"Transylvanism" And Jewish Consciousness

Ivan Sanders

"Transylvanism" And Jewish Consciousness


Two enlightening comments came to my mind as I prepared this paper on Transylvanism and the Jews. One appears in a delightfully ironic story by Ferenc Karinthy. The narrative, a reminiscence, actually, concerns itself with the great Transylvanian, székely writer, Aron Tamási, who befriended Ferenc Karinthy in the nineteen-fifties when Tamási was already over sixty, though still a vital, robust man. The story, entitled "Tavirózsa" (Waterlily), is mainly about the unlikely bonding of these two men, their nights on the town (the town being a rather grim post-1956 Budapest) and other escapades, but ultimately it is an intimate and rather irreverent portrait of Aron Tamási himself. He is seen here as an irresistible charmer but also a demanding, impetuous friend, a womanizer, and a heavy drinker. At one point in the story, Karinthy enumerates Tamási's close friends in Budapest, and mentions, among others, Zoltán Jékely, the poet, originally from Nagyenyed (Aiud). Karinthy tells us that if Tamási and Jékely "had something confidential to discuss, they'd switch to Romanian - two, true-blue Transylvanians".[1] The word Karinthy uses is transzszilván, not the more common adjective, erdélyi. Is he being sardonic, subtly ridiculing the much-vaunted, quasi-mystical concept of Transylvanism? I am not entirely sure, but I don't think so. Apart from the fact that it is always fun to use a language not understood by those around us, the ability of these two writers - Tamási and Jékely - to use Romanian in their Budapest milieu must have lent their friendship an extra measure of exclusivity and intimacy, almost an air of conspiracy. What Karinthy may be suggesting in this brief sidelight is that being a true Transylvanian is being multicultural, multilingual - and that minority status in any circumstance can make one alert and resilient.

Which brings me to the second illuminating comment. This one was made not by a literary figure but by the Hungarian-American financier and philan­thropist, George Soros. In a recently published book of in-depth interviews entitled Soros on Soros, the interviewee reflects on his Jewish identity: "I identify being a Jew with being in a minority. I believe that there is such a thing as a Jewish genius; one need only look at the Jewish achievements in science, in economic life, or in the arts. These were the results of Jews' efforts to transcend their minority status, and to achieve something universal. Jews have learned to consider every question from many different viewpoints, even the most contradictory ones. Being in the minority, they are practically forced into critical thinking. If there is anything of this Jewish genius in me, it is simply the ability to think critically."[2]

In examining Jewish attitudes about, or participation in, the esthetics and

spiritual movement known as Transylvanism, we are confronted with a curious paradox. Those Hungarian writers of Jewish origin who embraced the concept of Transylvanism, both as a moral imperative and as an ars poetica, tended to suppress their Jewish identity, or dissolve it in more broadly conceived humanist values, in open-minded and receptive urban life-styles. While those whose Jewish identity and ties with their Jewish heritage remained strong had a rather different notion of Transylvanism. As Dr. Moshe Carmilly-Weinberger points out in his overview of Jewish contributions to Transylvanian Hungarian culture, it is possible to speak of a Jewish brand of Transylvanism, which in the wake of the changed post-World War I political reality, found expression in a more open avowal of the Jewish ethos, both in politics and culture.[3] Kolozsvár/Cluj, as we know, became one of the centers of Hungarian Zionism; it was here that Erna Marton founded "Új Kelet", to this day the best-known Hungarian Jewish newspaper in the world. Works on Jewish subjects became rather more frequent after 1919. I had the opportunity to present a paper on the works of Illés Kaczér at this forum several years ago.[4] Another writer who delved into the Jewish past was Derső Schön; his novel, Istenkeresők a Kárpátok alatt (God-Seekers Below the Carpathians), offers a fascinating account of the spread of Chassidism in the sub-Carpathian region. The book was first published in Cluj in 1935 and reissued in Israel in the nineteen-sixties where it went through several editions, becoming one of the best-known Israeli books written in Hungarian.[5]- It might be argued that for these Jewish writers the annexation of Transylvania to Romania opened new vistas, new pos­sibilities; it made it easier for them to stress a different aspect of their heritage. Thoogh continuing to write in Hungarian, they were less conflicted about loosening their ties to Hungarian institutions and traditions.

However, this was only one kind of Jewish response to the changed political reality, and from a strictly literary point of view, not the most significant. Quite a number of Jewish writers enthusiastically embraced the concept of Transylvanism - yet there were subtle differences between the concept as understood by, say, Ernő Ligeti, Benő Karácsony and György Szántó, all of them of Jewish origin, and people like Károly Kós, Áron Tamási or Sándor Reményik. All of these Transylvanian writers subscribed to Aladár Kuncz's definition of Transylvanism as a belief, a trend, a consciousness signifying a mystical oneness with the ancient land and its people, but also a "wise and skillful balancing between nations, religions, world views, folkways, social classes and interests".[6] Clearly, the second part of the definition had greater appeal to the former group of writers than did the idea of a mystical union with the land. Moreover, Károly Kós's sweeping definition, from the point of view of the Jewish-born Hungarian writers, was also in need of further qualification and fine-tuning. For example, Erna Ligeti in his book, Súly alatt a pálma (Weighed-Down Palm Tree), quotes a pivotal statement from Károly Kós's book-length essay on Transylvanism. "Transylvania", writes Kós in that work, "is a geographically unified region, whose physical integrity determines the economic and cultural character of the place, marking out its dissimilarity from surrounding cultures". Ligeti is careful to point out that "this is only one part of the definition of Transylvanism - the diagnosis". He adds that given these attributes, the nationalities living in Transylvania: "Hungarians, Saxons, Romanians, pressed into an unalterable common fate, must draw the necessary conclusions and plan a lasting shared life accordingly".[7] Perhaps what Ligeti and Szántó and Karácsony could identify with most closely is yet another definition of Transylvanist ideals, articulated by Miklós Bánffy on the tenth anniversary of the founding of the Erdélyi Szépmíves Céh (Transylvanian Literary Guild). Bánffy relates the concept to the tradition of religious tolerance in Transylvania (though he goes overboard in declaring that Transylvania was the first place in the world where the principle of freedom of religion was proclaimed), and he also connects it to the universal ideals of understanding tolerance and mutual love, nothing that Transylvanism searches for those things that unite people rather than that which divides them.[8]

I do not mean to imply that Jewish-born writers formed a kind of subgroup or clique among intellectuals who espoused the ideals of Transylvanism. If anything, Ligeti and Szántó and Karácsony were thoroughly assimilated Jews who studiously underplayed their Jewishness and considered themselves - and indeed were - Hungarian writers. It is revealing how they distanced themselves from colleagues whom they considered Jewish writers of a different sort. For instance, Ernő Ligeti in his reminiscences discusses Rodion Markovits, a fellow Transylvanian, whose novel, Szibériai garnizon (Siberian Garrison), made him, for a time, the best-known Transylvanian writer in the world. His 1927 documentary novel about World War I became an international best seller, and was translated into a dozen languages. Perhaps, it was the understandable envy of a fellow writer that prompted Ligeti to quote at length from negative reviews of Siberian Garrison, though he also points out that Markovits was a different kind of Transylvanian writer - a bohemian, a boulevardier of humble social origin, rather than a disciplined artist. "One couldn't resist his world renown", Ligeti writes, "so we sent him an invitation to one of the yearly gatherings [at the mansion of Baron János Kemény] of the Transylvanian Helikon group. Those who didn't know him, the penniless poets and artists of our generation, looked at him and marveled. During the three-day conference Markovits didn't once open his mouth. The education of the masses, village libraries, literary scholarships, the Bolyai memorials - such issues left him cold. He was in his element only in the evening, when he came down for supper, the only one among us writers in proper evening attire. Leaning against a stately column, he regaled the aristocrats present with droll anecdotes, winking impishly as he did".[9] It is not hard to detect a tone of condescension in Ligeti's narrative. Markovits's subsequent novels were not nearly as successful as Siberian Garrison. He went back to the grind of

journalism, and when one of the dailies he was working for folded, Ligeti tells us, he tried to peddle his collection of Jewish stories entitled Reb Áncsli és más avasi zsidókról szóló széphistóriák (Stories About Reb Anschl and Other Jews from the Mountains). This curious collection is indeed much closer in spirit and style to popular Yiddish literature than to Transylvanian Hungarian writing, and Ligeti notes this, too, with a mixture of amusement and disdain.

There was a third category of writers in interwar Transylvania that defined itself in opposition to Transylvanism, though these writers had even harsher words for what they saw as academism" in Transylvanian Hungarian literature. This group of dedicated Marxists, led by Gábor Gaál, the editor of the influential leftist literary journal, Korunk, considered the exponents of Transylvanism naive romantics, ivory tower intellectuals who produced bloodless, deracinated literature - an odd criticism, if only because the works written by the Transylvanists were either historical fiction, or in the case of the Jewish writers, contemporary social novels. What the self-consciously ideological critics of the Korunk - circle missed in these works was a higher degree of class consciousness, a sharper representation of the class struggle.

Yet Gábor Gaál and his friends may have had a point after all, especially with regard to the Jewish writers. For the novels of city life written by Ernő Ligeti, Benő Karácsony and others all feature Jewish characters whose Jewishness is tidily blurred, neutralized, and the problems experienced with the other, non-Jewish segments of society are likewise toned down or obfuscated. But the real conflicts in society, Gábor Gaál points out, are between "landowner and peasant, Jew and gentry, political conservative and political radical".[10] This is not to say, of course, that someone like Gaál would have wanted Ligeti or Karácsony to make their characters more Jewish; like a good Marxist, lie was mainly interested in a more clear-cut depiction of class antagonisms. Yet Gábor Gaál was himself all too familiar with the art of concealment, if only because he, too, was partially of Jewish origin.[11]

 Indeed, we can find Jewish artists in just about every literary grouping in interwar Transylvania. In his analysis of the various "fronts" in post-World War I Transylvanian Hungarian literature, Gábor Gaál sets up a typology and is careful not to mention any names or specific works. Yet at the end of his study he relents; he mentions András Szilágyi, the author of the novel "Új pásztor (New Shepherd, 1930), in Gaál's opinion the only ideologically correct novel of the period.[12] It so happened that Szilágyi, too, was Jewish.

Gábor Gaál shared with other Jewish-horn Transylvanists the belief that Transylvania under the changed historical conditions must remain open, European, cosmopolitan. There were critical voices - both in Transylvania and in Hungary - that seemed to imply that novelists like Karácsony, Szántó and others favored the rather hackneyed themes of modern urban literature: alienation, the breaking up of the family, obsessive eroticism etc. and didn't plumb the depths of a specifically Hungarian reality.[13] When Mihály Babits, the poeta doctus of his generation comments on Transylvanism in the periodical Nyugat, he points out with a touch of regret that popular best sellers like Stradivari were more successful in the literary marketplace than the very best Transylvanian Hungarian literature had to offer. Babits doesn't consider it important to mention the author of Stradivari: György Szántó, one of the Jewish Transylvanists who did indeed write hugely successful and widely translated lectures in the interwar years.[14] It is in his sophisticated receptivity to modern trends, in his eager espousal of secular humanism that György Szántó's Jewishness must be sought. Jewish themes or problems are rarely if ever treated explicitly in his many works of fiction, even though he was the son of pious Jews. In one of his reminiscences published during the war years, Szántó writes: "I loved Friday nights. Their solemnity was intimate, cozily serene, even jolly. Father smiled as he recited the prayers in the synagogue; he knew these prayers by heart ever since he'd been a child. And he stroked my neck as he said them. I stood next to him, or in front, if the seat next to us was occupied".[15]

It is important to emphasize again that the Jewish Transylvanists inter­preted the concept of Transylvanism somewhat differently, stressing its broader, more inclusive connotations. We can see this clearly in Ligeti's and Szántó's contributions to Erdélvi csillagok (Transylvanian Stars), the com­memorative volume published by the Transylvanian Literary Guild on the tenth anniversary of the founding of the Guild. This book of essays and studies pays homage to illustrious Transylvanians. Ernő Ligeti's subject in the volume is Miklos Misztótfalusi Kis, the famous seventeenth-century printer, and Szántó's is Miklós Barabás, the nineteenth-century portrait painter.[16] Both essays are eloquent and embellished tributes to a nation's favorite sons. At the same time, both Ligeti and Szántó are at pains to stress the European importance of these two craftsmen-artists, pointing out again and again that their loyalty to their country, their native language and culture was complemented by their broader European outlook and ambition. The homage is, in a way, overdone. Indeed, Mihály Babits, in his review of Erdélyi csillagok, comments on this aspect of the work. Alluding most probably to these two essays, he notes: [17]With a naiveté that is provincial, some of1 these essays tend to exaggerate the European significance of their heroes Babits is too reticent or discreet to reflect on the reason why an Ernő Ligeti or a György Szántó may have been so anxious to emphasize the cosmopolitan character of Misztótfalusi and Barabás.

We might say in conclusion that the concept of Transylvanism affected Jewish writers of Transylvania according to the degree of their commitment to Judaism, though regardless of their involvement in Jewish affairs, they res­ponded favorably to notions of pluralism implied by Transylvanism. And even those who were philosophically opposed to the idea, like Gábor Gaál and his circle, found the progressive orientation of the Transylvanists commendable. We might also say that the Jewish Transylvanists made the best of their minority status. They would have probably agreed with George Soros's contention that minority status encourages critical thinking.

[1] Ferenc Karinthy, "Tavirózsa", in Utolsó cigaretta, utolsó ítélet, Budapest, Szép­irodalmi Könyvkiadó, 1983, p. 460.

[2] George Soros, Soros on Soros, New York, John Wiley & Sons, 1995, p. 242.

[3] See Moshe Carmilly-Weinberger, "Zsidók Erdély magyar kultúrájában", in M. Carmilly-Weinberger, ed., Memorial Volume for the Jews of Cluj - Kolozsvár, New York, 1988, pp. 202-210.

[4] See Ivan Sanders, "Ancient Legends, Modern History - Jewish Themes in the Works of Illés Kaczér", in Studio Judaica, Cluj-Napoca, II, 1993, pp. 54-64.

[5] See György Gaal, "Magyar nyelvü zsidó irodalom Romániában", in MIOK Évkönyv 1983/84, Budapest, 1984, pp. 133-141.

[6] Aladár Kuncz, "Az erdélyi gondolat Erdély magyar irodalmában", Nyugat, 1928, v.2, pp. 501-508.

[7] Ernő Ligeti, Súly alatta pálma, Kolozsvár, [19411, p. 102.

[8] Miklós Bánffy, "Kemény Jánosnak", in Erdélyi csillagok - Arcok Erdély szellemi múltjából, Kolozsvár, Erdélyi Szépmíves Céh, [1935], p. 5.

[9] Ernő Ligeti, Súly alatt a pálma, p. 119.

[10]Gábor Gaál, "A mai erdélyi magyar irodalom arcvonalai", in Zoltán Kenyeres, ed.,

Esszépanoráma, Budapest, Szépirodalmi Könyvkiadó, 1978, v. 2, p. 985.

[11] See Sándor Benamy, "Két városról", in MIOK Évkönyv 1983/84, Budapest, 1984, p.18.

[12] Gábor Gaál, "A mai erdélyi magyar irodalom arcvonalai", op. cit., p. 986.

[13] Elemér Jancsó, "Erdély irodalmi élete 1918-tól napjainkig", Nyugat, 1935, v. 1, pp. 283-298. See also the debate that followed on the pages of Nyugat: Aladár Schöpflin, "Erdélyi irodalom", Nyugat, 1935, v. 2, pp. 1-4; Jenő Szentimrei, "Az erdélyiség vitája", 1935, v. 2, pp. 183-186; Elemér Jancsó, "Néhány szó a 'megtámadott erdélyi irodalomról'", Nyugat, 1936, pp. 136-140.

[14] See Mihály Babits, "Presztízs es minőség", in Könyvröl könyvre, Budapest, Magyar Helikon, 1973, p. 259. See also Babits's "Transsylvanizmus", in Nyugat, 1931, v. 1, 480-482.

[15] György Szántó, "Lugosi emlék", quoted by Moshe Carmilly-Weinberger in his Memorial Volúme for the Jews of Cluj-Kolozsvár, p. 207.

[16] See Erdélyi csillagok, op. cit., pp. 57-72; 157-175. For a more balanced and scholarly contemporary appraisal of the international importance of noted Transyl­vanians, see György Gömöri, Erdélyiek és angolok, [Budapest], Hét Torony Könyvkiadó, [ 1993].

[17] Mihály Babits, "Erdélyi csillagok", in Könyvröl könyvre, op. cit., p. 260.