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“Jews in Hungary are safe, but there would be a lot more to do” – Interview with Péter Kirschner

Ábrahám Vass 2020.04.08.

Hungarian Jews can live in safety, their cultural live are thriving, but there would be a lot more to do, and unfortunately Hungarians still score high in xenophobia, says Péter Kirschner, leader of the Hungarian Jewish Cultural Association (MAZSIKE), the first, biggest and neutral Hungarian Jewish cultural organization, and manager of a number of important projects.

How do you view the situation of Hungarian Jewry in general?

Hungarian Jewry is highly variegated, and it is very difficult to accurately estimate its size. We usually talk about around a hundred thousand people. It is certain, however, that in Central Europe, Hungary has the largest Jewish community and perhaps the second-third largest in Europe.

As for historical reasons, the Emancipation Laws in 1867 granted unique rights to Jews in Europe. This resulted in a highly assimilated Hungarian Jewish community that played an important role in Budapest’s and the country’s development and prosperity in the period that followed the Austro-Hungarian Compromise (Kiegyezés). The impact of this can still be felt now.

Also, the large number of refugees coming over to Hungary after the Trianon Treaty included many Jewish people, thanks to their mobility.

Later, the fact that governor Miklós Horthy halted the deportation of the Budapest Jewish people at the last minute, also played a very important role in that many Jews could eventually survive the Shoah and live in Hungary today. 

All in all, besides (or in spite of) the obvious problems, the integration of Jewish people has always been smoother and more peaceful here than in many other places in Europe.

Western media often writes about Hungarian anti-Semitism. How safe, do you think, are the Jews here?

Jewish communities, and Hungarian Jewish people are not at all in danger – they can live here in peace, in my view.

While in the West, anti-Semitism can be accompanied by physical assaults, this is not the case here. Hungarian Jewry at the moment is definitely not threatened by physical atrocities. 

However, it is also important if verbal attacks and vandalism, which often occurs at Jewish cemeteries, wouldn’t target the Jewish community anymore either. Also, there should be no more xenophobic, anti-Semitic, anti-roma, neo-Nazi inscriptions, or billboards that promote latent anti-Semitism and racism as well.

Is Anti-Semitism still to be feared in Hungary?

This remains an ongoing debate in the community. I generally view this more positively than many others:

I believe that here everything is allowed for a normal, identity-strengthening religious and community life.

However, it must also be said that anything that intensifies xenophobia or exclusion in any way, even if it isn’t directly targeted at Jewish people, affects our community. This is due to obvious historical reasons, since the impact of the Holocaust cannot just be erased from the life, mindset, and actions of the second and third generation families of survivors.

Unfortunately, deep xenophobia remains a major problem of Hungarian society.

Depending on the (political) situation, targeted minorities vary: sometimes Jews, then roma or migrants; as we speak for example, the ‘Gyöngyöspata case’ is making headlines. And as you walk on the streets, you can currently see many anti-Semitic slogans and text, partly due to the anti-Soros campaign.

The government has always sought to distance itself from the anti-Semitic aspects of the anti-Soros campaign. Do you think it had a negative impact on the Jewish community?

Absolutely, it has very much stirred up anti-Semitic feelings. It may not have been intended to, but this definitely was among the outcomes of the campaign.

Just a tiny little sign is enough so that the public identifies Jews as scapegoats.

And messages like that can be very dangerous, because in the same way they can provoke hatred against Hungarians living as the minority across the border. This shouldn’t be forgotten on the anniversary year of Trianon.

The Hungarian government often speaks of a homogeneous nation-state. Does being Jewish fit into that view?

First of all, we should define what a homogenous nation-state is, but I don’t think that anyone would seriously mean by that, that Jews should be excluded from the Hungarian society and personally I don’t feel any form of this either.

 

On the other hand, however, it seems to me, that it’s often difficult for the majority of society to recognize and accept the enormous efforts the Jewish community has made for the Hungarian economy, for the progress of science, for the enrichment of Hungarian culture, and success in sports.

Alfréd Hajós didn’t swim faster because he was Jewish, and Gedeon Richter isn’t esteemed for his origins, but because he invented Kalmopyrin. But once again it should be thought over again, how it could happen that one day he ended up shot in the Danube.

In comparison to the previous political system, how has Jewish community life changed in Hungary?

The balance is clearly positive. The Jewish community life in the Kádár era was very slim, limited, and closed-off. Although after the regime change some movement began, until the mid-90s, MAZSIKE was basically the only Jewish organization. Today, on the other hand, there are around 30-40 of them, operating in many fields, such as culture, education, sport, leisure, art and community life. And with many young people among their members.

The MAZSIKE was established shortly before the regime change in 1988. What was its original purpose?

First and foremost, to draw attention to the cultural gems our Jewish compatriots have contributed to Hungary, the Hungarian nation, as this is our common treasure. Another one of our goals was for the Jewish people to be able to walk around proudly, with heads held high.

The establishment of MAZSIKE- being the first Jewish organization- was also an interesting one. Although the authorities apparently didn’t hinder the formation, they were constantly keeping an eye on us. On the night of the official establishment, there were around 600 people packed into the banquet hall of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (MTA), and not only Jewish people. And being Jewish has not been a condition for the membership ever since. This pioneer role then lasted for about ten years, until other organizations were slowly established. But ever since then, we have always been the largest Jewish cultural organization. And we continue to insist on remaining a secular organization, open for cooperation with anyone, but determined to remain neutral in every aspect.

Fact

Mazsike publishes, among other things, the most popular Jewish journal, the Szombat (Sabbath) and manages the Stolpersteine (Stumbling stone - Botlatókő) project. These add to many cultural events and book publications. A massive volume compiling the memories of the rural Jewry will soon be published. And now, during the coronavirus crisis, they regularly share cultural content on their homepage and weekly newsletter.

How good do you think memory politics are in Hungary?

All in all, I think the Holocaust is still not discussed properly.

For example, we recently placed the Stolperstein of the Olympic champion fencer Attila Petschauer. Petschauer was handsome and successful, a celebrated star and ‘from one day to the next’ he was taken away to forced labor, eventually leading to his early death. (Recent research found that he eventually died of typhus in Russian captivity. He was the inspirational model of the protagonist in István Szabó’s iconic movie “Sunshine” – editor’s note) The question is how could all this happen?

Another example. For the third year now, a German Evangelical organization called ASF (Aktion Sühnezeichen Friedensdienste- Action Reconciliation Service for Peace) comes to Hungary to help us renovate Jewish cemeteries. They impress us a lot, yet many receive them with mistrust, and it is not natural for many to accept the idea that someone comes here to make up for something.

We also often hear that we have had enough of remembrance already. Yet many, especially young people, have hardly heard anything about the Holocaust, the extermination of the Jews.

Our intention is to show the positive side of the Hungarian-Jewish coexistence and to help others understand the series of actions that led to anti-Semitic laws, forced labor, labor and death camps.

Finally, we should forge ahead into discussing this in depth, as the German society did.

How do you see the Hungarian Government as a partner?

During the ministry of János Lázár, the operation of the “Jewish Communal Round-table” (Zsidó Közösségi Kerekasztal) had a very positive impact. Also, the Hungarian state placed a great emphasis on the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the Holocaust, which pleased us a lot. 

Unfortunately, this round-table has been discontinued, and the commemorations on the 75th anniversary lagged very far behind the one five years earlier, although many initiatives that gained support at that time paved the way for a more modern and open social remembrance.

All in all, the government should give much more attention and support to the Jewish community life, and in addition to the bigger and more flashy events, it should support small, local explorations and encounters of the past. The government should also avoid suggesting that it divide the Jewish (mainly religious) organizations, specifically I referring to Mazsihisz [led by András Heisler, friendly with the left-liberal governments and critical of the current one], and EMIH [led by Slomó Köves, friendly with the Fidesz government and critical of the opposition parties].

In summary, a more open dialogue would be very much in need.

What do you think of the Hungarian government’s growing friendship with Israel?

There has always been an ongoing, lively debate within the Jewish community about the desirable relationship with Israel.

According to some, a good relationship with the ruling government is a must, while others say there always has to be a differentiation between the different governments and political courses. One thing is clear, however: we must raise our voice against any anti-Israel statements or anything that threatens peace.

This is a very delicate issue for Hungarian foreign policy, but fortunately, since the regime change, no Hungarian government has gone so far as to openly criticize Israel.

At the same time, as far as I am concerned, the Hungarian government would need a more cautious, professional, and prudent foreign policy on the Middle East.

The world has become so complicated that it is very easy to take wrong steps.

Can we say that the Jewish cultural life is undergoing a renaissance nowadays in Hungary?

Certainly. The cultural life of Budapest is very intense now anyway. I have read somewhere recently that there are more theatrical shows or concerts here per night proportionally to the population, than in Paris. And this, of course, includes a strong presence of the Jewish culture as well.

However, in my opinion, a lot more could be done, given the capital’s importance in tourism. Domestic tourism experts should intensify their attention to the Jewish culture, likewise to Krakow or Prague. What Mayor Gergely Karácsony once mentioned, that Budapest should be put back on the cultural map of Europe, applies also to the Jewish culture. I hope (and it seems so for now) that the attitude of the new city leadership will be as supportive of our initiatives as we have experienced under István Tarlós mayor.

The renaissance after the regime change also brought more active Jewish communities in the countryside and we try to provide help in this as well. The presentation of the Jewish culture and tradition is also important in those places where, due to the Holocaust, there are no Jewish people left, but there are dedicated researchers and intellectuals helping us to get to know the common past. Makó or Kisvárda are examples, along with many other rural settlements.

And that goes beyond the borders as well. We were the first, for example, to create a Jewish cultural festival in Transcarpathia, Szabadka (Subotica), Révkomárom (Komárno), Burgenland, and Kolozsvár (Cluj-Napoca). And when in 2013, Kassa (Košice) was the European Capital of Culture, we set up a one-week-long Hungarian Jewish festival there.

It would be very important to show and raise awareness to the fact that Jewish people played and still play a very important role in the evolution of what we mean by Hungarian culture.

images by Attila Lambert/ Hungary Today