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.

Hungarian Jewish labor service during the war was a unique institution, which brought death to many Jews and salvation to others. The country entered the war against the Soviet Union in June 1941, but years before that event, the high command, then dominated by fierce pro-German anti-Semites, seemed to have few more important concerns than what to do with the Jews. The high command debated continually whether or not Jews should be given arms, and how to make them suffer. Some suggested that armed Jewish units be marched in front of Christian units during attacks; this was, however, rejected because it would make heroes of the Jews. Nor would Hungary’s Nazi allies have appreciated the spectacle of Jews storming Red Army lines.

Other officers recommended that Jews be armed but be used for rear-echelon jobs suitable for cowards. This too was rejected, with the argument that Jews would thereby be spared more than Christians. Finally, it was decided to use Jews as forced laborers. As an added insult, Jewish reserve officers were degraded to ordinary labor service and, in 1942, scores of overage Jewish intellectuals, businessmen, and professionals were called up. Lists of names for the purpose were provided by Christian medical and other professional associations, whose members were waiting to take over Jewish practices.

In Budapest, Attila Petschauer and his fellow upper-class Jews were still living a charmed life; most of the laws discriminating against Jews were barely applied against the Jewish elite and, in any case, as an Olympic champion, Petschauer was exempted from such laws. The army’s labor camps were another matter. There, Petschauer and his fellow Jews were likely to be treated as vermin. Companies of unarmed Jews were marched across mine fields at the front; others were simply beaten to death. As post-World War II court records show, some labor servicemen were forced to undress in the bitter cold and then made to sing while sitting on a tree. Others were doused with water and left to turn into ice statues—the punishment that kills Adam Sors. Others were burned alive when soldiers set fire to hospitals for Jewish typhoid patients. In more than a few cases the only members of a labor service company to return home were the regular soldiers assigned to it as guards. The Jews, as the saying went, came back “in the company commander’s attaché-case.” But in at least as many other units, Jews were treated humanely. By the time Petschauer died, a new minister of defense was striving bravely to prevent further atrocities.3

In the film, the military police sergeant singles out Adam Sors for torture because he is still in his officer’s uniform, although without insignia, and because he is wearing a white armband, which means that he is a “Christian Jew.” (Jewish Jews had to wear a yellow armband.) To a true anti-Semite, the white armband, a clear sign of assimilation, was the ultimate provocation. It may well be that Attila Petschauer was also tortured and killed precisely because he was a Christian Jew.

In the winter of 1942-1943, the Red Army broke through the thinly held lines on the river Don of the Hungarian Second Army, and both Christian soldiers and Jewish forced laborers suffered the consequences. A large part of this army was captured by the Soviets, who treated the Jews no better than the others; the Red Army command took the position that the Jews, rather than helping the Axis war effort, should have turned against their oppressors. The death rate in the Soviet POW camps was very high; some two thirds of the Jewish POWs never made it home.

Following the collapse of the Don front, some army commanders conceded that the Jewish laborers had been better disciplined and more helpful to the regular soldiers than the members of the army themselves. One reason why the Second Army turned into a rabble during the retreat, these commanders admitted, was that the presence of Jews had long encouraged cruelty and corruption among the Hungarian soldiers, who stole clothes and food from the Jews.

By 1943, Hungary was attempting to leave the war, which meant that the treatment of Jewish laborers improved considerably. More decent elements prevailed in the Hungarian army; for instance, the survivors of the winter campaign were discharged and allowed to return to their families and jobs. Tired of the Hungarians’ unreliability as allies and of the continuing presence of over 800,000 Jews in Hungary, the German army occupied the country in March 1944. This came as a terrible surprise to the Jews, many of whom were still living fairly normal lives at a time when most Polish and other European Jews had long been dead. Now a new pro-Nazi government proceeded to send all the Jews from the Hungarian countryside to their death in Auschwitz. But the army would not turn over to the Germans men who could do labor service; rather, it began to pull men of working age off the deportation trains, so that mainly older men, children, and women arrived in Auschwitz. Also, in July 1944, Regent Horthy prevented the deportation of the Budapest Jews. (Hence Valerie Sors is spared deportation to Auschwitz, as is Ivan Sors, the son of Adam, who is doing labor service.)

All this did not mean the end of Jewish suffering: in October 1944, the members of the fascist Arrow Cross movement seized power, deposing Horthy. Now many Jews were marched to Austria to dig antitank ditches and often to die in doing so; others were shot and thrown into the Danube by Arrow Cross thugs. Still, at least 40 percent of the Hungarian Jews survived, including those who were not gassed at Auschwitz, the tens of thousands who were hidden by Christians, most of the Budapest Jews, and tens of thousands of men in the service. With a few tragic exceptions, the leading Jewish athletes also survived. The fencing champion Ilona Elek, for instance, went on to win many more Olympic gold medals for Hungary after the war. Attila Petschauer’s tragedy is as well known in Hungary as it is precisely because, as an assimilated upper-class convert, he proved to be so disastrously unlucky.

After the war, Ivan Sors swears revenge. He joins the Communist political police and ruthlessly interrogates the fascists. This again was not at all uncommon; many political policemen and certainly most of their commanders were of Jewish origin. As a result of their efforts, thousands of Hungarian fascist murderers were caught, tried, and sentenced in the people’s courts. But then the political police became a state within the state. More and more, they persecuted nonfascists, even many fellow Communists. The Jewish police official Colonel Knorr, Ivan Sors’s superior in the film’s political police, who is himself arrested and beaten to death, is based on a real person, Colonel Ernö Szücs (except that he was not as handsome or as wise as Knorr in the film). Szücs, a particularly brutal policeman, was ultimately killed on the orders of the Party secretary general Mátyás Rákosi, a Communist tyrant of Jewish origin. In 1952, Rákosi was in a hurry to get rid of Jews in the Communist hierarchy, so that he himself would not become a target of Stalin’s anti-Zionist campaign.4

But then Stalin died, the so-called Thaw began, and many former Stalinists, among them the film’s Ivan Sors, became the driving spirits of the reform movement which led directly to the anti-Soviet revolution in October 1956. When it was crushed by Russian tanks, hundreds of former Communists (and hence, too, Ivan Sors), went to jail. Most were released a few years later, under the less bloody regime of János Kádár. These former prisoners were totally disillusioned with communism and indeed with any form of socialism. Many of their children were to be found in the forefront of the dissident movement that helped bring about a peaceful end to Communist rule in 1989, a development omitted in the film, which ends on a note of resignation. We will never know the descendants of Ivan Sors/Sonnenschein.


In today’s Hungary, most Jews are assimilated. By taking back the Sonnenschein name, Ivan is not returning to his ancestral tradition; he is returning to an age when Central European Jews took the first steps toward integration and ultimate assimilation. It was only in the 1780s that the Habsburg Emperor-King Joseph II declared that Jews should now take up family names. Being called “Isaac, the son of Salomon” would no longer do. How else were the Jews to be turned into ordinary tax-paying and soldiering citizens—a fate that awaited not only the Jews but all of the Habsburg monarchy’s hitherto disorganized inhabitants? To judge by their name, the Sonnenscheins were not doing badly in the 1780s; otherwise they could not have paid the local army sergeant, who presided over such matters in faraway parts of the empire, to give them such a pleasant name. Since the army was German-speaking, it was quite natural for the sergeant to hand out German-sounding names, just as it was later quite natural for the patriotic Sonnenscheins to take up a Hungarian-sounding name like Sors.

Ivan Sonnenschein would inevitably remain a Hungarian, one of perhaps a hundred thousand other Hungarians today who are of Jewish origin. Many among them have intermarried; others care little about their origins. As recent studies show, an ever-growing majority of non-Jewish Hungarians do not care about such things either, despite the fact that there is now a far-right party in Hungary whose sole and barely hidden message is anti-Semitism. Only a small number of Hungarian Jews register their names with the Jewish community or celebrate the major Jewish holidays. It is true that a few hundred assimilated and secularized younger Hungarians have recently discovered their Jew-ish origins; some even think of themselves as members of a Jewish ethnic minority. But apart from such exceptions, practically all Jewish Hungarians reject the idea that they are a separate ethnic group, as did, incidentally, even the most anti-Semitic Hungarian authorities. The latter often treated the Jews as pariahs but nevertheless counted them as Hungarians in their statistics so as to boost the proportion of ethnic Hungarians in the country.

In his semi-autobiographical novel Fateless, the writer Imre Kertész recounts the story of a Hungarian Jewish boy who, in 1944, is brutally rejected by his country and is deported to Auschwitz.5 Yet once he arrives there, he is seen as a Hungarian, for he wears a Hungarian Boy Scout uniform, is irreligious, and understands no Yiddish. In Israel today, Hungarian Jews are easily identified and often ridiculed because of their cultural pride in being of Hungarian origin and their hopelessly Hungarian pronunciation of Hebrew words.

What does it mean to live in a country where one finds oneself both at home and still a stranger? Szabó’s masterpiece brings us close to the heart of this enduring dilemma.

This Issue

July 20, 2000