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Thursday, 30 September 2010

The Curious 'Megilla' That Was Tony Curtis

TONY.CURTIS.01 If anyone ever wondered about the word 'megilla', actor Tony Curtis may have explained.

Originally a Hebrew word for a Bible story written on a scroll, I once heard Curtis use it in its popular Yiddish form meaning a long, rambling tale. He is the only person I can recall ever using the word on TV - what's more he was appearing on BBCTV's Friday Night With Jonathan Ross - not renowned as a repository of cultural endeavour. It was as though he were chatting to some long-standing Jewish chums, not appearing on prime-time British television. Maybe then we saw the first signs of his family calling him 'home' ...TONY.CURTIS.03

Indeed, some years before that he revealed  that after the collapse of Communism in the late 1980s, he had spent much time searching his roots in Hungary.

Another of the Hollywood mighty has fallen, but we can console ourselves by reflecting that whatever crises he suffered throughout his long, often ruinous life, Curtis was astoundingly loud and proud about his Hungarian Jewish background and had become an important source of income to the tiny Hungarian Jewish community.

Interviewed some years ago for American BosNewsLife while in Budapest, he revealed plans to help "end the ignorance" of what happened during World War Two, when Hungary was a close ally of Nazi Germany. He was anxious to help Hungary generally via tourism but was especially concerned that  "elderly big spending Americans" should visit Budapest's Dohany Synagogue, the largest in Europe, which he helped to refurbish with a large donation in honour of his father.

The actor, who had spent much of his life seeking real  love and companionship in five marriages, apparently felt part of a larger, Jewish family in Hungary.

He said: "My father used to go to Budapest as he lived in a small city; and he used to go to the Dohany Synagogue... So one day I went to see it and it was in disrepair. So I asked: 'Can I help? And they said: 'yes' ... Hitler wanted to make this the Museum of the Jews, had he won the war. Now "it's the only synagogue in Eastern Europe that is maintained as beautiful as it was."

BosNewsLife explained that although Curtis was born in New York during 1925, he never forgot his refugee  parents' origins or their struggle against antisemitism.

"My father was Hungarian and he lived through that time. At the end of the First World War he was a boy, and at the age of 15 or 16 he was caught up in pogroms in the ghettos. (Finally) he was able to survive and come to America."

Later, when  he saw movies about the war years he had wondered how Hungary could have contributed to the killing of Jewish people, in so many places.

"What made my Hungarian brothers do that to their fellow Hungarians, throwing them in concentration camps? Maybe it was just a case of survival. (But) that kind of ignorance could provoke people to kill children, I don't understand that."

The actor, who also recalled Hungary's 1956 revolution against Soviet Communism wanted to be remembered as someone whose projects helped "to blow away the ignorance of the world, and I cannot do it in any place of the world, except in Hungary."

He was optimistic about the future but even so, immediately prior to the interview, thousands of people had attended a rally of an ultra right wing party in Budapest  with French nationalist politician Jean-Marie Le Pen. Moreover,  despite Curtis's warnings, the far right Hungarian Movement for a Better Hungary (Jobbik) has became the third largest political force in Hungary.TONY.CURTIS.02

  • At least 600,000 Hungarian Jews were killed during World War Two, in many cases with support from Hungarian Fascists. From Hungary's pre-war Jewish population of an estimated one million, some 100,000 are believed to live in Hungary today.

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