American film star Tony Curtis is in Hungary on an emotionally-charged tour of his ancestral homeland, where he is launching a new career as the country's volunteer tourism spokesman. At age 78, Tony Curtis has taken on a new leading role. He is in Budapest to record two commercials, which Hungary hopes will launch it toward a new image as a center for spas and health tourism.
His pitch couldn't come at a better time. Most of the East Germans who flooded Hungary's spas under Communism now stay away, discouraged by high prices and enticed by other options.
In addition, one of Hungary's main tourist attractions, Lake Balaton, is drying up.
Mr. Curtis, who starred in a number of major films, including the 1959 comedy classic, Some Like It Hot, wants the country of his parents to become "hot" again for American tourists and just in time to help its economy as it prepares to join the European Union next year.
"Why shouldn't Hungary benefit from the American dollar?" asked Mr. Curtis. "You know it could be good for the country, and it could also help to clean out a lot of the ignorance."
Mr. Curtis is talking about the ignorance that led to the anti-Jewish pogroms that his parents fled early in the 20th century and contributed to Hungary's alliance with Nazi Germany and the killing of 600,000 Hungarian Jews.
Mr. Curtis says that had a deep impact on him as a young man in New York.
"That made and still has a great profound effect on me," he said. "That kind of ignorance could provoke people to kill children. I just don't understand that. I just don't understand that, the thought of a two, three year old child being led somewhere, stabbed, killed somewhere for no other reason [than] any religion, any background, anything. It's ignorance, it's something we have to purify ourselves from."
Mr. Curtis believes exposure to American tourists could help. And he also wants Hungarians and tourists to visit the old Dohany Synagogue in Budapest, Europe's largest. He helped fund the synagogue's recent renovation.
"My father used to come to Budapest as he lived in a small city," recalled Mr. Curtis. "And he used to go to the Dohany Synagogue. So I went to see it and it was in disrepair. It looked really bad it needed some help. So I went in and I said, 'Can I in some way help? And they said, Sure. So I became connected to it.'"
His involvement in the synagogue renovation and the tourism commercials is part of an effort to re-discover his Jewish roots in Hungary.
Tony Curtis was born Bernard Schwartz in a small New York home in 1925. He says he never forgot his parents' struggle with anti-Semitism in Hungary soon after World War I.
But he says it is time to move on.
U.S. tourists spend an estimated $270 billion annually on traveling and recreation around the world. Mr. Curtis wants some of that money to end up in Hungary.
He has decided to volunteer his time and money to help his ancestral homeland deal with what he calls the "ignorance" of its past and try to prosper in its future as a member of the European Union.