actress and singer
(Gölle, 25 December 1911 – Munich, 12 February 1997)
Vali Rácz was a popular Hungarian singer and actress whose heyday was the late 1930s and the 1940s. As well as being a regular nightclub performer, she was a recording artist and appeared in approximately 20 Hungarian feature films. Her glamorous looks and sex appeal led to her reputation as the ‘Hungarian Marlene Dietrich’.
Vali Rácz was born on 25 December, 1911, in the village of Gölle in southwestern Hungary, to devout Catholic parents. Her father was Headmaster of the village school. After her education at a convent school she moved to Budapest to study at the Franz Liszt Music Academy. Soon after graduating, thanks to her fine mezzo-soprano voice, she began to get small singing roles in films and before long the popular songwriters of the day were composing hits for her.
During the Second World War she was the pin-up of Hungarian troops fighting on the Eastern Front. In April 1944, when the Nazis occupied Hungary and began to deport the country’s Jewish population, Rácz became involved in sheltering Jewish friends at her villa in Budapest. Between April and November of that year five Jews lived there clandestinely, until Rácz was inadvertently betrayed by the husband of one of the resident fugitives. Rácz was arrested by the Hungarian secret police and incarcerated at their headquarters, the notorious Hotel Majestic, where prisoners were interrogated and often tortured before being deported or killed.
Through the efforts of her supporters in the underground, she was ultimately released. The Jews whom she had helped managed to evade capture and all survived the war, some later emigrating to Israel. In 1991, almost half a century after those events, she was honoured as a Righteous Among the Nations by the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority at Yad Vashem, in Jerusalem.
In 1946 Vali Rácz married the writer and journalist Péter Halász. Their son Valér was born in 1950, followed two years later by their daughter Mónika (who later became the London-based journalist Monica Porter). The family escaped from Hungary in the wake of the 1956 Uprising and emigrated to America. In 1970 they moved back to Europe and in 1975 Vali Rácz and her husband made their home in Munich, Germany, where he worked as a writer and broadcaster for Radio Free Europe. Vali Rácz died there on 12 February, 1997.
Monica Porter’s book about her mother’s wartime exploits, Deadly Carousel: A Singer’s Story of the Second World War, first published in 1990, brought the life and career of Vali Rácz to the attention of a wider audience, outside Hungary.
written by Monica Porter
From the obituary in The Daily Telegraph on 27 February, 1997
The Marlene Dietrich of Hungary, who had a narrow escape while hiding Jews from the Gestapo in Budapest
VALI RÁCZ, who has died in Munich aged 85, was a popular chanteuse in Hungary in the 1930s and 1940s, when she was known as “the Hungarian Marlene Dietrich”.
It was her physical allure as much as her rich, mezzo-soprano voice that propelled her into the spotlight. Hungary’s songwriters – even the great Franz Lehár – were eager to compose for her, and she made many records of their haunting chansons.
She also appeared in 22 films, invariably as the mysterious “other woman”; she could hardly be mistaken for the girl next door.
During the Second World War, Vali Rácz was a pin-up for the hundreds of thousands of Hungarian troops engaged on the Eastern front as a result of Hungary’s alliance with the Axis powers.
In March 1944 the Nazis occupied Hungary, and began to round up Jews. Vali Rácz gave refuge to five Jewish friends in her villa in Budapest, where she had a false wall built into her bedroom wardrobe to create a hiding-place.
By the winter she had incurred the suspicion of the Gestapo. Though imprisoned and interrogated for two weeks she did not crack. Those she was protecting all evaded capture and all survived the war.
By early 1945 the Russians had routed the Germans and the tables were turned. Cruelly, a group of newly empowered Jewish partisans accused her of collaboration and sentenced her to death. Hours before she was due to be a shot, a Red Army colonel with whom she had been having an affair intervened to save her life.
Valeria Rácz was born in the dusty farming village of Gölle, in south-western Hungary, on Christmas Day 1911. The daughter of the devoutly Catholic headmaster of the village school, she was educated in a convent before enrolling at the Music Academy in Budapest. Her career as a singer reached its apogee during the war years, when she was resident singer at the Hangli Kiosk – a Budapest nightspot overlooking the Danube and owned by two brothers called Rónai – the father and uncle of the food critic Egon Rónai.
In 1946 Vali Rácz married Péter Halász, a writer. Two years later the communists seized total power, and under the new Stalinist rule anyone who had flourished in the preceding years was deemed a “class enemy”. She was banned from singing.
After the uprising of 1956 was crushed, Vali Rácz and her husband escaped from Hungary and went to live in New York. There she waged unrelenting war against the permissive 1960s, so that her children found it hard to connect the glamorous portraits that adorned the walls of their flat with their distinctly authoritarian mother.
The family moved to London in 1970, and five years later Vali Rácz went to Munich, where her husband was a writer/broadcaster in the Hungarian department of Radio Free Europe.
With the breakdown of communist rule in the late 1980s, Vali Rácz ceased to be a “non-person” in Hungary, and became once more celebrated. Several of her old records were re-released; she was much interviewed, and her life was featured in television and radio documentaries.
Though she herself played down her wartime activities – “I just did what I had to do” – in 1992 the Israeli authorities declared her a Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem.
In 1990 Monica Porter, Vali Rácz’s journalist daughter, published a book about her wartime exploits entitled Deadly Carousel: A Singer’s Story of the Second World War.
Vali Rácz is survived by her husband and by her son and daughter. Her ashes are being returned to her native village of Gölle.