When An Anti-Semitic Hungarian Politician Finds Out He's Jewish
Since the discovery, Csanad Szegedi, one of the founders of Hungary's far-right party, has lost his old friends and found a new way to spend his Saturdays.
BUDAPEST — Csanád Szegedi is a man who means what he says. And until a year ago, what he said was that Jews and Roma were a plague on Hungarian society.
A key figure in the far-right Jobbik party, Szegedi had contributed significantly to its success, even surpassing party leader Gábor Vona in popularity. As a co-founder of the Hungarian Guard Movement, Szegedi was often mentioned in the press as proof that fascism was taking root in Hungary.
Then it was revealed that he was Jewish. For a year he retreated from the public eye, refused to give interviews and focused on the search for his identity.
Now he knows who he is. He is both Hungarian and Jewish. He keeps the Sabbath, goes to synagogue, is learning Hebrew and studying the Talmud. He is trying to keep the 613 laws of his religion.
“I don’t always manage it,” he admits. “Especially when it comes to eating kosher food. Pork and salami play an important part in Hungarian cuisine.” But as with all things, adjusting to a new identity takes time.
Szegedi has not forgotten who he was before. He was a man who would stand up in parliament and proclaim, “This budget proposal reads as if Israeli President Shimon Peres had written it.” He meant that its aim was to take money from ordinary Hungarians and pour it into the pockets of the Jews. He accused “Jewish intellectuals” of debasing the Holy Crown of Saint Stephen, the symbol of the Hungarian nation.
“I was someone who caused people pain,” he says. “My hate speech about Jews and Roma affected children who had done nothing wrong. They might have been very talented, they might have been able to make something of themselves, but I helped to block their path.” But his racist accusations were just what many Hungarians wanted to hear. Szegedi was a man on the make. Party rivals were becoming jealous of his popularity and looking for something to blacken his reputation. Then they discovered his Jewish heritage.
Half of Szegedi’s family died in Auschwitz. His maternal grandparents met and married after both survived Nazi camps, and a few years later they decided to give up their Jewish faith. His grandmother never spoke of it again. His grandfather told his daughter Katalin, Szegedi’s mother, about her heritage, although he made her promise never to mention it.
Why hate thrived
Historian Kriztián Ungváry says that anti-Semitism is very deeply rooted in Hungary’s past. As the country’s economy developed in the 19th century, the bourgeoisie came to be dominated by Jews and Germans, and during the communist era there was a disproportionately high number of Jews in government. This created a sense that Jews were a threat to the Hungarian nation, and this fear can still be felt in the prejudices of many citizens.
All of this shaped Csanád Szegedi’s opinions and led him to the far-right Jobbik party. “You start to hate and then it becomes an end in itself,” he says. “First we would talk about ‘gypsy crime’. Then anti-Semitism. Then we started to hate Romanians and Slovakians. ... You end up hating the entire world. I hated all people because they didn’t fit one or other of my criteria.”
But when his Jewish heritage was revealed, Szegedi no longer met the criteria himself. “People who I thought were friends suddenly wanted nothing to do with me,” he says. Szegedi had become a major problem for his party, which held crisis meetings about its former star figurehead. He remembers one committee member telling him, “The best thing would be to shoot you now, then you would be reborn as a pure Hungarian.” Another suggested he issue a public apology. “Then I thought, wait a minute, am I supposed to apologize for the fact that my family died in Auschwitz?”
Szegedi had had enough and he left the party, securing a seat in the European Parliament as an independent candidate. Then he began to explore his roots. He spoke with his family and with Rabbis Slomo Köves and Baruch Oberlander. “We were faced with a dilemma,” says Oberlander. “Should we even accept this man? Then I came to the conclusion that Jewish law forbade us from turning him away, because he is a Jew and he regrets what he has done.” Köves adds, “Csanád was a broken man. He had three choices: suicide, self-deception or a leap into the unknown.”
The ultimate sign
Szegedi chose the latter. As part of his search for identity, he flew to Israel with Rabbi Oberlander, where they visited Yad Vashem and the Wailing Wall. He had always had a faith, although he had been a Calvinist before. Now he prayed to the God of the Jews for a sign. His father — a patriot in a country where patriotism and Jewishness are seen as antithetical — had tried to dissuade his son from exploring his Jewish heritage.
Miklós Szegedi had been waiting for a kidney transplant for years, and on the same evening that his son prayed for a sign, he received a phone call to say a donor had been found. The story shows how Csanád Szegedi’s worldview had evolved. “I can continue to live out my conservative views as a Jew,” he says. “I still believe in God. For me family is still sacred.”
Szegedi now sees that he does not have to make a choice between being Jewish and being Hungarian. His exploration of his Jewish identity has also proven to be a kind of liberation from his father. Miklós Szegedi was a strong influence in his son’s life, shaping his former anti-Semitic views. “Now we can speak a lot more freely,” says Szegedi.
For Rabbi Köves, Szegedi’s experience shows “how harmful it is to deny your identity. You always feel that something is missing and you try to compensate, which ends up being harmful.”