By Robert Waterhouse


The origins of this website, of the book THEIR SAFE HAVEN, and of the exhibitions planned to accompany the book, can be traced back to an event marking a moment, during April 1943 and in the middle of the Second World War, when the London-based Hungarian Club, a meeting place for Hungarians in Britain, moved to new premises. Charles Rosner, graphic designer, publisher and art critic, was asked to put together an exhibition of graphics for the occasion. He chose, along with any well-known name he could get hold of, some 14 Hungarian artists who had, like him, made their homes and lives in Britain before the war. These artists, listed below and celebrated on this site, all became British citizens - apart from George Buday, whose treatment at the hands

of MI5 and the Home Office is spelt out here. For the others, Britain proved to be a safe haven, despite humiliating treatment as ‘aliens’ and then ‘enemy aliens’ as the war unfolded and Hungary formally allied with Hitler. For Imre Goth this meant internment for a few months on the Isle of Man; for Istvan Szegedi-Szuts and his British wife Gwyneth it meant being ordered to leave their coastal home in Cornwall and camp out in a Malvern boarding house; for everyone it meant restrictions on movement and daily reporting to the authorities. But compared with those transported to Canada and Australia in dire conditions, some of whom lost their lives to German torpedoes, their lot was a lucky one.

The Hungaro-Brits artists at the London exhibition

The artists (click on names to read biographies) are:

Joseph Bato - painter, illustrator, movie art director Klara Biller - illustrator of posters and children’s books Val Biro - graphic designer, illustrator, children’s book author George Buday -  painter, book illustrator, arts organiser Imre Goth - painter

Imre Hofbauer - book illustrator, author Peter Lambda - sculptor, scriptwriter Lili Markus - ceramist, tapestry maker George Mayer-Marton - painter, muralist, teacher, poet Henry Ripszam - painter, illustrator

Charles Rosnergraphic designer, publisher, arts organiserJean-Georges Simon - painter, teacher Istvan Szegedi-Szuts - painter, illustrator, author Paul Vincze - medallist Akos Zsoter - painter

Hungary’s contribution to British visual culture

THEIR SAFE HAVEN is recognised as a unique source book for the generation of Hungarian-British artists who made their mark during and after the Second World War. They weren’t household names and didn’t belong to any one particular school, yet brought creative verve to a wide spectrum of disciplines. As Sarah MacDougall, director of the Ben Uri Gallery & Museum, writes, the book “brings the artists’ experiences vividly to life…and in doing so pays justice to the distinct and memorable Hungarian contribution to British visual culture.” In the Times Literary Supplement of December 7 2018 Shauna Isaacs wrote “Robert Waterhouse fastidiously researches the artists, unearthing forgotten books, journals and archives…The book is full of striking illustrations, depicting anything from expressive self-portraits to the anxiety permeating London during the Blitz.” THEIR SAFE HAVEN was the theme of an exhibition programmed at the Mercer Art Gallery, Harrogate, due to run from September 2018 (when the book was published) until January 2019, but postponed because of a funding shortage. Recast to run

from April-August 2020, it was in advanced preparation when Covid-19 closed the gallery in March 2020. The exhibition did not take place. However, further work by individual artists has been published as Baquis Little Books (see below). More titles in the Baquis Little Books series are planned for 2022. THEIR SAFE HAVEN is part of the Insiders/Outsiders Festival, created in 2019 by the art historian Monica Bohm-Duchen to mark the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War and to salute the lasting contribution of artists fleeing events on the Continent to British life and culture. The festival has continued throughout the pandemic via online events, including presentations during March 2021 of George Mayer-Marton’s Murals & mosaics and Henry Ripszam’s Habima, both published by Baquis Press.

Stories of exploring, adapting, hoping: three critiques

Publication of the book THEIR SAFE HAVEN in September 2018 tallied with renewed interest in émigré culture. Unsolicited articles by three commentators on the book and the history it uncovered open up a series of issues, perhaps as important today as ever. Click here to read the complete articles.

Nora Veszpremi

... who lectures in art history at Birmingham University, notes that the lives described are as interesting for the skills and customs the artists bring to Britain, along with their memories of people, places, tastes and smells, as they are for way they adapt to new circumstances, an assimilation process speeded up by husbands, wives and children as well as their many friends and acquaintances. Dr Veszpremi writes that the process of considering factors in the success of émigré artists (in THEIR SAFE HAVEN) “might make us question what we mean by success in the first place. No, many of its stories are not success stories in the usual sense. But they are

profession, their property – to make difficult, sometimes dangerous, journeys to escape persecution, even death – all in the hope that they might find somewhere to live and begin again, even if, as in the case of Grete Mayer-Marton, it was to begin work as a domestic cleaner. They found themselves swaddled in Britain’s bureaucratic papier-mâché, a layering of restrictions that were at least not lethal. Though wartime movements were restricted, they were otherwise free. The alternative they had fled was a concentration camp so, though they now had nothing, they were grateful. They remained grateful. They repaid any debt we may have thought they had.”

Russel James

Crime writer and novelist, in a review originally offered to the Times Literary Supplement (which didn’t print it) is very upfront about one of today’s big questions: what have immigrants ever done for Britain?  “The suspicion of foreigners is a continual presence in this entertaining and generously illustrated book, for which Waterhouse has uncovered many first-hand testimonies by the artists themselves and those who knew them. They had sacrificed all they had – their profession, their property a scroll headed with the word

‘Veritas’, ‘Truth’. It’s a scene out of nightmare, and yet for many it was all too real.”In his article about Imre Barcs, Richards notes that Buday’s work “is a rich seam for a book collector to follow. As indeed is much else described in THEIR SAFE HAVEN, which stands alongside Anna Nyburg’s Émigrés as a significant contribution to émigré studies in the book arts, drawing attention to important illustrators and publishers who have been mostly overlooked.”

Michael Richards

Australian letterpress printer and writer, came across a bookplate by George Buday for Imre Barcs, a fellow Hungarian who had also fled his native country before the Second World War and had made his way as a journalist in Sydney. Richards describes the bookplate in these words: “A bully wearing the insignia of the Hungarian fascist Arrow Cross party of the 1930s has a young journalist by the throat. An overturned inkwell bleeds ink besides a scroll headed with the word ‘Veritas’, ‘Truth’. It’s a scene out of nightmare, and yet for many it was all too real.”

In his article about Imre Barcs, Richards notes that Buday’s work “is a rich seam for a book collector to follow. As indeed is much else described in THEIR SAFE HAVEN, which stands alongside Anna Nyburg’s Émigrés as a significant contribution to émigré studies in the book arts, drawing attention to important illustrators and publishers who have been mostly overlooked.”

George Buday’s cautionary life 

George Buday’s British experiences, spelt out in a special section of this website, form a cautionary story about how easily a safe haven can turn into hell on earth. Luckily for him, although stateless and suffering from mental trauma, he found refuge in a compassionate South London psychiatric hospital, where he lived and worked from 1956 until his death in 1990. Today’s refugees, in Britain or in Hungary, are unlikely to be offered such a sympathetic backstop. The

artists who came to Britain in the 1930s departed their homeland for a variety of reasons. The majority were Jewish, leaving behind close relatives who were increasingly at risk. The disaster of the Hungarian holocaust is spelt out below. But, first, a look at why the twentieth century was so tough for Hungary, and why creative people were driven to emigrate. 

Treaty of Trianon: Hungary dismembered

Hungary ended the First World War in defeat and humiliation. Well before the Treaty of Trianon, signed on June 4 1920 at Versailles’ Grand Trianon Palace under terms dictated by the victorious Allies, Hungary had lost much of the territory it controlled as part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, dissolved on October 31 1918.  In a spontaneous Balkanisation, countries surrounding historic Hungary - notably Romania, Slovakia and what became Yugoslavia – repossessed land they claimed to be their birth right, leaving millions of ethnic Hungarians stranded as minority populations throughout Central and Eastern Europe, from Slovenia to the Black Sea. Trianon formalised the process: the Kingdom of Hungary was stripped of nearly three quarters of its landmass, its population just 7.6 million mobilised, 660,000 were killed. compared with 

20.9 million in 1914. Its predominantly rural economy was detached from nearby markets. Budapest, twin star with Vienna in Empire days, was marooned as an outsize capital of a rump state. Hungary was also ordered to pay reparations to its neighbours. Allied treatment of Hungary, pushed along by France’s Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau, was more draconian than that meted out to Austria or even Germany. The aim was to ensure Budapest never posed a military threat again, but the vindictive way Hungary was dismembered tended to turn Magyars in on themselves both inside and beyond the new national borders.

Artist birthplaces dot Central Europe

Artist birthplaces illustrate the way Hungarians were, before 1914, spread around Central Europe around the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Klara Biller was born Klara Szanto in 1910 at Pressburg, now Bratislava, Slovakia, where her father was city architect. Lili Markus was born Lili Elek in 1900 at Eszek, now Osijek, Croatia, where her father was a forest manager. George Buday was born in 1907 at Kolosvar, now Clun, Romania, to an academic family. Jean-Georges Simon was born in 1894 in Trieste, then a major Austrian port, since returned to Italy. His father was a businessman and diplomat. Seven of the artists in the 1943 exhibition had served as conscripts in the First World War. They were lucky to survive given that, of the 3.8 million troops Hungary Henry Ripszam and Akos

Zsoter, both held prisoner by Russia in Siberia until 1919, slowly found their way back to Hungary.  On return to Budapest there was little to hold ambitious artists. Istvan Szegedi-Szuts stayed in Hungary with a teaching post at Csongrad, near Szeged, but Imre Goth and Joseph Bato went to Berlin, George Mayer-Marton moved to Vienna, Imre Hofbauer to Prague while Jean-Georges Simon set out on an odyssey which would take him to Italy, Switzerland, France and Belgium before, like the others, he found his way to Britain.

Political turmoil and the rise of fascism

Hungarian political turmoil in the aftermath of the war saw first a liberal coalition led by Count Mihaly Karoli which, less than five months later in March 1919, gave way to a self-proclaimed Soviet Republic under Bela Kun, which itself lasted just 133 days, brought to an end by the defeat of the Hungarian Red Army at the hands of Romania. Filling the hiatus, the strongman Admiral Miklos Horthy took over, eventually becoming Regent. So-called White Terror retribution for the brief Soviet Republic left perhaps 1,500 dead. Horthy’s right-wing government, elected on March 1 1920, set

Hungary on an irredentist course which would embrace the rise of fascism. The revised Kingdom of Hungary was landlocked; its roads, railways and waterways often petered out at the new borders. Its agricultural sector remained largely unmechanised and vulnerable to world slump, though manufacturing industry began to pick up again. Hungary’s between-wars society has been characterised as one thousand lords and three million beggars.

Hungary’s Jews: tragedy strikes late in the war

One of the most puzzling questions about Hungary in the period running up to and during the Second World War is why its substantial Jewish population made, as a community, such little attempt to escape from the evident and growing menace of Nazi Germany. Jews, part of Hungary since the nation was founded, were gradually integrated into the nation’s social fabric during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries after long periods of persecution. They played an important role in the Hungarian Revolution of 1848 and achieved emancipation with the rule of Franz Joseph in 1867. The Jewish population of almost one million in 1910 - or about five per cent of the Kingdom of Hungary as part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire - was, by the standards of central Europe, highly assimilated. After New York and Warsaw and slightly ahead of Vienna, Budapest had the largest Jewish population of any city in the world. Almost a quarter of its citizens were Jewish, strongly represented across the professional, business and artistic communities. They were part and parcel of the extraordinary creation that was Budapest on the eve of the First World War. Although the inter-war Horthy regime enacted, from the early 1920s, anti-Semitic laws like “numerus causus”, which limited university entry for Jewish students, and although Hungary finally allied itself with Hitler in April 1941, most Jews felt relatively safe in their home country. Unoccupied Hungary was not a target of Allied bombing. The Jewish community was largely left alone by Horthy, despite further anti-Semitic laws passed in 1938, 1939 and 1941. All this changed tragically in March 1944 when Hitler invaded Hungary without warning. Of an estimated 850,000 Hungarian Jews only 255,000 survived a holocaust organised by Adolf Eichmann and effected via mass transportation to the gas

chambers of Auschwitz, followed by mass killings in Budapest at the hands of Hungarian fascist Arrow Cross militia. Winston Churchill, writing to his foreign secretary Anthony Eden on July 11 1944 (before the spate of Arrow Cross murders), stated: “There is no doubt that this persecution of Jews in Hungary…is the greatest and most horrible crime ever committed in the whole history of the world." One of the major worries for émigrés escaping fascist Hungary was the well-grounded fear of what might happen to those left behind. The 14 artists discussed in THEIR SAFE HAVEN were not spared. The watercolour “Women with Boulders”, part of the Imperial War Museum permanent collection and shown in the museum’s September 2008-August 2009 exhibition “Unspeakable: the artist as witness to the Holocaust”, was made by George Mayer-Marton in 1945 when he learnt of the death of his parents and younger brother in the Hungarian holocaust. Lili Markus also lost her parents, as did Paul Vincze, whose Catholic mother was murdered along with her Jewish husband. Peter Lambda was among the lucky ones, able to bring his parents to Britain after the war. Those who survived the Nazis at home had then to face the victorious Russians, who put an ever-tightening grip on their country, leading to the failed 1956 Uprising. Budapest memorials around a mass grave at the Dohany Street Synagogue, and its Shoes on the Danube Bank sculpture close to the Parliament building, commemorating those shot by Arrow Cross militia at the water’s edge for their bodies to float off downriver, are a lasting reminder of what took place during the 1944-45 holocaust. Those concerned about alleged anti-Semitic sympathies in Viktor Orban’s present government do not have far to look.

Britain’s equivocal role in provoking resistance

Could Britain have done more to prevent this tragedy? Critics note that while the BBC Polish language service broadcast repeated warnings about Nazi death camps from late 1942, the BBC Hungarian language service was strangely silent.In a November 2012 film, BBC Foreign Affairs Correspondent Mike Thompson claimed that wartime British policy had been to foment resistance in Hungary to draw in Germany as an occupying force so that German troops would be tied up there. The

British Political Warfare Executive, which controlled broadcasting, believed that sympathy for the Jewish cause would alienate the wider Hungarian population, assumed to be anti-Semitic. Despite a campaign against this policy by Hungarian exiles, it remained in place until the devastating events of March 1944.