Ákos Kertész

Ferenc Kumin again demands correction of a non-existent gross distortion

You may recall that, shortly after the formation of his cabinet, Viktor Orbán practically ordered Hungary’s ambassadors to respond immediately and forcefully to all unfounded criticism in their “local” media. I’m pretty sure that the foreign ministry also directed Hungarian ambassadors to perform this task, but Viktor Orbán, who has taken away more and more of the competence of the foreign minister and his diplomats, gave some of his own men the task of keeping an eye on the foreign media’s depiction of Hungary and the Hungarian government.

One such man is Ferenc Kumin, about whom I already wrote in connection with a documentary film shown on Swedish television. In this instance Hungarian interference on the ambassadorial level backfired. Since then at least two other television programs have dealt with problems in today’s Hungary. Moreover, Hungary was also the topic of a radio program broadcast on Sweden’s public radio station.

Kumin has quieted down somewhat since his inglorious encounter with Ágnes Heller and was satisfied with only a modest comment affixed to an article that appeared in Maclean’sthe foremost Canadian weekly, about Ákos Kertész, who recently received political asylum in Canada. The author of the article was Anna Porter, the well-known Canadian publicist, who wrote several books on Eastern Europe. What did Kumin object to this time? Interestingly, he didn’t try to deny the harassment of Ákos Kertész by the authorities and by people who were offended by his bitter criticism of his own people, the Hungarians, but concentrated instead on the following lines in Anna Porter’s article:

The far-right Jobbik party demanded that Kertész be stripped of his honours and distinctions; the prime minister agreed and promised a bill would come before parliament to deal with “such racist, anti-Hungarian, traitorous statements.”

According to Kumin,

The author has misquoted Prime Minister Orbán and distorted his comment about the proposed law. It’s simply incorrect to say that he “agreed and promised a bill would come before parliament to deal with ‘such racist, anti-Hungarian, traitorous statements.'” In fact, the prime minister was talking about when it is appropriate to respond to offensive, insulting statements and when it’s better to simply ignore them. He said, unfortunately, one has to handle statements that are often “ignoble, silly or racist” (“nemtelen, szamárság, rasszista”)…. Also, he said that when the parliament considers the law on state honors, it should debate whether it is a good idea to be able to withdraw such honors and, if so, on what conditions. A misquote as serious as this would ordinarily merit a correction.

Kumin gave a link to Viktor Orbán’s answer to a question addressed to him by Sándor Pörzse, a member of Jobbik, the Hungarian anti-Semitic and anti-Gypsy party. But before I give the exact wording of the prime minister’s answer, I would like to recall a few events that preceded this exchange on October 24, 2011.

On September 10 the Fidesz caucus of the Budapest City Council proposed withdrawing Ákos Kertész’s “Freedom of the City” award because he called Hungarians genetically servile. A Jobbik member of the City Council agreed and further suggested that the President should consider taking away Kertész’s Kossuth Prize, which he received in 2008.  And indeed, “President Pál Schmitt requested that the government examine the possibility of withdrawing state awards from those who had become unworthy.” The Orbán government seemed to have supported the idea because János Halász, undersecretary in charge of cultural affairs in the Ministry of Human Resources, agreed: “If Kertész doesn’t apologize, the government won’t consider him to be worthy of the Kossuth Prize.” In plain language, they will take it away from him.

On September 21 Kertész was stripped of his “Freedom of the City” award by a vote of the Jobbik-Fidesz majority on the City Council. Three days later the Kertész affair got to the Hungarian parliament. It was on October 4 that Orbán rose and answered Jobbik’s Sándor Pörzse in connection with Kertész’s Kossuth Prize.

Orbán said:

We, right-wing Christian politicians, must get accustomed to ignoble, silly, racist comments which revile Hungarians and we must carefully choose when we pick up the gauntlet, when we hit back and when not…. As far as the concrete issue is concerned, clearly it makes one unhappy that a writer who received the Kossuth Prize entertains us with such stupidities. But there are worse cases than that. For example, Ernő Gerő is still on the rostrum of Kossuth Prize winners. This only shows that in the last twenty years we didn’t have enough steadfastness to scrutinize the law on state prizes and decorations and discuss the question in this House whether a prize already awarded can or cannot be withdrawn, and if it can be, under what circumstances its withdrawal is or is not desirable. Soon the law concerning prizes and decorations will be before the House when we hope we will have the opportunity to discuss soberly and  dispassionately, quite independently from racist stupidities that offend Hungarians, the whole question. 

Orban a parlamentben

But Kumin didn’t quote the rest of the exchange. Pörzse had an opportunity for a follow-up question, and he asked Orbán to take the initiative of stripping Ákos Kertész of his prize. He emphasized that he should take that “symbolic step.”

Orbán’s answer must have been soothing to the ears of the Jobbik MP. The prime minister stressed that the “solution” is not in his hands. “We will bring the bill here, we will discuss it, and the Hungarian government will follow” the law that is enacted. Galamus‘s headline read: “Orbán reassured Jobbik.”

You can decide whether or not Anna Porter grossly distorted Viktor Orbán’s comments. I don’t think so. I think she summarized Orbán’s statements on the subject quite accurately.

Ákos Kertész granted political asylum in Canada

The Hungarian media is stunned. Ákos Kertész, a Kossuth Prize-winning Hungarian author, received political asylum in Canada because he feared for his life after he wrote an article in  Amerikai Népszava, published in New York and available on the Internet. I wrote two articles about the Kertész case, the first on September 7, 2011, shortly after the appearance of the controversial article, and the second on March 4, 2012, right after the news spread in Hungarian Internet circles that Kertész had arrived in Montreal on February 29 and had turned to immigration authorities asking for political asylum.  A Hungarian-language press release was sent to Hungarian media organs officially announcing Kertész’s arrival in Canada.

Following the appearance of Ákos Kertész’s open letter in the Amerikai-Magyar Népszava [on August 29, 2011] a hate campaign was launched against him not only in the City Council of Budapest but also in Parliament. At the insistence of Jobbik, the anti-Semite Hungarian Nazi party, the City Council’s pro-government majority deprived him of his Freedom of Budapest award. The pro-government media openly incited the extremists against him. As a result he was exposed to constant physical harassment and threats. He was physically attacked in public. He felt that his life was in danger.

There must be grave reasons for an eighty-year-old writer who is attached to his birthplace in a million ways to come to such a decision and to take such a step full of risks. Kertész’s case says a lot about a country from which a writer must escape because of one of his writings. 

Kertész said, ‘I came to this conclusion with grave difficulty because for me the Hungarian language means life. Hungary is my birthplace, my home. I made this painful decision not against Hungary and the Hungarian people with whom I always shared the same fate. I was forced to make this decision because of the current Hungarian government. I hope that one day I will be able to return to a democratic, tolerant, humane Hungary.’ Otherwise, for the time being the writer is not going to make public statements concerning his decision.

What did Ákos Kertész do that so upset the Hungarian government, the leadership of the City of Budapest, and the right-wing media? In an open letter he bitterly complained about Hungarians who are “genetically servile”and who therefore allow the dictatorial Viktor Orbán to rule over them. He compared his fellow Hungarians to pigs who for the slop the farmer puts in front of them happily grunt, not realizing that they will be killed.

You can imagine what the reaction to this letter was. Although he admitted that his choice of the word “genetically” made no sense, the attacks on him continued for about six months. When it became known that Kertész had asked for political asylum in Canada, Szentkorona Rádió, a far-right Internet publication, included a picture of a pig with the caption: “He can go to Canada to grunt.”

At that time I noted that Kertész’s arrival in Canada and his description of his experiences before his departure might have an adverse effect on the Orbán’s government’s standing in the West. Because from there on it doesn’t matter how often government officials or Fidesz politicians try to convince the world that there is no anti-Semitism in Hungary, it will be very difficult to maintain that fiction.

Ákos Kertész at home in Canada

Ákos Kertész at home in Canada

Now that Kertész  has been granted refugee status in Canada that fiction is definitely dead. The Canadian government’s decision ratifies the claim that if the Hungarian authorities and certain segments of the Hungarian public find that criticism by a Hungarian with Jewish roots is “unfair,” they harass, threaten, and physically attack him. This is what happened to Kertész, who is 80 years old and “does not wish to fight any longer,” as he told Anna Porter, who wrote a short article dealing with his political asylum status in Maclean’s.

Many of Kertész’s books–there are about twenty all told–have been translated into multiple languages, though not into English. I learned from Anna Porter’s article that his best known novel, Makra, will be published shortly in Canada.

Kertész has begun a new life in Canada, which he considers to be “an island of peace and tolerance.” Kertész wrote a longer article, the first since his arrival in Canada, for Amerikai Népszava in which he expressed his “deep gratitude to Canada” and thank to his old and new friends, including the editor-in-chief of the paper, László Bartus. He called Amerikai Népszava “the bravest Hungarian paper which is the most consistent representative of human rights [and] liberal democracy” and praised its readership for their democratic, tolerant and intelligent comments. This readership appreciates Ákos Kertész’s devotion to democracy and his bravery for taking such a big step. It is worth taking a look at the comments that follow his article. They wish him all the luck and happiness in his new country. So do I.