Project to Translate the Work of Sándor Bacskai
An example of Bacskai's photographic record of Orthodox communities.
An example of Bacskai's writing

Project Summary:

This proposal outlines a plan to spend a year in Hungary in translating ethnographical accounts collected by Sándor Bacskai and collaborating with this author in collecting additional oral history. Bacskai, the author of Egy Lépés Jeruzsálem Felé (One Step Toward Jerusalem), has published a volume of stories told by ethnic Hungarian Jews living in Hungary and neighboring countries. His work focuses on the stories told by Hungarian Orthodox Jews about their lives during and after World War II, and includes many poignant and inspiring stories about individuals struggling to maintain their tradition and identity amidst the genocide of the war and the decades of persecution and repression which followed it. My project involves the translation of Bacskai's published volume, as well as selected additional materials collected by the author in Israel and the United States (New York City). In addition, in collaboration with Bacskai, I plan to collect additional ethnographies from Hungarian women whose experiences can add another dimension to the understanding of the survival of the Jewish tradition in Hungary.

Research Significance:

Sándor Bacskai is a Hungarian writer and photographer. Since the early nineties, he has written regularly for the Hungarian press, publishing in the weekly Élet és Irodalom (Life and Literature). He is also an editor of Fotomüvészet (Photographic Art), a publication dealing with photography. Besides his journalistic work, Bacskai is also known for his fiction and has read his short story "Lefele" on Magyar Rádio (Hungarian Radio). He has written Egy Lépés Jeruzsálem Felé (One Step Toward Jerusalem), a published volume of stories told by ethnic Hungarian Orthodox Jews living in Hungary and neighboring countries as well as in Israel. Bacskai's work collecting oral histories of Hungarian Orthodox Jews has been supported by the Soros Foundation as making an important contribution to the understanding of Hungarian Jewry in particular and of Jewish culture and tradition in general.

Organizationally, Hungarian Orthodox Jews are unique in the world, as in 1868, the Hungarian Orthodox declared themselves independent of Progressive and Conservative Judaism. The mentality of the Hungarian Orthodoxy has been forged from a synthesis of the religious practices of the Ashkenazy Jews who immigrated from Germany and Moravia, and of the Hassidic Jews, who came from Poland and Galicia. Today Hungarian-speaking Orthodox Jews live in Hungary and its environs in Slovakia, Sub-Carpathia and Transylvania. Bacskai likes to point out that most historic accounts of 20th-century Judaism end with 1944, but this is where his work begins. Some of the Orthodox Jews who survived the Holocaust did return to Hungary and Hungarian-speaking towns in neighboring countries. .

After the war, Jews who returned to their homes reestablished the strength of community life. At the end of 1947, 137 Orthodox congregations existed in Hungary; however, the size of the community was soon greatly diminished. In 1950, after the fall of Hungarian democracy, 87 of those congregations ceased to exist. After the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, the Jewish Orthodox community shrank further in population. Some Jews emigrated while others, through choice or necessity, remained in Europe. The bearers of the faith who remained had to combat antisemitism, antizionism, and the anticlericalism of the Soviet-related socialist system which affected Christians as well as Jews. Despite these difficulties, owing to the strength of their tradition, and the force of will of individuals, Orthodox Jewish communities have continued to endure in Hungary. Through a series of reports and oral histories in Egy Lépés Jeruzsálem Felé (One Step Toward Jerusalem), Bacskai has portrayed the political, religious and individual forces which have come to bear on the Orthodox Jewish tradition as it has struggled for survival in the aftermath of fascism and communism. An excerpt from his book is enclosed with this proposal. Of this work, Bacskai has said, "... during my interviews, I found that crucial facts can be revealed for history in thorough, detailed conversations; moreover these interviews abound in motifs which humanize the abstractions of history" (Bacskai, "The History of Hungarian Orthodox Jewry After 1945," 3).

In addition, Bacskai's work represents an important contribution to the study of Hungarian and Central European cultural history and should be made accessible to English-speaking scholars. Recent work has chronicled the effect of forty years of communism on Hungarian culture "In present-day Hungary, public political life exists in slow motion, and indifference takes on disquieting proportions" (Hanák 57). The forces involved in this indifference are beginning to be studied, and Hungarian popular culture is an area of much interest today, largely because of its notable absence as a significant force in the lives of the country's people. Scholars have noted that in the aftermath of the political change in 1989 and even before in this in the years of communist thaw, Hungarian popular culture has given way to the invasion of Western mass culture rushing in to fill the void left by Socialist institutions bent on obliterating "corrupt" cultural forces.

Some have argued that the effect of Marxist ideology has been to deprive the country of a social base from which to develop a popular culture (Árpád 10). The question remains of whether popular culture has been obliterated, or has simply become dormant. The answer to this question can show us much about the workings of totalitariansim as well as about the nature and workings of cultural forces. The living testimony of one of the strongest cultural forces still operating in Hungary can clearly help scholars to shed light on these trends, particularly in the light of the general unawareness of the persistence of Orthodox Judaism in modern-day Hungary. Joseph Árpád notes in a recent work, "By 1945, there were hardly any Jews" and "In 1948, when the Communists took over Hungary, there was not much public culture left to destroy." Instead, Árpád contends, there was the rise of a "second culture" which deflected public culture to personal family ends and was disengaged from the political process (22). The work done by Bacskai suggests that the transformation of Hungarian culture during socialist occupation was more complex than Árpád suggests: oral history showing the social and psychological factors involved in the creation of the "second culture" can contribute to a better understanding of the political, social and cultural forces operating in Hungary during the period 1945-1989.

In translating and extending Bacskai's work, I will contribute to the dissemination of materials in America which are important to the understanding of the spirit and tradition of Judaism. In addition, my work will make possible the appreciation of the full body of his work, including portions of it that have not been available before. Besides being an ethnographer, Sándor Bacskai is a photographer whose images convey with stark simplicity the power of the stories he recounts in writing. However, because of economic limitations, his ethnographies have thus far been published in Hungary without their accompanying photographic testimonials. The translations I am planning will permit the appreciation of his work in America where publication budgets permit the production of books with photographic components. Indeed it may be possible to produce a volume with strong design characteristics to appeal to a broad audience.

Value to Drexel:

The work outlined in this proposal will represent a contribution to the work of the newly constituted Judaic Studies program recently launched at Drexel by Dr. Rakhmail Peltz. A letter supporting this project will be submitted by Dr. Peltz.

In addition, this work will also have significance to Drexel students in general. Students at Drexel come from a variety of ethnic backgrounds and can benefit from an understanding of the interaction of the political, ethnic and religious forces operative on Jews in Hungary. After completing this sabbatical work, I plan to develop a new version of Literature and Society (LIT 260), to emphasize the themes I uncover. This course will complement the existing course called "Literature of the Holocausts" and will represent a variety of historical, cultural and literary factors. The new course will be cross-listed with the offerings of the Judaic Studies program.

Selected Bibliography:

Árpád Joseph J. "The Question of Hungarian Popular Culture." Journal of Popular Culture 29.2 (Fall 1995) 9-32.

Bacskai Sándor. Egy Lépés Jeruzsálem Felé Mult és Jövö Könyvek: New York, Budapest, Jeruzsalem, 1997.

Bacskai Sándor. "The History of Hungarian Orthodox Jewry After 1945," unpublished paper.

Hanák Peter. "Discontinuous Society-Deformed Society" Journal of Popular Culture 29.2 (Fall 1995) 57-66.