06 January 2023

In search of Leopold Bloom’s
Jewish family in Szombathely
in western Hungary

The Moorish-style Neolog Synagogue in Szombathely was designed by Ludwig Schöne and built in 1880 (Photograph: Wikipedia/CCL)

Patrick Comerford

The centenary of the publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses was celebrated in Hungary, with the Irish Embassy in Budapest organising a literary evening and a Bloomsday programme last year in Szombathely, the town in western Hungary where James Joyce places the birth of Leopold Bloom’s father, Rudolph Bloom.

The Bloomsday programme in Szombathely included public art depicting scenes from Ulysses. The organisers were Ferenc Kassai and Szabolcs Prieger, the Hungarian translator of Ulysses Dr Marianna Gula, and Professor Michael McAteer, lecturer on Irish literature at Pázmány Péter Catholic University (PPCU) Budapest.

Joyce visited neither Budapest nor Szombathely. But, because he places birth of Rudolph Bloom in Szombathely, the city has become the focus of Joycean celebrations in Hungary.

Of course, critics debate and doubt Bloom’s Jewishness. His mother, Ellen Higgins, was a gentile, and his father converted in order to marry her. Leopold, who was neither circumcised nor had a bar mitzvah, was baptised in the Church of Ireland and became a Catholic to marry Molly. He flouts the Jewish dietary laws, and proclaims himself an atheist.

Yet his protagonists see Bloom as Jewish and in Bloom James Joyce has created the literature’s archetypal Irish Jew. He is presented as the only descendant of a Hungarian Jewish family, whose father, Rudolf Virág emigrates from Szombathely through Budapest, Vienna, Milan and London to Dublin. Rudolf is the son of Lipóti Virag, but in Dublin he changes his name to Rudolph Bloom, virágbeing the Hungarian word for flower and also a family name in Hungary.

There are endless debates about Joyce’s choice of Szombathely. For over a decade, he taught English in Pula and then in Trieste, but he never visited Szombathely.

Research lead primarily by Róbert Orbán shows that a prosperous Jewish family named Blum lived in the main square in the city at Fő tér 40-41 in the mid-19th century. In this way, literary fiction has been transformed into urban myth, with a memorial plaque on the Blum-House.

Szombathely once had a relatively large Jewish population, and Joyce may have heard about some of those families while mixing in Hungarian circles in Trieste, then in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Joyce was a genius at word play. The pronunciation of Szombathely (Sombattay) sounds like ‘somebody,’ and so it might have been a light-hearted play on words.

Another theory suggests Joyce chose the name from a Jewish friend in Trieste, the scholar Marino de Szombathely, who translated Homer’s Ulysses from Greek into Italian at a time when Joyce was writing Ulysses. They got to know each other while Joyce was in self-imposed exile in Trieste.

Today, Szombathely is the tenth largest city in Hungary, but has only 40 Jewish residents. Rudolph Bloom is celebrated in the city with a plaque on the Blum family’s former home. A bronze statue of Joyce was erected in the city in 2004, and for almost 30 years Bloomsday has been an important cultural event in the town on 16 June each year.

Szombathely is known for the Iseum, the classical temple of Isis, and as the birthplace of Saint Martin, Bishop of Tours. Jews were not allowed to live within the city limits until 1840, although they could own businesses there.

The Jewish population of Szombathely grew rapidly after the emancipation of Hungary’s Jews in 1840. On 4 April 1848, the Jewish community was attacked and the synagogue was destroyed. The city authorities, who supported the attackers, tried to expel the Jews from the city, but the central authorities intervened and stopped them.

The community split in 1871, and a separate Orthodox community was established. However, the two communities lived in harmony, and it was a vibrant community, with all the institutions typical of a Jewish community. The beautiful Moorish-style synagogue on Bathhyany Square, with Oriental and Romantic features, was designed by Ludwig Schöne and built in 1880. It has two large, dome-topped towers and a lavishly decorated exterior.

After World War I, the Jews of Szombathely were accused of supporting Austrian annexation of the town in 1919, and some Jews were killed in pogroms caused by this accusation.

After the outbreak of World War II, about 3,400 Jews lived there in 1941, making up almost 10% of the population. The Jews of the city were inducted into labour battalions, starting in 1942. The German occupation of Hungary began on 19 March 1944. A group of six Germans, led by a Gestapo officer, Scharführer Heinz von Arndt, immediately set about enforcing measures against Szombathely’s Jewish community with speed and with ferocity.

Arndt demanded a large ransom from the city’s Jewish committees. Although payment was made, it did not offer protection to the Jews of Szombathely. A ghetto was formed on 6 May to hold the Jews of Szombathely and the surrounding areas.

The official count shows 3,609 Jews were held in the ghetto in Szombathely. There was over-crowding and chronic shortages. The Mayor of Szombathely ignored all requests for assistance from the head of the Jewish Council. A decree on 1 June sealed off the ghetto from the rest of Szombathely. People seeking food or other provisions were banned from leaving the ghetto, and the living conditions of the thousands of Jews trapped there grew increasingly dire by the day.

In the final action before deportation to the concentration camps, people were moved from the ghetto to the Hungarian Motor and Machine Works in the closing days of June.

Beginning on 4 July and continuing for the next three days, trains from Szombathely were packed with Jews. The deportations were organised with deadly efficiency, and 4,228 Jews were deported from Szombathely to Auschwitz. To add insult to injury, all were forced to pay for their own train tickets.

Within a month and a half, the ghetto was cleared, the Motor and Machine Works was empty, and Jewish homes and possessions in Szombathely had been confiscated, looted and either taken away or given to other residents.

A thriving Jewish life and culture was almost entirely extinguished within a few months. Their last memory is the symbolic gate to the ghetto, built into the wall of a modern building on the site.

After the war, about 250-400 survivors trickled back into Szombathely. Most of them had little interest staying in a place where everything had been taken from them. They moved away and the beautiful Neolog Synagogue was transformed into a concert hall. A Holocaust memorial stands next to it.

A small museum on the history of the Jews in Szombathely and a visitor centre opened ten years ago in 2013. The Jewish community maintains a small prayer house and a cultural centre next door.

It is worth remembering this Jewish community that is so closely identified with the best-known Jewish figure in Irish literature. But it is even more important not to forget their sufferings and near-annihilation during the Holocaust.

Shabbat Shalom

A family named Blum lived at Fő tér 40-41 in the main square in Szombathely in the mid-19th century (Photograph: Wikipedia/CCL)

Praying at Christmas through poems
and with USPG: 6 January 2023

The Magi arrive at the Crib … a scene in a shop window in Askeaton, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

Christmas is not a season of 12 days, despite the popular Christmas song. Christmas is a 40-day season that lasts from Christmas Day (25 December) to Candlemas or the Feast of the Presentation (2 February).

Throughout the 40 days of this Christmas Season, I am reflecting in these ways:

1, Reflecting on a seasonal or appropriate poem;

2, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary, ‘Pray with the World Church.’

We arrived in Budapest late last night and Charlotte and I are staying at the Ecumenical Council of Churches in Hungary. We are spending the next three or four days visiting the Anglican Church of Saint Margaret of Hungary and Father Frank Hegedus with the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel) to see how the church and church agencies in Hungary are working with refugees from the war in Ukraine.

For many of the Ukrainain refugees, today is Orthodox Christmas Eve. In the West, the Christmas season comes to a close for many today with our celebrations of the Feast of the Epiphany. Traditionally, the Epiphany celebrates three events in the life of Christ: the Adoration of the Christ Child by the Magi; the Baptism of Christ by John in the River Jordan; and the Wedding Feast of Cana.

For my Christmas Poem this morning [6 January 2023], I have chosen TS Eliot’s ‘The Journey of the Magi.’

This poem was written after Eliot’s conversion to Christianity and his confirmation in the Church of England in 1927, and was published in Ariel Poems in 1930. This poem is truly a sermon in poem, and often on this feast, instead of preaching a sermon on this day, I have read this poem instead.

Eliot wrote ‘The Journey of the Magi’ after his conversion to Christianity and his confirmation as an Anglican on 29 June 1927, and it was published in 1930 in Ariel Poems. Later, Eliot became a churchwarden at Saint Stephen’s in Gloucester Road, London, and he remained a lifelong Anglo-Catholic.

The Adoration of the Magi, by Peter Paul Rubens … the Altarpiece in the Chapel of King’s College, Cambridge

The poem recalls ‘Dover Beach’ by Matthew Arnold (1822-1888), with the rhythm of journey and also Arnold’s recollection of how

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Ægæan, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

Or where Arnold writes:

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

The poem also shows some influences of the earlier ‘The Magi’ by WB Yeats, my choice of poem yesterday. But, unlike Yeats, Eliot’s ‘The Journey of the Magi’ is a truly Anglican poem, for the first five lines are based on the 1622 ‘Nativity Sermon’ of Lancelot Andrewes (1555-1626), Bishop of Winchester, who first summarised Anglicanism in the dictum ‘One canon reduced to writing by God himself, two testaments, three creeds, four general councils, five centuries and the series of Fathers in that period … determine the boundary of our faith.’

The tomb of Lancelot Andrewes in Southwark Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Eliot’s poem recalls the journey of Magi to Bethlehem from the point of view of one of the Wise Men. In this way, the poem continues Eliot’s use of the dramatic monologue – a form adapted from Robert Browning. In this poem, Eliot chooses an elderly speaker who is world weary, reflective and sad – he works in a similar way in ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,’ ‘Gerontion,’ and with the Tiresias narrator of ‘The Waste Land,’ and possibly also with the narrator of ‘The Hollow Men.’

In this poem, Eliot’s narrator is a witness to momentous historical change who seeks to rise above that historical moment, a man who, despite material wealth and prestige, has lost his spiritual bearings. The speaker is agitated, his revelations are accidental and born out of his emotional distress, and he speaks to the reader directly.

Instead of celebrating the wonders of the journey, the wise man recalls a journey that was painful and tedious. He remembers how a tempting, distracting voice was constantly whispering in their ears on that journey that ‘this was all folly.’

The poem picks up Eliot’s persistent theme of alienation and a feeling of powerlessness in a world that has changed.

Instead of celebrating the wonders of his journey, the surviving Magi complains about a journey that was painful, tedious, and seemingly pointless. The speaker says that a voice was always whispering in their ears as they went that ‘this was all folly.’ The magus may have been unimpressed by the new-born infant, but he realises that the incarnation changes everything, and he asks:

… were we led all that way for
Birth or Death?

The birth of the Christ was the death of the old religions. Now in his in old age, he realises that with this birth his world had died, and he has little left to do but to wait for his own death.

The Magi arrive at a crib in a house on High Street, Stony Stratford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

On their journey, the Magi see ‘three trees against a low sky’ – a vision of the future Crucifixion on Calvary. The Incarnation points to the Cross. Without Good Friday and Easter Day, Christmas has no significance for us at all. The birth of Christ leads to the death of old superstitions and old orders.

The ‘running stream’ may refer to the Baptism of Christ by John the Baptist in the River Jordan, which is also an Epiphany moment.

The ‘six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver’ recall both the betrayal of Christ by Judas for 30 pieces of silver, and the dice thrown for Christ’s garment at the foot of the cross.

The empty wineskins recall the miracle at the Wedding in Cana, which is also recalled at Epiphany time.

The early morning descent into a ‘temperate valley’ evokes three significant Christian events: the nativity and the dawning of a new era; the empty tomb of Easter; and the Second Coming and the return of Christ from the East, dispelling darkness as the Sun of Righteousness.

In his old age, as he recalls these events, has the now-elderly Wise Man little left to do apart from waiting for his own death?

He is a witness of historical change, does he manage to rise above his historical moment?

With his material wealth and prestige, has he lost his spiritual bearings?

Or has he had spiritual insights before his time?

The Adoration of the Magi … a window by Meyers of Munich in the south transept of Saint George’s Church, Balbriggan, Co Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Journey of the Magi, by TS Eliot

A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times when we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities dirty and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wineskins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

The Adoration by the Magi … an Ethiopian artist’s impression (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

USPG Prayer Diary:

The theme in the USPG Prayer Diary this week is ‘Refugee Response in Finland.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday by the Revd Tuomas Mäkipää, Chaplain at Saint Nicholas’ Anglican Church in Helsinki, who tells how a USPG grant is helping to support Ukrainian refugees.

The USPG Prayer Diary invites us to pray today (The Feast of Epiphany) in these words:

Let us pray for asylum seekers, longing to live in peace without fear. May God light their path and their destination be a place of peace and security..

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

‘Star of Bethlehem’ (1887-1890) by Edward Burn-Jones (1833-1898) … the largest watercolour of the 19th century, and now in Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery