You may wish to add this activity for the oldest age groups. It is based on watching the excellent 1999 film Sunshine - a major work that deserves to be watched - which tells the story of a Hungarian Jewish family. Before considering its use, however, you need to be aware of two disadvantages: it is long (three hours) and it contains scenes that include both violence and sex. However, the film is probably the main Jewish feature film of recent years and, as such, should at least be considered. While it is possible to use parts of the film as a basis for discussion, the film’s power derives from its epic power and interlocking multi-generational stories that can really only be appreciated when seen in full.
The film raises a number of very important issues in the modern Jewish experience that relate specifically to the question that we are examining here: the reappearing communities of East and East Central Europe, and specifically, the Hungarian community. The use of a film, with its visual images, will add an extra dimension to the students’ understanding of the community; furthermore, it will provide an emotional connection through their emotional involvement with the characters depicted. We recommend that, if the film is attainable in your community, and is sub-titled in the appropriate language - the original language is English - you watch it and decide whether to use it within the framework of your program.
The story is based loosely on the personal experience of the film’s creator, the acclaimed Hungarian director Istvan Szabo, It shows four generations of a fairly typical Hungarian Jewish family in Budapest. Starting somewhere at the end of the nineteenth century, when Hungary was under the relatively liberal power of the last generation of the Habsburg Empire, the film traces the family’s to the fall of Communism at the end of the 1980s. The exterior situation of Hungarian Jews (and Hungary as a whole) changes many times in the process: after the fall of the Habsburg Empire after World War I, we see a brief Communist regime; a democracy that degenerates to a form of fascism; Nazi fascism; Communism, and finally, democracy again.
The film concentrates on the changes in the situation of Hungarian Jewry as a result of the external political situation, and specifically on the changing faces of Jewish identity in the period under discussion. We see how Hungarian Jewry tried time and again to adjust to the different regimes with their changing ideologies, and how they attempted through different strategies to be loyal to their concept of Hungary, despite the fact that the country’s identity continually twisted and turned before their very eyes. We see the family in question, the Sonnenscheins, battered by external fate, but continually trying to exercise some measure of control over their circumstances. We see them change their names and their religion in order to fit in, with varying degrees of willingness. We see their optimism in different generations that the future situation for both Hungary and its Jews is rosy. At times, we see them battered and bruised, victims of violence, and find the remnants, emerging under democracy, survivors of history.
We suggest a discussion that will include the following questions.
- What would you say to Ignatz when he decides to change his name in order to advance in life?
- How do you understand his reaction to the local Jew who tries to talk to him when he is a military judge in the Hungarian army during World War I?
- How do you respond to the decision to convert? Do you understand it? Can you justify it? What would you say to Adam about his conversion?
- How would you describe the various characters’ feelings towards Hungary? How do you understand the patriotic feelings that so many of the characters appear to have? How do you react to this? How do you think that you would have reacted in a similar situation?
- What do you think the general message of the film is? Do you think that it contains a specific message for Jews? If you were a Hungarian Jew at the beginning of the twentieth century - for example - and you could the future of your family, of Hungarian Jews and of Hungary as a whole unfold in the images of the film, what do you think that you would - or should - do?
- Do you consider it coincidental that the recipe for the tonic that made the family’s fortune is thrown away at the end of the film? Do you see this as in any way symbolic of something else?
- Do you see the film as optimistic or pessimistic, both in its general presentation of history and in its portrayal of the Jews? Why?