The Arty Semite

Letters from a Dying Hungarian Architect

By Benjamin Ivry

  • Print
  • Share Share

Instructional letters from parents to children, such as those from Lord Chesterfield or Madame de Sevigné, can make delightful reading. But few have the emotional charge of “Paper Kisses: Letters of a Jewish Father from Prison 1942/43,” published in February by Klett-Cotta Verlag.

They were written by the Hungarian Jewish architect Pál Meller (known as Pali) to his two children, 11-year-old Paul and 7-year-old Barbara. In 1942, as a widower hiding in Nazi Berlin, Meller was denounced as a Jew and thrown into Brandenburg-Görden prison. There, harsh conditions led to his death from pulmonary tuberculosis thirteen months later, at age 40.

Meller’s letters radiate a lively sense of humor; he would refer to his wife, a dancer named Petronella Colpa, as “Mea Colpa” or just “Mea.” They also evidence a rigorously formal way of thinking about the arts.

He observes to Paul:

If a sentence has 100 words, of which 99 are meaningful and the final one is meaningless, then the whole edifice collapses…. Sloppy writing is a sin against the language.

Meller describes his prison reading: “Now I’ve read Dickens and next I’m reading a dickens of a fat American novel.” It was Hervey Allen’s 1933 historical bestseller Anthony Adverse which he terms the “life of a man of courage, who would stop at nothing and went his own way.”

Meller adds his belief that “everything is mapped out and all good as well as evil has its place in this overall picture which we call life, and in which we are only small components.” Although wary of preaching to his children, Meller does remind them: “Didn’t we once talk about what life is? It is a series of responsibilities, framed in fears. Responsibility equals duty with a vision of future consequences.”

Of primary importance to Meller was that his children lead fulfilling creative lives. He aimed high in citing ideal examples such as the author E. T. A. Hoffmann, a jurist who also loved music. Or Albert Schweitzer, a humanitarian doctor and organist. He advises Paul to read the works of poet Rainer Maria Rilke and quotes a maxim, “There is no thought without words and language,” inspired by Ludwig Wittgenstein, the philosopher and architect.

Meller notes, “It’s a pretty rare case, a father and son having to say everything by letter” and although he could only offer his daughter “paper kisses,” these now prove to be of enduring profundity and inspiration.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Pali Meller, Ludwig Wittgenstein, E. T. A. Hoffmann, Albert Schweitzer

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.