Hungarian-Jewish author, novelist, journalist and psychological researcher was a long-serving member of PEN, a founding member of the Writers in Exile Centre and a pivotal figure during the early years of the Cold War.
Born in Budapest in 1908, Tabori received his Ph.D. in Economic and Political Science from Kaiser Wilhelm university in Berlin and between the wars worked across Europe as a foreign correspondent and screenwriter.
Tabori’s father died in Auschwitz in 1944 but the young man and his mother managed to escape Budapest, eventually arriving in London in 1938.
There he immediately became involved with English PEN, working with Storm Jameson and Hermon Ould on the PEN Refugee Fund, he also offered advice and support with publishing for refugees living in Britain.He even helped to found the Hungarian PEN Centre in 1946.
Due to his experiences in Hungary, Tabori foresaw the issues PEN International would contend with in the postwar world in 1949 and wrote presciently to the organisation asking: ‘I wonder how long the International P.E.N. will be able to avoid facing the situation of the Centres behind the Iron Curtain.’ He acknowledged the desire by PEN to keep its existence ‘for as long as possible in the totalitarian countries. But the fact is – and you must know it just as clearly as I do – that none of these Centres are true to the PEN Charter; that they endorse the violations of the basic liberties by their Governments and thereby lend the prestige of PEN to the suppression of free speech and free thought.’ He concluded that ‘We can, like Pollyanna, hope for the best and take a rosie view; but I am not sure whether we do not owe it to ourselves to bring it into the open.’
History was soon to bear this out, placing Tabori at the centre of PEN’s Cold War wranglings.
In 1956 he was integral to managing the organisation’s response to the Hungarian Revolution and its aftermath in which more than 1,500 Hungarians were killed as the Soviet government tried to quell the dissent. He helped to set up and organise a fund for Hungarian refugee writers arriving in Britain and even assisted them in finding writing work. He also organised and coordinated parcels and financial assistance for Hungarian refugees living elsewhere writing in 1959 in support of one Hungarian writer living in Austria ‘a talented poet and journalist, [who had] to hock [sic] his typewriter to eat.’
During this time, he was an outspoken critic of the Hungarian PEN Centre who he suspected of colluding with the oppressive Soviet regime. In 1956 he spearheaded a resolution at the Tokyo Congress accusing the Centre of being in breach of PEN’s charter and calling for the it to be suspended. In his speech in support of the Resolution, Tabori made reference to the expulsion of the German Centre in 1933, invoking the spirit of H.G. Wells as he urged that ‘the Hungarian PEN made no protest [on the murder of Endre Havas] – no record exists of their having voiced the smallest protest against the mass-arrests, torture and murders of scores of Hungarian writers and intellectuals.’
The Hungarian Centre – who had refused to attend – sent a telegram accusing Tabori and others of being ‘hostile to our country’. The organisation was divided, with Centres based in Communist or sympathetic countries voting against the suspension and the rest voting for. Without a 2/3 majority required to suspend a Centre, the resolution was defeated.
The Executive, in an effort to bridge the divide between Centres – those in Communist countries supporting the Hungarians, those in the West supporting the suspension – eventually arranged to have a ‘Committee of Five’ senior PEN Members from both sides of the Iron Curtain, who would investigate the allegations and decide on suspension. They eventually voted to suspend the Centre, though this remained under continuous review.
The Centre was readmitted on 22ndJuly 1959 at the Frankfurt Congress, after years of close monitoring by the so-called Committee of Five, who pronounced themselves satisfied that the Hungarian Centre’s efforts. Tabori’s voice is absent at the Congress, but the Hungarian writer George Paloczi-Horvath, representing the writers in Exile Centre, was broadly supportive of the move, provided the Centre re-doubled its protests to the Hungarian government over the cases of imprisoned writers.
Tabori remained active in the organisation and in the Writers in Exile Centre, though he was also a member of English PEN, until his death in 1974.