BERKELEY – When Lynn Schneider was growing up in Los Angeles, her New York-born grandmother Kitty would make for her Hungarian cookies and stuffed peppers. Her American grandfather Julius would collect winter coats and ship them to Hungary. But they never once spoke of the decade they lived in Budapest in the years between World War I and World War II.
Schneider’s father Bob was born in Budapest and grew up there until he was seven, and he, too, never spoke about his family’s time in Hungary. But after he died in 1982, Schneider discovered a box whose contents unlocked an unknown part of her family’s history. Inside the box was a collection of old 16 mm black-and-white home movies shot in Hungary that had not been seen by anyone since their filming.
Determined to learn and tell her grandparent’s story through these moving images, Schneider spent much of the last twenty years figuring out how to turn them in to a documentary. After following historical and genealogical leads, making research trips to Hungary, and taking filmmaking classes, Schneider was finally ready to cinematically tell her ancestor’s unique tale of reverse Jewish immigration and recently released “Budapest: An American Quest — A Family’s Journey to 1920s Hungary,” a 27-minute documentary short.
It has been screened at a dozen small film festivals and conferences, mainly on the West Coast, and Schneider hopes it will be accepted to some of the larger film festivals.
“These home movies have turned me in to a filmmaker,” Schneider tells The Times of Israel from her home in Berkeley, California.
When Schneider, a teacher of English as a second language, first viewed the films (she asked her cousin, who worked at Disney, to transfer the reels of 16 mm film to video), she was flabbergasted to see her grandparents, father and uncle living a life she knew nothing about.
“My father never spoke of Hungary, and he and his parents never set foot in Hungary again after they returned to the United States in 1935,” Schneider shares.
It was up to her to piece together the story. Her grandmother Kitty was born in New York. Kitty’s father made pea coats and hats for the US Navy and married a woman who worked in his factory after Kitty’s mother died. He charged Kitty, just 16, with raising her younger siblings as he began a new family. In 1925, Kitty, who was by then 20, decided she had had enough of the responsibility and traveled to Hungary to relax and visit relatives.
There, she met Julius Schneider, a 35-year-old bachelor bartender from New York. He had arrived in Hungary to go into business with his brother Andrew, who had come over earlier and had begun building houses for laborers in Arpad Telep, on the outskirts of Budapest. (Schneider reports that a plaque honoring Andrew Schneider is still there.)
Julius and Kitty married at the Dohany Street Synagogue in Budapest in 1928, and before the year was out, Kitty gave birth to the filmmaker’s father, Bob. Later, a second son named Arthur was born, and as can be seen from the discovered footage, life was good for the family.
“I love seeing my father as a little boy. I love seeing my grandparents skiing, skating, and having fun. They seemed to have had such a good life over there,” Schneider says.
They lived on Dohany Street, just a few doors from the great synagogue. “From what I can tell, my family seemed to be rather assimilated,” she notes. “But they were socially and culturally Jewish.”
Kitty and Julius were happy in Budapest, and would have stayed on had anti-Semitism not taken hold under the Horthy regime. When Bob was harassed in school because he was a Jew, Julius decided it was time to go back to the United States.
It was 1935, and the American consulate gave the family, whose American passports had expired, two weeks to pack up and leave Hungary. Forced to leave their assets and property behind, they departed with only the valuables they could pack in their suitcases.
Once they arrived back in the United States, Julius, who had supported his family’s comfortable life in Hungary as a business owner, reverted to being a bartender.
“It isn’t completely clear who was holding the camera,” Schneider says of the home movies. She suspects that her father and uncle Andrew may have been taking turns behind the lens. “You never see the two of them together on film,” she points out.
Her great-uncle chose not to read the writing on the wall, and he and his wife Margaret remained in Hungary and managed to survive the Holocaust. (It seems a woman, perhaps Andrew’s mistress, hid him in the countryside.) The couple returned to the US after the war, but after Margaret died, Andrew returned to Hungary, where the Communist regime put him under house arrest for being a capitalist. He soon died of complications from diabetes.
Andrew and Margaret’s son Eugene returned to the US with his wife and young family before the outbreak of the war. However, their daughter Beatrice, who looks like an old Hollywood movie star in her wedding photo, was not so lucky. She sought a protective passport from Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, but he assured her that she did not need one because she held an American passport. Her American citizenship tragically did her little good, and she and her young son were deported to Bergen-Belsen and never heard from again.
Schneider is proud to be able to share her family’s history, which she discovered to be quite different from the typical American Jewish immigration story. “It’s an example of early globalization,” says the filmmaker, who ponders whether she might have come by her own wanderlust hereditarily.
She considers the home movies a real treasure and gift. “I’ve had the films restored, but they were in remarkable condition when we found them. The original splices were even still in tact,” she says.
“I just love looking at the images. I never get tired of looking at them. My father and grandparents come alive again. It’s like they’re walking in heaven.”