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culture

Historicist: Armed with a Felt Pen and a Sense of Humour

Master of the cartoonist's pen but burdened by inner turmoil, George Feyer is a long-neglected mid-century pop culture figure.

Feyer was born into middle class comfort in Budapest, Hungary, in 1921. His divorced parents, and their respective spouses, were liberal intellectuals, he said, who instilled in their son a healthy distaste for “soldiers, flags, priests, nationalism and all that chauvinistic stuff.” While other boys played soldier, Feyer drew as a means of escaping what he saw as “the bombast, the bureaucracy, and the despotism of life in a central European country.”

A highly intelligent child, Feyer was sent to a Jesuit school, one of the best in the country. But he disliked it intensely and quit. In a 1984 interview, his wife revealed that the severe, painful discipline inflicted upon the boy by the schoolmasters had such a deep effect that Feyer suffered terrible nightmares for the rest of his life. However, Feyer retained an affection for education, Berton recalled, and feverishly consumed heady books, from the Bible to Bertrand Russell, throughout his adult life.

At the age of 15, he began selling political cartoons to editors at a variety of Hungarian publications, none of whom knew he was still in school. With Hungarian political culture becoming decidedly pro-fascist in the late 1930s, Feyer quickly learned how to navigate this terrain as a political caricaturist. “Each drawing has to have two or three meanings,” he explained to Porter, “so that you can plead the most harmless one if the cops come to carry you off to jail.”

The Second World War had an irrepressible impact on Hungary, which had formally aligned itself with Nazi Germany in 1940, and on Feyer. Because he walked with a limp as a result of a childhood ailment, Feyer was initially able to avoid conscription into the Hungarian army in 1939. But he was eventually made to join the infantry and was among the reinforcements sent to the Russian front, where tens of thousands of Hungarians had been fighting since the summer of 1941. Porter described Feyer’s experience in the Ukraine:

Then one bright moonlight [sic] night he saw a pile of corpses thirty feet high. He stared in horror and noticed that the whole mound was stirring slightly. Going closer he discovered that it was crawling with rats.

The very next day, Feyer put his artistic skills to use forging documents that enabled him to desert and sneak back to Budapest. For the next two years, he established himself as a professional forger, calling on those he’d known as a young cartoonist to procure ink, paper of different types, rubber stamps, and every other supply needed for his craft.

With a reputation for masterful reproductions of official papers, Feyer forged passports and other documents for resistance fighters, Jews avoiding deportation to death camps, fleeing politicians, and escaped prisoners of war.

“Once I forged [requisition] papers for a company of soldiers and drew rations for a hundred men,” he told Porter. “This enabled my friends and me to survive when others were starving. I had no compunction about it. It was a case of every poor devil for himself.”

Jewish victims of Arrow Cross men in Budapest, 1940s, from {a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Holocaust-ArrowCross-DohanySynagogue.jpg"}WikiMedia Commons{/a}.

As a deserter, Feyer rarely left his flat, watching from a window as Budapest crumbled around him. The country was occupied by the Nazis in 1944, who viewed Hungary as an unreliable ally. Later that year, the Russians crossed the Hungarian frontier. By late December 1944, more than one million Red Army soldiers had encircled Budapest. Through frigid temperatures for the next month and a half, this siege was violently punctuated by artillery bombardment and intense urban street battles—even skirmishes in the sewers.

Feyer was among the 800,000 civilians trapped in the city, along with 33,000 Nazi and 37,000 Hungarian troops. Food was scarce, even for soldiers. Of the estimated 38,000 civilians killed before the Hungarian surrender on February 13, 1945, approximately 25,000 were the result of starvation, disease or, in the case of the city’s remaining Jews, murder. The city itself was nearly razed, with an estimated 80 per cent of its buildings damaged or destroyed in the winter warfare. The eventual Soviet victory was far from the exuberant liberations seen in Northern Europe. It featured the theft of all equipment and supplies possible, random executions, and mass rape, as the Russians exacted revenge on their defeated foes. Still in Budapest, Feyer continued to see equal demand for his services as a forger during the Soviet occupation.

In the obituary written for his friend, Berton confirmed that this interpretation of Feyer’s wartime story was “substantially true.” But when Berton had once suggested that Feyer record his experiences in an autobiography, the cartoonist had replied “that they were so unbelievable nobody would believe them.”

Image from Toronto Star (July 30, 1963).

Feyer had a love-hate relationship with his homeland. His father, a lawyer, had remained in Budapest, and Feyer regularly took months-long vacations back to visit. On one such visit, in the summer of 1963, he was accompanied by Berton and joyously toured his guest through Hungary’s countryside, culture, and nightlife.

Berton recognized an abiding love towards his homeland, but also a bitter taste. Feyer hated Hungarians for what they’d done to the Jewish population during the war and, perhaps referring to the Arrow Cross, was convinced that Hungarians had been worse than the Germans.

Berton characterized the cartoonist as anti-Fascist, anti-Communist and, as a result, anti-Establishment. “If you asked him what his politics were,” Berton once wrote, “he generally replied that he was a Survivor.”

Additional image from Maclean’s (June 15, 1954).

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