In the last few days one gets the impression, especially if one reads a lot of British, American, German, and French newspapers, that life in Hungary has stopped outside of railroad stations and the Serb-Hungarian border. But of course life goes on, and the Hungarian media is full of smaller and larger issues of note.
One controversy centers on the Jewish Cultural Festival. The topic is not as unrelated to the refugee question as one would think because the dispute is about the extent to which one should tolerate performing artists who have direct or indirect connections with extreme right-wing groups. The case in point is Mária Petrás, a well-known folk singer whose specialty is the music of the Csango/Ceangăi people, who have been living for centuries in the Romanian region of Moldavia and who speak an old Hungarian dialect. By now their number is very small. Perhaps 4,000. Petrás herself comes from that small community.
József Böjte, who served as the artistic director of the Jewish Cultural Festival, didn’t invite Mária Petrás directly. She came along with a famous group of folk musicians called Muzsikás (Music Maker). Three years ago they, together with András Schiff, gave a very successful concert–“The Roots and Routes of Bartók”–in New York. It was favorably reviewed in The New York Times. The lead singer was Mária Petrás, whose voice was highly praised by the reviewer.
But then came a letter to the editor of Népszava, whose author found Petrás’s presence at the festival problematic. The reader pointed out that Mária Petrás has been a participant at several far-right events where she recited poems by the anti-Semitic Albert Wass and has sung at concerts where extremist rock singers who call their music “national rock” also appeared. In addition, she happens to be the wife of Kornél Döbrentei, an openly anti-Semitic writer, whose burning of the flag of Israel back in 2004 resulted in the departure of 108 writers and poets from the Writers’ Union when the Union’s leadership refused to distance themselves from Döbrentei.
The letter to the editor was correct. Mária Petrás did appear at Magyar Sziget, a yearly “cultural festival” of far-right groups who entertain their like-minded audience, although by now she has no recollection of the event. She participated in the Albert Wass Marathon, a twenty-four-hour reading from Wass’s writings in Pomáz, where she and Döbrentei live. She also sang at a birthday party for Kornél Bakay, an archeologist and historian, whose dubious, unscientific theories are coupled with extremist, Nazi views, including his attraction to the ideas of Ferenc Szálasi. And finally she did perform at one of the events organized by Loránt Hegedűs, Jr., the infamous anti-Semitic minister. All in all, the organizers decided that to have Petrás sing in the synagogue was inappropriate. Muzsikás, the group that invited Petrás, decided to scrap their performance in a show of support for Petrás.
That was bad enough, but what followed was even worse. Fidesz obviously feels very strongly about Mária Petrás just as it did about her husband back in 2004 when he, most likely dead drunk, wanted to board a British Airways flight but was ordered off the plane by the captain. Döbrentei claimed that the captain removed him because he wore the Hungarian tricolor on his lapel and because he complained that Magyar Nemzet was not available. Fidesz demanded an immediate investigation by the government. The party also charged that the British pilot was instructed, allegedly by the socialist-liberal government, to remove him for political reasons.
This time around the Orbán government decided to make a huge issue of the Petrás case. With the permission of the prime minister’s office, Undersecretary Csaba Latorcai, who is in charge, believe it or not, of “especially significant societal affairs” (kiemelt társadalmi ügyekért felelős helyettes államtitkár), delivered a speech to the audience gathered in the synagogue in Dohány utca. Instead of talking about the significance of the event, he delivered a lesson on tolerance. He explained that “culture” means dialogue but that dialogue must be based on truthfulness. “Falsehood kills dialogue,” and what happened in this case was a smear campaign against the singer without any foundation. The Hungarian government, he said, declared zero tolerance against anti-Semitism, racism, and discrimination, but “it also stands by those who are accused of anti-Semitism based on lies of an unverified document.” And he went on and on, although the audience tried several times to give him the idea that they are no longer interested in his message. The first time the audience began to applaud in the middle of one of his sentences he was merely surprised. Subsequently, he concentrated on finishing his speech no matter how many times the audience wanted to silence him. Fidesz guys usually have their way. At the end he managed to convey the government’s demand: Mazsihisz should apologize to Mária Petrás.
Let’s set aside the oafish behavior of this man and just concentrate on the question of truthfulness. Who was not telling the truth? I’m afraid it was Csaba Latorcai because no one accused Mária Petrás of anti-Semitism. The reason for her withdrawal from the program was her frequent appearances at events associated with far-right anti-Semitic groups or persons. As for the “unverified document,” meaning the letter to the editor in Népszava, it was checked and found to be a reliable source of information. In fact, it was only a partial list of her appearances at far-right events.
A few hours later József Böjte, the artistic director of the Jewish Cultural Festival, tendered his resignation, which was accepted by the president of Mazsihisz, András Heisler. Another controversial move. Surely, the audience that tried to drown out the undersecretary’s inappropriate speech was satisfied with Böjte’s decision to “disinvite” Petrás. But it seems that the leaders of Mazsihisz decided that refusing to accept Böjte’s resignation was too risky given the mood of the prime minister’s office. The original speaker at the event was supposed to be János Lázár himself, and it was only in the last minute that Latorcai had to replace him. Surely, the content of that speech was approved by Lázár himself. It looks as if Mazsihisz decided to sacrifice Böjte. They refused, however, to apologize, at least openly.
So, the Petrás affair looks like a messy draw, but another issue is on the docket that will undoubtedly cause serious friction between Mazsihisz and the Orbán government. It is Zoltán Balog’s determination to erect yet another memorial on Szabadság tér, this time in memory of the victims of the Soviet occupation. Another controversial topic, another round of fighting. We know who has the upper hand.