70 Hungarian postcards to the 70-year-old Israel
The Pál-Street boys
By Géza Bódi - 2018-03-31
Translated from the Hungarian original: Bea Sara Goll
The novel by Ferenc Molnár counts as a classic piece of literature for youth in Israel as well. Generations of readers grew up with it: the first edition called Machanaim [two camps], published in 1940, was translated by Ruth Katz and Saul Kantzler from German into Ivrit. The first one was soon followed by newer and newer editions.
“One of my most beloved books.” (Slomit)
“I was nine when I had read the book for the first time: now I am reading it for the third time at age 31.” (Sarit)
“No eyes will remain dry reading about the death of Nemecsek,” wrote Haaretz in 2003, and indeed: browsing literary blogs and posts, this is the most common statement about the book.
“I think this was the first literary work that had made me cry.” (Tami)
“I cried bitter tears over the last pages of the novel.” (Rut)
“I have just discovered that Ferenc Molnár was a Jew. Interesting how much he loved Budapest, Hungary! His book is my favorite. I can still picture it, as the greedy Italian merchant is cutting the Halvah too thin or when Nemecsek, shivering from the cold as he emerges from the pool of the Botanic Garden, is being forced back into the water. After reading that I was shaking with a silent sobbing ... I bought the new translation for my granddaughter too.”(Carmela)
An illustration of the 1984 edition (drawing by Károly Reich)
“First I read the old translation, which I think is quite amateurish. When I got the most recent edition, I had the feeling of reading an almost unknown book,” writes Roi about the text published in 1984, which was written in a more modern language, already called A Pál utcai fiúk [The Pál-Street boys], translated by Professor Mordechaj Barkai from the Hungarian into Ivrit. (main image: from left to right - 1940, 1957 and 1984 editions)
Jarin Katz writes in his blog Kore bassfarim (Reader of books) that it is frightening to ponder that the Hungarian or German children playing war in the early 20th century became real soldiers during WWII. He views anxiously how these children blindly follow commands in this militant play, but then he reluctantly admits that he used to play war in his childhood, too, and he was a soldier in a real war as well. He wishes he could forget it – he adds, before he praises the antimilitary ending of the work.
Pilgrimage to the Pál Street
What in this book is being so appealing to the Israelis? Presumably the same as anywhere in the world. The work translated into more than thirty languages is an obvious worldwide success. Typically, enthusiastic Israeli readers travel to Budapest just to visit Pál Street and other venues of the story. Visitors of recent years happily report on the Pál-Street boys' sculpture group, about the Botanical Garden, while older visitors are sorry to note that in their time there were no sculptures and the garden was closed, too. In the meantime, new readers are interested in visiting Pál Street.
It is a weird pilgrimage to a fairytale world, but it is very vividly depicting the patriotic types of contemporary Hungarian Judaism. As Ágnes Heller writes in her excellent paper,
“There are three definitely Jewish boys, in Pál Street boys. One of them, Weisz, is insignificant, and as such, is depicted as a Jew. However, the author's conscious choice of names reveals his Jewishness. The gittegylet [putty union] is a kind of Jewish thing anyway. However, the turf and the protection of the turf is a national matter. János Boka represents the Hungarian nation in its most beautiful and noble features. The weight and character of the representative boy characters of the novel is thus determined by the relation to the turf, that is, to the homeland. One of these boys is Ernő Nemecsek, the other Dezső Geréb. I can’t imagine that Ferenc Molnár, who wrote this book as a typically Hungarian Jewish writer, could have written such an immortal masterpiece if he had not lived and suffered in his young age from the conflicts between the identification of the Hungarian Jewish boy with his country and the conflicts of the era of assimilation.
In Pál-Street boys, every kid kicking a ball on the turf, such as Csónakos or Csele, feels natural to belong to the turf and the turf to him. He also considers it natural that the turf should be protected. But as neither of them would admit, none of them would die for it. In the novel the two extreme forms of behavior are embodied by Geréb and Nemecsek. Without these two figures there is no novel. Their behavior becomes representative in their extreme nature, because neither of them belongs to the turf so naturally as the other boys. What's more, the life and passion of both of them is determined by the relationship with János Boka. Both Geréb and Nemecsek's lifelong passion is the desire to be truly accepted, by the boys who naturally belong to the turf, by Boka. Hannah Arendt speaks of two basic types of Jewish assimilation. One is the parvenu and the other is the pariah. Geréb is a parvenu, Nemecsek is a pariah. Geréb is jealous. He thinks he's as good as Boka ... why don’t they pick him to be president? Geréb's jealousy is the jealousy of the parvenu, the newcomer who wants to win first place. Nemecsek, the pariah wants to show that he is a greater hero than those who belong to the turf, that the homeland is more important to him than to them and that he is willing to do absolutely everything for it. He dies for the turf and for Boka. The two types of Jews are even more defined sociologically. Geréb is a well-to-do Jewish child who sends a letter to Boka by a maid. Nemecsek is child of a poor Jewish tailor. It is no coincidence that in the whole novel we only meet Geréb's father and Nemecsek's parents. The parents of others are not interesting with respect to the story. Nemecsek's parents, Jewish pariahs, only care for their child. What’s the meaning of the turf, what is János Boka to them? What difference does it make to the poor people, whether their son becomes captain, or that his name would be spelled in all capital letters? Geréb's father, the assimilated Jew, on the other hand, passionately wishes that his son not be a traitor - he dreads the idea that his son might have betrayed the turf. It is worth noting that Nemecsek is the one who lies to the father with the black beard that his son had remained honest. However, Ferenc Molnar eliminates Jewishness from his novel. We do not learn from either Geréb or Nemecsek that they are Jews. The name Nemecsek sounds foreign, not Hungarian; presumably Czech. That was all the writer needed.”
The 1956 edition
The average reader does not know what that is, and that's no problem. As Ágnes Heller continues: “Ferenc Molnar ... obeyed his excellent artistic intuition when he was “removing jewishness” from these two heroes ... The writer can raise the story of the disadvantaged to a universal / existential plane where every conflict is mythologized. ... Each child of every nation relives and reconsiders the first blurred but strong feelings of honesty, loyalty, friendship, truth, in the history of The Pál-Street boys.”
Great metaphysical questions or not, we, Israelis, know well that sometimes tiny, profane details have no less importance in life. Nobody, then, should be surprised at the seller of Turkish Delight, or more specifically the mystical nostalgia surrounding his ware. There is a lively debate among Israeli fans about the identity of this unforgettable delicacy. Everyone agrees that translators are wrong and it can’t possibly be Baklava. However, the opinions are divided, everyone swears upon something else: does the Italian sell Turkish Delight (lokum), walnut toffee or halvah?
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