The Resurrection of Azarel
By Janos Kobanyai | 29/10/2009
Who was Károly Pap, the Hungarian-Jewish author who finally won long overdue acclaim many years after he perished in Buchenwald? Janos Kobanyai, the editor of the Jewish-Hungarian publication Past and Future, investigates an extraordinary and original artist
“Tonight already, there was a sign: At three o'clock in the morning, I felt an urge to get up and write a short review of Károly Pap's new novel. The book enchanted me. I consider Károly Pap to be the finest Jewish-Hungarian writer, and his new book confirmed that view. He is indeed a great writer, and it amazes how little he has entered the public consciousness. His compatriots do not want a great writer; they want a great sycophant. But I am convinced that if he could create ties with renowned Jewish writers of world literature, then he would become a famous writer of international repute, and a rich man. The masochistic layer of Judaism would discover him.” These lines were written by Zsigmond Móricz, one of the greatest prose writers in the Hungarian language, in 1936. He described Károly Pap as a great writer and great Jew. Móricz himself had already written a favorable and enthusiastic review – one that caused much controversy – of a novel by another Jewish writer, in which he recommended that that Jewish writer, rather than occupy himself with descriptions of a Christian society that he is not at all or is only superficially familiar with, should, on the contrary, write about his own world, a world he knows. And thus, argued Móricz, through the mediation of Jewish writers, their world could become an inalienable asset of general Hungarian literature, and through it would enter the minds and hearts of society as a whole.
Zsigmond Móricz's remarks at that time naturally provoked angry counterreactions among liberals, who viewed these reasonable recommendations as a form of discrimination. They were appalled by the demand directed at Jewish writers to limit their thoughts, work and considerations to restricted subjects. The position of the liberals explains Károly Pap's lack of acceptance, as well as his “frozen” isolation, which left its mark on his life, and which even his martyr's death in 1945 did not break through (he was last seen alive in the Buchenwald concentration camp, a short time before the liberation). At the basis of his rejection or silencing were the assimilationists or those who were said to be “of Jewish extraction” (i.e. those who had an interest in hiding their Jewish origins), who related to “traditional” intellectual life as an unpleasant entity, and from World War I on, they tried to erase any trace of its existence from the map of Hungarian intellectual life. Even after the Holocaust – with amazing continuity – what was customarily called “official Jewish life” could not tolerate criticism – in other words the truth – and consequently rejected the Jewish artistic-intellectual existence. With the exception of a single article in the newspaper, the exclusion of the three most important Hungarian-Jewish artists of the modern age – writer Károly Pap, artist Imre Amos and scholar and essayist Aladár Komlós – from the millennium exposition in the Hungarian Jewish Museum was received with a thundering silence.
Indeed, Károly Pap is now starting to gain recognition in an environment in which the politicized settling of accounts among Hungarian Jewry holds no sway. A few years ago, a translation into English of Károly Pap's most important work, Azarel: A Novel (translated by Paul Olchvary and published by Steerforht) was published, and within a few months received rave reviews. In the view of the authors of the reviews in the LA Times, The Forward, The Jerusalem Report, The New York Times and The Washington Post, the newly discovered Hungarian-Jewish writer belongs in the same category as Franz Kafka, Bruno Schultz, Isaac Babel and the brothers Singer. Who is this author, this Jewish author, who, decades after his death, has finally earned his rightful place in the annals of literature? What is his unique subject, his experience, his voice?
Sadly, Károly Pap himself is unable to partake of his international glory, nor will he ever earn riches in this world. However, perhaps through him, as we delve into his world, as we accept and contain him within ourselves, we can be enriched, and thus become better and more decent human beings.
The voice of the writers
Károly Pap was born in 1897 in Sopron, the third child of Miksa Pollák, the rabbi of the town's Neolog community. These limited details about the circumstances of his birth contain, if not the answer, then at least the opening volley that starts to define the subject, the truths and tragedies that shaped him, and even more so, the voice of his writings themselves. Zsigmond Móricz's put it well on that night in 1936: “At the foundation of the subject he deals with lies his relationship with the most deeply rooted challenges of Judaism. He is the only Jewish writer who has agreed to accept perfectly and without reservation the implications of the fate caused by the fact that he was born Jewish. His entire existence draws on Judaism, and consequently, he is indeed zealous about Jewish life, the historical development of the Jewish people and the Jewish psyche. It has never before happened that a Jewish problem has been positioned within a foreign group, that an author has given his Jewish characters foreign names, and presented himself, even for the sake of discussion, as anything other than a genuine Jew.”
Sopron is located in western Hungary. Only forty kilometers from Vienna, it is a city whose culture is Western, and its Jewish community is one of the oldest in Hungary. In the Middle Ages, Sopron, along with Buda and Pozsony (now Bratislava), played a major role in the life of the Hungarian kingdom, and its Jewish community played a major role in the Jewish life of the Middle Ages. During the 150 years of Turkish rule, the continuity of Jewish presence in the city was cut short, but in 1840, the Jews returned. Károly Pap's father, Dr. Miksa Pollák was born in 1868 in a village in the Sopron region (Beled, which plays a role in the first part of Azarel and in another few short stories). He was the first rabbi of the Neolog community in Sopron (appointed in 1894, because until that time, the congregation had been unable to reach a consensus on the selection of a rabbi), and was also its last rabbi, for in his old age, he too, like his son and the rest of his congregation and his entire family (the characters in Azarel), ended his life in a German concentration camp. Miksa Pollák had been a student of the rabbinical seminary of Budapest in 1883-1893. This was the most influential Hungarian spiritual workshop, which, based on the German example and mediated by it, espoused enlightenment in the spirit of Mendelssohn, i.e. a reformation in the Jewish religion and its adaptation to the demands of modernization. Among other things, this movement refined from within the Jewish religion, from among the complex system of day-to-day customs – an intellectual scientific system, which they called “Jewish sciences” or Jewish studies. Budapest was considered then one of the greatest centers of Jewish studies; this was where those that would later spread this philosophy throughout the world were educated: David Kaufman, Wilmus Bacher, Ignác Goldziher, Lajos Blau and others. This spiritual forge was a center of religious reformism and it encouraged its students to acquire, in addition to spiritual knowledge, erudition and expertise in “secular” studies too. Consequently, the students of the rabbinical institute were required in addition to their ordination as rabbis, to obtain a Ph.D in the humanities from a national university, and also to participate in the cultural and social life of the surrounding society. Although the national rabbinical seminary in Budapest was a bastion of Jewish modernism, its finest students and teachers came, without exception, from among the population of yeshiva students. It was on the knowledge foundation that they had absorbed in their families and yeshivot that the modern sciences and their methodologies were then built. Miksa Pollák was one of the finest fulfillments of the spirit of the seminary. He authored a history of Sopron and lower Austria and studied the connection between Hungarian literature and the Bible, for example, about the ties to the Bible of one of the greatest Hungarian authors, János Arany. He was a regular contributor to countless Jewish publications in Hungarian and German, and was invited to take part in the greatest Jewish endeavor of his time, the Jewish Encyclopedia.
Whereas, for his contemporary Franz Kafka (or Freud) the father's personality was intensified to mythic proportions as the source of oppression and rebellion, for Károly Pap (how meaningful was his choice of name: Pap is a Jewish priest or minister), it was exactly the opposite: For the son, it was the smallness of the father that intolerably oppressed. In a razor-sharp and bone-chilling analysis and critique, Károly Pap refines from Judaism the science and the forms of life that the Neologic approach employed to void it of real meaning. This was his prophetic mission, the anger and voice of its subjects – whether expressed in the form of a novel, short story or essay. This was his message: For this were you born. Not only the literature, but also the history of society recognizes the disappointed or nostalgic rebellion, which demands a return to the world of original values, in the face of fathers such as these, subject as they are to the forces of “progress” or secularization. Because he was searching for the most fundamental platform for the values of Judaism and to “assimilate” into them (and into the figure of Moses and his laws, the struggle of the prophets and their poetry), he arrived at the true universalism. These are the basic questions of civilization. This is the key to his genius (and I am not ashamed to write this overused word next to his name; in fact, only one or two authors are truly deserving of it in a century), and of course his loneliness at the summit of the Mont-Blanc.
The only spiritual movement
To the same extent that he mercilessly and scathingly lambasted the self-effacement of the Neolog movement, he also rejected the distorted burden imposed by the stagnated and lifeless religious laws of the world of Orthodoxy: the decayed spirit of the ghetto and its formalism. At the height of his isolation, his most natural spiritual treasure was always the Bible. No other literary influence is evident in his writing. He does not base himself on any “spiritual father.” At the same time, his language is a wonderful, flowing Hungarian that pulsates with a tempo that unites it with the language of the Bible. And he cannot be compared to any other Hungarian writer. This pure source led him to spiritual and poetic heights, and distanced him from his own era, in order to enable him to observe it from a much higher and deeper place. This narrative led Pap through the revolutionary chain of the prophets up to the last of the Hebrew prophets, Jesus of Nazareth. That is why Károly Pap was so fascinated with him. This was not Jesus as he is depicted in the Christian Gospel literature, but rather Jesus who drew on (as the late Prof. David Flusser noted in his monumental research) the Midrashim, the vast rabbinical literature and the Apocrypha. For Károly Pap, the narrative of the New Testament, Jesus' way of thinking, the parables and poetry were a direct continuation of the prophets of the Old Testament and the only spiritual movement that he could identify with. For Károly Pap the writer, this identification is clear not only in the historical and conceptual sense, but also as a stylistic example: The poetical and rhythmic revolutions in the language of the Bible that he absorbed (in fact, he knew the Bible not only in translation, but also in the source; he left behind a brilliant translation of Had Gadya. Similarly, his father was the editor and translator of a popular prayer book that is in use to this day). His era, the pre-Holocaust years, echoed the emotional state and doomsday prophecies of the era of Jesus. Károly Pap's life (which, like that of the man of Nazareth, was short and replete with suffering) and his work are intertwined with the same questions that occupied Jesus: how to cause the Jewish people, so alienated from its principles and values, to repent, to “develop” its own values (as opposed to its assimilation among and self-effacement before the culture and politics of the nations), to turn back to its original spiritual sources. Another question from the period of Jesus that reverberated during Károly Pap's time as well was how the physical and spiritual destruction of the Jewish people could be prevented and why the state of Judaism should be connected to the state of the world. And what about the messianic period, a time when the fulfillment of the commandments would lead to the assimilation of the world into the laws of Moses (that was the plan of Jesus and his original disciples), a world in which the Jews would remain Jews, instead of being assimilated into the world's barbaric elements. This is the question and the war that lies at the foundation of human history, and especially of its civilization. Károly Pap clearly recognized this, as he noted in one of his last writings, which appeared in 1940, in the On Charity parable that he places in the mouth of Rabbi Hanan:
“…And if then there are among us those in whose heart is a flame that will devour all the suffering, we will willingly give our lives in God's name for a united, harmonious humanity – that would be the only true charity.”
“In other words, are you referring to the Messiah?” ask the students.
“Indeed,” replied the rabbi, “but not to a single one, to a thousand and yet another thousand, enough to fill the entire world. Because there was already one, but he was not enough. Because since then, the world has grown and along with it, the evils and injustice of humanity have greatly multiplied.”
A sore point
World War I caught him exactly when he was preparing for his matriculation examinations. He asked to take the exams early so that he could volunteer as an army officer in the Royal Battalion of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and be sent to the battlefield. His father tried to arrange an exemption for his youngest son, as he had in the case of his brother, but Pap's rebellion against his father threw him into the war.
In the short history of the life of Hungarians and Jews together, the participation of the Jews in World War I is a sore point. Already during the war itself, but especially following the crisis that came in its wake, the Jews were accused of not only of evading military service, but of war profiteering too. With the exception of the fact that World War I could not be considered by the Hungarians to be a war fought to defend the homeland, and consequently was one that was very difficult to identify with, not only did the Jews not evade military service, but just the contrary is true: They made every effort to justify the equal rights that they had been given in 1895, and hence competed over the right to die or be wounded on the battlefield in the service of their country. Even Károly Pap's youthful rebellion had its source in his Jewishness. He wanted to fight against the “Jewish cowardice,” the prejudice created because carrying arms was not possible in a Jewish environment.
But it was not for the outside-Hungarian world, but for himself that Károly Pap wanted to resolve this controversial and contrived situation. This is attested to in his play György Leviát, which remained in manuscript form, and has only recently been published. In the play, which takes place on an Italian battlefield in a hostile, prejudicial anti-Jewish atmosphere, various typical products of Jewish assimilation are presented: a coward who has absorbed the values of the surrounding society, the arrogant intellectual, and one character he modeled on himself: a person willing in an instant to risk his life, and in an instant to accept complete solidarity with his comrades and with Judaism itself.
Judaism as a nation
Now, at a time when Károly Pap is being universally extolled, all the reviews and news items about him note that he was a leftist. This distinction – as well meaning as it may be – is based on a common preconceived notion that an Eastern European (and perhaps also Western European) Jewish writer, especially one that lived a life of poverty and hardship, and who agonized over social injustice, could not be anything other than a leftist.
While there is some truth in this preconception, In Károly Pap's case, it does not quite fit the facts. Not a single line he wrote ever appeared in a leftist newspaper, and leftist forums rarely discussed his work. Most of what he wrote appeared in political publications, most notably Nyugat [West], a most important periodical that appeared until mid-World War II (1908-1942), and the Jewish-Zionist periodical Mult es Jovo [Past and Future]. To earn his livelihood, he also wrote for the liberal newspaper chain Est [Evening], whose owner was Jewish and which was aimed at a Jewish readership, for which, to his great chagrin – as he underscored in many of his letters – he was never commissioned to write about Jewish subjects. More than anything else, he can be defined as an anarchist – like the prophets, or perhaps like Jesus, all of whom decried the governments and bloody regimes that oppressed the people. Károly Pap – who truly followed in their footsteps, or may have been their very reincarnation – felt a strong bond to their spiritual calling.
If the question of Pap's political leanings nevertheless requires a scientific response, he should be called a rightist (although at the time that I am writing these lines, the feeling is that this is unheard of). This is because of his basic position vis-à-vis Judaism, because he related to Judaism not as a religion but as a nation, and because he completely dismissed any possibility of healthy assimilation. This fundamental position determined who his literary friends were, as well as what might be called his political affiliations.
In the mid 1930s, the “Jewish question,” the question of capitalism and moral decadence, both physical and material, and the rapid impoverishment among the peasants, who represented, it may be assumed, the majority of the population, became the central issues in the Hungarian intellectual discourse. In the context of the “Jewish question” and capitalism, Hungarian society was a special case, one in which a bourgeois class did not develop, with the Jews fulfilling this role in society. Similarly, it should be borne in mind that three million of Hungary's Jews had immigrated to America, because like the Jews of Czarist Russia, they too were denied civil rights. This “question” was posed by the intelligentsia that developed from among the people (or “people's writers” – first generation peasants. One of these writers was Zsigmond Móricz), which formulated its ideas around a program of a “third way”: a mixture of capitalist and socialist ideologies, at the center of which was the search for a way to transfer control over the land and property to the peasants, and to impose popular culture. The paths from this movement would later lead to communism and fascism. Károly Pap joined these writers (László Németh, Gyula Illyés, János Kodolányi, Lörincz Szabó and others), who also wrote for Nyugat. In her book, Fenyek es fenytoresek [Lights and Broken Lights], the author's widow described this network of relations, and among the names she enumerates, not a single one belonged to the left or was considered a liberal, and only one was of Jewish extraction.
Zsigmond Móricz explains this literary-spiritual connection, which is unparalleled, the unique nature of this writer. “Károly Pap was the son of a Jewish-Hungarian ‘minister,' a scion of a rabbinical dynasty. His forebears, as far as we know, lived on Hungarian soil, breathed Hungarian air and he was in fact a Hungarian, a pure Hungarian with every fiber of his being, but a Jewish-Hungarian, who fostered his Jewishness and heritage in this Hungarian air, and who never found any point of contention in the definition of the two races. [...] This foundation for development, which is Jewish and Hungarian both, he presents without any prejudice, honestly and prophetically. This is not a blending, but rather a model that produced a Jewish soul under Hungarian skies. One the results of this was that he could ponder the Hungarian past with the identical degree of sincerity as the Jewish past.”
This unique relationship proved to be extraordinarily prolific. The intellectual camp of “people's writers” viewed Károly Pap as the only Jewish representative that could participate in the debate. And if we carefully observe the Hungarian intellectual map, we will conclude that they could not have found any another representative: He was the only one – not a “professional Jew” (an official representative of the Jewish community), but a person that took part in Hungary's intellectual life – who identified himself as a Jew. Károly Pap not only related to Judaism as a nation, but he called into question the right that Jews claimed, by means of revolutions or thanks to their economic advantage, to influence Hungarian politics: to intervene in the struggles of the ruling or subjugated classes, have a say in Hungarian culture and shape it. He totally rejected assimilation. Zionism, on the other hand, was close to his heart. But although he discussed the Zionist idea and confronted it in many of his writings, Judaism was his first priority. He judged the Jewish people according to its moral value, that is, by means of criteria that had nothing to do with politics. The fate of the Jews, their role and relationship with their surroundings he viewed as a historic mission, whose goal was to impart the laws of Moses to the entire world, in every place on earth where they were found, and if necessary, through their suffering.
During World War I and the revolutions that followed in its wake, Károly Pap lived in Vienna and roamed through various areas of Hungary. He worked as a clerk, washed cars, labored in a carpentry shop that made coffins, and often – at the beginning of his literary career too – joined traveling actors' troupes. He wrote crazy expressionist poems, and a sharp-eyed editor, Lajos Mikes, suggested that he switch to prose. It was through Mikes that Pap met his future wife. She herself was a writer who would sacrifice her own literary calling and devote her life to realizing the literary path of Károly Pap, and until her death in 1975, she waged a bitter struggle over the perpetuation of her adored husband's literary legacy.
The eighth station
Károly Pap finally attained a state of peace in his lifetime. Each morning, his wife gave him a round-trip ticket for the tram and money for two cups of coffee, and with the punctiliousness of a clerk, he would go to a particular café to write. He had ten years left to write. However, in 1935, he froze. It was not in 1938 that he stopped writing, when the laws that isolated the Jews from the rest of society and restricted everything they did went into effect. Nor was it in 1940, when the “labor service” camps were established, when an entire generation was forced to engage in debasing forced labor; and certainly not in 1944, when the Jews were deported to the concentration camps and he himself arrived in Buchenwald. It is in the nature of prophets to foresee everything. Pap saw what was going to happen and felt so horrified and so helpless that he was dumbstruck. In the coming years, he continued to frequent the same café, but his eyes froze on the blank page. He forbade his wife to release his writings for publication. It was only in 1940, when the Jewish artists, writers and actors were barred from all frameworks, and a theater was established in the large auditorium of the Jewish community center, that he allowed the production of two of his plays, although he never watched them. The plays Moses and Bathsheba were performed with great success.
Over a period of ten years, he wrote three novels; and of particular note was a widely distributed essay Zsido sebek es bunok [Jewish Wounds and Sins], and a collection of excellent short stories that were only published after his death. Most of his short stories revisit themes of his novels from a different perspective. This is also characteristic of his autobiographically inspired Azarel stories: They expand on the episodes that appear in the novel of the same name, and continue to tell the story of its protagonist. They could make up an entire new novel. Károly Pap also made a number of attempts to write a novel about Jesus, which was his life's dream. He constructed a number of Hemmingway-like stories based on his experiences in the war or during the time he had belonged to the traveling actors' troupe. His first novel, Megszabaditottál a haláltól [Thou Hast Delivered Me from Death], whose language paraphrases the language of the Bible, takes place during the time of the Bible and deals with the anticipation of the messiah and the responses of society to the concept of redemption. Károly Pap succeeded in breathing authentic life into a old-new story in a manner that can only be compared to the apocryphal writings from the Bible period, or some of the great twentieth-century novels, both. A nyolcadik stáció [The Eighth Station] tells the story of the struggles of an artist as he painted a picture in the eighth station (on the Via Dolorosa]. This novel explores the existentialist philosophy of art – the experience, authenticity, message – and the sociological and emotional aspects of artistic recognition. Although the book's plot takes place in a Hungarian village, amazingly enough it cannot be attributed to any specific period or place: It could occur anywhere, in any human environment in which people hunger for redemption. His book Azarel, which is more closely tied to time and place, and which has recently been published in English translation, has finally been released from the fetters of the Hungarian language. Readers can enjoy the novel even if they are not at all familiar with the history of Hungarian Jewry and its problems. Like all great novels, here too there are countless layers and different possible readings. The book deals with the rebellion of a single young boy, who in his childish innocence, his merciless naiveté, honestly confronts the world of adults, first and foremost that of his parents, filled as it is with lies and concessions to reality. Móricz wrote about three of Pap's short stories that dealt with the themes of Azarel: He wrote nothing more beautiful than these three stories: Mercy, Children, Blood. These short stories are the most sincere confessions of a childish heart, one that is not yet tainted by culture. They are psychological torture, upon which a psychoanalytical study could be constructed. In addition, it is astonishing how he is able to recall with such clarity and lack of compassion all the events, even after the impressions left upon him by school and education. Even the greatest writers see their own childhood as if through a veil. Goethe could no longer remember the most basic instincts: A person unconsciously falsifies the pictures of his first self-awareness, and sees them as he would like to see them in his own child. Here, Károly Pap plumbs depths that no one before him has explored.”
Under the surface
However, the psychological rebellion that Pap described with such virtuosity is constructed on the history and fate of Hungarian Jewry and its fundamental problems: the rift between the Orthodox and the Neologs. The child, the book's protagonist, is educated for a number of years by Papa Jeremiah, his elderly Orthodox paternal grandfather, a religious fanatic who is preparing himself to immigrate to the Holy Land. Only after the death of his grandfather does the boy go back home to his parents and siblings. Now, however, sees the Neolog world through the prism of his grandfather's values and perspective, and fights tooth and nail against everything that appears to him to be the “fruits of assimilation,” all those things that his parents and siblings find so natural. The “meta-language” of assimilation even influences his relationship with them. It is the language of perpetual readiness founded on a desire to placate, which dictates the direction in which all the efforts are aimed, but under the surface, at the same time maintains a distance. This style of speech and interpersonal relationship reveals the true nature of the author's family and the repressed world of the Jews, the transparent wall of the ghetto, which has fallen, only to be replaced with another, even more invisible wall constructed in its place. No one talks about it, but it is perceptible in the emphases of the words, in the modes of behavior. For this wall was created by force, through the establishment of wise and “enlightened” laws (how close to reality was this metaphor: That which required a fairly long period of time in the Middle Ages was carried out almost overnight in the summer of 1944. The streets of the one-time ghetto of Sopron were boarded up in order to restrict its inhabitants' movements, until the trains came to take them away, so that from there, the world of eternal freedom would be opened to them through the chimneys of Auschwitz).
By the end of the novel, the boy's stalwart stance breaks down, and he is later ashamed when he recalls his rebellion. When he is reminded of the “crazy” things he did, he responds with embarrassment – just as his parents explained to him – “I was ill.” The illness, as a state and a metaphor, is a precise picture, an image: all the “achievements” of the assimilation, which the child in his virginal innocence opposed, took a heavy toll: They were accompanied by a physical-emotional illness. They were the illness itself.
And that illness is incurable to this day.
Janos Kobanyai is the editor of the Jewish-Hungarian periodical Past and Future