political asylum in Canada

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.