“Hungarian” Nobel Prize winners

This at CT.

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry has been announced for 2004. I started compiling a post about it, but found myself sending emails to my father for clarification. He is an expert on the topic of Nobel Prizes (having written a book about it based on interviews with over 70 Nobel Laureates) so I decided to invite him to write a little blurb here for us. Given his expertise in the topic and the Hungarian connection of one of this year’s laureates, he has spent the last day and a half giving interviews to various media outlets in Hungary. I have edited his post ­ with his permission ­ by shifting some of the science information into a footnote to focus the attention on another component of his note. My father is Professor of Chemistry at the Budapest University of Technology.

Some experiences beyond chemistry of the 2004 Nobel Prize in Chemistry by István Hargittai

On October 6 the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for 2004 was announced. The citation was, “for the discovery of ubiquitin-mediated protein degradation.” The recipients were Aaron Ciechanover (b. 1947 in Israel), a professor of medical sciences at the Technion – the Israel Institute of Technology, Avram Hershko (b. Herskó Ferenc 1937 in Hungary), also a professor of medical sciences at the Technion, and Irwin Rose (b. 1926), an American professor, formerly at the Fox Chase Cancer Research Center in Philadelphia.[1]

There is an interesting side issue with Avram Hershko in that he was born in Karcag, Hungary, and then emigrated with his family in 1950 to Israel. He is one of several scientists of Hungarian origin who became famous and much recognized abroad. There are various counts of Hungarian Nobel laureates, but here is what the Prime Minister of Hungary allegedly said on the day of the chemistry prize announcement: He welcomed the news by referring to Hershko as the fourteenth Hungarian Nobel laureate and stressed that Hershko has kept his Hungarian name and language.


Recently, it has been generally recognized that most of those who used to be counted as Hungarian Nobel laureates should be more subtly labelled as Nobel laureates of Hungarian origin. Of all those who might be considered, only two actually travelled from Budapest to Stockholm to receive the award. In 1937, Albert Szent-Györgyi travelled from Budapest to Stockholm to receive his medical Nobel Prize (for Vitamin C, etc.) and in 2002, the writer Imre Kertész travelled from Budapest to Stockholm to receive the prize in literature for his book, Fateless, which was based on his experience in the Holocaust. All other laureates had long before their prize left Hungary, either they were forced out of the country or they realized that there was no future for them in Hungary.

Ironically, when Kertész was awarded, a vocal part of the population complained about his Jewishness, and expressed severe doubts whether his Nobel Prize could be considered a Hungarian Nobel Prize. With this it was demonstrated – if there was any doubt – that Jewish scientists and authors might have been justified to leave.

An objective and non-Jewish author who looked into the origins of what are considered Hungarian Nobel laureates determined that roughly about two thirds of them were of Jewish origin. This is a much higher proportion than the otherwise also considerable Jewish share of the Nobel laureates in toto, which is about one fifth.

Before continuing, I would like to stress that I do not see much value in trying to treat these categories rigorously, but they are of interest in showing some trends. The point I am trying to make is that Hungary much appreciates its Nobel laureates after they become Nobel laureates. What I find disturbing is that in such cases people attempt to paint the past rosier than it was. For example I have now, having been interviewed several times in the past day and a half, personally experienced how editors try to edit out details from Hershko’s past that refer to the less-than-glorious treatment of the Hershko family during the Fascist and Nazi times. If it were up to official Hungary of the late 1930s and early 1940s, Hershko and his family should have perished in Auschwitz. His father was sent to a so-called forced labor camp and he survived because early on he was captured by the Russians and, after another forced labor stint, he could return to Hungary in 1947. The rest of the Hershko family, Hershko’s mother and his brother and himself were taken to a ghetto first in their home town in Karcag, then to a larger concentration in Szolnok, in central Hungary. Most of these people were then put into cattle carriages under the most inhuman conditions and sent to Auschwitz. A few trainloads, however, ended up in Austria as a result of a deal between the Germans and a group of Hungarian Jewish leaders (behind the back of the Hungarian authorities). The Hershko family was among the lucky ones and were sent to a distribution camp of Strasshof near Vienna. [Eszter's note: this is the same story of how my family survived, my father and the rest of my family who were still alive then were in this same situation.] About eighteen thousand Jews were thus “put on ice” in Austria and used as slave laborers until the end of the war while hundreds of thousands of other Hungarian Jews perished in Auschwitz and elsewhere. It was a miracle that Hershko and his family could return to Karcag. When they did, they found their former home empty, whatever could be taken from their home had been taken by their fellow citizens of Karcag, and nothing was returned to them voluntarily when they came back. These are details that editors edit out from descriptions of Hershko’s life in Hungary. His father used to teach in the Jewish school of Karcag. After the war, there were hardly people to teach there; they soon moved to Budapest, and in 1950 to Israel. Hershko changed his first name in Israel and he never used his Hungarian language again except for communicating with his parents. He did not visit Hungary until after the political changes in 1990 and when he did, he was taken aback by the return of many external features of pre-war Hungary which in his thoughts were associated with unpleasant things to remember.

Hershko does not like Hungary but does not hate Hungary either. He was pleased when Hungary’s Prime Minister called and congratulated him. He does not follow all what is being printed about him in the Hungarian media so he cannot be upset by the attempts of editors re-writing the past which Hungary still has not been able to face with honor.

Who wrote this?

I am Eszter’s father and this is based on my conversations with Avram Hershko and what I have experienced during the past one and half days in Budapest. Concerning the deportations of Jews from Hungary, their return (that of the few lucky survivors), and about present-day anti-Semitism in Hungary, see my book I. Hargittai, Our Lives: Encounters of a Scientist. Akadémiai Kiadó, Budapest, 2004.

fn1. Ubiqitin is a relatively small protein, which is instrumental in protein degradation. Our organism consists to a large extent of proteins. However, when some proteins are no longer needed, they have to be destroyed. There are illnesses that produce unwanted proteins and they have to be destroyed as well. This implies the potentials of medical applications of the discovery of these scientists, who understood the mechanism of action of ubiquitin. The breakthrough happened in 1979 and was communicated in a paper published in 1980. Hershko had started the work almost a decade before; Ciechanover was initially his doctoral student; Rose was a recognized researcher of enzymes when he and Hershko met and Hersho and Ciechanover spent some time in Rose’s laboratory in Philadelphia. Although most of the work then and since has been carried out at the Technion, the culmination of their research at that time happened in Rose’s laboratory with Rose’s participation.

2 Responses to ““Hungarian” Nobel Prize winners”

  1. Frederick Sweet Says:

    I am grateful to István Hargittai for his recent historical account of our friend Avram Heshko. Most summers, my wife Marika and I spend some time with Judy and Avram at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, MA where Avram works with his graduate students on sea life. Marika and I have a long history with Hungary — each of our parents and their several generations before them having been born there. Avram is an exceptionally kind and gentle man, and so I am grateful that, as Prof. Hargittai had written: “He does not follow all what is being printed about him in the Hungarian media so he cannot be upset by the attempts of editors re-writing the past which Hungary still has not been able to face with honor.” Since 1977, Marika and I have worked in Hungary as American scholars. Hopefully, some day we can meet Prof. Hargittai in Budapest. Meanwhile, I look forward to reading his “OUR LIVES – ENCOUNTERS OF A SCIENTIST”

  2. jaimito Says:

    Hargittai úr, You are far too kind. Karcag is a stonethrow distance from my own village in the JászKúnság. Jews were deported in August 1944 when everybody knew that the Polish Jewry was no more, and that the same fate was being prepared for Hungarian Jews in Auschwitz. My father told me how they begged local authorities and local churches help them avoid the getto and deportation, no Hungarian helped. There are no Jews today in that region, maybe one or two who are not Jews strictu sensu but hated as such. WE have no ambivalent feelings toward our fellow Hungarians. We hate them at least as much as they hate us.