Gypsy crime in Hungary: The ghost of yesteryear by S.K.

Back deep in bowels of the National Library of Hungary, actually called the Széchényi Library, is hiding a veritable treasure: a collection of 76 volumes, well really only 75 since one of them went missing God knows when, the handiwork of a country gentleman from somewhere in the vicinity of Kecskemét.

The first volume was started I think around 1878 and the last was compiled perhaps around 1886. The content is none other than a possibly complete collection of newspaper clippings of all anti-Jewish utterings of all newspapers. And there were many of them, at least forty dailies, if you only look at the larger ones, not counting the local gossip sheets in smaller towns. There were numerous funny papers as well, some of them constantly harping on the Jews. The name of the collection is Jüdische Delicatessen. The double entendre of this title could best be translated as "Jewish Delights."

Our man of such “dedicated scholarship” read and kept everything, neatly cut out and pasted into albums, year after year until 1886, when the series stopped. (As I found out, the “author” of the volumes fought in the 1848-49 revolution, so he probably suspended the collection either when he became terminally ill or when he died. I imagine only death could wrench the scissors and gum arabic from his busy hands.)

Those were the heady days of the official Hungarian Antisemitic Party, with 17 MPs sitting in Parliament and the “movement” of official anti-Semitism led by Győző Istóczy was enjoying wide and enthusiastic acceptance. In fact the Tiszaeszlár blood libel case in 1882-83 gave it unprecedented cache.  Another prominent public figure, Gyula Verhovay, MP and newspaper publisher of the timeVerhovay, a figure as colourful as a rainbow-coloured popsicle, was particularly active in the movement and in his own paper the Egyetértés (Agreement, or Accord) was giving ample airing to Jewish misdeeds.The strongly and openly anti-Semitic press presumed to be finding the way to its readers’ hearts and minds most effectively if they showed off the Jews as actual criminals. The campaign against “Jewish crime” was in full flight by 1880.

Luckily, the times were much richer in fantasy and invention, so the available variety of crimes was much greater and far more amusing than nowadays. Not to mention that people were more ready to be scandalized in those years than they are today. No wonder that even today when we talk about those times we call them the “happy peace times.” The gamut of Jewish crimes ran from bankruptcy fraud, through simple stealing and forgery to sophisticated real estate fraud, usury and bigamy. For example, Magyarország, a daily, was reporting on July 8, 1880, that a happy newly-wed woman was visited by a poor miserable mother of four to announce that she was the other wife of the husband just wed. A few days later, on July 22, 1880, Magyarország reported another bigamy case. The same paper reported on July 11 of the the same year that the forger of fake coins was identified. He is a Jew.

Egyetértés, a daily paper, on July 16th reported the story of a Jew who was  converted to Christianity in order to be hired by the civil service so he could have access to military officers and lend them money. The grand prize winner is the news item in Magyarország that appeared on July 25, 1880, telling breathlessly how a Jewish lawyer no less, Dr. Grünfeld, was caught stealing money and a pocket watch from another guest of the Rudas bath house and took to his heels right through a window. All these and many more did not disappear into thin air without a trace. The intent and the method survived and are revived again by the political right of Hungary.  The press, printed, or electronic, is full of the rabble-rousing, gypsy-bashing criminality of the Roma people.

When I first heard the expression “Gypsy crime,” from Jobbik, I didn’t understand what were they talking about. My first reaction was: why would they oppose only Gypsy crime, why not crime in general. How naïve can I get? So, given the uphill battle they had to fight for the attention of the public, in the face of the initial general disapproval, they turned to the tricks of Magyarország and Egyetértés and the rest of the old anti-Semitic press: if it worked then it will work this time again. And it has! So much so that a few months ago even the police chief of the city of Miskolc, a socialist appointee, made a speech against Gypsy crime: even he was willing to buy into the myth.

In a few short years they not only introduced the theretofore unknown phrase into the public discourse, they also rallied a large number of people to support them. Just like the predecessors, they openly disclose their vicious racism, but find understanding and forgiveness, since the purported Gypsy criminality provides justification for it. But they are not settling for simple slander, that would not be modern enough for them, they also insist on punishing the crimes of Gypsies themselves.

I think here we find an admirable comparison between those happy peace times and our own as a measure of what modernity did for us. Beginning from the 1880s it took roughly sixty years until the first Jewish law, the anti-Semitic propaganda to bear fruit. Now, in our “high speed” world, a mere two or three years were enough to bring about the systematic murder of Gypsies and the marching of thugs in villages to blanket them with fear.

In the hysterically polarized public discourse of Hungary there is no way of stopping this madness for the moment. There is also an intentional lack of will to deal with it. The question is whether the murders committed in the last few months are horrendous enough for the public to step away from the brink and put a stop to the anti-Gypsy propaganda, or are they willing to allow an escalation of hatred to the degree that makes it institutional by letting the Jobbik enter it to Parliament next year as their official policy.

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Odin's lost eye

What surprises me is that no one has, as yet, found ‘fragments’ of some document or documents which would describe the ‘Roma Conspiracy’ to take over the Carpathian basin as a ‘National Home for the Roma etc. It could be quite easily copied from the ‘Protocols of the elders of Zion’ etc. The ‘fragments’ would of course be destroyed by a mysterious fire in someone’s house/flat. This arson attack would be blamed on the Roma. A better scenario would be that the fragments were being sent to Paris for safety but both the papers and the courier had disappeared. The courier was later found drowned in Spain and two local Gypsies were arrested in connection with the death. There would of course be some scans of the fragments on someone’s computer.
It has not happened yet but I dare say it will