By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife reporting from Budapest
BUDAPEST, HUNGARY (BosNewsLife) — Hollywood actor Tony Curtis has died at the age of 85, his daughter Jamie Lee Curtis said — news that was expected to come as a shock for Hungary and its Jewish community, which he supported. Curtis, who was born Bernard Schwartz to Hungarian Jewish parents, spoke with a BosNewsLife reporter in an exclusive interview in 2003 about plans to help “end the ignorance” towards what happened during World War Two, when Hungary was a close ally of Nazi Germany.
The veteran actor, who starred in over 100 films such as ‘Some Like It Hot’ with late actress Marilyn Monroe, joked at the time that he wanted the country of his parents to become hot again…for Americans.
Curtis spoke to BosNewsLife in a theater of Budapest, where he shot two television commercials which Hungary hoped would rebrand it as “a centre of spa and health tourism”, ditching its traditional image of Paprika and Gypsy music.
“Why shouldn’t Hungary benefit from the American dollar? You know it would be good for the country and also help to clean out some of the ignorance” for other religions, he said in that rare interview, dressed in his trademark shorts and casual pullover on a cold autumn day.
In the pre-crisis world, Americans spent an estimated $270 billion on recreation and travel annually and Tony Curtis wanted some, if not all, of that money to end up in Hungary where tourism revenues reportedly dropped.
Hungary needed the extra cash as most East Germans, who flooded the country under Communism, stayed away because of higher prices and amid reports that the country’s Lake Balaton was “drying off”, blamed by scientists on global warming.
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Curtis made clear he wanted elderly big spending Americans to visit Budapest’s Dohany Synagogue, the largest in Europe, which he helped to refurbish with huge funds in honor of his father.
It is a location where the former drugs addict, who searched for love or companionship in five marriages, apparently felt part of a larger, Jewish, family. “My father used to go to Budapest as he lived in a small city. And he used to go to the Dohany Synagogue… So one day I went to see it and it was in disrepair. So I asked: Can I help? And they said: yes,” recalled Curtis, who also painted and wrote novels.
“Hitler wanted to make this the Museum of the Jews had he won the war,” Curtis added in the 2003 interview, before interrupting his carefully, slowly spoken words so his female assistant could count and put the obligatory number of sweeteners (“yes five, that’s right”) in his cup of coffee. Now “it’s the only synagogue in Eastern Europe that is maintained as beautiful as it was,” he continued.
While Curtis was born in a small New York home in 1925, he said he never forgot his parent’s roots and their struggle with anti-Semitism. “My father was Hungarian and he lived through that time. At the end of the First World War he was a boy, and at the age of 15 or 16 he was caught up in pogroms in the ghetto’s. (Finally) he was able to survive and come to America.”
At least 600,000 Hungarian Jews were killed during World War Two, in many cases with support from Hungarian fascists. From Hungary’s prewar Jewish population of an estimated one million, some 100,000 are believed to live in Hungary today.
As a young man he saw movies about that war era. “It has always (puzzled) me how my father’s country could have contributed to the killing of this people (in) all of these places,” said Curtis, who has been searching for his Jewish roots in Hungary since the aftermath of Soviet domination in the late 1980s.
“What made my Hungarian brothers do that to their fellow Hungarians, throwing them in concentration camps? Maybe it was just a case of survival. (But) that kind of ignorance could provoke people to kill children, I don’t understand that.”
He said, “The thought of a two, three year old child being led somewhere, (and than) stepped (and) killed…Just because of a religion they have. It’s something we must purify ourselves from.”
Curtis stressed he would “never forgive Germany” for what went on. “But I can forgive Hungary because I understand they were not the originators of (these crimes). In that whole European chain from Poland and Latvia all the way up to Yugoslavia (and) Romania who was able to avoid (the massacres)?” he wondered.
The actor, who also once commemorated Hungary’s 1956 revolution against Soviet Communism, said he wants to be remembered as someone whose projects help “to blow away the ignorance of the world, and I can not do it in any place of the world, except in Hungary.”
He remained an optimist that the future would be better, but admitted not all signs were positive. Just before he spoke, thousands of people attended a Budapest rally of an ultra right wing party with French nationalist politician Jean-Marie Le Pen.
And this year — despite Curtis’warnings — the far right Hungarian Movement for a Better Hungary (Jobbik) became the third largest political force here.
Curtis, who died in Las Vegas Wednesday, September 29, of cardiac arrest, will be “greatly missed” by his fans and family, said Jamie Lee Curtis in a statement. “My father leaves behind a legacy of great performances in movies and in his paintings and assemblages. He leaves behind children and their families who loved him and respected him and a wife and in-laws who were devoted to him. He also leaves behind fans all over the world. He will be greatly missed..”