Articles & Essays

Remembering Seven Murdered Hungarian Jewish Composers

By Agnes Kory

Unlike the so–called Terezín composers — Viktor Ullman, Gideon Klein, Pavel Haas and Hans Krása — whose names and works have become relatively well known in recent years, the Hungarian Jewish composers who were murdered during the Holocaust remain nearly unknown. All seven of those who have been rediscovered so far died young, before they had fulfilled their potential. Yet, in spite of adverse circumstances, all had produced work of value. The amount of work that appears to have survived varies; what they shared was an untimely, tragic end, followed by artistic oblivion. The following information about the seven Hungarian Jewish composers (presented here in alphabetical order) is the fruit of my attempts, so far, to rectify the situation.

Pál Budai

Budapest Music Academy yearbooks show that Pál Budai was a student of violin and composition there from 1922 to 1928. During the last two years, his composition teacher was Zoltán Kodály. In the 1930s Budai spent three and half years in Paris, where he led the orchestra faculty at the École Normale Supérieure. In 1940 the highly respected Hungarian musicologist Antal Molnár briefly analyzed Budai's early Rondino for piano (published in Paris) and forecast a great future for the composer. Fifteen years later, Molnár wrote that Budai had been particularly suited for the comic opera and ballet genres; he analyzed and praised the music for the ballet Babadoktor (Doll Doctor), the Two Pieces for violin, the Burlesque for piano and what was apparently Budai's most popular composition, the Elegy and Scherzo for string orchestra. According to Molnár, Budai's sense of comic opera style was effectively manifested in his Divertimento cycle for string orchestra. His desire to keep on studying, as well as his artistic integrity, would have ensured Budai's progress, which came to an end with his early death.

Although I met and interviewed Budai's widow over forty-five years ago, I have not yet found further information about him, and I have discovered only two short compositions by him: the early Rondino and a set of six short pieces for children – both published in Paris in the early 1930s – as well as excerpts from the piano version of the ballet Doll Doctor, published in Budapest in 1966. The music analyzed by Antal Molnár in 1955 has yet to be rediscovered.

Budai made use of Jewish melodies in the children's pieces (meant, most likely, to be listened to by children rather than played by them) and dedicated the set to Albert Neuburger, whose firm, Edition Senart, published it in 1933.

Jenő Deutsch

Deutsch was Bartók's gifted piano pupil, copyist and occasional music transcriber. He copied Bartók's 27 choruses for children's and female voices, the collection of Turkish folk music and most of the monumental Rumanian Folk Music; he also transcribed recorded folk music for Bartók's 1939 Pátria records. One week before the ultra-fascist Szálasi (of the Arrow Cross) seized control in Hungary, Kodály – who taught composition at the Music Academy – wrote in support of Jenő Deutsch who, however, was murdered.

Budapest, 8th October 1944
My ex-student Jenő Deutsch is one of the most outstanding and most versatile Hungarian musicians. His disappearance, should it prove to be final, would be the most painful loss to our musical life. Not only is he an excellent pianist and organist (in this respect I can speak on behalf of Béla Bartók, Deutsch's professor who is currently abroad but whose opinion I know well) but owing to his exceptional musical intelligence and to his skills in all branches of composition, Jenő Deutsch is an outstanding teacher, original thinker and author.
He also worked as an ethnomusicologist and has gained valuable experience in transcribing melodies from the phonograph. We badly miss the expertise of our colleague Jenő Deutsch. Bearing in mind that his humanity, character, modesty and unconditional reliability surpass standards which are usually considered at such requests, I warmly recommend the favorable consideration of his application.
Zoltán Kodály

It is not clear whether this letter ever reached the forced labor camp, or even whether Deutsch was still alive.

Kodály had attempted to save Jenő Deutsch and László Weiner, another of his excellent students, in time. In 1939 he had tried in vain to secure positions for them at the Conservatorium in Melbourne, Australia.

Although, as the Budapest Music Academy's relevant year books (1928-34) demonstrate, Deutsch studied piano and organ with Bartók and Aladár Zalánfy, respectively, it is possible that he also studied composition, as Kodály's letter seems to indicate, and was good at it. Sadly, very little information about Deutsch is available. In spite of his important work for Bartók, he does not seem to appear in any biographical lexicons, nor have I yet found any composition by him.

There may now be only one person alive who knew Deutsch, although not very well. In November 2007, Peter Bartók, the 84-year-old son of Béla Bartók, sent me the following information:

Jenő was employed by my father for a long time, music copying with his fine calligraphy. I believe the Rumanian and Turkish folksong collections, as published, had the handwritten music notes by Deutsch. It is sad to know his fate. I have never met him face-to-face; my awareness of his presence in the house was when, while we were eating lunch, we heard outside on the staircase someone "roll down the stairs", like a machine gun; he had very fast moving legs and, when he was leaving, he never interrupted us. This was the stairway that the Hungarians removed from the house on Csalán út.

György Justus (Jusztus)

György Justus (or Jusztusz) (Budapest, April 24, 1898 – Budapest, January 1945) was a composer, musicologist and choir master. He was impoverished throughout his life and had to struggle exceptionally hard to survive. Justus studied violin and composition, the latter in Berlin during the 1920s; he returned home in 1927. He published almost thirty substantial papers on music, dance and theatre in Hungarian journals but was mostly interested in folksong research and comparative folklore and in establishing folksong choirs, which he conducted and for which he composed. His choirs also staged works like the Brecht/Weill Threepenny Opera, in which Justus often sang with great success. He played the violin, when one was needed, in the accompanying band. His orchestra regularly performed compositions by many contemporary Hungarian composers.

Justus was impoverished all his adult life. Although he worked all the time, he did not have a regular income. Indeed, he was very rarely paid for any of his work. For many years he had no home, slept wherever he could and wrote his essays and compositions on park benches and in coffee houses. He composed in his head, although the Korda brothers (music publishers, not to be confused with the film moguls) allowed him to use the piano in their storeroom, helped him as much as they could and published his early Jazz Suite for piano. Justus had a large group of friends, all of whom supported him as best they could, even if only with warm meals.

Although choral works account for most of Justus's compositional output, he also wrote songs, instrumental and orchestral works and musical plays. His Burlesque for violin and orchestra (1925) was played by two leading Hungarian violinists of the day, Ödön Pártos and György Garai, and in 1939 the prestigious Budapest Philharmonic performed some of his works. Justus and his wife, the writer Kató Ács, created a children's oratorio that was given favorable consideration by the Hungarian National Theater – but by then anti-Jewish discriminatory laws were in force, and the theater wanted to put an “Aryan” name on it instead of Justus's name. He and his “Aryan” wife refused the offer, and the oratorio was not performed.

Justus was taken to forced labor in the autumn of 1943. In 1944 he escaped from Transylvania and went into hiding in Budapest. In November the Hungarian Nazis (Arrow Cross) caught him, after which he disappeared. According to some sources he was killed in Budapest in January 1945.

Writing in 1955, Antal Molnár declared that in the slightly undisciplined yet interesting Jazz Suite (1928) Justus had not yet found his own voice. More individual is the song “Struggling with Sorrow” (1930; a setting of a poem by Csokonai), with which Justus won first prize at a national song competition. His mature style can be heard in several piano-accompanied songs for children and in the Villon Ballade (1935) for baritone or mezzo-soprano and orchestra. Molnár also mentions Justus's very effective choral work, 'No'. I have inspected over forty of Justus's music manuscripts and have found many of his compositions to be more than worthy of performance. I also discovered old editions of two of Justus's works – the Jazz Suite and the lighthearted waltz-song, “Sometimes in the Evening.” Justus wrote the song's text as well as its music, dedicated the song to his mother and – as per the title page – arranged for its publication. But the address printed on the title page, given as that of the composer, was really the address of Sándor Vándor, another composer, because Justus was homeless. The song's words express Justus's longing for his mother and for Pest (the Pest section of Budapest). Three verses address the mother, and the refrain, heard three times, is about Pest. Although this song is apparently in a light vein, in retrospect there is nothing light about it. Justus escaped from forced labor in Transylvania because he was homesick for Budapest. Perhaps he would have survived the labor camp instead of being killed by Budapest's fascists.

Sándor Kuti

From Kuti's autobiography, written in 1944, shortly before he perished in a German concentration camp:

I was born in 1908, in a dilapidated block of flats in the Óbuda district of Budapest. My parents were poor, permanently struggling. From the age of three my favorite pastime was to invent various scenes and to add music to them. My first notated compositions date from my ninth year. But I started serious music studies only after my matriculation, at the age of eighteen. I studied at the Budapest Academy of Music. I obtained my highest degree, the artist diploma, under the supervision of Ernő Dohnányi. Since then I have taught private pupils and worked as a choral répétiteur. My artistic credo: to serve truth, freedom and human dignity. My piano compositions have been performed in Budapest, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Vienna, Paris and overseas; my chamber music and choral compositions have been performed in Budapest.

Although Kuti does not mention it, he was disadvantaged and poor throughout his whole life. At the end of this short autobiography Kuti provides a list of his compositions, including his two string quartets (1928, 1934), three string trios (1929, 1932, 1933), Rondo for symphony orchestra (1933), Sonata for two violins (1933), Piano Suite (1935), Sonatina for piano (1936), fifteen songs on poems by Lajos Hollós-Korvin, several choral works, pieces for children and songs on poems by Attila József. Although Kuti wrote this memoir shortly before he was murdered, he had yet to compose his last work, a solo sonata for violin.

Antal Molnár describes Kuti's music as “sincere in emotions and disciplined in form.” He calls the three-movement solo violin sonata one of Kuti's best works; it was “written on self-lined pages in a forced labor camp in the summer of 1944 and sent to his wife 'with lots of love and longing'”. The sonata is “heartbreakingly expressive,” Molnár says, “but it is also an example of cyclic relationships. The closing movement incorporates main ingredients from the previous movements.”

Kuti's compositions were well received by national and international critics as early as his Music Academy diploma concert, which he shared with his fellow student and close friend György (later Sir Georg) Solti. (Solti, towards the end of his life, described Kuti as having been “exceptionally gifted” and wrote: “I used to visit him at his family's desperately poor little catacomb of a home. I am convinced that had he lived, he would have become one of Hungary's greatest composers....”) Kuti's other close friends included the poet Hollós-Korvin, the pianist Andor Földes – who premiered Kuti's Piano Suite, with great success, in Amsterdam in 1935 – and the composer Endre Szervánszky. During the war, the non-Jewish Szervánszky tried to protect Jews; his courage was acknowledged by the Yad Vashem organization, which, in 1998 – twenty-one years after his death – described him as one of the “righteous among the nations.” One of Kuti's string quartets and one of his string trios were published posthumously in 1965 and 1966, respectively; a choral work was included in a collection of Jewish Folk Choruses in 1948, but other Kuti works remain in manuscript, and some may be lost.

Walter Lajthai-Lazarus

OMIKE (Országos Magyar Izraelita Közművelődési Egyesület) was the wartime Hungarian Jewish organization that provided work, as long as it could, to Jewish artists who were banned from employment elsewhere. Walter Lajthai-Lazarus was an OMIKE composer and also an OMIKE conductor. On May 11 and 13, 1942, his one-act “comic opera scene” Szerencse (Fortune) was premiered. I have not yet found any other information about him.

Sándor Vándor

Thanks to the choir named after him, Vándor is not entirely unknown. He even merited twelve lines in the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. But his work as a composer and educator is largely forgotten. From 1920 on, Vándor (originally Venetianer; Miskolc, July 28, 1901– Sopronbánfalva, January 14, 1945) studied in Berlin and then as Paul Graener's composition student at the Leipzig Music Academy, from which he graduated. He worked as an opera répétiteur in Italy from 1924 until he returned to Hungary in 1932, after which he worked as an opera conductor and répétiteur and led several workers' choirs without payment. He conducted the choir that eventually took his name from 1936 until November 1944, when he was taken to Sopronbánfalva by the Hungarian Nazis and died under torture.

As a conductor, Vándor consistently promoted works by Bartók and Kodály, and he published articles about Bartók, Kodály, Mussorgsky and Shostakovich. In addition to Hungarian, he was fluent in German, Russian, English, French, Italian and Spanish. In 1940, during his three-month Ruthenian forced labor period, he learned Ruthenian and collected Ruthenian folksongs. Although as a composer Vándor was best known for his choral works, he was prolific in many genres and was well received by audiences and critics alike. Distinguished artists, such as the pianist György Sándor and the singer Vera Rózsa, performed at concerts of Vándor's compositions, which include instrumental, chamber, orchestral, vocal/choral and stage works. Only one of Vándor's compositions was published during his lifetime: The Machine, for piano solo, won the silver medal at an international competition for piano compositions in Eastern Europe in 1934. His second opera was left unfinished at the time of his death.

Many of Vándor's forty or more compositions were published posthumously, but they are not easy to come by. Many – perhaps all – of his manuscripts survive.

Molnár writes that some of Vándor's songs are among the treasures of Hungarian Lieder, and Fejes (1967) analyzes the String Quartet, the Sonatina for solo viola, First Sonata for violin and piano, other instrumental and chamber works, several songs, choral works and Vándor's only completed opera, which was written in the Brecht/Weill mode. Fejes emphasizes what he describes as Vándor's revolutionary choral chansons, the best of which - “Mondd, mit érlel” (“What will become of him”) – combines Hungarian folksong elements with 20th-century workers' songs à la Hanns Eisler. Vándor arranged folksongs of many nations; his most substantial Hungarian folksong arrangement was The Ballad of Anna Fehér for solo female voice, mixed choir and piano (1941).

László Weiner

With the possible exception of Lajthai-Lazarus, about whom I have yet to find data, Weiner (Szombathely, April 9, 1916– Lukov, July 25, 1944) was the youngest of the seven Hungarian Jewish composers who perished in the Holocaust. The Budapest Music Academy yearbooks show that Weiner was Kodály's composition pupil from 1934 until 1940 and that he also studied piano and conducting there.

As was mentioned in connection with Jenő Deutsch, Kodály tried to save Weiner as well as Deutsch as early as 1939, when he attempted to find positions for these two gifted Jewish musicians in Melbourne, Australia. In 1943, he again made an effort on Weiner's behalf:

To The Major General       
12th July 1943, Budapest
Dear Sir,
Please allow me to draw your attention to my ex-student László Weiner. He is expected to become an outstanding composer and pianist. Two years ago a composition of his won the national competition. Weiner already spent 13 months in forced labor, partly with heavy manual work. I believe that the continuation of such work will put his future at risk: he will be unable to carry out the cultural work for which he studied and obtained qualifications. I would appreciate it if, circumstances allowing, future work assignments would take into consideration Weiner's profession and individual abilities so that his future should not be jeopardized. I am sure that, as far as possible, we can rely on your good will.
With much appreciation,
Yours very sincerely: Zoltán Kodály
Endre Gaál, music critic for the important daily newspaper Magyar Nemzet (Hungarian Nation), attended two of Weiner's premieres – both in 1942 – and reported favorably on them.

Weiner dedicated most of his compositions to his wife, the excellent singer Vera Rózsa. They had met as students at the Music Academy, married in 1942 and continued to make music together at OMIKE's concerts whenever they had the chance. OMIKE gave as many opportunities as possible to Jewish artists, but the fact that the young Weiner had to be accommodated alongside well-known mature artists limited his opportunities. He conducted, accompanied and taught – and had some of his works performed – there from 1941 until December 7, 1942. He was scheduled to conduct a Beethoven evening in February 1943, but by then he was in a forced labor camp. He was 25 or 26 when he composed his last works and 28 when he was murdered at the Lukov forced labor camp on July 25, 1944.

Vera Rózsa survived the Holocaust and became a well-known singing teacher in England. She taught at The Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London and privately.

Molnár writes: “In spite of his youth, Weiner developed a musical style that would have been unimaginable without Kodály, but Weiner was no epigone. His ideas were melodic, well formed and rich in harmonies.”

On May 2, 1994, fifty years after he was murdered, a memorial concert was arranged for Weiner in the Goldmark Hall, which was the OMIKE concert venue. The concert included four of Weiner's compositions, and the performers – including cellist Janos Starker – had personal links to László Weiner. Thanks mostly to the violist Pál Lukács, Weiner's Violin and Viola duo, Viola Sonata and Triple Concerto were published by Editio Musica in 1958, 1961 and 1965, respectively; the Three Songs in 1994; the Overture in 1995; and the four-part chorus in 2001. Yet his works are still little known, and he is often confused with the much older Leó Weiner.

©2009 by Agnes Kory

Hungarian-born Agnes Kory is the founder-director of the Béla Bartók Centre for Musicianship (London), where children as young as two years old, as well as professional musicians, study. Once a professional cellist, she now focuses on research into such topics as Bartók, Kodály, Baroque instrumentation and Music of the Holocaust.

In Memoriam: Hungarian Composers Victims of the Holocaust [CD].