Europe’s Capital of Anti-Semitism
Budapest survived fascism and communism and blossomed after the fall of the Iron Curtain. But the Hungarian capital is experiencing a rebirth of anti-Semitism. The far-right Jobbik is now the country’s third largest party and Jews are being openly intimidated.
Part 1: Budapest Experiences A New Wave of Hate
The city was always good for drama — for intrigues about life and death, for eternal love and murderous betrayal, for torture, political heroism and sexual escapades. Founded by the Romans, destroyed by the Mongols and oppressed by the Ottoman Turks, Budapest has reinvented itself time and again, flexible in the flux of time. It has also served as a laboratory of sorts for varying political ideologies, from National Socialism to fascism to communism.
The United Nations has named four spots in the city UNESCO world heritage sites: the panorama on the Danube River embankment, the Buda castle district, the Millennium underground railway and Andrássy Avenue. The Hungarians wanted to use the magnificent boulevard, which was designed and built as part of preparations for the nation’s mythical millennium celebration in 1896, to demonstrate that they had assumed their rightful place in the center of the continent. The country fell to the Nazis 40 years later. The Arrow Cross Party, a Hungarian national socialist party briefly in power from October 1944 to March 1945, was still driving Jews into extermination camps after Adolf Eichmann, the “architect of the Holocaust,” had already fled.
The Real Budapest
The New York Times recently dubbed Budapest “Hollywood on the Danube.” More international films are produced there than in any other European city, partly because Budapest has state-of-the-art production studios and receives generous tax breaks from the government. Most of all, however, it’s because of the city itself. Budapest is Europe in a nutshell, the perfect double for Rome, Paris, Madrid or Munich and the ideal setting for all kinds of movies. Anthony Hopkins is currently filming a thriller there, while Nicole Kidman appears in a comedy being produced in Budapest. Earlier this year, Robert Pattinson, the star of the “Twilight” films, shot scenes on Budapest’s landmark Széchenyi Chain Bridge for the upcoming film “Bel Ami.”
But there is also news from the real Budapest, and the real Hungary of recent months.
Neo-fascist thugs attacked Roma families, killing six people in a series of murders. The right-wing populists of the Fidesz Party won a two-thirds majority in the parliament, while the anti-Semitic Jobbik party captured 16.7 percent of the vote, making it the third-largest party in Hungary, next to the Socialists. Unknown vandals defiled the Holocaust Memorial with bloody pigs’ feet. A new law granted the government direct or indirect control over about 80 percent of the media. The television channel Echo TV showed an image of Nobel laureate and Auschwitz survivor Imre Kertész together with a voiceover about rats. Civil servants can now be fired without cause. Krisztina Morvai, a member of the European Parliament for Jobbik, suggested that “liberal-Bolshevik Zionists” should start thinking about “where to flee and where to hide.”
On May 14, 2010, Gábor Vona, the chairman of Jobbik, was about to make an appearance at the Hungarian parliament, whose seat is probably the world’s most beautiful parliament building, a domed, neo-Gothic structure protected by bronze lions. Everyone was concerned that Vona would appear dressed in a fascist uniform from the past. As it happened, he showed up in a black suit, to the relief of many in the audience. But shortly before the swearing-in ceremony, the radical right-wing politician threw off his jacket to reveal a vest reminiscent of the uniforms of the Arrow Cross Party. Germany’s Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung described it as “sort of a Nazi outfit.”
All of this is happening in a country that belongs to the European Union and NATO, a country normally associated more with the famous romantic relationship between Elisabeth of Bavaria, the former Empress of Austria and Queen of Hungary, and Count Andrássy, or the landscapes of the Puszta, or Hungarian steppes. Hungary is a country that was dubbed “the happiest barrack of the Eastern bloc” during the Cold War, where respectable citizens cut the hole into the border fences that put an end to the Iron Curtain more than 20 years ago. Now, in the wake of the Fidesz victory in communal elections on Oct. 3, the capital is getting a right-wing mayor for the first time, the 62-year engineer István Tarlós.
What’s going on in Budapest?
‘I Survived Two Dictatorships’
György Konrád, 77, loves Budapest. The renowned Hungarian author and recipient of the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade owes his life to this city, even though the city led to the downfall of so many Jews. He could never have imagined ever turning his back on Budapest. He isn’t someone who runs away from things. “But now I no longer think it’s impossible that I could feel compelled to leave Hungary for good,” says Konrád, leaning on his silver-tipped cane. “I survived two dictatorships. It’s possible that the third one is now on its way.”
Of course, nowadays Konrád doesn’t have to fear a knock on his door that might end in his being taken away. Nevertheless, he cringed when he heard the sound of riding boots and heels clicking together in the courtyard of a house adjacent to his summerhouse above Lake Balaton. “The paramilitary organization of the neo-fascists was conducting exercises there — on the property of my neighbor, who was imprisoned under the communists, was my friend for a long time and has now apparently defected to the far right,” says Konrád.
The incident reawakened painful, repressed memories of the village of his childhood, Berettyóújfalu, 225 kilometers (140 miles) from the capital. It was a place where storks built nests above the synagogue, where the air smelled of lavender and oak wood, where children lived for the taste of cheesecake and hot cocoa, and where the clatter of hoofs could be heard outside the family’s hardware store.
“Ever since I was five, I knew that they would kill me if Hitler won,” Konrád recalls. He was 11 when they began picking up other Jewish pupils from his school. Soon his father and mother were also taken away. In June 1944, as the new head of the family, he forced his sister to pack her things and, using the money in his parents’ hidden safe, bought train tickets to Budapest. He never saw any of his classmates again. They had all been sent to the gas chambers.
Part 2: Similarities to the End of the Weimar Republic
The Konrád children stayed with an aunt in Budapest, where they slept on the cutting tables in her glove-making business. They lived through curfews, betrayals and having to move to new places in the dead of night. They feared the Germans, but the members of the Arrow Cross Party, the Nazis’ Hungarian henchmen, were almost worse. The normally mild-mannered Konrád describes them as “the scum of society.” “The ghetto was an open hunting ground, where drunk Arrow Cross Party members would fire their guns as they pleased,” he says. Their specialty was to shoot old women and little girls on the banks of the Danube, he says.
But it wasn’t Budapest’s fault, says Konrád, who later returned to his village, back to what had once been an idyllic place. But all he encountered there was horror. His world had been destroyed in the space of only eight months. “The house was filled with garbage and filth,” he recalls. “A photo album was ripped apart, besmirched. Slowly I realized that what had been there before would never return.”
More important, however, was the fact that his parents had survived in an Austrian concentration camp. When the communists seized the family’s hardware store in 1948, they moved to Budapest. As a “son of a member of the upper class,” Konrád was initially barred from entering the university. But he eventually managed to enroll, and studied literature and sociology. In 1956, he participated in the Hungarian uprising. He began to write. Like fellow democrats and dissidents Václav Havel, the Czech playwright and later president, and Polish journalist Adam Michnik, Konrád helped pave the way for the fall of the Iron Curtain.
Letting the Genie Out of the Bottle
Konrad can spend hours talking about his favorite places in Budapest, like Klauzal Square in the former ghetto, and about the hairdressers who rub his head with alcohol after washing his hair, “as if it were a religious relic.” He raves about the Café Ruszwurm, where he finished the manuscript for his first novel.
So what did Konrad, who survived the Arrow Cross Party’s rule, feel when he saw the head of the Jobbik party wearing an Arrow Cross uniform?
Contempt, he says after a short pause. Contempt for the mockery Vona had made of the Hungarian parliament. The same sort of thing, he adds, also marked the beginning of the end of the Weimar Republic. His contempt also extends to Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who, according to Konrad, consciously doesn’t shy away from using the rabble-rousing language of the far right for the sake of winning votes. “He has let the fascist genie out of the bottle, and it won’t be inclined to go back inside,” he says. “I don’t like the Socialists, but I voted for them this time.”
Konrad pours a couple of glasses of apricot brandy and sighs. The conversation has been stressful for him. He has become an old man, the wrinkles on his face testifying to his long and full life. He has knee troubles. But his fighting spirit remains vibrant. “When I see the political victors in this country, I get a foretaste of a culture war.”
His latest manuscript, a collection of handwritten pieces of paper, is on the table. The book, titled “Jewish Diary,” will be published this fall. Every morning, Konrad spends four hours fine-tuning his writing, a task he approaches with strict discipline and an irrepressible zest for life.
‘Are You Finished with the Jewish Mafia?’
It is difficult to meet any of the leaders of the radical right-wing party Jobbik, the Movement for a Better Hungary. Jobbik generally views international journalists as its enemies. Zsolt Varkonyi, 54, manager of the Jobbik election campaign in April, finally agreed to speak with SPIEGEL. The meeting took place at Deryne, a restaurant in Buda catering to a hip, multi-ethnic crowd.
As a greeting, Varkonyi says: “Well, have you already met with all of your liberal contacts? Are you finished with the Jewish mafia?”
With his hair combed back and his rimless glasses, he looks like an aging model pupil. Varkonyi, who is from an old aristocratic Hungarian family, studied film and marketing in Sweden and the United States, and he has a degree from a college in Cleveland. But his native Hungary was always in his heart. The self-proclaimed “fierce patriot” explains the Jobbik philosophy. It’s a crude blend of inferiority complex and megalomania, coupled with a clear set of bogeymen, including the Jews, Gypsies, globalization, the European Union and the International Monetary Fund.
Jobbik supporters hate anything and anyone seeking to control the country, and anything that threatens to deprive the Hungarians — who were, in fact, late arrivals in Europe after migrating to present-day Hungary from the Ural Mountains, and who have often been sidelined by their more powerful neighbors — of “their rightful place” among Europe’s leading nations. According to this construct, Hungary is the eternal and unjustly punished loser. The Treaty of Trianon is especially symbolic of this trauma. The 1920 treaty, signed at the Trianon Palace in Versailles outside Paris, deprived Hungary, one of the losing powers in World War I, of more than two-thirds of its territory.
Part 3: Rescuing Hungary from a Global Conspiracy
The Jobbik party dreams of this Greater Hungary. “More than half of our brothers live outside their fatherland, and we want to bring them back,” says Varkonyi. For Varkonyi, the Orban government’s proposal to offer a Hungarian passport to all ethnic Hungarians living abroad is a first step, but he doesn’t understand why many see this as a provocation. A father of three, Varkonyi is worried about the low birth rate among Hungarians, saying that all of Europe is being taken over by foreigners. According to his calculations, by the year 2050 “gypsies will already make up half the population in Hungary.” Jobbik, he says, is fighting for a “spiritually healthy society based on Christian values.” In the terminology of the right-wing extremists, Jews are referred to as people with “foreign hearts.”
The Jobbik campaign manager occasionally rages against “subjugation by international financial capital.” But for the most part, he chooses his words carefully and speaks in the quiet voice of an aesthete. Is he an anti-Semite? Of course not, he says. He prefers to leave the use of coarser language to people like former police psychologist Imre Posta, who likes to appear at Jobbik party conventions, where he says things like: “The Jewish people are violently invading aggressors who threaten the existence of the original Hungarian land.”
Varkonyi skips dessert, and then he leaves the café as quietly as he arrived. He is a shadow warrior. He has taken a one-year hiatus from his work with the party and is writing a book. He prefers not to discuss what it’s about. But it doesn’t seem farfetched to expect that it could be about rescuing Hungary from a global conspiracy.
Taking Freedom for Granted
Noemi Kiss, 36, an adventurer and a revolutionary, is seen as the voice of a new literary generation. She talks about rifts in society and about male and female lovers, and she holds a mirror up to herself and her country. But, in a seeming contradiction, she voted for the conservative right-wing Fidesz party in April.
It was less a vote for Fidesz than against the Socialists, she says. A settling of accounts. “Hungary had become a country of political lies and a hotbed of a loss of trust in promises,” she says. “The previous administration introduced virtually no reforms, and people were resentful. In the end, there was no other choice but to vote the Socialists out of office.”
Kiss grew up in a family that valued political discussion, especially against the provincialism of the communists led by the former Hungarian leader Janos Kadar. She and her parents, like most Hungarians, perceived the collapse of the Soviet bloc as liberation. She was 15 at the time. But freedoms were eventually taken for granted and other things became more important, things like self-discovery and careers.
Rarely Looking to the Past
She wrote her PhD on Paul Celan, the author of the poem “Todesfuge” (“Death Fugue”), which includes the famous line “Death is a master from Germany.” In her late 20s, she wrote short stories that shattered sexual taboos and became a celebrated young literary star. Today Kiss, an Audrey Hepburn type with a short haircut, is a lecturer in comparative literature and has been the mother of twins for the past nine months.
She is upset about cuts in government funding for culture, but she thinks it’s too early to condemn Orban. “It’s hard to believe in positive change, but I have to, or else I wouldn’t have a future.”
Kiss and most other young members of the Hungarian literary scene, worn out by years of social conflict, yearn for a private time-out and enjoy the time they spend not talking about political issues. The dichotomy in the cultural scene is reflected in the places where intellectuals meet and the subjects they discuss. The members of the older generation like to get together at the plush, opulent New York, a café that dates back to the late 19th century. They look to the past and are worried about a return of anti-Semitism.
Younger intellectuals like Kiss prefer the pubs at the Chinese market. They rarely look to the past, occasionally to the future and often look sideways. Kiss’s latest book is a collection of short stories titled: “What Happened While We Were Sleeping.”
Part 4: ‘Heil Hitler, Professor Tamas’
Things won’t get that bad — at least that was what Jewish intellectual Gaspar Miklos Tamas, 61, used to think. But he changed his mind one day last year, when a group of men in black uniforms and riding boots appeared outside his house in downtown Budapest, shouting “Heil Hitler, Professor Tamas, how are you?”
Then came the spring election, bringing with it the decline of the liberal leftist camp, for which Tamas, a philosophy professor, once held a seat in parliament. There was also Orban’s two-thirds majority in parliament that suddenly makes everything possible, even a new constitution.
Tamas hasn’t been invited to appear on any television programs since the election. He has heard that 16 of the 23 employees in his research institute at the Academy of Sciences are to be let go. He is one of the 16.
Surrounded by his books in his dilapidated house, he reflects on what went wrong in Budapest. He talks about the problems the right wing has used to its benefit, including high unemployment, exploitation by the post-communists, many of whom profited from the changes that followed the collapse of the Soviet bloc, and the poor job opportunities for students.
And yet, he says, even all of this cannot explain what is happening. For Tamas, the tacit agreement between Fidesz and Jobbik is “a declaration of poverty by the system” from which it may never recover. The fact that the socialists lost control of all Hungary’s major towns and cities, with the exception of Szeged, in the recent municipal elections is exactly what he expected. “Well then, good night Hungary!” he says.
Awash with Culture
The evening sun bathes the city in a soft, forgiving light. On the surface, everything here is tolerant and multicultural. At the Sziget music festival, there are even Roma bands playing. And where else is Bartok more spirited, Liszt more haunting or Wagner more civilized than in the magnificent state opera?
Budapest is awash with culture — literally. Pensioners play chess in the elegant Szechenyi thermal baths. Antique hunters bargain over art deco lamps in the stores on the Falk Miksa street. Some visitors lose themselves perusing the exhibits from the dictatorship period in the House of Terror.
Meanwhile, the motorbike club Goi, named for the Yiddish word for non-Jews, circle the parliament building in their provocative Greater Hungary jackets. And in a studio not far away, Istvan Kovacs shoots porn films. Even when it comes to hardcore, the city likes to be the best: suspenders and combat boots, sexual war games and fascistic political pornography. It’s two sides of the same coin.
Around 80,000 Hungarian Jews still live in the city of 1.7 million. The synagogue on Dohany Street is considered the largest in Europe. In some of the derelict houses in the district, young people have created so-called “ruin pubs.”
Feelings of Dislocation
The Simpla is one such backyard bar, where cheap beer is sipped while sitting on old car seats listening to the sound of Bob Dylan and Frank Zappa. The clientele is a mixture of brokers with their laptops and wannabe existential poets. Some of the drinkers here make fun of the “far-right idiots.” Others explain that they now prefer to wear baseball caps over their yarmulkes and that their parents have packed their bags just in case. They feel dislocated, like foreigners in their own country.
The country’s most famous writer has not lived in Hungary for years. Imre Kertész, 80, an Auschwitz survivor and author of “Fateless,” grew up in Budapest. He is tough on his compatriots. “Right-wing extremists and anti-Semites are in charge,” he told German newspaper Die Welt in a 2009 interview. “The old burdens of Hungary, her dishonesty and her propensity to repress things, are thriving more than ever. Hungary and the war, Hungary and fascism, Hungary and socialism: Nothing has been worked through, everything is painted over with pretty colors. Budapest is a city without a memory.”
Kertész now lives in the German capital. “Why? It’s very simple. Because for a Jewish writer, life is better in Berlin than in Budapest.”
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan