‘It’s not pretty,’ says Ágnes Kőry, Hungarian-born musician, teacher and researcher in historical musicology, to open her talk marking Holocaust Remembrance Day at the Hungarian Cultural Centre. ‘It’s not a happy story but it must be told.’ The story in question relates to Jewish musicians during that uncertain, troubled and ultimately murderous period of Hungary’s history, beginning with the legislative assaults of the early 1920s and ending with the mass exterminations of mid-1944.
Arguably, and as Kőry suggests, the story could be expanded beyond this period, given that development and legacy are essential for an understanding of the broad historical sweep of the Holocaust. However, the few years from 1940-44, comprising Hungary’s collaborative territorial and military engagement with the Nazis to what Kőry calls ‘the fateful day’ of the German invasion on 19 March 1944, serve as a more precise measure of cultural resistance in almost impossible circumstances. The artists who participated either perished or became internationally known, an artistic Darwinism that’s particularly ironic given the work of the period’s most significant organisation, OMIKE, the Hungarian Jewish educational association.
OMIKE came into existence in 1909 with the aim of promoting Jewish thinking and values in a modern setting and at a time when Budapest was a cosmopolitan city with a thriving Jewish population. Barely a decade later, the ‘numerus clausus’ policy, the first of its kind in Europe, limited the number of Jews in education. The impact was that many Jews left Hungary, never to return. Those that remained would face the much harsher legislation of the late 1930s, including the Forced Labour system. OMIKE attempted to counter this by providing not only welfare for students but a cultural platform for artists, actors, writers, singers and musicians. Critically, through concerts and performances, it was able to provide both an income and an identity to those it supported. From orchestral and choir debuts in November 1939 to the final concert on 16 March 1944 just three days before the invasion, OMIKE was able to keep alive the spirit of artistic excellence, and to maintain the highest standards until its activities were banned altogether. Although opera was a natural first choice, since the greatest number of performers could be employed, the organisation did not fail to nurture and to educate its young talent.
One of the most gifted of these was the cellist János Starker. Born in 1924, Starker was a child prodigy, performing publicly from the age of six and teaching other children before he was ten. For Kőry, Starker was more than gifted: he rose to become the preeminent cellist of the 20th Century. His gifts might never have developed without the continuum of income and identity. The other factor in this period was the development of a genealogy of talent: the composer and conductor László Weiner, for instance, who was murdered on forced labour, was a student of the pioneering ethnomusicologist Zoltán Kodály and later the husband of the singer Véra Rózsa. Kodály, a non-Jew, tried to rescue the pianist Jenő Deutsch, a former student of Béla Bartók, one of the greatest and best known of Hungarian composers. And Bartók’s ‘Divertimento’ was first performed in 1939 by the violinist and conductor Sándor Frigyes, who survived forced labour to live out the war in hiding. According to Kőry, OMIKE ‘persisted in cultural resistance’ with a wide range of programming from classical to contemporary, all of which ‘produced far-reaching and positive results’.
The internationally acclaimed psychologist and Auschwitz survivor, Viktor Frankl, once wrote that the last of human freedoms was to be able ‘to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances’. The attitude of OMIKE to the emergent musical talent of the period meant that, even though 19 March 1944 represented what Kőry calls a ‘final curtain’, music itself could win in the end. Kőry’s ongoing research will not only ensure that the musicians survive but that they return for encore after encore.
Nick Barlay’s Scattered Ghosts: One Family’s Survival through War, Holocaust and Revolution is published by I.B.Tauris. For details of this and other works, see www.nickbarlay.com
Hungarian musical life in the shadow of Nazism was part of the ongoing cultural programme at the Hungarian Cultural Centre, London.