Tag Archives: Imre Kertész

“Son of Saul” and its reception by the Hungarian right

A month ago Medián conducted a survey on the current state of anti-Semitism in Hungary. This was Medián’s fourth such survey since 2006, and the results are not exactly heartwarming. During this period Medián measured the number of extreme and moderate anti-Semites as well as those who are free of anti-Jewish prejudice. The good news is that the number of extreme and moderate anti-Semites dropped from 38% to 32% between 2013 and 2014, but of course this is still way too high in comparison to the United States, Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, or Denmark, although it is more in line with some other Western European countries such as France and Spain. For a handy comparison, see the Anti-Defamation League’s Global 100.

Jobbik, Hungary’s neo-Nazi party, is well known as a racist organization which has two arch-enemies, the Jews and the Roma. Although Gábor Vona, the party leader, believes that the party ought to move more to the center of the ideological spectrum to attract larger popular support, many members of the top leadership are staunch anti-Semites who have serious reservations about the new strategy. Moreover, as the Medián survey illustrates, 75% of Jobbik voters are also anti-Semitic.

It is difficult to keep the Jobbik party members in line, especially when there is a hot topic that stirs up the Hungarian anti-Semitic crowd–in this case, the new film “Son of Saul,” which just won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival.

No one, except for the people at Cannes, have seen the film yet, but critics find it exceptional. For example, “no single entry in this year’s competition impressed more than first-time Hungarian director Laszlo Nemes’ ‘Son of Saul,'” or “‘remarkable’ may not do Laszlo Nemes’ holocaust drama ‘Son of Saul’ justice.” By all indications, the film might be a strong contender for next year’s Oscar.

László Nemes, director of Son of Saul in Cannes

László Nemes, director of Son of Saul, in Cannes

But the far-right crowd, including some of the leaders of Jobbik, are not at all happy. They were already outraged when Imre Kertész won the Nobel Prize for his book “Fateless” in 2002. As far as they were concerned, the book was not good literature and Kertész received the prize only because the Holocaust is a theme guaranteed to garner acclaim in literature as well as in the film industry.

László Nemes, the young director of the film, tried to get money for the production from all over the world, but in the end it was the Hungarian government’s fund for the arts that underwrote 75% of the project. When the funding decision was made in 2013, Előd Novák, one of the most outspoken anti-Semites of Jobbik, complained bitterly. He pointed out that this was the second film on the Hungarian Holocaust that had been paid for by the Hungarian government. The first one, directed by Lajos Koltai, was based on Kertész’s book (2005). Novák grumbled that “Fateless” had received 920 million forints, and now another Holocaust film was getting 205 million. Moreover, the committee also allocated 4.5 million forints for the development of a movie script (“The Lawyer”) about the trial of the Jews accused of ritual murder in Tiszaeszlár in 1882, “naturally written from the point of view of the lawyer who defended the Jews.” Instead of such films, he argued, the Hungarian government should support films about national heroes and great moments in Hungarian history–for example, the Battle of Pozsony (Pressburg/Bratislava) of 907 or the Ragged Guard (Rongyos gárda) that defended the western borders of Hungary in 1921. Novák called all this interest in the events of 1944 no more than “Holocaust industry.”

Novák is not impressed by the success of “Son of Saul.” He wrote on his Facebook page a couple of days ago : “Now they expect me to fall on my face because of the international success of the Hungarian Holocaust film. But it is not merely a joke to say that the greatest holiday of the Jews is the day the Oscars are given out…. Kate Winslet confessed that she decided to take a role in a Holocaust movie because then an Oscar is guaranteed. Earlier she had been nominated four times, but didn’t win once.” Winslet received the Oscar for her role in “The Reader” (2008).

For the government and its supporters, the fact that it was a government grant that made the production of “Son of Saul” possible comes in very handy. A group of right-wingers on HírTV who discussed the film had difficulty mustering enthusiasm for the prize and often referred to the Holocaust as a theme that guarantees critical success. One of the participants thought that “picking the Holocaust as his subject was a clever move on the part of a first-time director.” But, however critical they might be, they argued that the production of a film about the Holocaust “proves that there is no anti-Semitism in Hungary.”

György Dörner, the far-right director of Új Színház whose appointment by Mayor István Tarlós was accompanied by demonstrations and protests, expressed his hope that László Nemes’s next film will be about that great battle between Árpád and the Bavarians in 907. Előd Novák’s views on the real task of the Hungarian film industry must have made a great impression on Dörner.

The Orbán government is trying to change the general perception that it doesn’t do enough to combat anti-Semitism in the country. Today I read with astonishment that from here on students at the Péter Pázmány Catholic University will be required to take a course on the Holocaust. Keep in mind that the Catholic University is an institution close to the heart of policy makers. The rector of the university explained that he had been impressed by the view of Israeli Ambassador Ilan Mor that days of remembrance are not enough, that something new and different is needed to make a real impact. The one-semester course will be called “The Holocaust and Remembrance.” It seems that there is already a compulsory course called “Introduction to Catholic Teaching.” The right-wing reaction to the Catholic University’s decision is predictable.

As for “Son of Saul,” once it is available for public viewing, I suspect there will be a very serious discussion about the accuracy of its depiction of Saul as a member of the camp’s Sonderkommando. One such article already appeared in mandiner.hu.

The Seehofer-Orbán interview redux: Four questions to Seehofer from Hungary

When three days ago I summarized a double interview with Bavarian premier Horst Seehofer and Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán which appeared in the internet edition of the conservative Die Welt, I did not anticipate what followed. I simply pointed out that although Seehofer is a conservative politician, he disagrees with Orbán on some key issues: the European Union, the eurozone, and Russia. I spent time on this particular interview because I wanted to call attention to what I perceive as the generally deteriorating German-Hungarian relations.

What happened afterward was indeed unexpected. A regional Bavarian paper, Oberbayerisches Volksblatt, published an article saying that the interview was originally supposed to appear in the Sunday edition of the paper, Die Welt am Sonntag, but because the interviewer neglected to ask really important questions from Orbán, the editors decided not to publish the interview in the print edition of the paper. According to the Bavarian paper, the representatives of the Hungarian government were outraged and accused Die Welt of censorship. At this point, the complaint got as far as Edmund Stoiber, the honorary chairman of the CSU, who contacted the CEO of Axel Springer, the owner of Die Welt. However, says the journalist responsible for the article, Stoiber’s intervention was in vain. The interview did not appear in Die Welt am Sonntag.

Well, this was the version that came from Bavaria. The following description of what happened comes from the press department of the Hungarian Prime Minister’s Office. The interview was approved by both Seehofer and Orbán, but the next day the editor, through the Hungarian embassy in Berlin, asked Orbán to answer three more questions. The head of the press department claimed that the editor admitted that “the Hungarian prime minister performed too well,” so they would like him to answer three additional questions: (1) about Orbán’s anti-European Union rhetoric; (2) about his creation of an authoritarian democracy; and (3) about the firing of hundreds of journalists not to the government’s liking. Viktor Orbán called these queries “false accusations masked as questions” and refused to answer them. The Hungarian government considered Die Welt‘s behavior unacceptable and unethical.

And finally, here is Die Welt‘s version of the incident. The editors of the paper saw things differently. Their journalist did not do a good job, did not put the right questions to the two politicians, and therefore the interview turned out to be dull. The editors wanted to ask a few additional relevant questions but, since they received no answers, they decided not to publish the interview in the print edition of the paper. They added that this particular issue was published during the weekend when the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall was being celebrated and that this “incomplete interview was not up to snuff.” Asking questions later if necessary is a common practice in German journalism, claimed Christian Gottschalk, editor of the Stuttgarter Zeitung.

I might add here that recently there was another “journalistic scandal”–this time in connection with Imre Kertész, whose interview was not published in The New York Times. Kertész complained that the paper censored the interview because he refused to call the present Hungarian regime a “dictatorship.” According to David Streitfeld, the New York Times‘s Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Kertész simply told him that he is in bad physical shape and therefore does not participate in public life and is not really interested in politics. In brief, the interview was not “interesting” enough to publish.

Question

In connection with the Bavarian-Hungarian encounter and interview I would like to summarize an article that appeared in today’s Galamus by Gábor Endrődi. Since Horst Seehofer defended Viktor Orbán when he encountered criticism from opponents on the left, Endrődi wrote that he would like to pose four questions to Seehofer.

Question 1: Bild Zeitung is the most popular daily in Germany. According to statistics, it sells more than 2.5 million copies daily while the next largest paper has fewer than a million readers. It is a well-known fact that articles in Bild Zeitung had a role to play in the eventual resignation of the German president at the beginning of 2012. Could you find it conceivable that, instead of the president’s resigning two months after the appearance of these critical articles, the Bundestag would pass a law stipulating that every newspaper that sells more than a million copies a day must pay in the form of a tax half of its revenues, a tax that is one hundred times greater than the taxes paid by newspapers with smaller circulations?

Question 2: Is it conceivable that a legislative proposal about tobacco concessions was actually written by one of the tobacco companies that subsequently received ten percent of the concessions and then as manufacturer pays only one-twentieth of what its competitors must pay?

Question 3: Would you submit and vote for a piece of legislation in the Bundestag that would impose sixty times more “extra” levy on the leading firm in a certain area of business activity, let’s say on Neckermann, than on its smaller competitors?

Question 4: If the answers, even in part, are in the affirmative, then we have no more questions. If, on the other hand, they are in the negative, we have a final question: can a country with such a system of taxation remain a part of the euroatlantic alliance? Would you vote for this country’s membership in the European Union?

Endrődi at the beginning of the article expressed his hope that one day a German journalist will pose these questions to Horst Seehofer, the defender of Viktor Orbán. Well, I decided not to wait for that moment. These questions, to my mind, deserve a wider audience than a Hungarian-language internet site can provide. Perhaps their message will resonate with the politicians who have a say in European affairs.

A balancing act: a decoration for Imre Kertész and another for his right-wing foe

The debate about Imre Kertész’s acceptance of the Order of St. Stephen is slowly subsiding. There were important voices on the left, Ágnes Heller and Tamás Ungvári among them, who decided that since Imre Kertész is a great writer and the only Hungarian Nobel Prize winner in literature he richly deserves the highest decoration that can be awarded by any Hungarian government. In this view, it really doesn’t matter that between 1940 and 1944 several war criminals received the Order of St. Stephen.

Others who are  less forgiving  hope that Imre Kertész, given his illness and possible mental impairment, simply didn’t realize that this award was the Orbán government’s cynical answer to the unsavory reputation it acquired as the leading force in the falsification of the history of the Hungarian Holocaust. Honoring Kertész was conceived as a way to blunt the sharp clash between the Hungarian government and the domestic and international Jewish communities.

erdemrendBut trying to appease one group was guaranteed to outrage another. The Orbán government knew that there would be an outcry in extreme right-wing circles following the decision to award such a high honor to someone whom they consider to be not a member of the nation.

In order to “balance” things they opted to bestow a lesser decoration on a man of extreme political views. The Hungarian government settled on Mihály Takaró, who is supposed to be a “poet and literary historian.”

Takaró’s mission in life is the propagation of Hungary’s “banished literature.” Members of this banished group are writers of the interwar period who in Takaró’s opinion were supremely talented but because of their political views were barred from Hungary’s literary corpus.

The decoration Takaró received is a modest one, called Magyar Érdemrend Lovagkereszt (polgári tagozat), something I’m not even going to try to translate. It is given out twice a year: on March 15 and August 20. Each time at least 30-40 people receive it as a token of the government’s appreciation. In this case presumably one reason for the appreciation is that Takaró was among those who consider Kertész to be a mediocre writer and not a member of the Hungarian nation.

Takaró, who until fairly recently was just a humble high school teacher, is now on the faculty of the Gáspár Károli Hungarian Reformed University, which seems to be a gathering place for people of decidedly rightist views. Takaró’s time arrived with Viktor Orbán’s second administration when he had his own series entitled “Száműzött irodalom” (Banished Literature) on the state Duna TV.  The work of members of this group, in Takaró’s opinion, is among the greatest in Hungarian literature. For example, in an interview he gave on HírTV after receiving the decoration, he talked about Wass and Nyirő as equals of Sándor Petőfi and Attila József.

Featured in the series is an odd assortment of writers. Some, like Albert Wass  and József Nyirő, were members of or very close to Ferenc Szálasi’s Hungarist movement. Others, like Cecile Tormay, were rabid anti-Semites. And there were conservative writers, representatives of the Horthy regime’s “official literature” like Ferenc Herczeg. These writers are not considered by literary historians to be great. But Takaró also included a couple of poets of real talent who were there only because they were from Transylvania, by then in Romanian hands. All in all, Takaró’s series on Duna TV can be considered to be officially sponsored far-right propaganda. Some of the episodes can be seen on YouTube.

Here are a couple of them that should give readers a sense of Takaró’s mission. The first is about Albert Wass.

And here is another one on Cecile Tormay.

Takaró, in addition to his decidedly extremist views, has odd ideas about literary merit in general. He claims that the worth of a writer shouldn’t be determined by literary critics in later generations but by their popularity and acceptance by their contemporaries. In this view bestsellers of the 1920s and 1930s, like the works of Miklós Harsányi or Julianna Zsigray, should be judged to be better and more valuable than those of Attila József, who was almost an unknown but today is considered to be the greatest Hungarian poet.

Takaró complains bitterly about the falsification of the works of Hungarian classics–he specifically mentions Mihály Babits–whose irredentist utterances were unceremoniously left out even from “critical editions.” Very true. But what Takaró does not mention is that the Kádár regime’s self-censoring literary critics did the same thing to the works of such writers as János Kodolányi or László Németh, who became fully accepted writers by the regime although both had more than a slight brush with extreme right views in the 1930s. In their collected works the editors simply left out or rewrote passages that gave away their unsavory pasts.

HírTV invited Takaró for a fifteen-minute talk after he received his award. During the interview the question of literary worth and the writer’s political views was discussed. Perhaps the two should be completely separated, said the reporter. This was an opportunity for Takaró to get out of a sticky situation, especially when it came to his evangelizing for Hungarists like Wass and Nyirő. But our literary historian refused to budge. No, when judging an artist that person should be taken as a whole, including his political views. So Takaró is rehabilitating not only literary works but political ideologies as well.

In fact, one has the distinct feeling that Takaró’s main concern is the political views of these people and not the literary merit of their work. Moreover, he does not restrict his campaign to right-wing writers but often ventures into the field of history. Among his available lectures on YouTube there is a long appreciation of Miklós Horthy.

I doubt whether the extreme right will be satisfied with the decoration of one of their own as a consolation prize for the Order of St. Stephen for Imre Kertész. Even so, this government’s well practiced navigation through the treacherous waters of the far right never ceases to amaze me.

Mária Schmidt exploits Imre Kertész to bolster her own historical revisionism

Mária Schmidt, in an interview with Olga Kálmán on ATV yesterday, claimed that her writing an article about Imre Kertész, the Nobel Prize winning Hungarian author, at this particular time had nothing to do with the news released at the same time that Kertész will be one of the recipients of the Order of St. Stephen, currently the highest decoration the Hungarian state can bestow. It was pure coincidence. She just happened to be reading a lot of Kertész, especially two of his lesser known works, and suddenly it occurred to her that Imre Kertész has been totally neglected by left-of-center liberal intellectuals. Showing her contempt for these people, she kept calling them the “szoclib” crowd. And why do these people neglect him? Because they, who previously served the Kádár regime, cannot forgive Kertész for equating Soviet-style totalitarian dictatorship with Nazism.

Schmidt is dismayed that especially as we commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Hungarian Holocaust Imre Kertész’s name is hardly mentioned when, after all, he is the most famous Hungarian Holocaust survivor. Mária Schmidt is correct that Imre Kertész does not figure large in public discourse nowadays, but I disagree with her on the reasons for this relative neglect.

First, I would like to set the record straight. Kertész, after receiving the Nobel Prize, was attacked not by the “szoclib” crowd but by the extreme right, while the more moderate right just ignored him. In his diaries Kertész does complain about some Hungarian Jews on the left who were not enthusiastic about his receiving the prize, but they were few and far between. Those who actually burned his books were the far right. Mária Schmidt says not a word about this right-wing reaction to Kertész. When Olga Kálmán asked her about this omission, the only thing she could say was that she didn’t stoop so low as to mention them. A lame excuse. I might add that one of those right wingers who doesn’t consider Kertész to be a Hungarian writer will also receive a decoration from the government tomorrow.

And now a few thoughts about the absence of Imre Kertész from the public discourse of the last few months over the events of 1944. The debate has been about history, historical truth. Imre Kertész cannot add anything to our knowledge on that score. The argument is over the role of Hungary in the drama. Kertész is not only not interested in that topic but has a most unhistorical interpretation of the Holocaust. Here are a couple of examples of his rather startling remarks about the Shoa. “I have never considered the Holocaust a German-Jewish war; rather the method of a totalitarian regime,” he said in his famous interview entitled “Ich war ein Holocaust-Clown” that appeared in Die Zeit in September 2013. What can someone who is interested in the history of the Holocaust do with such a definition?  Not much. Or “I’m not interested in literature. Literature is of secondary importance. I only wanted to find the language to describe the phenomenon of totalitarianism. My whole work is about the alienated man of the 20th century.” Again, for those interested in questions surrounding the Hungarian Holocaust these words are not exactly helpful.

Holocaust3

I think that Kertész was on the right track when he blamed his relative neglect in discussions centering on the Holocaust on his “radical thinking.” He is indeed radical when he talks about the “ambitious generation of Holocaust liars, who rely on sentimentalism, assimilative dictatorship and profit-oriented business.” About whom is Kertész talking? Or, elsewhere: “The main point here is not what happened to the Jewish people but what happened to European values.” Of course, it is very important to consider what happened to European values, but how can anyone say that what happened to the Jewish people is not the main point?

Well, Mária Schmidt can and did. In one of her earlier works she stated that “World War II is not about the Jews, not about genocide. However regrettable, the Holocaust and the destruction or rescue of the Jews was of minor importance, one could say a marginal issue, which was not among the military goals of either side.”

It’s no wonder that Schmidt found a kindred soul in Kertész when she discovered quotations that support her own revisionist history. She quotes Kertész as saying that “the Holocaust does not divide but unites us, because it increasingly shows the universal nature of the experience.” For Schmidt this sentence provides justification for the government’s decision to lump together all the victims of the German occupation. Yes, I know it’s a stretch, but I’m sure this is how her mind works. In her earlier writings on the Holocaust she wrote about the Jews’ “inherited” suffering. After all, the survivors’ children and grandchildren are no longer victims, she claims. Kertész’s views support her thesis that there is nothing special about the suffering of the Jews. After all, everybody was touched by these dictatorships and everyone who lived through them suffered.

All in all, it seems to me that Schmidt is trying to use a writer’s ahistorical views to justify her own revisionist view of history. Kertész’s main concerns are philosophical and moral. He is searching for the meaning of his experiences. I’m sure that one day there will be many studies of Kertész’s philosophical ruminations, but Kertész cannot help us when it comes to a historical evaluation of the Holocaust.

The Orbán government bestows the Order of St. Stephen on Imre Kertész

A couple of days ago a stunned Hungarian public learned that the Orbán government will bestow on Imre Kertész, the sole Hungarian Nobel Prize winning author who until now has been the target of scorn from the far right and the object of studied neglect on the part of Fidesz, the highest state decoration, the Order of St. Stephen.

In November 2011 I wrote a post entitled “New Hungarian regime, new or not so new decorations.” The Order of St. Stephen was established by Maria Theresa in 1776, and it was abolished in 1946 when Hungary was declared a republic. Actually, no Order of St. Stephen was given out between 1920 and 1940 because by law the Grand Master of the Order had to be the Hungarian king. So for twenty years Horthy did not feel at liberty to bestow the order. By 1940, however, he no longer had any compunctions about taking over the role of the king. Once the order was reestablished, the recipients included Joachim von Ribbentrop, German foreign minister; Gian Galeazzo Ciano, Italian foreign minister and son-in-law of Mussolini; and Hermann Göring, marshall of the German Reich. It is this order Imre Kertész that will receive–and this company that he will keep.

It is difficult not to suspect that the Hungarian government’s sudden interest in Imre Kertész has something to do with Viktor Orbán’s efforts to improve his self-image abroad after the fiasco of the Holocaust Memorial Year. How many people will he manage to fool? I have the feeling not too many. The whole scheme is so obvious and cheap when, for example, only a few weeks ago Viktor Orbán was ready to appoint the anti-Semitic Péter Szentmihályi Szabó to be Hungarian ambassador to Rome, the same man who consistently called Kertész “Imre Kertész” instead of using the proper Hungarian word order “Kertész Imre,” indicating that he does not consider him to be a Hungarian.

I suspect, and I’m sure that I am not the only one, that it is Mária Schmidt who is behind this devilish idea. She “discovered” the deeply anti-communist Imre Kertész. Last Thursday Heti Válasz published a fairly lengthy article by her about the greatness of Imre Kertész, which bears little resemblance to the Kertész most of us know. The Hungarian original is not yet available, but thanks to the website Mandiner an English translation of it made its appearance online.

But before I talk about the Schmidt essay I should say a few things about Kertész’s attitude toward Hungary. Kertész has lived in Berlin for ten years. He loves the city and is grateful to the German reading public that discovered him. He also appreciates Germany’s efforts to face the country’s past as opposed to his own country’s reluctance to take even partial responsibility for what happened in Hungary during the spring and summer of 1944. He went so far as to deposit his archives in Germany instead of Hungary.

Kertész’s 2007 visit to the Bundestag: “I feel that people understand me better here.”
Source: AFP Photo Axel Schmidt

Given the fact that Kertész is a very ill man–he is in the advanced stages of Parkinson’s disease–it is difficult to know how much he understands about what’s happening around him. It is highly unlikely that he will be able to receive the highest Hungarian decoration in person. In the last two years he has not appeared in public. One thing is sure. In 2012 when he gave an interview to Florence Noiville of Le Monde, which was republished in part in The Guardian, he had a very bad opinion of Viktor Orbán’s Hungary. He was dismayed by the Hungarian people’s enthusiasm for Orbán. He felt that “the current situation is nothing but a further illustration of that tendency [of Hungary] to choose wrong.” After talking about Orbán’s anti-EU attitudes and about the majority of Hungarian young people at the university who sympathize with the extreme right, he concluded that “Hungarians are holding on to their destiny. They will undoubtedly end up failing, without understanding why.”

As for the official attitude toward him, Kertész was aware that some of his right-wing friends kept in touch with him only in secret. “It not well seen for them to be friendly with me. Remember the unleashing violence when I won the Nobel Prize–people were angry to see me become the only Hungarian Nobel when I was not glorifying “Hungarian-ness. After my novel Someone Other, I was attacked because of my dark portrayal of the country. Some even wondered if I was a real Hungarian writer….”

In January 2013 an article appeared in The New Yorker entitled “The Frightening Hungarian Crackdown” by Hari Kunzru, himself a writer. When Kunzru heard about Kertész’s decision to house his archives not in Hungary but in Germany, he thought it was “a profound gesture of reconciliation.” The friend corrected him:

I’m afraid there is something more to it: he has also good reasons to believe that in Hungary his legacy wouldn’t be treated with as much respect as in Germany, as he is regarded by the current political elite as an “unHungarian” and then I’ve been euphemistic. For example, currently his work is not part of the Hungarian national education program, due to some changes in school material in which, at the same time, three famously antisemitic writers have been included.

The article ends with these words:

Hungary remains in a wistful, toxic relationship with the nineteen-thirties, with a fantasy of Jewish conspiracy and national moral decline. As the memory of the iron curtain fades and Europe recenters itself, Hungary’s fascist resurgence should be a matter of concern for all. Kertész’s own reaction is to quote Karl Kraus: “The situation is desperate, but not serious.”

All in all, it is unlikely that Kertész would accept any kind of decoration from Viktor Orbán’s government if he were in perfect mental health. Mária Schmidt and Viktor Orbán are taking advantage of an old, sick man.

To justify honoring Kertész Schmidt paints a very different portrait of his views. She uses three sources. All three appeared in the last few years when Kertész was not entirely himself. When he said a few things that perhaps were not only not fair but were dictated by resentment and suspicion of his liberal friends. In typical Schmidt manner, she presents a one-sided image of a very complex man by concentrating on a small segment of his output. She picks statements of Kertész which to her mind supports her own highly flawed thesis of the Holocaust. She is using Kertész’s Nobel Prize winning novel, Fateless, to justify her own House of Fates. Despicable.

Tomorrow I will give a taste of Schmidt’s revisionist description of Imre Kertész.

Mária Vásárhelyi: An open letter to Mrs. Annette Lantos

vasarhelyi mariaMária Vásárhelyi is a sociologist whose main interest is the state of the media. She is the daughter of Miklós Vásárhelyi (1917-2001) who served as the press secretary of the second Imre Nagy government. As a result he and his family, including the three-year-old Mária, were deported together with Imre Nagy and his family to Snagov, Romania. Miklós Vásárhelyi received a five-year sentence for his activities during the 1956 Revolution. I should add that Mária Vásárhelyi is one of my favorite publicists in Hungary.

* * *

Dear Mrs. Lantos,

Although we have not met personally, your late husband and my late father, Miklós Vásárhelyi, used to hold each other in high esteem; therefore I take the liberty to write this letter to you.

The tie between your husband and my father was not only based on common historical experience and mutual personal sympathy; they also shared some values that were manifest in moral and political issues that both of them found crucially important. And both of them bravely took a stance whenever they saw those values endangered. Among these principles the idea of freedom was of primary importance, as well as the representation of human rights, or responsibility for the situation of the minorities and the oppressed. Both fought in the Hungarian armed resistance against the fascist occupation; they worked to bring down the state socialist dictatorship; they stood up for the rights of Hungarian communities beyond the borders; and also spoke out after the democratic transformation, when racist and anti-Semitic views came to the fore on the political scene.

As far as I remember, among Hungarians living abroad, your husband was the first to protest when István Csurka’s anti-Semitic pamphlet “Some Thoughts” was published. He also raised his voice in 2007 when the Slovak Parliament reaffirmed the infamous Beneš Decrees. Your husband was most determined in his condemnation of the establishment of the Hungarian Guard, an anti-Roma and anti-Semitic organization, whose purpose was to intimidate and publicly humiliate the minorities in Hungary. To my knowledge, when he last met Viktor Orbán he made a point of expressing his dismay about how several politicians from Fidesz gave support to the foundation and activities of the Hungarian Guard, with Fidesz as a party not distancing itself unambiguously from that paramilitary organization.

The deep, principled understanding and mutual appreciation between your husband and my father was testified to by the speech Tom Lantos made in the House of Representatives on October 6, 2005, in which he emphasized my father’s “significant contribution to the cause of freedom and democracy,” as someone “who played a critically important role before and during the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, and again in the 1970s and 1980s, in the struggle to transform Hungary from a one-party communist state into a multi-party democracy.”

In the light of these facts I am certain you will understand why I find it so important to write to you about the House of Fates, on whose International Consultative Board you were invited to be a member. I am convinced that this institution, rather than serving its officially proclaimed aim of keeping the memory of the Holocaust alive and drawing the public’s attention to the tragedy of child victims, would serve the falsification of history, the politically motivated expropriation of historical memory, and purposes of party propaganda. The policies of the Orbán administration during the past few years, and its ambivalent (to put it mildly) relations with the extreme right; its policy of ignoring the growth of anti-Semitism in Hungary; as well as all that we know about the project so far – its contents, the circumstances of its establishment, the name itself, the location selected and the deadline chosen for its construction, the person in charge, the choice of the trustees – tend to suggest that the real purpose of the new European Educational Center is to downplay whatever responsibility Hungary had for the Holocaust and to mend the damaged international reputation of the current right-wing government.

During the past few years there have been more and more acts of desecration of Jewish symbols, prayer houses, cemeteries, and attacks on individuals whom the attackers took to be Jewish. A series of international and Hungarian sociological surveys give evidence of an extraordinary growth of anti-Semitism within Hungarian society; at least one fourth of the population openly declares it has anti-Semitic views, and many more people are simply prejudiced against the Jews. Everyday anti-Semitic discourse (zsidózás) is quite common in the streets and other public spaces. The same surveys make it clear that while the economic crisis played a role in the increased number of these occurrences, its effect has been boosted in the right-wing and extreme-right political context. Meanwhile, according to comparative research conducted in nine EU member states, it is Hungary where people of Jewish descent feel the most threatened. In 2012, 91% of the members of the Hungarian Jewish community said anti-Semitism had recently worsened to a smaller or larger degree; it is the largest portion among the countries surveyed. During five years, the number of those who consider anti-Semitism a serious social problem has nearly doubled. I am, of course, aware of the fact that anti-Semitism has become more widespread in most European countries, but it is still revealing that while only 11% of the Jewish community in the United Kingdom thinks of anti-Semitism as “a very big problem,” in Hungary 49% hold this view. In the UK 18% of those identifying themselves as Jews have contemplated emigration because of “not feeling safe as Jews”, while in Hungary this ratio is 48%.

I also believe that Viktor Orbán and his party are heavily responsible for the growth of anti-Semitism in Hungary. The Hungarian government’s reputation is rapidly worsening in the eyes of the democratic world, and this is largely due to their particular responses to ever-growing racism and anti-Semitism as well as some of their decisions concerning personal appointments and cultural policy, which gave fuel to such vicious emotions. Falsification of Hungary’s history, whitewashing the crimes of the Horthy era, elevating well-known anti-Semites (public figures, politicians, writers) to the national pantheon, while throwing mud at brave and honest left-wing and liberal patriots, are all features of the current government’s cultural and heritage policies. Parts of the media, which this government supports morally or financially (in direct and indirect ways), are full of overt and covert racist or anti-Semitic statements. Several of the figureheads of the pro-government press openly incite hatred against homosexuals, Jews, and the Roma. In the first rows of the so-called “Peace Marches,” demonstrations organized to prove that there is mass support behind Fidesz’s policies, there are well-known anti-Semites. One of the leaders of the quasi-NGO responsible for these marches used to be a founder and intellectual leader of the Hungarian Guard; another one, an emblematic figure in Fidesz, is a journalist whose work can be legally criticized as anti-Semitic, according to a court ruling. Still another leading figure of the Fidesz-related media can justly be called the father of Holocaust relativization in Hungary.

The government uses doublespeak. On the one hand, the deputy prime minister at the conference of the Tom Lantos Institute, Hungary’s ambassador at the United Nations, or, most recently, the President of the Republic, have used words of humanism and solidarity commemorating the victims of the Holocaust and admitting in unambiguous language that the Hungarian state and public administration bore responsibility for the murder of 600,000 of our Jewish compatriots. On the other hand, the government itself and government institutions have made countless gestures to the far right, relativizing the Holocaust, and denying that the Hungarian state apparatus was responsible to any degree.

This intention of downplaying Hungarian responsibility for the Holocaust is most apparent in the preamble of the Fundamental Law (Constitution), promulgated in 2011 under the Fidesz government, which states, “our country’s self-determination [was] lost on the nineteenth day of March 1944”. Which means that Germany as the occupying power must bear full responsibility for the deportation and wholesale murder of Hungarian Jewry. Apart from the fact that it was not an occupation in the international legal sense (the German armed forces did not occupy any Hungarian territories against the will of the Hungarian government), plenty of historical evidence and the testimonies of the survivors prove that the Hungarian authorities’ zeal and effectiveness in organizing the deportations shocked even the Germans, including high-level SS officers, while a significant part of the population watched the deportation of their fellow citizens with utmost indifference. The narrative that the government suggests through the text of the Fundamental Law is, therefore, an utter lie. Similarly, the planned 70th anniversary commemorations of the Holocaust are marked by an intention of falsification and lies – including the establishment of The House of Fates European Educational Center.

The name House of Fates is evidently an allusion to Nobel laureate Imre Kertész’s novel Fatelessness, but its message is quite the opposite. It suggests that being murdered in a concentration camp was the fate of those children, but, although they lived through it, the fate was not theirs. As Kertész writes, “if there is such a thing as fate, then freedom is not possible (…) if there is such a thing as freedom, then there is no fate (…) That is to say, then we ourselves are fate.” (English translation by Tim Wilkinson) This is how the main protagonist of the novel, Gyurka Köves, formulates the key to his own story, when he realizes that whatever happened to him was not his own fate, although he himself lived through it. The name House of Fates is not just a play on words but a complete misinterpretation of the essence of the Holocaust. And not just the name but also the site is a telling sign of the intellectual emptiness behind the lofty and bombastic use of the Holocaust as a political instrument. Holocaust researchers and survivors all agree that the Józsefváros Railway Station is not a symbolic site of deportation, and no children were taken from there to Auschwitz. The historian in charge of the project’s concept – who once happened to call the Horthy régime, which presided over the Hungarian Jews’ total deprivation of rights and exclusion, “a democracy until 1938” – is not a Holocaust expert. During the past 25 years, she has not produced any publications of scholarly merit on this subject but was at the center of quite a few scandals.

The plans that have been leaked out indicate that the central message of the Educational Center would not be the tragedy of innocent children but the rescuers, those brave and honorable citizens who put their lives at risk in their efforts to help and save their persecuted compatriots. Naturally, there should be monuments commemorating their bravery and sacrifice, but why must the plight of many thousands of murdered children be used for that purpose? This is the dishonest betrayal and political utilization of the child victims’ memory.

Dear Annette Lantos, living thousands of kilometers away from Hungary you may not be aware of all this. That is why I felt it was my duty to inform you of these issues and draw your attention to some aspects of the cause in support of which your late husband’s memory and your own name are being used. I ask you to reconsider whether you want to participate in the Consultative Board’s proceedings.

Respectfully yours,

Mária Vásárhely

“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.