Ever since its appearance Saturday in Népszabadság Iván Bächer’s little piece entitled “The educated tobacconist” has been the talk of the country. Or at least of those who are critics of the Orbán government’s policies. Overnight it became the most read article on Népszabadság. Hundreds of people called attention to it on Facebook; they find haunting similarities between the events of 1938 and 2013. Sure, the victims then were citizens of Jewish extraction while today’s discrimination is based on whether one is a supporter of the present government or not. Fidesz is busily taking away the livelihood of the many in order to give it to the few. Just as it was unconstitutional then, it is unconstitutional now. But at least the Horthy regime didn’t claim that Hungary was a democracy.
The story the tobacconist reads to the new owner of his store was written by Ernő Szép (1884-1953), poet, novelist, playwright, and journalist. He survived the Holocaust, but in his remaining years lived in dire poverty. You can read more about him here.
Iván Bächer (1957-) is a prolific writer. He regularly publishes political commentaries in the weekend edition of Népszabadság.
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-Are you the tobacconist here?
-Yes, I …. used to be.
-Well, yes. And I will be.
-What do you mean?
-I won the concession for this tobacconist shop.
-Thanks, but only from July ….
-In connection with this I have a question.
-What can I do for you?
-How long have you been doing this?
-I have been here for twenty-four years. I took over the shop from my father. And he opened the shop after he returned from service in a labor battalion.
-Oh, so he was a soldier.
-Well, not quite. In any case I was born into this business.
-Excellent. I have a suggestion.
-I am listening.
-Could you teach me a little about this business? During May and June I would sit here and would observe. I would pay you for it. It would be a mutually beneficial arrangement. I would learn the trade and you could more easily start a new life.
-Is it okay?
-Yes, okay, but only on one condition.
-I would like to read you a short piece of writing and you would agree to listen to it.
-Writing? Everything has been decided already. Look ….
-No, no, not that kind of writing. Fiction. A little feuilleton.
-Feuilleton? What’s that?
-Well, it’s like a short story but simpler. This one was written by Ernő Szép. Fifty years ago.
-Such a long time ago?
-It wasn’t that long ago. So, sit down, in the back you can find a stool.
-A stool? Don’t you have something more comfortable?
-Well, there will be.
-Of course, there will be but until then sit down and listen. I was preparing for your visit because I was waiting for you. So, here it is.
“The wife of an officer of high rank is entitled to be called ‘milady.’ She is good looking and dresses well. She purchases her hats from the store of Margit Roth that was the most elegant millinery shop on Váci Street in Pest. One nice day in 1938 she visited Margit Roth, who told me the story herself. First, she tried on a few hats just out of habit, but then she sat down and lit a cigarette and asked Margit Roth to join her at the small table covered with lace and decorated with a vase.
Please sit down for a while, my dear Margit. I would like to discuss something with you. Most likely you haven’t heard it yet because it is still not official that they will take stores away from the Jews. My dear Margit, believe me that I’m very sorry that I have to give you such bad news. When? It is a question of a month or two, my dear. They just began to prepare the bill in the Ministry of the Interior. It’s too bad that you are also Jewish or rather of Jewish origin but in this case being a convert means nothing. So, my dear, they will take away your beautiful shop too. And since this is the situation, which I truly regret because you know what a good friend I was to you, I immediately thought that I would put in a claim for your store. We have four children and my husband unfortunately gambled away his inheritance years ago when he was still a captain. So for me this millinery shop will be a gift from God.
And now I come to the point. My dear Margit, I came to you for a small favor. Please spend some time with me. Let’s say every morning from ten to eleven. That the millinery shop will be mine is certain. My husband already took the necessary steps. And it will be good for you too that you spend some time with me. You will be pleased that I will inherit your store and not some stranger. I will never forget my beloved Margit. My dearest, is it all settled? I think I will start learning the trade already tomorrow. At 9:30? Of course, I can come. How kind of you. Sorry, I have to run to the hairdresser, kisses my dear, and see you tomorrow. Bye.”
-Ahem. Interesting. I don’t know why you read that story to me. After all, you are not a milliner. In any case, you are an educated person.
-I’m not educated, but I read now and then.
-No, you are an educated person. But you will not get far with that here. Well, it doesn’t matter. May I come tomorrow? Let’s say at 9:30 … Half past nine will be fine for me too.
-Don’t mention it. I will be expecting you.
-See you tomorrow.