Agi Jambor was born in Budapest in 1909 in a family that welded together the best of what Stefan Zweig would call “the world of yesterday”: the comfort and social power of wealth, and the higher vision of a cosmopolitan culture and of a life in art and of the mind.
The daughter of a pianist mother, Jambor was a musical child prodigy, and would study with such prominent teachers as Edwin Fischer, Zoltán Kodály and Alfred Cortot. They would infuse her music with a very particular sensibility, which in turn made her into one of the most distinct interpreters of Bach, Mozart and Chopin of her generation. She recorded several albums for Capital Records in New York after the war, and was a sought-after soloist, playing under the baton of Eugene Ormandy and Bruno Walter, as well as teaching at several universities and conservatories of music. Music for her was more than a public performance, "I do not play for success; I play to bring life to the composer" an unconquerable 85-year-old Jambor would declare.
Music was above all a way of living and of perceiving the world, of interpreting humanity. As a professor of classical piano at Bryn Mawr College, Jambor would pioneer the field of ethnomusicology, insisting that a younger generation of musicians had to “live in the music, recreate the music of non-Western peoples, even if they have no spoken words, no ideas to help them”. Seen this way, music contains at its centre an ecumenical potential for eternity: it would be a way out of an insurmountable silence, a forced muteness imposed by the trauma of history and the dramas of individual lives.
Throughout her years, Jambor would maintain that she was able to salvage her soul because she did, unyieldingly, “what I wanted to do and not what I had to”. She lived what is by any measure an extraordinary life, enjoying a creative freedom rare for women of her time. She found true love in her first husband, the scientist Imre Patai, success everywhere she went, the recognition and satisfaction of being part of the most vibrant and thrilling artistic and academic circles. Yet she was also overwhelmed by tragedy – losing a child, a country, a husband, a previous, rather dream-like life. What makes her story exceptional, is precisely this ebb and flow of triumph and disaster, of blessedness and horror.
Jambor had already lived in Berlin and Paris before WWII; she would return to Budapest with Patai, from where they would be fortunate to flee in a rather colourful manner, under the auspices of “forged papers that identified her as a prostitute and Patai as her pimp. Once, the Nazis mistook her pocket metronome for a bomb”. Behind this light-hearted scenography of one more 20th century Jewish odyssey, lies a dark underworld only half revealed in Jambor’s memoir – the other, missing panel of this diptych remains still in the shadows, in Patai’s scrupulous 26-volume diary that covers the last 12 years of his life, and perhaps the most poignant and formative segment of Jambor’s own.
Her story of survival and persecution under Nazi Germans and Hungarian collaborators is a catabasis, a descent into an inferno from which few survived, either physically or psychologically – in their existential integrity and faith in human dignity. What gives Jambor’s memoir a particularly evocative resonance and value is the purity of her voice, the unedited quality of her narrative, which brings a world and its ghosts galvanizingly to life. Also, her quite unique sense of a silent audience, to whom she owes a debt of truth but also hope.
Written in the US sometime soon after Patai’s death in 1949, Agi Jambor’s memoir is steeped in tragedy without being predicated by a confining sense of introspection – by the sense of entrapment that is the terrible undertone of the Holocaust, of post-war words and of all attempts at a conceptualisation of the horror, at an analysis of evil, and the retrieval of a state of (im)possible normalcy. It has an arresting clarity as WWII history, as a Hungarian, Central European story, as a chapter of Jewish memory, the tale of a great pianist, of music, as a portrait of America in its age of perhaps brightest greatness and innocence; especially as an engrossing, empowering female narrative. It is also an unmistakable, very moving ode to a husband, to an age of irrecoverable happiness, to a world shaped and informed by everything that Europe’s Jewish heritage could enrich it with.
Jambor’s text has a particular poignancy as a chronicle not only of disaster, of total devastation, but also as a Jewish via dolorosa to a resurrection and revival of a tradition. Jambor writes of a universe of nightmares, of evil and annihilation, she provides an almost cinematographic testimony of how a world of wonder and possibility was lost, perhaps beyond retrieval. To that, significantly, she adds her formidable talent for life and reconstruction, her tenacious conviction that the legacy of humanity, of art, of Central European values, and especially of Hungarian Jewry, could and should be given a new lease of existence – a New World and promised land.
In this respect, Jambor does not speak as a single voice, she does not even speak with the dual resonance of her husband’s own experience, trauma and insight. Her voice and her trajectory, her periplus and arrival, reverberate with the echoes of each individual member of a legacy at home and in exile across the world that are still relegated to the realm of nebulous ambiguity. Jambor’s story throbs with the pulse and urgency of many others, the Jewish and/or Hungarian voices that were lost or that had to embrace another language and way of existence: from Joseph Pulitzer, who led a previous generation, to the novelists Sandor Márai, Imre Kertész, György (George) Konrády, Margit Kaffka, Péter Nádas, and Magda Szabó, or the eerie cohort of Hungarian Jewish intellectuals who perished during WWII: Lászlo Fenyö, Endre Friss, Ignác Gábor, Oszkár György, Lászlo Lakatos, Andràs Nagy, Károly Pap, Márta Sági, Antal Szerb to name only a fraction. Lászlo Maholy-Nagy and Layos Kasak, André Kertész, Brassaï, Robert Capa feature among the artists who defined a new modernity, while Bella Bártok, Zoltán Kodály, Georg Solti, Andal Dorati, Annie Fischer, Andreas Schiff or Zoltán Kotais, would lead in turn the new paths of music – to follow Liszt and, for those with a taste of geography and genealogy, Johann Sebastian Bach. To read Jambor’s memoir is to yearn for the company and stories of so many others, with whom she crossed paths or shared a history, a sense of creative purpose or a vision.
Memory is not simply the reverse of forgetting; it is an antidote to an oblivion that erases consciously or unwittingly, that gradually dematerialises human presence and experience. It is most crucially the opposite of denial: a resistance against the deliberate assault on the value of truth, on the meaning of human suffering (or happiness), on the very ethics of being. Imre Kertész would say that “the decades have taught me that the only passable route to liberation leads us through memory. But there are various ways of remembering. The artist hopes that, through a precise description, leading him once more along the pathways of death, he will finally break through to the noblest kind of liberation, to a catharsis in which he can perhaps allow his reader to partake as well. But how many such works have come into being during the last century? I can count on ten fingers the number of writers who have produced truly great literature of world importance out of the experience of the Holocaust.
We seldom meet with the likes of a Paul Celan, a Tadeusz Borowski, a Primo Levi, a Jean Améry, a Ruth Klüger, a Claude Lanzmann, or a Miklós Radóti. More and more often, the Holocaust is stolen from its guardians and made into cheap consumer goods. Or else it is institutionalized, and around it is built a moral-political ritual, complete with a new and often phony language.” Agi Jambor did not seek to write a work of great literature – yet what she has bequeathed to us is certainly great memory, a counter-measure to what Elie Wiesel saw as perhaps the ultimate crime perpetrated by Nazi Germany: “At Auschwitz, not only man died, but also the idea of man. To live in a world where there is nothing anymore, where the executioner acts as god, as judge – many wanted no part of it. It was its own heart the world incinerated at Auschwitz.”
Agi Jambor’s memoir has a rare quality of humanity; an unyielding power as a testimony and as a final tribute, as a gesture of mourning and of closure in the aftermath of an unhealable wound. It is especially a gesture of openness and of potentiality – which are only attainable through the conscious, constant act of remembering and reconstruction.
Mika Provata-Carlone, 2018