70 Hungarian postcards to the 70-year-old Israel

Max Nordau: not a proud Hungarian

By Éva Vadász - 2018-04-17

Translated from the Hungarian original: Bea Sara Goll

Every major Israeli city has an elegant promenade or a street or square named "Max Nordau." In other words, this man, one of the fathers of Zionism, journalist, writer, politician, philosopher, and above all doctor Nordau, was a great man of Israel. Still, there is hardly any Israeli who would know that Nordau was Hungarian, let alone a Hungarian person who would have any idea at all about this huge man, a doctor in Paris, who as the other hemisphere of Theodor Herzl’s brain had dreamed up Israel.


Max Nordau was enormous, not only as a polymath producing uninterrupted, spectacular work, but also literally speaking. When three years after his death in 1926 he was brought back to Tel-Aviv, the original gate on the eastern side of the Trumpeldor cemetery proved to be too narrow. Today's main entrance was cut out to accommodate Nordau's body and the crowd accompanying him on his last journey. Numerous Tel- Aviv notables, including Meir Dizengoff, then-Mayor of Tel-Aviv, and Nordau's daughter, Maxa Nordau, gave  obituaries at the mausoleum erected for him.

Birth registration of Nordau in the parish book of the Pest Rabbinical Office- photo: Hungarian Jewish Museum and Archives

The man known world-wide as Max Nordau was born under the name Simon Miksa Südfeld in Pest, on July 29, 1849. His father Gabriel Südfeld was an orthodox rabbi and a poet. Nordau had left the traditional Jewish life young and became an agnostic example of the assimilated Hungarian Jew. "When I turned 15, I left the Jewish way of life and the Torah study. Jewishness has remained only a memory and I have felt German since then. Only German," quotes him the short Hungarian Wikipedia note, most likely translated from the extensive English entry.


His tireless desire for action is best demonstrated by his many different careers he had successfully pursued.


Nordau the young journalist


Nordau's first article appeared at the age of 18 on November 9, 1867, in the Pester Lloyd. Pester Lloyd was a Hungarian paper published in German language, which was read by citizens of Pest who knew German. In the same year he enrolled at the Medical School of the University in Pest. He spent the summer of 1875 In Spain and was bitter about the idea of returning to Pest. In those months, his writings did not appear in the columns of the paper; he wrote about his experiences in Spain only in November, and after breaking up with Pester Lloyd, he published some pieces in the Neues Pester Journal. In his correspondence with his sister, Nordau had dismissed Pest as a Provinzstadt, [small town] Miksa's Falk’s paper the Pester Lloyd as a Provinzblatt [provincial paper] which nobody would ever pay attention to in Vienna. Nordau wrote articles for the Lloyd until 1876, when he received his medical diploma; at that time he had left for a world tour and sent reports from his travels through St. Petersburg, Moscow, England, Paris, Iceland and many other exciting places.

Youth Portrait of Max Nordau - photo: Hungarian Jewish Museum and Archives

Nordau the pathfinder


The young Max Nordau, his profession well-founded, was searching for the right place to pursue his career. In his articles he discussed that he had been seriously thinking about ​​choosing Berlin as the right location for permanently establishing himself, but walking through its streets he could not but think of war and victory: everywhere he saw military barracks and military buildings; alone the whole layout of the city, which would not tolerate any irregularity, he found horrifying. He considered the fact that Bismarck was regarded by the Germans as a demigod, a genius, chilling. Bismarck was surrounded by unlimited admiration, and his image could not be missing from any of the houses of the loyal patriots. His name and deeds were counted in thousands of verses, they inspired music, and children and boats were named after him, and the representatives demonstrated never hitherto seen respect for him during personal encounters. But even this was not enough for Nordau when carping about the Bismarck cult:


"The Bismarck cult extends to everything that the great man can consider his, or somehow related to him. [...] the public respect even covers Bismarck's dog! Serious political papers deal with the beast in long discussions; I hardly exaggerate if I say that they attribute witty statements to her, putting words into her mouth –excuse me, into her muzzle [...]. As a matter of fact, I can tell you that the subscribers of Gartenlaube [Garden Arbor] repeatedly asked for the portrait of the dog, probably next to her curriculum vitae and character profiling."

Hungarian letter by Max Nordau - photo by: Hungarian Jewish Museum and Archives

Nordau the determined doctor


Nordau, after getting his medical diploma, traveled to Paris for further training. His father was no longer alive, but he took his beloved mother and sister, Lotti with him. At that time, one of Paris’ most prominent personalities, Jean Martin Charcot began using hypnosis in the treatment of various mental illnesses. Nordau became his enthusiastic student at the Hospice de la Salpêtrière hospital, where, apart from psychiatry, he also studied obstetrics and gynecology at Professor Martineau's hospital. He also attended the lectures of two of Paris' famous gynecologists, Professors Galland and Tarnier. In addition to clinical studies, Nordau also performed pathological work at the Hotel Dieu hospital for poor people. It demonstrates his amazing stamina that in Spring 1878 he published his first book in Berlin, Aus dem wahren Milliardenlande [From the true country of billions]. But the life in Paris did not last long. This time, however, it was not his restless blood that made him change, but his mother and sister who did not speak French and have never warmed up to Paris. He finally gave in to their pressure and decided to return to their homeland. Nordau wanted to open an obstetrician’s practice in the Hungarian capital, and the Pester Loyd warned that Dr. Max Nordau the famous journalist would abandon his writing, return home to Pest, and only seek to pursue his medical career. In the Autumn of 1878, the Nordau family was again in Pest: Max opened his office at Nagy Korona utca 22, with daily office hours 3-5 both as an obstetrician and a gynecologist. In January 1879 he presented a lecture at the Hungarian Royal Medical Society meeting. Everything went well in Pest: there was only one big problem: there were no patients. This was because he was not known as a doctor in Pest. He was not the kind who would patiently wait for the people to visit. He wanted to move to new cities, mostly in Austria or Germany, where he would have liked to open a more successful practice. His friends, Ármin Vámbéry, the famous traveler and linguist, and his student, Ignatius Goldziher, the Islam expert, talked him out of his plans and directed him to Paris. In August 1880 he took care of his affairs and with his mother and sister Lotti left the Hungarian capital for Paris for good, this time.

Medical certificate - photo: Hungarian Jewish Museum and Archives

Nordau the unstoppable writer


Promising writer of travel books, plays, poems and essays in 1883: with his A konvencionális hazugságok modern kultúréletünkben (Die conventionellen Lügen der Kulturmenschheit) [Conventional lies in our modern cultural life] he launched a vitriolic attack against the institutionalized systems unworthy of  19th century persons, with special regard to organized religion. The book was banned in Russia and Austria, but it was translated into many languages, and had more than 73 editions. Nordau wrote in his preface to the fourth edition published in November 1983:


"... There is only one reproach by my critics that I would not want to leave unanswered. It is telling that this appears in every one of my attackers’ writings as if they had agreed upon it beforehand: they say I have no authority to write such a book. Oh, how I recognize my dear Germans here. Have I no authority? Why beat around the bush? Tell me what you really think: you want to say that I'm neither a professor nor a counselor, I have no title, I have no office. ‘What, a free, independent writer dares to be serious about dealing with scientific issues, thinking independently, investigating and offering solutions? This really can’t be tolerated. If you want to write at all costs, write lyrical poems; this is the birthright of all Germans. But to research the truth? Want to teach? To break into an area that is reserved only to members of the guild in the possession of a certificate? Hey! Out with the intruder? Send the dogs after him! Uninvited! Uninvited!’ These are the souls entangled in the ranks of those policing the world who would deny me the calling of searching for the truth and pronouncing it too if I think I've found it; a calling that is the duty of all rational and honest people, a well-known species. They have their predecessors in history and legends ... "


Following the attack on irrationality, egoism and nihilism, in 1892 he published his work, Entartung [Degeneration] which today is regarded as a philosophical, near philistine critic of modern art and literature. In his main work, he criticized artworks he defined as degenerate as well as the effects of social phenomena such as rapid urbanization and its perceived effects on the human body.


Nordau was a good writer. He has published hundreds of articles in newspapers, he has written many novels and dramas, but most important are his cultural criticisms, of which the Paradoxes are still to be mentioned and which have had huge success worldwide and have achieved many editions. The readers ate up his cosmopolitan, atheist, enlightened words, and eagerly consumed his views attacking the Bible.


Nordau the Zionist Democrat


Nordau made friends with Theodor Herzl a journalist during this period in Paris who entertained similar views. Nordau, similarly to Herzl, was deeply shocked by the wave of anti-Semitism, mass hysteria and pogroms triggered by the Dreyfus affair. He turned to Zionism as a solution.


Nordau played a central role in the Zionist congresses, which were vital to the birth of Zionism. Herzl initiated the idea of ​​a Jewish newspaper and an elite "Jewish Association" after the Dreyfus trial to spread the ideas of Zionism. Nordau was the one who persuaded Herzl that Zionism had to be democratic, despite not being able to represent every Jewish group. He convinced Herzl about the necessity of co-operation. The emergence of democracy in the Zionist idea contributed greatly to its success. The first of the 11 congresses was organized by Nordau on August 29 and 31, 1897, in Basel. His intellectual reputation was one of the guarantees that the first serious Zionist event garnered proper attention. The fact that Nordau, the crazy essayist and journalist was Jewish was appreciated by many at the first World Congress of Zionists. Herzl was naturally at the heart of the events, he gave the first speech at the congress, and Nordau followed him with the evaluation of the Jewish situation in Europe. Nordau used statistics to depict the doubtful situation of Eastern Judaism, the fate of the Jewish people and a commitment to a democratic Nation State.


Nordau's speeches at the Zionist World Congress re-examined Judaism, especially Jewish stereotypes. He fought against the typical view of Jews as merchants or businessmen, arguing that the most modern financial innovations, such as insurances, were not introduced by Jews. He saw the Jewish people as having a unique talent for politics, which they could not accomplish without their Nation State. While Herzl stressed the need for an elite in politics, Nordau insisted that the congress be democratic, and vote on key issues.

New Year's greetings with Herzl and Nordau's portrait - photo: Hungarian Jewish Museum and Archives

Nordau the inspiration for Hebrew sport


The idea of ​​establishing Jewish national sports organizations was inspired by Max Nordau's inspirational speech in 1898, during the 2nd Zionist Congress. At the Basel Congress, he gave a speech that constituted the all-time greatest encouragement for sports. He said something to the effect of:


"The history of our people suggests that we used to be in a powerful physical shape. But today it is not so. Others have successfully defeated us physically. The lives of the persecuted Jews of the medieval ghetto were transformed into abomination, and they could not defend themselves in the narrow alleys of the ghettos. Nobody can deny us the necessary movement that is needed to make our body healthy. We renew our youth in our aging years: Let's make ourselves strong! Wide chest, strong arms, legs, brave appearance! We will be fighters! Physical deficiencies will be improved by physical exercise. But the key to building our health is not only found in our body but also in our spirit, and we Hebrews will achieve better sports results, so our self-confidence will improve. Long live the sport! Forward to Hebrew Sports Clubs, flourish!"


Max Nordau


The Zionist leader, the renowned writer, the devoted obstetrician and psychiatrist who had treated his patients for 34 years, married a Protestant widow who had given birth to their daughter Maxa in the year of the Basel Congress, even before their wedding. Anna would have been willing to convert to the Jewish faith, but Max Nordau did not ask for that, and so their daughter, Maxa, remained also a Protestant. He spoke at the funeral of his father in Hebrew and said,


"Here I see how deep my love for my father is, and that his dream of Palestine has come true. In my sorrow I'm happy that my father can rest in Palestine."


If you walk through one of the streets named after him in Israel, you can think of the lessons learned from his life and work still valid even today, and you can tell the passersby about the greatness of Max Nordau.

The reading room of Ahavat Zion, in Pozsony [Bratislava] - photo: Hungarian Jewish Museum and Archives

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