THE WRITERS, ARTISTS, SINGERS, AND MUSICIANS OF THE NATIONAL JEWISH CULTURAL ASSOCIATION (OMIKE) 1939-1944, edited by Jeno Lévai, expanded English edition by Frederick Bondy


ISBN 9781557537645

254 pp, 2017 ,

In May 1938, Hungary passed anti-Semitic laws causing hundreds of Jewish artists to lose their jobs. In response, Budapest’s Jewish community leaders organized an Artistic Enterprise under the aegis of OMIKE Országos Magyar Izraelita Közművelődési Egyesület (Hungarian Jewish Education Association) to provide employment and livelihood for actors, singers, musicians, conductors, composers, writers, playwrights, painters, graphic artists, and sculptors. German already had its Jewish Cultural league and the Netherlands would get their Jewish concert performances at the Joodsche Schouwburg (click here).

Between 1939 and 1944, activities were centered in Goldmark Hall beside the Dohány Street Synagogue in Budapest. Hundreds of artists from all over Hungary took part in about one thousand performances, including plays, concerts, cabaret, ballet, operas, and operettas. These performances appealed to the highly cultured Budapest Jewish community, ever desirous of high-caliber events, particularly under oppressive conditions of the time. Art exhibitions also were held for painters, graphic artists, and sculptors to sell their creations. The German army marched into Hungary in March 1944 leading to the closure of the association.

Lévai’s 1943 book (with new, additional chapters) is the core of this expanded edition and provides interviews with individual artists who recall their early lives and circumstances that led them to join the Artistic Enterprise. The book records the technical functioning, structure, and operation of this remarkable theater and concert venue. It provides fascinating details about those who worked behind the scenes: répétiteurs, hair stylists, and personnel involved with costumes, lighting, and scenery.

There’s an interesting “chronology” at the back of the book in the form of scans — not always clear due to the murky quality — of the programs.  Yet the names of the composers, artists etc. are not included in the otherwise fine index at the end. The same criticism applies to the appendix featuring several photographs of performances and OMIKE artists.
The fourth appendix has an alphabetical listing of the “victims of the holocaust” yet no information is given of where or when they perished.

Also in the afterword to the English edition author Peter Barsony refers to the past history of the OMIKE association (founded in 1909) and cites a few world-known artists performing with the organization including Maria Basilides. Yet as far as I know Basilides wasn’t Jewish. Does this mean the pre-1939 association was open to non-Jewish artists as well?

(Maria Basilides, Dezso Ernster, Ozskar Kalman as the high priest in Goldmark’s Queen of Sheba, tenor Pal Feher as Hoffmann, Gabriella Relle soprano, Andor Lendvai all featured on our youtubeclip)

As I read the book, mainly from an operatic perspective, I also wondered why other Jewish singers –the legendary Mihaly Szekely for instance - weren’t hired? Were they refused? Was there a limit? In the casting chapter I read artists were “paid” per show but nowhere could I find out how much they actually got? Did most of them have other jobs?

It is obvious that the book profited from serious editing, as errors/typos are few and of minor importance, such as Pergolese instead of Pergolesi (pg. 32), or not giving Miklos Weinstock’s artistic name of Gafni under which he made an important post-war career, just to give two examples.

Yet don’t let these minor quibbles prevent  you from buying this very important book in spite of the rather high price. I’ve read it with great interest and it is a major addition to the study of Jewish cultural life in Hungary during its worst period in modern history.


Rudi van den Bulck, March 2018

Here’s a link to the wonderful Hungarian website devoted to OMIKE. Use google translate.