The Agi Jambor I Knew

by Frances Pinter

Ifirst knew Agi Jambor not as a Holocaust survivor but as a bohemian aunt* to whom I could unburden all my teenage anxieties. Agi and her husband had moved to the United States, where an American diplomat they had met in Budapest, Mr. Bombright, helped them settle and that is where I met her in the mid sixties.

Only sometime after her death in 1997 did her Memoir come into my possession. Agi never spoke to me about it. Though Agi composed a piano sonata in America for the Victims of Auschwitz, by the time I got to know her in Pennsylvania, she had put her past of hunger, terror, bombs, bullets and snowstorms behind her and I could immerse myself in her zany world of artists inspired by irrepressible energy. She had been practically penniless when she came to America, but I found her living comfortably, well beyond my own family’s simple suburban standards, with a job as Professor of Piano at the distinguished girls’ college, Bryn Mawr. She had a house filled with musical instruments, books and artefacts. It seemed chaotic but it was coherent. It formed a rich, cultural whole. The house was full of cats and young protégés from the music schools where she taught. It was a wonderful ménage. She was good for a young girl like me, who couldn’t talk to her mother about sex, politics or anything else that mattered. Agi was extremely liberal and encouraged me to be so as well.

Agi JamborAgi had re-launched herself as a concert pianist and, after a short time in America, she even played before President Harry Truman. It was a triumph, but as she confessed to me afterwards, also a huge embarrassment. As she came breathless to the end of her performance, she realised to her horror that her dress had its Woolworth’s price tag displayed. But who really cared what a penniless refugee from war-torn Europe was wearing? Agi was not one to feel mortified for long.

Agi always kept faith with her values. She spoke out about wrongs wherever she saw them. She was not frightened of standing up to McCarthyism in a period when America succumbed to a witch hunt of liberals accused of treason, subversion and promoting communism in the early days of the Cold War. Agi was distraught over the war in Vietnam. She gave concerts to raise money for her charity that was devoted to the provision of food for starving children in Vietnam. With her friend, the Nobel Laureate Albert Szent-Györgyi, she composed a remonstration to God, titled Psalmus Humanus, for all the evils that have befallen the people on this earth – listen here.

As well as composing, teaching and performing, Agi pushed at the boundaries of research, especially in the field of Ethnomusicology. She was a great advocate of forgotten instruments, especially the marimba. She also wanted to see these instruments preserved and she curated a number of important exhibitions in museums.

Agi was a feminist who walked the talk and encouraged the young women at Bryn Mawr to develop their full potential. She was a much-loved mentor.

Always plagued by ill health, probably the result of the deprivations of war, Agi fought demons inside herself too. Through her correspondence with friends a picture emerges. Most of her cohorts also experienced health related issues. It was only later in life that Agi sought to assuage the demons that bedevilled her. This she did through therapy with psychologists.

Agi had come to America with her Hungarian husband, Imre Patai, who had suffered with her throughout the war and its aftermath. He was a creative scientist, considerably her senior and, much weakened by his wartime experiences, tragically died not long after they arrived, but she continued to keep company with distinguished men of science. In her written exchanges with these men, one can see and feel the depth of her probing and searching for answers to the fundamental questions about life and what it means to be a human being. These letters can be found in the Special Collections Department, Bryn Mawr College Library, 64-page guide to the Agi Jambor Papers.

After the death of Imre, who had accompanied her through thick and thin, she moved among film stars and briefly married Hollywood actor Claude Rains. The name may no longer be familiar, but everybody remembers the debonair French police chief Louis that he played in Casablanca. He was an actor of the old school and wooed her with his eloquence. When she understood English better, Agi told me, she realised that every sentence of his courting was a quotation from Shakespeare. The verbal charm did not last long however: the marriage ended in divorce. Agi did not marry again after her second marriage failed.

Agi regaled me with stories of better times before the war, such as when she yelled at Einstein who proved incapable of counting when playing duets with her. It was in this period, early in her life when she lived in Berlin that she became acquainted with Albrecht Haushofer. Agi did not tell me about her relationship with this brilliant and talented man herself, but I discovered it from reading her letters to the woman who translated his poems after his tragic death. Haushofer, who was imprisoned for a failed attempt on Hitler’s life was released from prison on the day Berlin was liberated by the Russians, only to be gunned down by marauding SS men a few hours later. Haushofer’s brother found his body a few weeks later and in the breast pocket discovered a book of poems, written in a minute script, the Moabit Sonnets, still in print both in the original German and in the English translation.

After Agi’s Memoir came into my possession, I showed it to a friend who was writing a book about Hungary and the Holocaust. He was fascinated, and I realised her testimony should no longer remain tucked away in my loft. The whole world should know what ordeals such people had to go through. In publishing Agi Jambor’s Memoir, I want to add to the world’s understanding of what happened in those dark days, and show how a brave spirit could come through it all and flourish.

In creating this website I also wanted to tell something of Agi’s life after she’d finished the memoir in 1950 and invite others to contribute to completing the picture. If you, the reader, knew her and would like to say something about her please contact me.

Agi died of cancer in 1997 in Baltimore, aged 88 in a city she’d lived in with Imre when they first arrived in America. Dementia had set in a few years earlier. She was, nevertheless, looked after by friends, especially the amateur harpsichordist Joseph Stephens. The two made music together for small audiences until nearly the end.

Frances Pinter, 2019

*Actually she was my second cousin, but she was older than me, so I knew her as an aunt and she referred to me as her niece.

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