, to a neoliberal and cautiously prosperous post-Stalinist Hungary. During these seventy-odd years, as they become more established, the Sonnenscheins abandon their Jewish cultural and religious traditions, change their name to Sors (which in Hungarian means “fate”), and finally convert to Catholicism. Following World War II, Ivan Sors, played by Fiennes in his third incarnation, becomes an ardent Stalinist, only to abandon all political illusions toward the end of the film. In the last scene, he takes back the original family name. There is no more need to pretend that he is a Christian Hungarian; at last, he says, he can breathe freely. Thus the main theme of the film, which takes the form of a family history narrated by Ivan, is the failure of Jewish assimilation.

Sunshine has beautiful, dreamlike sequences from Budapest life, with dashing officers and attractive women, all in magnificent period costumes. One of the Sonnenscheins becomes a famous fencer and some spectacular fencing matches are staged in the halls of Budapest’s grand Museum of Applied Arts. As with Szabó’s other films, Sunshine seemed to me wonderfully evocative and often poignant; it also seemed overlong with a good many gratuitously predatory sex scenes, in which three generations of gorgeous women become so attracted to three generations of Ralph Fienneses that they virtually rape him. For a historian, however, the particular interest of the film lies in what it tells us, and fails to tell us, about Central European and Jewish life.

It begins in what might be a northeastern Hungarian village, around 1850, where we see the Sonnenschein great-great-grandfather, a provincial tavernkeeper who has a secret formula for making a very special tonic or elixir; while distilling it, he blows up himself and his house. His son Emmanuel seeks his fortune in the city, where, with the help of the ancestral formula, he becomes the successful manufacturer of this potent drink. (The Hungarian viewer will think of the well-known bitters called Unicum, still produced by the fully assimilated Zwack family. We see the old Zwack distillery in Budapest from time to time throughout the film.)

The years of Francis Joseph’s rule—1848 to 1916—proved a golden age for the educated middle class in Hungary, and particularly for the swiftly growing Jewish bourgeoisie. By 1900, one of four persons in the Hungarian capital was a Jew, and while Jews made up only 5 percent of Hungary’s population, most of the country’s bankers, printers, goldsmiths, furriers, and small merchants were Jews. Large parts of the country’s mines and industry were owned and managed by converted Jews. Moreover, between one fourth and one half of Hungary’s university students, medical doctors, lawyers, journalists, and other free professionals were Jews. And while far from all of Hungary’s most talented writers, poets, composers, musicians, and painters were of Jewish origin, most patrons of the arts were.

Jews even began to make inroads into positions traditionally reserved for the Christian nobility. They sat on the Supreme Court, in the ministries, and in the parliament; they held university chairs; they obtained aristocratic titles, bought large estates, and served in the career officer corps. Nearly one in five reserve officers was a Jew or a Jewish convert to Christianity. Thus it is entirely plausible that Emmanuel Sonnenschein’s son, Ignatz, should become a high court judge in Szabó’s film and then, during World War I, a military judge with the rank of major. It is natural for him to meet the Emperor-King himself in order to thank him for being promoted. Francis Joseph, however, would never have received Ignatz while sitting in a chair, as shown in the film; nor would he have made the major sit next to him or patted his arm. If he made such a gesture it would only be to a member of the very highest aristocracy. Although he gave thousands of audiences during his sixty-eight-year reign and received more peasant delegations than perhaps any other head of state in history, Francis Joseph always stood erect on such occasions, and he shook hands with hardly anyone. To appear as the grandest of the grand seigneurs was part of the Emperor-King’s unfailing strategy to keep his multiethnic and multireligious realm peaceful.

As for the Jews, Francis Joseph counted them among his favorite subjects because they were less nationalistic and less unruly than the Germans, Hungarians, Czechs, Slovaks, Poles, Ukrainians, Romanians, Slovenes, Croats, Serbs, Italians, Bosnians, and others who also made up the empire. When traveling in the country, the ruler made a point of visiting synagogues and of humbly accepting the blessings of admiring rabbis. Nor did the pre-World War I liberal Hungarian government view the Jews any differently, inasmuch as they were among the most ardent Hungarian patriots.

There was a silent agreement: the nobles would dominate politics; Jewish—and German—entrepreneurs would make the economy thrive. But things began to change even before the war with the rise of a non-Jewish middle class, often of lower-class and non-Magyar origin, who competed with the Jews for positions in business and the professions. There also appeared on the scene a group of young Jewish intellectuals who wanted to change society or even to overthrow the state. In the film, Ignatz’s brother Gustave, an idealistic doctor, becomes a radical revolutionary who detests his brother’s loyal monarchism. Such divisions were not uncommon in successful Jewish families. Ignatz is an ideal Habsburg bureaucrat: honest, highly principled, and plodding. Most radical intellectuals were also the sons and daughters of assimilated Jews, for instance, the later Marxist-Leninist philosopher Georg Lukács, whose father was an ennobled and patriotic Jewish banker.

Even before 1914, there was a good deal of partly hidden resentment of Jews, but only during the war did things go seriously wrong for them. First, Jews were accused of being shirkers and profiteers; then the old emperor died, the Central Powers lost the war, and Austria-Hungary fell apart. Two thirds of Hungary was grabbed by its neighbors; and when a small group of young, mostly Jewish intellectuals seized power in 1919, they established, with considerable brutality, a socialist state.

This event was decisive for the Jews of Hungary, even if only relatively few Hungarian Jews had anything to do with Béla Kun’s Soviet Republic. Like Ignatz Sors, most of them were appalled by it. From then on, however, the word “Jew” was associated in politics and the press with the “godless” republic, which was also, quite absurdly, held responsible for the loss of Hungarian lands. The subsequent counterrevolutionary White Terror, under Admiral Miklós Horthy, was aimed mainly at innocent Jews. Within two years, terror gave way to a more moderate regime, still under Horthy, who was now regent of Hungary. Jewish students were still beaten up at the university, but Jewish capitalists continued to run the country’s economy in alliance with aristocratic landowners and the counterrevolutionary political establishment. And yet, things had distinctly changed; now even the most moderate political leaders hoped that one day many if not most Jews would leave the country.

In the film, the new anti-Semitic currents do not prevent Ignatz Sors’s son, Adam, from earning high honors for Hungary. He takes up saber fencing, converts to Roman Catholicism so he can join the team of the elite officers club, and goes on to become an Olympic and world champion. All this rings true. Toward the end of the nineteenth century both aristocratic and well-to-do Jews became obsessed with sports and were keen sponsors of athletic competitions. The first Hungarian Olympic champions—and there were quite a few of them—were mostly Jews who particularly excelled in saber fencing, that most Hungarian of martial arts. Hungarians had always taken pride in being descended from saber-wielding mounted warriors, and for a Jew to become a saber champion was to fulfill a fantasy of acceptance.

The converted Jew Endre Kabos won the gold medal for fencing. At the Berlin Olympics in 1936, Hungarians won ten gold medals, which placed them immediately behind Germany and the US. At least three champions and several members of the gold medal- winning water polo team were Jews or Jewish converts to Christianity.2 The women’s fencing champion, the Jewish Hungarian Ilona Elek, stood on the highest podium to receive her Olympic medal while, behind her, in second place, Helen Mayer gave a stiff Nazi salute. According to the Nuremberg laws, Mayer, too, was a Jew. Even though she was living in the US, the Germans were so keen to win that they invited her to compete on their national team.

The story of Adam Sors is not based on the career of the fencer Endre Kabos, who died in an accident in Budapest in the fall of 1944, but on that of Attila Petschauer, another fencer who also won several gold and silver Olympic medals, although not at the games in Berlin. Petschauer, a popular and witty Budapest bon vivant, whom the army had drafted into labor service in 1942, was horribly beaten at a camp and soon after died. When, in the film’s most shattering scene, Adam insists to a sadistic sergeant that he was an Olympic champion, he is killed, while his son Ivan watches.

  1. 1

    Arthur Koestler, The Invisible Writing: Being the Second Volume of Arrow in the Blue: An Autobiography (Macmillan, 1954), Vol. 2, p. 423.

  2. 2

    On Jews in sports, see Andrew Handler, From the Ghetto to the Games: Jewish Athletes in Hungary (East European Monographs; Columbia University Press, 1985).

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