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E.M. Jellinek’s Departure from Budapest in 1920, Part Two

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

Part One of this post may be found here.

László Frank(1) described a chance encounter with Jellinek on the streets of Berlin in 1930, 10 years after Jellinek’s disappearance from Budapest.  He, wrote Frank, looked like “a skinny, brown-haired, middle-aged man.”  Jellinek told Frank that he did not live in Berlin but was just visiting.  Frank asked, in effect, if Jellinek’s visit exposed him to the risk of arrest.  Jellinek replied that his lawyer assured him that a ten-year statute of limitations since the arrest warrant’s issue had expired.

Frank and Jellinek retired to a coffee shop, where the following conversation occurred:

F:  Did you really cross the Tisza back then? J:  Indeed.  I survived a horrible three-quarters of an hour.  Thunder, lightning, showers.  At any moment, the boat could have capsized.  From the other side of the Tisza, the Serbian border guard was shooting at us, the bullets flying over our heads.  The current brought us south of Szeged, where we reached the riverbank. F:  And then? J:  I had to pay a considerable amount of the money on me in order to satisfy the smuggler who brought us across. He cursed, threatened … and rightly so.  He also risked his life. F:  Were you really in Kolozsvár [Romania]? J:  I went there … but I don’t really want to talk about my escape.  I only spent a few days in Romania, and then I escaped to Yugoslavia, and I traveled to Italy from the Dalmatian coast.  From there to New York … and then South America. F:  And now you came here to visit Berlin from there. J:  Yes. In Grunewald, here in West Berlin, I bought a villa for my parents.  They live here.  I’m visiting them … finally … But a few days later I return to South America. F:  And there, in South America, where do you live?  Or is it a secret? J:  It’s not like that anymore.  But I still don’t want them to know in Budapest. F:  And what do you do? J:  I’m on a coffee farm.  I’m an extraordinary farmer … but I’m also continuing with my ethnological studies.  Not long ago, a book of mine on Indian folk customs was published. F:  Of course, under another name … J:  Ördögöd van!  I’ve broken with my past.  If you meet any acquaintances, tell them that there is no Morton Jellinek … he died.

Rosalind Jacobsen Jellinek, E.M. Jellinek's mother, a famous soprano in America and Europe under the stage name Marcella Lindh

It goes without saying, of course, that seemingly verbatim renderings of a conversation that may have taken place more than 30 years before it was transcribed should not be entirely relied upon.  Yet, there are interesting items of would-be new biographical information in Frank’s account:

  1.  Jellinek’s mention of a 10-year statute of limitations may help explain why, in May of 1931, he ended his African and Central American sojourns, returned to the U.S., and commenced an appointment at Worcester State Hospital.

  2.   Also notable is that Frank’s account has Jellinek going to New York and then “South America” [perhaps “Central America”?].  There’s no mention of Jellinek’s five years in Sierra Leone.

  3.   That Jellinek “bought a villa” for his parents in Berlin suggests, of course, that he did manage to secure a not inconsiderable sum from his caper in Budapest 10 years earlier.

  4.   Jellinek’s work on a coffee farm represents possible new biographical information — presumably this was an Honduran coffee farm.  Previously, and according to daughter Ruth Surry’s memo,(2) Jellinek worked for the United Fruit Company in Honduras.  Then again, Jellinek may have merely been deepening his cover with Frank with a little occupational and geographical misdirection.

  5.   Jellinek’s then-recently published book on Indian customs may further vouchsafe his enduring interest in ethnography.  (What might have been the title of that book and the pseudonym Jellinek published it under?)

  6.   Jellinek’s declaration that the old Morton Jellinek was “dead” suggests of course that he regarded himself as having undergone a life-changing metamorphosis.

Then again, all of the above points are footed in the soft sand of a long-past conversation.  Big questions remain about Jellinek’s life and times in the 1920s, including:

  1. What were the circumstances and motives surrounding his Budapest caper?

  2. What was he doing in Sierra Leone in the first half of the 1920s and with the Elder-Dempster steamship company?

  3. What was he doing in the second half of the 1920s with either the coffee farm or the United Fruit Company in Honduras (or “South America”)?

  4.   What sort of ethnographic work did Jellinek produce in this decade?

Jellinek’s life story is certainly going to be a bonanza for his biographer — whom, I hope, will one day come along.


(1)  László Frank, Sélhámosok ü Kalandorok,Budapest: Goldolat, 1966.  This work’s chapter on Jellinek was unearthed and translated by Michael Miller, for which I am very grateful.

(2)  Surry, Ruth, Memo to R. Brinkley Smithers, in: Christopher D. Smithers Foundation Files, Mill Neck, NY, 1965.  (I thank Penny Booth Page for providing a copy of this document.)



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