Small stories from everyday life 3. – The hunted life of an ordinary bookseller. Updated

One would expect that Ernő Révész (Ernest Révész according to official documents) was a very important personality of the interwar Târgu Mureş. He not only owned a bookshop, published works, built a house in the city, but he even had his own dossier at the Siguranta – not in the city but in Bucharest! What gave him such a significance? Books, what else?

Books: reproducing the „right” identity

From the point of view of conscious nation-builders Ernő Révész was a legitimate target of close supervision. He was a bookseller, who imported books from Hungary and also distributed publications from Romania. This activity – especially as these products were written in Hungarian – itself made him an important figure in a process, the existence of which was undeniable for many nationally-minded people. Reading in a language was treated as a way to reproduce linguistic identity and in case of certain contents also national identity. Books were conceived as important vehicles of the national idea, conveying and transmitting its „right” form. (A group of Hungarian intellectuals, all of them holding key positions in the Hungarian minority institutional system, after scrutinizing the reading customs of Hungarian university students, complained in 1930, that these younger Hungarians are reluctant to read the classic novels of Hungarian literature, their historical knowledge is based on literary pieces, and not specialized works etc. They very seriously described it as a threat posed to these young Hungarians’ national consciousness.) Because Révész sold books from Hungary, his activity seemed even more problematic, as the content of these publications hardly corresponded with the demands and desires of the Romanian state authorities. It was perceived – sometimes with good reason – as undermining the state’s authority, inciting resistance, and helping to preserve a Hungarian national consciousness that denied Romania’s rights over Transylvania.

Ways of control: content, effectivity

The most obvious way to counteract and control the flow of ideas was plain or hidden censorship. It applied for both internal products and import goods. To sell a book from abroad needed a special approval from the Romanian authorities, primarily – but not necessarily – from the special committee of the Foreign Ministry. However, it applied only to books distributed by companies in Hungary, whom were obliged to submit a copy to preliminary examination. Books imported by local firms could have easily landed at one of the internal censorship committees of the ministry of interior or culture. Even though these organs agreed in some key points what makes a dangerous (irredentist) work, their perceptions of individual books could have easily differ. For example the foreign ministry committee approved the distribution of the XIII and XIV volumes of the collected works of the Hungarian bishop Ottokár Prohászka (an important figure of roman catholic renewal, social catholicism and at the same time a marked anti-semite), they only demanded the erasure of initially six or seven, at the end only two paragraphs, while the General Staff’s censors insisted on a ban on the whole volumes. Anyway, the sate applied a series of measures to control import of literary and scientific works and at least theoretically, nothing could have missed their attention.

In reality Révész’s case proves the significant weak spots in this system. The state security became aware of his activity of importing and selling books from Hungary without any official approval after they intercepted a letter of his, addressed to a fellow bookseller in Oradea/Nagyvárad. The letter, in which Révész threatened his colleague to disrupt business connection if he is not ready to lower prices of books from Hungary, revealed a clearly effective and costumary way of smuggling. Simply order the books from Budapest sent as a simple parcel. Révész stressed in the letter that the direct delivery was fast, effective – without being detoured to Bucharest – cheaper and avoided censorship practices.

How was it possible to avoid censorship of the books sent directly from Hungary, when the Romanian state nominally applied a clandestine censorship on the postal traffic between Hungary and Romania? The state administration simply lacked the necessary capacity for this effort, especially as international postal treaties obliged the post – indirectly its owner, the state – to pay a high compensation sum in case a recommended letter was lost or even if just significantly delayed. The sheer amount of postal traffic made the thorough control of every item impossible, and centralization efforts (to bring every piece to Bucharest or to Cluj for censorship) made the situation even worse. Meanwhile, in case of a decentralized censorship process, the local officials were easily bribed, making control even more relaxed. Quite telling is he fact, that even though Révész was under supervision from his first encounter with the Siguranţa, he obviously continued his practice of unapproved import, the last search in his bookshop and in his home was carried out by the police in 1939. (They found nothing prohibited.)

„Női kézimunka értesítő”. The banal objects of revisionist propaganda

During the decades the officialities discovered a series of books illegally brought into Romania, considered as dangerous ones. Most of them was clearly confronting the Romanian historical narrative, some of them even denouncing the peace treaty as unjust and a result of devious practices so typical on the Balkans. Some of them was far from posing any real threat or challenge to Romanians, like the then popular youth novels written by Lola Kosáryné Réz. (Tibi’s team, Tibi on the sea, Tibi’s return), and in other cases supersensitivity was also clear. (A report on the book “History of Hungary” mentioned photos of forestry activity from Transylvania or the viaduct of Anina as problematic.) However, the authorities found the most alarming among all of them, and reacted the most hysterically to a very modest publication, the „Női kézimunka értesítő” (Women’s handicraft bulletin).

The publication from Hungary offered practical advices and models for womens to their everyday sewing and decorating work. It was brought into the country with the Romanian national colors printed on its corner and an attentive agent discovered that on the 46 page a photo, showing the Hungarian tricolor embroidered with the revisionist slogan “I believe in Hungary’s resurrection”, served as illustration. The authorities almost panicked. Even though Révész admitted to receive only 5-6 copies from Budapest almost a year earlier that he sold meanwhile and only one exemplar was found in the shop and none other in the city, the responsible chief of the censorship office in Bucharest wrote letters to every prefect, every county police commander, every county Siguranţa chief and the commander of the customs office asking them to carry out immediate actions to impede the distribution of the extremely dangerous material. And the obedient subordinates acted quickly. However, neither the Brăila office of the Siguranţa, nor the one from Turnu Magurele find any trace of the “Women’s handicraft bulletin” in the city.

Even though it is easy to treat the reaction as simply exaggerated it again reveals interesting aspects . If anyone would have worn the above described object this certainly would have caused official retribution. But it is quite improbable that the target audience was the group of Hungarian women in Transylvania. The article and the photo undoubtedly served as a kind of impulse, a push for everyone to make such easy-to-do objects bearing the well known slogan. However, expectation was only explicit in case of Hungarian women from Hungary.

The Romanian context rather redefined the meaning of the article and the object: while it was not possible to perform the requested action (that was somehow perceived as an obligatory act of national fervor) and wear the object, from the Romanian perspective it didn’t edged out the danger and made the publication harmless. As a part of a wast conspiration, a visual representation of something forbidden, it was still undermining the order. Morerover, as an item of popular culture, in a publication theoretically widely distributed (more widely than the specialized works or literary products), it was not confined to the intellectual elite or the urban middle class. The bulletin more easily reached the people, those who were seen for a while as possible converts, who can be dissociated from their intransigent leaders.

However reactions were vastly exaggerated even in this case. Révész was hardly a mass distributor of these products, the way he smuggled in books almost excluded an import of hundreds of copies. As a bookseller in a relatively small city he could make a good living from selling the „forbidden fruits” but had no means to affect popular sentiment on a broader scale. Probably even the Romanian authorities realized it. Although he remained a target of suspicion during the remaing years of the two interwar decades, he preserved his bookstore and his living.

(The material, serving as basis of this short text can be found in the ANIC DGP 8/1923 dossier)

Update 2. Although Révész remained „haunted” by the state security it did not hinder the county administration to give him favorable contracts. His company appears regularly in the accounts of the prefecture with decent sum paid for him for office supplies.

Update: An illustration from „Flekken” satyrical weekly, 1934.



3 gânduri despre “Small stories from everyday life 3. – The hunted life of an ordinary bookseller. Updated

  1. Felicitari de postare. pana sa incerc un comentariu cat de cat inteligent :), ai putea sa pui si niste ilustratii? Stiu ca ai imagini cu Női kézimunka értesítő

  2. Unfortunately not, maybe the officers or non commissioned officers of the Siguranta brought it home to their wifes. 🙂
    But I attached another photo showing an even more dangerous object of propaganda, a drawing from a satyrical journal from Târgu Mureş, with the title „Flekken”. (Look at the map on the wall!) The very alarmed gendarms immediately acted, confiscated the original and proposed an indictment of both the editor in chief and the person who owned the original of the drawing. But the prosecutor’s office closed the case without bringing it to the court.

  3. Voi reveni cu cateva detalii despre propaganda maghiara din epoca. Deocamdata, ma multumesc sa spun ca propaganda revizionista a fost reala, dar au existat si excese de zel din partea autoritatilor romane, asa cum se vede din textul de mai sus.

    Apropo de articol, nu uitati ca puteti comenta si in romana la oricare text scris de Gegry!

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