Daisy Alioto | Longreads | March 2019 | 14 minutes (3,722 words)
“I beheld thee rich in sorrow,
Graceful in the bloom of youth,
Where, like gold within the mountain
In the heart lies faith and truth,
On the Danube,
On the Danube, bright and blue.”
—Karl Isidor Beck, “On the Danube”
“At last I penetrate into the distance, into the soundproof blue of nostalgias.” —Jean Arp
I have an adolescent memory of walking along a lake near my Massachusetts home and finding a child’s blackened shoe caught in the murky inch of water at the shore. I knew that not long ago a pilot had died crashing a single-seat Cessna into this same lake, and I had lately been looking at piles of shoes as part of the school’s Holocaust curriculum. The combination of these two facts — totally unrelated — filled me with deep dread, and I turned around and hurried back to my family.
Artist György Román’s childhood was characterized by such dread. The painter was born in Budapest in 1903 and suffered a bout of meningitis in 1905 which left him deaf and temporarily paralyzed in both legs. As a result, “his mind was swamped in the chaos of meanings around visual images,” writes Marianna Kolozsváry in her monograph of the artist. (Kolozsváry’s father was one of Román’s first collectors.) Although Román regained use of his legs, he was deaf for the rest of his life.
Out of vivid dreams and passive observation of the surrounding world, Román formed his own vernacular of symbols and omens. Cats, monkeys, carnivals, and men in mustaches were imbued with evil intentions and disease. The glowing red signage of shops and brothels were both indistinguishable and sinister. Toy soldiers were the protagonists of this world.
The Hungarian actor Miklós Gábor wrote of Román’s work, “He paints dreams, but he is not a surrealist. He paints naively, but he is not a naive painter. He is a clever man, but not intellectual. He sees nightmares, but he is no expressionist.”
Painting, boxing and even a failed attempt at chocolate making would take Román around the world. However, fate would deliver him back to Budapest in time to watch his country cave to fascism, his Jewish relatives rounded up like cattle. The childhood nightmares were just a rehearsal.
As a man, Román channeled the keen observations of filth he made as a young boy into an aesthetic rebuke of Hungary’s embrace of fascism. “His ‘nose had already picked up the stench of the decaying carcass’ in the sunny peacetime and revealed the destitution that begat heinous ideologies, and the horror,” Kolozsváry writes, quoting Román himself.
Hungary’s capital has been called the ‘Pearl of the Danube.’ It straddles the river, holding itself together by way of seven seams (bridges) between the hilly Buda and flat Pest. Hungary sits in the Carpathian Basin, which will mean little to the average person — including me. It is much easier to imagine the city as a pearl itself, squatting at the heart of a mollusk, instead of as a flat plain of ancient sediment bounded by mountains and beset by invaders. Each of the subsequent intruders (Mongol, Ottoman, Habsburg, Soviet) are like the foreign critters calcified within a mollusk until the scars of repeated displacement accidentally become indistinguishable from the iridescence of culture.
In his book Budapest: A History of Grandeur and Catastrophe, Joe Hajdu describes fin de siècle Budapest (through 1914) as the Golden Age of the city’s intellectual achievement. On the ground floor of an opulent building called the New York Palace was a coffee house called the New York Café, nicknamed ‘the New York,’ a literary haunt and the birthplace of Nyugat (West) which would become the country’s premiere literary journal. Among the writers, critics and turn-of-the-century scenesters that frequented the cafe was my great, great grandmother Helene’s nephew, Artúr Elek.
The childhood nightmares were just a rehearsal.
In her memoir In the Darkroom, Susan Faludi points out that by the 1910s a quarter of Hungary’s artists and writers were Jewish despite making up just five percent of the total population. “They were instrumental in creating a cultural environment in which artists and intellectuals, both Jewish and Christian, could thrive. A notable segment of the gentile literati embraced that collaboration, pinning to it their greatest hopes for a cultural renaissance.” My ancestors saw themselves as Hungarian first and Jewish second, taking new names to signify their cultural (and sometimes, religious) assimilation. “More than anyone else, the Jews invented what it meant to be Hungarian,” Faludi concludes.
Artúr Elek is listed among the ‘first generation’ (1908 — 1918) of Nyugat writers and editors by Mario Fenyo in his book Literature and Political Change: Budapest, 1908-1918. I imagine him expounding on the events of the current day, his legs (one slightly shorter than the other) tucked under a chair. His hands picking at a plate of cold meat, cheese and bread called the ‘Writers’ Plate’ which the New York offered to creatives at a discount, according to Hajdu.
Elek had another important purpose: guiding his nephew, György Román, into a career as a painter. (Román’s mother was Helene’s niece, making György Román another distant cousin of mine.) György Román would singularly capture Hungary’s moral poverty through his artwork. The dark side of a pearl still struggling in its tongue of silt.
The layout of Budapest hasn’t changed much since the turn of the century. “The major arterials developed after 1870 are still the main routes for the cars, trams and buses, and many of the streetscapes are still defined by the buildings which were built during this golden era before 1914,” writes Hajdu.
In September 2017, I met Janos Gat in front of Budapest’s neo-baroque Comedy Theatre. It was my first time in the city. In February, having stumbled upon the connection between my grandmother and Elek, as well as Elek and Román, I emailed Gat asking to purchase a catalogue from his 2002 exhibition György Román (1903-1981): A Survey at his former gallery space on the Bowery. He wrote back within two hours: “György Román is one of the greatest painters, ever … so you have much to be proud of.”
And yet, Román’s international recognition remains sparse, a problem that plagues the entirety of the post-war Hungarian canon. After WWII, the country’s art was largely behind the Iron Curtain. For a brief period at the fall of the USSR, the West embraced Hungarian art, just as the democratizing nation was embraced politically. Eastern European art was in vogue!
However, as Hungary has reverted back to far right leadership, it has distanced itself from America and Western Europe, isolating itself and its arts culture. The country’s art market is riddled with forgeries, not to be trusted by foreign buyers. Its government has consolidated public art under the umbrella of the privately founded and politically conservative Hungarian Academy of Arts, where it’s been mismanaged or pulled from view as part of ongoing ‘renovation’ projects with unclear objectives. Its thuggish private collectors tend to overlook historical importance in favor of kitsch.
Katalin had dreamt that a man would come to her with an odd request and that she was to agree, no matter the circumstances.
In 2016, the NGO Atlatszo reported that friends of the government were ‘renting’ works from The Museum of Fine Arts’ public collection for ‘pennies.’ Contemporary art gallerists, reluctant to lend works to the public collection for fear of losing custody of them, have picked up the slack by arranging shows expressly for visitors from foreign museums, including a pop-up exhibition staged for the Tate committee, a team of curators from New York’s Museum of Modern Art and a group from the Centre Pompidou in Paris. The grassroots OFF-Biennale, started in 2015, is also an effort to raise the profile of contemporary Hungarian art without relying on government institutions.
When Gat approached György Román’s daughter, Katalin, in the 1990s asking to represent her father’s artworks he thus met with little resistance. Taking after her father, Katalin had dreamt that a man would come to her with an odd request and that she was to agree, no matter the circumstances.
Decades later, Gat and I walked to where his Román paintings are stored. Together, we pulled them into view, leaning them around the room as sunlight streamed in to illuminate the blood reds and (blood) blues and (blood) browns of Román’s palette. The paintings are far more textured than they could ever appear in print. In 1924, Román began thickly layering oil paint and, after the ’50s, began twisting the brush as he applied it. Later in his life he would almost always apply paint with a palette knife. (I scraped my knuckle on the surface of one of his works, a visible wound for the duration of my trip.)
Gat and I stood in front of Kek Hitler (Blue Hitler) and he waited for me to see it. ‘It’ being Hitler’s face, in blue, among the writhing bodies of the Holocaust’s abused — flung toward death through Hungary’s complicity. The chancellor’s mustache is the black sweater of a woman or man who has lost everything. A companion work, Anatomiai Lecke (The Anatomy Lesson) is even more explicit. A Polish soldier is held down and butchered by German generals. (“Like a patient etherized upon a table” — T.S. Eliot) There is a third painting; Gat considers them a triptych. It depicts a Jewish woman bleeding a Christian girl like a slaughtered animal — the blood libel origin story. The painting is called Tiszaeszlár, a reference to a notorious 1883 anti-semitc show trial. Thirteen Jews in the village of Tiszaeszlár were accused of killing and drinking the blood of a teenage girl. The defendants were acquitted, but the murdered girl is remembered by the Hungarian far right as a martyr to this day.
Other depictions were far more symbolic: subverting Nazi propaganda of Jews as rats and vermin and using these images instead to depict the mob mentality of Hungary’s alliances with Germany and Russia. In Román’s Epidemic, a yellow snake weaves through the countryside as citizens observe safely from a tower of stacked opera boxes. ‘Theater of the absurd’ is a phrase that comes to mind. In another painting, simply titled Rats, they stream around the side of a brick building. Crawling, falling on one another in a crowd of texture so visceral it caused me to shiver in the afternoon sunlight. A third — Great Flypaper — uproots the sprawling Hungarian plain and bends it into a wheat-colored trap for fallen men. Out of his isolation, Román issues a grave social diagnosis. (In 1963, Román wrote an autobiographical novel called Out of Solitude.) Gat compares his work from the ’20s to Otto Dix or Max Beckman.
“From a moral perspective, I could best characterize my works painted in that period in the following way: they portrayed disharmony, confusion, insecurity, and fear, in short, the atmosphere of fascism,” Román wrote. Art historian Julianna P. Szucs saw parallels between Román’s work and that of young concentration camp victims. “I have only seen anything comparable to György Román’s Epidemic, Rats and Great Flypaper on surviving drawings made by children in Auschwitz. People would only wallow in so much graphic detail of horrors in extreme situations, when they subconsciously expect the end to these horrors from the monotonous listing of them. These panel paintings are covered with so many germs, rodents and insects so that magic performed through the visual media could eliminate all enemies simultaneously,” she writes.
It’s a bad time to be Jewish in Hungary. It’s a bad time to love freedom in Hungary. A wave of protests against right-wing prime minister Viktor Orbán have hit the country after attacks on the independent press, consolidation of the courts and the passage of a “slave law” increasing legal overtime to 400 hours a year.
The Jewish population, approximately 100,000 people, is a tenth of what it was before WWII. In 2017, Hungarian Jews criticized an anti-migrant poster campaign that uses the face of emigrant George Soros, who supports open immigration in the country. The posters, which read “don’t let George Soros have the last laugh,” evoke anti-semitic stereotypes. As if to underscore these undertones (or overtones), some billboards were defaced with the phrase “stinking Jew,” according to Reuters. In October 2018, the Soros-founded Central European University announced it was moving to Vienna as a result of government antipathy. That same month, Orban’s government passed a law that further criminalized homelessness, adding teeth to a June constitutional amendment that made homelessness a crime in the country.
Certain things seem imbued with sinister energy because they are unknown. To a child, everything is unknown. Gyorgy had reason to be scared of foreigners, but he wasn’t. His condemnations of the country’s moral poverty feel timely, if only the public and the world could see them. Fear, they whisper, does not demand hate.
The content of the experience is so important to him that he neglects craftsmanship.
György Román’s first known painting is called Hanging at a Circus. Admirers call it his ‘final judgment’. A crowd looks on as apparent circus performers are stripped and dragged to the gallows. A festive atmosphere prevails amid the mob violence. Román considered the painting primitive by the technical standards of the time.
Elek, who had an encyclopedic knowledge of Italian art, recognized Román’s talent and was his early champion. Perhaps it was Elek who introduced Román to Caravaggio’s The Tooth Puller which Román emulates in his Tooth Extraction.
Elek encouraged Román’s father to hire the painter Emil Róbert Novotny as a private tutor for his son. He recommended that he study at the Hungarian Academy of Fine Arts and eventually continue his studies in Munich. When Román was baptized, the famous Hungarian novelist Zsigmond Móricz became his godfather because of his friendship with Elek.
The Nyugat editor saw through, and forgave, Román’s refusal to adhere to classical styles. “The content of the experience is so important to him that he neglects craftsmanship,” Elek said after one of his nephew’s shows. This echoes Elek’s defense of his favorite writer, Poe, whom critics of the period called a sick man. “The great magic of Poe’s narrative arc is that no matter where we follow his imagination, there is neither break nor leap in the sequence of visions,” Elek wrote.
Everything that could have prevented Román from being a witness to history was a dead end. In 1933, he moved to Shanghai with his family. His father was bankrupt, and the family planned on going into the chocolate business together. “As summer arrived, the chocolate went off, stocks went rancid,” Kolozsváry writes. I can only imagine how this contributed to Román’s lifelong perception that he was haunted by rot.
The painter had taken up boxing to compensate for his sickly childhood, and he stayed in Asia trying and failing to make a living as a sportsman in Shanghai and Tokyo even after his father went back to Budapest. In 1936, Román returned home as well. In May 1938, the first anti-Jewish law was passed in Hungary, setting quotas on the numbers of Jews that could work in certain fields. Román’s father was reduced from businessman to salesman.
The second ‘Act on Jews’ was passed in 1939, and in February 1942 Román received a restricted certificate and notice that he was qualified for forced-labor service. Nevertheless, he exhibited his art in a socialist group show the next month for three days before it was shut down by police.
During this time, his early champion Artúr Elek refused to leave home so as not to wear the requisite yellow star. The great intellectual became increasingly depressed by his circumstances. In Vanished by the Danube, Charles Farkas shares a letter that Elek sent to Farkas’s mother on April 7th, 1944, describing life confined indoors. It starts out hopeful:
“Now that I am leading the life of a recluse the garden has grown in importance … On the right side of my window the bent chestnut tree puts forth its buds. And what an orchestra of birds! In the early hours, the blackbirds, with their magical throats, begin to sing, and they do not stop until dusk. Life is beautiful, regardless of one’s destiny.”
However, as the letter goes on, Elek reveals his true mental state.
“Oh, I wish I were not alive! I have had more than my share of life.” On April 15th, Elek wrote to another friend, “Believe me, it is not painful to say goodbye. Imperfectly and poorly, but I have done my duties in this world. I do not wish to experience more than what I have, mostly without me wanting to experience them. It hurts me, that by the time I reached an old age I became an outcast, who cannot go out into the streets. It is probably the least significant of all the insults, as it is purely a formality, but still, it hurts me most. It hurts because the intention behind it is so obvious: hatred and humiliation.”
Elek had been called to an island on the Danube where Jewish writers and journalists were interned, Farkas explains. Instead, “His body was found slumped before his desk, a small revolver at his side” — his day of death recorded as April 25th, 1944. Román received his own draft papers in November 1944, fleeing to Paszto an hour northeast of Budapest.
As the Soviet army bore down on Hungary, “Final Solution” mastermind Adolf Eichmann attempted to deport all Jews out of Budapest. By this point, it’s estimated that only 23,000 Jews remained in Hungary as 400,000 had already been deported from the countryside. Despite the support of the Hungarian government, the chaotic state of the city’s infrastructure meant that there were no trains available to carry this plot out. Instead, the city’s Jews were locked in a ghetto. By November 1944, 65,000 people were confined to Budapest’s old Orthodox Jewish district, Hajdu writes. Another 3,600 Jews were tied together and shot on the banks of the Danube, falling like beads instead of bodies.
He hid in a knife shop.
Swedish and Swiss diplomats attempted to harbor members of the Jewish population by issuing “letters of protection” or “diplomatic passports.” György Román’s father, Vilmos, was one of them. Though Vilmos avoided deportation, the 50-day Siege of Budapest by the Russian army and subsequent famine took its toll.
Kolozsváry writes that when Román returned to Budapest in January 1945 he was totally emaciated from his time in hiding. The next month, he found his father’s body in “a heap of cadavers two storeys high … temporarily [burying] him rolled in a carpet, in an empty plot behind a theater.” For the rest of the month, he hid in a knife shop. A few months passed, and Román began to paint again. In 1947 he was married and in 1948 his daughter, Katalin, was born.
By the time Román and his wife divorced in 1962 he was practically destitute. His sister Agnes bought him the tiny apartment on Szechenyi Street and he lived there until his death of a stroke in September 1981.
In his book Alibis: Essays on Elsewhere André Aciman writes, “I feel like someone visiting the land of his ancestors for the first time. He knows better than to expect the spirit of lost forebears to rise up and lead him back to the old homestead. But he still hopes to connect to something. What he finds instead is wreckage and phantom lanes and a locked gate to a defunctive world.”
When I arrived in Budapest, I did not feel an instant connection to the Danube. There was no nagging feeling that I might have seen some of the city before in a dream. No perceived resemblance to Román’s round cheeks — although something about the warmth in Artúr Elek’s stare looked vaguely familiar.
I come from a family of converts. Elek and Román were not my only Jewish relatives to be baptized. Elek’s uncle, decorative artist Miksa Roth, converted to Catholicism. Four decades before Kristallnacht, Roth was commissioned to design all of the stained glass windows in the Hungarian Parliament Building. In his home, which is now a museum, sits a double inkwell, a gift from the father of his Catholic wife, upon his conversion. He died June 14, 1944 — forbidden from practicing his craft, and heartbroken about Elek’s suicide.
To me, the double inkwell signifies a life lived in two parts. My great grandmother, Rose Stern (married to Helene’s son, Alfred), was among the thousands of American Jews that converted to Christian Science in the 20th century. Before I went to college, I didn’t have a concept that there was such a thing as the Jewish intellectual tradition or that I could be included in it. Perhaps I never would have if I hadn’t found myself splitting a makowiec with Janos Gat at a Polish cafe in Greenpoint as he passed me György Román’s monograph across the table.
When I visited her apartment on Falk Miksa Street, Katalin was gone. Her friend, Ildiko Regenyi, now lives in the apartment and manages Román’s estate. Charcoal portraits of the people Román met in Shanghai line the walls. The painter’s self-portrait, seated in a bath of moss-green water, hangs over an armoire and a bowler hat is perched atop a shelf of hardcover books. Ildiko brought out raspberries speared on toothpicks. She is a history teacher, and a writer herself.
Ildiko pressed a copy of Elek’s Poe translations into my hand. She showed me a smiling portrait of Agnes, lit like a great Hollywood beauty. As Gat translated, we gathered around her desktop computer and she pulled up a video of Román hitting a punching bag. He looked to be in his seventies, shorts pulled above his belly button and mouth set like a melon stem.
Thwack. Thwack. I didn’t understand the language, but I recognized the gesture.
There are spiritual beliefs we do not dare utter because we cannot afford to lose our air of intellectualism. Then someone comes in the night and takes it away anyway.
I don’t know what it means to feel Jewish, but I am grateful to have a past to go back to. I call this the inner aristocracy; we want to believe that we were kings and queens. Deep down we know that it’s not true. We were peasants, farmers and tribesman. On the steppe or on the sea. In which case, we will settle for knowing that we were free.
Free to live; free to die. Free to create a little fiddlehead of faith. A pearl the swine can never seize.
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Daisy Alioto has written for New York Magazine, GQ, WSJ, Topic, Curbed, The Paris Review, Los Angeles Review of Books, Food & Wine and more. She splits her time between Brooklyn and the Hudson Valley.
Editor: Dana Snitzky
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