György C. Kálmán

Mária Schmidt: Another person who chose the wrong profession

Ever since June 26, when Mária Schmidt, director of the House of Terror and a close associate of Viktor Orbán, wrote an article that one of her critics called “fulminating,” a tsunami of articles, blog notes and comments has appeared in the Hungarian media. I wrote about the article in detail on June 29, and many other pieces followed in Hungary. I am happy to announce that the English translation of this controversial article is now available.

Let me sample a few of the reactions by bloggers: “We have always suspected that she is vicious and stupid, but now for some strange reason she decided to let the whole world know it.” Or, “On five long pages she is raving, sometimes with unbridled fury and hatred” which can be described in one simple obscene sentence in a comment on the Internet. Or, I saw a note by Balázs Láng, an actor, on Facebook. In it, he compares Mária Schmidt to Clara Zachanassaian in Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s play The Visit (Der Besuch der alten Dame). Mária Schmidt, whose businessman husband died young, is a very wealthy woman. Láng continues: “Reading Schmidt’s lines, the heroine of Dürrenmatt is mercy, love, and humanity itself in comparison. The article of the Hungarian heiress is ‘In the captivity of the past’ and she leaves no doubt that in that jail she is the screw.”

Then there are others that must hurt more because they come from fellow academics. The first serious criticism came from György C. Kálmán, a literary historian, who wrote an article not really about the infamous piece by Schmidt but about a television interview that followed its appearance. As you will see, Schmidt has been very busy in the last couple of weeks trying to defend the views she expressed in her article. She has been singularly unsuccessful. Kálmán in this article can hardly find words to describe his reactions to this interview because “everything that leaves that lady’s mouth is illogical, confusing, primitive, discontinuous, and obscure even within her own parameters.” The delivery is “emotional, overstrung, full of indignation, resentment, and saccharine.” And finally, the greatest blow that anyone can deliver, Kálmán gingerly suggests that Mária Schmidt’s “intellectual powers” are wanting. That perhaps she does not understand, or at least doesn’t understand fully, what she is talking about.

Even more upsetting for Mária Schmidt must have been an article by Mária M. Kovács, a fellow historian who is currently professor and director of the Nationalism Studies Program at the Central European University in Budapest. Readers of Hungarian Spectrum should be familiar with her name because we talked about a recent book of hers on the infamous numerus clausus of 1920 that restricted the enrollment of Jewish students at institutions of higher education. Her article in Népszabadság is entitled simply “Schmidt.” It is a very hard-hitting piece of writing; I strongly suggest that anyone with some knowledge of Hungarian read it in the original. Here I can only summarize her most important points.

Mária M. Kovács calls Schmidt’s writing in Válasz a provocation and a declaration  of war. In her opinion, the author of that article crossed a line. One area in which she overstepped the limit of acceptable discourse  is her handling of the Holocaust. In her article Schmidt talks about the Holocaust as “one of the preferred topics of the empire,” meaning the United States, the European Union and Germany, and says that the empire “demands a minimum” that “must be fulfilled.” The Hungarian left-liberals wholeheartedly serve the interests of this empire to the exclusion of the interests of their own country. In fact, they not only fulfill the West’s demands, they overachieve in their servility. And since the Holocaust is one of the favored topics, the attitude of the Hungarian liberals and socialists toward the Holocaust is also overdrawn. The other area where Schmidt crossed the line is her calling anyone who is against the erection of the memorial to the German occupation of Hungary in 1944 a traitor who acts against the nation’s interests.

Mária Schmidt and Mária M. Kovács were both guests on György Bolgár’s program on KlubRádió. Kovács’s conversation with Bolgár took place on July 9 from 25:36 in the first part of the program. On the following day, one can hear Schmidt’s less than cogent discussion from 23:23, again in the first part of the program.

Since then Mária Schmidt had an interview with Ildikó Csuhaj of Népszabadság with the telling title: “And my sensitivity doesn’t matter?” It is clear from the interview that she feels threatened by other historians’ criticism of her position on Hungary’s role in the Hungarian Holocaust. Instead of trying to come up with facts that would bolster her views, she lashes out against such highly respected historians as László Karsai and Krisztián Ungváry. When the journalist pointed out that these two historians did not say, as Schmidt claims, that the Hungarians were more guilty than the Germans, this was her answer: “Questioning the loss of sovereignty covers politically motivated malice, or at least ignorance, low professional standards.” She is the good historian while the others are inferior, ignorant, and full of malice.

During the interview, the journalist concentrated mostly on questions concerning Hungarian-German relations during 1944 and before. When she mentioned Randolph Braham’s name in connection with Hungary’s status as an ally of Germany, Schmidt lost her temper: “Let’s leave all that talk about ‘allies.’ In the case of Sándor Szakály the problem was that he used the contemporary designation … What kind of thinking is exhibited when someone talks about a real alliance when the elephant allies himself with the mouse?” When the journalist retorted by saying that “formally” Germany and Hungary were allies, the answer was: “Please, formally we can also speak of a police action against aliens.” Dangerous to use contemporary designations in one case but not the other. I guess that means that Germany and Hungary were not really allies.

Mária Schmidt being interviewed by Ildikó Csuhaj Source: Népszabadság

Mária Schmidt being interviewed by Ildikó Csuhaj
Source: Népszabadság

During the conversation the topic of nation and its detractors came up and the journalist remarked that calling people enemies of their own nation is a very serious accusation. Well, it seems that even Schmidt realized that she went too far here and claimed in this interview that what she actually wanted to say was that these people were “enemies of the nation-state.” However, the reporter kept talking about Schmidt’s original wording: “people who are enemies their own nation.” At this point Schmidt became annoyed: “Why are you talking about anti-nation sentiments? I was talking about antagonism toward the idea of the nation-state. Let’s fix this before anyone puts words in my mouth.” Unfortunately for Schmidt, nobody put these words in her mouth; she uttered them herself.

At the end the reporter brought up the fact that the Yad Vashem Institute no longer supports Mária Schmidt’s project, the House of Fates. Moreover, one of the associates of the Institute apparently said at one point that “it is time to get rid of this institute and this woman.” Schmidt assured her interlocutor that this woman no longer works at Yad Vashem. As if her alleged departure had anything to do with her less than polite words about Mária Schmidt. As for her next project, the House of Fates, she is still trying to convince people to work with her. A few more interviews like the ones she has been giving and I can assure her that no one will be willing to do anything with her that is connected to the Hungarian Holocaust.


“House of Fates”: What does it mean?

For a number of years I have been bothered by the English translation of Imre Kertész’s Nobel Prize winning book, Fatelessness. There is no such word in English as “fateless” or “fatelessness.” Mind you, before Kertész’s novel appeared in 1975 there was no such word in Hungarian either. I decided to take a look at the German translation and  “fatelessness” reappeared there too: “Roman eines Schicksallosen,” says the German title page. At this point I had to turn to Duden: “not marked by a certain fate in a special way.” I must say that it didn’t help me a lot.

The Hungarian word “sors” (fate), just as its English equivalent, has several meanings. Perhaps the English word “lot” is the closest to the core meaning of the Hungarian “sors.” A man can say at the end of his life: this is what my life was all about, this is what I achieved, this was my lot. That’s what he got from life, this is how things worked out, this is what happened to him over the years. But surely, what happens to the hero of the novel is not fate in the normal sense of the word unless a person believes in some divine predestination. What happened to the fifteen-year-old György Köves was something unexpected and inexplicable. He was removed from his surroundings, deprived of his freedom and will. By being dragged away and taken to Buchenwald, he was removed from a very different lot that was until then taken for granted by him and his family. It was a break in his life. In fact, Kertész is quite explicit about this: “It wasn’t my lot but it was I who lived through it.” (my translation)


Interestingly enough, no one to my knowledge spent much time on the meaning of the word “sorstalanság” (fatelessness), the title of the original Hungarian book. But now that the Orbán government decided to erect a new memorial to the children who were victims of the Holocaust the meaning of the word has come up and become a topic of controversy. The people entrusted with the establishment of this memorial decided to name it the House of Fates (Sorsok Háza). It will be located in the old, by now unused, railroad station of Josephstadt (Józsefváros). I wrote about the hurried decision to renovate the old station and make it suitable for a museum. As soon as the public found out that the exhibit will bear the name “House of Fates” there were objections. They pointed out that it wasn’t fate that was responsible for the destruction of the Hungarian Jewry but people who ordered the deportation, and the same was true of the 200,000 Hungarians who took an active part in this atrocity.

It is clear that the name of the new museum was inspired by Imre Kertész’s book, but the people who decided to choose it most likely didn’t understand Kertész’s meaning. Sors/sorstalan (Fate/fateless; Schicksal/Schicksallos) are opposites, but if you don’t understand the meaning of the title of the novel then it is certain that you will err when picking its opposite. And hence the controversy that followed the announcement. György C. Kálmán, a literary historian, argues that labeling the murder of children as “their lot” is to make it sound normal and natural. It shows insensitivity and crassness. It is all wrong.

Péter György, a literary critic, argues along similar lines. If someone is deprived of his freedom to change his fate he is no longer the master of his own life. This is what Kertész calls “sorstalanság.” An exhibit, says György, that focuses on the years that led to the Holocaust cannot be labeled something that inevitably led to these children’s fate. To follow one’s fate means free will, and no one can say that these children willingly chose death as their fate.

Kálmán and György talk about the unfortunate name of the new museum. Others have different and perhaps more weighty objections. First of all, there is great suspicion about Mária Schmidt’s involvement in the project due to her rather peculiar interpretation of the war years and the Holocaust. Schmidt is obviously trying to show her openness by approaching Hungarian Jewish intellectuals asking for their help. We don’t know how many people got letters and what they answered. But we do know that György Konrád, the well-known Hungarian writer, received one. Moreover, we also know what he had to say to her since Konrád made his answer public.

Dear Mária,

I find it difficult to free myself of the suspicion that this hurried organization of an exhibit is not so much about the 100,000 murdered Jewish children but rather about the current Hungarian government. If this government spends such a large amount of money in memory of these children, I would suggest that this amount be spent instead on the feeding of starving Hungarian children who live today.

If you would like to have my personal contribution to the enlightenment of Hungarian school children, please suggest my autobiographical book, Elutazás és hazatérés (Going Away and Returning/in the official English edition A Guest in My Own Country: A Hungarian Life), in which I describe my experiences as an eleven-year-old in historical context.

I read this book for Magyar Rádió and it was broadcast several times. The book is still available and therefore the teachers can easily obtain it.

Sincerely yours,

György Konrád

A few days later Mazsihisz (Magyarországi Zsidó Hitközségek Szövetsége), the association of Jewish religious communities, also expressed its misgivings about the project. Apparently, Mazsihisz as well as other people who were supposed to have some say in the project still don’t have any idea about Schmidt’s plans. András Heisler, president of Mazsihisz, did write to Schmidt. In his letter he emphasized the necessity of an exhibit that shows the road to the Holocaust as opposed to including only events that took place after the German occupation of Hungary on March 19, 1944. As of December 20, there was still no answer from Schmidt. However, in her letter to those intellectuals whom she approached she mentioned “an opportunity for everybody to attend the meeting to express their opinions, give advice and suggestions in four or five minutes.” No wonder that Konrád said no to this kind invitation. In any case, Mazsihisz would like to have public control over the conception, the realization, and the finances of the exhibit.

Finally, József Schweitzer, retired chief rabbi of Hungary, also expressed his serious reservations. He wrote a letter to Schmidt, a copy of which was sent to Népszava. He objected to the venue because this particular “railway station was not connected to the mass deportations of the Hungarian Jewry.” He suggested the renovation of the synagogue on Rumbach Sebestyén utca which is in very bad shape and its use for the memorial exhibit. Schweitzer also thought that the renovation of this synagogue would cost a great deal less, and he joined Konrád in suggesting that the rest be given to children who live in poverty.

I’m afraid that the House of Fates will be as controversial if not even more so after it opens its doors sometime in April of next year. Schmidt and the government she represents have very definite ideas about what they want and what they don’t want. They certainly don’t want an exhibit that exposes the responsibility of the Hungarian government and those 200,000 people who actively worked on the deportation of more than 600,000 people within a couple of months.