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Vas, István

(1910–1991), poet, translator, essayist, and memoirist. István Vas’s ancestors were small-town rabbis on his father’s side and well-to-do merchants on his mother’s. His father was an eager first-generation assimilationist who had a checkered career as a businessman and entrepreneur. The young Vas was in some ways a typical second-generation rebel, rejecting his parents’ wholehearted adoption of a conventionally bourgeois lifestyle, their unqualified respect for monetary wealth, their “enlightened” Judaism, and gravitated, politically, to the left and artistically toward the avant-garde movements of the late 1920s.

Before long Vas discovered that he had merely repressed his innate conservatism. In his voluminous memoirs Nehéz szerelem (Difficult Love; 1972), Mért vijjog a saskeselyű (Why Does the Vulture Screech?; 1981), and Azután (Afterward; 1991), which he began writing in the early 1940s and continued well into the 1980s, he freely admits that even in his most rebellious phase he had a higher regard for his rabbi grandfather’s traditional Judaism than for his parents’ skin-deep assimilationist values. After a brief fling with the programmatic avant-garde, as a poet he returned to rhymed verse and classical forms. By the early 1930s, he broke with his family completely, abandoned Judaism, and, in 1938, formally converted to Catholicism.

Despite Vas’s wholesale rejection of his family and his background—in his autobiographical narratives he is sharply critical of the cockiness and superficiality of Budapest’s Jewish bourgeoisie—he comes across in his writings as more of a contemplative and wavering intellectual than as a single-minded, determined rebel. He was attracted to both socialism and Christianity but admits to having been a “bad” socialist and a “bad” Christian. While arguing that Jewish conceit and arrogance in a way determined the tone and character of Budapest social and cultural life in the interwar years, he realizes that despite his protestations, in his habits and language, he remained part of the world he ostensibly despised. The war experience and the years of persecution added a new dimension to Vas’s art. In two of his best-known poems, “Pesti elégia” (Pest Elegy; 1957) and “Boccherini sírja” (Boccherini’s Tomb; ca. 1964), he pays tribute to his native city, which he loves in spite of everything, and to those people, Jews and non-Jews, who helped him endure and survive the years of darkness.

The Nobel laureate Imre Kertész notes that in the bulk of Vas’s reminiscences, written during the Communist era, the memoirist tried too hard to please the then “culture tsar” of Hungary on the one hand, and the leading Hungarian populist poet on the other, which made his writing insincere. István Vas was undeniably an accommodationist in his latter years, but this criticism is too harsh. Vas was well aware of his limitations; in both his poetry and prose he made the most of his not inconsiderable talent.

Suggested Reading

István Fenyő, Vas István (Budapest, 1976); Zoltán Sumonyi, Vas István (Budapest, 1982); István Vas, Through the Smoke: Selected Poems, trans. Bruce Berlind [et al.] (Budapest, 1989).