I have always been familiar with this downtown area, this prestigious, formerly tony district, called Lipótváros (Leopold Stadt), first built and populated by the aristocracy and the elegant set, and when they faded out of money, up and coming Jews made it their own. Here, a mere two blocks away from the classicist Basilica, is located CEU, Central European University, its headquarters ensconced in the classicist palace of the Count Festetich family. There are another five-six buildings spread around, former banks, corporate buildings, all housing different departments of the University, populating the place, already quite populous with endless streams of tourists, with students, teachers and hangers on, such as myself, for a good many years. Kitty-corner from CEU’s main building is the former historic Lipótvárosi Kaszinó, the once august social club of the richest Jews of Pest, which was the target of a time bomb attack by Jew-haters sometime in 1923, causing several deaths.
Opposite, on the other side of Nádor Street, stands a yellow three-story classicist-style building. Lajos Kossuth once lived in it. And just a couple doors to the north, number 11 Nádor Street, is the art deco building that housed in the 1950s the National Planning Office, the economic heart of the murderous communist dictatorship of Mátyás Rákosi. This Planning Office was the employer of my mother, whom we regularly visited, my brother and I, because of the building’s loop-style elevator that swished up and down without an operator and which we rode going up on the one side and, after seeing the mechanism in the attic space, proceeded down on the other side countless times. They called this elevator type ”pater noster” because it kept going without ever stopping. This number 11 is also part of CEU now (the pater noster of course long gone), as is the building next door that was just completed last fall in the super modern, that is to say, super post-modern style, and it is wonderful.
All these buildings and a few more in the adjacent streets are open at most times to anybody interested in walking in, and there are plenty of people interested because there is a steady stream of programs, conferences, lectures, workshops going on almost all day long into the night on the most varied subjects. At the counters of the door keepers in every building a screen shows the programs, be they today, or next month, or several months ahead.
In 2001 when I started to visit Budapest with some regularity, I met a young man from New York who was teaching English writing skills to the students of the then minuscule CEU. We are still friends, and he is a tenured professor now. Over the years since, as we discovered the fantastically varied and excellent programs available to the interested public, we also met the most amazing people in the course of attending those conferences and lectures. And thanks to the opportunities there, we found out about facts and events that otherwise would never have come to our attention, nor would we have had any other way to find out about them. A close friend of ours is teaching and practicing psychology at CEU, another teaching Turkology, a third one is doing “only” plain history, uncovering the heretofore unknown events leading up to the Holocaust in Hungary, and another one is the researcher and translator of the Russian-Jewish literature that has never been heard of before in Hungary.
At a very interesting conference a few years ago I heard and met Deborah Lipstadt, the formidable historian, who put a dent into Holocaust denial for good. At the same conference I also met György Lázár from California, whom I have long admired for his excellent writing, and we became friends right then and there.
The CEU system of beaming intelligence and knowledge is somewhat obscure to me. I never needed to find out how it worked because it worked very well, and that was more than enough for me. But it is obvious that there is practically no scientist, professor, researcher, or lecturer who would not be glad to accept an invitation to present his thoughts or research results at CEU. I was at a lecture a few months ago where the presenter simply reported on what he was currently reading and what he was finding out from it, without really suggesting where this was taking him. That was a truly fascinating lecture.
Just as the “House of Fates” museum controversy was at its height, CEU hosted first the American historian who participated in the establishment and eventually the opening and operating of the Philadelphia Jewish Museum and then, a few months later, the Canadian historian who did more or less the same in Warsaw at the stupendous Jewish museum there. In fact, I found both lectures so engrossing and illuminating that I was compelled to write an open letter to Maria Schmidt, the Hungarian historian, who had the opportunity to do the same here, in Budapest, but was so inept and so biased that she probably lost that opportunity forever. She was not at these lectures but would have benefitted from them immensely.
It is also true that apart from the student community, the leaders and faculty of other universities were somewhat sluggish in expressing their views in favor of liberal and free education. Particularly distasteful was the response of Rector András Lánczi of Corvinus University, who claimed the exclusive right to voice the position of the University. This was, alas, too late because many members of the faculty had already spoken out strongly in defense of CEU. This, however, brought to the surface an element of sour grapes as it turned out from some complaints that the salaries of professors at CEU are five times those at Corvinus.
The sinister attack of the government against CEU, the unsuspecting sitting duck in the middle of town, was of course a shock and a scandal for almost everybody, except the close coterie of the Fidesz government. But to my wife and to me it was like a personal attack against the lifestyle we moved to Budapest to enjoy: the free and copious flow of ideas and information. This was to us, and I am sure to many other people I came to meet at CEU, an ignoble, sinister attempt to take away from us an important part of our lives, the intangible treasure we considered our own and are not prepared to give up. We are not giving it up because the excuses offered for taking it away are hollow lies that under no circumstances would justify robbing us, never mind robbing the students and faculty of the university. We are not letting go because it would be taken from us without compensation: the government doesn’t offer anything in return but empty bluster and conflicting lies that wouldn’t fool even an elementary student. And finally we refuse to let it go because this institution is an organic part of the city and of the country, producing something that could not be, and is not, produced anywhere else in Hungary, something so precious, so valuable, that it is one of the best things this country has ever produced and is a sampler of what this country, even in the midst of its sorry decline, is capable of producing.
There is, however, a silver lining, increasingly so. The wheel of fortune is slowly but quite perceptibly turning. The government of Viktor Orbán mindlessly plunged into this hate fest, in a few days completing the process from suggestion to legislation of putting this magnificent institution out of business. But what a sorry testimony it was to the ineptitude and shortsightedness of this government! What kind of people do they think these are? Will the CEU community buckle under helplessly? Yes, that is what they expected. But the resolve of the faculty, the students, the solidarity of the entire student community, not to mention of the worldwide movement on behalf of CEU, has strengthened the hand of Michael Ignatieff, the president of the University. And as the “match” presently stands, the advantage is slowly moving in Mr. Ignatieff’s favor. The government has so far refused to negotiate with him, hoping that the U.S. government will be their partners. But what a miscalculation! The American government wouldn’t even want to hear about this matter, and they wouldn‘t talk to any official from Hungary either. The hapless government is slowly running out of options. Soon they will have only two choices: withdrawing the new, inhuman law, thus giving up on killing the university, or sitting down to talk to Mr. Ignatieff. And the fewer options they have left, the stronger his position will be. In this case, I expect that Mr. Ignatieff will not settle for anything less than an internationally guaranteed, ironclad warrant from the government assuring that no more interference will ever befall this long-suffering university.
As for me and my friends in the CEU community, we are confident and hopeful because thought and ideas are more potent than a petty tin pot dictator’s personal caprice and his thirst for vendetta.