Tag Archives: György Konrád

“House of Fates”: What does it mean?

For a number of years I have been bothered by the English translation of Imre Kertész’s Nobel Prize winning book, Fatelessness. There is no such word in English as “fateless” or “fatelessness.” Mind you, before Kertész’s novel appeared in 1975 there was no such word in Hungarian either. I decided to take a look at the German translation and  “fatelessness” reappeared there too: “Roman eines Schicksallosen,” says the German title page. At this point I had to turn to Duden: “not marked by a certain fate in a special way.” I must say that it didn’t help me a lot.

The Hungarian word “sors” (fate), just as its English equivalent, has several meanings. Perhaps the English word “lot” is the closest to the core meaning of the Hungarian “sors.” A man can say at the end of his life: this is what my life was all about, this is what I achieved, this was my lot. That’s what he got from life, this is how things worked out, this is what happened to him over the years. But surely, what happens to the hero of the novel is not fate in the normal sense of the word unless a person believes in some divine predestination. What happened to the fifteen-year-old György Köves was something unexpected and inexplicable. He was removed from his surroundings, deprived of his freedom and will. By being dragged away and taken to Buchenwald, he was removed from a very different lot that was until then taken for granted by him and his family. It was a break in his life. In fact, Kertész is quite explicit about this: “It wasn’t my lot but it was I who lived through it.” (my translation)

fate

Interestingly enough, no one to my knowledge spent much time on the meaning of the word “sorstalanság” (fatelessness), the title of the original Hungarian book. But now that the Orbán government decided to erect a new memorial to the children who were victims of the Holocaust the meaning of the word has come up and become a topic of controversy. The people entrusted with the establishment of this memorial decided to name it the House of Fates (Sorsok Háza). It will be located in the old, by now unused, railroad station of Josephstadt (Józsefváros). I wrote about the hurried decision to renovate the old station and make it suitable for a museum. As soon as the public found out that the exhibit will bear the name “House of Fates” there were objections. They pointed out that it wasn’t fate that was responsible for the destruction of the Hungarian Jewry but people who ordered the deportation, and the same was true of the 200,000 Hungarians who took an active part in this atrocity.

It is clear that the name of the new museum was inspired by Imre Kertész’s book, but the people who decided to choose it most likely didn’t understand Kertész’s meaning. Sors/sorstalan (Fate/fateless; Schicksal/Schicksallos) are opposites, but if you don’t understand the meaning of the title of the novel then it is certain that you will err when picking its opposite. And hence the controversy that followed the announcement. György C. Kálmán, a literary historian, argues that labeling the murder of children as “their lot” is to make it sound normal and natural. It shows insensitivity and crassness. It is all wrong.

Péter György, a literary critic, argues along similar lines. If someone is deprived of his freedom to change his fate he is no longer the master of his own life. This is what Kertész calls “sorstalanság.” An exhibit, says György, that focuses on the years that led to the Holocaust cannot be labeled something that inevitably led to these children’s fate. To follow one’s fate means free will, and no one can say that these children willingly chose death as their fate.

Kálmán and György talk about the unfortunate name of the new museum. Others have different and perhaps more weighty objections. First of all, there is great suspicion about Mária Schmidt’s involvement in the project due to her rather peculiar interpretation of the war years and the Holocaust. Schmidt is obviously trying to show her openness by approaching Hungarian Jewish intellectuals asking for their help. We don’t know how many people got letters and what they answered. But we do know that György Konrád, the well-known Hungarian writer, received one. Moreover, we also know what he had to say to her since Konrád made his answer public.

Dear Mária,

I find it difficult to free myself of the suspicion that this hurried organization of an exhibit is not so much about the 100,000 murdered Jewish children but rather about the current Hungarian government. If this government spends such a large amount of money in memory of these children, I would suggest that this amount be spent instead on the feeding of starving Hungarian children who live today.

If you would like to have my personal contribution to the enlightenment of Hungarian school children, please suggest my autobiographical book, Elutazás és hazatérés (Going Away and Returning/in the official English edition A Guest in My Own Country: A Hungarian Life), in which I describe my experiences as an eleven-year-old in historical context.

I read this book for Magyar Rádió and it was broadcast several times. The book is still available and therefore the teachers can easily obtain it.

Sincerely yours,

György Konrád

A few days later Mazsihisz (Magyarországi Zsidó Hitközségek Szövetsége), the association of Jewish religious communities, also expressed its misgivings about the project. Apparently, Mazsihisz as well as other people who were supposed to have some say in the project still don’t have any idea about Schmidt’s plans. András Heisler, president of Mazsihisz, did write to Schmidt. In his letter he emphasized the necessity of an exhibit that shows the road to the Holocaust as opposed to including only events that took place after the German occupation of Hungary on March 19, 1944. As of December 20, there was still no answer from Schmidt. However, in her letter to those intellectuals whom she approached she mentioned “an opportunity for everybody to attend the meeting to express their opinions, give advice and suggestions in four or five minutes.” No wonder that Konrád said no to this kind invitation. In any case, Mazsihisz would like to have public control over the conception, the realization, and the finances of the exhibit.

Finally, József Schweitzer, retired chief rabbi of Hungary, also expressed his serious reservations. He wrote a letter to Schmidt, a copy of which was sent to Népszava. He objected to the venue because this particular “railway station was not connected to the mass deportations of the Hungarian Jewry.” He suggested the renovation of the synagogue on Rumbach Sebestyén utca which is in very bad shape and its use for the memorial exhibit. Schweitzer also thought that the renovation of this synagogue would cost a great deal less, and he joined Konrád in suggesting that the rest be given to children who live in poverty.

I’m afraid that the House of Fates will be as controversial if not even more so after it opens its doors sometime in April of next year. Schmidt and the government she represents have very definite ideas about what they want and what they don’t want. They certainly don’t want an exhibit that exposes the responsibility of the Hungarian government and those 200,000 people who actively worked on the deportation of more than 600,000 people within a couple of months.

The European Parliament’s debate on Hungary

I spent almost three hours watching the debate in the European Parliament on the Tavares report. We discussed this report at length at the time of its passage in the LIBE Commission of the European Parliament. In addition, I published Rui Tavares’s letter to the Hungarian people both in English and in Hungarian. So, the readers of Hungarian Spectrum are aware that the report is a thoroughly researched document that in many ways echoes the findings of the independent judges of the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe.

I found two good summaries of the debate, both in Hungarian. One appeared in Népszabadság and the other on the new Internet website called 444! But it is one thing to read a summary and another to see the debate live. Just to watch Viktor Orbán’s face was itself educational. Sometimes he looked vaguely amused, but most of the time his smile was sardonic. Who can forget that disdainful expression on Orbán’s face when one of his critics, Guy Verhofstadt, the leader of the liberals in the European parliament and former prime minister of Belgium, mentioned the name of  György Konrád, “the great Hungarian writer”? And when he heard something he didn’t like, Orbán raised his eyebrows and shook his head in disbelief. He considered all criticism utterly baseless and, through body language and facial expressions, made no secret of it. It’s too bad that most of the people in the chamber didn’t see all that since Orbán sat in the front row.

Viktor Orbán listening to the speeches / Reuters, Vincent Kessler

Viktor Orbán listening to the speeches / Reuters, Vincent Kessler

Unfortunately the camera didn’t show Orbán when several people tried to explain to him that his concept of democracy is peculiar. He believes in the “dictatorship of the majority” or “majoritarian rule.” Verhofstadt even invoked John Stuart Mill’s words on the subject in his work On Liberty. In fact, one of the major criticisms centered around the nature of democracy and whether Hungary can still be called a democracy. If one were to ask Verhofstadt he would say: “No, Hungary is not a democracy anymore but ‘demokratúra’ as György Konrád called it.” Several other critics agreed with Verhofstadt although they may not have been so explicit.

A second core topic was the question of freedom and the Orbán government’s “war of independence” against the European Union. Several people expressed their bafflement at the very idea of defending the country from a Union to which Hungary belongs. Actually, here again two worldviews clashed. The one held by Viktor Orbán and his entourage maintains that nation states are the only legitimate formations and that they shouldn’t be superseded in any way by a supranational entity such as the European Union. If one holds this view, as Orbán does, then it is perfectly understandable that he defends his nation against the encroachment of the European Union. The problem is that Hungary joined the European Union of its own volition and thereby its government is obliged to follow EU rules. Orbán attempts to resolve this apparent conflict by claiming that the Union is overstepping its authority, and therefore he has every right to resist its attempt at a “guardianship” that he will never accept.

Another important topic of discussion was Orbán’s interpretation of the criticism of his government as an attack on Hungary and the Hungarian people. Several critics rejected this view, making it clear that their criticisms are directed against the Orbán government and not the Hungarian people. In fact, some of the speakers argued that in their opinion it is the Hungarian people who must be shielded against the authoritarian behavior and laws of their own government.

As for Viktor Orbán, he had two opportunities to speak. At the beginning, right after Rui Tavares and Juán Manuel Barroso, and at the end, just before the leaders of the various parliamentary caucuses could answer him. In his first speech he was quite polite and a great deal less aggressive than is his wont. However, after listening to the debate where the Christian Democratic and Conservative voices were drowned out by speeches delivered by the liberals, socialists, and greens, Orbán returned to his true self. As Gabriella Zimmer (a German socialist) said, Orbán didn’t come to Strasbourg “to debate”; he came to express his anger at what he considers to be interference in Hungarian domestic affairs that are within the sole jurisdiction of the Hungarian government, parliament, and courts. He finished his speech with a refusal to accept tutelage from Brussels. For good measure he accused them of  having double standards and of defending the multinational corporations and banks. I had the feeling that by that time Orbán believed that he had nothing to lose. It was no longer necessary to try to mollify the EU parliamentarians. No matter what he does, I suspect he reasoned, the vote will go against him.

And a few more words about the performance of Fidesz and Jobbik MEPs. What can I say? It was embarrassing. Szájer’s comments were the most outrageous. He was not on the list of official speakers but he asked to be recognized perhaps three times. In the first instance he outright lied when he announced that foreign investment was never greater in Hungary than in the last two or three years. Then he claimed that the members of the European Union are afraid of the truth and that’s why they don’t want to give Orbán the opportunity to speak. Both Verhofstadt and Martin Schulz, the president of  the EP, corrected Szájer. After all, they were the ones who asked Viktor Orbán to come to the plenary session of the European Parliament. But that was not enough for Szájer. He retorted that even in Stalin’s show trials more time was allotted to the accused than to the accusers. Well, that’s when Martin Schulz’s patience ran out. He reprimanded Szájer for making any comparison between Stalin’s show trials and the European Union. But Szájer is not the kind of guy who knows when to stop. He got up again and tried to explain away his unfortunate remark. He repeated his reference to Stalin’s show trials and added that it was only the time limit that he had in mind. Schulz was not impressed and rebuked him again. Szájer did a disservice to the Fidesz cause.

Kinga Gál, another Fidesz MEP, was one of the official speakers. She didn’t fare any better than Szájer. In her speech she challenged the democratic nature of the European Parliament that voted in committee for the Tavares report. Schulz gave her a piece of his mind. He told her that it is impossible to claim that majority rule in Hungary is perfectly legitimate while questioning the democratic nature of majority rule in the European Parliament. After all, the majority of LIBE members voted for the Tavares report.

The third Fidesz MEP, Ágnes Hankiss, asked to raise a “question.” It turned out that she in fact planned to deliver a lecture on the injustices of the Tavares report. Schulz interrupted her, saying that she was abusing the privilege of posing questions. Hankiss tried to go on but was stopped.

And if that weren’t enough, we had the privilege of listening to Krisztina Morvai (Jobbik) twice. No EU parliamentary caucus accepted Jobbik and therefore they sit as unaffiliated members. Thus she had the privilege of speaking twice, just as the other leaders of the various parties. She sported a blouse adorned with Hungarian folk motifs and held up a sign reading “HUNGARY ≠COLONY.” Otherwise, although Orbán emphasized that he is the one who is most fiercely attacked by the far-right Jobbik, Morvai defended Fidesz and its policies all the way while accusing Viviane Reding of meddling in Hungarian affairs. Her second speech was especially remarkable. She recalled her days working with battered women who often thought that they could change their abusive husband’s behavior by pleasing him, working harder, and being the best of housewives. But eventually when the husband’s behavior remained the same, they came to the conclusion that there was only one remedy: divorce. So, Hungary should pack up and leave the Union if this abuse continues. After that ringing defense of Fidesz it will be difficult for Orbán to maintain his fierce opposition to the far right. After all, they speak the same language and Jobbik fights alongside Fidesz for the “honor of Hungary.” Frank Engel (Luxembourg EPP member) sarcastically remarked immediately afterwards that he hoped that “Ms Morvai has not just offered to go into coalition with Fidesz.”

The vote will take place tomorrow at 11:30 European time or 5:30 EDT. I will be watching.

Negotiations between MSZP and Együtt 2014 began while left of center public figures gather in Szárszó

This weekend was dominated by the Hungarian opposition, a rare event nowadays. First, the long-awaited negotiations between Gordon Bajnai’s Együtt 2014-PM (E14) and the Attila Mesterházy-led MSZP began. I complained earlier that the scheduled meeting was fixed for Friday. Another week wasted. Then in the last minute it was again postponed due to the death of Gyula Horn, former MSZP prime minister internationally known for his role in the unification of Germany by allowing tens of thousands of East German refugees to leave Hungary and join their compatriots in the West. Naturally, MSZP MPs wanted to be present at the eulogies in parliament honoring their former leader.

So, it was only on Saturday morning that the MSZP delegation comprised of Attila Mesterházy, József Tóbiás, Tamás Harangozó, László Botka, Zoltán Lukács, and Zsolt Molnár arrived at E14’s headquarters. Waiting for them were Gordon Bajnai, Péter Juhász (Milla), Viktor Szigetvári, Péter Kónya (Solidarity), Szabó Tímea, and Benedek Jávor (Párbeszéd Magyarországért [PM]). The meeting lasted four hours although it was frequently interrupted for “cigarette breaks” for the smokers in the MSZP delegation.

According to several descriptions of the meeting, although it started off with socialist recriminations by Mesterházy about E14’s claim to be the exclusive herald of a new era, eventually the conversation became quite friendly. Most importantly, both Bajnai and Mesterházy announced that they are ready to step aside if circumstances so dictate and are ready to support whoever is chosen for the post of prime minister. They also outlined a timetable that will start with first agreeing to a common program but, I’m happy to announce, these talks will not drag out too long. By mid-July the agreement will be signed. In the fall they will start selecting common candidates and eventually will settle the issue of a candidate for the post of prime minister. The minimum requirement will be having only common candidates, but the socialists would also like to have a common list that in their opinion can assure the highest number of votes.

Finally, according to rumors the two parties “graciously” agreed to allow the Demokratikus Koalíció to join the unified opposition but only if Ferenc Gyurcsány does not run in the forthcoming election. He can’t even be an ordinary parliamentary candidate. As expected, DK has already posted a note on Facebook:

DK is a proud and strong party with a membership of 8,000. It won two local by-elections and at two others its candidates won 25% of the votes. It has ten members in parliament which is currently the second largest opposition party. DK is the greatest opponent of the Orbán dictatorship.

No one should doubt that Ferenc Gyurcsány, the last active politician who defeated Viktor Orbán, will run in the 2014 elections.

And now let’s move on to the next event that may have some influence on Hungary’s political future. Hungary’s leading left-of-center public figures, businessmen, politicians, artists, writers, philosophers, and political scientists gathered for a “picnic” or as one newspaper called it a “jamboree” at Tivadar (Teddy) Farkasházy’s house in Balatonszárszó (Szárszó for short). Farkasházy, a writer and humorist, is the great-great-grandson of Móric Fischer von Farkasházy, founder of the Herend porcelain factory in 1830.

It was in 1993 that Farkasházy first invited the cream of Hungarian society to a get-together to discuss matters of importance. At this first meeting Viktor Orbán and several other people from the right were among the invited guests.

These yearly gatherings continued for ten years, but after 2003 they were no longer held. Perhaps because then came eight years of socialist-liberal rule. But Farkasházy came to the conclusion that it was time to revive the tradition. A couple of days ago Népszava predicted that although more than 400 people were invited, most likely many of them will be afraid to attend. Well, they were not. According to some estimates there might have been 600 guests. Naturally, Gordon Bajnai and Attila Mesterházy attended in addition to two former prime ministers, Péter Medgyessy and Ferenc Gyurcsány.

György Konrád, the well known writer, was one of the main speakers. He made no secret of his conviction that the next prime minister of Hungary should be Gordon Bajnai because he has “already proved himself.” But Attila Mesterházy should be there assisting him. It should be like a tandem bicycle: Bajnai at the handlebar and Mesterházy pushing the pedals. People present wondered how Mesterházy must have felt listening to Konrád’s advice, but apparently Mesterházy took it in stride and in fact even thanked Konrád for some of the praise he received from the writer.

Gordon Bajnai and Attila Mesterházy received mountain bikes as a gift from Teddy Farkasházy

Gordon Bajnai and Attila Mesterházy received mountain bikes as a gift from Teddy Farkasházy / Népszava

Paul Lendvai struck a rather pessimistic note, announcing that  in his opinion the opposition couldn’t possibly win the next election. Well, that got to fiery Ágnes Heller, who gave such an inspiring speech urging people to do everything possible that she received a standing ovation. Both Bajnai and Mesterházy spoke, the former in his usual measured manner and the latter in a more populist vein.

The real value of such a gathering lies not the speeches but in the opportunity it offers important people from many walks of life to gather in small groups and exchange ideas. There is an excellent picture gallery in Népszava, from which it is clear that everybody who’s anybody in leftist circles was at Farkasházy’s house in Szárszó.

Farkasházy might be a humorist, but he has no taste for the snide kind of humor Index’s reporter displayed in his early reports of the event and he was subsequently barred from the premises. HírTV fared worse. Farkasházy didn’t even let them in. On the other hand, ATV’s crew was there, and tomorrow after Egyenes beszéd we will be able to see the most important parts of the program.

Magyar Hírlap triumphantly announced that Ferenc Gyurcsány left early “because he wasn’t allowed to speak.” Of course, this is nonsense. The program was fixed ahead of time, so Gyurcsány knew that he would not be one of the speakers. This is a small thing but it says a lot about the unprofessionalism of the journalists who gather at the right-wing publications. And, as long as I’m lashing out at journalists, some young ones (in their early 20s) are simply supercilious and write dumb little snippets like the one in today’s 444.hu where the reporter calls the new formation “a coalition of clowns.”

I don’t know how important this meeting of like-minded people was, but I don’t think that it was totally useless. It might mend fences between the Hungarian liberals and socialists on the one hand and left-leaning intellectuals on the other. Let’s hope that this gathering was the start of closer cooperation between them.

The Orbán government and the “Jewish question” by Karl Pfeifer

Karl Pfeifer is an Austrian journalist who as a child spent some time in Hungary and learned faultless Hungarian. His Hungarian friends call him Karcsi. You can read more about him here.

* * *

Viktor Orbán, prime minister of Hungary, is doing everything in his power to obtain legitimacy for his antidemocratic policies from the next World Jewish Congress that will be held in Budapest (May 5-7, 2013). Does the choice of Budapest signify anything given the daily reports of growing Hungarian anti-Semitism?

Naturally, the Hungarian government is doing its level best to “correct” this widespread perception. Gullible foreigners are fed all kinds of half- or untruths about the situation in Hungary. They minimize the extent of anti-Semitism in the country while exaggerating the government’s effort at attempting to curb activities of neo-Nazi groups.*

World Jewish CongressI was there when the Hungarian ambassador to Austria, Vince Szalay-Bobrovniczky, declared in Vienna the other day: “If Hungary were a fascist country the WJC would not hold its congress in Budapest. One hundred thousand Jews live in Hungary and our prime minister made clear that he does everything in his power to defend the Jewish minority. I have never heard the Austrian chancellor say anything like that in the Austrian parliament.”** Now even the most ardent critics of the present government (I among them) never called Hungary a “fascist country.” And, thankfully, the Jews of Austria were never subjected after 1945 to the kind of verbal (and sometimes physical) threats as they are in present-day Hungary. Therefore the Austrian chancellor never felt he had to defend the Jewish minority in public.

The first question is how did the Hungarian ambassador arrive at the figure of 100,000 Jews in Hungary? According to the Nuremberg or the Hungarian racial laws of the early nineteen forties? Or does anybody seriously claim that there are 100,000 Hungarian Jews entitled to enter Israel and receive Israeli citizenship according to the premises of the Israeli law of return?

In the end it is a question of democracy. Can the state and its rulers decide the identity of its inhabitants? Should they have the right to define who is a Jew and to define Hungarian Jews as a minority? After all, Hungarian Jewry was never considered to be a distinct ethnic minority. Yet Viktor Orbán, in that speech the Hungarian ambassador was referring to, was talking about “our kind of Christian Democrats” as opposed to the Jews. Isn’t one’s personal identity a basic right of every citizen?

Hungarian right-wing media rehash the old claim that the Jews were responsible for Communist rule in Hungary. While the leaders of Hungarian Jewry use the old and failed method of appeasement.

In 1920, when French and British Jews lodged a complaint at the League of Nations about the law that restricted the number of Jewish students at institutions of higher learning, the Hungarian-Jewish leadership objected to foreign interference in the name of Hungarian patriotism. As a result of protests of the excluded students eventually the officials did lodge a complaint but added that the community concerned was not in a position to act freely: “… in view of the virulence of anti-Semitic agitation in Hungary, it will be readily understood that the Jewish community are scarcely free agents in this matter.” ***

So, when anti-Jewish laws were enacted  in 1938 the Hungarian Jewish leaders’ position was already compromised when they tried to get help from British and French Jews. They didn’t receive much assistance. The Hungarian-Jewish establishment felt it had to come to terms with the country’s rulers and to acquiesce in “moderating” anti-Jewish legislation, hoping that would forestall the harsher measures advocated by the extreme right-wing elements. As we know, this was to no avail. Harsher and harsher laws were introduced until the final solution reached about 70% of Hungary’s Jewry. Jews were alone within the Hungarian non-Jewish society, almost without any support by the liberal and progressive elements.

How do the rulers of Hungary deal with the “Jewish question” today? Here is one example of many. György Konrád, who by an almost miraculous chain of fortunate circumstances escaped the Hungarian Holocaust to become one of the most famous dissidents and authors of his country, the President of the international PEN club of writers and President of the Berlin Academy of Arts and Letters, celebrated his eightieth birthday on April 2. He received congratulations from all over the world, was officially invited by the politically conservative president of Germany for a personal visit at his residence. But nobody from official Hungary, not the president, not the prime minister, not the mayor of Budapest, not the lowest government official in charge of cultural affairs saw fit to send him even a friendly word. On the contrary, one of the chief functionaries responsible for national culture (or rather the lack of it) publicly stated that Konrád was no Hungarian writer at all, only erroneously seen abroad as such.

While some might be tempted to restrict Hungarian anti-Semitism to the Hungarian Nazis and their political party, Jobbik, and trust the promises of Mr. Orbán, they should know that the nationalistic, “völkisch” policy of the government will continue unabated after the ladies and gentlemen of WJC and journalists like myself graciously invited as reporters will have returned to their countries of origin.

*http://www.hagalil.com/archiv/2013/04/17/gyor/ In Győr a Nazi demonstration was allowed in the center of town on April 13 and the Nazi were escorted by the Hungarian police.

**Austrian public radio has reported on the statement of the Hungarian ambassador in Vienna. http://oe1.orf.at/programm/335405 and I published on the same at http://www.hagalil.com/archiv/2013/04/25/ungarn-symposium/

***The Joint Foreign Committee of the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Anglo-Jewish Association, The Jewish Minority in Hungary (London).