Many people in Győr got to know him during his sixty years as a photographer. With tireless diligence, he researches and takes photographs of the history of Győr and its surroundings, its prominent personalities and landmarks. Many popular books illustrated with his great shots have been published on his research. István Nagy, 75 years old this year, a non-Jewish master photographer and amateur local historian, amateur in the noblest sense of the word, has also made a lasting contribution to the local Jewish community. He is the author of Quiritatio (Scream), a book about the tragedy of Győr’s Jews 79 years ago, which has become one of the founding works on the drama in recent years. He created the material for the exhibition of local Jewish history in the former Menház (former Jewish Hostel for the Poor and Elderly), which every year enables hundreds of visitors from Győr, the whole country and abroad, to learn about the daily life, the great figures and the tragedy of the community of once 5,000.
We talk to him.
When and where were you born? Tell us about your parents, siblings, childhood and schools.
I was born in Csorna, in Erzsébet Street, in 1948. My father worked as a “soda-man” serving shops and restaurants in Csorna and the surrounding area. There were four of us brothers and sisters, two of them are now dead, and my third brother lives in a social home for the elderly.
Anyone who knows Csorna knows that it was not an easy place to live in. In 19 (1919, the year of a short-lived communist takeover – note of the translator), the citizens of the town were so shocked that the effects are still being felt. My grandmother had to watch seven people hanged in the Main Square with her two-year-old twin boys in her arms.
As a curious child, my friends and I used to go on great exploratory tours of the city. As Roman Catholics in the late 50s and early 60s, we were also intrigued by what was happening beyond the high fence of the Jewish cemetery. We leaned our bicycles against the wall and, standing on the saddle and handlebars, peered into the mystical cemetery.
Where I was born, the Rehberger family lived next door in a one-storey house. They were Hungarian citizens of the Jewish religion, who lived according to the rules of the Orthodox tradition. They strictly observed Jewish holidays and the Sabbath. My grandmother and mother helped them with their work on these days. They cut the goose’s neck and bled the animal, then helped with the processing and daily chores. Mr Rehberger had a thriving clothing trade thus compensation for their help they received not in money but in bedding and other clothing. Over the years this amounted to a fair stock of cloth, which my father buried in three large crates in 1945. When the Russian army invaded the country, including Csorna, the soldiers poked the area around the house with long metal rods, found the crates and took everything with them. (I heard this so many times as a child that I remember the story almost verbatim.)
I was not an excellent student, I usually got just Bs. I had two Jewish classmates, Gyuszi Deutsch and Toni Viola. Papa Deutsch worked in a wood turning and horn carving shop next to the synagogue. Looking through the window I often saw him producing small objects with his skilful hands. Perhaps they emigrated in 1957. Toni went through boys’ school with me, I don’t remember his fate.
As a child with an interest in technology, I wanted to continue my studies at the Jedlik Ányos Mechanical Engineering Technical College in Győr. Two of us from Csorna applied, my friend was accepted. The boy’s mum’s deliveries of eggs and smoked meats meant a few points extra in his grade. The Győr Photographic School also had a branch in Csorna. There was once a sign in its shopwindow saying “boy student wanted”. I have been to the master several times to have my pictures shot with the miracluous machine called “Pajtás” developed. He also gave me advice, so when I applied in 1962, he supported my admission. I passed my apprenticeship exams in 1965. After my years as an industrial apprentice in Csorna, I got a job in Győr. Cooperatives were formed by the not quite ‘voluntary’ mergers of old craftsmen’s businesses throughout the country, and this is how it happened also in Győr.
In 1965 I moved to Győr, my colleagues helped me in everything. From here I joined the army. I spent twenty-seven months in Sopron, and apart from the three months of training, I also did photography and a course in cinematography there, and then projected films. (In those years, the movies “The Golden Man” and “A Hungarian Nabob” were very popular /films based on the novels of the Hungarian writer Mór Jókai (1825-1904) – note of the translator/. It was also the beginning of Ilona Medveczky’s career (Hungarian movie and revue star in the years 1960-1970 – note of the translator). I had to screen her erotic scenes many times.) I had a lot of free time, I read all the books of the library of the border police and then continued in the city library. I took lots of pictures of the town and events. When I was discharged, unfortunately, I had to leave everything behind.
(I graduated from the Révai High School in Győr. At the beginning of the 1970s, workers were supported by a government programme to continue their studies, so for four years I spent three afternoons and evenings a week at the high school. We graduated in the same way as full-time students. I met great teachers with great personality; my Hungarian literature, history and biology teacher with a ’56 prius (reference to the participation in the 1956 revolution – note of the translator) could not teach in the public high school, but yes, he was allowed to educate workers at evening courses. I maintained a very good human relationship with them for decades after graduation. For example: when I published my first book in 1994, my teacher Károly Lády of Hungarian literature visited me in my workshop. He was an old-fashioned, respected teacher. He congratulated me and then shook my hand, “Hi Pista, from now on you can call me ‘Karcsi, my brother’.” /Pista = nickname of István (Nagy); Károly = Charles, Karcsi = Charlie – note of the translator/).
When did you decide on your career choice and how did you become a photographer?
In fact, my fate was decided on the eighth of August 1962. That was the day I signed a contract with the Győr Photographic Production Cooperative. I have never been unemployed for a single day and have been working as a photographer for 61 years.
I was a follower of the classic branch of the profession. I have taken a sea of passport and identity card photos, wedding photos, school-class photos, business photos and countless photos of children. Underwater photography was not my business. I have developed my own style by drawing on the experience of my senior colleagues. Today, I am classified as working in the service industry.
I always tried to be a disciplined person. (If the wedding started at 4 p.m., I couldn’t get there at a quarter to 5 p.m.). On one occasion, on June 1, 2001, I missed a civil wedding at 6 p.m. because an irresponsible motorist hit me on the highway. With a bleeding head and bleeding arm, I had already photographed the church wedding. I met some wonderful people then too; the firemen got me out alive of the car totally destroyed. I left the ambulance saying: I have to be at the wedding. As I was not to blame, the police officers took me to the wedding venue and waited outside the church while I photographed the ceremony.)
In 1982, I became self-employed and worked as an independent craftsman for 35 years. I retired on August 8th 2010 but continued working for seven more years just as before. I have not been unfaithful to the profession; I produce local history books and albums. Soon I will publish my fifteenth book and I have co-authored ten more.
How did you start your career, did you have any difficulties, how did you become a successful photographer?
During the first decades of my career, I was able to witness and be part of the golden age of photography. The emergence and rapid spread of colour photography was a huge change, which brought with it the automation of processing. Traditional black and white photographs were developed at room temperature, learned and practiced by a professional photographer. Colour technology could only be run at 37,2 degrees Celsius by processing machines.
There has also been a huge technological shift in cameras. The previous experience-based setting has been replaced by automatic setting, and focusing by autofocus. Then, at the turn of the 2000s, digital technology conquered photography.
Within a few years, this made traditional photography and its practitioners almost impossible. The clever cameras put into practice the slogan of early photography: “push the button and we’ll do the rest”. In recent years, the few people who make a living from photography have still been using cameras, while smartphones produce ever better quality.
I had good masters and mostly helpful colleagues to learn from and to rely on. I have photographed on land, water and from the air, the latter being a special genre that I have had the pleasure of experiencing several times. During the first twenty years of working for the cooperative, whenever I had the opportunity, I attended professional training courses, where lectures were given by renowned representatives of the profession.
Another way of learning and gaining experience was to attend exhibitions. Between 1969 and 1982, national and international trade fairs were organised every year, where everyone could show their skills in a wide variety of categories. At these gatherings, a great deal of experience was gained and passed on. The first prize I won in ’69 was accompanied by a slender vase, which I cherish with great affection. Four times my pictures were selected for international exhibitions. My photographs have been shown in Budapest, Bucharest, Warsaw and East Berlin.
The moral recognition was nice, but in the circumstances of the time it brought little financial reward. I wanted to provide better than average conditions for my children born in ’71 and ’74, so I became self-employed in ’82. The small-scale, self-employed lifestyle “gave me the opportunity” to work 14-16 hours a day.
I considered it a success in my work that from the 1970s onwards, the managers of a number of institutions were keen to work with me. Factories and companies regularly commissioned me to photograph events. One morning I photographed 100-120 kindergarten children individually, with the head of the institution sitting behind me, trying to learn from me how to establish a good rapport with the little patients in a few seconds. Not with mime and mimicry, but with a few kind words, the results were much quicker. Even today, I am still delighted to be approached by people I don’t know, telling me how they enjoyed the experience of being photographed.
I’ve been asked to do an exhibition on a particular theme in many places. Over a long career I have put together just over two hundred exhibitions in a wide variety of genres. From aerial photographs to logos, from Christmas themes to the ruins of the Jewish synagogue, I have produced a wide range of subjects. My shots were also shown at village festivals in community centres or at schools.
Your interests are very wide-ranging, and you are particularly passionate about the great questions of history, culture and faith. You have written several books on these subjects, what are they and what is their main message?
After I became an independent craftsman, I published a few photo compilations. I was involved in producing photographs for yearbooks. On several occasions it was suggested that the material from exhibitions should be edited into a book. Most of the good suggestions and ideas fail because of the printing costs. I have not been a partner for a cheap solution printed on simple newsprint. In the early 2000s, I put together several exhibitions on the first bombing of Győr on 13 April 1944. I was able to buy original photographs of the terrible events of a colleague of the time. I supplemented these photos with research in archives and newspaper cuts from the time.
My local historian and archivist friends and I concluded that the Second World War was also a turning point in the life of the city of Győr.
I have identified three important turning points, mainly those for which I have had enough material to start with. The first was the 35 air raids on Győr, the second was the deportation of Jewish Hungarians, and the third was the murder of Bishop Vilmos Apor of Győr.
In the meantime, I wrote the history of Kisfaludy Street, and then 600 pages of material for the 1005-page book of the Federation of Industries. The result of many exhibitions in the past is the three volumes of the Rábaköz Monuments. I have prepared a book for a doctor friend for his round anniversary. I managed to make a particularly beautiful publication of Dr. Lajos Petz, the builder of the hospital in Győr.
For decades, you have captured in your pictures the historical sites and permanent changes of Győr and its surroundings. What is the main focus of your pictures and how did you manage to combine your photographic profession with your researcher-writer’s vein?
In writing the books, I wanted the reader to experience that they were the work of a photographer. The archivist would obviously have focused on the documents. A librarian would have focused on literature or publications. Archival research provides a wealth of experience that will give ideas and inspiration for the next publication.
Your great interest in the history of the Jewish community in Győr is of oustanding importance to us. We refer to your extensive work Quiritatio (Sikoly), which deals with the Jewish tragedy in Győr between 1938 and 1945. But we can also talk about the exhibition you have created on the history of the Győr Jewish community in the former Hostel for the Poor and the Elderly in Győr. You also did an outstanding job in the production of a photo album to be published on the occasion of the 2024 Jewish Roots in Győr World Reunion. May I ask where you derive your affinity for Judaism from?
A high school teacher made me aware of the fate of the Jews. What happened to the Jews was simply not a topic, not in the public discourse. They were our fellow human beings, citizens just like Catholics, Reformed or Evangelicals. They had simply Jewish religion. Incredible as it may seem, there were thousands of laws, ministerial orders, government decrees and local restrictions on Jewish Hungarian citizens, while they were never deprived of their Hungarian citizenship. I am deeply outraged by this inhuman treatment, which is why I am so careful to say that Jews are Hungarian citizens of the Jewish religion.
I have never boasted of my Catholicism, I was baptised as such at the time. With my Jewish friend, we served in the army together and this topic never came up. In the late 1980s, I was already dealing with Jewish topics, when this subject came up once during a “librarians’ day meeting”. (For years we had an after-work open table from 5 to 6 p.m. We called it the “library”.)
As a matter of historical fidelity, in 1982 I had the opportunity to travel to West Germany by car. Munich and the surrounding area were included in the one-week trip. I already knew the history of the death and labour camps. I travelled to Dachau, which is perhaps 20 kilometres from Munich. My photographs taken there are displayed on one of the panels in the Holocaust Memory Room of the Hostel for the Poor and the Elderly.
In the course of collecting the material for Quiritatio, I met a lot of people, including several Holocaust survivors I was able to talk to in person. Some people refused to share their memories. They locked themselves up in their apartment, in the physical sense of the word, and would not let anyone but their doctor in. But others were happy to tell me about what had happened to them.
Thanks to the world of the Internet, I met Éva Quittner Klein, a painter from Győr who lived in Australia. We corresponded for almost fifteen years. Her story, entitled “The youngest survivor of the Holocaust in Győr”, is included in the book. She has had a successful career as a visual artist and, as a Holocaust survivor, she has written a book entitled “Pebbles of Remembrance”, which should be widely distributed. I asked her to prepare sketches of the places where she had suffered the terrible events. Despite repeated requests, she refused to do so, saying she was incapable of drawing them. I understood and took note of her decision. Her letters contained vague references to what had really happened, but she had no courage to recall the details. She died in Sydney on 10 July 2022, aged 91.
My historian friend Prof Dr Miklós Schubert was of great help in the preparation of the book. He translated several excerpts from English into Hungarian, including the wonderful life of his parents.
Not only did I collect memoirs, but I spent a week in Poland in 2009 researching the history of Judaism with my wife. The centre was Krakow, from where we made two trips to Auschwitz and Birkenau. Both days were spent in detailed photography. I researched in various national collections and took shots of big totals and small details according to my traditional method. This is how I found paintings of former prisoners. French or Italian deportations were sound-demonstrated by rattling trains and creaking rails. Even after so many years, the sound effects still ring in my ears.
It was a touching moment when I met an Israeli military unit paying a military tribute to all the victims at the gallows. I have compiled a series of tableaux from the many photographs taken at the two sites, which can be seen in the exhibition rooms of the Hostel for the Poor and the Elderly in Győr.
The apt name, Quiritatio, is owed to István Gábor Benedek (Hungarian journalist, writer (1937-2022) – note by the translator). The book can be found in Israel, at the Yad Vashem Museum and the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., as well as at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. I believe that no greater recognition can be given to a master photographer and local historian from the countryside.
After the publication of Quiritatio, I received several enquiries. Of particular value to me are the letters I have received from people living in Israel. I am proud of the letter received from Károly Neuwirth, who emigrated to Israel after returning from labour service and fought for the birth of the Jewish State.
I am very sorry that I was unable to meet Eva Quittner Klein in person. I have kept two of her beautiful albums and many of her photographs. But I am happy that her grandparents’ gravestone has been restored and that in 2019, after two years of research, we were able to place a stumbling stone in front of her former home in memory of her parents and her brother. For the short and touching ceremony, her daughter and doctor son travelled from Australia to Győr together with their partner. At the street memorial service, the county government commissioner attended and spoke.
I often shudder to think that joyful excitement may have contributed to her death. However, I am reassured that Eva did her best to honour her ancestors during her lifetime.
Finally, what are your latest plans? How do you balance your tireless work, a genuine hobby, with your family life?
To begin the answer at the end: unfortunately, we have no grandchildren. My daughter and son are both single. We are helping to raise the 9-year-old son of a couple friends of ours. I used to say: the books are my grandchildren. I trust they will last for decades and bring joy to those who turn their pages. I know that a number of them have been used by other authors in their work. The perhaps four hundred copies of Quiritatio published at the time sold out very quickly.
Have you ever thought about making your immense and particularly valuable collection of photographs available to the public, and commissioning someone or some organisation to manage it?
I’ve thought about this a lot. If I were to die suddenly, my family would go crazy with all the collections.
I have already donated a large collection to the County Library. I have made many of the photographs of old colleagues from Győr available to Fortepan (Fortepan is a community photo archive – note by the translator), based in Budapest. I have already handed over the material relating to Judaism to Mr Villányi, the president of the local Jewish community. My collection on the War of Independence is being liquidated. The collection material of Dr. Lajos Petz, the founder of the Győr hospital, is waiting to be donated.
My largest collection is related to St. László (king of Hungary, 1077 – 1095 – note by the translator), I have had 23 exhibitions of it in different cities of the country. I do not want to part with it yet. The Rábaköz photographs (photos of monuments of a region close to Győr- note by the translator) occupy a large space, I have not yet decided on their fate.
I have an unimaginable number of shots, pictures and negatives from my work over sixty years. Processing an 18 square metre garage is no easy task. I only have 2x2x4 metres of space in my apartment for this purpose and I am always getting new commissions. The greatest problem is that it is difficult to be systematic in organising life, as there are only 24 hours in a day.
I know you weren’t expecting this answer, but I don’t want to use big words about the fate of my collections.
Dear István, thank you for talking to me, I wish you very good health and strength for your future work.
Interview and English translation by Peter Krausz