I guess we have to talk about it, although I really think that it is a trumped up scandal. The Hungarian right can point to Ákos Kertész’s bitter words as proof that “Jews” look down on poor downtrodden Hungarians. You see, they think that they are better. This case is somewhat similar to the “Landeszmann case” of 1993 that kept the Hungarian nationalistic right excited for a very long time.
György Landeszmann was a rabbi who, after hearing István Csurka’s seemingly endless antisemitic rantings, got tired of the tirades and said something not too flattering about Hungarian culture without the participation of Hungarians of Jewish origin. The reaction was incredible. Heti Magyarország, the right-wing paper of the day, published a whole book in which Károly Alexa, the editor, collected all the articles dealing with the subject. Believe it or not, there are 266 pages filled with the stuff that followed a couple of ill-chosen sentences. Let me add that Landeszmann was right about the enormous contributions that Hungarians of Jewish origin have made to modern Hungarian culture in general, at least in the last one hundred years. By the way, in the end Landeszmann emigrated to Canada.
And now about Ákos Kertész. He was born in 1932 and finished high school in 1950 but because of his “bourgeois” origin couldn’t enter university. So, he worked on the bodies of Ikarus buses for twelve solid years. On the side he managed to finish university at night. Between 1966 and 1992 he worked at Mafilm where he was a screenplay writer. On the side he wrote several novels which were translated into multiple languages. Between 1994 and 1997 he was editor-in-chief of Élet és Irodalom. He received several prestigious prizes, including the much coveted Kossuth Prize. He was also given the freedom of Budapest. Today, after his bitter words about Hungarians who don’t seem to be yearning for freedom and dignity but who let themselves be enslaved by a party and a government Kertész finds abhorrent, Jobbik wants to strip him of his Kossuth Prize and István Tarlós, who in my opinion talks too much and about things he shouldn’t, wants to get back the key of Budapest.
When his article that caused so much trouble appeared in Amerikai-Magyar Népszava (August 29) I happened to be battling with “Irene” and therefore the news got to me a few days late. My own memories of Ákos Kertész were somewhat spotty. I remembered an interview with him on Zsófia Mihancsik’s Hétzáró, a two-hour political program on KlubRádió, a program that unfortunately no longer exists. I loved that program and wouldn’t have missed it for anything. After a while I began to correspond with Zsófia Mihancsik. Every time there was a memorable or intriguing interview I jotted down a few words recording my impressions. All that happened quite a few years ago. After all, Hétzáró went off the air in 2007. However, I recall that I wrote to Mihancsik after she had an interview with Kertész. I complained that I found him too much to the left for my taste. Mihancsik wrote back something to the effect that yes, but he is such a decent, nice man.
Then this morning I vaguely remembered something about Kertész’s Catholicism and, indeed, with the help of Google I found what I was looking for: an article that appeared in Népszava on June 17, 2010. The title of the article was “God cannot allow such an abomination.” Kertész was devastated by the two-thirds majority and the role the Hungarian Catholic Church played, which for the most part Kertész found far too reactionary. He mentioned as a possible exception Asztrik Várszegi, arch-abbot of Pannonhalma, a liberal churchman.
From the article we find out that indeed Kertész has a Jewish background but with an interesting twist. His father, because of the numerus clausus that restricted the number of Jews allowed to enroll in Hungarian universities, couldn’t continue his studies. Thus he attended “free university” courses where he met Vilmos Juhász, a historian and journalist and a Catholic convert from Judaism. Under his influence Kertész’s father converted and the two of them started an organization called Hungarian Holy Cross Assocation that represented Jewish converts from the early 1930s until 1945. The leader of the organization was Dr. József Ijjas, who later became bishop of Kalocsa (1969-1987). Among his father’s friends was Sándor Sík, the Catholic poet and provost of the Order of the Piarists.
Whether a believing Catholic or not, the elder Kertész was considered to be a Jew and taken to a series of labor camps. He even saw the camp in Bor in which Miklós Radnóti, the poet Zsolt Bayer likes to point to as a perfect Hungarian patriot, was shot to death. Radnóti was also a convert and a student of Sándor Sík.
To make Kertész into an anti-Hungarian Jew who feels superior to the servile Hungarians is quite a feat, but when the Hungarian right sets out to ruin someone they do it with a vengeance. The liberals also find Kertész’s few sentences faulty. First, they complain about his generalization, but I wonder whether he would have fared better if instead of speaking about Hungarians in general he had said “most Hungarians.” I doubt it. Others, like Ákos Mester of 168 Óra, find the text “ghastly.” Or they point out that his description of the role of Hungarians in the Holocaust is inaccurate. After all, Kertész finds “Hungarians alone responsible for the Holocaust.” But what they neglect to point out is the second half of the same sentence: “because the Hungarian people (as opposed to the Germans) didn’t confess their sins and never asked for forgiveness.”
Those who think that Kertész is speaking about Hungarians in the second-person plural and therefore doesn’t consider himself to be Hungarian are really stretching it. Consider this sentence, “I see it with desperation that I am closed into the jail of my mother tongue and nobody needs what I know and nothing happens if my works appear and also nothing happens if they don’t appear.” Kertész is a very bitter man, and I for one sympathize with him.