The Hungarian House has brought the subject to New York by hosting this event. I have been a fixture at the Hungarian House for 21 years, both as a member of the community and as a performer of Hungarian folk music. I strongly support their primary goal: “to create a bridge between Hungarian, Hungarian-American and American societies.”
However, this uncritical welcome for the works of Wass at Hungarian House will alienate parts of the Hungarian community, and would be of great concern to many Americans if they were made aware of the controversy.
On February 20, 2015 the Hungarian House on East 82nd Street in Manhattan will host a program by the Széchényi Society celebrating the works of the controversial writer Albert Wass. The Hungarian government recently added selected works of Wass to the Hungarian school curriculum. The addition of his works created bitter controversy within Hungary itself, due to its ideological anti-Semitic content.
Wass has a popular following in Hungary, and my Hungarian friends often share his inspiring quotes about natural beauty. He wrote eloquently about his native Transylvania, which was snatched from Hungary in the notorious 1920 Treaty of Trianon. Wass wrote many books, and in nearly all of them, ethnic Hungarians are portrayed as being completely innocent—their biggest fault is that they are too trusting. Many Hungarians are unaware of his most crassly anti-Semitic work.
Some of my Hungarian friend insist loudly and publicly that Wass was not an anti-Semite. But their arguments fail to include an objective appraisal of how Jews are portrayed in his many books: Even in his more “benign” works, Jewish characters are almost always nasty, selfish, and ungrateful. Sometimes, Romanians or Communists are depicted as equally offensive. Here is a body of work that over decades portrays Jews, at best, as stereotypical villains who are out to cheat defenseless Hungarians and at worst as rats. How, by any reasonable measure, can this been seen as anything other than anti-Semitic?
Wass’s most virulently anti-Semitic work is “Conquest of the Rats: A Tale for Youths,” which you can find on Neo-Nazi websites Stormfront and Kuruc. “Conquest of the Rats” utilizes the same central linguistic and visual image used by Goebbels in “The Eternal Jew:” Jews as vermin/rats. It was published in 1945—right after the Holocaust. What he was saying, in effect, was: “watch out, you didn’t get them all.” And the title is not just about rats but about “Honfoglalás” (conquest), a choice of word that only adds compounds the anti-Semitic metaphor. Here is a chilling reading of Conquest of the Rats on Echo TV, a forum favored by Neo-Fascists—you can feel the hatred of the actor even if you don’t understand Hungarian, and I can’t believe this is merely hatred of rats:
Suppose we give him one last chance. Albert Wass moved to Florida around 1952. On Christmas 1951, Executive Director of the Florida NAACP, Harry T. Moore, and his wife Harriette, were murdered by the Klan. Did Wass stand up against this? He did not, but others did.
Furthermore, he proudly announced his allegiance to Sheriff Willis McCall, a notorious local racist. Besides his violent support of segregation, he shot multiple innocent suspects. He killed one man guilty of a traffic violation by brutally kicking him to death. By the end of Wass’s life in the 1990s, McCall was recognized as a brutal racist. In 2015, nobody publicly admits to supporting McCall, but even today, the Wass website still refers to him warmly.
It is the right of the Hungarian House to present programs that it deems fit just as I have the right to criticize it. But if the Hungarian House wants to disassociate itself from the Neo-Nazis who love Wass, then I want to see some positive steps.
I don’t suggest they cancel the planned Wass event. Instead, I want to open up the dialogue, so there can be a diverse discussion of his work. I am writing this op-ed because I agree with the Hungarian House’s mission, which is creating a place for all Hungarians and Americans to enjoy our amazing culture. Many Hungarians will be justifiably outraged by an uncritical program praising Wass.