Interviews about Jewish identity in the 1980s
Ferenc Erős’s interview collection includes in-depth interviews with second-generation Holocaust survivors. This project was one of the first which seeks to revive suppressed memories of the Holocaust and the effects of the psychological strategies used to grapple with these memories and the ways in which trauma are transmitted within families.
Budapest Arany János utca 32, Hungary 1051
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Name of collection
Interviews about Jewish identity in the 1980s
Provenance and cultural activities
The Jewish identity-interviews from the 1980s represent an important collection of a hidden, officially discouraged culture. This material offers insights into the world of alternative Jewish cultural identities which did not appear in public under socialism, although they did exist, of course.
The idea of interviewing second-generation Holocaust survivors came from Ferenc Erős, who worked at the time in the Psychological Institute of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (HAS), and psychologist András Stark from Pécs. The motivation was personal involvement in both cases, because Erős and Stark are children of Holocaust survivors. This fact played a major role in the dealing with the topic. Erős had already tried to study the history of his own deported family some years earlier. Furthermore, he was given an opportunity to meet second-generation groups abroad thanks to an American scholarship in 1976. The results of the international academic discourses, international Holocaust studies, examinations of trauma, and the debates on the methods of interviewing gave him professional inspiration. These achievements aroused his and his co-researchers’ curiosity with regards to the identity of the generation born after the Holocaust.
The idea of holding interviews was an ad hoc decision. Actually, Erős and Stark wanted to know how general their experiences and feelings as second-generation survivors were. In retrospect, this project, which originally was not scholarly in nature, became a significant contribution to the emergence of memory studies in Hungary. The researchers broke the silence first. They were given the opportunity to talk about the Holocaust with their interviewees. They sought answers to questions concerning what it was like to grow up in Hungary in families in which memories of the deportation of parents and the loss of many relatives and acquaintances were preserved and passed on to the next generation. Initially, they had no financial support and pursued this work almost as a hobby, but at the end of the 1980s, they got some help from institutional sources (Psychological Institute of the HAS, the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture in New York, the Institute of Sociology and Social Policy at Eötvös Loránd University, and the J. and O. Winter Fund).
Jewish cultural history and the Holocaust in the age of Kádár were simultaneously suppressed and politicized. According to the communist ideology, religious and ethnical differences disappeared in a socialist society, so the issue of the Jewish community was never raised and became, rather, taboo. This cultural-political context did not support the cultivation of particular cultural identities, Jewish culture included. On the other hand, the memory of the Holocaust, and more precisely the memory of Auschwitz, was framed as a fight between the Communists and the Nazis. In this context, the function of Antisemitism was only to mark Nazis. This interpretation resulted in the repression of Jewish identity as well. Erős’s investigation challenged this framework. He pursued his work in a period in which the issue of Jews and Jewish cultures began to be debated openly in Hungary. This occurred typically in terms of history, which at the same time kept the issue at a safe temporal distance, but the discussions nonetheless raised important questions concerning identities and the problems of political and social integration. An important event for this re-appraisal was the publication of the book edited by Péter Hanák entitled Zsidókérdés, asszimiláció, antiszemitizmus (“Jewish Question, Assimilation, Antisemitism,” Budapest, 1984, Gondolat.)
The collection is relevant to many disciplines, particularly history, psychology, and sociology. The researchers examined one of the most suppressed historical episodes in Hungary under Kádár, the Hungarian Shoah, as well as the ways of remembering it in the form of personal experiences. This took place in a period in which many members of the second-generation survivor group could still be interviewed.
In the beginning, Erős and his fellow researchers held lectures on their findings for professional audiences. The first public presentation was delivered in the program of the Hungarian Psychiatric Society in 1983. The title of this report had to be encoded. The main title included neither the word Jewish nor the word Holocaust. (A társadalmi diszkrimináció hosszantartó hatása a személyiségfejlődésre: A holocaust utáni nemzedékek identitásproblémái, or “The Effect of Social Discrimination on Personality Development: Identity Problems of the Generations after the Holocaust.”) Some of their colleagues were disgusted by this topic, and they contended that it was not “relevant” and would only nurture anti-Semitism.
András Kovács, who later joined the project, also participated in the so-called Hétfői Repülő Egyetem (“Monday Flying University”), which was organized by the democratic opposition group. One of his papers was published in Zsidóság az 1945 utáni Magyarországon (“Jewry in Hungary after 1945”), a book edited by Péter Kende, a prominent member of the post-1956 émigré community in Western Europe, and it was printed in Magyar Füzetek (“Hungarian Brochures”) in Paris. This study would have been represented primarily as a lecture in the framework of a series of debates held by the Fiatal Művészek Klubja (“Club of Young Artists”), if that had been possible. The organizers wanted to invite lecturers who would speak about four sensitive, officially rejected topics: first, the situation of the Roma, second, the Jewry and Anti-Semitism, third, the Hungarian minorities in the neighbouring countries, and finally, the question of national identity. The debate, however, was soon banned.
This aforementioned study was published in the Hungarian periodical Medvetánc in 1985, which was a forum for officially discouraged themes and often banned authors, but which paradoxically was run formally by the Communist Youth League. The publication of the article became a kind of breakthrough and a stepping into the public sphere (the title was “Hogyan tudtam meg, hogy zsidó vagyok?” or “How did I find out that I am a Jew?”). This article met with considerable interest, and more and more persons joined the project as interviewers or interviewees.
The research was not conducted in an institutional framework. Meanwhile, Erős and his colleagues wanted to employ people who were politically marginalized and deprived of all opportunities. The overwhelming majority of the interviewers were chosen from their personal network at the university or their workplaces. They frequently asked their Jewish acquaintances to join the project, so they worked with so-called snow ball sampling.
In the 1990s, Erős and Kovács got more financial support from sources in Hungary and abroad. They participated in a research project of HAS. They got more funding from individuals, for instance through György Csepeli of the Sociological Institute of Eötvös Lorand University and from the J. and O. Winter Fund. Later in the 1990s, they were supported by the Országos Tudományos Kutatási Alapprogramok (OTKA) – (“Hungarian Scientific Research Fund”). Thanks to this source of support, new interviews were done and half of the records were digitalized.The records and the transcriptions were preserved by Ferenc Erős and András Kovács and were donated to the 20. Század Hangja Archívum és Kutatóműhely (“Voices of the Twentieth Century,” Archive and Research Group of the Institute for Sociology, Centre for Social Sciences, HAS) in 2012, hereafter “Voices.” The aim of this research group is to collect, digitalize, and publish copies of the interviews and the documents provided by researchers. The archiving process is based on the institutional and technical background and the storage facilities of the Open Society Archives (OSA). The “Voices” research group systematized and digitalized the transcriptions of the interviews and the questionnaires on which they were based.
Description of content
While the research was underway (from 1980 to 1988), 150 interviews were done, 121 of which are preserved in their entirety, while the others are either fragmentary or have been lost. No other documentation of the project survives. Only a smaller section of the tape recordings have survived. Most of the material consists of transcriptions. The length of these records varies from 30 to 200 pages, but every item is based on 2 or 3 conversations. Furthermore, there is a detailed quantitative questionnaire about every single interviewee, which includes various sociological data.
The questionnaires for the in-depth interviews include questions about other topics, such as family history before, during, and after World War II and the Holocaust, accounts of pivotal moments in life (childhood, study, work, lifestyle, etc.), experiences of discrimination, Antisemitism, opinions concerning Jewish organizations and the immigration of members of the Jewish communities to Palestine/Israel. The interviews focused on the relationship between self-identity and the Holocaust, the question of “what does it mean being a Jew for you,” and communication across generations.The paper collection is located in the OSA, in accordance with an agreement between the OSA and “Voices.” After anonymization, the content will be available on the “Voices” website.
- manuscripts (ego-documents, diaries, notes, letters, drafts, etc.): 100-499
Date of founding
Place of founding
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Important events in the history of the collection
- parts are closed to the public
Authors of this page
- Huhák, Heléna
Erős, Ferenc, and Ehmann Bea. "Az identitásfejlődés tükröződése az önéletrajzi elbeszélésben." In Azonosság és különbözőség: tanulmányok az identitásról és az előítéletről, 96-113. [Budapest]: Scientia Humana Társulás, 1996.
Erős, Ferenc, András Kovács, and Katalin Lévai. "Hogyan tudtam meg, hogy zsidó vagyok?" Medvetánc, no. 2-3 (1985), 129-144.
Erős, Ferenc. "„Megtörni a hallgatást”. Zsidó identitás interjúk a nyolcvanas években." Lecture, Interjúzni muszáj. A magyar oral history gyűjtemények története, MTA BTK COURAGE, OSZK 1956-os Intézet – Oral History Archívum, Budapest, May/June 19, 2017.
Erős, Ferenc. "Emlékezet és utóemlékezet a holokauszt utáni magyar irodalomban és filmen." IMÁGÓ Budapest 6, no. 1 (2017), 31-44. http://imagobudapest.hu/images/lapszamok/2017_1_Az_Idegen_Film_es_pszichoanalizis_szam/IB_2017_1-szam_pp031-44_ErosFerenc.pdf
Lénárt, András. "Zsidó indentitáskutatások a holokauszt után született generáció körében." Socio.hu | Az MTA Társadalomtudományi Kutatóközpont Szociológiai Intézet Online Folyóirata. Last modified March 2016. http://socio.hu/uploads/files/2016_3/zsido_gyujt.pdf
Erős, Ferenc, interview by Huhák, Heléna, June 21, 2017. COURAGE Registry Oral History Collection