The very sound of my great-grandfather's name brings a smile to my face.
In Hungarian, last names go first, so although Bela was his first name, he has always been Hatschek Bela to me -- all one name -- a legendary figure in our family, a celebrated forebear about whom my mother and grandmother told stories.
He was famous for being the first man in Hungary to own a car, and my grandmother kept a clipping from the Royal Hungarian Automobile Society with a picture of him seated at the controls of his Benz with a little girl on the rear rumble seat. Beneath the photo was the caption in Hungarian, German and French, proclaiming "Hatsek Bela le premier automobiliste Hongrois sur son voiture Benz en 1895."
The picture always fascinated me. My great-grandfather sits at the control of his open-air Benz looking, with his dark beard and mustache, like Sigmund Freud, smoking a cigar and wearing his homburg tilted at a rakish angle, as well as a suit -- perfectly tailored to show his starched white cuffs. I also loved looking at the little girl sitting at the rear of the vehicle, gazing at the camera like a little doll in her pinafore and large hat -- that was my grandmother, Adrienne, whom I only knew as an old woman.
Hatschek Bela had a Benz before Mercedes did. That was way cool.
My grandmother and mother used to tell stories about Hatschek Bela. From their stories, I took him to be debonair, slightly eccentric, with a healthy sense of humor.
Regarding the famous Benz, the story told in our family is that, one day, Hatschek Bela left on a trip. He disappeared for a few weeks, without anyone really knowing why or where he was going. When he returned, he did so with the vehicle -- transported on a train in its own car. But wait -- there's more: Hatschek did not return alone. He brought back a mechanic from Germany, as well, to care for it.
The car was a curiosity in Budapest. The most famous apocryphal story about Hatschek Bela and the car involves no less grand a personage than Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph. As the story goes, the emperor was visiting Budapest. He was standing on a balcony reviewing a parade when he heard a loud explosion -- he hit the deck, fearing it was an assassination attempt. But someone said, "Don't worry, that's just Hatschek Bela in his car."
I once tried to research this story. All that I could confirm was that the Emperor Franz Joseph did visit Budapest as part of the 1896 celebration of 1,000 years of Hungary's nationhood. However, it does seem possible that the emperor would be reviewing crowds, and that there would be a parade, and that the car would be shown off in some fashion.
Apocryphal or not, Hatschek and the emperor remain a good story, and who knows, it might even be true.
Hatschek Bela died when my mother was just a child. But she remembered him as handsome, always well dressed. And he was vain. He was interested in new inventions. He was fond of having family portraits taken -- there is a story that he gave one to my grandmother. Inscribed on the back, it said: Who are these people?
My grandmother, Adrienne Hatschek Saar Morvai Bogner (she married several times), was the family archivist. She kept a leather portfolio filled with yellowing documents that held the birth, marriage and death records of her family. When she died, it passed to my mother, who really wasn't all that interested. But I was. So the portfolio came into my possession.
Here's where my research began. One day, several years ago, I sat down to sort through the documents that charted our family tree. From the crumbling yellow pages with handwritten entries, the story of my family emerged.
I learned that Hatschek Bela was born Oct. 25, 1858, in Budapest, the son of Max (Miksa) Hatschek and Julia Boscovitz Hatschek. His father, Max, was a medical doctor, an optician. They lived at 13, Palatinus, in Pest -- an address in the center of the city.
On July 4, 1886, a 28-year-old Hatschek, who by then had become an optician like his father, was married to Gizella Back. She was just 17, according the marriage certificate, the daughter of Fulop Back and Jeannette Reitzer Back. They were married at the Dohány Temple in Budapest (Budapest's largest temple, akin to Temple Emmanuel in New York, or Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles).
My mother always claimed that her great-grandfather, Fulop Back, had been rashe kol (head of the Jewish community in Budapest), and that he was a great rabbi. However, when I visited the Jewish Community Center in 2003, a list of Budapest's rashim kol does not include a Fulop Back. Furthermore, on Hatschek Bela's wedding certificate Fulop Back is listed as a merchant.
I found two possible explanations: The list of rashim kol in Budapest's Jewish Community Center does list a Jozef Boscovitz, who was president of the Jewish community between 1851 and 1858. As Hatschek Bela's mother's maiden name was Boscovitz, perhaps her father was rashe kol and my mother got the sides of the family wrong.
Another is that Fulop was related to Joseph Bach (1784-1866), an important Talmud teacher from Old Buda. He was the first preacher of the Jewish community of Pest, and the first to preach sermons in German rather than Yiddish.
In any event, this was the marriage of two members of Budapest's rising Jewish middle class. The evidence is that Dr. Mayer Kayserling married them at the Dohány Temple.
"Jewish Budapest: Monuments, Rites, History" (Central European University Press, 1999), explains that the Dohány Temple, which had been consecrated in 1859, a year after Hatschek's birth, was symbolic of the rise and self-importance of Pest's Jewish community and their intention to be fully integrated members of the Hungarian nation. The Dohány is a magnificent Moorish-style edifice that can hold 3,000 visitors, where Budapest's version of Reform Judaism, called Neolog, was observed. Although the Dohány had a rabbi, Samuel Kohn, who delivered sermons in Hungarian, they also had Kayserling, who joined the temple in 1879 and was a German Jewish scholar. As subjects of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the majority of the congregation still preferred their sermons in German. Kayserling remained with the Dohány until his death in 1905 -- long enough to see Hatschek Bela in his automobile.
The documents reveal that both Bela and his father, Max, were opticians, a fact that intrigued me. Turning again to "Jewish Budapest," I learned that one of the important early prominent figures in Budapest's Jewish history is Ignac Hirschler (1823-1891), a famous ophthalmologist. He was elected president of the Hungarian Jewish Congress in 1868-1869, was a member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, as well as a member of Hungary's Upper House of Government and president of the Jewish community.What direct or indirect influence Hirschler had on the Hatschek family is not known. But I wonder if it is just a coincidence that Max and Bela were opticians, too? Could they be related? Could Hatschek be a Hungarian (Magyarized) version of Hirschler? These are all questions I hope to further research one day.
Regardless, Hatschek Bela was not an eye doctor as much as a businessman. His stationery, a copy of which was sent to me by Hungarian journalist Pal Negyesi, indicates that he owned the "first Hungarian glass eye factory."
Although this may sound a bit odd today, eye injuries and lost eyes were much more common in the age of the sword fight, particularly before eye surgery and repair became more sophisticated. It was also an enterprise in which artistry was valued.
My mother recalled being taken to her grandfather's factory, which her Uncle Hugo ran. A sign with a giant eye hung outside, and my mother recalls finding it frightening -- and memorable.
I also discovered that Hatschek Bela, or at least his factory, also made ocular equipment, such as binoculars. About three years ago, I received an e-mail out of the blue from a man who had purchased a pair on eBay. Upon Googling "Hatschek Bela" he had come across an article I had written and e-mailed me to ask for further details.
While writing this article, I decided to e-mail the man, and ask if he would consider selling me the binoculars. I can report that I am now the proud owner of a pair of World War I-era binoculars. They work, and they came with leather case lined with red silk. Stamped on the case's cover in bold gold letters is "Hatschek Bela," along with the address of his company store, located at 2 Vaci Utca (Budapest's most elegant shopping street -- akin to Rodeo Drive or Fifth Avenue).
Hatschek Bela died on Oct. 23, 1922 (his wife, Gizella Hatschek, died five years later). He had two children, Adrienne (my grandmother), born in 1892, and Hugo, born in 1895. He lived long enough to see Adrienne appear on stage, see her marry and to see his grandchild, Eva (my mother). He lived long enough to see Hugo become an optician and to know that his son would carry on his business. Adrienne lived in the family home and factory at 4 Munkas St. until her own marriage in 1915; Hugo continued to live there until it was taken over by the German SS in 1944.
In 2003, when I visited Budapest, I discovered that -- in the records of the Jewish Community Center at 12 Sip Utca -- Hatschek Bela and Gizella are listed as having been buried at the Kozma Street Jewish cemetery. However, when I visited the cemetery, I could not find their graves. Someone suggested that perhaps someone else had been buried above them. That, too, is a mystery I hope to solve one day (I did find Hugo's grave in the Kozma Street cemetery).
At the same time, I also discovered that my great-great-grandmother, Jeannette Reitzer, Hatschek's mother-in-law, was born in 1849 in Altofen (Old Buda) and died in 1891 in Budapest. Like Dr. Kayserling and other members of the 19th century Budapest bourgeoisie, she is buried in the Salgótarjáni Utca Cemetery. When I visited the cemetery in 2003, I found her grave marker -- a striking black obelisk.
To be able to trace my family's roots in Budapest back to 1849 was very meaningful. To imagine where their lives played out across centuries, to walk down those streets, to see buildings and synagogues and to be able to say my family walked these streets, my family members lived here, they were married in this place and buried here, it gives one a feeling that is larger than one's self -- a connection between present and past, a feeling of history.
As for Hatschek Bela owning Hungary's first automobile, Pal Negyesi, a Hungarian freelance journalist who writes about automobile history, published an article in 2007 that tried to find a definitive answer to who had the first car in history. He could not confirm anything.
As part of my own research, I e-mailed the picture of my great-grandfather in the Benz to Mercedes' own historians in Germany. They confirmed that it was a 1894 "Velo."
According to their records, in 1894 Benz launched the Velociped model -- nicknamed Velo -- a light vehicle that takes its place in history as the first small car and the first series-automobile in the world. The Velo had an engine that produced 1.5 horsepower at 450 revolutions per minute (according to their records, the engine's performance could be improved to 3.5 horsepower at 800 revolutions per minute). The Velo cost 2,000 marks in 1894.
However, Mercedes had no records of Hatschek Bela purchasing a Velo. Their records do indicate that in 1896, a year after the picture was taken, a Benz No. 375 was delivered to Hungary. No recipient is listed.
However, as our family lore has it, Hatschek traveled out of the country and returned with the car. Negyesi in his research turns up newspaper accounts from 1921 and 1967 anointing Hatschek as the first Hungarian automobilist, stating that "Hatschek learnt to drive a bit in Mannheim, Germany and Benz dispatched a ' driver' to Budapest, in order to help Hatschek learn how to properly drive and maintain his car."
This sounds very close to what I heard as a child and also leaves open the possibility that Hatschek purchased his car abroad from a dealer or a private party and then brought it home.One can certainly question who had the first car, but there is no doubt that Hatschek owned a Benz Velo, and that alone was a pretty remarkable occurrence at that time for anyone -- but certainly for a Jewish citizen of Hungary (although who knows, he may have been dismissed by some as just another of the "nouveau riche" Jewish merchants corrupting Hungary with new ideas).
For me, I look at the picture of Hatschek Bela sitting in his Benz, his calm authority, his debonair charm, his comfort in being modern, his style, and imagine all that as part of my DNA.
Then, as if by magic, it happens again: I start to smile.
Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he's an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears every other week.