Vilma Popper is a little-known individual in the Hungarian literary history of the 19th and 20th centuries. Unfortunately, only fragments of her life are known, and even less about her relationship to Judaism.
The productive novelist was born on May 11, 1857, in Győr. Her father, Armin Popper, served in the so-called Vienna Legion of Austrian Volunteers, fighting on the side of the Hungarian revolution in the War of Independence against the Habsburgs in 1848-49. Following the overthrow of the uprising, he settled in Újváros, a district of Győr, as a medical practitioner. Her mother, Josephine Leon, was also Austrian. She had one sister, Helén Lujza. She graduated from a Győr secondary school. She wanted to become a doctor like her father, but it was impossible for a woman in those times. Vilma’s mother tongue was German, but she spoke excellent Hungarian, English, and French. Her upbringing was influenced by the ideas of the War of Independence, reflected in several of her works.
They lived close to the synagogue at today’s 14 Kossuth Lajos Street.
Popper worked as an English and German language teacher at the Royal High School for Girls in Győr (Ferenc Kazinczy Grammar School today) and often assisted in her father’s practice. In WW1 – already 57 years old – she volunteered as a nurse and served in the military hospital set up in her school. She was a member of the Győr Women’s Benevolent Association. Also, she established a foundation to support students in need, irrespective of their religion.
Vilma Popper never married. In the last decades of her life, she lived quietly and alone in her parent’s house, taking care of her sister’s children and grandchildren.
In 1944, following the coup d’état by the Hungarian nazis, the Arrow Cross Party, she found brief refuge in the Csillag Sanatarium, but the institution was soon forced to shut down. Together with all the other Jews from the city and the region, she was forced into the Győrsziget ghetto and subsequently deported to Auschwitz. The 87-year-old woman survived the horrors of the journey only to die in the gas chambers.
She wrote in German
Vilma Popper’s works were all written in German. Only three of her sixteen volumes were published in Hungarian. So far, no one has made an effort to translate the rest of her oeuvre, probably explaining why she is little known. Some of her books have been published in English, though. Also, she has translated several Hungarian authors, including Kálmán Mikszáth, into German. For this reason, she was considered an ambassador of Hungarian literature in Austria and Germany.
Vilma Popper was a versatile storyteller writing tales, essays, sketches, and short stories on historical and other subjects. She maintained contacts with several well-known Hungarian contemporary writers, including Kálmán Mikszáth, Frigyes Karinthy, and Ferenc Molnár. She also was a close friend of the celebrated actress of the time, Mari Jászai, whom she met when Jászai still worked as a maid in Popper’s neighborhood. The memory of encountering the renowned artist is told in her short story ‘Mari Jászai and the Green Bench.’
Her first success as a writer came in 1891 with ‘Märchen und Geschichten für große und kleine Kinder’ (Tales and Stories for Children, Big and Small), published in Leipzig. From then on, she was constantly present in German literary life. This work was published in Hungarian in 1894 under the title ‘Tales and Stories by Aunt Vilma.’ It was not her, but Adolf Ágai, the founder of the legendary satirical magazine, ‘Borsszem Jankó’, who translated it into Hungarian and wrote a foreword using the pseudonym ‘Uncle Forgó.’ “I consider this storybook is suitable for developing a child’s independent thinking, as it will guide his developing soul to what is beautiful and true without moralizing,” Ágai wrote.
Interestingly, none of these stories reflect that Popper was Jewish. Instead, the traditions of the country’s Christian majority are displayed in titles, such as: ‘The First Christmas Tree’ or ‘Santa Claus,’ perhaps because she came from an assimilated Jewish family.
Her second work, ‘Altmodische Leute’ (Old-fashioned People), was published in Dresden in the same year. Its Hungarian version hit the bookshelves five years later. The third volume, ‘Neue Märchen und Geschichten’ (New Tales and Stories), was the last to reach booklovers in Hungarian in 1900.
Popper was a founding member of the Kisfaludy Literary Society of Győr, established in 1909, aimed at “promoting, developing and spreading Hungarian literature, cultivating fine arts, organizing readings and celebrations, and publishing the most significant literary works.” Starting then, her works were regularly published in Győr newspapers and recited at literary evenings. Between 1894 and 1920, she was also a member of the Verein der Schriftstellerinnen und Künstlerinnen Wien (Association of Women Writers and Artists, Vienna), where her works were regularly read. Her histories appeared in leading German literary magazines. Max Geißler, a well-known German literary scholar of the time, praised Popper’s talent as a short story writer in 1913 but also stressed that Popper had recognized the limits of her talent.
She celebrated the Kossuth1 centenary in 1902 by releasing a youth novel about the War of Independence, ‘Die Fahne hoch!’ (Raise the Flag High!), and subsequently wrote a biographical book about Richárd Forstmayer, a renowned organist and cellist in Győr. Until 1926, her short stories, translated into Hungarian, were frequently published in Győr newspapers. These were primarily short, concise narratives or fables written in the style of Aesopus.
One of her most powerful short stories, Ahasuerus’ Sons, was published in the newspaper ‘Győri Hírlap’. (Ahasuerus, or the Legend of the Wandering Jew, is a medieval story about a Jewish man who Jesus Christ cursed on his way to Golgotha to eternal life until the Last Judgement.) Dr. Erzsébet Nagy, a local historian and secondary school teacher of history in Győr, describes this in her monograph on Popper. The characters in the story are outsiders: a sick Gypsy musician and a Jewish doctor. The dying man complains to his doctor of a lifetime of pain:
“You see, doctor”, said the gypsy, when the bow fell from his feeble hand, “I am relieved now. My brothers will sing these tunes as I am being buried, as the blessed soil will welcome her son. The dead will finally be granted the land denied to the living. We, Gypsies, bear the curse of Ahasuerus. We must wander, always wander, without rest. No one loves his homeland more than we do, no one sings about the motherland in a way we do, of which not a single lump is ours, because we are not Hungarians – only Gypsies.” “Old man, I can say the same about myself,” the doctor said, “I, too, bear the curse of Ahasuerus because I am a Jew. We are free to fight, bleed and die for the homeland, but we are still strangers; we will always remain the children of the Ahasuerus.”
She also worked as a translator.
With the rise of the nazis, no more works of hers were allowed to be published. The Győri Hírlap remained loyal to her, and some of her animal stories, characterized by witty mockery and tormenting the spread of fascism, were printed under a pseudonym.
Vilma Popper’s legacy is all but forgotten.
At the end of the war, in 1945, her nephew, Dr. Sándor Korein, a doctor at the Csillag Sanatarium, who had survived the Shoah, placed a white marble memorial plaque in the inner doorway of Vilma Popper’s former residence. The students at the Kossuth Lajos Technical College of Győr used to pay tribute to the writer every year by laying a wreath and doing a small performance at the plaque. Access has become impossible in recent years, and the custom has faded away.
As the house, about 150 years old and in poor condition is currently under renovation, the commemoration will be in a little while possible again. The memorial plaque has been temporarily removed but will be reinstalled when the works are completed.
Miklós Petőcz, a literary historian and poet, commemorates the Győr author with a poem created in 1997.
(The poem was not translated)
In 2006, Dr. Erzsébet Nagy compiled a gap-filling monograph titled ‘Vilma Popper, the Gentle-voiced Author’ that is a valuable tribute to the almost forgotten Jewish writer. According to Nagy: “The real way to maintain her memory, however, would be publishing her works so that her thoughts and gentle humanity would be present among literature lovers and readers.”
Translated by Viktor and György Polgár
1 Lajos Kossuth (1802–1894) was the political leader of the Revolution and War of Independence in 1848–1849.
- A magyar irodalom győri nagykövete (The Ambassador of Győr’s Literature), Kisalföld, December 2, 2013
- Max Geißler: Führer durch die deutsche Literatur des 20. Jahrhunderts. Dunker, Weimar 1913
- Győri Legendák (Győr Legends) – The poems of Miklós Petőcz, Palatia Printing House, Győr 1997
- Győri Életrajzi Lexikon (Győr’s Biography Lexicon), Győr Municipal Library, 2020
- dr. Nagy Erzsébet: Popper Vilma, a szelíd hangú írónő (Vilma Popper, the Gentle-voiced Author), 2006
- Popper Vilma írónőre emlékeztek Győrben, (Novelist Vilma Popper remembered in Győr) Új Élet, December 15, 2013.
- Nagy Mária: 160 éve született Popper Vilma, a tragikus sorsú győri írónő, (Vilma Popper, the Tragic Novelist from Győr, was Born 160 Years Ago) Győri szalon, May 11, 2017
- Mazsihisz és jewishgyor websites: Magyarországi zsidókért díj dr. Nagy Erzsébetnek-és-Harsányi-Lászlónak (Dr. Erzsébet Nagy and László Harsányi awarded with the ‘Pro Hungarian Jewry’ prize) March 24, 2022; jewishgyor.org/en/2022/03/27/this-selfless-woman-doesnt-work-for-awards-but-for-humanity/
- Mónika Ladocsi-Tóth, Lajos Kossuth Technical School of Győr, oral communication, May 16, 2023