70 Hungarian postcards to the 70-year-old Israel

Books become bridges
Sándor Gondos

By Sándor Silló - 2018-03-13

Translated from the Hungarian original: Bea Sara Goll

A legend in three acts: Sándor Gondos' bookshop in Budapest; Gondos Publishing House and Bookstore, Haifa; Gondos and Shoshana. One of the actors in the last act is Gero Shoshana, my good friend. I call her: “Would you like to write a story about Gondos?” “I have never written before; I was always just a reader, but I’ll send you what I can find” the answer was. I'm sitting here amidst the fragments of a whole life, but I have to tell you the story. The authors are Sándor Varga, Mária Markovits and I also have a surprise at the end.

“I was born in Erdőbénye in 1906; my father was the director of the Jewish school in Sátoraljaújhely. We were five siblings, and I'm fourth in the line. In Sátoraljaújhely, I graduated from the Piarist High school, followed by my studies in Vienna at the Hochschule für Welthandel, and after three semesters, I continued in Budapest from 1927 at the University of Economics. However, since the cash flow from home was very thin, I became an intern already during the university years at Tisza Brothers Books and Paper Trading, housed in the Jewish Community building in Buda. There have just been several financial reasons for why I ended up being a bookseller. However, because of my father's death, I not only had to cut short my university studies, but I also had to leave the Tisza Brothers – I had to make money. For a while I did so by way of selling stationery goods; meanwhile, on occasion, I also received orders for a book, which I acquired and delivered. I did not have a shop; I ran all this from my apartment. I started to sell books regularly at the events of the Zionist Association, and when the Association - if I remember correctly - moved from Király Street 36 to the boulevard Andrássy  67 (into exactly the same rooms where Ferenc Liszt had earlier founded the Academy of Music, and various Zionist organizations were occupying the entire first floor), a room was made available to me for the "Jewish book store” – says Sándor Gondos. And he goes on:


"I come from a conservative Jewish family; so, my positive Jewish attitude can be considered as a family inheritance, which is also demonstrated by the fact that my brother Béla became a member and later the president of the Makkabea. I myself became a member of the Viennese Bar Kokhba Zionist organization, and when I returned home, I promptly joined the Makkabea.”


And here, as always, he wants to talk about books; but I prefer to share more details from his life history, based on  Sándor Varga's interviews:


"... due to having sold more and more books, in 1935 I managed to rent a large store, a few steps from Oktogon, at boulevard Andrássy 53. (today: boulevard Népköztársaság - Eötvös street corner, now a post office) with five huge windows and very beautiful furnishings – designed by my wife, Margalit - I can say without boasting, it was one of the most beautiful bookstores in Budapest. The demand for our books grew nicely, and with the imported, Jewish-themed books, mostly in German, we made enough profit to live a decent, civilized life. [today, in 2018, boulevard Népköztársaság út is called boulevard Andrássy again]


“On the other side of boulevard Andrássy, just a few steps from the Gondos Bookstore, there was a building that was the center of the Nyilaskeresztes Party [“Arrow Cross,” the Hungarian Nazi party]. Did it not cause conflicts or lootings?”


“Not at all. In fact, I had one experience that proved the opposite. It was obviously an isolated, but also an interesting one, nevertheless. For a long time every single day of the week, a lady came into our store in the morning.  She said she had come from Hatvan to attend the meetings of the Arrow Cross and her train had always arrived too early. She said she was spending the time waiting in our store because so at least she would know where she was. Because if she had gone to our neighbor – she meant the Langer Lending Library - she would not have known ...


In the fall of 1942 I was called in for forced labor. As the member of the 107/16 unit, I've been to Ukraine, but that isn’t a story about books. ... I was liberated in Esztergom at Christmas 1944, and arrived in Budapest in the last days of January. My wife, my daughter and my brother Béla, had gone to Switzerland with the Kasztner group through Bergen-Belsen, and my mother and two sisters were murdered in Auschwitz. (Of course, I knew about that only later).  As long as I live, I won’t forget the sight that I had found on the corner of boulevard Andrássy and Eötvös Street. As I learned, there had been a German cannon station set up for two weeks in that place, so no wonder there was not much left of the shop windows and walls of the former bookstore. Climbing through the debris, I entered the shop where there were two women packing books from the pile on the floor into a bag. ‘Just what are you doing here?’ I asked with great curiosity, and they replied: ‘Exactly what you are about to do’ ... Of course, I explained the difference quickly ...


There was some kind of industrial group of the Zionist youth; they cleaned up the shop (their wage was paid in books), and the initial set of books was contributed by the former library of my mother-in-law. In the fall of 1945 Margalit and our little daughter arrived, and we continued with the bookstore so that in 1946, during the biggest spell of inflation, we still managed to have a modern tent during the Book Fair. Here is a photograph of this, which shows that on the tent the motto by Herzl can be read in big letters: “If you want it, it is not a fairy tale.”

But, in 1945, the "Great Re-Start" meant the end of the Budapest chapter:


“In the autumn of 1946, we made aliyah. We were legal immigrants, as the Palestinian Authority in Pest, obviously acknowledging the work we had done so far, gave three of the first five certificates to the Gondos family. The store in Pest, however, still continued to work: my father-in-law and his brother-in-law continued to work there, and only gave it up at about half-, three-quarter of a year before the deprivatization of the bookstores.”


How did you fare in Israel, in the soon-to-be-independent country?


“In the first months after our arrival in Jerusalem, we got a room at Beit Olim (House of Immigrants) and we organized a Hungarian lending library there. This was at all possible because we had kept sending smaller and larger packages of books to our friends in Palestine even before our aliyah - and back then we have already had enough friends in the country. This is how we started.


In February 1947 we moved to Haifa. We got a very nice, cozy two-room apartment and we sat up the library here. However, this did not allow us to make a living, so I got a job at the post office.”


Sándor Gondos opened the Gondos bookstore in Haifa in 1948, which was only used as a lending library in the early days, and subsequently also supplied textbooks.

“When the book business became too big for our rented home, in 1956 we rented a commercial space on one of Haifa's busiest roads, on Herzl Road in Beth HaKranot. Now we are writing 1989 and I am 83 years old….”

This conversation took place in Haifa on May 16, 1989.

The third act is about the last years of Gondos and the years after his passing.


In September 1990 Zsuzsa-Shoshana Gerő (from Budapest) joined the store, and from that point until 1995, Sándor Gondos and Shoshana developed a bookshop that has become a cultural institution and a friendly meeting place.


After the death of the founder, Shoshana runs the bookstore and the library that keeps the old traditions in the busy Herzl Street, as an island of culture among the rest of the shops - writes the chronicler of the last chapter, Maria Markovits.


A small chronology of the last days of the last Hungarian bookstore:


September 25-27, 1991: the bookshop of Haifa, in collaboration with the Ex Libris Antiquarium of Budapest, organized the first Israeli-Hungarian Jewish book exhibition in the Hungarian capital.


October 24-27, 1992: the Hungarian-Jewish book exhibition took place in Haifa, and it created a lively interest among the Israeli-Hungarian audience.


June 6-20, 1994: On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Shoa, the Gondos business arranged its thematic exhibition in the Binyanei Hauma [Jerusalem International Convention Center], which was attended by some 6000 people.


April 17, 1998: On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the State of Israel, in Haifa, Shoshana organized an exhibition of Hungarian products, books in Hungarian, and Hungarian-Jewish themed books published in Israel.


“The Gondos and Shoshana bookstore remained open during the Gulf War and the Second Libanon War; Hungarian readers could and can always count on the services of this venerable business.”


This chronicle from 2008 was still optimistic ...

But the business was closed in 2015 – and the story is completed by Shoshana Gerő 's serene epilogue:


Petőfi -Murphy


The decision took place on January 21st. I received the 2014 City Tax bill, which was over three hundred shekels more than last year. I decided that on February 13th (this is my special kabbalah lucky date) I would close the Gondos Library. I had to get rid of 4200 books. In the first few days, I brought home about 1300 books, the rest were distributed, or sold at a price of 1 and 5 shekels (of course with the help of friends).


In the Új Kelet [New East] weekly, a “necrology” was published that only the library was closed, but the 70-year-old business was continuing to function. I posted two phone numbers on the shop door. The land line and the mobile number.


In the meantime, I went to Frankfurt for 10 days, but by February 13, the store was vacant, and I had returned the keys.


Today is March 7, but since then there has not been one single day without something happening with regard to the Gondos business.


One morning the phone rings; old man’s hoarse voice shouting:

He: Gondos???

I: Yes. How may I help you?

He: Shoshika, listen: “Még nyílnak a völgyben a kerti virágok,

Még zöldel a nyárfa az ablak előtt……” ["Below in the valley the gardens still flower,
The poplar in front of the house is still greenI”]

I: (interrupting him): Who is speaking please?

He: Know who wrote it???

I: What’s your name?

He: Naftali Berger, but don’t you know this? “Below in the valley... Sándor Petőfi !! (Yell). I am 90 years old; I have not read Petőfi for 70 years. Do you have it?

I: There are three copies.

He: It's two volumes - we used to have it.

I: I do not know which one I can find, call me in a week or so.

He: Good, but hurry up, because I want to read it all.

I: I'll call you when I’ve got it.



I started searching, and of course - Murphy’s law - I did not find it. I called several friends who did not have it either. Ibi only had the fourth volume, Anikó’s copy was stolen, Zsuzsi Silber didn’t like it, etc. Finally, Zsuzsa Mózes found the two-volume edition on her shelf. Hooray! She gave it to me.

I called the old man.

He: Shoshika, great! You’ve got it?

I: Yes, the two-volume edition.

He: “Below in the valley... ..”

I: (interrupting as usual): When are you coming?

He: Tomorrow, my daughter will give me a lift.


The next day I stood in front of the house, and guided his daughter on the cell where to park.

Naftali was a fit, tall, good-looking gentleman. He came with me to the apartment. I handed over the two volumes.


He: Is this not old?

I: Yes, it was published in 1976. 80 shekels.

He put down the book, stood at attention, and looking straight ahead, he loudly recited the whole poem Szeptember végén [At the end of September], word-by-word from beginning to end, in hexameters, as it had been pounded into his head in his teenage years.


I applauded him. He told me about his life: he arrived alone, by ship, in Israel, he did not live in a Hungarian environment, his family and his children could not speak Hungarian. He will now read all the poems by Sándor Petőfi in two volumes.


He asked for the bill and paid me; I escorted him out and waved after him. May he live for 120 years.


For twenty-three years nobody was looking for Petőfi, but wherever I went for books, they always had Petőfi, Arany and Attila József or Radnóti everywhere.

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