- For Richer, for Poorer
The poet, Attila József
‘No mother, no father,’ begins one of Attila József’s most famous poems, Tiszta Szívvel (‘With a Pure Heart’), written in March 1925 when the poet was twenty, several years after the death of his mother. Here is Attila József’s poem in my own translation. In the original Hungarian the verses have a rhythmic, staccato quality, like the urgent beat of a drum:
No mother, no father,
No homeland, no God,
No cradle, no shroud,
No lover’s name to call out loud.
It’s three days since I last ate
A meal or a crust of bread,
The only thing I have to sell
Is my twenty years, my youth, myself.
If no one wants what I have to offer,
I can steal and rob to earn a dollar,
The Devil himself can claim my name,
With a pure heart I’ll kill and maim.
They’ll catch me and they’ll hang me high,
In holy ground my body will lie,
Poisoned grass will start to grow
On my beautiful heart in the earth below.
‘With a Pure Heart’ was published in a daily newspaper while Attila József was still a student in Szeged University’s Faculty of Arts. The poem was lavishly praised by many of Hungary’s leading literary figures, including Hugó Ignotus, the long-serving editor in chief of the influential literary journal, Nyugat.
However, József’s youthfully iconoclastic poem, which dismisses the notion of a ‘homeland’ or of a ‘God’ and which – at least on a literal construction – suggests that the poet would be willing to steal or murder to sustain himself, provoked outrage in conservative circles. Antal Horger, one of József’s professors at the University, angrily summoned the young poet to his study. In the presence of two witnesses, Horger admonished József, telling him that he would make sure that no school in Hungary would ever offer him a post as a teacher. Brandishing a copy of the newspaper in which József’s poem had been published, Horger is said to have exclaimed: ‘[w]e can’t entrust the upbringing of the next generation to a man who writes verses such as this!’
The visceral anger and nihilism that represent such striking features of József’s poem were the product of his unhappy, impoverished childhood as well as of his troubled temperament, which psychiatrists today would almost certainly diagnose as a personality disorder. József was just three years old when his father, a soap factory worker, abandoned the family, compelling his mother to place József temporarily with foster parents in the country while she worked. The future poet, the most important poet to emerge in Hungary since Endre Ady, spent his days as an under-age swineherd. József was seven before he was reunited with his mother and was able to begin his schooling.
The plight of József’s mother, who supported herself and her children from her meagre earnings as a washerwoman, was the inspiration for some of Attila József’s finest poems. In Anyám (‘My Mother’), written after her death, József offers a moving portrait of his mother. After washing and ironing all day at the house of a well-to-do family, József’s mother returns home towards evening with a small saucepan containing her supper. The food is a gift from her employer. Attila József, who was as proud as he was poor, rails at this supposed act of charity from a family who, unlike his own, could sate their hunger whenever they chose. The final stanza of Anyám is almost unbearably poignant:
She was already a little stooped from laundry work,
Maybe that’s why I hadn’t noticed she was still a young woman,
In her dreams she wore a clean apron
And the postman always greeted her on his rounds.
In her poverty and hopelessness József’s mother serves as a potent metaphor for inter-war Hungary, which was known throughout Europe as ‘the land of three million beggars’, a figure corresponding to approximately a third of Hungary’s population at the time. Conditions in rural Hungary were notoriously harsh. Writing in the American Ethnologist, the sociologist Martha Lampland notes that, ‘nearly two-thirds of those engaged in agriculture [in Hungary] were landless or owned only one to two acres, not enough to provide a family with a year’s subsistence.’ At the same time, as Attila József’s poem about his mother vividly illustrates, the lives of the urban poor in inter-war Hungary were often equally bleak.
Following the Wall Street Crash of 1929, conditions in Hungary deteriorated sharply as the Great Depression impacted on almost every sector of the country’s already fragile economy. By 1933, no less than eighteen percent of Budapest’s residents were officially classified as destitute, while unemployment amongst factory workers and artisans soared from five percent in 1920 to almost forty percent in 1933. An estimated fifteen percent of the Hungarian population suffered from tuberculosis.
In his novel, ironically entitled A Boldog Ember, or The Happy Man, Zsigmond Móricz offers some insight into the desperation and incomprehension of ordinary people caught up in the Great Depression. First published in serial form in a newspaper, the Pesti Napló, beginning in 1932, the novel consists of a series of reminiscences by a peasant, György Joó, whose home lies in a village in the bleak far north east of Hungary. Following the failure of his crops, Joó travels to Budapest in the hope of finding casual work. Previously, whenever he had come to the capital city, Joó had been offered employment almost immediately. Now, Joó is dismayed to discover that, however hard he looks, there are no vacancies anywhere:
These days it’s impossible just to scrape a living. I thought to myself, I’ll go up to Pest and earn myself some money, but even that’s out of the question now. There’s no work to be had anymore in Pest. Before? When I came up to Budapest in the past? Why as soon as I arrived at the Keleti [railway] station and started to make my way along Rákóczi Road I’d be stopped by a gaffer with the words, „young man, do you want a job?” „Of course, I want a job!” „In that case come with me”, and I’d be put to work right away. I remember that we built a large house on Kinizsi Street. I worked there until Christmas. In those days they were desperate for workers. Now? Why, I’ve been here for eight days. I’ve made inquiries everywhere, amongst all my old acqaintances. All the big firms that I’ve worked for in the past have gone out of business. I even called on his Honour the Deputy [Member of Parliament] but he couldn’t help me either. There’s no work.
Unemployed men, Budapest, 1937
I don’t know if Miklós ever read Attila József’s poetry or the prose works of Zsigmond Móricz. Given my grandfather’s decidedly lowbrow tastes, it seems unlikely. Even so, Miklós would have been all too familiar with the numbing poverty and despair that József describes in many of his verses and that Zsigmond Móricz depicts in both novels and short stories.
Even though Miklós grew up in a lower middle class household where there was almost always enough food of some kind, he would have encountered abject poverty amongst the poorer peasants and agricultural labourers of Somogy County while working as a grain agent. In Budapest, Miklós would have witnessed destitution and despair on the streets of the capital, particularly in the chaos and economic dislocation following World War One. In those years, poverty and hopelessness enveloped Hungary like a tattered shroud.
After the forced sale of his father-in-law’s bar, in Budapest’s Jókai Square, Miklós experienced poverty at first hand, first as the proprietor of a failing luncheonette and, latterly, as a chronically underpaid petrol pump attendant. Yet, unlike Attila József, Miklós didn’t complain or rail against his fate. My grandfather always tried to make the best of things.
Etelka, aged about fifity
‘Kis emberek,’ mutters my grandmother in Hungarian, ‘little people’. Despite Etelka’s disparaging remark – which thankfully our English hosts don’t understand – my grandmother is giving every appearance of enjoying herself. Etelka has been smiling fixedly for most of the day, nodding with apparent appreciation as a plate brimming with bland and unappetising English foodstuffs is placed before her: pork sausages, slices of dry roast turkey, stuffing, roast potatoes, bread sauce, cranberry jelly, watery, over-cooked carrots, leaks and sprouts that have been denied even the most fleeting contact with potentially contaminating foreign substances such as olive oil and garlic. In our hosts’ kitchen, reminiscent of the England of the 1950s, the only permitted condiments are pepper and salt.
Just when everyone is already alarmingly full our hostess brings in a shimmering Christmas pudding, accompanied by jugs brimming with white sauce and cream. ‘Kis emberek’, or ‘little people’, is my grandmother’s tiny, unnoticed act of revenge.
It is December 1975 and Etelka, my parents and I are spending Christmas Day with my fiancée and my future in-laws at their home in Croydon. My grandmother’s acerbic remark shows that she has lost none of the snobbishness and hauteur acquired during her comfortable bourgeois childhood in Budapest, despite the poverty she went on to experience as an adult after marrying my grandfather. Although Etelka has never said anything to me directly, I’m well aware that she would have liked me to marry someone from an affluent, upper middle class British family, with a house in Hampstead or Putney, rather than the daughter of an insurance clerk living in unfashionable Croydon.
Although my fiancée is completing an MA in English Language and Literature at Edinburgh University – and although she will go on to gain a law degree and qualify as a solicitor – it’s clear that Etelka is unimpressed by her family who are neither affluent nor highly educated. In my grandmother’s damning estimation, my fiancée’s parents are lower middle class.
Given my grandmother’s ingrained snobbishness how am I to make sense of the fact that she married Miklós? After all, Miklós, like my future father-in-law, had been an insurance clerk before he was conscripted into the armed forces of Austria-Hungary’s in World War One. Neither man seems to have been particularly ambitious or interested in making money. Like Cyril, my kindly future father-in-law, Miklós had modest tastes and limited expectations of life. Both men were essentially quiet, good natured and family oriented. Of the two, my future father-in-law was by the more cultured with his deep love and appreciation of classical music and German literature.
Although Etelka wouldn’t have cared to admit it, Miklós was a ’kis ember’ or ’little man’. He possessed neither capital nor professional qualifications and, by the time he met my grandmother, Miklós had already demonstrated a woeful lack of commercial acumen having failed as an agent in the grain business. So why would a proud and snobbish young woman like Etelka agree to marry an almost indigent semi-invalid like my grandfather?
Despite my mother’s vehment protestations, I can’t help thinking that Etelka may not have been madly in love with Miklós when she married him. Although my grandfather was trim and not at all bad looking he lacked the accomplishments, social status or – let’s be frank – income that would have appealed to my grandmother. Perhaps most importantly, Miklós had grown up in a family that, despite all of Adolf’s prodigious efforts to found a range of small businesses, was generally poorer and less socially aspirational than Etelka’s. Miklós’ humble and self-effacing mother, Teréz Mándl, offers a striking contrast to Jertka Rudolfer, his exacting and formidable future mother-in-law. Although I’ve no doubt that Etelka considered Miklós handsome and personable, I suspect she accepted his offer of marriage for reasons that had little to do with notions of romantic love.
Etelka was thirty-one years old when she married Miklós, in August 1924, at the Dohány Street synagogue in Budapest. By that point, the sound of ticking emitted by Etelka’s biological clock must have been deafening. Etelka and her parents would have known that, if she rejected Miklós’ proposal of marriage, she might be condermned to a lonely and childless spinsterhood. Or, at best, she might hope to marry a hard-pressed widower who needed someone to run his household and to help him raise the children from his first marriage.
Although few people in Britain or North America are aware of the fact, Hungary suffered devastating human losses during World War One. Well in excess of half a million Hungarian soldiers died in the War, while an additional 1.4 million Hungarian troops were wounded out of a total pre-war population of a little over eighteen million! Young women of Etelka’s generation were left with a severely limited choice of marriage partners, particularly if their parents couldn’t provide them with a generous dowry. Etelka, thick-set, plain and already thirty years old when she was introduced to Miklós by mutual acquaintances, couldn’t afford to be unduly choosy.
Unlike the humpback doctor, whose advances she had spurned some years earlier, there was every reason to believe that Miklós would father healthy children who would not be afflicted with an unsightly deformity. Besides, Miklós was courteous, cheerful and hard-working. And, in a country renowned for heavy drinking, Miklós was abstemious. In contrast to my strong-willed grandmother, Miklós was mild-mannered and easy-going, generally content to let the course of his life be dictated by others. Importantly, for Etelka would not have dreamed of upsetting, let alone alienating, her old-fashioned parents, Miklós was Jewish, although uninterested in matters of religion. Etelka could have done much worse for herself, although her brother, Ágoston, continued to have strong reservations about Miklós as a potential husband for his sister.
As for Miklós, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that, in proposing to Etelka, he was at least partially motivated by the knowledge that his future father-in-law would be bound to offer him a job. In 1924, Bertalan Weisz’s bar on Budapest’s busy and fashionable Jókai tér gave every appearance flourishing. Miklós must have thought that he would enjoy secure, long-term employment with his father-in-law, although both the wages and the prospects would have been modest.
But, even if I’m right in thinking that my grandparents weren’t in love when they married, the bond that developed between Etelka and Miklós was real enough. In this photograph, taken during a family outing with Miklós’ sister, Klára, her husband, Imre and their son, Gyuri, Etelka and Miklós are side by side. My mother, who is sitting cross-legged in the centre of the little group, is adamant that the photograph was taken in the summer or autumn of 1935 and that she was just nine years old at the time. Her brother, Bertalan, whom almost everyone in the family called Öcsi, or ‘kid brother’, is wearing glasses, his elbow brushing against my mother’s knee.
Although the photograph is a little indistinct, Miklós is immediately recognisable. He is lolling on the grass, on the far right of the little family group, next to his wife. Miklós and Etelka are wreathed in smiles. Unlike Klára and Imre, who are sitting some distance apart from one another, Miklós is leaning towards his wife, their shoulders almost touching. Anyone looking at this photograph would have few doubts that Miklós and Etelka were a close and affectionate couple, although their relationship was marred by constant financial worries and Etelka’s neurotic and baseless assumption that Miklós was plotting serial infidelities.
My mother, uncle and grandparents with Miklós’ sister,
Klára, and her family (1935)
My mother is close to tears. ‘They were devoted parents,’ she says of Miklós and Etelka. ‘While I was growing up I felt particularly close to my father. He was always so cheerful and good-natured.’ By contrast, Etelka was inclined to be much stricter and an inveterate worrier.
‘Tell me about Klára and Imre,’ I ask, in part to distact her. ‘What were your aunt and uncle like? What became of them?’
I knew that, like my grandparents, Klára and Imre had very little money. The family survived on Imre’s modest earnings as a shop-assistant. Klára, his wife, suffered from tuberculosis and wasn’t well enough to work.
‘It was terrible,’ recalls my mother. ‘Klára could never hug or kiss her son. Whenever she came close to Gyuri she held a handkerchief over her mouth to avoid infecting him.’
In the photograph Klára, with her dark hair, glasses and distinctive Semitic features looks unmistakablely Jewish. She couldn’t have passed for a Christian even if she had wanted to.
‘What became of them?’
My mother sighs. All she knows for certain is that Klára and Imre died during the War. Whether they met their deaths in Budapest’s main Jewish ghetto, the victims of disease and malnutrition, on the so-called ‘death marches’ to the Austrian border or on the banks of the Danube in a random massacre carried out by Nyilas thugs she doesn’t know. Somehow, though, Gyuri, survived.
‘Gyuri was lucky,’ says my mother, matter-of-factly. ‘After the War an uncle of Gyuri’s, who had owned a successful business in Balatonlelle, returned from Auschwitz. His wife and both of his children had died in the camp. Gyuri had no-one so his uncle adopted him’.
As for my grandparents, my mother is adamant that Etelka was infatuated with Miklós. Without a doubt, Etelka was neurotically jealous, obsessed with the idea that Miklós would cheat on her without a moment’s hesitation if he had the chance. Etelka was convinced that women found Miklós irresistible, which tends to support the notion that she herself considered him handsome and desirable.
According to my grandparents’ wedding certificate, Etelka and Miklós were married at the Dohány Street synagogue in Budapest on 17 August 1924. Dr. Gyula Fischer, the Chief Rabbi of the reformist Neolog movement officiated, perhaps at the insistence of Jertka, Etelka’s incorrigibly snobbish mother.
Etelka and Miklós’s Wedding Certificate
There would almost certainly have been a reception of some kind after the wedding ceremony, perhaps at a homely vendéglő or in one of Budapest’s more modest hotels. I can picture Etelka’s father, Bertalan, proudly surveying the assembled guests as he proposed a toast to Miklós and Etelka. Despite Hungary’s humiliating and costly defeat in the War – which was swiftly followed by the despotic excesses of the Hungarian Soviet and, immediately afterwards, by the Jew-baiting and random terror unleashed by ‘patriotic’ Hungarian elements aligned with Admiral Horthy – I’m sure that Bertalan, an incurable optimist, would have stated with conviction that he had every confidence in the future happiness of the young couple. After all, Admiral Horthy had been installed as Regent, while the calm and eminently capable Count István Bethlen had been appointed as prime minister. Now that law and order had been restored, Hungary could get on with rebuilding its shattered economy and with forging a modern, forward-looking country, fully in keeping with the spirit of the new century.
With his limited education, positive outlook and unshakeable faith in the civilized virtues of the Hungarian nation how could my great grandfather have conceived that, barely four years later, a sudden and unprecedented collapse of share prices in the US would trigger a series of events in Europe that would threaten not just the happiness but even the lives of his entire family? Such things were beyond the bounds of my great grandfather’s imagination.
My great grandfather Bertalan Weisz
The death of Bertalan Weisz in 1926, at the age of seventy-four, precipitated a bitter and protracted conflict within the family. According to my mother, Bertalan’s adult children fell out over the inheritance, although once back taxes on the kocsma had been paid there was precious little left.
‘Look at this,’ says my mother, indicating a photograph of her grandfather, aged about sixty. In the photograph, Bertalan is handsome, smartly dressed, almost a dandy. His luxuriant handlebar moustache has been expertly waxed and trimmed. My great grandfather must have cut an impressive figure as he strolled along the boulevards of Budapest. His elegant clothes and dignified air would have lent his kocsma a certain cachet, although I can’t help wondering whether Bertalan’s speech betrayed his limited education and provincial origins.
‘Do you see that watch chain?’ asks my mother, pointing at the photograph. Like most middle and upper class men of that era, Ágoston wore a pocket watch. The watch was connected to a gold chain that, in turn, was attached to his waistcoat. The chain was ostentatiously thick and long and – so everyone in the family assures me – it was made of 22 Karat gold. Bertalan was clearly eager to convey the impression to the outside world that he was a person of substance even though, in reality, he was often perilously close to bankruptcy.
‘When my grandfather died, my mother and Katica somehow managed to get hold of his watch chain. They divided it between themselves, without leaving Ágoston anything. He never forgave his sisters.’
This is my mother’s version of events and it’s plausible. With a war-wounded husband in tow, who would have had difficulty in finding another job if the kocsma were sold, Etelka must have been intensely worried about her family’s future. Acquiring a substantial segment of her late father’s gold chain would have helped to allay her fears, if only for a while. As for Katica, opportunism, indolence as well as a casual disregard for social mores would easily explain her apparent willingness to deprive Ágoston – as well as Ármin and Ilus – of their share of their father’s gold chain. Grossly fat, past thirty, lacking professional qualifications or a trade and without a husband or even a steady boyfriend to support her, Katica could well have reasoned that she needed as much of the gold chain as she could lay her pudgy hands on. By contrast, Ágoston had influential friends, particularly in the sporting world, Ilus was a qualified hairdresser who had her own premises, however modest, and Ármin, though i lazy, made a decent enough living selling second hand motor cars.
When I finally meet Ágoston’s daughter, Ági, at her cottage-style home in Wekerletelep, in Budapest’s XIXth District, I am impatient to find out what she knows about her grandfather’s gold chain.
‘Let me show you something,’ Ági says to me, with a smile, when we’ve chatted for an hour or so. After rummaging in a chest of drawers, in her bedroom, Ági returns triumphantly, a length of gold chain in her hand.
I stare at Ági in disbelief. ‘This can’t be from Bertalan’s…’
‘Oh yes it is!’ Ági assures me. ‘The gold chain was divided into three equal parts between Katica, Etelka and my father. My father had a pocket watch too. He kept it on this chain.’ Why neither Ilus nor Ármin received a share of Bertalan’s gold chain remains a mystery, along with the fate of his watch.
Ági proceeds to paint an unflattering picture of my grandmother and great aunt. Although Etelka and Katica failed to prevent Ágoston from receiving his share of their father’s gold chain, Ági portrays the sisters as unscrupulous and materialistic. By contrast, she heaps unstinting praise on her father, Ágoston.
‘Dad was the type of person who never wanted to keep anything for himself,’ says Ági, ignoring the fact that her father chose to keep a third of the gold chain, while Ilus and Ármin received nothing. ‘He always wanted everything to go to his family. I saw that for myself. If he only had one forint left and I asked him for an ice cream he would give me all his money.’
By contrast, says Ági, after the death of Bertalan, Etelka and Katica revealed themselves to be grasping and selfish. ‘The women wanted everything for themselves and told my father he should consider himself lucky if they give him anything at all!’ says Ági, evidently relying on what her father had told her.
While Ági’s – or Ági’s father’s – version of events may be true, at least in part, it’s much more likely that Ágoston embellished the facts. A strong and forceful personality and a graduate of Hungary’s Westpoint, the Ludovika, Ágoston had been a decorated army officer in World War One. Having survived several months in Budapest’s Jewish ghetto towards the end of World War Two, with the help of his future wife, a gentile, Ágoston subsequently rose to become the administrative head of one of the city’s largest and busiest hospitals. It seems unlikely that a man such as Ágoston would have allowed Etelka and Katica to bully him out of his share of their father’s modest estate.
Then Ági says something that leaves me dumbstruck. ‘Dad wanted to keep the kocsma, maybe invest some money in it to make it more profitable, but his sisters sold the place without his knowledge.’
‘How could they do that?’
‘You’re a lawyer. You know that the law has six hundred and sixty five loopholes. Everything depends on how good your lawyer is. Dad was away at the time, fighting in the War. Perhaps his sisters told the lawyer who was handling Bertalan’s estate that they had been authorised to represent their brother?’
Although I’ve only known her for a short time it’s already clear to me that, like her father, Ági is not the sort of person who can be easily persuaded to change her mind. However, her account of the allegedly under-handed sale of the family-owned bar strikes me as implausible. While it’s true that Ágoston served as an infantry officer in World War One, his father, Bertalan Weisz, did not die until 1926. That’s eight years after the end of the Great War. So Ágoston could not have been away ‘fighting in the War’, as Ági suggested, when the bar was sold following Bertalan.’s death.
Ági’s belief that the law is hopelessly porous – with endless loopholes that render laws virtually meaningless – reflects a common assumption amongst laymen. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean Ági is right. It’s simply not credible that the two sisters could have sold the bar without Ágoston’s knowledge or consent. There are things that even the wiliest and most knowledgeable lawyer cannot accomplish.
If Ágoston told Ági that he had opposed the sale of the bar and that his sisters had tricked him he may have wanted to convince himself, as much as his daughter, that he was not responsible for the sudden and precipitous decline in the family’s fortunes. In losing the kocsma the Weisz family lost not only a potentially valuable economic asset but also a crucial element of their collective identity. Once they’d sold off the bar they were just another penurious family in Budapest, scraping a living the best way they could. Ágoston eventually found work as a shop assistant and later as a salesman while Miklós, after a disastrous spell running an unprofitable luncheonette, took a job as a petrol pump attendant. As for Katica, after some months of self-imposed idleness, living with Ilus, she accepted a post as a housekeeper for a small-time jeweller and his diabetic wife. The children of Bertalan Weisz, who had enjoyed a comfortable, upper middle class lifestyle while they were growing up in the large, well-appointed apartment on Nagymező Street, found themselves relegated to the swollen ranks of Hungary’s urban poor.