Rafael Pastor
Where I came from

“You are where you came from,” my mother occasionally told me. Even as we were eagerly building our future in America with all the opportunities it unleashed, this was a wise reminder. It was not merely a statement about geographic origin; it was about cultural, even historic, roots. This book tells the story of my father’s roots and the extraordinary journey of his life.  

Béla Pásztor’s story is a valuable historical record. His life and accomplishments were shaped by and reflected the momentous currents that directed the precarious path of Hungarian – indeed, much of Central European – Jewry in the first half of the Twentieth Century. He was at the forefront of experiencing, affecting and chronicling the transformational events of his time and his people. When Hungary was struggling to become a modern nation at the beginning of the century, when it later became increasingly anti-Semitic and ultimately Nazi-collaborationist; when many Jews migrated to and nurtured the new State of Israel after the Holocaust; when Berlin became the focal point of the Cold War; and during other important historical turning points – my father was intimately present and meaningfully impactful.

This is also the biography of an exceptionally multi-talented man. My father directed, produced and acted in films and theater in Hungary, Israel and Germany. He also wrote prolifically, insightfully and entertainingly as a journalist. He was a humorist, an impresario, and an astute observer of the people and circumstances that surrounded him. He was invariably “the life of the party” – the wittiest, most charismatic man in the room. He was driven by his innovative creativity – which he had undaunted courage to express despite the adverse forces he confronted. 

Most especially for me, the development of this book and the book itself have been an expedition of discovery. Most of what is here I never knew before it was researched and written. Often, kids don’t ask and parents don’t tell. This may be particularly true for Holocaust survivors, or indeed for the survivors of any traumatic, unfathomable suffering and devastation that is too painful to talk about. It was true in the case of my father and me. During ten months starting in March 1944, more than 500,000 Hungarian Jews were sent to die in concentration camps. My father’s life was saved by some non-Jewish Hungarian farmers who hid him on their farm. My mother’s life was saved because she was sheltered in the Swiss embassy in Budapest with her father, a prominent lawyer who had represented the Swiss government in Hungary. My father and mother married after the war in 1948 and immigrated to Israel in 1949. 

However, my father and I were not only separated by what was untold and unasked. We were also separated by the age difference between us: my father was 55 when I was born in 1950 in Israel, and I was 16 when he died at 71 in New York. (He was 23 years older than my mother.) We were also physically separated for most of the time when I was 9-13 years old, while he lived in Berlin and my mother and I lived in New York. (He joined us in New York for the last three years of his life.) And we were culturally separated as well: my father was the quintessential Central European in his literary erudition, sense of humor, gastronomic tastes and so forth, while I was an unabashedly Americanized teenager with neither the patience nor the wisdom to fully appreciate my father’s ways. (My mother and I had changed our last name to Pastor for ease, while he continued to use Pásztor for heritage.) 

So, this book fills the void of what I did not know or appreciate.

For making all this possible – historical record, extraordinary biography, discovery expedition – I am enormously, enduringly grateful to Anna Szalai. She tenaciously and meticulously researched this book, and wrote it with genuine admiration and affection for a man she never met. Having herself immigrated from Hungary to Israel (albeit four decades after my father did), and being a cultural historian and professor of the Hungarian Jewish Diaspora, she came across and began researching the story of my father. She wanted to write a book about his life and somehow found and contacted me (his only child) in the United States in January 2016. We initially spoke by phone for nearly two hours. (Anna reads but does not speak English, I speak but don’t read Hungarian, the language my parents spoke at home when I was growing up. So we spoke in Hungarian). At the end of our call, I told Anna that I had learned more about my father from her than I had ever known before. I asked her to please write this book, which I insisted on funding. In the ensuing months, when we were in regular contact and finally met in Israel, I developed admiration and affection for Anna – for her intelligence, kindness and honesty. I consider this book to be her gift to me, for which I am immeasurably grateful.

I am also deeply grateful to Anna Manchin for beautifully translating the book from Hungarian to English so that my children, others, and I can read it. Even more, I am grateful to Anna Manchin for her illuminating and lively editorial enhancements. She was born in Hungary and educated in the United States, with a Ph.D. from Brown University in Modern European History. Her dissertation was entitled “Fables of Modernity:  Entertainment Films and the Social Imaginary in Interwar Hungary.” Her knowledge helped to contextualize this crucial period in my father’s life. I thank her too for her gift. 

This book is a gift in other ways, too. 

It is a gift to those interested in the history of theater, film and journalism – in the first half of the Twentieth Century in Hungary when much of it was created by Jews, and in the early years of the State of Israel when much of it was created by Hungarians. 

This book is also a gift to my and my wife Marina’s children, Stefan (born in 1989) and Monica (born in 1993), who never knew my father and for whom his times are a remote period in history. Perhaps this book will draw them – and even their children – closer to him and his times. And, yes, this book is a gift to my father. It’s my way of giving back to him what I feel I never adequately gave him when he was alive: attention, respect, and love. 

In reading this book, I realized that my father and I have some professional similarities. He operated and produced unique entertainment at the foremost movie theaters in Budapest; I was the CEO of a major chain of movie theaters in the United States. He wrote brilliant articles for newspapers; I was a senior executive at a global newspaper-publishing company (and was instrumental in its acquisition of two newspapers in Hungary). He directed, produced and acted in films and theater; I was the President of large companies that distributed films and television programs on cable television and on videocassettes. 

However, in Hollywood parlance, I was “the suit” and my father was the “the talent.” Recognizing that I lacked the creative talent myself, the closest I could come to it – and to people like my father – was by working with them. What is more, as competitive as corporate life and the media industry in America are, they pale by comparison to the severe adversities and difficulties that my father courageously overcame.

Some final reflections: Both my father and I had/have an indelible sense of Jewish identity more than religiosity. Both my father and I unconditionally loved and drew core strength from my mother, Magda. And finally, despite the separations, my father’s love for, devotion to and pride in me were pure and total. 

Béla Pásztor left a vivid, lasting impression on whoever knew him. With me, he left even more: He is where I came from.

Anna Szalai
My encounter with Béla Pásztor’s oeuvre

After learning about Pásztor’s life and work, it is not unreasonable to ask how it’s possible that theater and film history mention his work only incidentally, and often with missing or incorrect information. The tumultuous events of the twentieth century caused several breaks in his successful career, and when he moved to new countries he had to start anew; that was also probably one of the reasons that his output has been all but forgotten. This book, therefore, offers not only a reconstruction of a forgotten path but also an introduction to an artistic career representative of its era. 

Sometimes we don’t find our next research topic, rather it finds us. This was true of my encounter with Béla Pásztor’s career as well.  In October 2015, I was one of the organizers of the Herzl-day at the Memorial Museum of Hungarian Speaking Jewry in Safed. I invited Yaakov Gross, the excellent researcher and scholar of Eretz-Israeli film history (sadly, he has since passed away unexpectedly) to talk about Hungarian speakers in Eretz-Israel’s film industry at various stages of its history.  Among the examples Gross mentioned was Béla Pásztor, who had made films in Israel in the early 1950s.  Gross noted that we know of his career only through a few newspaper articles and caricatures, that his films have been lost and he [Gross] has been unable to find them.  When I talked with him after his talk, Gross seemed keenly interested in every detail of Pásztor’s career, but due to the language barrier, he had been unable to research Hungarian-language sources; besides, his work in recovering and restoring Eretz-Israeli films hidden in various collections left him little time to pursue it.  Out of sheer curiosity, I started to search around to see what Hungarian theater and film history had to say about Béla Pásztor.

Very little, I soon learned. The contemporary Hungarian press, thankfully, offered a wealth of information. I discovered increasingly richer and more colorful sources, and it didn’t take me long to connect with people in Israel who had been personally acquainted with Pásztor. They were the ones who told me that his son Rafael (Rafi), was born in Ramat Gan, and that he likely lived in the US.  After a long search, I finally found Rafi, who turned out to be enthusiastic about the idea of recording his father’s life and work in a book.  He sent Béla Pásztor’s personal papers, including albums, documents, notes, letters, newspaper articles, photos, posters, from California to Israel. The outlines of Pásztor’s life soon came to life through the valuable documents in his personal archive, news items, articles and reviews from the Hungarian and Israeli press, and other sources I found in various libraries and archives.  The book is a product of my working through this collected material: it is a reflection on Béla Pásztor’s career, its historical and art historical background and context, and Pásztor’s relationships with his contemporaries. 

After learning about Pásztor’s life and work, it is not unreasonable to ask how it’s possible that theater and film history mention his work only incidentally, and often with missing or incorrect information. The tumultuous events of the twentieth century caused several breaks in his successful career, and when he moved to new countries he had to start anew; that was also probably one of the reasons that his output has been all but forgotten. This book, therefore, offers not only a reconstruction of a forgotten path but also an introduction to an artistic career representative of its era. 

The intended audience of this trilingual film and theater book is students, educators and general readers interested in twentieth century film and theater history, in Central-European artistic careers in the shadow of the two World Wars, and those working at archives, libraries and museums. It is English, Hungarian and Hebrew language readers curious to learn more about cultural history. 

Simplified footnotes and captions at the bottom of each page make the three-language text easier to navigate. The Index at the end of the book contains the name, date of birth and death, and, for those arriving in Israel, the date of aliyah.  I included all information on these individuals relevant to the events and era discussed in the book in the main text, choosing not to weigh down the narrative style and content with explanations of historical events or detailed biographies. The quotations accompanying the texts give a sense of the era’s atmosphere and offer quick insight into life stories, events and characters. 

In the section on Sources, readers will find, in thematic (and within them, in alphabetical) order, details on the sources available in libraries, archives, digital databases, personal archives, on the personal interviews conducted for the book, on where some of the films mentioned in the book are available online, and on the sources of the photos. 

I would like to thank Rafael Pastor for making the writing and publication of this book possible, Anna Manchin and David Tarbay, whose translations made the book available to English and Hebrew language readers. I also want to thank Iván Sellei for his work on the English translation and all those many others who have helped me during my research in public archives and through personal conversations.

I would like to express our appreciation to designer Lavih Serfaty for the exquisite design and for accompanying us from concept consultation, through planning and forethought, all the way to the final book. Lavih handled the unique challenge of presenting three languages (Hungarian, English and Hebrew) in a creative way that contributed to its richness yet kept its clean design. Thanks to Zafra Books Edition, the book was produced in superior quality and delivered to Hungary, Israel and the United States in time.

Agi Bar-Sela, Nitza Bashkin-Yosseph, Eitan Benzur, Sarah Bonnie, Esther Dranger, Agi Frankl, Juliet Gal, Julia Gati Luz, Alina Getzel, Yaakov Gross, Shoshana Hasson (Kolb), Michael Marton, Dan Michman, Mirjam Nevo (Marika Rózsa), Tomer Rosen Grace, Meir Russo, Haim Schreiber, Danny Shik, Vera Solomon, Shlomo Suriano, Lily Yudinsky (Israel) Peter Tarjan (US)

Gábor Berényi, Anna Fábri, Tamás Gajdó, Klára Gál Tamásné Pásztor, Bálint Horváth, Katalin Jalsovszky, Márton Kurucz, Zita Nagy, Éva Nóti, István Orgoványi, Antal Pásztor, Erzsébet Pöcz, Ágnes Reichard, Tibor Sándor, Béla Sarusi Kiss, Anna Tóth, Anna Votisky (Budapest) 

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