70 Hungarian postcards to the 70-year-old Israel

The eternal Ficsúr
András Rónai

By Sándor Silló - 2018-03-25

Translated from the Hungarian original: Bea Sara Goll

An actor lives as long as those who have seen him play. For fifty years I've been watching how being forgotten devours their memory when they disappear from the stage, or when they are taken off the movie screens. Even the movies do not ensure their survival, they only mean a few additional decades. Who is watching old movies today? Let's say for example like “Somewhere in Europe.” Who remembers Ficsúr?


Andriska, as he was called by the entire profession in his two countries, tried to avoid being forgotten: he wrote a memoir (though he would have considered this word too grand).


András Rónai (András Rőmer) - Abraham Ronai

September 14, 1932 Budapest, Király utca 21. - April 30, 2005, Tel-Aviv.


Everything else can come from first hand.


From his book called “Csillag a bocskain” it appears that there are people who exist only through their stories. It's a book that reads as if from Terézváros to Tel-Aviv, from Moscow to Vienna, WWII to the Lebanese War, all had taken place in a theatre lounge. Since  I have missed his life on stage, I want to at least listen to the actor telling his stories:


“I was playing Feri Ács, the leader of the Red Shirts in our performance of the Pál utcai fiúk [Paul Street boys}, that was attended by the famous European movie director Géza Radványi. From there he contracted me for the role of Ficsúr [Dandy] in Somewhere in Europe. At that time, I had no idea what a powerful effect this film would have on my long career. In the eyes of Hungarians living in Israel, I remained forever Ficsúr, no matter how many of the most beautiful roles from the world’s best plays I had played. This fact cannot be proven any better, than by the spectacular example of Shakespeare's Merry Wives of Windsor.  After the hot opening night of the comedy, having played the role of Falstaff, languishing at the enormous success of the performance, I walked out the stage door of the Israeli National Theater. Outside, a middle-aged lady, speaking with a strong Hungarian accent, was waiting for me with a huge bouquet in her hand.

- Maestro, congratulations! You were brilliant ...

- Thank you very much.

- ... in the movie Somewhere in Europe.

He repeatedly mentions in the book that every thread in his life leads to this film:


“In 1948, on a beautiful sunny winter morning, I met László Szirtes on the Ring, the very tough but by all well-respected and loved production manager of Somewhere in Europe. He was an elegant, precise man. Even his always fresh, sharply ironed overalls were replaced daily. At that time the latest trend was to wear a colorful nylon watch band.  He coordinated even these with the color of his work clothes. Even during a full month of outdoor shots, he, freshly shaved, came in early in the early morning to see if everyone was in place. He demanded such discipline also from others. Like a real general, when in fact he had just returned from the forced labor camp. I was being spoiled by the whole crew, starting with the director Géza Radványi, except by Szirtes. He barely returned my greetings. This was also the case during the interior shooting at the Hunnia, which also lasted for one month. I did not understand why I was given such a cold shoulder by him. I finally found out when I had accidentally bumped into him on the Ring. As it turned out, he was angry with me all the time. He asked me what I was doing here. I told him that meanwhile I was being privately tutored, so I did not have to be in school and that I had something to do in the New York Palace. He asked the question again: “But what are you doing here? It is a pity to waste your talent in this system. Emigrate to Palestine, where you’ll become an excellent Hebrew actor.”  He turned and walked away. I was completely flabbergasted. I had no idea that Hebrew was at all spoken, let alone in the theater. I thought that this ancient language could only be used to pray ...


Four months later, in March 1949, I left my homeland.


Shortly before my defecting, Zoltán Várkonyi, who was then managing the Művész Színház [Artist Theater], invited me for the role of an adolescent in Margit Gáspár’s A Boldogság szigete [The Island of Happiness] directed by Zoltán Fábry, with Kiss Manyi as the female lead. We have already been rehearsing for a couple of weeks in a brilliant mood, certain of the future success, until one great morning Várkonyi stopped the rehearsal from the dark auditorium, came to the stage and said,


“Kids, this is a Norwegian piece.”

“How come?” we asked.

“She is in Oslo.”


With that he removed the piece from the show.


Who knows whether if the performance had been presented, and if it had also succeeded, perhaps I could not have left Hungary illegally. That I would not have succeeded with my career at home, that's for sure. I would not have been able to lie for several decades.”


With his friend, Ferenc Kishon, they started their Israeli life in a kibbutz. How could Rónai possibly not remember him of all people?


“Kishon said that, at the age of twenty-three, when he was already a layout editor, together with Béla Gádor, of  Ludas Matyi, [a Hungarian satirical weekly], owned by the communist party, he used to frequently meet Pál Királyhegyi in the corridor of the editorial office. According to Feri, he greeted his elder, an excellent humorist with shouting Freedom and with an uplifted, fisted hand, all in the true spirit of regulations. On one occasion, Királyhegyi called Kishon on it:


“Look, Ferike, we both came back from hell, what is this comedy? Why do you greet me with Freedom, when it’s just the two of us in the corridor and nobody can see us? Just call me Uncle Pali.


Upon which Kishon replied:


“You’ll see Uncle Pali why I am saying that!”


He later sent a letter from the kibbutz to Királyhegyi, which contained only one word: Freedom!


As all story telling at the theatre lounge, this one as well plays on a wide scale: grub, booze, women, wars, politics, and of course the theater. The then still existing Israeli Hungarian theater ...


"It should be known that these rare, large-scale theatrical evenings were a major social event for Israeli Hungarians. Great encounters happened at this time. Relatives, good friends, slowly forgotten lovers, who have not known of each other since the Shoa, not even whether the others had survived, often found each other again. Freshly coiffed with a perm, floating in clouds of perfume, the ladies held a veritable fashion show, competing with each other, not bothered by the heat of August in the halls, air-conditioned only weakly, but the more noisily by the fans at that time. In such a Hungarian theater night, it seemed as if the opening night audience of the old Vígszínház [Comedy Theatre] had been resurrected from its graves.”


... or the glory days of Israeli theater ...


"With the Ohel, [“tent”: Hebrew-language theatre company] we've traveled a lot, and put a lot of emphasis on the project of the Ministry of Culture, “Art for the people.” The institution was set up during the great wave of immigration following the founding of the State in order to embrace theater culture, but not the least for the masses coming from all over the world to learn the Hebrew language. Often we played classics for those who have never been in theater before. In a newly built settlement for newcomers from Iraq, during the show, I looked down at the front row and did not want to believe my eyes. An Iraqi new fellow citizen was breastfeeding an infant who had been fed with the Hebrew culture with the breast milk ... Who knows, maybe the little one is a theater critic today.”


I confess I have a bias for hunting for theater stories.


“In 1963, I became a member of the Nemzeti [Israel National Theatre], of which I am still a member. This theater was founded under the name of Habima [The Stage Theatre] in 1918 as the Hebrew studio of the Moscow Art Theater. Theatre directing was taught by Stansislavski and Vakhtangov. It is almost unbelievable that the permission for operating the theater in Hebrew - was signed by the young Stalin, the commissar of the Soviet minority affairs, with his own hands. With their first performance of Dibuk, they had a sensational success, but they did not stay in Moscow for a long time, and as a company of great repute from the beginning, they traveled all over Europe. Of course, their final goal was Palestine, where they came to the end of the 1920s. Not long after the proclamation of the State of Israel, Habima won the title of the Israel National Theater. When I arrived between the walls of the theater I considered sacred, I felt that I had achieved my goal. I can admit that from the beginning this was my dream, too. I still had the opportunity to play with some of Moscow's founding members who were walking up and down in the dressing corridors, absentmindedly, or tiptoeing behind the scenes, like devout priests meditating in the sanctuary.


Then every morning – even when she did not have a rehearsal that day – Hana Rovina, queen of the Hebrew stage had entered the actor’s canteen, and we all rose. She, an actress over seventy-five, then simply joined one of the tables, ordered her salt herring with nonchalance, in addition to the inevitable double cognac.


Today, all this has been lost in the past. I mean the respect for older actors. The cognac remained. This, unfortunately, is much more relevant to the discipline behind the scenes, more accurately to the lack of discipline and even to the style of acting. I know the world has changed. But so?!? Perhaps the pursuit of unnatural naturalness requires a diction that is difficult to understand?! I do not think so. One of my great predecessors said, “On stage, we must speak with pathos, but with natural pathos.” The theater has somewhere lost its solemnity and the viewer has the impression that the actor is straight off the street when coming on stage.”

I learned from dramaturgy that the end-monologue belongs to the lead protagonist. Even if he is no longer alive. But why would he not live?


"I have never felt so unmistakably the dual consciousness that for decades has been burning in my soul. On the one hand, if I did not completely commit myself to Zionism and the Jewish State, I could not have integrated fully into the unfamiliar new environment. On the other hand, I have not forgotten my origin for a moment, unlike many who partially deny this even to themselves, worried that they would thereby counteract their loyalty to Israel. Many can’t even ask for a glass of water flawlessly in Hebrew, but ashamed of it, they speak their mother tongue only broken, mixed with Hebrew words. This is nothing more than a false, pretentious self-betrayal. It is understandable that an injured generation came to the country after the Shoa. I also know of those who swore to never again set foot in the country where they had been so deeply humiliated, and their loved ones murdered. We need to understand this, too. The inhumane horrors, which the Germans and their Hungarian followers have committed, there can truly be no forgiveness. These crimes should not be forgotten, but in no way can a whole nation be condemned for this reason ... “

“I feel that no matter what the circumstances are, even if you want to, you can’t negate yourself. The concept of your homeland is primarily a never-changing geographic fact. Not to mention that when a sapling is implanted in an alien soil, it will always carry with it the nature and flavors of its origin. This fact can’t be changed by the influence of any ism. Why should one want to do that? The homeland has not done anything, so it should not be rejected or denied.”


András Rónai: Csillag a bocskain, Aura kiadó,2004.

Thanks go to the publisher in charge, Gábor Deák, for helping with the article.


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