Who is Who in Central & East Europe 1933

Home, Overview, Introduction

Histories and Reflections

In 1985, I found a copy of "Who's Who in Central & East Europe"1) in a used book store - "Beyoglu Kitapcilik Ltd." - near the Galanta Tower in Istanbul. It was inscribed, "Dr. S. Schmidt, Istanbul, Turkey" and was published in 1935 (current through 1934) in the English language along with an accompanying volume entitled, "Handbook of Central & East Europe". A revised version (1935-36) with an additional one hundred biographies was published in 1937. These editions were the first and last biographical dictionaries to be published concerning this region exclusively until “Who's Who in the Socialist Countries of Europe"2) was published in 1989.

The "Who's Who" is a twentieth century genre, which gives "brief, pertinent facts about many persons (generally those living at the time of the compilation of the dictionary), in alphabetical arrangement. Not only has it covered nations and geographical area, it has also delved into every concievably human activity, vocational and social."3) The antecedent of the "Who's Who" is the biographical dictionary or compiliation which seems to have played a greater role in the Islamic (Medieval Arabic and Persian literature) and ancient Chinese (biographical sections of Chinese dynastic histories) civilizations than it has within the Christian tradition. The European Biographical Dictionary came into it's own during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, reaching a peak in the publication of National Biographical Dictionaries during the development of Nationalism.

"Who's Who in Central & East Europe", as is generally the case within its genre, is a general biographical reference book with a rather straightforward organization of factual material. The alphabetically arranged biographies are themselves divided into categories such as Name, Address, Birthplace, Birthdate, Married to, Ancestors, Education, Publications, and so on. Yet under this structure lie buried layers of information not usually found in contemporary reference works of this type: revelations of a personal nature, intimate details, traces of desires and fears, life concepts and philosophies as well as references to major historical events. Though the majority of these entries are written in the second person singular, it is apparent that most were composed by the individuals themselves.

As I first began to turn the page of this book, I percieved a complex network of personal myth construction: a geo-political history of Central and Eastern Europe put together as if a puzzle from thousands of individual stories, revealing an image of a vanished world captured at a critical point in time, which only a few years later would all but cease to exist. From our present vantage point sixty years thereafter, having experienced the historical discontinuities of a “world” and a “cold” war, these expressions of vanity and self-assurance take on a compelling significance.

In my 10 years work with this text, I have treated "Who´s Who in Central & East Europe 1933" as canonic: a "given" or "closed" text to which nothing can be added. With the aid of a computer, selected text fragments have been dissected and reconstructed, as a simulation of a "guided tour" through chosen paths in an architecture of biographical information. I have largely concentrated my selections on the forgotten lives and the “no longer famous”; (though perhaps individual names might be familiar to East European specialists), whose forgotten voices call out to us now, both singly and in polyphonic chorus as an individual and a "collective" identity and fate. It is precisely this interrelationship of individual and collective memory that I have tried to imply in the structure of my ongoing work as an artist with this “Ur-Text” in various projects: the Hypertext-Opera and book: “Who´s Who in Central & East Europe 1933” (1991 and 1994), the exhibition “T: Files out of the Great and Small Archive (1993); and now “Memory Arena” a interactive performance installation in collaboration with Fred Pommerehn (1994-96).


In preparation for the stage version of "Who's Who in Central & East Europe 1933" in 1991, I developed a plan for entering, organizing and later accessing this "mountain of information" for use in developing a “digital libretto” for the performance. It had long been clear to me that the only practical approach would lie in the application of data retrieval technology; reflecting the traditional use of the computer in the administration of personal data. Heiko Idensen, suggested the applicaton of"Hypertext") software in 1991 (long before the World Wide Web) and guided me through the tedious steps in organizing the material.

The preparation of this text progressed in stages over many years. First, while reading the entire book, 765 whole or part biographies were selected. While aiming for representative samples concerning temporal or regional themes, my scanning eye would be "caught" by tragicomic aberrations: mistakes, intensely personal revelations: impossible stories of the marginal figures forgotten by history.

The resulting 765 chosen biographies were then transcribed by hand from paper book into a digital form representing an information architecture in which fragments from each biography could be stored and linked to each other. Due to the limits of performance and paper book, it has long been my wish to realize a "digital" result which would adequately present the complexity and depth of my personal involvement with this text. The continually developing process has been one of searching and scanning pathways through an otherwise undecipherable text. The thousands of pages of "found fragments" were then "sifted" through and "whittled down" in a subtractive process which I liken to "mining for gold".

In concieving of a basic structure for this book, I was greatly inspired by the printed form of the Jewish Talmud and of much Medieval Rabbinic Bible Literature. Here one finds, on a single page, central “source” texts from Torah surrounded by multiple “peeled onion skin” layers of often conflicting commentary and interpretation in an endless ongoing conversation carried out over centuries internationally. Excerpts and text fragments are cross-referenced to related pages and topics in other sections and volumes. One has the sense of entering an information network of ever increasing complexity, in which all individual elements connect to each other in a kind of medieval “hypertext”. It a model which demonstrated to me advanced possiblities for Hyper-textuality. (Indeed, much of this material is now being issued within a Hypertext structure by various software firms in the United States and Israel).

The Images

My interest in what is variously defined as "found”, “amateur” and “private” or anonymous images stems from my first meeting with Sándor Kardos in Budapest in 1986. Working for many years as a well-known cinematographer in Hungary, he has founded the "Horus Archives" which contains over 200,000, anonymous snapshots from Eastern Europe dating since the invention of photography. I am greatly indebted to Kardos for his help and assistance over the years.

Photos from the Horus Archive (along with material from the Private Film Archive of fellow Hungarian Péter Forgásc) were used extensively as part of the projected image composition realized by Etta Von Cramer for the Opera, “Who´s Who In Central & East Europe 1933”.

Inspired by Kardos and Péter Forgásc (and indirectly by the Gábor Bódy film, "Private History",1978), I have been collecting such images myself during over 10 years of travel and research in Central and Eastern Europe. My interest in anonymous images has developed parallel to work with "found" or "public" historical texts. The photographs presented here have been selected from my personal collection and are not meant to "illustrate" the text fragments but rather to act as a counterpoint and commentary to them. Carmen Wedemeyer has developed a unique approach to applying this material within an interactive architecture: hundreds of faces beckon us to expand their context, much as the text fragments point to a larger narrative framework.

These private and amateur images present an atmosphere of chance occurrences and intimate moments: a micro-history of non-protagonists largely devoid of artistic or documentary intentions. They pose questions about the photographic representations of reality which seem to mirror the ambiguities implied in biographical narration and in the recording of personal and collective history.

A dedication: To the 765

It is over eleven years since we were first introduced and it is only now, after unsucessful attempts at putting you aside and moving on that I feel capable of addressing you directly.

Many events, both personal and in the world at large, have passed since the summer in 1985, when I hesitatingly payed 3,500 Turkish Lire for a book that intrigued me but seemed to offer little to justify its immediate purchase. It is more than ironic that as the preperation of the first realization of "Who's Who in Central & East Europe 1933" was reaching its final stages in East Berlin, the world from which you speak to us leaped abruptly to the front pages and waking consiousness of the world as buried and forgotten stories re-emerged. But then, we must admit that it has not been a complete surprise for us; as we have long been on familiar terms.

If, in selecting You from among the many, and then further chopping You into little pieces in rearranging this puzzle I have distorted your stories, I appologize. Sometimes a single fragment could tell an entire story- while, in other cases an entire voice served only to narrate a fractional part and more voices were needed. I ask You to remember: behind each of You stand endless other stories in mirrored piramids; and that you are also speaking for them. And moreover, I have a story to tell too, and that where our stories have crossed, howsoever briefly or tangentally, this is the space where Your book is now rewritten, through me, though hopefully not for the last time.

Arnold Dreyblatt, Berlin, 1994-6


1) Central European Times Publishing Co., Ltd., Zurich; R.P.D. Stephen Taylor, Editor, 1935
2) Sauer Verlag; Juliusz Stroynowski, Editor, 1989
3) "Biographical Dictionaries and Related Works", Second Edition, Robert B. Slocum, Editor; Gale Research Company, Detroit, 1986