Interview with György Jovánovics about his 1974 "Plans for a Roma Holocaust Memorial".
The works will be on view at "Commissioned Memory: Hungarian Exhibitions in Auschwitz, 1960/1965" an exhibition at the Blinken OSA Archivum’s Galeria Centralis, curated by Daniel Véri.
For a long time, Roma victims of the Holocaust had not attracted the attention of historians, and even the term Porajmos was only coined in the 1990s to denote the Roma Holocaust.2 Nevertheless, the first plans for a memorial to the Roma victims of the Holocaust were drawn up as early as 1974 in Hungary, very soon even by international standards, by György Jovánovics, a prominent figure of the neo-avant-garde generation of artists.3
The memorial was supposed to be a reminder of the mass murder committed by Hungarians against Hungarians just before the war ended. Early February 1945, on the outskirts of Várpalota, members of the Arrow Cross and the gendarmerie assembled the local Roma population, had them dig a pit and shot them into it: one hundred and eighteen people were murdered, and five more were executed in the town square.4
In 1974, Roma intellectuals initiated the erection of a monument in Várpalota, which was endorsed by the senior leadership of the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party. However, as soon as the matter was handed down to county level, the local authorities rejected the plan to erect the statue, on the shameful grounds that the victims – women, men and children alike – were common criminals.5 The memorial – which would have been innovative in terms of its aims and content, and, judging by the plaster casts, unconventional compared with the traditional figurative monuments of the period – was eventually never completed.
Where did the idea come from and why was the memorial never realized?
There was a notable spot frequented by avant-garde artists: the garden and apartment of Miklós Erdély at 6/b Virág árok [in the 2nd district of Budapest], where he was a tenant of his father.6 There was a room in it that was leased from time to time by his father the architect, who lived in another villa nearby. It was only one room, but it was still in the Pasarét neighborhood, surrounded by a garden where we used to flock around Erdély all the time. That’s where my object exhibited at the Adolf Fényes Hall ended up as well, in the garden.7
The tenants kept changing. István Csurka was here at one time, for instance, then the poet István Kormos, all writers, strangely enough.8 Miklós was the one who found the tenants, one of them was the Roma writer Menyhért Lakatos.9 He had a book published under the title Füstös képek (The Color of Smoke), which was sensational, he immediately made a name for himself with it. He’d just sit in this sublet room, he didn’t come out much, perhaps this avant-garde bustle irritated him. He had a gorgeous daughter, around twenty to twenty-five years old, who lived with him, and I think she has also become a poet.
One day, Miklós told me that Menyhért had something to say to me. He came out into the garden and told me that the Holocaust had also affected the Hungarian Roma – I didn’t know that – and that there was a Roma mass grave near Inota, in the vicinity of Székesfehérvár. He had managed to get seventy five thousand forints from Pál Ilku for the erection of a monument.10 At the time, seventy five thousand forints was a fortune, I lived on two thousand a month.
For the avant-garde, I was the sculptor at that time, no one else would be taken into consideration. They didn’t want an official sculptor, such as Béla Kucs, Miklós Melocco or Imre Varga.11 Come to think of it: actually, they could have asked Imre Varga, it would have been carried out easier if it had been made by someone in the state’s employ. I was outside the circle of state sculptors who received commissions, from portraits through statues of Stalin or Lenin, like Imre Varga or Béla Kucs, who do it, have it juried, get an advance, get paid. I wasn’t eligible for such a commission, but Menyhért said he would try to get me the job.
Would I accompany him, he asked, to see the site. There’s an old Roma lady, lives in Székesfehérvár, she’s a market vendor, who’s got a big market stall: a survivor, she had nine bullets in her body, the child she was carrying was shot through in the seventh, eighth or ninth month of pregnancy, they took the dead child out of her, but she survived. And a young girl in Sopron, who must have been nine years old in ‘44-45, now a mother with kids, these two women were interviewed on the radio by Menyhért. We’d go down to Székesfehérvár, the woman would take us to Inota, and then I’d see the site for myself.
Menyhért took me by car to Székesfehérvár, where we went to a Roma settlement in the suburbs, it was all squalor, but the ground floor apartment was furnished with Roma taste – carpet, prayer card, shrine – unbelievably clean, very rich. The old lady was dressed in a black dress of noble material, floor-length in the Roma way. She’d just returned from her stall at the market where she had gone to at dawn. Then she got into the car and navigated us to the site. We stopped somewhere opposite the Inota power plant and looked at the field: pretty little bushes, a landschaft without trees. The pit water from the mine or the wastewater from the power plant had formed a lake on the other side of the road, with a little island in it.
We stopped on the side of the road with the old lady, and suddenly she started crying and said she couldn’t find it: the water wasn’t there before. The year before the market was very busy, and for the first time in her life she hadn’t come out there on All Souls’ Day. Since then it had changed so much she couldn’t find it, but she claimed that it [the location] was the water over there. There was a hillock in the lake with a tree on it, the spitting image of Rousseau’s tomb in Ermenonville.
The old lady started to cry, and then to my utter astonishment she pulled up her skirt, revealing her granny pants, slightly pushed down on the pink elastic and it turned out that she had not one navel, but many! The bullet scars had never disappeared, and she showed us where the child had been shot through.
Székesfehérvár was occupied seven times by the Soviets and retaken six times by the Germans, creating a fantastic stand-off on the plains before Székesfehérvár. It was out here that the Roma were taken to dig a trench during the day and locked in a barn for the night. When they had completed the trench after several days of digging, then they were marched to the edge of the trench and machine-gunned into it. The women and children were also summoned there – because only the men had been digging –, among them her and this nine-year-old girl, and then shot them into the trench and buried them. Her father, her brother and her husband as well as her.
She came to at dawn, despite the fact that she was pregnant, that her baby had been shot through and that she had taken nine bullets. She told us all this while showing the scars. I asked if I could take a picture, she said yes. She felt that she was alive and quite close to the top, and she burrowed her way through all the cold corpses, but she could feel another warm body, she could feel it moving. She helped, it turned out to be a little girl, who then ran away. She never saw her again. She was later found in Sopron and Menyhért Lakatos interviewed the girl, who was by then a married woman with children.
The old woman said that she’d dragged herself to the road and looked towards Székesfehérvár, knowing that she would bleed to death if she couldn’t get to a hospital. Suddenly, a jeep had come from the direction of Lake Balaton or Inota, the old woman began to explain, “it was coming and I thought to myself, these are Hungarian soldiers, officers, and if I tell them that I was shot into the trench by Hungarian soldiers, they will make me disappear. I stopped them, I asked them if they could help me, because I was walking in the field and a Russian fighter came and fired a round at me. Wasn’t I clever,” said the old lady, with tears in her eyes. She didn’t tell them that there was a mass grave there, she didn’t tell them that she had been shot into it by Hungarians, by privates. As we know from Iván Darvas and the movie Hideg napok (Cold Days), not all Hungarian officers liked doing this, but the Arrow Cross soldiers did the job.12 And then the army officers took her to the hospital in Székesfehérvár, where she was cured and became a rich market vendor.
I designed these in white cement, time passed, and then the news came that the government had torpedoed Ilku, that there would be no memorial – there was no Holocaust, there was no such thing yet at the time, it wasn’t really possible to talk about it – and then I put these two plaster casts away and forgot about them.
These works are very different from anything created in Hungary in ‘74.
Very different, but very similar to Plot 301 [national memorial at the New Public Cemetery in Budapest housing the tombs of martyrs of the 1956 revolution]: the sarcophagus, the use of white cement instead of plaster. If you imagine it standing on the island in the lake to this day, it would be a thing of sublime beauty. It would have been a great rarity, beyond the fact that it might have been the first Roma Holocaust memorial in Europe, I’m not sure about that.
The place was astonishing, when I saw this field, this lake and this little island on it, which we couldn’t access then, I knew I was going to design a snow-white monument there. There’s an illustration in one of my books, Rousseau’s tomb, which looks the same, birch trees, a lake – right there in Ermenonville – and water, no one can go there to lay a wreath, one would need a boat.
What was your starting point when you set out to design the monument?
I don’t know – to make it completely Jovánovics-esque, there are layered levels, like Dante’s circles of hell and heaven. If historians had known the names of those ninety to a hundred people, there were about that many...
Had the names been delivered, just as the four hundred names were supposed to be delivered for Plot 301: the Way of Sorrow is a designed element, the statue of the open tomb with the black granite pillar, the path leading from it into and passing through the necropolis with the sarcophagus overhead, similarly a white one, and beyond it, the transcendent, and then it ends in the rock of István Angyal. All along the way, the four hundred names were supposed to be engraved in the ground, as in churches.13 But they could not deliver the names until the start of construction, István Eörsi himself had it torpedoed, because it was clear that among the four hundred names there were eight or nine common criminals, mass murderers, it was impossible to screen them out, so the TIB (Történelmi Igazságtétel Bizottság, Committee for Historical Justice) decided to abandon the idea.14
Two versions were made of the memorial’s design...
One makes sketches, plus I was in the habit of submitting two mock-ups for each competition as per the rules. It was the requirement of the jury back then. I made my living from the graphic design of posters – for MOKÉP, the Hungarian movie distribution company, I created posters for Hungarian films, I made the poster for Bacsó’s A tanú (The Witness), and I still have the sketch.15 They only paid me, but it was never printed because the film got banned. It was compulsory to submit two sketches for a film poster. The way you did it was you made a powerful one and then hastily made another one slapdash to be able to bring them two. It was in my blood, sculptors were also required to make two mock-ups. I made two, one simpler and one more complicated.
Which one would you have chosen?
The more complex one, I think. I would still be happy if it was standing, a disc of some four or five meters in diameter, a circle of three or four meters, I don’t see much of that. It would be beautiful. I’ve perfected this extremely durable, future-proof white cement cast, which doesn’t stain, unlike marble or white stone. It’s perfect. It’s true that we clean it every ten years, but afterwards it looks like it was cast today.
So it would be fantastic. I never go that way, towards Inota, I haven’t taken that road in a long time. I don’t know if the conditions are still the same, if the power plant still produces abwasser in the same way, and if that space, that hillock, that bush or birch tree on it, whether any of it is still there. It was a poignant, wonderful landscape, and in there an unattainable floating whiteness, now that would have been something.
If it had been built, how big should we imagine the monument?
It’s been a long time since I was there. The hillock was no bigger than this room or two rooms. It would have been a circle a slightly bigger than the area we cover sitting here right now, including even the tripod, because it would have been a circle three metres in diameter and it would have been one and a half, two, two and a half metres high. So maybe it would have just about fit in this room because the road was quite far. It’s a long distance, I would have had to proportion with the hillock and how much water there was.
Then, how were we going to cross the water to build there? Seventy-five thousand forints was a lot of money back then. Either we would have had to pump it out, or build a plank, lay the foundations and bring in the cement, build the formwork. All these elements, which were to be prefabricated, would have been lifted in by a crane in one, two, three, four or five pieces. I didn’t develop the technical details because the project had failed at the design stage. There was nothing unnatural in this to me at that time, that I could not make a sculpture in Hungary.
You mentioned that when you went to the site with Menyhért Lakatos, you took photos.
I photographed the woman, her belly, the bullet holes, the entire trip with the GDR camera I also used to photograph the Liza project.16 I came home, I had a dark room, because I was mainly making a living by reproducing inserts for the TV. I developed the colour Kodak film and a pure snow-white, transparent roll came out of the tank. In other words, this was an event that was too much for physics to bear. Zilch. If the exposure had been physically faulty, the film should have been pitch black. There is no explanation. Snow white! This has a metaphysical meaning. This was something the camera’s technology didn’t agree with, so there is no picture. That is the most stirring element in all of it. While it was developing, I was waiting to see the woman’s scars, to see that Roma mass grave, so this white strip was a relief.
The memorial designs of György Jovánovics are on view at the exhibition Commissioned Memory: Hungarian Exhibitions in Auschwitz, 1960/1965 from 14 September to 3 December 2023 at the Blinken OSA Archivum’s Galeria Centralis in Budapest (curator: Daniel Véri), the related volume will be published by CEU Press in 2024.1 https://www.osaarchivum.org/press-room/announcements/commissioned-memory
1 The text published here is an edited version of the interview recorded in 2019. (Editing: Daniel Véri, Hungarian proofreading: Bori Zelei, English translation: Dániel Sipos.) More on these works: Daniel Véri, “The Holocaust and the Arts: Paths and Crossroads,” in Art in Hungary 1956–1980: Doublespeak and Beyond, eds. Edit Sasvári, Hedvig Turai, and Sándor Hornyik (London: Thames & Hudson, 2018), pp. 211–12. The designs were previously featured as part of the installation A szobrász asztala (The Sculptor’s Table) in György Jovánovics’ exhibition Egy önéletrajz (An Autobiography, Balatonfüred, Vaszary Villa, 2016, curated by József Mélyi), and then in the exhibition Iparterv 50+ (Budapest, Ludwig Museum, 2019, curated by József Készman, Viktória Popovics).
2 For more on the topic, see Anna Lujza Szász, “Memory Emancipated. Exploring the Memory of the Nazi Genocide of Roma in Hungary” (PhD diss., ELTE University, 2015). The term was coined by Ian Hancock. Szász, “Memory Emancipated,” p. 134.
3 György Jovánovics (1939), sculptor.
4 See József Harmat, Roma holokauszt a Grábler-tónál. A székesfehérvári és várpalotai cigányok tömeges kivégzése Várpalotán 1945-ben [Roma Holocaust at Lake Grábler. The Mass Execution of the Roma of Székesfehérvár and Várpalota in Várpalota in 1945] (Várpalota–Veszprém: MNL Veszprém Megyei Levéltára – Várpalota Város Önkormányzata, 2015).
5 Harmat, Roma holokauszt, 47; János Bársony, “A Pharrajimos utóélete Magyarországon” [Afterlife of the Pharrajimos in Hungary], in Pharrajimos. Romák sorsa a nácizmus idején [Pharrajimos. Fate of the Roma During Nazism], eds. János Bársony and Ágnes Daróczi (Budapest: L’Harmattan, 2004), pp. 32–33.
6 Miklós Erdély (1928–1986), architect, visual artist, film director, writer.
7 At a joint exhibition by György Jovánovics and István Nádler (Adolf Fényes Hall, 1970), Jovánovics exhibited a large plaster sculpture based on the floor plan of the hall. See Dóra Hegyi and Zsuzsa László, “Self-financed exhibition by György Jovánovics and István Nádler,” https://tranzit.org/exhibitionarchive/gyorgy-jovanovics/.
8 István Csurka (1934–2012), writer, far-right politician after the fall of Communism; István Kormos (1923–1977), poet, writer.
9 Menyhért Lakatos (1926–2007), writer.
10 Pál Ilku (1912–1973), communist politician, Minister of Cultural Affairs, 1961–73.
11 Béla Kucs (1925–1984), sculptor; Miklós Melocco (1935), sculptor; Imre Varga (1923–2019), sculptor.
12 Cold Days is a film about the massacre in Novi Sad (1966, directed by András Kovács), based on the 1964 novel of the same title by Tibor Cseres.
13 Upon the initiative of the Committee for Historical Justice, an NGO founded in 1988, a memorial designed by György Jovánovics to the victims of the 1956 revolution was built in 1992, in Plot 301 of the New Public Cemetery in Budapest.
14 István Eörsi (1931–2005), writer, poet, translator, publicist.
15 A tanú (1969), directed by Péter Bacsó.
16 Jovánovics György, Liza Wiathruck: Holos Graphos, comics (1977), a conceptual photo series.