Smile school and other oddities

My Gazette editor received an email recently from Signe Veje Hansen, a Danish documentary filmaker. She was working on a Danish-American-Hungarian documentary production, about the life of Paul Vayda, a famous World War II Hungarian refuge journalist.

"Mr. Vayda was interviewed by your columnist Frank Shatz, in 1972," Hansen wrote.

Once connection between us had been established, I was informed by Hansen, "The photos from Vayda's 'Smile School' article published in a 1937 issue of the LIFE and then in a Dutch magazine resurfaced on the internet. ... It went viral. ... Blogs around the world refer to it as an actual historical event. ... Curators at the National Dutch Archives are eager to discover the truth behind the bizarre 1937 story. ... Your 1972 article solved the mystery for us."

That 1972 article recounted some of the journalistic exploits of Vayda. He found himself more than once languishing in the dungeons of various totalitarian regimes across Europe and, at times, facing fascist or communist firing squads.

It wasn't mere survival that merited the long chapters on Vayda's life in books written by two famous American journalists, Robert St. John and Robert B. Parker. It was rather his extraordinary journalistic exploits that fascinated them.

The Hungarian-born and Oxford-educated Vayda began his career by translating Shakespeare's works into Hungarian. Fluent in English, German, French, Russian, Serbo-Croat and Greek, he soon gravitated to journalism.

"Paul Vayda was short, pleasant, with a sharp sense of humor and a command of American slang unexcelled short of Brooklyn. He had never been to the United States, but had a faultless instinct about what sort of story American editors liked. Once he engineered a duel that made front pages for days," wrote St. John.

I met Vayda late in his life. He was working on his memoirs, but they have never been published. It would have been a bestseller.

It was Vayda who introduced the American public to the story of "Gloomy Sunday." The poignant Hungarian song that made love-saddened youths listening to gypsy music rush from their cafes and throw themselves from the bridges into the Danube in fits of uncontrollable passion. "Gloomy Sunday" become the theme-song of the movie, "Schindler's List."

He was also credited with dreaming up whimsical stories out of pre-war Budapest.

Several dozen men and women of diminutive size, but perfectly proportioned, lived in Budapest. Most of them performed in circuses and cabarets. They were married to each other and had families. Vayda organized them into the "National Union of Hungarian Dwarfs." The chief purpose was to legitimize the demands, proclamations and appeals Vayda issued weekly in their names.

The "little people" demanded houses to be built that took their size into account. They insisted that the houses have door handles they could reach and retail shops carry ready-made clothes in their size. Their demands escalated by the day. The union threatened court action if the government didn't guarantee half-price tickets on trains and buses, because of their size. Vayda kept the story going for weeks, and it made front-page news worldwide.

But those journalistic exploits were only a diversion for Vayda. His main interest remained ferreting out what the Nazis, and later the Soviets, were up to in Eastern Europe and alerting the world to it.

When I asked him what a life spent in constant danger and struggle for freedom taught him, he replied by quoting from the great Hungarian dramatic play, "The Tragedy of Man." "The Lord said to Adam: Man, I have spoken! You must struggle, and have faith!"

Shatz is a Williamsburg resident. He is the author of "Reports from a Distant Place," a compilation of his selected columns. The book is available at the Bruton Parish Shop and Amazon.com.

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