New Year in Prague



“The next morning earely, being the sixth of July [1636], from thence [Český Brod] to Prague to dinner, being five Dutch miles [ca. 30 kilometers], passing first thorow very pleasant plaines and meddowes, untill we came neere the citie, which is encompassed on both sides with rocks and hils, all planted with vines, having three townes belonging to it, Newstadt, Oldstadt, and the Slostadt; [Schloßstadt / Castle Town] at Newstadt wee entred in at a faire gate, passing thorow into Oldstadt, to his Excellencies [Sir Thomas Howard’s] lodging, which said Stadt is inhabited chiefly by Jewes, who have there foure Synagogues, and in one I saw there a Rabbi circumcise a child, here we were told that all their fruits in the further parts of the countrey were spoyled, as corne, vineyards, and the like, by the aforesaid thunder and lightning with hailestones as big as ones fist, and also divers cattell were then lost: betweene this and the Slostadt runneth a pleasant river called the Muldow, and over it standeth a faire Bridge of stone, as long as London Bridge, over which his Excellencie passed, going to view the Castle, being a stately large built Fort, seated on a high hill within the Slostadt, called Ketschin, [Hradschin/Hradčany] in which the King of Bohemia lived; first wee passed thorow three faire Court-yards, having at one of the gates a guard of Souldiers in which Court-yard there is a statue of S. George on horse-backe in brasse, and a fountaine, then entred we into a spacious hall, having many faire shops in it like unto Westminster, but that their Courts of Iudicature are in other roomes by it: from hence wee went up and passed thorow many faire roomes well hung, and pictures in them, and one roome furnished with English pictures of our Nobilitie, which the King of Bohemia [Frederick, Elector of Pfalz, 1619-1620] was forced to leave.”

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The detailed program of our New Year Prague trip has been composed. For a lucky start and similar continuation of the new year, we set out immediately after recovering from New Year’s Eve night, and on the weekend from 2 to 4 January we visit everything what Sir Thomas Howard, Ambassador of the English King, and his secretary William Crowne saw in their trip of 1636. And even much more, all that the following nearly four centuries have added to Prague.

In this first occasion of our Prague urban exploration series we walk through the historical center, house to house: the Old Town, with a special focus on the former Jewish quarter, the Lesser Side, the streets under the Castle, the little-known world of Pohořelec and Nový Svět. Our focus is on the structure and historical changes of the city quarters, the medieval “Royal Road” from the Powder Tower to the Hradčany, the stories of the medieval and Renaissance houses, the large-scale city planning in the late 19th and early 20th and its results, and the sites of the commercial, literary and social life around the turn of the century, with special respect to the disappeared German and Jewish inhabitants. In the former Jewish district – the current palace quarter around Parížská and Široká streets – we reconstruct the disappeared, centuries-long structure, history and life of the neighborhood with old maps, photos and reports. Of course, wherever our path leads us, we will not keep silent on the themes planned for our later walks: the buildings of early 20th-century architecture, the sites of Nazi and Soviet occupation, or of late 20th-century and contemporary literary and cultural life. And since it is expected to be cold, we will often sit down in some more or less known traditional coffee houses, pubs and restaurants, where we will learn about the history and offerings of the place. And whatever has been lost since the time of Sir Thomas Howard and William Crowne, we will call to life in situ with old photographs and drawings.




I have already booked the accommodation for those registering this far, but for a short period it is still possible to join us at wang@studiolum.com. The participation fee is 110 euro (two nights in four-star hotel with breakfast + guide), single room supplement 40 euro. Those who, before 1914, failed to see a Prague that has disappeared since then, can now catch up.


Bergoglio's List


On 24 March 1976, the army in Argentina seizes power. On the pretext of a fight against the far-left guerilla organizations, they introduce dictatorship, and carry away – “sniff in”, as contemporaries say – from their homes, jobs, the streets, or even from the churches, those tinged with the slightest shadow of suspicion of disagreement with the system: students, workers, trade unionists, social workers, catechists and priests working in slums, as well as their relatives. The vast majority of those deported are tortured, and then thrown from airplanes into the Atlantic Ocean. Between 1976 and 1983 – until the dictatorship falls in the inglorious Falklands War – an estimated thirty thousand desaparecidos disappeared in this way.

The leaders of the Argentine Catholic Church, who were also afraid of the strengthening of the pro-Communist movements, did not openly act against the abuses of the junta, which they considered the less evil, or even the savior of the nation. This is why they have been severely criticized after the fall of the dictatorship by of the resurgent Argentine democracy. The persons criticized also include Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who also had an important position in the hierarchy of the Catholic church in Argentina, as the Argentine provincial of the Jesuit order. Although the court investigating the sins of the dictatorship has repeatedly declard him clear of suspicion of the collaboration with the regime, the press still publishes various statements, according to which he could have at least stood up more vigorously for those persecuted by the regime, including the Hungarian Jesuit Francis Jálics, who spent several months in detention for his work done among the poor.

This photo, with the falsified caption “Bergoglio administers sacraments to the Argentine dictator General Videla”, was for many years one of the clichés of the anti-Bergoglio press. Although it has long been established that the priest in it is not Bergoglio, it still regularly appears – though, with no caption – as an illustration of the articles attacking Bergoglio.

On 13 March 2013, when Jorge Mario Bergoglio is elected Pope Francis, these reproaches gain a new impetus in the international press. This inspires Nello Scavo, journalist of the Italian daily Avvenire, to investigate the truth of these charges. And in the course of a series of detailed interviews with the former acquaintances of Bergoglio, he reaches a startling conclusion. Not only did the Jesuit provincial not assist the dictatorship, but, by building an extensive secret network, he even saved, regardless of their political affiliation, several hundred people who faced the risk of deportation and death by the regime. He usually gave shelter to them in the Jesuit house of Buenos Aires on the pretext of “spiritual exercises” for a few days, while he organized a way to secretly get them over to Brazil, where his acquaintances working in the embassies assisted them in acquiring European visas.

The title of the book – Bergoglio’s List, which, after appearing already in eight other languages, has now my Hungarian translation has also been published by the Academic Publisher – obviously refers to Schindler’s List. The Hungarian reader will probably browse with special interest the chapter on Francis Jálics, because since the election of Pope Francis, the Hungarian press, otherwise uninterested in South America, loves to warm up the many-year old canned news of the international press. According to the charge spread by journalist Horacio Verbitsky from New York Times to the Argentine Página 12 – which he finally publicly withdrew –, it was the Provincial who denounced the two Jesuits, Jálics and Orlando Yorio, working in the slums; or, in another, mitigated version, he only “cut off his support” of them, thereby facilitating the job of the dictatorship. However, Jálics clearly states in this chapter: “Yorio and I were not denounced by Bergoglio”, and in the nineties he concelebrated a public Mass with Bergoglio to silence the accusations. Without much success, it seems: sensationalism is always more exciting than reality. Which latter was in this case, as this chapter documents it in detail, that Bergoglio personally intervened with the representatives of the dictatorship, threatening with the pressure of the Jesuit order and the Vatican, for the release of the two Jesuits, which eventually took place. As an amazing rarity, in fact, since the regime was well known to leave no witness alive, and once it sniffed in someone, he or she would never come to light any more.

In this volume, Nello publishes only a dozen of his interviews made with the several hundred survivors on “Bergoglio’s List”. But from these few, it is apparent that Bergoglio, as a Jesuit Provincial during the dictatorship, confessed and did the same as after the election as Pope: stood on the side of the poor and persecuted.

Field post


“The baggage cart advances with a painful squeal in the deep, bottomless mud and drizzling rain. An old blue-shirted soldier drives it, while smoking his pipe. The one sitting next to him, unshaven, in gray uniform, is urging the cart on by cursing in three languages. He’s a Hungarian, who three months earlier still examined the peaceful packages in a Budapest post office, to see whether they were properly stamped. It is possible, and even probable, that next year, if the weapons fall silent, he could do the same. But for now, he is a soldier. With a sergeant’s yellow collar patch, but instead of stars, a little horn indicates his appointment.

At the rear of the cart, the rain beats down on a field post soldier. This is how the field post advances, along with oncoming animals with luggage, carts, the wounded dragging themselves. The road is not easy, and not short. Up until the border town, the consignment was brought by automobile, the ordinary Bosnian mail car, but from then on no delivery can be made by motor. You need horses, two or rather four, because the cart is carrying the post for a whole division, about twenty-five thousand soldiers and craftsmen of all kind. In the sealed bag, the letters to the proud hussar officer and the long-bearded Moravian mountain gunner get on well with each other. They contain the letter as eagerly expected by the gold-bespectacled camp rabbi, as by the Croatian soldier soaking up there in the muddy hills…

How many letters, oh my God. Pink, green, yellow cards, white letters, dirty paper rags mixed with fragrant envelopes addressed in elegant feminine characters. How much desire, how many sighs, the amount of love and pain of life rests in those packed bags! But the road does not get any easier, nor the horses any calmer, so that the dear burden of the baggage cart, the only peaceful happiness for the soldier at war, the field post could get sooner to its goal. But you see, once it gets there. Some shabby little houses along the road and on the hillside, of two or three only the blackened beams are left, and carts, horses, tents all around in the field – this is the division headquarters. The baggage cart stops moaning in front of a little hovel which used to be a bakery and butcher’s, and a few soldiers come out and start to unload the wagon. This is the field post office. It even has a proud sign that indicates: “Field post office”, it’s just missing a mailbox beside the door. Of course, by entering the “office”, you hardly meet the hygienic comfort of domestic post offices. An ugly little lair, you cannot take more than one or two steps, for it is full of matted yellow suitcases. Actually, these few boxes are the field post office: one is the counter, the other the printed form storage, and so on. When the division post office is moving, the stands, chairs, stamps, letters are put in the boxes, the boxes on a cart, the two post officers – in the rank of first leutenant – sit on their innocent little horses, and the office goes on, into another hut, or perhaps only a tent. The bags are thus dumped, and the bundles of letters come to light. They are processed by regiment, but sometimes the post of Budapest brings bundles, which are sorted by battalions and batteries. A superhuman work. A separate bundle contains the newspapers. Whoever can, rushes to see them and looks for the latest news, although they do not have to be examined too closely, for they are printed in large boldface type.

As the post is laid out and sorted, the clients gradually come. The assistant of His Excellency; the big-mustachio’d field policeman; the Reverend Gentlemen – with no denominational distinction –; then come some reckless representative of the non-fighting branches, who make an effort to come here for the post, where sometimes a piece of shrapnel hits between the cows tied to stakes and the smoking furnaces. But these reckless ones are also accompanied by armed soldiers on the left and right, a revolver at his side, and his heroic sword in his right, which uselessly trembles from the desire to bathe in the blood of the enemy. In a few hours, the officers responsible for taking over the post arrive from every regiment. The money and parcels are only given to officers, the letters can be also taken by under-officers to certain stand-alone units. During this time, the field post is lively, and news is exchanged.

The members of the division staff listen in religious awe to an artillery officer, who rides fifteen kilometers every day to carry the post to his battery, which is fighting in the front line. The lieutenant smiles at the terror caused by a few bullet striking here.

“Just come visit us”, he encourages the postmen, “just listen the «Kalimegdan» and the «Sveti Nikola».” (This is what they call the two largest guns of the Serbs.) Of course, the post does not go there, it would not even be appropriate, and the postmen are satisfied with the enemy’s “zünders” received as gift. The sorting of the mail carries on, the letters to be sent are brought. The majority of the letters are written on unbelievable paper. Yes, the stock of postcards soon runs out, and any kind of paper does it. Many ask for blank paper from home, so they can write back. But the field post takes everything, even if undeliverable, and badly addressed letters are returned to the addresse, as if we were at peace. On the letters coming in, sometimes only a meagre clue is given to the postmen, but this single letter is enough to find the addressee, if he is still alive… for there are some, to whom mail can no longer be delivered. On such letters the unit writes that he is «deceased», and on the next day it is already carried by the post back to his home far away. The baggage cart is creaking again in the mud, the horses sweating, the post soldier is smoking his pipe at the rear of the cart, and the letters are joggling along, to villages and towns, to worried parents, crying wives, sad sweethearts. They are carrying the hearts of the warriors.”


In: Csataképek a nagy háborúból (War landscapes from the great war). Composed and introduced
by Endre Nagy. Budapest, 1915, Singer and Wolfner. (From Káfé Főnix)

Field post traffic at the Isonzo front

We have written many times, and will write many more, about field posts, both from the First and the Second World War, and from both sides of the front. The great wars created a new genre. The millions of men living far away from their families, for a period of years, in constant mortal danger, wrote home hundreds of millions of censored postcards, in which they could virtually write nothing about what surrounded them every day, only about that which took place inside: the nostalgia and affectionate longing, that they are healthy and endure, and they still have hope that they will return home alive.

Thousands of families still keep tens of thousands of similar letters from grandfathers and great-grandfathers, and in fortunate cases, they also have the responses that were brought home with them.


“…we are well, we are here at one of our passes, and we guard the thousand-year old border… We are convinced that no enemy will pass through here, across the Árpád Line!”

An exploded bunker of the Árpád Line, from the mountains above the often mentioned Yasinia, from the Wikipedia entry “Árpád-vonal”. Below: the Árpád Line built out 600 kilometers long on the old Hungarian border, from here.


Lieutenant Doctor Zoltán Kovács, to his bride in Kolozsvár/Cluj, on his conviction about the safety of the Árpád Line just two days before Romania switched to the Soviet side, and thus the Soviet army could occupy the positions from the rear, through Romanian territory. This is the last postcard which survives from him, in the collection of János Fellner.

The field postcards kept by the families are rarely available to outsiders, perhaps only on the occasion of an exhibition. Whatever we know about field letters, we mainly know thanks to passionate collectors who fish them out and save them from antique shops and flea markets, philatelic and auction sites, to preserve these less conspicuous pieces of orphaned legacies. And they also share them on the web, including on the Facebook site dedicated to the field post, from where I received the postcards of Zoltán Kovács through the group administrator János Fellner.

Field butchers on the front page of a hand-made field postcard, 1914

By the time the field postcards get to the collectors, they are usually bereft of the personal stories, which a family may still remember about the senders and addressees of the letters in their possession. This is made up to a certain extent by the great amount of the published cards, which already enables serious typological and historical statistics, as well as by the in-depth knowledge of the collectors commenting on the cards. We find, for example, many new examples of the slow postal-snails, dragging along, which we had already encountered before, and János Fellner confirms, that this motif does not occur on postcards before the release of the famous song by Katalin Karády in 1942.

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Letters in fact move slowly over Russian land. From the press review of  Huszadik Század

The post cards may also contain some different representations of the Russian lands, which are not drawn by hand, but centrally printed, and intended to inspire and encourage the soldiers. Like this one from 1942, where the brave Hungarian lad has already cut the Red Army-head of the dragon, which resembles Stalin, and only the ruefully twinkling Jewish head is left.


In a lucky case, the brave Hungarian lads who failed to cope with the dragon, could also continue writing field postcards. The group has published plenty of POW postcards from Russia, from both world wars. Moreover, we also find a telegram sent to “Asian Russia”, Samarkand, by the prisoner’s father, accompanied with some money. Of course, in the First World War, letters went more quickly over the Russian land.


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Some of the postcards become interesting, or even gruesome, if we are able – as do the experienced collectors – to decode the field post numbers in cipher, and uncover the story behind them. This postcard, for example, was written by the commander of the labor camp in the Serbian Bor, where the great Hungarian poet Miklós Radnóti was a prisoner, who wrote it to his wife in a suburb of Budapest. The text is the usual: he is looking for free leave, he misses her, it is a beautiful autumn weather. Actually, the same as what was written from the same place by Radnóti in his “Letter to my wife”, of course each of them in its own way.


But to avoid finishing our review with such a tragic final word, we also find in the common collection the earliest known examples of field postcards from the years of blessed peace. Soldiers complained then, too, how could they not? They did not know yet, that their sons happily möchten ihre Sorge haben.

“My letter is written in Budapest, 20 December 1888. My dear beloved mother and dear brothers, I let you know about my fate and condition, that my sort is not the best, because I am in the hospital with my ear, and I do not know when I would leave, now I cry now I swear that I am at this point, Christmas will be long here, and also poor, because what they cook here, I cannot eat, it is as bad as garblings”

János Fellner encourages the collectors of field postcards to join the group, and share their treasures. We also encourage on our part those who still have their family postcards, and can illustrate them with stories and other documents and pictures, as we do in the “Pink Postcards” series.

The Ghost Fiddler


This essay was first published in Czech on the web site His Voice: Magazine of Alternative Music, as part of the ongoing column “Field Notes.”
Recently one evening, I was walking along Celetná Street in the Old Town. The yellowish lights of the shops spilled out onto the old street, and spread a golden varnish over the peaks of the cobblestones, which rustled with the whisper of many feet, the sound of the throngs who are nearly always to be found there. It happened to be the last day of October, the Eve of All Saints, an unusually warm evening for the autumn, perfectly suited for a long aimless walk. This is a date long connected with ghosts, masks, make-believe, and things being not quite as they appear. The Anglo-Celtic Halowe’en recalls the old belief that the yearly harvest is followed by a liminal time during which the spirits of the departed can more easily pass among the living.

I was nearing the Municipal House when I began to hear a high-pitched, ghostly, ringing music, somewhat difficult to locate precisely, with a sound that resembled either a breath instrument, or a stringed one. This eerie sound, I found, was seeping out from the midst of a small gathering of tourists, at the nucleus of which stood a man performing a tune reminiscent of Mozart on a verrilion, also known as a water glass harp. He held his audience completely in thrall.


The verrilionist was standing at a table with a perhaps two dozen wine glasses of various sizes, each containing a quantity of clear water. With unerring technique, he repeatedly dipped the pads of his fingertips into these tiny ponds, and with a practiced stroke pressed on the rim of a glass, a gentle and precise friction that sounded a note by exciting the vessel into ringing vibration. His performance was seamless, with chords, arpeggios, crescendos and glissandos, a wall of ethereal sweetness that, in spite of the perhaps cloying nature of the medium, held a fascination for its morbid, other-worldly quality, which enchants as much as it entertains. It is probably for reasons like this that the instrument has sometimes been called the ghost fiddle. In the 18th century, similar instruments enjoyed a certain vogue, and legends from this time caution us not to indulge in it too much, either in listening or playing, because those who are sensitive to melancholy were thought to be at risk of insanity because of its strange, sad sound.

The supple hands of the ghost fiddler fluttered like little hummingbirds over the glasses’ halos, seeking the sweet essence of the music, and the fairie-like ring of it was a sheer delight. The tourists were recording the performance on mobile phones, paying homage to the performer by tossing coins into a pot laid before him. A lake of sweat grew on the musician’s upper back, soaking through his sweater. He gave the performance every possible nuance of gesture and force. That night, he seemed to be playing in peak form. The audience stood, jaws slack, eyes wide; the eyes of some glistened with tears. There is a reverent hush of awe, as they listened, rapt.

It was a little after ten o’clock when I retreated back down Celetná, toward Old Town Square. I approached the spot where, for nearly 300 years, stood the Marian Column, until 1918, when it was pulled down by a mob, who saw it as a symbol of Austrian oppression. The location of the former column is now marked on the pavement by memorial slabs of granite with epitaphic inscriptions in four languages that read, “Here stood and will stand again the Mary’s Statue.

Years ago, on my first visit to this spot, I had noticed that, curiously, some later vandal had chipped away selected words from each of the inscriptions in an effort to neutralize the affirmation that the column will stand again. It is clear that the site still evokes strong feelings, and some apparently wish that the monument never again stand, opposing the aspirational inscriptions that explicitly call for its rebuilding.


But on this evening, as I approached the spot, I was a bit startled to see a young nun in a traditional black habit, holding in her arms a bouquet of white lilies, a symbol of resurrection. Her head was bowed solemnly in prayer. As she was about to kneel and lay the bouquet on the memorial where the column once stood, I took out my camera and quickly made an image, taking no time to adjust the settings. I intended to make a series of better exposures, but it was too late. The nun had already noticed the presence of a photographer. I could see the surprise and alarm on her face. Before I could take another picture, she dashed off, cradling the the lilies in her arms as if protecting an infant from the rain, and disappeared into the crowd.


Ghost fiddler Robert Tiso playing Smetana’s Vltava

Another, less epic, but just as sympathetic ghost fiddler playing the same right above Vltava, on Charles Bridge


Turkish Coffee Evenings

Gül Baba Street, Budapest, from here

When Hungarian-Turkish relations and the common elements of the past of the two nations are mentioned, most Hungarians will surely remember two things: the period of Ottoman dominion (1526-1686), and the legendary Turkish hospitality, with which the Hungarian kardeșler (brothers) are received all over Turkey, from the Istanbul bazaar to Antalya.

Nevertheless, Hungarian-Turkish relations do not end here. They reach much farther, both in space and time. Its first period, long before the arrival of the Hungarian tribes to the Carpathian Basin around 896, is attested not only by our Turkic linguistic heritage, already mentioned by us, but also by the many common features in our folk music, researched by Béla Bartók, and, more recently, by János Sipos. These musical parallels have been impressively broadcast to a wider audience by the Moroccan-born Hungarian folk singer Majda Mária Guessous.


The Turkish folk song “Kurt paşa çıktı Gozan'a” (Kurt Pasha enters Kozan), collected by Béla Bartók in Osmaniye, and a Hungarian version collected by Zoltán Kodály in Hontfüzesgyarmat: “Üveg az ablakom, nem réz” (My window is glass, not copper), performed by Majda Mária Guessous. See here its video.

This Oriental heritage contrasts sharply with the hundred and fifty years of Ottoman dominion, whose indirect impact is still felt, and which, strictly speaking, started a little earlier, and ended a little later than in public opinion: the earlier with the successful siege of Belgrade in 1521, and the later, with the Treaty of Požarevac in 1718, when the Ottoman rule was abolished even in the last territory of historical Hungary, in the Banat of Temes. And the time brackets direct relationships, which can be further broadened, from the first military contacts in the 1370s and the subsequent development of the southern fortress system, to the “last Hungarian-Turkish war” which ended in 1791.

The survival of the memories of the hostilities in the 19th century was increasingly joined by a new pro-Turkish approach, together with contemporary politics (as we also mentioned in connection with Sándor Kégl’s Persian journey), as a new chapter of the modern idea of nationalism and a quest for the nation’s historical roots. This quest, as well as the popular 19th-century Orientalism, was the source of Hungary’s vigorous Oriental studies. Interestingly, although the knowledge gained during the Central Asian trips of Arminius Vámbéry gave an impetus to the idea of Pan-Turanism, this was never as strong in Hungary as in Finland or Japan, where it enjoyed high popularity (in pre-war Finland the association had forty thousand members), or Turkey, where, for some time, it was the official ideology.


All this and much more was discussed by Pál Fodor, Turcologist and historian, Director General of the Institute of History of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, in his lecture “Hungarians and Turks in each other’s eyes”, held on 3 December in a series of Turkish Coffee Evenings, organized in the Bobula Palace by the Yunus Emre Enstitüsü, the Turkish cultural institute named after the 14th-century Turkish Sufi mystic poet.


The now four-year-old series began, in an exemplary manner, as a civil initiative. Ildikó Rüll, and Ágnes Tóth, graduates of English studies and international studies, respectively, organize it from month to month with great enthusiasm and love for Turkish culture. As a result, the series has by now become the flagship of the Turkish Cultural Institute of Budapest. Before the lecture, we talked to them about the Coffee Evenings, and Ágnes Tóth, who in the meantime has become a full-time colleague of the Institute, also spoke about its operation.

Ágnes Tóth

When was the Institute founded, what are its main objectives and programs?

Ágnes Tóth: The Institute was officially opened in September 2013, but we had already organized a number of cultural programs before that. The Coffee Evenings series was the first program held in this building. We also have other regular monthly events, like the Turkish film evenings, or a “Yunus Emre Conversations”, in Turkish only. We also have some special events, and take part in such popular programs, like the Night of Museums, but we also aim at collaborating with other popular event venues and academic institutions. In March we had a “Gül Baba Day”, where we organized a joint conference with the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, as well as an off-site concert. In addition, we also teach Turkish. Perhaps we are different from other similar institutions, that our language teachers can be only Turkish. I mean, now we also have a Hungarian teacher, but he also learned in Turkey, and we demand our teachers to have academic qualifications in Turkish universities, and to have graduated in Turkish language and/or literature.

What is the age distribution of the audience in the coffee evenings and the other events of the Institute?

Á. T.: This really depends on the programs. For example, the film evenings are visited by lots of young people, but the audience of the coffee evenings is variable, from university students to people in their seventies. Similarly, in the dance house and language courses, we have students from the high school to over seventy. So it is very diverse. We of course try to reach out to the young generation, but we do not want to efface scientific topics. In the field of music we also want to show a broad spectrum, from classical through folk to jazz. We have had all kinds of concerts.

How did the coffee evenings start? How did the idea come?


Ildikó Rüll

Ildikó Rüll: Both Ági and I lived in Turkey, both of us fell in love with its culture, and both came home very enthusiastic, looking for the occasions to encounter this culture also at home. We met at one of these events, and we decided to organize something regular. This is how the coffee house talks were organized on every first Wednesday. We wanted to establish an informal talk evening, choosing one topic for each occasion from this huge, culturally diverse palette, to which we invite an expert, but we ask him to only introduce the theme in thirty minutes, and the rest is based on the questions of the audience, so these evenings are usually very interactive. I remember we started with eight participants, sitting on the top of a little tea house, it was very cozy. Later, the rumor spread, everyone invited more people, we wandered from place to place for a while, and since last February we are stably here. The institute was not yet officially open then, but we were happy, because this is the best place for this series, and they were also happy, because this is still the flagship event of the institute. We are glad that we managed to form a pretty good base over four years, we meet many returning faces, a community has been formed, and we also learn from these nights, because none of us is a Turkish expert. The themes are developed according to what interests us, but the audience can also suggest topics.

Á. T.: And it is also important, in which topic we find a lecturer, because there are a lot of themes that interest us, but there is no expert in it.

Why exactly the Turkish culture?

Á. T.: We still do not know the answer to this question. (laughing)

I. R.: I used to answer that there are things you do not necessarily have to rationally explain.

Á. T.: We have no Turkish family bonds. Our story was just so much, that both of us went to Turkey and fell in love with it. I was there first at a summer university organized by a student organization. It was then that I fell in love with the country, and since then I have tried to go back as often as possible.

I. R.: And my first time was a private journey. Maybe this is why the Turkish coffee evenings are so successful, because we look at it in a different light, in fact everyone is an outsider. This is why we intend to organize informal lectures, which are intentionally different from university lectures. We always tell at the beginning, that there are no bad questions, everyone can ask anything or comment on anything, they should not be afraid to share their opinions and thoughts. Our aim is to get more people to endear to this culture. Or if someone thinks that he or she is only interested in the Turkish crafts, but not in history, then after a couple of events we can show him that history and literature can also be interesting, so we can broaden the horizons of those who are already interested in the subject at some level.

What do you know, how much you are known in Turkey?

Á. T.: News about the institute regularly appear in Turkey, since there are a number of news agencies, and their local representatives regularly come to our events, report on them, and some of their reports are published, some other not. The institute’s first birthday was for example very much heralded in Turkey, but I do not know whether the coffee evenings were also mentioned.

I. R.: I think not yet, but fortunately in Hungary increasingly more people speak about us, which we are very happy about, because this started as an absolutely civil initiative, no one was behind us. This is a good news story, how one can start such an event in collaboration with others.

It was surely not simple to finance it, especially in the beginning…

Á. T: Yes, initially we went to places where we did not have to pay rent, and we always bought chocolate on our own money for the lecturers, who, by the way, present completely without pay. And then, as the event grew larger, we had to go to locations where you had to pay rent, had to pay for the technology, the sound, the projector. We solved this by visiting several Turkish businessmen – not just one sponsor, because in this way they probably would have not supported us, but a different person each month, who paid that small rental fee for us, and in exchange we of course indicated their logo and announced their names. But there were also some occasions when we could find no sponsor, then we collected donations. As Ildi also said, we had many recurrent guests, who saw that we had been working on this for many years, and that we really loved to do this. We put a small box at the entrance, and we said that if they liked the evening, they should contribute with as much as they wanted…

I. R.: …and in fact, everyone contributed with fifty cents, one euro, and thus we collected the amount for the next location rent. Thus we were able to organize the next occasion with them and for them.

How did you choose the sponsors? Did you for example try to find a sponsor who could be linked to the subject of the evening?

Á. T.: No, we looked for them only on the basis of acquaintance.

I. R.: Since we both did this along with our major work, it was not so consciously considered along a thematic line. Now, as Ági works in the institute, we also try to adjust the coffee evenings to the themes of the institute, which change every month or two months.

What are your future plans? Do you also plan other programs, for example urban tours focusing on the Ottoman monuments of Budapest?

Á. T.: The regular events will go on in the Institute, and we will certainly participate in the Night of Museums. As until now, we will seek to find a special theme for each month. Next May, for example, will be special, because it will focus on gastronomy, there will be traditional breakfasts, dinners, cooking courses.

I. R.: Many people come to us and say, how good it would be if we organized such a urban tour, so we consider it. In reality, everything depends on human resources, whether we can focus on this as well, and have enough energy to organize it. But it would be very good, so, that a community has been already formed through the coffee evenings, on which we can already build.


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Photos by Dániel Végel on the evening, from the Facebook site of Yunus Emre Budapest.

In search of Adolf Guttmann. 2. Towards fortune



• Previous part:
1. The research.
To find a man without a face, a man without words, a century after his death.
A man, whose teenage silhouette, leaving his house in Warsaw, can only be guessed.
Then on the road, on the seas.
And elsewhere, far away.
Always a stranger, always with strangers.
Farther and farther.


У отца совсем не было языка, это было косноязычие и безъязычие. Русская речь польского еврея? – Нет. Речь немецкого еврея? – Тоже нет. Может быть особый курляндский акцент? – Я таких не слышал. Совершенно отвлеченный, придуманный язык, витиеватая и закрученная речь самоучки, где обычные слова переплетаются с старинными философскими терминами […], причудливый синтаксис талмудиста, искусственная, не всегда договоренная фраза – это было все что угодно, но не язык.

Осип Мандельштам, Шум времени
What my father spoke was not a language, but some stuttering, a non-language. The Russian of a Polish Jew? No. Of a German Jew? Neither. Perhaps a special Kurland dialect? I have never heard anything like it. A fully abstract, invented language, the convoluted and twisted speech of an autodidact, where everyday words mingled with outdated philosophical terms […] and a strange Talmudist syntax, artificial, not always completed phrases – anything you want, except a language.

Ossip Mandelstam, The noise of time

While finding my way through the South African documents, I also ask myself: Which language, which languages did this man speak, Adolf Guttmann, the grandfather of my grandmother? Polish? Russian? Sheffield English? Afrikaans? German? Yiddish? And with whom?

Map of the European part of the Russian Empire with the various borders of Poland according to its partitions. Keith Johnston’s General Atlas, Edinburgh, 1861

A route.
You follow with a finger the border line between Prussia and the Russian Empire towards north-east. From Kalisz you slip  up to Novemiasto in Kovno, somewhere halfway between Memel and Tilsit. Quite a bit east of Kalisz.

As often happens, the rich leave behind more traces than the poor, even when the rich began their life in poverty. From the life of Adolf Guttmann, there is not much left, but from that of his allies and relatives, on whom good luck has smiled, there is enough to fill a museum. And I would like to believe that, fortune aside, their path in life was also similar.

Samuel Marks was born in 1844 in the Lithuanian Žemaičių Naumiestis. Just like Kalisz, the birthplace of Adolf Guttmann, Naumiestis, where more than half of the population was Jewish at mid-nineteenth century, was at the time in the Pale of Settlement, in the borderlands of the Russian and Prussian Empires.

Samuel’s father, Mordechai Feit Marks, was a very poor itinerant tailor, with seven or eight children in his charge. Samuel had no other education than what he received at the heder. At twelve, he escaped the conscription for Jewish children ordered by Tsar Nicholas I only because this law was abolished a few months earlier by Alexander II. Around the age of sixteen, he followed the usual route to leave Neustadt: trading in horses.

He thus accompanied a convoy of beasts across Europe as far as England, and in 1861 he found himself in Sheffield, where he became a peddler. Later he was hired by the Guttmann Brothers of Sheffield (that is, by Adolf’s uncles), who in 1868 sent him to South Africa together with his cousin Isaac Lewis.

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Like so many Jewish immigrants at the time, Sammy Marks and Isaac Lewis became itinerant traders, walking the streets of Cape Town in search of customers for their cheap jewelry and knives from Sheffield. Later they moved on to the interior of the country, going from farm to farm in Transvaal in a mule-cart in the wake of the pioneers. They became what was called there smouses, or hawkers, just lilke Adolf Guttmann ten years later.

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Then, with the discovery of the diamond mines in 1869, everything changes. Marks and Isaac leave Cape Town for Kimberley with a cart loaded with goods, and will provide miners with all the equipment they need, as well as with food or tobacco – and the miners usually pay them in small diamonds.

And fortune is there. They join the French Diamond Mining Company, and then the Hungarian adventurer Hugo Nellmapius, they build the first factory of Transvaal, De Eerste Fabrieken, a grain distillery. Nellmapius, Marks and Lewis seize the monopoly on alcohol production in Transvaal for fifteen years. Some years later, in 1886 they follow the gold rush to the east of Transvaal, and they found the African and European Investment Company, responsible for managing the finances of various gold mines. At this time, Marks and Lewis are already among the richest men in South Africa.

Sammy Marks (fifth from the right) at the building site of the railway which will link the Orange Free State with Transvaal in May 1892. In the center, President Kruger.

Having become a billionaire, Sammy Marks founded the town of Vereeniging in the coal mining region near Johannesburg. He developed workshops, mills and factories. He built a large synagogue, then another one in Pretoria. He financed charities, and became the head of his community, the Jewish community of Transvaal, composed of Eastern European Jews, which broke with the much older “English” synagogues of Cape Town, to form their own congregations.

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He not only built the first synagogue in Pretoria, but he also erected (or restored) the synagogue in his own hometown for £ 1,000, which was considered “a fabulous sum”. This inspired many young Jews of Lithuania to go to South Africa: about 40 thousand Jews from Eastern Europe, mainly from the Russian Empire, emigrated to South Africa between 1880 and 1910, 70% of whom were Lithuanians, mainly from the Kovno region, usually via England (like Isaac Lazarus, who began with retail commerce before engaging in intensive agriculture, and becoming the King of Corn). Compared with their situation in the Russia of the Tsars, Transvaal appeared them a haven of freedom, even if the constitution of the republic, asserting the Calvinist character of the territory, restricted the rights of the non-Protestant naturalized whites, the Uitlanders, while the blacks were excluded from all rights. Yiddish was also recognized as one of the languages of the Union in 1906.

The synagogue of Naumiestis today

Also encouraged by these successes, around 1880 the Guttmanns of Sheffields send at least two more sons to South Africa, and together with them, their cousin Adolf (born Joseph), who had come from Warsaw at an uncertain date. At least one of the two Josephs will then join the business of Sammy Marks.

Meanwhile, as Marks before them, they begin their career as hawkers, or, a more elevated rank, merchants traveling with a covered wagon, we do not know exactly, but they were still selling knives and jewelry. I also imagine that, like many other Jewish peddlers, they trade in ostrich feathers, at a time when the feathers had the same value by weight as diamond. Or, to put it another way, at a time, when a couple of ostriches was worth the same as a synagogue in Lithuania – £ 1000.

Oudtshoorn, the ostrich capital was known to the Jews of Lithuania as “the Jerusalem of Africa”. The road leading there was nicknamed Der Yiddishe Gass.

Traveling between Cape Town, the Orange Free State and Transvaal, the Guttmann cousins headed to the new city of Johannesburg, founded in 1886 during the gold rush, a few dozen kilometers from Pretoria. But nothing, really nothing indicates that they would have made any fortune in any way.

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Finally, luck seems to smile at Adolf, and in a sensational way, at that!

Sammy Marks, aged 40 and a billionaire, decides to wed, and choses as his wife the daugther of the man who helped him to start his career, by confiding to him a hawker’s stall. In 1884, he marries the 22-year-old Bertha Guttmann, the daughter of Tobias the watchmaker and cutler in Sheffield, and the cousin of Adolf. Sammy Marks, the billionaire thus becomes a cousin by marriage to Adolf…

The old father of the billionaire, Mordechai, as he could not join his son in Transvaal, traveled to Sheffield for the wedding. He sits alongsid the three Guttmann children: the girls remain standing, even his future daughter-in-law Bertha (in the center, with glasses), while the son is sitting. He is undoubtedly Joseph, the future partner of Sammy Marks, one of the cousins of Adolf, who is going to embark on a murky business around a jam factory. (He is a little bit favored by Mr. Samuel Marks but a more hypocritical scoundrel I have never met, one of his competitors will remark later). In the corner, to the left, a picture of the young Mordechai, with a little child, of whom you can imagine to be a future great man.

And Adolf, cousin by marriage of the great man, can finally also march to fortune, he can also embark on the murky business around jam or diamonds, ostrich feathers or coal, railroads or whiskey – but in life, nothing is ever that simple.

What is simple, in contrast, is to marry.
Without making mistakes.
Not to be alone.

(photos by Roman Vishniac)