Sándor Márai

The last straw: Either true depiction of the Hungarian Holocaust or Jewish boycott

The fallout from Sándor Szakály’s outrageous comments on the Kamenets-Podolskii mass murder of deportees delivered to German-occupied Ukraine is intensifying in Hungary. Instead of calling it what it was, the first atrocity in the Hungarian Holocaust, Szakály called it “a police action against aliens.” It seems that this was the last straw for Mazsihisz, the organization that represents non-Orthodox Jewish religious communities.

An exceptionally strongly worded statement appeared on Mazsihisz’s website this morning. Here is a translation of this very important document. We must keep in mind that in the past Mazsihisz was relatively inactive and avoided serious confrontations with the Hungarian government. The fact that such a statement was released by Mazsihisz shows how strained relations between the Orbán government and the Jewish communities have become in the last four years.

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The leadership of Mazsihisz is aghast and finds incomprehensible the relativization of the Holocaust by the “Veritas” Institute established by the Hungarian government. The director of the “Veritas” Institute, Sándor Szakály, called the deportation of Kamenets-Podolskii, the first mass murder of the Hungarian Holocaust, “a police action against aliens.” After the failure of his past efforts at falsifying history, we expect him to resign from his position.

The leadership of Mazsihisz calls on all politicians to refrain from using the 70th anniversary of the Hungarian Holocaust as an element in the electoral campaign and asks all concerned to refrain from rewriting our past. If the government of Hungary is serious about facing the true history of the Holocaust,  it should immediately put an end to the disrespectful behavior that is ruinous for the credibility of the memorial year of 2014.

Because of the lack of information about the ideology of the new Holocaust Center at Józsefváros, because of what transpired at the Horthy Conference at the House of Terror, because of the falsification of history in the series “Lifesaving Stories” on Magyar Rádió, because of the erection of the [German occupation] memorial on Szabadság tér, and because of the statements of the director of the “Veritas” Institute, Mazsihisz is seriously contemplating refraining from participation in the events of the Holocaust Year. Moreover, we will make use of the grant we received from the Civil Grant Fund only if there is a change in the direction of the whole project.

We call everybody’s attention to the words of Sándor Márai: “We cannot excuse, we cannot explain what happened, but we can admit it and can tell it.  This will be the duty of this generation.”

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András Heisler, president of Mazsihisz

András Heisler, president of Mazsihisz

Since then Szakály was invited by Antónia Mészáros of ATV for a chat on her program. He started out on a high horse and tried to prove the correctness of his interpretation by reading passages from Randolph L. Braham’s work on the Hungarian Holocaust. Naturally, since the appearance of that monumental work several books and articles have appeared on the subject. Szakály is either unfamiliar with this research or purposely ignored it. By the end of the conversation, however, he was less sure of his views and admitted that perhaps he was wrong. But that is not a political issue, he claimed, but differences of opinion within the profession. Initially he categorically announced that he has no intention of resigning, but by the end he was quite contrite. Obviously he realized the precariousness of his situation.

Mazsihisz’s quasi ultimatum pushes Viktor Orbán into a corner. He either has to sack Szakály, force Mária Schmidt to allow a dialogue with the Jewish community concerning the new Holocaust Center, and give up the idea of erecting a monument to the German occupation which is an important part of the myth he wants to create about the innocence of Hungarians in the Holocaust, or he loses the support of the Hungarian and international Jewry which he seems to find very important. Perhaps he thinks that key members of the American Jewish community will rush to his aid and convince the American government that the current Hungarian government is democratic and especially sensitive when it comes to anti-Semitism. I doubt, however, that such an intervention on Viktor Orbán’s behalf, even if it materialized, could counterbalance, for example, Orbán’s “strategic alliance” with Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

We will see what will happen. One thing is sure: the leadership of Mazsihisz is not exaggerating. A wholesale falsification of history has been under way for some time. On all fronts and not just the Holocaust. Lately, for instance, MTV launched a series on the late 1980s and the regime change. The job was given to someone who is not qualified, and the first two segments were apparently crawling with factual errors. And, of course, with revisionist history. On Duna TV there is another questionable historical series called “Heritage.” Put it this way, the number of programs dealing with history is far too high and therefore highly suspicious. One wishes that politicians would leave history alone. We would all be much better off.

“National literature” in the making in Hungary

Last night when I read that Heti Válasz will be coming out with sensational revelations about how Ferenc Gyurcsány’s  infamous speech at Balatonőszöd in the spring of 2006 ended up in Fidesz hands, I thought that today’s topic was a given. I should have known better. It turned out to be a cheap journalistic performance. The so-called “crown witness,” that is the informer, was totally discredited within a few hours. Anyone who’s interested in the story should listen to György Bolgár’s interview with the informer on “Megbeszéljük” on Klubrádió. Actually, the whole two-hour program makes for worthwhile listening, including two other important interviews that Bolgár conducted.

But it’s just as well that I had to change topics because for days I have been contemplating turning to one of my favorite essayists, András Nyerges, for inspiration. I’ve written about Nyerges several times. He is a full-time novelist and poet, but on the side once a month or so he writes short pieces comparing the present Hungarian right to its counterpart between the two world wars. Nyerges must have combed through hundreds and hundreds of right-wing newspapers. Some of his findings are quite embarrassing to later greats of Hungarian literature. That’s why the subtitle of one volume of his collected essays is “Blasphemous Investigations.”

A couple of days ago it came to light that one of the most distasteful characters in Viktor Orbán’s entourage, Imre Kerényi, made another outrageous comment on a local television station serving the inhabitants of District V in Budapest. I’ve written about Kerényi three times, but perhaps the most revealing post was entitled “Imre Kerényi, the brains behind the ‘Table of the Basic Laws.'” Kerényi seems to have a free hand when it comes to spending billions of forints on kitsch art or a “National Library” that even includes a third-rate cookbook from the Kádár period.

There is only one good thing that one can say about Kerényi. He doesn’t hide the fact that  as “commissioner in charge of art” he divides all art forms into “right and left” or “national and international.” Good and bad. For instance, he views the history of twentieth-century Hungarian literature as a victory of the left over the right. In fact, he makes no secret of his belief that the literary greats of the right were actually suppressed. But, he says, from here on everything will be different. The current regime will develop its own “national canon.” Now that they are in power, they will make sure that those who have been successful both inside and outside the country, for example Péter Esterházy and Péter Nádas, will be pushed into the background.

Actually, it is unlikely that the Hungarian government can ruin the careers of these two particular writers because their international fame protects them, but others are not so lucky. Let’s take, for example, the University of Performing Arts whose president is not a favorite of the regime. In order to ruin the institution, the government simply cut back its support. With the National Theater at least they had the decency to let Róbert Alföldi, the current director, finish his term. But when he reapplied for the position, the powers that be made sure that their man, naturally someone with right-wing political views, got the job. Kerényi was one of the jurors. He admitted that the nomination of the new director wasn’t exactly cricket but, he said, sorry, “our time has arrived.”

Kerényi’s latest pronouncement on the local TV station was that from here on everything will be different in the National Theater. It will not be a theater of “fags” but of “loyalty” and “love.” Keep in mind that this man is a member of the Hungarian government.

And now to Nyerges. Let’s see how the Hungarian right saw the state of Hungarian literature in the 1920s and 1930s. A Hungarian member of parliament in 1920 expressed his view that “national literature went to the dogs and anyone who tried to follow the national or religious path was branded. A new kind of literature was born: the literature of Pest, an anti-literature.” And he went on to list the names of those “from whom the national feeling died out”: Ferenc Molnár-Neumann, Mór Szomori-Weiss, Sándor Bródy, Ernő Szép-Schőn, Lajos Bíró-Blau. “The time of reckoning has come. The time will come when everybody will be measured by our natural feelings.” Cécile Tormay, just lately elevated to the national curriculum, called Endre Ady, one of Hungary’s greatest poet, “the singing gravedigger of the nation.” These right-wingers bemoaned the fact that Hungarian literature seemed to be following Western models. Just as Kerényi in the same television appearance complained that the Hungarian National Theater’s performances are not Hungarian enough. The performances are indistinguishable from others elsewhere in Europe or North America.

At least in the 1920s some of the critics of the Western model admitted that Hungarian conservative literature didn’t really have outstanding writers “with the exception of Ferenc Herczeg and Ottokár Prohászka.” The latter, as you may recall, was the founding father of the idea of Hungarism later adopted by Ferenc Szálasi. Cécile Tormay’s “rehabilitation” as a great writer is especially amusing considering that her own conservative or right-wing contemporaries found her untalented. Dezső Szabó compared her to Renée Erdős, the author of light novels much favored by middle-class ladies of no great literary refinement.

Gyula Pekár, a mediocre writer and politician, was certain that there were “two Hungarian literary canons that are engaged in a life and death battle.” He, as undersecretary in charge of cultural affairs in the early 1920s, made sure that the “national side” would emerge victorious. The Hungarian writer Sándor Márai, recently discovered in international circles as a great writer, complained  in 1932 about “the ideological terror of a reactionary minority.” He added that “not liking Pekár but reading [Gyula] Krúdy is considered to be treason, but even then we cannot agree to make the mistake of mixing up Hungarian literature with national literature.”

The Orbán government’s cultural policy is practically a carbon copy of the Horthy regime’s attempt to force “national” literature on the country’s literati. The interesting thing, in my opinion, is that Kerényi most likely knows very little about what András Nyerges is talking about in this essay. His own instincts are simply guiding him down the same path. There is nothing new under the sun.

Matriculation and politics: A couple of conspiracy theories

During the month of May people seem to be preoccupied with news about the Hungarian matriculation exams. All of the questions are thoroughly discussed in the media. Everybody has an opinion about the quality of the questions, their difficulty, and their political implications if any.

I find this national preoccupation odd. After all, how high school graduates perform on these examinations should really be the concern of the students and their parents. Moreover, matriculation means a great deal less than it did, let’s say, a hundred or even fifty years ago. Before World War II matriculation was the dividing line between the middle class and the rest of society. After the war the number of high school graduates grew significantly, and thus a matriculation certificate means a great deal less today than it did in the olden days.

Judging from past experience, this matriculation mania will last for weeks, but the first few days are the truly exciting ones as far as the Hungarian public is concerned because Hungarian language and literature and history are the first two subjects to be tested.

Commencement exercises

Commencement exercises

This morning students spent four hours writing answers to the questions on the Hungarian test, which had two parts. The first was a reading and comprehension test of a text on linguistics. The second required the students to write an essay on one of three possible topics.

As usual, this year’s Hungarian test has its critics. One possible topic was a short story by Sándor Márai (1900-1989); apparently, that was the most popular choice. The second was an essay by Leszek Kołakowski, the Polish philosopher, who is, as I found out, not well known in Hungary. Most likely the students had no idea who the man was. But it was the third that  raised the most eyebrows. Students were supposed to compare two epigrams: one by Dániel Berzsenyi (1776-1836) and the other by Mihály Vörösmarty (1800-1855). Both are about Napoleon Bonaparte.

Let me quote the Berzsenyi poem first:


Nem te valál győző, hanem a kor lelke: szabadság,
Melynek zászlóit hordta dicső sereged.
A népek fényes csalatásba merülve imádtak,
S a szent emberiség sorsa kezedbe került.
Ámde te azt tündér kényednek alája vetetted,
S isteni pálmádat váltja töviskoszorú.
Amely kéz felemelt, az ver most porba viszontag;
Benned az emberiség ügye bosszulva vagyon.


The soul of the age was Liberty whose flags your victorious armies carried. People worshiped you and the fate of mankind was in your hands. However, you surrendered it to your pleasure, and a crown of thorns replaced your laurels. The hand that raised you now throws you into the dust.

Then the Vörösmarty poem:


Nagy volt ő s nagysága miatt megdőlnie kellett;
Ég és föld egyaránt törtek elejteni őt:
Tűrni nagyobbat irígy lőn a sáralkatu ember,
S tűrni hasonlót nem bírtak az istenek is.


He was great and because of his greatness he had to fall; Heaven and earth endeavored to make him descend: Man made of dust is jealous of the greater one and even gods could not tolerate his kind.

The president of the Association of Hungarian Teachers, I think rightly, claims that there is no way anyone can write a fairly long essay comparing these two epigrams. He also added that “the task borders on the embarrassing.” He is not alone in believing that the choice of Napoleon was not a coincidence.

Actually, I find this theory a bit of a stretch, but I agree that the Kołakowski essay “On travel”  was selected as part of an effort to dissuade Hungarian students from leaving the country and studying in some other European Union country. In the essay Kołakowski claims that people don’t travel in order to learn “because everything we can learn during a trip can be learned perhaps even better without travel.” The reason for travel is to escape  from everyday problems in addition to satisfying one’s curiosity.

It is unlikely that such a primitive little trick would deter some of those who are serious about leaving Hungary to study elsewhere. Here is a series of cartoons that appeared in Index, drawn by “grafitember.” A girl who is just graduating from high school stops at the corner store to buy a chocolate bar. She and the store owner are old acquaintances.

-Aunt Rose, kiss your hand! The usual chocolate bar, please!

-Oh, my dear Panni, you see this day arrived after all. Are you worried or did you study hard?

-I am not so great in Hungarian but I’m prepared.

-Where are you going from here?

-To Vienna, just as half of my class. Perhaps archaeology or management.

Indeed, it seems that the best and the brightest are planning to study abroad. Despite this exodus, Viktor Orbán today talked about how he is going to make Hungary the “land of knowledge.” Yes, from less and less money and fewer and fewer university graduates.