Feminist bookseller, translator and publisher, presenter and sex object in a lesbian photo-novel. Sylvia Bodnár was all of them, but above all a freethinker stranded in Utrecht with nostalgia for Hungary.
On June 23, 1946, Sylvia was born in Hengelo as the fourth child of Erzibet and Frits Bodnár. They had been born in Hungary, a country that had emerged after the end of the First World War (1914-1918).
Sylvia’s parents left Hungary as toddlers, where there was famine after the war. To recover, they ended up with foster families in the Netherlands via the International Red Cross and the Central Committee for Hungarian Holiday Children. Like many holiday children, Frits and Erzibet stayed in the Netherlands. There they started family together, but in the fifties their ways separated and Erzibet lived with her children in a squat.
The world her parents had left always attracted Sylvia. As a student in Utrecht in the 1960s, she helped shape a study she wanted to study herself: Hungarian Literature.
People who knew her classify Sylvia as a natural lesbian. In the mid-1960s she responded to a personal ad from C.I. (Irma/Ronnie) Dessaur, who was then studying philosophy in Leiden and began to make a name for herself as a writer under her pseudonym Andreas Burnier. They had a brief relationship; Sylvia figures as Hungarian immigrant Marty Kotal in Burnier’s story “Volgend jaar in Jerusalem” (Next Year in Jerusalem), included in the anthology De verschrikkingen van het noorden (The Horrors of the North), 1967.Sylvia had more famous girlfriends. In the late sixties she had a relationship with the British singer Dusty Springfield (Mary O’Brien), who lived with her in Utrecht for a while. From the mid-1980s she had a ten-year relationship with journalist Rémi van der Elzen, known from the radio program about homosexuality, Homonos (1982-1995) and the interview program Teevee Studio (1993-1998).
In 1974, Sylvia and her then lover Dorelies Kraakman (1946-2002) devised the plan for a feminist bookshop in Utrecht. They formed the BEF Foundation (‘bef, short for the Promotion (bevordering) of Emancipation and Feminism, but also referring to the Dutch word for cunnilingus). They raised funds, bought the Oudegracht 261 building and renovated it with friends. December 3, 1975 saw the festive opening of bookshop De Heksenkelder (The Witch’s Cellar) and cafe De Heksenketel (Witch’s Cauldron, but also pandimonium).
“We are not anti-man, but we are for women,” Sylvia said in 1975 to one of the many journalists who wrote about “The Witch” and wondered whether men were also welcome. Another recurring theme in newspaper reports is the importance that both women attached to a professional interior: ‘So not three orange crates, but good stuff. We did a lot ourselves, painting and carpentry and stuff. And there’s not a lot of money in it, but it sure looks good. Why should a woman sit rotten.’ With limited resources, they had also tried to create a chic look in the cafe: ‘so no brown, but Art Deco’.
That interwar style appealed to Sylvia; she was fascinated by the network of lesbian women who helped shape modern literature in Paris at the time – such as the writers Djuna Barnes, Gertrude Stein and Natalie Barney, and the booksellers Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier.
From the start, De Heksenkelder also wanted to publish translations of foreign books; for example, in March 1977, Sylvia inquired of the Diana Press in Baltimore about translation rights to Lesbianism and the Women’s Movement (1975), a collection of articles by The Furies. This was a radical lesbian collective in Washington, D.C. that opposed heteronormativity and saw lesbian separatism as a necessary step for women’s emancipation.
As far as is known, a Dutch translation has never been published, but Sylvia was prominently present in a radical lesbian project from her own soil: Lesbisch Prachtboek (Lesbian Splendour Book, 1979). Edited by Maaike Meijer, Mieke van Kasbergen, Ineke van Mourik and Dorelies Kraakman, authors in various genres ‘searched for the cultural and political legacy that unites them as lesbians’ in order to realize ‘a more erotic, more feminine world’.
One of the contributions to this bestseller was ‘Haar liefde stond op het spel’ (Her Love Was at stake), a photo novel in which Guusje bets with her lesbian biker gang that she can seduce the attractive Marga van Laarhoven. Sylvia Bodnár played Marga and became a lesbian icon.
By the late 1970s, Sylvia and Dorelies’ relationship was over; around 1980 both disappeared from De Heksenkelder.
Kraakman went to study history in Amsterdam and, together with Gert Hekma, became the figurehead of the Department of Gay & Lesbian Studies at the University of Amsterdam.
Sylvia continued to live in Utrecht and started her own publishing house: Vrouw Holle. From 1981 she published translations of female authors, with an emphasis on female writers from Central and Eastern Europe. In the mid-1980s, Sylvia also became a radio presenter. First with the literary program Lezen voor de lijst (Reading for the list), followed in the nineties by the spiritual program Ararat.
In the last years of her life, Sylvia worked on a biography of Giordano Bruno (1548-1600), an Italian freethinker who was burned at the stake as a heretic and is considered a martyr for free thought. Sylvia’s biography of Bruno was left unfinished; she died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage on May 21, 2010.
Archief Heksenkelder/Heksenketel in Atria. Kennisinstituut voor Emancipatie en Vrouwengeschiedenis, Amsterdam.
Astrid de Beer, Kraakman, Theodora Elisabeth, in: Digitaal Vrouwenlexicon van Nederland. URL: https://resources.huygens.knaw.nl/vrouwenlexicon/lemmata/data/Kraakman
Marijke Huisman e.a., Savannah Bay. Geschiedenis van een bijzondere boekwinkel, 1975-2019 (Utrecht: De Luister, 2019).
Noah Littel, ‘Lesbisch Prachtboek’, Website With Pride, https://withpride.ihlia.nl/story/lesbisch-prachtboek/.
Elisabeth Lockhorn, Andreas Burnier, metselaar van de wereld (Amsterdam/Antwerpen: Uitgeverij Augustus Atlas Contact, 2015).
Ineke (Daniel) van Mourik, ‘In Memoriam Sylvia Bodnár (1946-2010)’, Blog The Flying Camel, https://theflyingcamel.nl/in-memoriam-sylvia-bodnar-1946-2010/
‘Pleegkinderen uit Hongarije’, Website Vijf eeuwen migratie, https://vijfeeuwenmigratie.nl/migratiebeweging/pleegkinderen-uit-hongarije
Jann Ruyters, ‘Heldin van het lesbische leven. Sylvia Bodnár 1946-2010’, Trouw, 28 juni 2010.
Sylvia Bodnár, circa 2010. Source: Ineke (Daniel) van Mourik, ‘In Memoriam Sylvia Bodnár (1946-2010)’, Blog The Flying Camel, https://theflyingcamel.nl/2017/10/30/eerste-blogbericht/
Dorelies Kraakman (left) and Sylvia Bodnár (right) in De Heksenkelder, 1975. Source: Wilma de Hoog, Utrechtse Roze Routes, twee stadswandelingen (Nijmegen: Vita, 1997).
Invitation to the 5th anniversary of de Heksenkelder and Heksenketel in Art Deco style, 1980. Archive Heksenkelder/Heksenketen, Atria, Amsterdam.
Sylvia Bodnár as Marga van Laarhoven in Lesbisch Prachtboek (Amsterdam: Feminist Publisher Sara, 1979), p. 186.
Advertisement in Lover, Quarterly Literature Review for the Women’s Movement, 1981, Number 4.