Friday, October 18, 2013

ANDOR AND ERZSÉBET PÜNKÖSTI: Fragments of Two Lives in Inter-War Budapest

Andor de Pünkösti (October 31, 1892 – July 12, 1944) was a Hungarian born to a noble inheritance; rejecting it, he earned greatness elsewhere. Later, he ended his own life rather than hand over his fate to Hungarian fascists.

His story is of a man whose father headed a Transylvanian family that had achieved nobility through seven generations of distinguished military service in the Austro-Hungarian army. In World War I, Andor fought bravely and sustained a severe facial wound, but after the war he refused to continue the family tradition of career military service. Breaking with the family, he instead he pursued his deepest passion: theater.

Pünkösti in 1942 in front of the Madách Theater
In the years between the two world wars, he gained fame in Hungary as a theater critic, scholar, educator, playwright, and director. From 1941 to 1944, he managed the Madách Theater at which he staged productions that were covertly anti-fascist. In the last few years of his life, Pünkösti extended his work into movies, writing scripts for three films and directing one. After Germany took control of the Hungarian government in March 1944, he became deeply depressed by events and committed suicide in July.

Part of the reason for Andor’s break with his family was his marriage to Erzsébet Fodor, whose mother was Jewish. Such marriages were not permissible for noble military officers. Erzsébet's father, Janos, had been a wealthy industrialist, banker, and newspaper owner who had changed his family name from Fischer to Fodor during Hungary's Magyarization drive. He had married Berta von Auspitz, who came from a wealthy and prominent Jewish family in Brünn (now Brno in the Czech Republic).

Like Andor, Erzsébet was a highly educated intellectual who spoke many languages and worked as a journalist. Most notably, in the late 1920s through much of the 1930s, she was a special correspondent for the New York Times, whose by-line was “Elizabeth de Punkosti.” The couple lived in a large apartment in downtown Budapest that she had inherited from her father.

Recalling Andor and Erzsébet: The Thompson-Fodor Discussion
My interest in Andor and Erzsébet Pünkösti was stimulated by mention of them in the written notes of a discussion on March 12, 1960 by retired journalists M.W. Fodor and Dorothy Thompson. These two long-time friends got together during five weekends in March and May, 1960, to help Dorothy with her planned memoir by recalling stories from their long careers. 

M.W. and Dorothy had met each other on March 1, 1921 in Budapest, soon after Dorothy had arrived to cover Central Europe and the Balkans for the Philadelphia Public Ledger. Fodor, a Hungarian citizen, had been the Manchester Guardian’s correspondent in the region for just over two years.

With both of them based in Vienna, covering the same territory for different papers, M.W. had assisted Dorothy with her first full-time job as a foreign correspondent; some suggest he was her mentor, at the least he was her guide as she began a career that would make her one of the most famous women in the United States. They became good friends and remained so for the almost forty years that had followed their first meeting.[1]

A 1925 painting of Pünkösti by Hugo Scheiber

In their March 12th discussion, they recalled many different people and events in their Vienna years. Among them were Andor de Pünkösti (whom they called Andrew von Pünkösti) and his wife Erzsébet, whom they called Erzi: [2]

In Hungary Andrew von Pünkösti of [illegible] is a CP [communist party] patron saint! He was in a counter-revolutionary organ during the Bela Kun regime. Commies were after him and Erzi until the regime was brought down by Horthy. He was a Hortheyist. But he was also an anti-Nazi and when 4 arrow crossers came to search his house he shot them and himself (Fall of 1944). Erzi who could have been brought out [of Hungary] until 1948 refused and died of heart attack in 1953. She still had her old cook who found her dead in her sleep. She was 57. She died in Budapest with communists in all rooms but hers and her maid’s. Pünkösti was “martyr.” Lived in country – everybody loved her.

Although not stated in this paragraph, M.W. had reason to know the story of Andrew and Erzi: She was M.W.’s younger sister.[3]

Andor de Pünkösti’s Story
A capsule version of Andor Pünkösti’s story was told in a recent e-mail sent to me by his nephew-by-marriage, Denis Fodor, the son of M.W. Fodor. He wrote:

Now, as to Pünkösti Andor:[4]  My uncle-by-marriage was a Transylvanian noble born in Slovakia (there you have the empire in a goulash).  His assimilated title was baron (the Transylvanians had another name for it). He started as a career soldier, an officer in the K&K Hussars (the most elite of Hungarian regiments). In World War I he was highly decorated and gravely wounded, leaving him with a scar that transited from his left ear across the mouth to the right lower chin. Sword. 

In the postwar turmoil, he joined one of the rebel militias that opposed the communist regime of Bela Kun. After these groups succeeded in hoisting Horthy into power my uncle, who by then had become a leading figure in the, let us say, society intelligentsia of Budapest, drifted into the world of serious theater. In time he became director of what I understand to have been the city`s leading progressive house. His marriage to my aunt, who represented the New York Times in Budapest, betokens that his life had turned into an archly modernized version of his beginnings.

When Horthy finally gave in to the Germans and a Hungarian Nazi took over, my uncle made no move to square himself with the new regime. When a team of secret police knocked on the door of my aunt`s house --on a very swank street -- they were received by shots from his revolver. The number of agents involved is to me unclear along with the actual final head count. But it is accepted that my uncle succeeded in killing himself; he did not deign to be shot by the intruding rabble.[5]

This lively version of a high achieving and tragically abbreviated life is fleshed out in several on-line documents and in a book written about him. The best on-line source is a lengthy biographical sketch available on a website devoted to the history of theater in Hungary: the link is . This website is in Hungarian, and although the Google translation to English is, at best, cryptic, information on most of the important elements of his life can be extracted.
Pünkösti with actresses in front of the Madach Theater   

In addition to the websites, a Hungarian-language book has been written about his years as manager of the Madách Theater. Its title is A Madach Színház Pünkösti Andor igazgatása idején by Zsuzsanna Borsos, published in 1979. No English translation of the book is available. Drawing from the on-line biographical sketch and other Hungarian-language websites, the following is additional elements of the story of Andor Pünkösti.

He was born an Uzonyi-Pünkösti, described as “an ancient Transylvanian family,” in 1892. His birthplace was Koŝice, which is now in Slovakia, because his father, an officer in the Austro-Hungarian army, was stationed there. While Andor was still a youngster, his father was transferred to Debrecen.

The direction of Andor’s life was foreshadowed by an event that occurred when he was nine. His parents took him to see a play, Shakespeare’s Richard III. He was hugely excited by it and, trying to figure out a way to enhance its presentation, he and a friend set a fire that burned down a wide swath of the Great Forest of Debrecen.

Andor went to high school in Budapest, but rebelled against his parent’s wish for him to study at Budapest University. Instead he went to Munich to study law. When the war broke out, he returned to take a commission in the Austro-Hungarian army, fighting on the front lines with an elite Cavalry unit.

As Denis Fodor wrote, he was wounded in 1915, a sword slashed his face and the cut required multiple surgeries, leaving his face with a deep scar. Also, according to the on-line biographical sketch, his injury inflicted deep psychological scars that made him subject to deep depressions. The experience might also have contributed to his later anti-war writings and leftist, anti-fascist, leanings.

Even as he had studied law and served in the military, Andor had kept up his interest in the theater, going when possible to plays and attending lectures. As he recovered from his wounds, he started writing about the theater and by 1918 had a job as a journalist for “Az újság” (“The Newspaper). By 1923, he was a well-known in Hungary as a leading theater critic.

The on-line biographical materials contain no information on his role in the opposition to Bela Kun and his short-lived communist regime in Hungary. However it is clear that near the end of the 1910s, he declined to become head of the noble Uzonyi-Punkosti family, which would have required that he have a career as a military officer. With this decision and his marriage to Erzsébet, whose mother who – as previously noted – was a Jew, he broke with his family to pursue a different direction in life.
Picture of the cover of a book about
Pünkösti and the Madách Theater

Leaving behind the family’s military legacy, he succeeded within a few year to become a highly respected critic. According to the biographical sketch, he was perceived as being “erudite, well-read, and well-informed”… “with a thorough knowledge of people,” plus a knowledge of many foreign languages. He wrote “unique, readable critiques” of theater productions that were witty and focused, but not demeaning. Also, he encouraged younger and novice playwrights. An opponent of kitsch in the theater, Andor supported modern, even avant-garde productions.

In the late 1920s, after a nearly decade as a theater critic, theorist, and educator, he was offered the opportunity to put his ideas about theater into practice as the dramaturg for a play by Ferenc Milnar. In 1929, he was for a half year the artistic director of both the Hungarian Theater and the National Chamber Theater. From then on, he took leading positions with prestigious theaters in Budapest, including director of the National Theater (1935), artistic director of the National Theater (1939), and from 1941 to 1944, director of the Madách Theater.

In addition to his newspaper journalism and theater work, Andor published a book of poetry titled Isten elzullot gyermeke. Versek (Elzullot God’s Child, Poetry), two anti-war novels (Bús Péter csodàlotos Kardja [Sad Peter, Beautiful Sword] and Bárczay Bella, a szeretőm [Bella Barczay, Love], plus numerous book chapters and magazine articles on theater. He also worked on films and is credited with writing screenplays for three films: Bünös vagyok! (I'm guilty!), 1942; Elkésett levél (Belated Letter), 1941; and Álomsárkány (Dragon's Dream), 1939. The last mentioned film, Álomsárkány (Dragon’s Dream), he also directed. For film credits, see:

During his years as director of Madách Theater, Pünkösti offered modern plays and innovative productions. Also, he courageously – and probably foolhardily – staged plays that were understood to be anti-fascist or even anti-Hitler. One of the favorite productions at the theater was a play about Nero, written by Francis Felkei. It focused on the murderous rein of Nero, and audiences immediately understood it to be a historical parable about Hitler. For more information on this production, go to these website (and used Google translate): and

Pünkösti at his desk

After the 100th performance of the play, Pünkösti was hauled into a Budapest police station to answer charges that Nero, the play, was in fact about Hitler. He replied something to the effect that the people who had suggested that Hitler was like Nero were the ones they should be investigating.

Andor’s life took a severely bad turn when Germany, fearing that Hungary would make a separate peace treaty with the Allies, invaded Hungary on March 19, 1944 and installed a Hungarian Nazi supporter to be prime minister. Pünkösti was removed as head of the theater in April. And even worse things were happening around him: from the middle of May until early July, 437,402 Jews were deported from Hungary (one-third of them were Hungarian citizens). All but 15,000 were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau and 90 percent were immediately killed.
Andor and Crew Work on the Play "Nero"

These events, and others, left Pünkösti deeply depressed, and he decided to commit suicide. Two different stories are told about his suicide. One is the story of the Fodors, who likely heard it from Erzi. In this version, Pünkösti shot Arrow Cross secret agents who came for him, then shot himself.[6]

Another version of the suicide, told in the on-line biographical sketch, is that on the night of July 9, he poisoned and gassed himself; his housekeeper found him unconscious the next morning. He died three days later, on July 12, in the hospital.

His will left everything to his wife. He requested that no one speak at his funeral, and his wish was honored. Andor was buried in an unmarked grave in the Farkasréti Cemetery. In 1957, the city erected a sculpture at the head of a tombstone to mark his burial place.
Andor Pünkösti's Grave, Budapest

With the information I could access, I found no evidence that Pünkösti was or was not viewed -- as suggested by M.W. Fodor -- as a “patron saint” by the Communist Party of Hungary. This observation has credibility because it was made by a man who was not only Andor's brother-in-law but also was a close observer of Hungary as the editor of the Berlin edition of Die Neue Zeitung (America’s newspaper in Germany) from 1948 to 1955 and, after that, a Voice of America analyst based in Munich.

One thing is clear, Pünkösti was not forgotten after his death. As mentioned, his unmarked grave was provided with an elaborate headstone, and his memory is honored with a plaque in the Örkény István Theatre, which is the building that housed the Madách Theater from 1941 to 1944. Also, he left behind a substantial body of written work that keeps his memory alive among scholars of Hungarian theater.

Erzsébet Fodor (or Fischer) Pünkösti
Much less is known about the life of Erzsébet than about the life of her husband Andor. As mentioned previously, she was raised in a wealthy family and was a highly educated intellectual. Her English was good enough that she could work as a special correspondent for one of the most prestigious newspapers in the United States, The New York Times. A search of its archives shows that she had eight by-lines in that paper, the first on February 3, 1929 when she wrote about Hapsburg Archduke Joseph, who was living in Budapest. The last was July 16, 1935, with the headline, “Nazi Propaganda Splits Hungary.” In between these two are several articles she wrote about theater productions in Budapest. No doubt, she contributed many more articles to the New York Times that were published without her byline. 

Apparently, Erzsébet inherited her parent’s house in Budapest after their deaths in 1918 or 1919, which the family attribute to Bela Kun’s communist supporters. (Kun's Soviet Republic held power in Hungary from March 21 to August 1, 1919.)  The house, located at 29 Eötvös Utca, is where Andor was living when he committed suicide and is the one referred to in both the Fodor-Thompson paragraph and Denis Fodor’s account of the lives of his aunt and uncle.

Likely, she and her husband had stimulating and intellectually rich lives between the two world wars and were, as Denis Fodor described, prominent along the Budapest intelligentsia. However, the rise of anti-Semitism had to have dampened the pleasures of journalism and theater as the 1930s progressed. And her life was in grave danger after the Germans invaded Hungary in March, 1944, and Adoph Eichmann came to Budapest to manage the murder of Jews. According to the on-line biographical sketch of Andor, Erzi hid out in Gödöllö under an assumed name and was able to escape deportation.

            Denis Fodor in his e-mail wrote about her life:
As for my aunt, she fell dangerously ill during the siege of Budapest by the Red Army. Somehow she recovered -- the regime may have helped, as her husband`s heroic gesture received high credit from the Russian occupation. Accordingly, she was allowed to live out her days in a country house the couple owned at Gödöllö, a tony resort that under the monarchy & Horthy regency was favored by the nobility and old money.

Perhaps this favorable treatment by the new Communist regime is what convinced her to stay in Hungary after it became part of the Communist bloc. The Fodor-Thompson paragraph indicates that he offered to help her leave Hungary, but she declined though until 1948 she could have. Erzsébet's relatively benign situation could have been related to her husband’s armed resistance to the Arrow Cross agents, the reputation he earned by staging anti-fascist plays, or both. Whatever the reason, her life in Soviet Budapest was apparently not too uncomfortable, though she died at the relatively young age of 57.

Stories to be Told
The life stories of Andor and Erzsébet remain largely untold, especially in English. This brief account of their lives suggests that they would be rich subjects for a researcher seeking to add texture to the history of Budapest’s inter-war period and to learn more about two prominent Hungarian families.

1.       For more about the life and career of M.W. Fodor see the following biographical sketch.

Information about the life of Dorothy Thompson is available in two autobiographies:  Peter Kurth, American Cassandra (1990) amd Marion Sanders, Dorothy Thompson: A Legend in Her Time (1973).n

2.      This quotation is taken from a document in the Dorothy Thompson Papers at the Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University. The SPRC retains all rights for use of the paper and requires written consent for publication of quotes or pictures in the collection.

3.      M.W. Fodor had another younger sister, named Margit, who was a few years older than Erzsebet. She married a fur trader named Ferenc Weiss. They left Hungary for England in the early 1930s.

4.      The Fodor-Thompson paragraph refers to Andrew von Punkosit. Denis Fodor pointed out the following in his email:  “Please note that for international purposes Pünkösti let himself be known as Andor de Pünkösti. Only the Austrians, under the empire, would have addressed him as von Pünkösti.”

5.      E-mail communication from Denis Fodor to Dan Durning, dated September 29, 2013.

6.    The Arrow Cross Party was Hungary’s strongly anti-Semitic national socialist party. Its leader was appointed Prime Minister after the German invasion.


  1. Wonderful, thank you! Fabienne

    1. Thanks, Fabienne. I wish we could track down more information about Erzebet and her parents (and what happened to them in 1918/19).