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Polin: Studies in Polish Jewry Volume 31Poland and Hungary: Jewish Realities Compared$

François Guesnet, Howard Lupovitch, and Antony Polonsky

Print publication date: 2019

Print ISBN-13: 9781906764715

Published to Liverpool Scholarship Online: February 2021

DOI: 10.3828/liverpool/9781906764715.001.0001

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The Politics of Exclusion

The Politics of Exclusion

The Turbulent History of Hungarian and Polish Film, 1896—1945

(p.289) The Politics of Exclusion
Polin: Studies in Polish Jewry Volume 31

Susan M. Papp

Liverpool University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter presents a comparative examination of the film industries in Hungary and Poland from the invention of the first motion picture cameras in the 1890s up to and including the Second World War, and the important role played in this industry by Jews from both countries. Throughout the period, Hungary had a vibrant film industry, yet, from the end of the First World War, each successive government tried to politicize and shape it. In Poland, government interference was less intrusive until the late 1930s, and Jews continued to play an important role in the film industry until the German invasion in September of 1939. Nevertheless, calls were made to limit the role of Jews. Even though the history of filmmaking in the two countries was very different, there still remain some interesting historical comparisons to be explored. In particular, the chapter examines the Hungarian Theatre and Film Chamber, established in 1938 by the regime of Miklós Horthy in order to limit the number of Jews working in the film business in Hungary.

Keywords:   Hungarian film industry, Polish film industry, motion picture cameras, Second World War, government interference, German invasion, filmmaking, Hungarian Theatre and Film Chamber

THIS CHAPTER seeks to present a comparative examination of the film industries in Hungary and Poland from the invention of the first motion picture cameras in the 1890s up to and including the Second World War, and the important role played in this industry by Jews from both countries. Throughout the period, Hungary had a vibrant film industry, yet, from the end of the First World War, each successive government tried to politicize and shape it. In Poland, government interference was less intrusive until the late 1930s, and Jews continued to play an important role in the film industry until the German invasion in September 1939. Nevertheless calls were made to limit the role of Jews. Even though the history of filmmaking in the two countries was very different, there still remain some interesting historical comparisons to be explored. In particular, this chapter will examine the Hungarian Theatre and Film Chamber (A SzínműVészeti és a Filmművészeti Kamara), established in 1938 by the regime of Miklós Horthy in order to limit the number of Jews working in the film business in Hungary.

It was during the interwar period that the power of propaganda through the medium of film was recognized and utilized by governments in Europe. In 1933 the Nazi government in Germany established the Reichskulturkammer (Reich Chamber of Culture), which included a chamber (a professional organization for regulating members of a specific profession) for film. In 1935 it went further, establishing an International Film Chamber, which twenty-two European nations joined, intended to co-ordinate European efforts under the leadership of Nazi Germany to counteract the influence of American films in Europe.

Jews were at the forefront of developing and building the technologies of film (p.290) and photography. While art historians, critics, and film theorists have argued about why this occurred, the sheer numbers of Jews who were pioneers in the field of film and photography, especially in eastern Europe, was remarkable. Max Kozloff, an American critic and photographer, claims that the Jewish sensibility and talent in these fields stems from the ‘tension between alienation and its opposite, the sense of belonging’.1 For the Jews of the diaspora, making their way through the twentieth century involved a series of conflicts. In contrast, becoming part of the world of photography and film allowed them to express a ‘vigorous populism’, a sense of being part of the mainstream culture.2 The sense of alienation was even more acute for Hungarians, coming from a country where the language is unrelated to those of any of its neighbours. While it is debatable whether or not there is a distinct ‘Jewish sensibility’ for film, during the first half of the twentieth century, certainly in Hungary and Poland, Jews played significant roles in the film industry.

Finally, this chapter will examine the nature of antisemitism in Hungary during the interwar period and its effects on the film industry. Antisemitism in Hungary was both similar to and different from antisemitism in other European countries, including Poland. Hungarian antisemitism was a ‘conflicted antisemitism’ with many forms—individual versus institutional, religious versus racial, idealistic versus pragmatic.

Early Filmmaking

Film production began in many capitals of Europe around the end of the nineteenth century. The first film screening in Budapest coincided with the celebrations in Hungary in 1896, commemorating a thousand years of Magyar settlement in the Carpathian basin. It was a year of parades, celebrations, and dedications of monuments and memorials. At the centre of the festivities was the Millennium Exhibition, which displayed the newest scientific and technical wonders from around the world, including Thomas Edison’s great new invention, the kinetoscope, a precursor to the projector. As the technology was refined and films grew in popularity, cinemas were built across the country. By 1914 there were over 110 permanent cinemas in Budapest alone, more than in many other European capitals.3

In the Polish territories, the first screening of moving pictures took place in Krakow also in 1896, and screenings soon took place in all the partitions.4 The Polish inventor and engineer Kazimierz Prószyński was fascinated with the possibilities offered by the new technology. That same year he created his own camera, known as the pleograf.5 The great technical advancement of the pleograf was that (p.291) it considerably reduced the shaking of the images on the screen. In 1902 Prószyński produced the first Polish silent film, Powrót birbanta (The Return of the Rake), using his pleograf. By 1914 he had produced at least thirteen short films, many of them documentaries. Another early film studio was founded in Warsaw by the brothers Boleslaw and Zygmunt Matuszewski.6

Before the First World War the film industry in the Polish territories consisted of a very few, economically unstable studios. As early as 1898 scenes claiming to represent aspects of the contemporary trial of Alfred Dreyfus had been shown to Jewish audiences in the Pale of Settlement using the newly invented cinematograph of the Lumiére brothers.7 However, it was only in 1911 that A. M. Smolensky’s ‘singing’ troupe toured the Pale of Settlement, showing silent movies with a live Yiddish accompaniment, the first locally produced films for a Jewish audience. One of these was a filmed version of the popular Yiddish song, ‘A brivele der mamen’ (A Little Letter from Mother).8 Polish cinema began to achieve commercial status, thanks to the initiatives of Aleksander Hertz (1879—1928), an engineering student intrigued by the new technology. In 1909 Hertz left Pathé, for whom he had been working in Warsaw, and established Sfinks, the company that came to dominate the film business in the Polish territories. During the 1905 revolution he had been an active member of the Polish Socialist Party which brought him into contact with Józef Piłsudski and undoubtedly was an important element in the success of his studio. In 1911 he adapted the novelMeir Ezofewicz by the Polish positivist writer Eliza Orzeszkowa, which describes in somewhat stereotypical termsthe conflict between the more progressive and more reactionary elements within the Jewish community. In an attempt to make this film attractive to Poles as well as Jews, he chose a well-known antisemite, Józef Ostoja-Sulnicki, to direct it (his role may only have been nominal). It is not clear how far this manoeuvre was successful. In all, in the two years before the war, the company made nearly twenty films, establishing itself as Poland’s most important production company.

At the time many movie exhibitors and distributors in the tsarist empire were, like Hertz, of Jewish origin: of the silent films produced in the Polish lands between 1911 and 1913 approximately one-third were of plays written in Yiddish. One of the main preoccupations of these filmmakers was thus how to satisfy both a Polish and a Jewish audience. Alongside Sfinks, a number of other production companies emerged. One was the Kantor Zjednoczonych Kinematografów Siła, founded by Mordechaj (Mordka) Towbin, who also operated a cinema on Warsaw’s fashionable Marszałkowska Street. His company produced a short comedy, Antoś pierwszy raz w Warszawie (Antoś in Warsaw for the First Time), in which a country bumpkin finds himself bewildered by city life, and also filmed a number of the productions of the Literarishe Trupe, formed in 1907 by Avrom-Yitskhok Kaminski and his wife Esther-Rokhl Kaminska. This was the first Yiddish theatre company committed to (p.292) producing plays with serious literary merit, above all those of the playwright Jacob Gordin, whom Kaminska called her‘messiah’ and who had introduced Russian-style realism into his plays. Among the plays Towbin adapted were Di shtifmuter (The Stepmother) and Khasye di yesoyme (Khasye the Orphan), which were directed by the young Polish Jewish playwright Marek Arnshteyn (Andrzej Marek). Towbin also commissioned Arnshteyn to direct a film version of the New York Yiddish writer Zalmen Libin’s melodrama Der vilder foter (The Savage Father). The company’s attempt to reach a broader Polish audience with a film version of Wojewoda (The Voivode) was unsuccessful, and Siła found itself in serious financial difficulties. When it folded in 1912, its place was taken by Kosmofilm, founded by a former partner of Towbin, Samuel Ginzburg, and Henryk Finkelstein, the owner of a film laboratory in Warsaw, which also filmed some of the productions of the Literarishe Trupe, including Gots shtrof(God’s Punishment) and Der unbekanter (The Stranger). Kosmofilm was more successful in reaching a Polish audience with such works as Stanislaw Moniuszko’s opera Halka, which starred Polish actors and was shown with live music and a choir. A similar venture was its film version of Józef Korzeniowski’s play, Karpaccy górale (Carpathian Mountaineers).

Their example was followed by others in the tsarist empire. In 1912 Pathé Frères Moscow adapted Sholem Asch’s Got fun nekome (God of Vengeance), the first Yiddish play to deal with the controversial issue of Jewish involvement in prostitution. In the same year, Moscow Gaumont produced a silent version of Gordin’s Mirele Efros, perhaps the most popular play in the history of Yiddish theatre, which describes the downfall of a ‘Jewish Queen Lear’, the widow of a bankrupt merchant who is forced to give away the business to her son and daughter-in-law. Of the two dozen Yiddish films made in the tsarist empire between 1911 and 1916, half were taken from Gordin’s works, or, in the case of Der vilder foter, attributed to him. Another centre of Jewish filmmaking was Riga, where the S. Mintus Company released at least seven productions with Yiddish theatrical troupes. Of the Jewish-themed films made at this time, the most widely distributed was a Zionist propaganda film, Zhizn’ evreev v Palestine (Jewish Life in Palestine), by the Mizrakh company in Odessa, one of the principal centres of Jewish life in the tsarist empire, where the cinematograph had first been introduced in 1896. This had its premiere at the Eleventh Zionist Congress in Vienna in September 1913 and its success led to a similar documentary being produced by Kosmofilm in Warsaw.

The First World War created problems for the nascent film industry in the Polish territories. Editors, cameramen, and other technicians were drafted into military service, and export opportunities to Russia were lost. The films available in Poland were mostly documentaries produced by news companies representing the major occupying forces, such as Bild and Filmamt in Germany and the Skobolev Committee in Russia. These news companies served as a model for units that were formed in Kraków and supplied cameramen to the Polish Legions who covered most of the military campaigns of Józef Pilsudski, both during the war and in the (p.293) struggle for the Polish frontiers after 1918.9 Sfinks now consolidated its dominant position in Polish filmmaking. It was able to survive the war because Hertz merged with other film studios and built solid international connections with German production companies, such as Projektions-AG Union and UFA. It focused, for the most part, on documentary films, concentrating on events around Warsaw, including the first dramatic film of the Hindenburg offensive in October 1914.10 In all, only five feature filmswere made during the war.

At the same time, in Warsaw under German occupation, which was much more sympathetic to Jews than the previous Russian administration, Yiddish theatre flourished, as did the Polish film industry which now had better access to the German market. At the beginning of the war Alexander Hertz of Sfinks discovered Pola Negri (1897—1987), born Barbara Chalupiec in Lipno in the Kingdom of Poland, twenty-five miles south of Toruń, who became a famous actress of the silent era in Europe and later in Hollywood. Hertz signed Negri for a two-year contract when she was just 17. In all, Negri appeared in seven features for Sfinks, including the highly successful Niewolnica zmysłów (Slave of Sin) and Bestia: Kochanka apasza (The Beast: The Lover of the Apache)

In 1917 she broke her contract with Sfinks, accepted a more lucrative offer from the German producer Paul Davidson, and moved to Berlin. She returned to Warsaw in 1918 to star in the anti-tsarist and philosemitic Der gelbe Schein (The Yellow Passport), directed by the Latvian-born German actor and director, Victor Janson. This somewhat melodramatic film describes how a Jewish girl from the Pale of Settlement uses the yellow card issued in the tsarist empire to licensed prostitutes in order to study medicine in St Petersburg. In order to make her story credible, she has to work in a brothel by night from which she is rescued by a professor, who is, in fact, her long-lost father. Since the film was made in Warsaw, it featured scenes from the Jewish district of Nalewki. Although she was not Jewish, Negri described movingly what the film meant to her:

We were all inspired in making The Yellow Passport. Its sympathetic portrait of Jews might displease some of the population, but a vast majority would be very moved by it. It might even help to spread a little tolerance and understanding.11

In Berlin she met Ernst Lubitsch who was producing comedies for the German studio UFA, and in 1918 appeared in his Die Augen der Mumie Ma (The Eyes of the Mummy Ma) and his subsequent productions, which made her an international star. The height of her acting career was during the silent era: once the ‘talkies’ came into production, she was shunned due to her heavy accent. Negri starred in sixty-eight films, became great friends with Charlie Chaplin, and was rumoured to be engaged to Rudolph Valentino prior to his sudden death.

Although he had lost his star, Hertz was able to buy out Kosmofilm and make (p.294) two more Yiddish films during the war, Di farshtoysene tokhter (The Repudiated Daughter), based on a play attributed to Avrom Goldfadn, and a remake of Zayn vaybs man (His Wife’s Husband), based on a play by the American Hyman Mysell, which had been first filmed in 1913. The deterioration of the economic situation in 1916 made the production of further films impossible, and it would be nearly a decade before such films were made again.

Hungary was a prodigious producer of films throughout the First World War. By 1918 there were fifteen professional Hungarian film directors, an unusually high number compared with other countries of Europe. Of the fifteen, most came from the field of journalism, including some of Jewish origin such as Sándor Korda. By 1918 Korda had produced nineteen films. His films were successful as they were based on the works of talented writers such as Frigyes Karinthy, Sandor Bródy, Mihály Babits, Ferenc Molnár, and others affiliated with the progressive literary journal Nyugat.12 Korda edited and published one of the first journals dealing specifically with film, Mozihét (Film Week). He became one of the most influential directors and producers in Hungary. Following the end of the war, Korda made his home in England. Later he was knighted for his contributions to British cinema, becoming Sir Alexander Korda.

Mihály Kertész was another highly talented director, who produced thirty-eight films in Hungary. Unlike Korda, Kertész did not make films based on literary adaptations, but worked with scripts written specifically for film with original story lines. His films were more action and adventure oriented. Kertész made his way to Hollywood and worked there as Michael Curtiz until his death in 1962.13 While they were in Hungary, both Korda and Kertész were instrumental in training writers, cameramen, and technicians, providing a strong talent base for the expanding filmmaking industry.

This period saw the production of several films with Jewish themes. Among them were Adolf Mérei’s Simon Judit, based on a nineteenth-century ballad by József Kiss, the grandson of emigrants from Lithuania, whose work expressed his conflicted identity as a Hungarian and a Jew, and Korda’s Lyon Lea, adapted from a play by Sándor Bródy, a writer of Jewish origin and one of the exponents of French-style realism in Hungarian literature. This described the love affair between a rabbi’s daughter and a Russian grand duke, which takes place in a Galician village occupied by Cossacks. (In 1927 it was made into a film called Surrender in the United States.) Other films made at this time with Jewish themes were Jenő Illépastorale set in ancient Judaeas;’ Szulamit, based on the play by Goldfadn, described on his tombstone in New York as ‘the father of the Yiddish theatre’, a musical pastorale set in ancient Judaea; Kertész’s Az árendás zsidó (The Jewish Tenant Farmer), from the folk drama by Szidor Bátor, a Jewish composer and playwright; and Béla Balogh’s Israel, based on a play by the French Jewish writer Henri Bernstein.

The three empires defeated during the First World War, the Ottoman, the (p.295) German, and the Austro-Hungarian, were dismembered at the Paris peace talks. The harsh and seemingly arbitrary nature of the new borders established by the Treaty of Trianon came as a shock to Hungarians and Hungarian national consciousness. As a result of the treaty, Hungary lost over two-thirds of its historic territory, and one-third of its Hungarian-speaking population suddenly found themselves living outside Hungary’s new borders. It was not just land and population—the country’s mineral wealth, forests, and agricultural land were all drastically diminished. Only one thought permeated the thoughts and minds of the war-weary, defeated Hungarians: revision of the much-reviled treaty. Hungarians became insular and self-absorbed.

The Treaty of Trianon also had a devastating effect on the, until then, stable relationship between the Hungarian elite and the Jewish population. The Emancipation Act of 1867 gave Jews the same civil and political rights as Hungary’s other citizens. In 1895 the Law of Reception provided that Judaism was included on an equal basis with the other ‘accepted’ religions of Hungary. The aim of the liberal Hungarian nobility who governed until the end of the First World War was the complete civic and political equality of Jews, because they needed people who were politically loyal and would tip the demographic balance in favour of the Magyars. The arrangement also worked well for Jews, who were admitted to the liberal professions and institutions of higher learning, became leaders in the industrialization and modernization of the country, married into aristocratic families, and were able to move up the social hierarchy. The result was that the population of ‘Magyars of the Mosaic faith’ grew to almost one million or 5 per cent of the population by 1910. More importantly for Hungarian political leaders, 75 per cent of the one million Jews declared themselves as Magyars in the census of 1910. Despite their relatively small proportion, by 1910 almost half the lawyers and medical practitioners, more than 40 per cent of journalists, more than 30 per cent of engineers, and 25 per cent of artists and writers in Hungary were Jews. They were also in the forefront in the creation of the film industry. The cultural, artistic, scientific, financial, and professional influence of the Jews was in no small measure responsible for Budapest becoming the greatest financial and media centre of Europe east of Vienna.14

This informal pact, however, was broken with the Treaty of Trianon. A significant percentage of the Jewish population who lived in smaller towns and villages found themselves no longer in Hungary. In 1919, while the Great Powers were determining the borders of the new states of eastern Europe, Béla Kun staged a coup and seized power, proclaiming the establishment of the Hungarian Soviet Republic, which lasted from 21 March until 1 August 1919. Fear of the ‘red menace’ reverberated all the way to Paris. This was the first such Soviet republic to be established outside the Soviet Union. Historians estimate that 75 to 80 per cent of the commissars of the Hungarian Soviet Republic were of Jewish origin, most of whom had little or nothing to do with the Jewish faith. This fact made little (p.296) difference to their fellow countrymen, as Jews were blamed for the communist takeover.15 Hungarians felt betrayed by their Jewish countrymen, who, it seemed, had until then been integrated into the social, economic, and cultural life of Hungary.

At the end of the First World War, Poland was re-established as a state. During the previous 125 years, the Polish—Lithuanian Commonwealth had been absent from the map of Europe since its partition by the Austrian, Prussian, and Russian empires (1772—3, 1793, 1795). As a result of the restoration of Poland, film production began to develop more fully as a national industry. Warsaw became the most important filmmaking centre in Poland, and in the first full year of independence twenty-two feature films were produced. Filmmakers, however, had to deal with economic crises, runaway inflation, a ticket tax of 100 per cent, and poverty and high unemployment, which made it hard for people to afford the tickets. Moreover, there were technical difficulties, such as shortages of electricity in parts of the country. There was also competition from Austrian, German, and American films. The film business was so insecure that the 321 feature films produced in interwar Poland were made by 146 different companies; most of these went out of business after the production of one film: only twenty-five were able to make more than three.16

Given these difficulties, Polish film production did not return to pre-war levels until the early 1920s. In the immediate aftermath of independence, the government was much more interested in funding propaganda films, such as Obchóid rocznicy wyzwolenia (A Celebration of the Anniversary of Independence), Bohaterstwo polskiego skauta (The Heroism of a Polish Scout), and Cud nad Wisła (The Miracle on the Vistula), than in making it possible to produce feature films. The number of feature films increased before the introduction of sound from six in 1918 to twenty-two in 1922 but fell again in 1925 to five, only to rise to twelve in 1928.17 Many of the new production companies soon collapsed. A number of important Polish films were, however, produced, most notably Wiktor Biegański’s Otchłań pokuty (The Abyss of Penitence) and Orlę (Eagle) and the adaptation by Sfinks of Helena Mniszkówna’s novel Trędowata (The Leper). Sfinks remained the dominant firm in the industry, even after the death of Hertz in 1928 and his replacement by Henryk Finkelstein, former owner of the pre-war production company Kosmofilm, but Hertz’s view that films should avoid social and political issues was now increasingly challenged.

Films on Jewish topics were slow to emerge. The first major Jewish-themed film, produced in 1921 , was Tajemnice Nalewek (Secrets of the Nalewki), which exposed the poverty of Warsaw’s northern district, an area inhabited mainly by Jews. Natan (p.297) Gross described it as an attempt ‘to present a Jewish theme, with the tendency toward close Polish—Jewish relations’.18 These years saw the emergence of a major directorial talent in the person of Leo Forbert, who was also the owner of the largest photographic laboratory in Warsaw. In 1926 Maria Hirszbejn, another key figure of Jewish origin in the film industry and the only woman to play such a role, acquired a controlling interest in the firm and encouraged Forbert to undertake more ambitious projects, while also actively recruiting both secular and religious Jews to participate in them. Forbert’s first two productions were German-influenced crime films Ludzie mroku (People in Darkness) and Syn szatana (The Son of Satan), but between 1924 and 1929 he produced three Jewish films with scripts by Henryk (Yehiel) Bojm, who was also a photojournalist for the Jewish press. Although, like a number of other Jews in the Polish film industry, Bojm rejected his hasidic upbringing, he clearly drew on it in his work. Of these films, the most successful was Tkies kaf(The Handshake), starring Ester-Rokhl Kaminska and her daughter Ida and directed by Zygmunt Turkow, the guiding spirit of the Warsaw Yiddish Art Theatre. Its rather complicated and melodramatic plot, based on a play by Peretz Hirschbein, describes how two lovers, whose marriage was agreed between their fathers at their birth, are finally brought together through the intervention of the prophet Elijah. While the film was praised by a leading Polish critic, Andrzej Wlast, the assimilated Jewish critic Leo Belmont argued that although the filmmakers ‘tried to show the process of emancipation . . . [they] unconsciously idealize superstition’.19 Even more hostile was the Yiddish weekly, Literarishe bleter, which attacked the film as shund—a ‘mishmash of real matters and total impossibilities, Der dibek and the prophet Elijah’. Its critic also seems to have felt that the film would strengthen anti-Jewish prejudices.20

Tkies kaf showed there was a market for Jewish-themed films and it led to the production of Śmierć za życie (Death Instead of Life), which described how the son of a Jewish innkeeper became a major Polish poet as a result of his friendship with a Polish prince, whom he saved from being murdered by the Bolsheviks. Forbert’s next film was Jeden z 36 (One of the Thirty-Six Just Men), shot in Kazimierz and Sandomierz and directed by Henryk Szaro. The film related how a hasid succeeded in going abroad during the 1863 uprising to reveal to the world the oppression of the Jews by the Russian army in Zamość. Like Tkies kaf this was well received by Polish critics. It stimulated Forbert to examine Polish Jewish anti-Russian solidarity in 1863 in his ambitious adaptation of Yosef Opatoshu’s novel In di poylishe velder (In the Polish Woods), which has unfortunately been lost. Its hero, Mordkhe, abandoned the court of the Kotsker rebbe to become a revolutionary and incited Poles and Jews to rise up against the Russians. Employing both Polish and Jewish actors, it was made at a time when such themes had become popular in the Polish cinema with film versions of Reymont’s Ziemia obiecana (Promised Land) and (p.298) Mickiewicz’s Pan Tadeusz. In di poylishe velder was harshly criticized in Orthodox circles, and the government allowed it to be censored by an Agudah rabbi. This, according to its director Jonas Turkow, affected the artistic quality of the final product21 and was probably the reason for its failure at the box office. In Hoberman’s view, ‘its failure epitomizes the decline of universalist impulses in the Yiddish cinema’.22 Against these critical views, the liberal Kurier Warszawski wrote: ‘ In di poylishe velder exploits a dual exoticism for the world: Polish and Jewish’23 while the Polish Jewish daily Nasz Przeglad claimed: ‘The world of mysticism and kabbalah, the world of hasidic isolation . . . that unappreciated, always poignant exoticism has found a suitable backdrop and capable executors in the film.’24 Fearing another failure, Forbert and Bojm decided to abandon the idea of making a film based on Sholem Asch’s Motke ganev, which would have combined descriptions of shtetl life with an account of the disruptive impact of urban poverty.

The film industry was totally transformed by the introduction of sound. However, its adoption in Poland took place relatively slowly. This was partly because of the Great Depression. In 193i only six feature films were produced and many cinemas closed. It was only in 1934 that the industry began to recover, aided still further in 1936 by a more supportivetax regimen. The first American sound movie to be distributed in Poland was Al Jolson’s The Singing Fool in 1927, and in 1930 the first Polish sound features appeared: Michal Waszyński’s Kult ciala (The Cult of the Body) and Bolesław Newolin’s Moralność pani Dulskiej (The Morality of Pani Dulska), based on the novelby Gabriela Zapolska. Waszyńiski directed several other sound films, including ABC miłości (The ABC of Love), Bolek i Lolek, and Dodek na froncie (Dodek at the Front).

As the example of Waszyński demonstrates, people of Jewish origin continued to play an important role in Polish cinema after the transition to sound. Among films in which Jews played a significant role were Na Sybir (To Siberia), directed by Henryk Szaro, with a screenplay by Anatol Stern and Waclaw Sieroszewski; Mlody las (The Young Forest), directed by Józef Lejtes; Róza (Rose), based on a play by Stefan Żeromski, directed by Józef Lejtes and Seweryn Steinwurzel; and two comedies directed by Leon Trystan, Dwa dni w raju (Two Days in Heaven) and Piętro wyżej (The Apartment Above). Jewish involvement in film sometimes created problems, as in the religious film Pod Twoja obrone (Under Your Protection), which describes the miraculous healing at Częstochowa of a fighter pilot. The name of the director, Józef Lejtes, was removed from the credits at the request of the Catholic Church. The situation worsened with the intensification of antisemitism after Piłsudski’s death in 1935. In 1938 the Association for the Development of Poland called for an ‘Aryan’ film industry, excluding Jewish directors and producers. It was able to obstruct the premiere of Eugeniusz Cękalski’s film Strachy (Ghosts), with its portrayal of the rather seedy life of two Warsaw (p.299) chorus girls, on the grounds that it contained ‘ambiguous talmudic elements’.25 The film was also criticized by the Catholic weekly Przeglad Powszechny for showing Poles and not Jews ‘in a negative light’.26 The controversy stopped further distribution of the film in early 1939.

It was only in 1935 that the first Yiddish sound films were made, although American Yiddish films such as Yoysef in mitsraim (Joseph in Egypt), Bar mitsve, and Onkel mozes were shown earlier. An important role in this process was played by Shaul Goskind, co-owner of the Warsaw film laboratory, Sektor. The first sound film he produced in late 1935 was the melodrama Al khet (I Have Sinned) directed by Aleksander Marten, a native of Łódź who had worked in the German film industry. The film describes the ultimately happy fate of the illegitimate daughter of a village girl and an Austrian Jewish officer stationed in Poland during the First World War. Initially it proved difficult to show the film, since as Goskind put it, ‘the large movie houses were afraid of losing their audience. . . . Antisemites might attack the theatre.’27 As a result, the premiere took place in the Fama cinema in Nalewki. It was an enormous success, although Michal Kitai in Literarishe bleter lambasted its remoteness from the contemporary political crisis of the Jews. ‘Why again bring forth black-coats, study-houses, botlonim (idlers), khadorim [ḥeders] and other claptrap? We already have more than enough of this in the Yiddish theatre.’28

Goskind seemed to respond to such criticisms in Mir kumen on (We’re On Our Way), a documentary by Aleksander Ford (born Moyshe Lipshutz in Łódź), who had already made his name as a maker of documentary films, on the Bundistsponsored Vladimir Medem Sanatorium for tubercular children in Miedzeszyn near Warsaw. The high point of the film is when the Children’s Council calls for solidarity with the children of striking coal miners. ‘You talk about kasha while the miners’ children starve! Let’s take them in!’29 This led to the film being banned in Poland, although a number of clandestine screenings did take place. In the late 1930s Goskind, together with his brother Yitshak, produced a series of ten-minute documentaries in Yiddish for the American market on the six largest Jewish conurbations in Poland: Warsaw, Łódź, Vilna, Kraków, Lwów and Białystok. Shaul Goskind survived the war and was able to re-establish his production company in Poland in a vain effort to revive Yiddish film. In 1948 he produced the last Yiddish feature film made in Poland, Unzere kinder (Our Children), which starred the popular comedians Shimen Dzigan (Szymon Dżigan) and Yisrael Shumacher (Izrael Szumacher) and had as its theme the contrast between the official sanitized version of the Holocaust and the experiences of child survivors in the Helenówek Orphanage in Łódź. The consolidation of political power by the communists made it impossible to show the film in Poland and, unhappy with the political climate, Goskind moved to Israel in 1950.

The development of Yiddish film in Poland owed much to the influence and (p.300) finance of its counterpart in the United States. The first fruit of this collaboration was Yidl mitn fidl (Yidl with a Fiddle), produced by the Yiddish actor Joseph Green (born Józef Grinberg in Łódż) after his return to Poland in 1936 from the United States, where he had settled in 1924. The film had a screenplay by Konrad Tom and starred the American comedienne Molly Picon, with what Hoberman described as her ‘New World energy and insouciance’,30 who had already become a celebrity in Warsaw for her appearance in the Vienna-made Ost und West (East and West). It follows the heroine’s career from masquerading as a boy accompanying her itinerant musician father to star of the Warsaw stage. Yidl mitn fidl was a great hit—it was not only one of the three top-grossing Polish movies in 1936 but also enjoyed enormous international success.

The film industry in Poland flourished at this time, partly aided by a reform of the ticket tax which from 1936 meant lower entrance fees for Polish films: the number of feature films produced rose from fourteen in 1934 to twenty-three in 1937. This also benefited Yiddish films. Of the Polish films made in 1937, three were in Yiddish: the satirical Freylekhe kabtsonim ( Jolly Paupers), starring Dzigan and Schumacher; Green’s Der purimshpiler (The Jester), a sound remake of Tkies kaf, directed by Henryk Szaro; and Der dibek (The Dybbuk), directed by Michał Waszyński. This version of S. An-sky’s play, which describes the union in death of two ill-fated Jewish lovers with aestheticized hasidic folklore, is, in Hoberman’s words, at once ‘lyrical and grotesque, mysterious and nostalgic’.31 The play’s premiere in Warsaw in December 1920, produced by Marek Arnshteyn, was a great success among both Jews and Poles and the film version is probably the finest Yiddish film ever made. Its screenplay was written by Arnshteyn and Alter Kacyzne, while Majer Balaban served as a consultant, and the music was written by Henekh Kon. It played to both Polish and Jewish audiences but its reception in Poland was not universally positive, perhaps reflecting the increasingly marginal situation of Jewish cultural production. While Film described it as ‘a triumph of national cinematography . . . [that] outclasses much European cinema’,32 Stefania Zahorska, writing in the liberal weekly Wiadomośdci Literackie, attacked the film as ‘inflated’ and ‘without a single good scene’, the ‘nauseous sediment of pathetic kitsch’ derived from the clichés of Polish romanticism.33

Waszyński is one of the most interesting figures of the Polish film industry of the late 1930s. Born in Volhynia, he moved to Warsaw in the 1920s after spending time in Berlin, one of the main centres of European avant-garde filmmaking, with directors like Fritz Lang and F. W. Murnau. In all he produced more than forty films including melodramas, musicals, romantic fantasies, farces, military films, and adventure films. After surviving the war in the Soviet Union, he moved to Italy, where he directed several films and briefly worked with Orson Welles.

Tkies kafand Der dibek were produced by major Warsaw studios, Leo-Film and (p.301) Sfinks, and were also shown with Polish subtitles in the principal Warsaw cinemas. Three Yiddish sound films were produced in 1938, two by Green (Mamele (The Little Mother), with Molly Picon in the role of a dutiful daughter who promises her dying mother to look after her four siblings, and a new version of A brivele der mamen, describing the disintegration of a middle-class Jewish family). The last Yiddish films made in Poland before the war was Aleksander Marten’s On a heym (Without a Home), which, like many Yiddish films, was based on a play, in this case, one by Jacob Gordin, and gave a pessimistic account of the problems of emigration. This, not surprisingly, led Literarishe bleter to ask: ‘What Jew, if he gets a visa to America, will complain he has no home?’34 Yiddish films were an important part of the Polish film industry.

People of Jewish origin played leading roles in the Polish film industry until the German invasion, but they came under attack from the nationalist right: according to the organ of the National Radical Camp (Obóz Narodowo-Radykalny), the Polish film industry was ‘riddled with Jews’ and constituted the most ‘putrefied part of economy’.35 In January 1939 two deputies of the government party, the Camp of National Unity (Obóz Zjednoczenia Narodowego), Benedykt Kieńć and Fran-ciszek Stoch, presented the Sejm with the proposal for a law ‘to regulate in part the position of persons of Jewish nationality vis-á-vis the Polish state’.36 This law would have deprived the overwhelming majority of Jews of their civil and political rights: of the right to vote; to be an official; to practise the liberal professions; to participate in radio, the press, or the film industry; to possess immovable property; and to participate in court cases. Jewish emigration would thus be accelerated, further facilitated by the creation of an ‘emigration fund’ using forced contributions from Jewish organizations and wealthy Jews. It is difficult to know how this proposal would have fared had Polish—German relations not taken a rapid turn for the worse.

Hungary After the First World War and the Jewish Laws

In Hungary, during Béla Kun’s 133 days in power in 1919, the regime nationalized the film industry and produced thirty-one films, mainly propaganda. New film regulatory bodies were established, including the Directory, the central administrative board of the entire industry. Board members included journalist and director Pál Aczél and Sándor Korda. Béla Blaskó also played an important role in the film organization of the Hungarian Soviet Republic. He later adopted the name (p.302) Lugosi after his birthplace, Lugos. After the collapse of the regime in 1919, Lugosi first went to Vienna, then to Hollywood, where he was made famous by starring in the 1931 film Dracula.

The work of filmmaking under the Hungarian Soviet Republic was centrally controlled and directed. The regime merged film studios, and only six were allowed to operate. Four main directors of drama (screenwriters) were appointed, and these were the only individuals who could provide script approval. Actors had to be approved and registered with the Directory: only 41 leading actors, 45 child actors, and 130 extras were successful. In total, 253 were approved. Of the thirty-one films produced, only one feature film has survived: Tegnap (Yesterday) directed by Dezső Orbán.

The Horthy regime gained power on 1 March 1920 and unleashed the White Terror against the leadership of the Hungarian Soviet Republic. This caused dozens of the best and brightest filmmakers to flee their homeland to work or establish new studios in other countries. As mentioned above, Sándor Korda moved to London, where he became one of the pillars of the film industry. In major capitals across Europe, Hungarian-speaking directors and producers could be found in prominent positions. Mihály Kertész signed a contract in the spring of 1918 that took him to Vienna and later on to Hollywood.37 Béla Balogh had also been active in the film industry of the Hungarian Soviet Republic and felt compelled to emigrate after the regime was ousted.

Following the end of the First World War Hungarians believed their nation had been betrayed, a feeling that was widespread in many other European nations as well, including Germany, Italy, and France. The shock of the losses experienced caused a sentimental view of the past and a longing for what was ‘truly’ Hungarian, although the return to the ‘conservative’ past was not very well defined. Revision of the territorial conditions of the Treaty of Trianon became the rallying cry of the Horthy regime and the main political and military agenda of the Hungarian government during the interwar years.

The issue of the high proportion of Jews in the liberal professions and particularly the film industry was already on the agenda of the Horthy regime soon after it came to power. The ‘Szeged Idea’ was the term for the somewhat nebulous philosophy and programme of right-wing radicals and counter-revolutionaries who rallied around Horthy. The main supporters of the movement were the dispossessed: fixed-income middle and lower-middle classes hit hard by the inflationary pressures of the post-war period, army officers of the disintegrated Hungarian army, and a veritable flood of refugee bureaucrats and their families, estimated at 300,000 from the territories ceded to the successor states.38 Many tens of thousands lived in abandoned boxcars for years.

After the war university quotas discriminating against Jews were introduced in (p.303) Norway, Finland, Scotland, and later in the United States without being tied to any form of legally instituted discrimination.39 In Poland, almost all of the institutions of higher learning had a numerus clausus for new students. In the last few years before the Second World War, authorities took even more discriminatory measures against university students of Jewish origin, allocating them ‘ghetto benches’ at the back of the auditoriums and classrooms. Jewish students frequently revolted against these regulations and refused to sit there.40

Alajos Kovács, chief statistician of Hungary, prepared the statistical data for the numerus clausus law(Law XXV of 1920), which limited Jewish participation in institutions of higher learning to 6 per cent or the proportion of Jews within the national population. The Horthy regime made its first attempts to extend ‘proportionality’ to the film industry the same year. It regarded the media, and in particular filmmaking, as an important new entertainment and propaganda medium that needed to be highly regulated. Decree 8454/1920 would have removed Jewish filmmakers from the film business entirely; however, some of the more astute government ministers realized that this would also completely destroy what had been a vibrant industry. There were simply not enough skilled non-Jewish professionals in the film business. The government reversed the decree in 1923 with Decree 6900/1923, which it described as the ‘creation of a social partnership’. It made it possible for Jews to return to the film industry.

The stock market crashes of 1929 caused some film studios to fail, but by the early 1930s Hungary had started producing films again. The introduction of films with synchronized sound, known as ‘the talkies’, created even more demand for films. The first sound film to be made in Hungary was Csak egy kislány van a vildgon (There Is Only One Girl in the World), directed by Béla Gaál. The upsurge was also due to the fact that cinema tickets were relatively inexpensive and people sought to escape the harsh realities and hardships of everyday life.41

János Smolka, an established film producer, conducted a comprehensive study of the film business in Hungary just before the First Jewish Law was enacted in 1938. Smolka, ironically, was of Jewish origin. He found that the majority of films (ninety-three out of one hundred) in Hungary were produced by Jewish firms, and sixty-five of those were directed by Jewish directors. At the time there were only two companies run by Christians.42

These numbers brought about even greater demands for state supervision of (p.304) the film industry from discontented individuals and antisemitic groups, such as the extreme right-wing organization, Turul. István Jony, editor of Turul’s newspaper, Bajtárs, wrote that Hungary would be best served if it followed the lead of Italy and Germany in creating a government-supervised film chamber that could then control membership, specifically the membership of Jews. The radical right-wing newspaper Új Magyársdg was one of the first to demand that Jews be expelled from the film business entirely.

In 1937 the antisemitic newspaper Magyar Nemzeti Szocializmus frequently published calls such as the following: ‘More than a hundred films have been made in Hungary. Seventy-five per cent of the production companies were Jewish. We demand more Hungarian films. We want to see Hungarians at the head of production companies.’43

Such campaigns—pursued internally by antisemitic extremists and externally by the leaders of Nazi Germany—put the Horthy regime under pressure to create a system of chambers to limit the number of Jews in the liberal professions like that which had been established in Germany five years earlier. The Reichskulturkammer encompassed seven fields of arts and culture, including film. Although the first draft of the decree did not explicitly mention Jews, within two years of its establishment, in 1935 , the chamber system in Germany was restructured and Jews were purged from its membership.44

While the First Jewish Law was under consideration in May 1938, fifty-nine Christian intellectuals and artists took out an advertisement in the daily newspaper, declaring it a ‘violation of the historical Magyar Jewish community of fate’, and declaring the exclusion of 400,000 Jewish citizens from the ranks of the nation ‘a shame on Magyardom’. Among the signatories were the world-renowned musicians and composers Zoltán Kodály and Béla Bartók, writers Lajos Zilahy and Zoltán Szabó, artist Aurél Bernáth, and literary scholar László Boka.45

In 1938 the Horthy regime bowed to the internal and external pressures. The First Jewish Law (Law XV of 1938), passed on 29 May, created the chamber system. The law was entitled: ‘Rendelet a társadalmi és a gazdasági élet egyensúlyanak hatékonyabb biztosításárol’ (’Statute to Ensure the More Effective Protection of the Equilibrium of Social and Economic Life’). The First Jewish Law was a break with the official legal position of the Jews in Hungary that had been in place for more than forty years: that Judaism was one of the ‘accepted’ religions and no legal provisions could single out Jews. The law ordered the establishment of (p.305) separate chambers for members of the press, theatre, film arts, legal, engineering, and medical professions, as well as those employed in the field of business and economic life. Sub-section 6095 created the Theatre and Film Chamber. The law determined that the Jewish membership of the professional chambers be limited to a maximum of 20 per cent.

In bringing forward these antisemitic laws, however, the government was at odds with itself. On 26 August 1938 the minister of the interior, Ferenc Keresztes-Fischer, signed the decrees creating the professional chambers, including the Theatre and Film Chamber. Two days later, on 28 August, the government arrested many prominent fascists on charges of agitation and disrupting the peace, including Ferenc Szálasi, the leader of the Arrow Cross party. Among the government’s evidence was a detailed analysis of articles by Ferenc Szálasi, describing how his writings were ‘maliciously directed against one religious group, namely the Jews’.46 The indictment states further: ‘Because of the content of the writings, the Crown finds Ferenc Szálasi guilty of inciting hatred on the part of Christians towards Jews, moreover, that these writings further incite the deliberate and forceful overthrow of the laws of state and order of civil society.’47

The conflicted nature of antisemitism within the government was further evident in the convoluted administrative make-up of the chamber itself. From its establishment, the effectiveness of the film chamber was weighed down by bureaucracy. The minister of religion and education appointed five members to the planning committee, including the committee president. The prime minister, the ministry of the interior, the minister for justice, and the minister for trade each selected one member, bringing the number of members to nine. As a result, there were disagreements over the jurisdiction of the chamber and which ministry would be the final arbiter of rulings and enforcer of decisions. The chamber was mandated to start its activity on i January 1939.48

The provisions of the First Jewish Law had barely been implemented when discussions got under way regarding the Second Jewish Law, which would define Jews as a race. The intentions of the government, in effect to emulate the laws of Nazi Germany, met with strong resistance from the bourgeois liberal opposition, led by Károly Rassay and the Social Democrats. The government proposed a series of measures to speed up parliamentary procedure by creating a new category of laws, which, if the government so requested, could be categorized as being of ‘extraordinary urgency’. Such laws could be forced through Parliament within three days.

Prime Minister Béla Imrédy failed to win the support of his own party for the proposal. Both the conservative wing of the government party and adherents of the moderate István Bethlen were alarmed by the coercive tactics of the government. (p.306) As a result, sixty-two deputies withdrew from the government party, the government lost its majority, and Imrédy was defeated and resigned. However, Horthy reappointed Imrédy four days later as he was the only person acceptable to the Germans. Opposition was so strong that the bill proposing the Second Jewish Law remained on the Parliament’s agenda for four months ( January to May 1939) before it became law.49

Unlike the First Jewish Law, which concerned mainly employees and professionals, the new law also affected the Jewish middle and upper classes. Its declared aim was to promote ‘economic transformation’ and to bring about a ‘change of guard’ in finance and industry in favour of the new Magyar middle class.50 The aim of the law, as Imrédy announced to a joint parliamentary committee, was ‘that capital in Hungary should work under Christian direction’.51 Another radical element was the plan to promote the emigration of the Jews.52

The Jewish laws established a system of professional chambers, and limited the number of Jewish members in each chamber, initially to 20 per cent, then a year later to 6 per cent. The idea of compulsory membership in professional chambers, a modern modification of the medieval guilds, may have been copied from the Italian corporately structured economy. The laws were designed to target Jewish lawyers, physicians, engineers, journalists, directors, producers, and actors.

Jewish community leaders were aware of the impact the laws would have on Jews in the liberal professions. Editorials and articles in Egyenlőség, the Jewish integrationist weekly, began expounding on the unfairness of the law a year ahead of its implementation. On the first page of the April 1939 issue of Egyenlőség, Sándor Eppler, secretary general of the Israelite Congregation of Pest, wrote about the proposed Jewish laws and their restrictions. In advance of the laws, Eppler discussed their impact: ‘The Jewish laws will affect not only employees, but also those who provide employment, in fields such as business, commerce, industry, credit and transportation.’ He estimated that 40 per cent of the 425,000 Hungarian Jews would lose their employment or be affected by a family member losing their employment. The laws would ‘affect the Jewish community in a catastrophic way’.53 Randolph Braham estimated that the laws affected some 15,000 Hungarian Jewish professionals, with the total number of Jewish families affected estimated at 50,000.54

On 5 May 1939 Hungary adopted the Second Jewish Law (Law IV of 1939), which defined Jews as a race. If an individual had one parent or two grandparents who were Jewish, Hungarian law now considered that person to be Jewish.

(p.307) Although filmmakers’ membership of the chamber had already been determined at the beginning of 1939 by the First Jewish Law, the Second Jewish Law meant members had to reapply under much stricter terms and more invasive questions.The top of the second application form explicitly stated: ‘for those chamber members who have been admitted priorto 30 June 1939’.55 Of the twenty-nine questions, seventeen dealt with religion, including:

7. If you have changed religion, when did that take place and what was your religion prior to conversion?

10. If your father changed his religion, when did that happen and what was his religion prior to conversion?

11. If your mother changed her religion, when did that happen, and what was her religion prior to conversion?

17. Among your grandparents, did any of them change their religion, and if they did, what religion did they belong to prior to conversion?

18. What is the date of your marriage?

19. From this marriage, were there any children born prior to 5 May 1939?

20. What are the dates of birth of the children and when were they baptized?

21. Do you have an agreement with your spouse that any of your children will be raised according to the Jewish faith?

22. Do you have any Jewish ancestors born prior to 1 January 1849 and what are their names?56

Impact of the Chamber System

At the same time the Hungarian film industry was experiencing a boom: thirty to fifty films were produced each year. The existing facilities, Hunnia, and the studios of the Hungarian Film Office could not accommodate the increase in production.57 In 1941 a new modern studio, the Star Production Facility, had to be opened. Most of the actors, directors, writers, theatre owners, and film executives of Jewish origin, realizing the intent of the law, did not bother to apply to join the chamber and were no longer able to legally participate in the filmmaking industry. The Hungarian film industry lost two of its finest directors: Béla Gaál and István Székely. Székely, who directed and wrote over three dozen films in Hungary, left and established himself, under the name Steve Sekely, in Hollywood. Béla Gaál, (p.308) who had over thirty-one film credits to his name, including some of the most memorable films of this era in Hungary, such as Meseautó (The Dream Car), Aranyember (Golden Man), and János vitéz (Janos the Valiant), stayed and was deported in 1944 and died in Dachau. Some of the best actors and actresses, including Franciska Gaál, Irén Ágay, and Szakáll Szo’ke, left for the United States and attempted to build new careers for themselves in Hollywood, but not all were successful.

Among those who left, Gyula Kabos suffered greatly. Kabos went to film school in 1905 and soon afterwards began his career as a stage and film actor in Budapest. He was a popular figure in silent films but had a difficult time adjusting to sound. However, he soon learned to play a wide range of roles and became one of the hardest-working and most sought-after actors in the Hungarian film industry. Kabos emigrated reluctantly to the United States in 1939, where he had little success. His English was poor, and he ended up in low-paying, short-term acting roles. In the autumn of 194i he suddenly became ill and died shortly afterwards in New York City at the age of 57. While it is difficult to estimate the number of ruined careers and lives, Gyula Kabos is certainly an example of an outstanding, well-loved actor whose career and life were destroyed by the Jewish laws.

The Second Jewish Law did not end all Jewish participation in the world of film. Once again, the conflicted nature of the antisemitism became evident, as ‘straw corporations’ were created in which much of the creative and financial work was performed by Jews, but with Christian frontmen.58 Jewish screenwriters’ names were replaced in film credits from 1938 onwards: Bors István, written by Károly Nóti, was credited to Endre Rodriguez;59 Tóparti látomás (Mirage by the Lake) by Árpád Herczeg was credited to Julianna Zsigray.60 Often, the replacement was a secretary or head of the catering department who was unable to say much about the aesthetics or production values of the film.

In Poland, with the exception of a few brave documentary filmmakers, such as Eugeniusz Cękalski, the country’sindependent film industry was annihilated by the German and Soviet invasions. Both invaders were suspicious of filmmakers fearing they might be spies. The Ministry of Propaganda formed a civilian unit that included filmmakers, Eugeniusz Cękalski, Romuald Gantkowski, and Stanislaw Lapmski. They were commissioned to travel around the country, recording the devastation and bombings. Once finished, they left the country through Romania.61 Other filmmakers escaped to Paris, where they became a part of the government-in-exile of General Wladyslaw Sikorski. When Germany invaded France in 1940, they fled to England and eventually to the United States. Many filmmakers, actors, (p.309) directors, and producers who stayed in Poland following the German invasion were either shot by firing squads or deported to concentration camps where they perished.62

Ideological and Pragmatic Antisemitism

The film industry in Hungary after the introduction of the chamber system in 1939 was chaotic and subject to the whims of government ministers and a complicated bureaucracy. The Hungarian government was subject to pro- and anti-Jewish forces: radical right-wing ideologists wanted to purge all Jews from the industry; many government officials and ministers had financial stakes in it.63 The introduction of the chamber system in Germany drove all the Jews out within two years; in Hungary, they continued to participate in the industry under pseudonyms, behind Christian frontmen, or even from behind bars.

The Second Jewish Law gradually affected every aspect of Hungarian society. The front-page headline of Egyenlőség on 11 May 1939 stated dramatically that ‘over 70,000 Jews [were] searching for their documents’.64 The order on the part of the government for every citizen to document their ancestry was complicated and burdensome. A large percentage of Hungarian Jews, who had become an integrated part of Hungarian society, felt shocked and betrayed by the new laws.

The Hungarian Jewish leadership responded with protestations and charity work. Members of the ousted Jewish theatre and film community established the National Hungarian Jewish Cultural Association (Országos Magyar Izrealita KözműVelődési Egyesulet; OMIKE). From 1939 onwards OMIKE was at the forefront of the cultural life of the community, promoting the activities of Jewish actors, singers, and artists who had lost their jobs due to the Jewish laws. OMIKE was highly successful in organizing theatre, opera, and musical presentations. In the first season alone, there were 125 presentations, with 38 different programmes, ranging from serious literary evenings to lively cabarets. The organizers and executives of OMIKE succeeded in obtaining the necessary permission for theatre and cultural performances to be held at the Goldmark Theatre in Budapest. Unemployed Jewish musicians formed a separate orchestra that presented additional concerts.65

Some of the correspondence of OMIKE has been preserved in the records of the Savings and Loan and Credit Union.66 These documents illustrate the efforts of the Jewish community to at least partially alleviate the economic difficulties and social isolation felt by many of those who lost their positions due to the Jewish laws.

(p.310) The last theatre presentation organized by OMIKE took place on 19 March 1944, the day the Germans occupied Hungary. That same day, during a dress rehearsal of a Moliére comedy in Szeged, German soldiers marched in and shut down the theatre, permanently ending the activities of OMIKE.


Jews were at the forefront of the film industries of both Hungary and Poland and also produced a large number of films in Yiddish in both countries. Hungary enjoyed more than twenty years of relative peace and prosperity until 1914, and the film industry flourished. At the same time, the Polish territories were ruled by three different empires, seriously impeding the development of a national film industry. Once Poland was reunited in 1918, the film industry was able to develop, albeit restrained by serious economic problems and other hardships.

In Hungary, the First and Second Jewish Laws of 1938 and 1939 institutionalized antisemitism and forced most Jews out of the industry. In that same period, Poland was invaded by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. These invasions once again quashed any possibility of an independent film industry in Poland until well after the end of the Second World War.

The Theatre and Film Chamber, created by the Jewish laws, was mismanaged by bureaucrats and undermined by high-ranking ministers. The result was a largely ineffective governing body. Other similarly bureaucratic governing bodies for the film industry were also established, further complicating the jurisdiction and impact of the chamber. What became a widely practised form of conflicted anti-semitism in the upper reaches of government undermined the chamber’s work, allowing the Hungarian film industry to continue throughout the Second World War, in response to a growing demand for Hungarian film.

Despite the chamber’s problems, the government managed to construct a new paradigm. Before the First World War, antisemitism was not officially tolerated in Hungary. By establishing the professional chambers, the government not only created the institutional framework for the exclusion of Jews but also officially sanctioned antisemitism, thereby facilitating its escalation.67 According to some estimates, tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews were deprived of their livelihoods by the chamber system. These laws were part of a larger programme of ‘social death’ that isolated and humiliated the Jewish citizens of Hungary.68

For many Jews in the film industry, the Jewish laws were a warning to emigrate and re-establish their careers elsewhere. Filmmaking provided a relatively inexpensive (p.311) mass entertainment which was in great demand, especially during the war, but it required individuals with very specialized skills and it was difficult, if not impossible, to replace creative directors, producers, and screenwriters. The best cinematographers and editors had not just technical skills but also an ‘artistic eye’. In order to retain some semblance of a film industry, straw corporations were widely employed, especially in Hungary. This system meant that Christians were named in the important roles, with Jewish employees listed in insignificant positions, although the directors and screenwriters were Jews. During this period, Jews all but disappeared from Hungarian film credits or were represented by fictional names. Ironically, this system protected many Jewish members of the film community and allowed them to remain productive and alive for far longer than professionals in other industries. This precarious situation lasted until October 1944, when the fascist regime of Ferenc Szálasi seized power and Arrow Cross thugs began murdering Jews on the streets of Budapest. At this point, the Hungarian film industry collapsed. Some Jewish filmmakers were able to escape or go into hiding. Others were deported and killed. As filmmakers in both Hungary and Poland discovered, any creative venture requires full freedom to flourish. (p.312)


This article was made possible thanks to Susan Papp’s tenure as Tziporah Wiesel Fellow at the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. She is grateful to her adviser, Doris Bergen of the University of Toronto, for her encouragement and guidance. She looks forward to continuing her research into this intriguing aspect of Hungary’s interwar history.

(1) R. Fulford, ‘Dream Merchants: Jews, Photography and Andre Kertesz’, Queen’s Quarterly, 112/2 (2005), 220–33.

(2) Ibid.

(3) J. Cunningham, Hungarian Cinema: From Coffee House to Multiplex (London, 2004), 7.

(4) S. Skaff, The Law of the Looking Glass: Cinema in Poland, 1896–1939 (Athens, Ohio, 2008), 12–20.

(5) M. Haltof, ‘Film Theory in Poland before World War II’, Canadian Slavonic Papers, 40 (1998), 67.

(7) Ibid. 23–4.

(8) See J. Hoberman, Bridge of Light: Yiddish Film between Two Worlds (New York, 1991), 5.

(9) H. B. Segal, ‘Culture in Poland during World War I’, in A. Roshwald and R. Stites (eds.), European Culture in the Great War: The Arts, Entertainment, and Propaganda, 1914–1918 (Cambridge, 1999), 82.

(12) I. Nemeskürty, Magyar Film, 1939–1944 (Budapest, 1980), 31.

(13) Ibid. 32.

(14) R. Patai, The Jews of Hungary: History, Culture, Psychology (Detroit, 1996), esp. 433–7.

(15) P. Kenez, The Coming of the Holocaust: From Antisemitism to Genocide (Cambridge, 2013), 63–4.

(16) M. Haltof, Polish National Cinema (New York, 2002), 5.

(17) For a filmography of Polish films between 1896 and 1939, see Skaff, The Law of the Looking Glass, 190–209.

(18) N. Gross, Film żydowski w Polsce (Kraków, 2002), 32.

(20) Cited Ibid.

(24) Cited Ibid. 101.

(25) Cited Ibid. 171.

(26) Cited Ibid. 178.

(28) Cited Ibid.

(29) Ibid. 230.

(31) Ibid. 56.

(32) Cited Ibid. 284.

(33) Cited Ibid.

(34) Cited Ibid. 296.

(35) ‘Polacy chodzą tylko do polskich kin’, Falanga, 6 July 1938; ‘Sutenerzy i oszusci wyścigowi rządza “polskim” kinem’, Falanga, 25 Oct. 1938; ‘Tydzień bez żydowskiego kina’, Falanga, 1 Nov. 1938. We are grateful to Szymon Rudnicki for these references.

(36) ‘Projekt “częsciowego uregulowania stosunku osób narodowosci żydowskiej do Panstwa Polskiego”’, Kurjer Warszawski (Wydanie poranne), 19 Jan. 1939, pp. 4–5.

(37) I. Nemeskürty, Word and Image: History of the Hungarian Cinema (Budapest, 1968), 31–2.

(38) R. L. Braham, ‘The Holocaust in Hungary: An Historical Interpretation of the Role of the Hungarian Radical Right’, in id., Studies on the Holocaust: Selected Writings, 2 vols. (Boulder, Col., 2000), i. 69–97.

(39) J. Karabel, The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale and Princeton (Boston, Mass., 2005).

(40) American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, ‘Numerus Clausus’, Jewish Virtual Library, <www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/judaica/ejud_0002_0015_0_14969.html> (accessed 14 Apr. 2017).

(42) J. Smolka, Mesegép a valóságban (Budapest, [1938]), 9–10; see S. Tibor, Orségváltás után: Zsidókérdés és filmpolitika 1934–1944 (Budapest, 1997), 10.

(43) United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington DC (hereafter USHMM), RG-39.004, Reel 1: Magyar Nemzeti Szocializmus, 19 Dec. 1937.

(44) R. Vande Winkel and D. Welch, ‘Europe’s New Hollywood? The German Film Industry Under Nazi Rule’, in eid. (eds.), Cinema and the Swastika: The International Expansion of the Third Reich Cinema (Basingstoke, Hants., 2007), 1–24.

(45) Z. Vági, L. Csősz, and G. Kádár, The Holocaust in Hungary: Evolution of a Genocide (Lanham, Md., 2013), chs. 1, 4.

(46) USHMM, RG-39.004, Reel 1: Statement of claim against Szalasi, 28 Aug. 1938.

(47) Ibid. For the writings of Szálasi that the charges were based on, see USHMM, RG-39.004, Reel 1: Új Magyar Munkás, 15 Mar. 1937.

(49) R. Patai, The Jews of Hungary: History, Culture, Psychology (Detroit, 1996), 538.

(50) Ibid. 538–9.

(51) See N. Katzburg, Hungary and the Jews: Policy and Legislation 1920–1943 (Ramat Gan, 1981), 116.

(53) S. Eppler, ‘A Magyar Zsidóság Életkérdései’, Egyenlőség, 13 Apr. 1939.

(54) R. L. Braham, The Politics of Genocide: The Holocaust in Hungary, 2 vols. (Boulder, Col., 1994), i. 128–9.

(55) USHMM, RG-39.004, Reel 1: registration form for members of the chamber (n.d.).

(57) Several film studios had gone bankrupt even prior to the crash of 1929, including Corvin Studios, which was purchased by the Hungarian government and made into a modern, updated facility renamed Hunnia. The timing was fortuitous. By 1931 Hunnia had become a national institution and the centre of film production in the country (Nemeskürty, Word and Image, 71).

(58) D. S. Frey, ‘National Cinema, World Stage: A History of Hungary’s Sound Film Industry, 1929–1944’, Ph.D. thesis (Columbia University, 2003), 289; see also id., Jews, Nazis and the Cinema of Hungary: The Tragedy of Success, 1929–1944 (London, 2018).

(60) Ibid. 7.

(61) C. Ford and R. Hammond, Polish Film: A Twentieth Century History (London, 2005), 96.

(62) Ibid. 97.

(65) Magyar zsidó évkönyv (Budapest, 1941), 85–7.

(66) USHMM, MOL Z 89, Records of Gazdasági Takarék- és Hitelszövetkezet, 1938–47, Reel 1, OMIKE, correspondence.

(68) The term ‘social death’ was first used by sociologist Orlando Patterson and later incorporated into the work of Marion Kaplan (see O. Patterson, Slavery and Social Death (Cambridge, Mass., 1985); M. Kaplan, Between Dignity and Despair: Jewish Life in Nazi Germany (New York, 1998) ).