The old Jewish writers in Europe always thought that their compatriots in Hungary were a separate tribe. Having abandoned ancient Hebrew, they spoke nei¬ther Ladino nor Yiddish, and even differed from others in their religious practices and songs. They sang and spoke in Hungarian. Nevertheless, they were worthy of their great ancestors in their faith; their synagogues and cemeteries were in accordance with tradition, and their customs followed the commands of the “set table”, the Shulhan Aruch.
The Spanish world, Iberian culture, was far away from the Hungarian countryside east of Vienna, and Sephardic (Spanish) Jewish culture did not reach this area even during the Ottoman period. However, a neighbouring Ottoman region was an exception: Sultan Bayezid II (1481-1512) gave refuge to Jewish emigrants fleeing the Spanish Inquisition. Among them was a family, mine, which was allowed to settle down in Rusze, a colony on the Danube. They later left the river port city and most of them moved to Belgrade. It was from here that my maternal grandmother married my grandfather, an Ashkenazi Kohen, and came to Hungary. My Jewish relatives, originally Spanish, were killed by the Nazis in Belgrade, and my Sephardic grandmother was deported with us to Bergen Belsen. And there my grandmother starved to death. For me it was a terrible loss, because as a seven-year-old boy I had little time to talk to her. But as a writer, her spirit, her spiritual legacy, lurks in my short stories, in my novels. So I write about former Hungarian Jews whose memory, I fear, is all that lives on. But their colourful and eventful lives still reflect the quality of Hungarian Jewry today. They are worth getting to know.
István Gábor Benedek works in a wide variety of genres, but his shorter works, following the legacy of Hungarian short story writing, are certainly the most enduring part of his oeuvre. At the age of seven, he was dragged off to Austria, Germany and Czechoslovakia, and the stories in this collection recall the stages of this surreal journey. However, the tragedy of the events is tinged with the magic of storytelling and the joy of revealing strange fates. The stories mostly begin in the scenes of Hungarian Jewish life, but even if the heroes are not exceptional, their ordeals are anything but ordinary. And meanwhile they take on a new dimension, so that even though the characters are surrounded by barbed wire, their lives are rooted in treasured traditions and the soul is uplifted.
Born in 1937, at the age of seven István Gábor Benedek was deported from his home town of Tótkomlós to Bergen-Belsen in 1944. Later on he worked as a journalist. His first novel was published in 1965 and from then on he wrote short stories, novels, screenplays, documentaries and radio plays. A film based on his book, Holnapra a világ was directed by Lajos Fazekas. The Torah Scroll of Totkomlos, a collection of short stories, was published in several editions in Hungary and also in Germany and Slovakia. The title story was published in the USA and made into a film directed by Tamás Keményffy. Several of his works have appeared (in Hungarian) in the New York-based Figyelő and the Toronto-based Menorah. The Tel Aviv journal Új Kelet published one of his novels and almost all his novellas and short stories. He is an honorary citizen of Tótkomlós.
Elizabeth Szász came to Hungary in the 1960s as the wife of writer Imre Szász and has lived in Budapest ever since. She mainly works as a translator, translating literature and screenplays as well as writing the English subtitles for many Hungarian films. In the 1970s she was Budapest stringer for the Financial Times and later she wrote and recorded scenes for the BBC World Service.
Eszter Molnár was born in Budapest in 1956. She spent five years in England as a child and in her early teens where she developed a passion for books, beautiful green spaces, rescuing animals and Marmite… She translates from English into Hungarian (mostly novels) and from Hungarian into English (mainly short stories). Contemporary literature for the most part.
Kálmán Faragó is a Budapest-based writer, poet and translator. He has translated contemporary British poetry for various anthologies and projects of the British Council and ELTE University, Budapest, and organised English-language poetry readings in Hungary. Recently he has been writing non-fiction about World War II.
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