Tibor Frank. Double Exile: Migrations of Jewish-Hungarian Professionals through Germany to the United States, 1919-1945. Oxford: Peter Lang, 2009. 521 pp. $103.95 (paper), ISBN 978-3-03911-331-6.
Reviewed by Guy Miron (Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies)
Published on H-Judaic (July, 2011)
Commissioned by Jason Kalman (Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion)
A New Perspective on European Jewish Immigration
Tibor Frank's book portrays a generation of Hungarians who left their homeland as young people in 1919 or in the early 1920s primarily to Germany. Later, the members of this group--most of whom were Jewish--left Germany following the rise of the Nazi regime and immigrated to the United States. The importance of this small group of people, which justifies Frank's effort to document their collective life story and present it by way of prosopography, has to do with their exceptional achievements in a variety of fields of science and art. They, he asserts in the book's introduction, are mostly discussed in academic research as part of the German and German-Jewish intellectual refugees. For Frank, a prominent Hungarian historian, it is important to show them as a distinctive group, illuminate their unique background, and contribute to the understanding of what he calls "Hungarian genius."
The first two, out of six chapters, relate to the Hungarian context. Chapter 1 opens with a description of certain elements of the Hungarian national mentality, which is characterized, according to Frank, by a "split between a sense of inferiority and an exaggerated sense of self-worth" (p. 23). Hungarian creativity, he asserts, is a complicated tradition that always related to internal and international conflicts--a variety of circumstances that encouraged originality and an uncommon approach for solving problems. But Frank's heroes are not typical products of this tradition. More specifically, he describes them as products of "The Chemistry of Fin-de-Siècle Budapest," an era in which Hungary's capital developed into a modern city (p. 33). They were predominantly members of the rising urban middle class--many from assimilating Jewish families. Assimilation, it seems, is a major category in Frank's understanding of this Hungarian genius. He associates it with a sense of insecurity and loss of roots (which peaked in many cases of religious conversion to Christianity) as well as with a deep aspiration for social acceptance and recognition. A deeper knowledge of Jewish historiography, which deals extensively with the impact of assimilation on Jewish identity, could have enriched Frank's interesting discussion of this point. Chapter 1 ends with a long overview of Hungary's modern education system whose achievements, Frank asserts, are part of the secret of Hungary's émigrés. Thus, for example, he links the careers of many excellent Hungarian mathematicians to their formative years of mathematical education in fin-de-siècle Budapest. All in all, the new Hungarian generation, he notes, "was intrigued by the phenomena of scientific discovery and problem solving" (p. 73).
The second chapter is devoted to the Hungarian trauma of 1918-20--the political turmoil in post-WWI Hungary and the defeat of the revolutions that led to the intellectual exodus. In late 1918 and in 1919, Hungary experienced two revolutions: the "Frost Flower (Aster) Revolution" that tried to lead the defeated country to a liberal-democratic regime and the Communist regime that established the short-lived "republic of Councils." Many leaders of both revolutions, especially the second, came from a Jewish background. Frank explains that following the contra-revolutionary takeover of the conservative Right, in August 1919, the words "Jew" and "communist" became almost synonymous. Jewish intellectuals from a variety of political orientations (among them the radical sociologist and political scientist Oscar Jászi and the author and playwright Lajos Biró) went into exile to avoid the implications of the white terror. The 1920 Numerus Clausus law, which limited the relative rate of Jewish university students to 6 percent, pushed many other young Jews, mostly college graduates and young professionals, to leave Hungary. Germany seemed challenging and attractive for many of them. Chapter 2 closes with a description of the the impact of this emigration on Hungarian culture, including the rapid decline of the Hungarian modernist movement; its relocation to other countries, eventually the United States; and the traditional conservative turn of Hungarian culture. Frank demonstrates this process by discussing two prominent figures: the violinist Joseph Szigeti and the painter and designer Laszlo Moholy-Nagy.
The third chapter, "Berlin Junction," opens with a discussion of the influence of German language and culture in Hungary. This was a main reason for many Hungarian émigrés to leave their homeland for German-speaking countries following the 1918-20 events. This, however, proved to be "the first step in a chain--or step--migration" as the rise of Adolf Hitler in Germany eventually led most of them to the United States (p. 129). In the short run, in other words, during the Weimar era, the German environment had "outstanding qualities" for the emigrants--it provided them political, religious, professional, and artistic tolerance (p. 135). It welcomed professionals and, more important, new ideas that were ridiculed in Hungary. Hundreds of new Hungarian intellectual émigrés created communities in Berlin and made an important contribution to its development--for a brief moment in the late 1920s--as the European center for film, theater, photography, performing arts, and social sciences. Still, some did not feel comfortable in 1920s Berlin as they tried to reach the United States already in the 1920s or even preferred, as Frank shows, other European destinations.
The second half of the book deals with the American context. Chapter 4 is devoted to the American policy toward emigration from Hungary after World War I. Frank explains that Hungary was a major victim of the American quota laws and describes the efforts of desperate Hungarians to find a way to reach the United States. He also deals with the renewed public discourse about immigration following the outbreak of World War II. The second part of this chapter, an initial social history of immigrants in interwar New York City, includes an interesting discussion about Jewish-Gentile structure of "Little Hungary" in New York.
Chapter 5 opens with long presentations of two life stories that demonstrate the double trauma of the émigrés (first from Hungary, later from Nazi Germany): the physicist Leo Szilard and Michael Polanyi who made important contributions to a variety of fields, among them physical chemistry, philosophy, and economics. It also presents, through the stories of other émigrés, the use of different connections and opportunities to rescue a variety of other Hungarian (mostly but not only Jewish) intellectuals and help them to enter the United States. The last chapter, "Problem Solving and the U.S. War Effort," portrays the careers of several scientists in the United States.
To sum up, Frank's book tells an unknown chapter from (mostly) Jewish immigration history in the twentieth century. The book includes a great deal of information. Sometimes, especially in the last chapters, its presentation is eclectic, making it difficult to get a wide overview beyond the details. Still, integration of the main conclusions in the wider context of twentieth-century Jewish historiography contributes to the ongoing effort to enrich it from the transnational perspective.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-judaic.
Guy Miron. Review of Frank, Tibor, Double Exile: Migrations of Jewish-Hungarian Professionals through Germany to the United States, 1919-1945.
H-Judaic, H-Net Reviews.
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