A couple of weeks ago I received a DVD preview copy of the just released documentary “Keep Quiet,” directed by Joseph Martin and Sam Blair and distributed by Kino Lorber, Inc. The documentary deals with Csanád Szegedi, one of the most outspoken anti-Semites in the far-right Jobbik party, who at the pinnacle of his political career was confronted with the fact that he is actually Jewish. He became a practicing Orthodox Jew soon after his expulsion from Jobbik.
Of course, I’m familiar with the story of Csanád Szegedi because his drama played out in front of our eyes in 2012, but I still watched the movie with fascination. Perhaps because of his past in politics, Szegedi feels comfortable in front of the camera and is surprisingly articulate. His facility with language and the excellent direction make the film move smoothly.
After watching Szegedi up close and personal, instead of seeing him as a far-right firebrand giving political speeches, I feel more sympathy for him now than I did before. Of course, I share many of the concerns of those who are less than convinced about both Szegedi’s story and his transformation. One of the main reasons for people’s distrust is the extreme nature of his conversion. We know hundreds of cases of people who one day, almost by accident, discover that they are Jewish, yet they don’t join an ultra-Orthodox (Lubavitch/Chabad ) community, especially since Chabad fundamentalism is alien to Hungarian Jewry.
The documentary clarifies the reasons for Szegedi’s odd choice of Chabad orthodoxy. First, though certainly not a defining reason, he believes that his grandmother, despite her very vague recollections of her childhood, was brought up in an Orthodox home. I do hope he realizes that the Orthodox community in Miskolc, where the family is from, had little to do with Chabad. Second, the pragmatic reason: no other Jewish group was ready to take him in. And third, the psychological reason. Szegedi talks at length of his need to belong to a close-knit group, which he found in Jobbik, the movement he joined in 2003 at the age of 21 while a student at the Catholic Péter Pázmány University in Budapest. His father, who, by the way, is absent from the film altogether, while we meet his Jewish grandmother and mother, is a committed right-winger. At the dinner table Csanád soaked up all the right-wing nationalistic views of his father. It seems that in high school he again found himself among boys who shared his views. Therefore, it is not at all surprising that as soon as Jobbik was established as a youth movement, Szegedi joined the group.
Belonging to a community is extremely important to Szegedi. Without the warmth that such a close-knit community provides, he is lost. And once he was tossed out of Jobbik, he was utterly destroyed. Not just because his political career came to an abrupt end but because he was cut loose. He was suddenly outside of a circle where he felt at home. He even contemplated suicide.
Szegedi’s need for belonging and acceptance led him to the odd choice of the tiny ultra-Orthodox Chabad community in Hungary. Baruch Oberlander, a transplant from Brooklyn’s Crown Heights, was the only one who was ready to forgive his sins and show him the road to redemption. No other Jewish group wanted anything to do with him. It is enough to watch the angry crowd that confronted Oberlander in Montreal in 2013 after listening to the speech that Szegedi wrote. (Szegedi had been deported from Canada before he could deliver his speech in person.) His speech didn’t convince the crowd. They were furious and practically attacked the poor rabbi. Even Oberlander admits that his decision to accept Szegedi into the Chabad community was controversial.
Perhaps what got less than adequate coverage in the film is Szegedi’s extreme Hungarian nationalism. His own given name “Csanád” is one of those Hungarian names that became fashionable in the last 30 years or so. Nationalistic Hungarian parents chose ancient Hungarian names for their children. There couldn’t have been too many Csanáds in the eighties when Szegedi was born. In 1972, for example, when a book was published on “suggested” and “acceptable” given names, only one Csanád was born in the whole country. Szegedi himself was so enamored with old Hungarian names that he published a book on the subject in 2002: The Complete Repository of Given Names of Hungarian Origin—More Than 8,400 Ancient Names of Hungarian Origin. In a long interview, given in 2015, he described himself as a “proud Hungarian Jew.” His second book’s title is I Believe in the Resurrection of Hungary, a line from a revisionist three-line Hungarian Creed: “I believe in God, I believe in one country: / I believe in the divine everlasting truth, / I believe in the resurrection of Hungary.”
Many people in Hungary simply don’t believe that Csanád was totally ignorant of his Jewish heritage. One reason for this disbelief is Szegedi’s own public comments after one of his colleagues confronted him in 2012. In addition, newspapers reported wildly divergent stories about his knowledge of the true facts. In the film he admits that he knew that his grandmother was adopted by a Jewish family called Klein but, as far as he knew, she herself was not Jewish. In the course of the film, we find out that the parents of Szegedi’s grandmother died in the Holocaust while she herself survived Auschwitz. After her return her only surviving uncle adopted her.
We don’t learn much about the family dynamics. Why the absence of the father? How much did the father know about his wife’s Jewishness? Why did the grandmother and the mother take so lightly Csanád’s loud and insistent anti-Semitism? Why didn’t they try to explain to the young man that anti-Semitism is unacceptable? One understands that, given what happened, many Jews wanted to hide their true identity. They just “kept quiet,” as Szegedi’s grandmother explained her silence. But they didn’t have to give away their secrets in order to teach Csanád the norms of decent human behavior.
So, many questions remain about Csanád Szegedi and his family, but I think I got to know him much better thanks to this fascinating documentary. In September 2016 the Jewish weekly Szombat reported that the World Zionist Organization and a Hungarian Chabad organization called Tett és Védelem Alapítvány (Action and Defense Foundation) had organized a conference on fighting anti-Semitism. Here apparently Szegedi announced that he had already filed all the necessary papers in preparation for his Aliyah to Israel. Yet, at the end of the film he admitted that he doesn’t know whether he will be committed to ultra-orthodoxy for the rest of his life.
Anne Applebaum, the American-Polish journalist who has written extensively about communism and about Central and Eastern Europe, gives excellent commentaries throughout the film. It is a thought-provoking production, and I’m glad that I had the opportunity to preview it.