In the last couple of days the Hungarian Jewish community has been up in arms. Magyar Hírlap came out with the startling news that Gusztáv Zoltai, the former chief operating officer of Mazsihisz, had been named János Lázár’s adviser on Jewish matters. Members of the Jewish community were stunned.
(A few words of clarification in passing: when we refer to the Jewish community in Hungary we are talking about people living in Budapest because, as we often discussed, the Jewish population of the provinces almost completely perished in Auschwitz and other death camps. By and large we are not talking about a religious community but about people who are keenly aware of their Jewish heritage although some of them might be the offspring of mixed marriages. Mazsihisz officially represents practicing Jews but lately, especially under the leadership of the new president, András Heisler, more and more secular Jews stand behind the organization in its struggle with the Orbán government over issues connected to the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the Hungarian Holocaust.)
Gusztáv Zoltai’s name was practically synonymous with Mazsihisz in the last twenty years. After all, he ran the show between 1992 and April 2014. His political past was not exactly exemplary. After 1956 he joined MSZMP and became a member of the Workers’ Guard (Munkásőrség), a group of hardcore supporters of the regime even during its most oppressive phase right after the revolution. Yet the new political leadership didn’t seem to be bothered by his past. In 1999 he received the freedom of District VII of Budapest, in 2005 a high decoration from the Medgyessy government, and in 2009 the freedom of Budapest. Perhaps the most interesting decoration he received came from the 1956 Alliance for his devoted cultivation of the spirit of the revolution. Zoltai has always landed on his feet.
As it turned out, under Zoltai’s watch Mazsihisz’s finances were in shambles. Worse, some transactions involving Mazsihisz might have been criminal in nature. I could write reams about the questionable deals linked to Zoltai. Anyone who would like to know more should read an article about the goings on in one of Budapest’s Jewish cemeteries in Szombat, a Jewish weekly. At that time the revelations were so serious that Zoltai could not prevent the new Mazsihisz leadership from hiring an outside firm to audit the past and present financial affairs of the organization. The result was Zoltai’s resignation as COO of Mazsihisz. Heti Válasz learned from a reliable source that the leadership of the organization placed two envelopes in front of him. One contained a letter indicating that Mazsihisz will press charges against him; the other, a letter of resignation. He could choose.
I guess Zoltai’s new job really shouldn’t have come as a surprise, still everybody is stunned. Heisler was “in shock” and announced that, if this piece of news is correct, Gusztáv Zoltai “destroyed his life work that was not immaculate in the first place.” A few hours later Zoltai sat next to János Lázár at the Jewish Round Table. Lázár claimed that he was the one who approached Zoltai, whom he described as an independent man “who does not belong to our toadies (szekértolók).” I must say this is an odd way to describe one’s supporters and followers, and I wonder whether Lázár is actually familiar with the meaning of the word.
Lázár might think highly of his new “independent” adviser on Jewish affairs, but the people Heisler talked with had a strikingly different opinion of their earlier leader. “I received unbelievably sharp reactions from members of the Jewish community. In general people consider him a traitor,” said Heisler. Péter Tordai, vice president of Mazsihisz, described Zoltai’s decision to work for the government as “selling not only himself but the whole Hungarian community to the government.”
Today György Vári of Népszabadság wrote a short opinion piece with the title: “Two men who found each other.” Vári briefly describes Zoltai’s past and notes that, despite many efforts to oust him in the last twenty years or so, it was an impossible task. He outfoxed everybody, including Heisler who while still vice president tried to send him into retirement. Vári points out the similarities between the practices of the Orbán government and those of Mazsihisz under the reign of Zoltai. People often say that Orbán and his minions have no compunctions. They know no limits. The same kind of attitude prevailed in Mazsihisz. Anyone who criticizes the Orbán government is called an anti-Hungarian who slanders the nation from abroad. The situation was the same in Mazsihisz. If someone tried to criticize Zoltai, he/she was accused of anti-Semitism. “God created Lázár and Zoltai for each other. This marriage was made in heaven.”
All that happened only two days ago, but the Zoltai affair already seems to have created fissures in the Jewish community. Mazsihisz is not the only, although it is perhaps the most important, Jewish organization. Another one called Mazsök (Magyarországi Zsidó Örökség Közalapítvány) has taken the opposing view. It welcomed Zoltai’s becoming a government adviser. György Szabó, head of Mazsök’s board, hopes that with Zoltai’s help Mazsök will be able “to acquire more real estate.” Straightforward honest talk at least. According to Szabó, “Mazsök represents the interests of the whole Jewish community,” implying that Mazsihisz does not. Szabó also found it shameful “to call an eighty-year-old Holocaust surviving Hungarian Jew a traitor.”
And the controversy is spreading. On Facebook there is a group called “Tolerancia Csoport” in which Zoltai’s daughter Andrea is very active. She has also been a visible member of the small group of people who have been holding vigil at the monument that was erected in commemoration of the German occupation of Hungary in 1944. Here she wrote a long story about her father’s travails, which did not convince some members of the group. In response, the not so tolerant administrator of the page deleted the comments that criticized Zoltai’s behavior. Since then Kanadai Magyar Hírlap republished her story, where the comments to the piece are overwhelmingly negative.
The Mazsihisz leadership is acting as if this unexpected turn of events will have no bearing on the organization’s forthcoming negotiations with the government. From what I’ve learned so far about Zoltai, they may be surprised by this “marriage made in heaven.”