Yesterday I wasn't sure whether I could find enough reliable information about the Transylvanian-Hungarian author Albert Wass to write a post about him, but I managed. Wass has lately become one of the favorite authors of Transylvanian Hungarians as well as the radical right in Hungary proper. I was astonished to discover that in Transylvania Albert Wass is the second most popular writer after the nineteenth-century romantic novelist Mór Jókai. His books, believe it or not, are more popular than the Bible!
Count Albert Wass of Czege traced his family's origins to the earliest Hungarian history, all the way to the Árpád period. One must, of course, take these genealogical claims with a grain of salt, but we do know that the family was ennobled in 1744. Wass himself was born in 1908 in Válaszút, Hungary (now Rascruci, Cluj County, Romania) and died in 1998 in Astor, Florida.
Very few people study his works. Those who do claim that the reluctance on the part of Hungarian literary historians to take him seriously reflects their embarrassment that this man's work is so popular in Transylvania and Hungary. The literary historians who gloss over him know that he was an epigon, a racist, a Hungarian chauvinist, and an anti-semite. Perhaps they don't want to be faced with the question: and then why is he so popular?
The sole book devoted to him, written by Vilmos Ágoston and published in Romania in 2007, compares him to Doru Munteanu, a Romanian nationalist who was a favorite in the Ceauşescu era. According to Boróka Parászka, a Romanian-Hungarian writer, one could easily mistake the two writers: one just has to change Romanian to Hungarian and vice versa. In Wass's works the Romanians are the thieves who should all be hanged while in Munteanu's work the Hungarians should go to the gallows. A short analysis by Éva Cs. Gyimesi, a literary critic in Cluj (Kolozsvár), appeared in the Transylvanian publication Új Magyar Szó. She calls Wass's ideas and works "immoral, tasteless, and esthetically unclassifiable." What can one think of a man who wrote these lines in November 1940: "Love thy people, thy nation, more than thyself, and beside it there should be no other God for thee…. And if thy forget the laws of the nation, devastation and pestilence will fall on thee." According to Gyimesi, the Hungarian right's hate speech finds ample vocabulary in Wass's works.
Although one cannot be sure whether Albert Wass was actually responsible for the death of a number of Romanians and Jews for which he was condemned to death in absentia in Romania, we do know that Wass was a confirmed anti-semite. He claimed that during the massacre of the victims he was miles away, but Wass had a penchant for prevarication. I believe that many of the blank spots in his biography stem from his lies about his past. For example, he claimed that the Gestapo was after him and that he escaped from them by volunteering to fight on the Russian front, but he received the German Iron Cross Second Class. Although he always denied any connection with Ferenc Szálasi and his Arrowcross Party, recently his membership card was discovered. He talked about being a professor at the University of Florida but it seems that he taught only in the military academy in Astor. Big difference. Military academies in the United States are for boys who have behavioral problems and whose stern fathers think that a military school will do the trick.
In addition to Vilmos Ágoston there is one more man who is seriously looking into the heritage, political and literary, of Albert Vass: János Neubauer, professor emeritus at the University of Amsterdam. It is somehow telling that neither of the two men who have spent intellectual capital on Wass is from Hungary. Anyone who is interested in learning more about Albert Wass than I can offer here should consult his longish chapter, "Rebirth and Apotheosis of a Transylvanian-Hungarian Writer," in The Exile and Return of Writers from East-Central Europe: A Compendium, available online with the exception of a few pages here and there.
But here I will rely mostly on a Hungarian article by Neubauer that appeared in Népszabadság only a few months ago, on February 6, 2010. The title of the piece is a play on words: Wass Albert "Havasai." "Havasok" means Alps in Hungarian and since Wass was a Transylvanian and had a degree in forestry he wrote a lot about the Transylvanian Alps. But in this case Neubauer talks about Emil Havas, a Hungarian Jew. He describes an encounter between the two men in New York. We have two descriptions of the meeting. One by Wass and the other by Havas.
The Wass version, which appeared in 1993 and is available online, is called "This is how I became an anti-semite." According to his story Emil Havas was a scribbler for the Hungarian daily Ellenzék in Kolozsvár (Cluj) who emigrated to the United States and who, by the time of their encounter, was writing for The New York Times and Reader's Digest. According to Wass Havas offered him a deal. If he writes a book in which fascist students beat up a Jewish boy who, after many adventures, ends up in the United States where he becomes a famous man, "they" will make sure that he will be a well-known author. His books will be bestsellers, films will be made of them. "If you accept our offer and you write the way we want you to write we will make a successful American writer of you. But if not–and here Mr. Havasi raised his voice–not one book of yours will appear in this country. Do you understand? The American press is in our hands, publishing as well. And of course, the film industry. In this country people read what we want them to read, they see and hear what we want. If you want to live here, you write the way we want you to. If not, you will not write a line!" It took Wass two years to find out that Havas was right. In vain did he send his manuscripts translated into English to publishing houses and to periodicals. A well-known literary agent told him the secret: 'Your name is on the blacklist. There is no publisher who would dare publish your work."
Havas was no fictive character although I'm not sure that he was actually a scribbler in Kolozsvár because in his obituary (1957) he is described as a Czechoslovak writer who was born in Uzhgorod. Neubauer discovered Havas's description of the events. First of all, even the date mentioned in the Wass version is inaccurate. He claims that he arrived in the United States in August 1950, but in fact it was on September 21, 1951. This by itself is odd. The date of one's arrival from Europe to America usually sticks in one's mind. Moreover, it turned out that it wasn't really Havas who foisted himself on Wass but it was Wass who phoned him, as it turned out by mistake. Because Havas remembered Wass's name as a budding writer in Hungary, they decided to meet. Havas read some of Wass's later short stories and novels in which he found "strong anti-semitic tendencies." They immediately started a conversation about these short stories and novels. Havas pointed out that all the Jews who appear in his writings are "ungrateful, wicked, ill-willed people" and in none of his books can one find "a good word about the Jewry that suffered most in this war."
Wass of course protested. Nothing was further from the truth. He labelled the Jewish people as a separate race and criticized them accordingly. He knew that there are good Jews and bad Jews. There are some who are bolsheviks and he was writing about those. Otherwise, of course, he has some "excellent Jewish friends." Again, that claim has been questioned by some who did a fair amount of research on Albert Wass's career. By 1966 Wass was convinced that both world wars were the result of a Jewish conspiracy. And so was the establishment of the United Nations. He condemned the American-Hungarian soldiers who arrested a group of Hungarian Arrowcross soldiers in Germany, later returned to Hungary and condemned to death. According to Wass "they were simply good Hungarians who did what any good Hungarian patriot would have done: defend his country against the invaders."
All in all, the cult of Albert Wass is worrisome. Even more worrisome is the fact that the new president of Hungary began his inaugural speech with a quotation from him.