Tag Archives: Péter Pázmány Catholic University

A compulsory course on the Holocaust at the Hungarian Catholic University

While the world is preoccupied with Greece and Viktor Orbán’s preparations to erect a fence along the Hungarian border with Serbia, I decided to focus today on the debate over Péter Pázmány Catholic University’s decision to introduce a compulsory course on the Holocaust. Until now there was only one compulsory course, “Introduction to the Catholic Faith,” which I understand, to put it mildly, is not taken seriously by the students. According to someone who is most likely a student at PPKE, as the university is known, “it is a joke,” a course in which everybody cheats.

President Szabolcs Szuromi and Ilan Mor at the press conference

President Szabolcs Szuromi and Ilan Mor at the press conference

On May 26 Szabolcs Szuromi, the president of PPKE, in the presence of Ilan Mor, Israeli ambassador to Hungary, held a press conference, which was disrupted by two “journalists” from Alfahír and Kurucinfo. The former is the semi-official internet site of Jobbik. Kurucinfo, the virulent anti-Semitic media outlet, needs no introduction. Both men fired all sorts of provocative questions at the president and the ambassador.

The reaction of the far right didn’t surprise anyone. They especially objected to the presence and role of Ambassador Mor and to the fact that two Israeli historians, Dina Porat and Raphael Vago, had been asked to prepare the syllabus for the course. Jobbegyenes (Straight Right) accused the Hungarian government of taking orders from the Israeli ambassador when it agreed to the removal of a sign referring to “the victims of Gaza” behind the Hungarian entrant at the Eurovision competition. Moreover, according to the author, it is not PPKE’s job to teach students about the Holocaust. They should have learned that in high school.

Zsolt Bayer’s reaction was also expected. In his opinion, there is just too much talk about the Holocaust. Practically every day there is a new book, a movie, or a theater performance. A few years ago he “thought that one couldn’t sink lower” when he read in Népszabadság that grandchildren of German war criminals, with the financial help of the European Union, had arrived in Budapest asking for forgiveness from elderly survivors. In Bayer’s opinion it was a perverse idea. The souls of these youngsters are “infected with guilt.” What is going on at PPKE is also a perversion. In fact, Bayer thinks PPKE’s decision was even worse than the grandchildren’s apology.

But there were critical remarks on the left as well. The most serious criticism came from Sándor Révész. He objected to the compulsory nature of the course and predicted that “within seconds” someone will suggest “a compulsory course on Trianon, on the communist dictatorship, on religious persecution,” and so on and so forth. In fact, Gábor Vona and Dóra Duró of Jobbik already sent a letter to the president of PPKE asking for the introduction of a course on the tragedy of Trianon.

Révész also found PPKE’s decision to introduce such a course problematic because it is a well-known fact that the Catholic Church still venerates Ottokár Prohászka (1858-1927), bishop of Székesfehérvár, who was a rabid anti-Semite and the ideological precursor of Hungarism, the Hungarian version of Nazism. Révész called attention to the fact that the Hungarian Catholic Church published a collection of Prohászka’s most savage anti-Semitic writings titled My anti-Semitism in 1942. “Is PPKE ready to reevaluate the opus of Ottokár Prohászka in connection with the Holocaust?” asked Révész.

There is criticism coming from historians as well. László Karsai, a historian who has written extensively on the Holocaust, finds it strange that two Israeli scholars were invited to prepare the syllabus when there are many Hungarians qualified to do the job. Moreover, Karsai finds the syllabus as well as the readings wanting. Some books on the reading list are of inferior quality. If he had children at PPKE, he wouldn’t advise them to take the course–not that they would have a choice. He added, however, that “it is an interesting experiment that might generate some lively discussions.”

Péter György, professor at ELTE, just announced that they themselves have been thinking about creating three one-semester courses that all students of the Faculty of Arts would have to take: the cultural history of racism, social theory, and the philosophy of science.  In the course on the cultural history of racism students would also study about the Holocaust. The members of the faculty realize, I think, that something went very wrong at the university since a large portion of the Jobbik leadership graduated from ELTE with a degree in history. Although they don’t want to meddle in the worldview of students, they believe that they should be able to fend off blind prejudice and racism. György admitted that “radicalism” is a very serious problem at ELTE and “the university has no other antidote than arming the students with the necessary knowledge.” He was very pleased when he heard about PPKE’s decision and he, unlike Révész, trusts the faculty of the university to face the past honestly.

It was Elek Tokfalvi, one of my favorite publicists, who was truly enthusiastic about the course. In his opinion, what happened in Hungary was unique in the history of the Holocaust because the Hungarian Jewish community’s destruction began after all the others’ had already ended. Therefore, studying the Hungarian Holocaust is warranted. Tokfalvi looks upon PPKE’s decision to introduce a course on the Holocaust as a “moral redemption” after decades of the undisturbed spread of anti-liberalism, anti-capitalism, ethnic superiority. “Therefore, it deserves praise.” In his opinion, other universities should follow PPKE’s example.” Perhaps it would also be beneficial to teach basic values that would “counterbalance the anti-Semitism of university graduates.” The same idea that Péter György is advocating.

One thing is certain. It s not enough to introduce a course on the Holocaust. As long as people like the economist Katalin Botos give lectures like the one available in part on YouTube, no change in attitudes can be expected.

It might also be a good idea if György Fodor, dean of the Divinity School, and others would take a more critical look at Ottokár Prohászka and the Catholic Church’s attitudes past and present concerning anti-Semitism and racism because, for the most part, the church leaders did very little, or nothing.

“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.