“My droplet of fate reflects the Jewish ocean…”
“My family came from Szatmár County [Satu Mare, Romania]. My father, Jakab Berger, was born in Gacsály, Northeastern Hungary. Jakab had seven siblings: Jónás, Mózsi, Tóbi, Slajmi, Smuel, Józsi, and a girl: Eszter. My mother was born in Nagykároly [Carei, Romania] to Mór Frank and Lujza Roth. She had eight siblings. People had many children back then; it’s different today. (Had that birthrate continued, they would have around fifty grandchildren, but I know of only seven or eight.) My paternal uncles were observant Jews who kept to their traditional, provincial ways. One of them was a butcher, the other an innkeeper. My father tilled a plot of about ten hectares in the village of Ákos [Acâş, Romania] in Szilágy Country [Sălaj, Romania]. I was born there on January 2, 1895. (According to family legend, I was born on December 31, but my name was entered into the birth register only two days later, to give me an extra year of earnings before I would be drafted for military service.) In 1899, the Kraszna River flooded and destroyed my father’s entire crop. His farm went bankrupt. We moved to Budapest as poor people.”
Béla Pásztor: A Testament about My Life (fragment)
1st World War
He joined the army in Kolozsvár [Cluj-Napoca, Romania] on May 1, 1915, and was registered as an actor from Pozsony. After attending military academy in Prague, he fought on the Russian frontline from December 1, 1916, where he suffered two serious combat injuries. He was discharged in Budapest, in October 1918, as a reservist second-lieutenant with several medals of valor, including the Iron Cross.
The era of revolutions
Revolution aside, Béla Pásztor did not forget his calling. In June 1919, Színházi Élet referred to him as one of the most talented film actors, and printed a full-page still of him in an Olga Desmond dance film. Pásztor starred in nine dance films, all shot in Berlin. The first of them, Zigeunerweisen, was scheduled to open in Budapest in mid-July. The magazine mentioned the dance films again in October, noting that they had already been shown in foreign cities and that the Corvin Film Studio would distribute them as soon as it was technically feasible.
Cinema – theater
In 1920, in the wake of the war and subsequent revolutions, the Hungarian parliament adopted the first anti-Jewish law in Europe, the so-called Numerus Clausus. The law aimed to reduce the high ratio of Jewish students at universities and to bar participants in the revolutions from attending universities. It came into effect on September 26, 1920. That was not the only restrictive statute passed in those months. A decree concerning movie theaters dated October 1 provided that only the Minister of Home Affairs could issue and revise movie theater licenses.
The Funk–Angelo family
“I got married in 1923. My wife, Erzsébet Funk, was the older sister and business partner of Angelo, the noted photographer, and of Sándor Faludi, owner of what later became known as the Kovács & Faludi Film Laboratory. My wife was also a first-rate photographer in her own right.”
Béla Pásztor: A Testament about My Life (fragment)
Acting as the Budapest
representative of UFA Berlin
“After the Budapest premiere of Ungarische Rhapsodie, I was invited to prepare the film’s Vienna premiere. I accepted the assignment and started arranging for thatched roof houses to be built in front of movie theaters, and decorated the latter with fabrics in the national colors. We handed out traditional Hungarian peasant flasks. The entirety of the former Imperial capital was festooned in red, white and green. On the day of the premiere, an Austrian journalist walked up to me and said: ʻCongratulations, you’re clearly talented! Over several centuries, Austria failed to paint Hungary black and yellow. But in two days, you succeeded in painting all of Vienna red, white and green’...”
Béla Pásztor, Újság, December 25, 1929.
From Berlin to Nagymező Street
“1933: Hitlers Machtergreifung! In an instant, everything fell apart for us. April 1, 1933 was the day of the notorious Nazi boycott of Jewish businesses. That day, with Hungarian passport in pocket, I marched proudly and defiantly into Rosenhayn’s ‘Jewish’ souvenir shop on Kurfürstendamm. Its shop window had been smeared with shit; someone had used that to write: ʻJude verrecke!’ SA brown shirts guarded the entrance. When I stepped out, they attacked me with rubber batons. They beat me bloody and knocked out two of my teeth. Passers-by took me to the Augsburger clinic, where Professor Piccard dressed my wounds and stitched the cut on my face. I still have the scar. My droplet of fate reflects the Jewish ocean.” Béla Pásztor: A Testament about My Life (fragment)
Radius movie theater
on Nagymező Street
A Midsummer Night's Dream, an American film directed by Max Reinhardt and dubbed into
Hungarian, was given a festive gala premiere. Regent Horthy arrived with his family, members of the government, and other dignitaries. The show’s prologue was Mendelssohn’s Overture. Pásztor unveiled a statue of Shakespeare, made for the occasion by András Nóti, before reading aloud a telegram from New York that Max Reinhardt had sent for the premiere. An interesting snapshot from 1935: Max Reinhardt, the brilliant stage director, was forced to flee from Germany to the United States. As he did not yet speak English, he had to rely on his codirector, William Dieterle. The film was banned in Germany, because its director and the composer, Felix Mendelssohn, were Jewish. In Budapest, meanwhile, at Pásztor’s Nagymező Street theater, Horthy attended the film’s premiere as the guest of honor, and a Shakespeare sculpture was made for the occasion by Károly Nóti’s brother. (The sculpture’s fate is unclear.)
Adapting folk plays for the screen
Pásztor, busy arranging the film versions of folk plays, perhaps did not consider it ominous that in April 1938, the National Association of Hungarian Motion Picture Licensees, on account of the new anti-Jewish law and “the public mood”, reduced the number of Jews in its membership more drastically than the law required, and did not appoint Pásztor to the board.
“I lost all I had”
Along with new Hungarian folk films, sketches and slapstick comedies came a growing number of statutes limiting creative work for Jews. Their implementation may have lagged a bit, because Magyar Film (February 18, 1939–December 29, 1943), the journal of the Chamber of Theater and Cinema, still had Pásztor Film Kft. in its business listing. Between August and November of 1939, the same far-right antisemitic periodical also mentioned Pásztor as the Hungarian screenwriter for some English- and French-speaking movies.
The Wilhelm family
On March 20, 1948, Béla Pásztor remarried. His wife, Terézia Magdolna Wilhelm, was the daughter of
Dr. Károly Wilhelm and Szeréna Sugár.
“Instead of long laments, I will briefly state that my poor Péter committed suicide on May 16, 1944. At 7:20 in the morning, he shot himself in the mouth with a revolver and passed on four minutes later. Our cheerful conversation only ten minutes earlier gave me no reason to suspect his dark intentions. That was the first strike to hit our family. Actually, that’s inaccurate: my two sisters, Stefi and Margit, were deported earlier from Kassa [Košice, Slovakia] and– as we now know– cremated in Auschwitz.”
Károly Wilhelm’s letter to Erzsébet, his sister-in-law, Budapest, October 24, 1945.
1945–1948: The long–awaited new world
When Béla Pásztor joined the film industry, it was clear that it would be operating under Communist Party control. But in those first postwar years, the atmosphere allowed for a great diversity in worldviews, tastes and institutions, offering a sense of liberation that filled him, and many others, with enthusiasm. The euphoric atmosphere, filled with the desire to create and the joy of starting anew that characterized the immediate postwar years eventually faded, and then dried up completely. Pásztor could no longer hope that his career would relaunch in Hungary.
Starting a new career in Israel
It seemed that Béla Pásztor arrived in Israel at the best possible moment (March 1949). His professional expertise and connections, his multifaceted artistic talent and many of his works attracted attention. The Hebrew-language daily, Al HaMishmar, was the first to carry an Israeli interview with him. Jenő Kolb (who later became CEO of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art) interviewed him, describing him in the article as an excited, constantly working professional who maintained close professional connections abroad and followed film news.
“I sold Ice-skates on the Equator”
“The theater educates people, it teaches them to behave, to feel, and to communicate their feelings. The theater-going habit must not be broken. Until an oleh has learned Hebrew, they should hear performances in a language they can understand, because that will keep and train them for the Hebrew theater, and create the future Hebrew public. People must not be weaned from their theater-going habit!” Béla Pásztor: “Itinerant troupes in Israel,”
Új Kelet, September 17, 1953.
“I am living here along with them –
neither with them, nor among them,
but along with themˮ
He brought his Israeli identity and perspective to Berlin, and observed everything worth reporting on through Israeli eyes: the reception of the Eichmann trial, expressions of anti-Semitism, the public’s view of war crimes and war criminals, and German public opinion. During Berlin’s “week of brotherhood,” he was conflicted. “Forgive the past? That would be a crime! Forget? We mustn’t! Understand? That would be humanly impossible!”
Epilogue in New York
While living in Berlin, Pásztor visited New York often. When he finally moved there, unlike when he moved to Israel,
he did not continue working in his own profession but took a day-job at a travel company instead. Wherever possible, however, he participated in organizing and directing theater performances and continued his journalistic writing.
The last mohican of bohemian Budapest
“He was an incredibly colorful, erudite and in many ways, a uniquely talented artist who was way, way above average. His multiple talents competed with the colors of the rainbow, his erudition and knowledge with an encyclopedia. The history of literature existed in his mind on microfilm; it was unbelievable and scary how much he knew. He was a sweet, dear friend with a great sense of humor, whose heart kept smiling even when he crossed his brows in imitation of an angry person or dad.”
Andreas Gal’s letter to Rafi Pastor, New York, December 26, 1966.