Do we even know our own heroes? Interview with Susanna Egri

Susanna Egri is a Hungarian Holocaust survivor, but she is known to the world as an Italian dancer. Her grandfather was Jewish, and as a result, death awaited her entire family during World War II. Her father, Ernő Egri-Erbstein, was one of the most successful Hungarian football coaches in Italy, where he and his team,“Grande Torino,” died in a plane crash. Susanna Egri has recently come to Hungary to remember and remind others of the past. We managed to conduct an interview with the timeless ballerina born 95 years ago. 

Before our conversation, here in the lobby of the hotel, I ran into Eva Fahidi, one of the best-known Hungarian Holocaust survivors, who is also a passionate dancer. She said she met you. Are you planning a joint performance? 

Who knows? Nothing is impossible in art. Éva and her partner, Andor, are extraordinary people. We had a very good conversation. We, of course, spoke about those who shared our fate, as well as our common love, dance. We met because Andor is involved with the area where a memorial plaque was recently inaugurated in Budapest. I couldn’t come to Hungary then, but now I did, and so they approached me to meet.

This plaque, inaugurated in September, pays homage to the rescuers — Gitta Mallász and Pál Klinda — who were also recognized as Righteous Among the Nations by the Yad Vashem Institute. The Lauder School probably organized the event because the former shelter is today home to their kindergarten. 

The Catholic priest Pál Klinda founded and Gitta Mallász ran the sewing shop in which I worked after the 1944 German occupation. They practically saved my life by having this shop on Budakeszi út in the Happy Catherine Girl’s Home. It was converted into a military factory, at the suggestion of Father Pál Klinda, where we officially made military clothes. I escaped from there because we knew the Arrow Cross could break in at any time. This actually happened once, but we managed to escape from almost certain death.

The furious Arrow Cross — not caring about our immunity papers — had already collected us and taken us to the wagons headed to our death, when they turned around due to the unexpected intervention of the Hungarian forces and took us back to the sewing shop.

Allegedly, papal nuncio Angelo Rotta himself had a hand in it, and I also heard that my father may have had something to do with our escape by being able to make a few important telephone calls through his connections, even though he himself was in hiding. 

Susanna Egri

Your father, Ernő Egri-Erbstein, served as a laborer at the time. Many consider him one of the most successful Hungarian football coaches. How could it be that before a book about him was written by a British author just four years ago, no one at home knew about him?

I have asked this several times from myself and others. It is incomprehensible to me to this day. The fact that he played in Italy and that Hungary was not so much part of Europe at the time may be an explanation. And perhaps also because in the Hungarian communist system they did not like those who left and achieved success elsewhere. I wasn’t very well known before either, but I received the Hungarian Order of Merit two years ago. 

What was this thanks to?

I don’t know that exactly either because I wasn’t known in the country, similar to my father. Maybe someone remembered that

I started my studies here; I was not yet five years old when I started ballet. The basis of my art was Hungarian dance. I represent this to this day everywhere in the world.

In China, for example, I was called the Marco Polo of dance because I was one of the first Western choreographers to go to China to teach in the ’80s. 

Tell us about your dance ensemble. What are you most proud of during your 90 years of dancing?

We recently celebrated the 70th anniversary of the school I founded in Turin. I still teach today, but I no longer lead our professional dance group. It is directed by Raphael Bianco, my former student. That is why we renamed the company EgriBiancoDanza in 1999. We have just been on a Lithuanian tour; we have one of Italy’s best-known contemporary ensembles. It has a classical foundation; my principle was to connect classical ballet with the culture of modern movement.

I gave my first solo performance in Hungary in 1946 at the Liszt Ferenc Academy of Music. It was the first time they had seen someone in Hungary who was able to perform en pointe and barefoot on the same stage, in addition to Spanish, jazz and folk dances. 

We also know very little about your father. He was a football player in Hungary and America, and then became a coach in Italy, where he worked for several teams. He achieved his greatest success in Turin, where he led one of the city’s leading teams, Torino FC, to five league championships in a row. “Grande Torino,” which was the victim of a plane crash in 1949, was spoken of as one of the best squads in the world. How would you describe your father?

He was a unique man. After his accidental death, in Italy they wrote that “football borrowed a philosopher.” My father was born in Nagyvárad but grew up in Budapest. His father, who was a tailor, had five sons who all went in different directions. One became a goldsmith, another a painter; we know that one of his brothers was taken to a death camp. I have no knowledge of the others. My father was the only one who chose football. He was a very literate, educated man. He was a fine gentleman about whom the contemporary press also wrote in a superlative fashion. He loved Italy very much, but also Hungary. He was a good father, and for me and my brothers, he was our greatest support. I went to matches with him when I was a kid; I was very proud of him, as he was of me.

By the time he died, I was already an award-winning prima ballerina in Florence. His incomprehensible death affected me greatly; I have not gotten over it to this day.

Unfortunately, I don’t know much else about our ancestors. My father’s father was the sole Jew in the family, but I don’t even know his exact name.

But your father’s first football club was also an association considered to be a Jewish team in Pest, the Budapest Athletics Club.

I only found out about this later. Until then, I had no idea what it was to be Jewish because I didn’t grow up as a Jew; I was raised as a Catholic.

You must have eventually realized that you were of Jewish descent when you were confronted with this fact in Hungary in 1944.

I first felt this in 1938 when we were in Italy and my dad had to leave his coaching job there.

When it turned out that my father was of Jewish descent, the Italian club expelled us from the country. Overnight, our world was turned upside down.

Do you remember what that realization was like as a teenager? 

Terrible. I didn’t understand anything, then I realized that the world is unfair and that absurd things happen in it. I didn’t understand how the best student was kicked out of school simply because her grandfather was Jewish. We had to leave Lucca, where we were living at the time. Interestingly, the city made me an honorary citizen not so long ago…

And what did your father say as an explanation for why you had to pack up and leave your home? How can this be explained to a child? 

It was awfully hard because I was very broken; I didn’t understand anything about the world. I later found a letter he wrote to me in Italian when we left the country, and all I know is that the explanation he tried to give in his letter and the conclusion he was trying to draw gave me a kind of philosophical guidance that has accompanied me all my life. He wrote in the letter that “this injustice will not last long; the world will find its way back to proper thinking and you must not stop believing wholeheartedly in what you want. You have to keep learning; don’t stop what you are doing. If you want to understand the world today, you have to read as much as you can from the old classics.”

Your family went to the Netherlands but were refused entry. 

Yes, and later, this turned out to be lucky. My father had a colleague and friend, Árpád Weisz, who was the legendary coach of Inter Milan team. He entered the Netherlands but was deported to Auschwitz a few years later.

After all this, you returned to Budapest. What happened to you in Hungary after 1938?

My father retained his connections from Italy. The president, and former boss, of Torino FC helped him start a business. They traded textiles. We lived surprisingly well; my father successfully reorganized our lives. We had a great life. I studied ballet, and we felt nothing of the danger of war until the German occupation took place.

What was it like becoming a Jew again? 

I suffered from persecution just as much as my brothers and sisters did at the time. I had to run from it too.

But how could you process this then?

It was very hard.

At least the established Jews here had a community to which they belonged during the persecution. We felt completely alien and alone, as we did not belong to any community.

Didn’t you try to make Jewish friends? 

No, of course I had some Jewish friends, but I felt completely alone at that time.

The “philosopher borrowed by football”: Ernő Egri-Erbstein

And have you ever thought about that later? That you accidentally became one, and why you were constantly persecuted as a Jew?

I dealt with this a lot, but no one could ever explain it. I’ve read a lot of books, but I can’t find an explanation for this phenomenon. As a choreographer, I have pondered this dilemma many times through my work. 

Have you always approached this whole question of fate as an outsider?

No, because

at the end of the day, we are all Jews, we all come from Judaism. This is just just a horrible story about one part of humanity persecuting another.

I am already beyond all religions. As an artist, I did not follow any religion. My motto is a two-thousand-year-old saying of a Latin philosopher that I reformulated: Every dance must be such as to please the eyes and open the brain to questions. 

What was the main reason for your current visit?

A special prize-giving ceremony at the children’s soccer cup 

On the one hand, the inauguration of the plaque at the Lauder school; I went to the school and paid tribute to the heroes’ memorial plaque. The other was a football tournament for children in Debrecen. The Dunamenti School Children’s League competition was created in memory of old coaches like my father. The famous and successful but perhaps lesser-known masters of this region, such as Béla Guttmann, from the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. I had the opportunity to be there and hand over the prizes to the winners.

I mentioned this at the beginning of our conversation, and now I will ask you again: Why do you think that there is a kind of renaissance of your father’s memory? Two years ago, an international adult amateur football cup was named after him, and now a tournament for children was organized. 

This is a riddle. When I go home, I will ponder it… It happened so suddenly. I hope young people will come to know the past better. For my father, I’m ready to do anything. He was such a special person. I have never met a man who was even a little similar to him.

He knew exactly where the light was and where the darkness was. He told me to be careful never to let myself be consumed by the darkness.

He was a player; he also considered life a game. But he always adapted to whatever he was given. 

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