When István Szabó’s film Sunshine was released in 1999, it introduced a new audience to some of the finer points of Hungary’s history, as well as reminding us of some of its forgotten heroes. The protagonist, played by Ralph Fiennes, was based substantially on the life of Attila Petschauer, one of the world’s greatest Olympic fencing champions in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Although dramatically conflating several incidents and characters, the film illuminated the fault-lines running through a nation’s politics: Petschauer was a Jew, and he died, like so many other Jewish males, on forced labour in 1943. Ironically, the celebrated Petschauer, initially exempted from forced labour, ended up being punished for his fame. He was singled out for exceptional treatment by Hungarian Army officers, including a former friend and fellow Olympian. During the freezing winter of that year, Petschauer was ordered to strip and to climb a tree, where he was sprayed with water and thus froze to death.
Fifteen years after Szabó’s film, a new exhibition at the Hungarian Cultural Centre, ‘Forgotten Olympic Champions’, includes several of the key figures who inspired and created an Olympic movement in Hungary, won competitions beyond this small nation’s borders, and raised the profile of Hungarian sporting excellence internationally. Like Petschauer, many of these key figures were Jews whose contributions were undermined by politics, law and culture, by persecution and murder and, finally, by history.
Curated by György Szász, historian and Hungarian Museum of Sport director Dr. Lajos Szabó, and Ádám Jusztin from Maccabi VAC, the modest but poignant exhibition has as its focal point the sabre, helmet and medals belonging to Petschauer. Already an unusually skilful fencer in his teens, Petschauer won his first medal, a bronze, at the age of 19 in 1923 at the European Championships. Thereafter, he contributed medals in several other European Championships, and in the 1928 and 1932 Olympics. This he achieved with, among others, János Garay, who would die in Mauthausen concentration camp in 1945, and Endre Kabos, who survived forced labour only to die in late 1944 on Margaret Bridge in Budapest as it exploded while being rigged for demolition by German sappers.
These fencers were representative of a distinct trend among Hungarian Jews which, as the historian István Deák has pointed out, bordered on obsession. Social integration and psychological acceptance during the late 19th and early 20th Century were important, if not essential, to many European Jews, whether Hungarian, Austrian, German or French, and one way to achieve these was through sport and the military, particularly fencing and duelling. If an anti-Semitic officer or reserve officer, often a university student, insulted a Jew, the Jew’s response would be to challenge the officer to a duel. Honour could not be denied to anyone, and the idea of ‘honourable combat’ had to be satisfied.
However, the social attraction for Jews of fencing belies the genuine talent that emerged in wide-ranging disciplines. Honourable combat took place in chess, with the gifted brothers Endre and Lajos Steiner, the former dying in a concentration camp near Budapest in 1944. With others, the combat involved establishing key and lasting sporting bodies: Ferenc Kemény, who committed suicide with his wife in 1944 when faced with imminent arrest by the Hungarian fascist Arrow Cross, was one of the founding members of the International Olympic Committee in 1894; Alfréd Brüll, who died in Auschwitz in 1944, was patron of MTK, the Hungarian Physical Training Circle, one of the founders of the Hungarian Football Association and chairman of both the Hungarian Swimming Association and International Wrestling Foundation.
Sport, and sporting achievement, is often an excellent barometer of culture, not least because of its public face, wide audience and international stage. As Hungary’s Holocaust Memorial Year draws to a close, the exhibition reminds us that athletes constitute a specific class of person, a class that invariably wishes to represent its talents at the highest level: the national level. Attila Petschauer and his contemporaries simply won medals for Hungary as Hungarians. In the words of one of the curators: ‘We couldn’t protect them but we can commemorate them.’
Nick Barlay is a journalist and author of Scattered Ghosts: One Family’s Survival through War, Holocaust, and Revolution, published by I.B.Tauris Books (2013).