Family Story

Erzsébet Kardos (1902–1945), a paediatrician and psychoanalyst from Győr

By Anna Borgos

Erzsébet Kardos was one of the most promising talents of the Budapest School of psychoanalysis. Her tragically curtailed career, besides being unique and individual, also shows many of the typical features of Hungarian (women) psychoanalysts in terms of social background, women’s education, the influence of the numerus clausus and the persecution of Jews, emigrations, fields of interests, or choosing a partner from the same profession.

Erzsébet Kardos was born in Győr in 1902 in an assimilated Jewish merchant family. Her father Jenő Kardos (né Jakab Kohn, Hungarianized to Kardos in 1899) ran a men’s fashion store in downtown Győr (at 4 Baross Street), while her mother Teréz Eislitzer had a shoe store (at 12 Baross Street). After she was widowed in 1924, she ran the two businesses on her own; from 1927 at 15 Baross Street, at the ground floor of the family house that she bought and extended (see below).

Kardos’s shoe and fashion store, 15 Baross Street, Győr, around 1932 (courtesy of Attila Horváth)

Her brother Imre was born in 1904 and her sister Ilona in 1905. Erzsébet graduated from the state girls’ high school in Győr (now Kazinczy Ferenc High School) in 1921 (“well matured”), among her classmates was Margit Kovács, the later famous ceramicist. Meanwhile, in 1916-17 she was a private student, and between 1917-19 he studied at the Győr City Higher Commercial School.

Her desire to study, as well as the family’s financial situation and support, was firm enough for her to start university studies abroad due to the restriction of the numerus claususlaw. Kardos studied at the Medical Faculty of Würzburg University (Germany) from 1921 to 1923. She attended the Medical Faculty of the Erzsébet University in Pécs for five terms from 1924 to 1926, where she graduated in 1927.

Erzsébet Kardos, Würzburg, 1920s

Her letters to Ödön Bánki, a friend and for a while a boyfriend, contain much information about her circumstances and the changes in her state of mind during that period. They studied in the same year in Würzburg, where they shared accommodation for some time.

Erzsébet Kardos, student register card, Würzburg University

The letters mostly refer to university matters, financial difficulties, plans and opportunities, the family, acquaintances and politics. They often reflect mood swings, sometimes despair, yet they also indicate a high degree of consciousness and self-reflection, intellectual interest and ambition.

Erzsébet Kardos and Ödön Bánki, Starnberger See, Germany, 1925

She commented repeatedly on current political events which crucially affected her decisions about her place of residence, studies and future. From 1923 onwards, she submitted her application for admission to several European universities, including Leipzig, Bratislava, Basel, Bern and Munich. Antisemitic manifestations were presumably expressed more frequently in Würzburg and thus she started to think of moving to other places, although she did have an attachment to the town. (The atmosphere of escape and search for a safe place might remind us of the current situation, although in a different historical context.)

Kuci, the other day some strange fear got hold of me under the influence of alarming rumours in Germany […]. Please, give in my application to Leipzig and perhaps to another university which is not in Bavaria and where there is a slim chance of being admitted. I don’t think there is any chance elsewhere but in Giessen. I don’t mind where, but I’d like some guarantee.
Erzsébet Kardos to Ödön Bánki, from Győr to Würzburg, summer 1923?

The dilemmas concerning university studies point well beyond the intellectual aspects: the possible places were limited by administrative practicalities, financial and political circumstances. To obtain the official recognition of a foreign degree in Hungary required attending at least four semesters in a Hungarian university. In addition to the complicated and/or unsuccessful applications to other universities, that was the reason why in the end Kardos decided to finish her studies in Hungary at the Medical Faculty in Pécs. In the countryside the numerus nullus for women (applied by the Medical Faculty of Budapest University between 1920 and 1926) was not in force, and the numerus clausus concerning Jews was not implemented so strictly either.

Her interests and ambition are indicated by her own idea of translating a fundamental German clinical book by Ernst Magnus-Alsleben (Vorlesungen über klinische Propädeutik), for which she was trying, albeit apparently unsuccessfully, to find a publisher.

After graduation Kardos did not stay in Hungary: from the summer of 1927 she worked for two years as an assistant at Arthur Schlossmann’s clinic for children (Kinderklinik der Städtischen Krankenanstalt) in Düsseldorf. During that time, she was also chief consultant at the Auguste-Victoria-Haus Children’s Home in Düsseldorf (Schlossmann’s daughter, Erna Eckstein-Schlossmann, was in charge of the institution), where 120 children were cared for, and she held lectures for nurses participating in medical training.

From there she made an even bigger leap, both geographically and professionally: in 1929 she was invited to Colombia where she worked as senior paediatrician in the private clinic of the German bacteriologist Maxim Bauer in Barranquilla, as well as performing laboratory tests of tropical diseases in the bacteriological institute also directed by Bauer.

During her 18-month stay in South America she organised expeditions on her own and as the first woman (following Bauer’s expeditions) she travelled to the Guajiro (Wayuu) Indian tribe, who lived on the Guajira Peninsula, on the border of Colombia in the northern part of Venezuela.

Here she conducted a study of their customs and way of life. Daily newspapers such as Magyar Hírlap (Hungarian Newspaper) and Délamerikai Magyarság (South American Hungarians) reported on the expeditions. In May 1932 Magyar Hírlap interviewed Maxim Bauer who talked about Kardos with appreciation so much so that he intended to name the 6000-metre-high glacier in the Sierra Nevada, he first climbed, the Kardos Peak (I have not found a later trace of that).

An October copy of Magyar Hírlap in 1932 gives an account specifically of Kardos’s trips and the way of life and customs of the Indian tribe she visited with comments by a journalist.

A soft-spoken and quiet young woman with a friendly gaze is sitting opposite me. No one would believe how much knowledge she has in her head, what incredible energy is within this small, charming creature who has achieved recognition in foreign scientific circles. […] This extremely talented young woman doctor returned from Colombia in the spring because, as she says, she could not cope with the atmosphere there psychologically. Since then, she has lived in Germany. She has worked successfully in various scientific institutes in Munich and Berlin. Homesickness is bringing her back to Hungary now. For some time, she will stay at home with her family in Győr, where she will also work.
Magyar Hírlap, 15 October 1932

Thus, in 1932 Kardos returned to Europe and worked with paediatrician Heinrich Finkelstein, the medical director of the Kaiser and Kaiserin Friedrich Municipal Children’s Hospital in Berlin. In late 1932 “homesickness brought her back to Hungary” (or, more likely, the political climate in Germany) and she lived and worked in Győr for a while, where she opened a private paediatric practice in the family house. The waiting room of her office was designed by Bauhaus artist Zsuzsa Bánki.

News about the opening of her private practice, Dunántúli Hírlap, 22 November 1932

For two years, from 1933, she worked with Lipót Szondi in the Pathological and Remedial Laboratory of the Hungarian Royal College of Special Education in Budapest. She performed the psychological and biological examination of juvenile criminals sent from the Juvenile Court and conducted the check-up and developmental therapy of children with special needs.

From 1934 she attended training analysis with Vilma Kovács and two years later, in addition to her Budapest paediatric practice, she began a psychoanalytic practice too. In 1940 she married paediatrician and psychoanalyst Endre Pető. In their shared work attempting the metapsychological description of play, they pointed out that all the specifics of the primary processes can be found in children’s play, which thus helps integrate these impulses into the ego. Kardos’s only (posthumous) study (“Contributions to the Theory of Play”) was based on this joint thinking. Endre Pető published the study with his own addenda in the British Journal of Medical Psychology in 1956.

In 1939 the couple applied for immigration to Australia where they were finally granted a visa in September. Yet they stayed in Budapest. Possibly it was Pető’s elderly mother and their recently furnished apartment that made them stay. They did not feel the danger strongly enough. In addition, both joined the Psychoanalytical Society that year and were ready for analytic practice. They could work for a while, until the German occupation of Hungary in March 1944. During the reign of the Hungarian Arrow Cross from the autumn of 1944, they were hiding separately with forged papers.

However, shortly before the liberation of Budapest in January 1945, someone denounced Kardos and she was discovered and murdered by an Arrow Cross squad in the city. Lívia Nemes writes in her article on the fate of Hungarian psychoanalyst during fascism: “Neurologist Margit Ormos recalled that she had met her at the gate to the ghetto in January 1945. She had a bag in her hand, perhaps was fleeing from somewhere or went to help someone. She was most likely the last person who saw her.” Kardos’s father had died as early as 1924, but her mother was deported from Győr and murdered in Auschwitz. Her brother Imre and sister Ilona emigrated to Australia in 1950.

The grave of her parents in Győr

In 1946 psychoanalyst Imre Hermann commemorated the war victims and Kardos’s work on children’s play was read out. Hermann characterised her as follows: “She was sensitive and compassionate, and courageously helped many in circumstances of great danger to herself. She was one of the younger members of the Society but had earned an excellent reputation, especially in the field of child analysis.” (International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 1946)

Erzsébet Kardos’s promising career was destroyed by the antisemitic ideologies and policies which she had to face from the beginning of her university studies. Partly political pressure and partly professional curiosity motivated her departures from Hungary. Despite her fragmented career, she realised an active, busy professional life of an insightful and emotional personality: a person with diverse interests in paediatrics, cultural anthropology and psychoanalysis, as well as a committed attitude to treatment and intellectual work.

For a longer version of this article, see (in Hungarian) and (in English).

I am very grateful to Ödön Bánki’s daughter, art historian Esther Bánki for sharing letters, photos and other valuable information with me. The English translation of the letters is mine.

Anna Borgos is a psychologist and women’s historian; she is a research fellow of the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience and Psychology and the editor-in-chief of the Hungarian psychoanalytic journal Imágó Budapest. Her main fields of research are the career of intellectual women in the early 20th century and the history of sexuality. (Note by the editor)