70 Hungarian postcards to the 70-year-old Israel

In Hungarian language in Israel?

Béla Pásztor’s Hungarian theatre company 1953–1957

By Anna Szalai - 2018-03-28

Translated from the Hungarian original: Bea Sara Goll

The question in the title was asked, of course, not today, but in the first years of establishing the State of Israel. According to the public sentiment back then, the exclusive use of the shared Hebrew language in the nation’s new home was a basic condition for a new identity. A journalist from one of the newspapers opined with outrage about his Tel-Aviv walk to his readers: he regarded it scandalous to spot foreign language books in the bookstores' windows, or the language chaos in the advertising columns. He criticized the city's negligence and carelessness: how could they let such an uncontrolled flood of foreign-language happen in the first Hebrew city.

There were those who disregarded the condemnation of the reporter and arranged a Yiddish lecture in the garden of the American Zionists of Tel-Aviv. After unknown persons detonated a bomb near the open air stage, an organization, extremely protective of the Hebrew language was the first one, of course, to be suspected of the attack.

It was no coincidence, but a specific issue, and the attacks aimed at the foreign-language press had also reached parliament. There were those, who would have hindered the dissemination of foreign-language press by means of ruthless regulations: they were spreading anti-Zionist sentiments and encouraging people to leave the country. Other opinions were milder: these press organs do not endanger the use of Hebrew, but they delay the integration of the olim [newcomers] into the Hebrew culture. The members of the parliament were arguing, but that did not change the fact that one of their wives had read her husband's comment on the debate in her native language paper.


In this general climate, the Hungarian-speaking journalists did not remain silent. Editorial members of two papers in Tel-Aviv, of the Új Kelet’s [New East] editor-in-chief, together with Ernő Marton and his journalist team who had all made aliyah from Kolozsvár, and of the Hatikva [the Hope] in Buenos Aires, (the only Zionist newspaper published in the galut, [the Diaspora]) spoke up on behalf of the Hungarian olim and for the protection of the Hungarian mother tongue. Among others, Mordechai Rössel wrote: “How many serious intellectuals are using the hoe badly, instead of using their pen eloquently, just because they can’t learn Hebrew? But they will stay in the country, raise children here, and teach them the love of the country and the people, because they know that the Jewish state is the last chance for the Jewish people's wellbeing. And if so, why this narrow-minded spirit of intolerance against the Hungarian word?” he asked, adding that it is the generation speaking seventy different languages that “is going to realize the dream of millennia, it will gather its minorities and build their tomorrow with its work and sweat.”

Béla Pásztor (1895-1966), a well-known and widely recognized actor and director in the world of film-theater-press in Pest and Berlin, landed in Israel in March 1949. He did not come with empty hands because even on the ship he had been working on his first stage production for his new home, while also organizing a purim party with his fellow passengers on the voyage. True, things did not all turn out to be according to his enthusiastic plans, but the enterprising director did not stop, and after some experimenting with films, on August 27, 1953, Béla Pásztor‘s Hungarian theater had their opening night on the stage of the Rama cinema of Ramat Gan. According to the press release of the time, the over twelve-hundred seats of the theater were all taken, the standing room was full, extra seats were brought in, and still  hundreds of people had to miss that day's theater experience. The Ferenc Molnár play, Játék a kastélyban [The Play at the castle] was celebrated with frantic applause, and toured Israel to Haifa, Jerusalem, Tel-Aviv, with Netanja's audience to end up “actually demanding” that the play be presented to them as well.

Gizella Marton, the critic of Új Kelet had reported about the success of the piece, and in the following years her articles also reported on each of the company's newest shows, each even more successful than the previous productions. The Play at the castle provided legitimacy to the Hungarian mother tongue audience and the initiative of Béla Pásztor. The ensemble could not have received more recognition in the atmosphere of language wars. Gizella Marton wrote: “Contrary to all my logical counter arguments – that the new waves of olim ought to get used to the sound of Hebrew language, they ought not to entertain in a foreign language in order to avoid being permanently stuck at the periphery of intellectual life, etc. – the recognition has emerged that these performances are a direct benefit to the Hungarian jisuv“ [Jewish community of Israel].


In the playlist for the piece, Pásztor published a short writing and asked the question from our title: “In Hungarian language in Israel?“; and he replied, “We feel that with the pieces of outstanding Jewish writers we only serve the interests of culture and noble entertainment. Even if these Jews wrote in Hungarian and even if we play them in Hungarian.”

In October, the audience came to another premiere at Ohel-Shem in Tel-Aviv. Another Ferenc Molnár play, A doktor úr [The Doctor], was presented. Pásztor, as with the previous piece, again won the critics' enthusiastic praise as director and actor. After the successful launch of the theater company, the second premier was also popular among that generation originally of Hungarian mother tongue, who by now chatted in Hebrew with each other. David Giladi attended the show, just out of curiosity. Although in his Hebrew article on the performance he was forced to admit the high quality of the theater night, he displayed an obvious distaste in his experience. He considered the Hungarian language a disgrace in the room dedicated to the traditions of the Hebrew culture, he disliked the audience's formal dress, the tuxedos worn by men, and the jewels by the ladies. He was worried about the future of the audience that would stay away from the Hebrew theater: the Hungarian language press and entertainment would make it impossible for them to learn the language of the country.

It was not only the differences of opinion about language use that had made it difficult for a Hungarian theater company to function. Béla Pásztor's theater company - without a theater. But they were not the only one. The Hebrew-language theaters also brought their pieces to the audience in the diaspora on modern covered wagons - as Pásztor put it in one of his writings. The Hungarian theater company followed the audience and Pásztor also took care of the problem of allowing the audience to follow his company: he organized public bus transportation around the larger cities, sold theater tickets in Hungarian shops and in Hungarian libraries; he mostly held the rehearsals in his own home, and they performed when and where they could book an empty movie theatre, auditorium, or culture center. Much was missing. But the most important thing was: the audience needed the Hungarian language theater according to the contemporary press; they came again and again for sold-out performances that required extra seating. How they covered their expenses - we would ask today. The members of the company, including Pásztor, had to provide for their meager livelihoods, but some of the proceeds were still donated to the HOH's social funds.

The founding director of the theater wanted to offer high quality artistic entertainment to his grateful audience. After the Ferenc Molnár pieces, they prepared rich revue programs for Hanukkah and Purim with lots of fun and laughter; opera and operetta, classical humorists of the Hungarian literature, and the parody of Israeli reality were put on stage. Béla Pásztor arranged, wrote or translated the plays, compiled the show, hosted it and played in it. He had met some of the members of his company already in Pest, and his pride were András Rónai and Marika Rózsa, who both played in Hebrew theaters as well. Sándor Faragó used to be a member of the Transylvanian theaters, Éva Holbán and Lilly Flóris, daughter of the violinist Ilona Fehér came from the Israeli opera. Bernard Lebovitz used to be a director of Slovakian theatres and Géza Werner the secretary of the Reinhardt theaters in Berlin and the assistant director of the Deutsches Theater. Ily Stephanides was well known at every stage of Transylvania, and János Sebor performed Czech plays and films in Czech, Slovak, German and Hungarian. Aladár Kálmán film director and actor functioned in Pásztor's Israeli films as a camera man. And this is not even the full list of the company.

An outstanding event within the history of the Hungarian theater was the guest appearance of Rózsi Bársony in Israel. The operetta star, celebrated throughout Europe, visited Israel two times (1955 and 1956). Her first song and dance parade was a multilingual production, she sang in seven languages, among them in Hebrew. The program's specialty was that Pásztor hosted it in Hungarian, and Joszef Goland, the excellent and popular singer in Hebrew. The Én és a kisöcsém [I and my little brother] operetta was also shown and both lead roles were played by Rózsi Bársony. The success of the piece is indicated by the fact that in the Új Kelet, László Pataki reported on the show in his regular column “Zeneélet” [Music world], which was normally dedicated to classical concerts. Success continued when Bársony during her second guest show performed, together with Joszef Goland and other Israeli actors in Hebrew - 101 times. All of Rózsi Bársony's performances were outstanding events, not only in the history of the Hungarian, but also in the Hebrew press and theater. The enthusiastic reception was repaid by her in the form of special gala evenings at the end of both visits.

In 1956, a new guest arrived and played with the members of Pásztor's theater company: Pál Jávor, in the title role of Ferenc Molnár's Liliom. Béla Pásztor's could not have invited such guest artists on his own; he partnered with Dezső Gáti and Concert Managers Co. for hosting foreign actors.

The end of the summer of 1957 is the closing chapter in the story of Béla Pásztor's Israeli theater company.  On August 31, in the Ohel-Shem of Tel-Aviv, they had the opening night of The diary of Anna Frank. The director, Béla Pásztor plyed the role of the father, Anna Frank was played by Marika Rózsa. Its success has surpassed all previous ones. István Barzilay reviewed the performance in the Új Kelet: “The intention of this enthusiastic little company was to turn Thalia's temple into a true temple – and they succeeded with this  - by producing a performance that could be described with only one word: exemplary. Not only consideration it relatively and by taking into account the difficult local circumstances, but also in comparison with other Anna Frank performances: exemplary. [...] one could sense the terror and agony on Béla Pásztor's stage even during scenes, provoking cheerful laughter on stage and in the auditorium. The set divided in four parts, where at times dialogues and actions took place simultaneously, were harmoniously linked together in a large architectural unit. The Hanukkah scene captured the hearts and shook up the viewers, because it was not artificial, but displayed a noble sort of intention and artistic play. The performance was unequivocal and smooth because the director's careful cuts hindered all that would have disrupted its perfect harmony.”


The Israeli Hungarian theater has been criticized several times for not showing Hebrew pieces, or for not educating its audience to embrace the Hebrew culture. Pásztor’s company replied to the criticism with its program offering. The revues included Hungarian and Hebrew numbers, and the repertoire of the company and that of Hebrew theaters overlapped on several occasions. Liliom was performed with Jávor as a guest in Hungarian, but it was played at the Habima in Hebrew three years earlier. In 1954, they presented the social satire János of Bús-Fekete László in Hungarian, but three years earlier Kameri played it in Hebrew, in Emil Feuerstein's translation. Three years after the Hungarian performance of the French play A kis kunyhó  [the Little Cottage], the Do-Re-Mi Theater under the title Three on an Island played it in Hebrew. The Hungarian and Hebrew performances of the operettas were associated with Rózsi Bársony. The last, most successful show of the Pásztor ensemble, The diary of Anna Frank was shown at the Habima in Hebrew a few months before the Hungarian version, and the two theaters played at the same venues in Hebrew and Hungarian.


These meeting points of the Hebrew and Hungarian theater performances underline the words of the founding director and actor Béla Pásztor: “The theater educates people, teaches them to behave, to feel and to communicate their feelings. The line of theater experience must not be broken. As long as the foreign olim cannot understand Ivrit, let them watch theater in a language that is understandable to them, because it also reserves them for the Hebrew theater, and will educate them - as a future Hebrew audience. You must not give up the habit of going to the theater!”


In January 1958, Béla Pásztor returned to Berlin, one of the arenas of his career between the two world wars as a correspondent of Új Kelet. Some of his associates also left Israel; others remained, but moved away from the stage. The company was disbanded.

Between August 1953 and October 1957, Béla Pásztor's theater company had produced thirteen Hungarian-language productions on stage, viewed by 1000-1600 spectators at a time. Rózsi Bársony's first performance was repeated on thirteen occasions, Anna Frank had ten performances, Pál Jávor played Liliom eleven times. According to Pásztor's recollection, in addition to the Yiddish theater, only the Hungarian theater company was operating continuously during these years. Most of the advertisements and articles about them were published in the Új Kelet that was published in 15,000 copies during the week, and on weekends and on Holidays in 25,000 copies. Their praise may have on occasion been, fueled by enthusiasm, somewhat exaggerated, but with constant appreciation for the ever-increasing success of the company functioning under extraordinary circumstances.

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