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Filmmaker Gabor Kalman Reflects on US Embassy-Sponsored Tour of Native Hungary

By Bob Fisher

Filmmaker Gabor Kalman's monthlong visit to his native Hungary this past spring could be the subject of  a compellingly dramatic and emotional narrative film. The movie would begin with a flashback to Kalman's birth in the town of Kalocsa, in 1934. Approximately 12,000 people lived in the town. Around 600 of them, including Kalman, were Jewish.

Thousands of Jewish citizens were murdered during the Nazi occupation of Hungary during World War Two. Kalman was one of the few survivors in his hometown.  

Russia established an authoritarian communist regime in Hungary after the war ended. Kalman was a college student when dissatisfied citizens attempted to overthrow the government in 1956. The Russian army brutally suppressed the revolt.

Kalman managed to cross the border into Austria and migrate to the United States as a political refugee. He earned undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of California at Berkeley and Stanford University before launching his career as a documentary filmmaker.

Kalman was a founding member of the IDA and served on its board for nine years, during which time he founded the David L. Wolper Student Documentary Awards. When he is not producing and directing documentaries, Kalman is teaching the next generation of nonfiction filmmakers—at USC School of Cinematic Arts, from 1987 to 2007, and currently, Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. Kalman journeyed to his homeland in 1994 and 2008 to teach classes as a Senior Fulbright Scholar at the Academy of Theater and Fine Arts in Budapest.

Gyongyi Mago, a high school teacher in Kalocsa, contacted Kalman in 2009. She was educating her students about the Holocaust and about tolerance, in an aggressively right wing country. She invited him to attend a memorial service in Kolocsa for local Jewish Holocaust victims, and Kalman decided right then to make a documentary about this extraordinary teacher.


Gyongi Mago, subject of Gabor Kalman's There Was Once... 

Kalman was one of seven survivors who attended the memorial service, along with relatives of Holocaust victims. The memorial included unveiling a plaque containing the names of the victims who had lived in the city. "It touched me deeply," he recalls. "I remembered people's names."

The service was not without its unsettling disruptions. A woman who had come from the United States was hit in the head with a nut from a slingshot. A few blocks away, a neo-Nazi party held a rally.

Kalman and a local cinematographer filmed attendees at the memorial sharing memories and feelings during conversations with Mago. Upon his return to the United States, Kalman  interviewed survivors and members of victim's families who had migrated to the United States and Canada.

He completed production of There Was Once... in 2011; the film is a project in IDA's Fiscal Sponsorship program. While the film played in theaters in North America, There Was Once... wasn't shown in cinemas or on television in Hungary, and there were no stories or reviews in the press. It wasn't acknowledged in any way. "I wasn't surprised; the subject is sensitive," Kalman says.

Then, in late 2012, Karyn Posner-Mullen, the public affairs counselor at the US Embassy in Hungary, contacted Kalman. "She said, 'This is a fabulous film,'" Kalman recalls. "I want to show it at every school. I almost asked her how an American diplomat could get my film into a school system run by an autocratic government. About a year and a half later, she invited me to come to Hungary and show the film to students at schools around the country to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the end of the Holocaust."

And so, Kalman made the journey and showed There Once Was... mainly to high school students in small towns and in the countryside. "I was extremely well received by many principals and students," Kalman recalls. "The mayors came to screenings in some cities. At some schools, I was cautioned not to think that everyone in the city was friendly to America or Jews.


Gabor Kalman (in brown blazer) and Karyn Posner-Mullen, public affairs counselor at the US Embassy in Budapest (in gray pantsuit) with teachers and students in a high school in Debrechen, Hungary. 

 "Gyongyi told me not to expect students in the countryside to ask questions, because they are usually shy," Kalman continues. "She was right. Teachers asked questions, but students didn't. The minute we stepped outside, there was a ring of students around me asking questions. Many of them had never heard of  the Holocaust."

Kalman adjusted the presentations by limiting the time reserved for questions and answers after screenings. Afterwards, he would step outside, where he was invariably surrounded by students. Long discussions took place. "One day, I noticed that a young girl was staring at me," he recalls. "I caught her eye. She smiled, apologized for staring at me and said that she had never seen a Jew before. The tone in her voice was pure curiosity."

On another occasion, Kalman noticed two boys standing together and whispering to each other. He had a feeling they wanted to talk with him privately. "I discretely stepped around a corner," Kalman says. The boys followed him. One of them said they wanted his advice about an issue that they didn't want to discuss in front of other people. "He said that Jobbik was making its way into their school," Kalman recalls. "Jobbik is an extreme right wing political movement. Both boys were very emphatic about insisting that they didn't agree with Jobbik. They asked if there was anything they could do. I wanted to help them, but I didn't have an easy answer." 

During a discussion after a screening at another school, a student asked Kalman what he thought Hungary is like today, compared to 1944. "It was a difficult question," he says. "I wasn't there to spread anti-government propaganda, but I responded truthfully and, hopefully, helpfully."


Gabor Kalman (left) discusses his film and the Holocaust with students in a high school in Pecs, Hungary. 

Kalman recalled that there was an extraordinarily warm reception in one town by the principal and mayor, who delivered a beautiful speech. After the screening and question-and-answer session, Kalman thanked the mayor for his hospitality. "He looked at me and asked why the international press, the United States and other Western nations are turning against Hungary and blaming us for all the Jewish and gypsy issues," Kalman says with a tone of sadness in his voice. "He asked, 'Don't they kill Negroes in America?'" 

Kalman also showed the documentary at several American Corners, which are American cultural centers sponsored by the US Department of State. There are 400 Americans Corners in 60 countries, including five in Hungary.

Kalman presented There Was Once... at a conference for Holocaust teachers, including  Gyongyi Mago. "Hundreds of teachers from around the country were invited to the conference, with travel, hotel and other costs covered," Kalman says. "I wondered why only about 100 teachers showed up. Someone told me many teachers were afraid and others were not allowed to come, per their principals. I asked teachers what students are taught about the Holocaust. To my great surprise and dismay, I discovered that just a few hours in the curriculum are dedicated to teaching students about the Holocaust."

Gabor Kalman (left) with Holocaust survivor in Pecs, Hungary. 

After the screening and discussion that followed, every teacher who attended the conference was given a DVD of There Was Once.... by the US Embassy. "I don't know if they are showing the documentary to students or  if they threw the DVDs in the trash," Kalman says. "The right wing was always hanging over us. It was a very palpable feeling throughout my stay in Hungary. The prime minister recently said that he has had it with liberal democracies, which he described as a failing system."

 "I believe that one person can make a difference, like Gyongyi Mago in her various activities," Kalman maintains. "I might not have changed everyone's mind, but I am hoping that we gave some students, teachers and other people something to think about." 

Bob Fisher has written more than 2,500 articles about narrative and documentary filmmakers over the past 50 years.