When the twentieth century began, Central Europe could boasted of three great cultural capitals: Prague,Vienna, Budapest. There was such an outpouring of creativity– from architecture and painting, philosophy and fiction, photography and cinema, music composition and sculpture – it is still amazing to think of how much was created in such a short span of time. These were the years when giants strode the earth in Central Europe. These were the years when painting, music, fiction and sculpture changed in radical ways.
The First World War, with its millions of dead, ended most of this great creative age although a surprising amount survived. But then came the rise of fascism and the Second World War, followed by decades of communism. It is impossible to fully comprehend the numbers when we hear of how many souls perished between 1939 and 1945.That the Nazis and their willing collaborators turned so viciously on Europe’s Jewish population beggars belief. Here was a war of annihilation – not against armed soldiers, but against every living Jewish European. Jews were hardly the only victims of the Second World War, however; nearly every family in Europe was traumatized by it to some extent.
The Central European Jewish communities that gave us Freud and Mahler, Kafka and Schoenberg, Einstein and Zweig, were wiped out to such a degree that there is barely a remnant living in the cities of their birth. Hungary endured a different fate. The vast majority of the country’s Jews were ghettoized in the last months of the Second World War, stripped of their property, and sent off to the Nazi death camps. At least 450,000 were murdered, mostly in Auschwitz and well after the Allies had landed in Normandy, after Paris had been liberated. When Soviet troops stepped into the infamous Budapest ghetto in January 1945, they found around 70,000 Jews still hanging on. More Jews would return home in months to come, those who survived the death marches, labor brigades and concentration camps.
Those who would not survive included poets like Miklos Radnóti. His final poems, found stuffed in his overcoat when his body was exhumed from a roadside ditch after the war, are filled with impressionist sketches he scribbled as he was sent running on a death march from the copper mines of Bor, Serbia, back into Hungary.
Antal Szerb, too, did not return home. The novelist whose Journey By Midnightis now considered a classic of 1930s European literature, was beaten to death in the labor camp of Balf. Károly Pap, whose remarkable fiction is only now finding its way into English, vanished either in Buchenwald or Bergen-Belsen. No one is really sure.
Whatever cultural lights flickered in the decades after the First World War were almost completely extinguished in Central Europe after the Second WorldWar.That is partly because Czechoslovakia and Hungary (along with so many other countries) were sealed away behind the iron curtain that cut them off from the west. Once as much a part of Europe as Vienna, Prague and Budapest now answered to – and were occasionally invaded by – the Soviet Union. It is hard to fathom the number of careers that were ruined, thwarted, and submerged, and lives that were ground down from the late 1940s until 1989 – not only in postwar Communist Hungary and Czechoslovakia, but in all the Soviet satellite states, including the Soviet Union itself.
During these decades, most of us in the West read little from this region, or learned much about it. Even the artists, novelists and playwrights of the 1930s and ‘40s were sealed off from us, although, beginning in the late 1970s, the works of postwar Czech and Hungarian writers like Kundera and Klima, Konrad and Kertész, began making their way to western publishers, and to great acclaim.
Only since 1989 have the Hungarians, Czechs, Slovaks and others been able to begin reclaiming their place in Europe. Once these countries rejoined the West, the door has not only opened for us to enjoy a new breed of writers, filmmakers, and artists, but we now have the opportunity to discover those whose work vanished during the cold war decades. Now we read the interwar novels of Sándor Márai and Egon Hostovsky; we marvel at the refurbished Czech and Hungarian architectural treasures of the 1920s and‘30s; and we are now free to discover an enormous and impressive body of work of photographers and painters whose work we had never seen. True enough, the great interwar Czech and Hungarian names had already taken their places in the pantheon of photography, art and sculpture even before the Second World War – Drtikol and Sudek, Kertész and Moholy-Nagy – but now we are discovering the works of their contemporaries.
What happened to some of these newly rediscovered artists is particularly tragic. The archive in Theresienstadt ghetto is filled with ghostly reminders. There we find paintings by artists who were quite literally starving, and who were bludgeoned to death or sent off to the gas chambers.WereadpoemsbybuddingyoungpoetsespeciallyHanusHachenburg,whoshowedenormouspromise.Andwecanfinddrawings, sketches and watercolors by Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, who began her professional life in Bauhaus and ended it teaching children to draw in a ghetto before she and they were sent off to be gassed. Just because someone was a painter, composer, writer or photographer and was murdered in the Holocaust, however, does not necessarily make him or her great, or even near great. As in most artistic fields, only a few rise to the top; even fewer outlast their time.
That is why, when we uncover the work of a major talent whose life was cut short, and their reputation buried for decades, it becomes important to us, because by rediscovering a forgotten master, it is as if we get to unlock a door to a room we have never been in, and in this room are clearly things to marvel at, appreciate, and enjoy. When the Hungarian Imre Kinszki disappeared somewhere in Germany in the last weeks of the war, he had been a budding photographer.
He had lived to the age of forty-four and had already created an impressive oeuvre but he still showed much promise and had grand plans. His wife Ilona and their precocious ten-year-old daugher Judit survived in the Budapest ghetto, where Judit and Ilona took Imre’s negatives along with them. They was saving them for Imre’s return. They knew he would want them. He did not return but Judit and her mother held on to Imre Kinszki’s work. But for years, they never sold a print. Photographic historians like Károly Kincses had not forgotten him. Nor had writers like András Török and Iván Bächer. But galleries and museums around the world no longer knew his work and his reputation dimmed, and then faded from view. Ilona Kinszki could never bring herself to apply for a widow’s supplement, even though it would have augmented her meager pension, because she clung to the hope that someday her husband might return. In time, however, she eventually decided to sell some of her husband’s photographs.
By the 1990s, photography collectors, gallery owners and museum curators around the world had begun to take notice of Kinszki’s work. The value of his photographs moved up at auctions from a few hundred into the thousands of dollars. With his work now in permanent collections such as the National Gallery of Art in Washington, the Museum of Modern Arts, New York, the Hungarian Museum of Photography, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and others, we are finally able to piece together just what Imre Kinszki was photographing, and what his photographs tell us. Imre Kinszki’s work is important to us because it broadens our appreciation of what Budapest looked like before the Nazis savaged it, the Americans bombed it, the Soviets blasted it and the local Communists left it to rot for four decades.This is not to say he was an architectural photographer. Far from it; he was very much a photographer of his time and place – influenced by Bauhaus styles and the great photographers of the day working around him.
Judging by the work we see in this catalogue, it is clear that Kinszki wanted to capture three things with his photography: motion and speed, architectural forms, and best of all, city life (and he sometimes combined all three themes in a single photograph). Rarely did Kinszki venture out into the countryside to photograph (there are some images in the Hungarian Museum of Photography in Kecskemét). His advertising photography is quite good, though limited, and is perhaps not on the level of the great Hungarian advertising photographers Márta Aczél, Klára Langer and József Pécsi. And he seems to have enjoyed photographing anything mechanical, such as a typewriter carriage.
But few of the interwar photographers who we have rediscovered can match Kinszki when it comes to the way he shot his beloved Budapest. In soft fog and direct sunlight, Kinszki captured cars on the street and crowds at a parade, families strolling in the park and overweight men sitting at picnic tables, wrought iron bridges, stone steps, apartment house entranceways, train stations and tram lines. And he took countless photographs of the street life below his apartment in the Budapest district of Zugló, morning, noon and late afternoon, when the shadows of children stretched out across the cobblestones.
All this Imre Kinszki has bequeathed us – a loving portrait of a great Central European metropolis that would be radically changed during and after the Second World War, a grand city built during Hungary’s all-too-brief golden age, between 1867 and 1914. 1867 was the date when Hungarian nobles, lead by Ferenc Deák, pressured a weakened Austrian Emperor Franz Josef, whose armies had just been humiliated by Otto von Bismarck the previous year on the fields of Königgrätz, into creating the dual monarchy, or the Ausgleich (the compromise). From then on, Franz Josef could remain Emperor throughout his empire, but in the historic Hungarian lands, he would now be King. The Hungarians would have far greater control of the economy and autonomy over the lands they ruled (Slovakia, Romanian Transylvania, sub-Carpathian Ruthenia, Croatia). Thus the Austro-Hungarian monarchy was born, and before it collapsed in the fires and carnage of the First World War, Hungary took itself among the great nations. Budapest was its showplace. In only a few decades Budapest was rebuilt with grand, broad boulevards opening up onto enormous parks. Elegant bridges spanned the Danube. Above ground trams traversed the city below the gleam of new electric lights. The continent’s first metro traveled beneath the city. And all around, grandiose, powerful buildings were erected. Hungary’s Jews enjoyed a period of acceptance they had not previously experienced and became fiercely patriotic. They did particularly well in industry, finance, law and medicine. Jewish families were even ennobled as counts and barons. In the grand Dohány synagogue each Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish new year), the entire congregation would remain standing until the great Jewish families, some dressed in ermine and furs and as hussars and officers, strode up the center aisle to take their places in the front rows. The solidly-middle class Kinszki family was a typical example of its day and time. Its fortunes rose with Hungary, and being Jewish, it was marked for destruction.
Zsigmond Schiller had been born in 1847; he studied law in Budapest and Vienna in the years before there was a Czechoslovakia, and began working in the 1872 at Pester-Lloyd in Budapest, Hungary’s most respected German-language daily newspaper. By the turn of the century, he was its vice editor-in-chief. While studying in Vienna, Zsigmond met Netti Stein, daughter of the president of the Nitra Jewish community. They married, and went on to have six children in Budapest. One daughter, Blanka, married a budding young architect by the name of Lipót Baumhorn, who would go on to become the most successful, and creative, synagogue architect in Central Europe. Another daughter, Paula, would marry Ármin Künsker, whose family was also from the same region. Ármin’s father had magyarized their name to Kinszki, and while most of Ármin’s family remained in what is now Slovakia, Paula Schiller met Ármin Kinszki in Budapest.
While Zsigmond and Netti Schiller lived the lives of a neologue (the Hungarian variant of conservative Jewry) family and in time had relatively little connection to Judaism, most of Ármin Kinszki’s relatives lived just as their Catholic neighbors did, on a vast estate in Ipolyság, in today’s Slovakia.
Judit Kinszki remembers her grandfather’s brother and his family as gentlemen farmers, galloping about on horseback across their estate, living the lives of modern Europeans, always buying the newest inventions such as electric refrigerators and electric heaters, a huge steam plough and a giant threshing machine. Ármin and Paula Kinszki had two children, Imre, born in 1901, and Kati, who was born six years later. Ármin had studied commerce, was employed by the Anker insurance company, and the family lived in a large flat in the in an elegant suburb in Zugló, in an apartment house designed by Lipót Baumhorn. But Ármin died suddenly in 1910, and Paula took her two children to live with her parents, the Schillers. Imre grew up intent on studying medicine, but by the time he was able to, the First World War had come and gone, Hungary had been shrunken to a third of its former size, and the golden age of Jews in Hungary had come to an ugly end. Rightists looked for whom they could blame Hungary’s misfortunes on and the Jews would do. It had not helped that as the old empire collapsed, the newly independent Hungary was taken over by a Communist putsch that lasted four months, and of those leading it, most of them were Jews. (Rightists seem to have overlooked the fact that the Communists treated middle-class and wealthy Jews as horribly as everyone else.)
In 1920, Imre, faced with numerous anti-Semitic laws, could not continue his study medicine, and ended up working as a clerk in a textile manufacturers’ association. At the office he spied a lovely young secretary, and “because he was so shy,”his daughter Judit said, “he couldn’t approach her, so he asked her for a date by scribbling a note on a paper airplane and sailed it on to her desk. It asked her to meet him in a faraway Buda cemetery. He was so shy, in fact, that when they sat down on a stone bench, he quickly placed his hat between them.” The young woman’s name was Ilona Gárdonyi. Born in 1899, her family was working class, Jewish and far more traditional in its approach to the religion than anything Imre had seen. Ilona’s father, Dezsô Gárdonyi (he had magyarized his name from Dávid Grunberger),had been a regimental tailor for the Austro-Hungarian army. He followed several army units as they moved from camp ground to barracks throughout the empire. He took down the measurements of young officers, and when he had enough orders, he traveled back to Budapest, jobbed out the orders, then traveled back to the units to outfit the soldiers in splendid dress uniforms.
His was a hard life, one that kept him on the road two to three weeks every month. Dezsô Gárdonyi and his wife Hermina (Brauner) had eleven children. Three died in infancy. In August 1914, Dezsô and Hermina decided to take the waters in Karslbad. While playing billiards one afternoon, someone ran in and said war had been declared.“They say my grandfather fell over right there and died, right on the billiard table,” Judit said.“And it wasn’t very easy to transport his body home for burial, since every train car and carriage had suddenly gone into service for the army.”
Bethlen Square was then, and still remains, a quiet, tree-shaded oasis in Pest, with an elegant synagogue that would be refurbished by Imre’s uncle Lipót Baumhorn. Just nearby was in Cserhát Street was the apartment of Imre’s sweetheart Ilona and her seven siblings. Whereas Imre had grown up in the quiet elegance of Zsigmond and Netti’s book-lined flat, Ilona’s family consisted of two doctors, a bookkeeper, a baker, tailor, a glove maker, a lampshade maker and music store clerk, along with their families, friends, and children.
As the Gárdonyi siblings grew up and most of them married, two the unmarried sons and Hermina took a flat in Bethlen Square,while three of the others moved into flats nearby. Hermina’s apartment became something of a family nest, and several of the family attended synagogue services each Friday night. Imre and Ilona’s courtship had not been easy. When Imre told his family he would marry this girl, they were against it. Below his station, they told him; by your own admission, she only speaks Hungarian! But Imre would not budge, and Ilona Gárdonyi became Mrs Imre Kinszki in the Dohány synagogue in 1926. They took a flat in Zugló, and Gábor was born in 1927. Imre was adamant against having more children.“My father kept saying to my mother he didn’t want to bring any more children into this world. He had become afraid about being Jewish ever since things turned so ugly after the First World War. He was completely against Gábor getting a circumcision, but Mom’s two brothers ,the baker and the tailor wouldn’t hear of it.”
He would study them, take pictures from the windows – this was the style at the time – and then head out to take pictures at all hours. He earned his living in the textiles manufacturer’s association but also writing articles and sometimes by selling photographs. He even engineered his own camera to take extreme close up photos, which he then sold to scientific magazines. He also took pictures of me, and sold them to fashionable magazines!”
The Kinszki children grew older and were enrolled in the Angol Street School. Imre became more and more successful as a photographer. It had become his vocation and his calling. He worked for magazines and monthlies(Tükör, Nyugat) and edited a handbook of modern Hungarian photography. As was the fashion on Budapest then, Imre was a member of several literary associations that met regularly in Café Central. By 1938,with anti-Semitism raging throughout Europe and anti-Jewish measures being passed in Hungary, the Kinszki family, like so many others, converted to Christianity. This, Imre felt, would help them in case things got worse. Imre chose Greek Catholicism for his family because the mass was in Hungarian, not in Latin. He was also determined to emigrate and Judit remembers him saying, “’Let’s not take Judaism with us,’ and applied for a visa to New Zealand. But my mother wouldn’t hear of it. She couldn’t leave her family.”
“By the time we had to wear the yellow star on our clothing, Gábor was called to a hospital to work in a forced labor service and I was rejected from the school because of my origin. This was devastating but my brother was tutoring me when he didn’t had to be in labor service! And every week we went to church, where we had to have a little book signed proving we had been there.”
“Poor Gábor became terribly religious. He saw people going off into forced labor – outside of Budapest. He knew they were boys barely older than he was. He would go down on his knees and pray. He would go into the spare, unheated room, and pray and pray. Mom thought he was going mad; she hated it. But dad understood perfectly. ‘Let the boy have something to escape to,’ he would say.” “Then Dad came home one night while we were having dinner.He put a pile of money on the table. It was his severance pay. Jews were being fired everywhere.‘ You have to make this last, ’he told my mom.‘ Well, for how long? ’she said. He just looked at her.‘ Until Hitler goes.’”
Every night, Imre Kinszki would connect his small clandestine radio (it was already against the law for Jews to own one). Judit would fall asleep watching her father hunched over, listening either to Hitler or Churchill. He would whisper to my mother, “Churchill is going to win this war, you wait and see.”
Imre Kinszkiwas taken into forced labor in 1943.Gáborwas conscripted into an adult forced labor unit in 1943.Things became exponentially worse once the Germans occupied Hungary in March 1944.
Judit and her mother were forced out of their flat in October 1944 and were herded by the Nyilas (Arrow Cross) troops into the Budapest Ghetto. Previously Ilona was severely beaten in front of her screaming daughter. In the ghetto Ilona and Judit went looking for Imre’s mother Paula, who, aged and infirmed, had been taken to another part of the ghetto. When Ilona heard Paula is in the ghetto too and being in the same street they wanted find her, but when they could she had already died of cold and hunger. Ilona and Judit went into the makeshift morgue to try and sift through the hundreds of bodies. Each corpse had been stripped of clothing, as winter had set in and people were taking every stitch of clothing they could find. They never found her. Then, even as the Soviets were approaching Budapest and liberation was in sight, Imre was called onto a transport.“He was being taken away with my Aunt Gyöngyi, Erzsi and my brother – all on the same train. But they didn’t know about and they never even saw each other! Amazingly, a few days later I received a postcard. Aunt Gyöngyi had written it and just threw it from the train. On it she wrote, ‘I will bring you something very nice from Germany.’And she did. She brought herself back alive.” Imre and Gábor Kinszki and Erzsi Gárdonyi were not as fortunate, but it would be months before Judit and Ilona would find out what had happened to them. They themselves had barely survived the horrors of the ghetto. After the fighting stopped, every day they, like thousands of other Hungarians, crowded into the Keleti train station, holding up pictures and signs of their loved ones.
That is when they found a young man who knew Gábor.Yeshe had been deported with him to Buchenwald, but Gábor had told the Germans he was a student instead of being able to work.“So this boy told us that they tied Gábor and other young men to some trees or something, and then they just hosed them down. It was December.They froze to death.” Gábor Kinszki was seventeen-years-old. In time, a man would tell Judit and Ilona that he had been on a death march in the direction of Sachsenhausen with Imre but this man had had the fortune of hiding under some hay in a barn while Imre went on with the forced march. He was never heard from again. The rest of Ilona’s family met terrible ends. Uncle Sanyi the bookkeeper was taken away by the Germans on a truck with his son Bandi. His son jumped and survived. Sanyi was never seen or heard from again.
Lajos the baker disappeared in forced labor, as did Jenő the tailor. Margit, the goose seller, survived in the ghetto and had been relieved to send her daughter Vali to a Christian family who she traded within the countryside. They were happy to take Vali in but a neighbor reported them, and the family and Vali were shot. Margit would live with overwhelming guilt the rest of her life. Erzsi, who worked in the music shop, was deported to her death.Gyöngyi returned from a concentration camp and Imre, one of the doctors in the family, staggered back into town after being in Soviet captivity. Both of them returned but died within few years. Frédi, the other doctor in the family, survived because his wife Anna had been cheating on him with a Christian lover, who hid them both along with their daughter and grandchild. The only good news was that Hermina Gárdonyi, who outlived her husband, the regimental tailor, by twenty-nine years, died in 1943, less than a year before her children and grandchildren met their ends.
“No one escapes the Holocaust, ”Philip Roth wrote after Primo Levi’s suicide in 1987. For Judit and her mother, like the hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews who survived the ghetto, the work camps, the forced labor brigades, and the death camps, they kept their tragedies within them. A very large number of Hungarian Jews turned away from their religion. Hasidic Jews returning from the camps became atheists. With the coming of Communism and the restrictions and punishment meted out to Jews in Hungary, those who were religious fled for Israel, for Vienna, for North America, and elsewhere. Judit had thought about rejoining the Catholic church, but she needed answers. She sought out the priest Gábor had been devoted to and asked him, “’Why didn’t you hide him? Why didn’t you protect him?’ And he told me, ‘God needs saints.’ I’ll never forget that. I never went back.’” “But my mother and I didn’t really go back to being Jewish. How could we? Our lives were so empty. Even though I still have some candle holders my grandmother used to light Friday nights, we never lit them once.” In the years that followed, Judit attended the English faculty at university in Budapest, married, had a daughter, became an English language teacher, and later divorced. Ilona Gárdonyi died in 1983. In 1994,Judit met György Hódos, who had been born in Hungary in 1921 and had worked as an historian and journalist in Switzerland and California. Recently widowed ,he invited Judit to come and live with him in America.“I couldn’t imagine that, ”Judit said, “and in time, I told him he’d have to move to Budapest. In 2002 he told me that if I would come there and help him pack up, he’d do just that. I did, and we were married in 2003.”
After Centropa, a Jewish historical institute based in Vienna and Budapest, published her interview on its English- and Hungarian-language websites in 2004, and then made a short film based on the Kinszki family pictures, tens of thousands of readers came to the websites to read the story, watch the film, and view Imre Kinszki’s pictures. Around this time, photography galleries in New York, such as the Howard Greenberg Gallery, began selling more of Kinszki’s photographs. People phoned to ask about this rediscovered master. The National Gallery of Art included Kinszki’s work in one of its surveys of Central European photography. Auction houses were doing a brisk business with Kinszki’s work.
In 2008, Judit’s daughter Eszter,had told a fellow teacher, Judit Misley, about her father, and Judit Misley showed Centropa’s online film to her students at the Alternatív Közgazdasági high school. Her students wanted to do something in their honor. They were, they said, Gábor’s age when he had been murdered. It has been decided that they will join Gunter Demnig's Stumbling Stones project (www.stolpersteine.com), placing two memorial stones– one for Imre and one for Gábor – in front of their Róna Street flat in Zugló (Budapest, XIV. District), from whose window Imre had photographed life in Budapest as it unfolded below. Judit Kinszki came to the event on a warm summer’s afternoon. Old neighbors and students gathered around her as she held open the family scrapbook her father had put together, and which she, as a ten-year-oldgirl, had carted with her through the Budapest ghetto, sixty four years ago. Judit’s intention then was to save those photographs for her father. She didn’t know at the time, but she was also saving them for us.