After watching a Holocaust related film, I always wonder how it was received in the director’s country of origin—or the way an audience of modern Germans, Poles or other implicated peoples react when the rod of historic guilt points in their nation’s direction.
Opening in New York on November 1st is a new disquieting and superbly acted Hungarian post-Holocaust film titled 1945. Shortly after viewing it, I spoke with Steven Geiger, a Hungarian Jew and founder of The Mensch Foundation who, on September 27, 2017, produced a special award ceremony and screening of the movie at the majestic Urania National Film Theater in Budapest, Hungary. The Mensch Awards recipients were the film’s director Ferenc Torok, Hungarian Jewish screenwriter and novelist Gabor Szanto and the actor Peter Rudolf who plays the main character, the bellicose town official. Open to the general public, it was attended by academics and members of the government including Deputy State Secretary for Priority Social Affairs, Csaba Latorcai who liaisons with the Jewish community, as well as other religious and cultural communities.
This happening was notable for its location as much as its purpose. Geiger blended honoring the creativity and courage of the filmmakers with Holocaust education in a country that has a horrific record regarding its Jewish community during WWII. To warm up the crowd, there was a performance of the 1925 Yellin/Pollack hit song, “My Yiddishe Mame”, performed by jazz pianist Béla Szakcsi and sung by Anita Masa. Addressing the audience Geiger then said: “I lived across the street from the theater, but up the street for the first eight and a half years of my life. I lived in a house with a father who survived Mauthausen concentration camp (which is in Austria), whose parents were gassed in Auschwitz. We created The Mensch Award, to show that there are decent people in the world and also for people who write about this in books and in film, so that more people will continue to know what happened to the six million Jews including the 600,000 Hungarian Jews who were murdered.”
Torok’s film 1945 is based on screenwriter Szanto’s short story “Homecoming,” and explores the mysterious visit by a pair of Orthodox Jewish men—a father and his son—to a Soviet occupied small Magyar village post V-E Day in late 1945. The 46-year-old director, who is not Jewish, has made a quiet post Holocaust drama without Nazis that loudly screams guilt. What happened in Hungary during WWII and how both the government and ordinary people were complicit in the destruction of a vibrant Jewish community of upwards of 750,000 is all part of the historical record. But this movie dramatizes the scenario of what happens when Jews, who were rounded up and deported by Hungarian gendarmes (armed police forces), return to reclaim confiscated property. It’s a place where everyone is living with terrible secrets—where the guilty and the possessions of the Jews out themselves. Whispered names, peasants using silver flatware, and a wall clock ticking away with two decoratively carved Jewish stars around the ten commandments as hands settle on Hebrew letters instead of numbers. And appropriately, the film was shot in black in white since guilt, which may have many shades of grey—from perpetrator to greedy collaborator to bystander—has no real color.
When I asked Geiger why he made the decision to honor the filmmakers publicly in Hungary, he answered: “I chose Szanto—editor of the monthly Szombat (Saturday/Shabbat) A Jewish and Political Cultural Magazine—for his 25 year long commitment to opening up the minds of people, Jews and non Jews alike about Jewish life in general and in current events. Torok, for his commitment to advancing human rights issues and for making a film important for Hungarian people, especially young people who don’t know their history. And lastly, the actor Rudolf, for portraying accurately how people behaved when Jews came back after the war.”
Geiger arrived in the U.S. following the 1956 anti-Soviet Hungarian Revolution and lives half the year in California, the other six months in Budapest. He established the Mensch Foundation in 2002 as a response to anti-Semitism and after he brought his friend, Peter Malkin— the man who captured Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi SS Officer who oversaw the mass deportation of Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz—to lecture in Hungary. The Foundation’s purpose is “to develop an educational curriculum to stamp-out stereotyping and anti-Semitic and racist thinking…to develop a tolerant social order of values which respects minority rights and freedom of speech and worship.”
In Hungary, Geiger gives lectures to high school students and translates books into Hungarian including Holocaust memoirs like the highly regarded Castles Burning: A Child’s Life in War by Magda Denes. He explained, “I have taken young groups of people to Mauthausen Concentration Camp on 2-3 day tours, bus loads of high school kids from Budapest.” His mission involves traveling around the country and he was recently involved in the restoration of the 1794 Neologue Synagogue in Bonyhad, which was used for storage and will become a tolerance center.
Geiger is invited every year to commemorations at Mauthausen including last year’s invitation to Parliament in Vienna for a special commemoration of the camp’s liberation. The Foundation’s next Mensch Award ceremony is scheduled for May 2018 in Vienna, Austria where they will honor Simon Wiesenthal. When I asked him about his experiences vis-a-vis the attitude towards Holocaust education he replied: “Some people say they’ve had enough of the Holocaust, and some people can never learn enough.”