To the Editors:

István Deák’s review [NYR, June 29] of the Hungarian movie Sunshine is an excellent tribute to a very complex film. Indeed, I always enjoy Deák’s well-informed and informative reviews in the pages of The New York Review. Thus, I don’t consider the several mistakes that slipped into the review his fault. Rather, we might blame his sources for the faulty information presented in the review, and the fact that Deák is not familiar with the intricacies of sport history.

His analysis of fencing that became almost an obsession among Hungarian Jews is right on the mark. Pursuing their social integration and psychological acceptance, Jews took to fencing, and dueling with swords as well, during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century with an unprecedented zeal—not only in Hungary but also in Austria, Germany, and France. What was unique about Hungarian Jews was that they identified in such a measure with Hungarian national aspirations, in which sport was a major ingredient, that they became prominent almost on all levels of Hungarian sport.

However, in reading the review my problem is not how successful Jews were in Hungarian sport, but with the eternal question—who is a Jew? For example, Deák mentions Ilona Elek, an exceptional fencer, as Jewish. Far from it. Although her father was Jewish, not only did she not consider herself Jewish, but, based on Hungarian law, she was brought up as a devout Catholic, her mother’s religion. The truth is that all three women medalists in fencing in the 1936 Berlin Olympics—Ilona Elek (gold), Helene Mayer (silver for Germany), and Ellen Preis (bronze for Austria)—were half-Jewish and none of them considered themselves Jewish.

Equally erroneous was the assertion that Endre Kabos (1936 Olympic champion) and Attila Petschauer (1928 and 1932 Olympic champion) had converted to Christianity. On the contrary, as a Jew, Petschauer had to wear the yellow armband in the Hungarian labor service and not the white one, which would have identified him as one who converted to Christianity. Thus, the film version of the fencer’s figure, Adam Sors, although borrowed heavily from history, only resembles in its tragic end the fate of Petschauer. At the end, Petschauer died in earnest as a Jew and not a convert.

Finally, there is one more correction we should make. Helene Mayer, tall and statuesque blond and the exemplification of “Aryan” womanhood, was not called back from the US because the “Germans were so keen to win.” Rather, Germany had to prove to the International Olympic Committee, to especially avert a potential American boycott, that at least one or two “Jews” would be allowed to compete for the German Olympic team. Consequently, two half-Jews were invited to the team: Helene Mayer and the hockey player Rudy Ball.

Again, I agree with Deák’s review of the film. However, these corrections are essential to dispel some well-entrenched historical misconceptions that have been perpetuated through the years.

Dr. George Eisen
Director, Center for International Education
Central Connecticut State University
New Britain, Connecticut

István Deák: replies:

Who is a Hungarian? Who is a Jew? Are the Jews of Hungary more Hungarian than they are Jews? In a strange turn of events, these questions are being thrashed out in the pages of a New York-based journal. The fact is that Hungarians have an unusually mixed background. Their language harks backs to Finno-Ugric origins, which makes Hungarian more alien to neighboring Slovak, for instance, than Slovak is to English or Persian. Yet Hungarian also contains thousands of ancient Turkic, Slavic, Germanic, Ottoman Turkish, Latin, Italian, French, and Yiddish words. Many of those who spoke Hungarian in pre-World War I Greater Hungary did not see themselves as Hungarian; but thousands of non-Hungarian speakers were proud to call themselves Hungarian.
Ultimately, a Hungarian is a person who considers himself Hungarian, except that, at one point, many of those who saw themselves as Hungarian, whether Jews or German-speakers, were denied the right to call themselves that. Instead, they were both expelled from the country: the Jews in 1944 when more than half of their number were shipped to Auschwitz, and the German speakers in 1945-1946 when, in a much less disastrous expulsion, most were sent to live in Germany.

Jews had already established a presence in what became Hungary when the first Hungarian-speakers arrived from the East, some eleven hundred years ago. But most Jews came to Hungary during the last three centuries. Some left for the New World at the first opportunity; others remained and embraced Hungarian nationality. Many of the latter were killed during the Holocaust; others survived and are now nearly indistinguishable from other Hungarians. The world-famous Jewish or semi-Jewish fencers mentioned in George Eisen’s letter may have taken up fencing in order to enhance the glory of their beloved Hungary; or in order to prove that they were as good at the martial arts as the Christian Hungarians; or perhaps they learned to fence so as to be able to defend themselves against physical abuse by Christians.

In Hungary, where duels were still fought in middle- and upper-class circles, Jews were conspicuously present in the training school of the fencing master Italo Santelli (who appears in the film Sunshine). Reserve officers or reserve officer candidates, who until the beginning of World War II included many Jews, were obliged by army rules to challenge to a duel any gentleman who insulted them. Conversely, when men were issued a challenge to a duel they were expected to accept it. Thus an anti-Semitic reserve officer, often a university student, who insulted a Jew would have had to accept a challenge and engage in “honorable combat,” as the saying went, if he were to save his honor and his commission as an officer.

About one in eight Jews converted, mainly to Roman Catholicism, in pre-World War II Hungary; proportionally many more Jews married Gentiles than was the case in the United States at that time. Yet to be a Christian Jew or even a half-Jew did not generally make the public forget one’s origins: a convert remained a Jew in the eyes of most Gentiles and Jews.

Conversion was accurately seen as a pragmatic choice which had little to do with religious belief. In Hungary, as in most of Central Europe, the law required that one belong to a religious community, a rule imposed mainly to increase tax revenue to the various churches. By law, in a mixed marriage, daughters were to follow the mother’s religion and boys the religion of the father. The fencing champion Ilona Elek, whose mother was a Christian and whose father a Jew, grew up as a Catholic. Had she been born a boy, Elek would have been required to become a Jew. (True, there were ways to avoid such a calamity.)

I am grateful to George Eisen for having enlightened us on the mixed origins and Catholic religion of Ilona Elek, but the fact remains that, in the racially conscious atmosphere of the 1930s and 1940s, she was seen as a Jew. I am also grateful to Dr. Eisen for telling us that neither Attila Petschauer nor Endre Kabos had converted, although on this point it would have been useful to have his sources of information. But if Eisen is right, then what he says recalls the bizarre pattern of Hungarian Jewish life in which unconverted Jews would name their offspring after Attila the Hun, an intrinsically Gentile name. According to neoromantic Hungarian lore, Attila’s favorite son, Prince Csaba, was the ancestor of Hungarians and would one day rescue the nation by galloping down from the Milky Way at the head of his warriors. In reality, there is very little, if any, evidence for the alleged historic connection between Huns and Hungarians.

Conversion was useful but far from sufficient to survive the Holocaust. In 1944, many Catholic clergymen tried to make sure that converted Jews in the transit camps received the sacraments before being sent to Auschwitz; but only a few clerics tried to save not only the souls but also the lives of Christian Jews, and even fewer priests tried to help unconverted Jews. As I wrote in my article, nearly one half of those whom the law treated as Jews survived the Holocaust. Among the factors that made this possible were personal initiative, money, good Gentile connections, special distinction such as heroism proven during World War I, geographic location (to live in Budapest often assured survival; to live in the countryside nearly guaranteed death), and gender and age, not to mention the belated intervention of Admiral Horthy. Luck may have been the most important factor of all.

Despite gloomy predictions, the film Sunshine has been remarkably successful in the United States. My article inspired many letters, often by people who recognized in the film their family history, or who had been there. Inevitably, some writers argue that both the film and my essay are too harsh on Hungary. Among other things, they disregard the extraordinary number of Hungarians in the film, whether army generals or domestic servants, who did their best to help the Jews.

By contrast, some letter writers feel that both the film and my essay are too “soft” on the Hungarians. Referring to the writings of a Hungarian historian, an American professor argues in his letter that Jewish-Gentile relations have always been far worse than I claim, even in the best of times. That is, before World War I, Jews and Gentiles lived separate but equal lives. The implication is that life for Hungarian Jews must be equated with the life of blacks in the United States in the same period. Nothing could be further from the truth. In Francis Joseph’s Austria-Hungary, even in anti-Semitic and counter-revolutionary interwar Hungary, at least until 1938, Jews could succeed in nearly every profession; they attended the same schools, ate in the same restaurants, lived in the same apartment buildings, and frequented the same resorts as the Gentile Hungarians. Showing how this led to a false sense of security is one of the many strengths of István Szabó’s film.

This Issue

October 19, 2000