By Shayna Plaut, Contributing Editor, Human Rights
I began traveling to Hungary in December of 2001. Every time I got on the plane my collective Jewish family would take in a deep breath. I was going back to “The Old Country” where “they” hate “us.” It didn’t matter that no one in my family is actually Hungarian, or that anyone alive at the time was actually born in Europe. The unquestioned truth is that “we,” as Jews, were not safe “there.” As soon as we thought we were safe, “they” would come and burn down our shtetl. This is what happened in Spain. In Germany. In the Middle East. And, according to my family, this is what will happen in the future if “we” are not careful.
Never. Never. Get complacent.
As someone who grew up with many identities (punk, political, wanna-be Chicana, Leo…oh yeah, and Jewish) I always assumed this was simply paranoia.
Because of my academic and activist work, as well as good friends, I travel to Central Eastern and South Eastern Europe about once a year. I recently returned from a short weeklong trip to Hungary in June, and in that week I began to wonder if perhaps my family was right.
Among other things, debate was high about the ongoing building of a new national statute, a Holocaust memorial that depicts Hungary as a hapless victim to Nazi aggression with responsibility for the rounding up of Jews, Roma, and other “deviants and undesirables” placed firmly in the hands of occupying forces. Hungary’s complicity as a willing collaborator is not acknowledged. The statue, a pet project of the current, right wing Fidesz national government will cost millions of Euros. Who is the statue speaking to and why is it being erected now?
Although cumbersome, in order to ensure diversity of voices and politics, a different country within the European Union assumes the E.U. presidency every six months. Less than one year after Hungary served as president, there was a proposed bill in the Hungarian Parliament for Jews to be registered on lists as threats to national security. The rationale was the tired trope that Jews could be working for “foreign interests.” The bill failed but the fact that it warranted debate, not to mention the anti-Semitic logic behind the proposal, is frightening. It became evident to me that this was just one example of how history is not only alive and well, but also being rewritten.
Of approximately 15 million ethnic Hungarians, ten million live in modern day Hungary, and five million are spread out through Romania (mostly Transylvania), Eastern Slovakia and Northern Serbia (Vojvodina) or “Greater Hungary.” Although this separation of Hungary from “greater Hungary” took place in June 1920 in the Treaty of Trianon, the effects are still evident today. The clearest example is the weather report: one can almost always tell the political leanings of a media station based solely on the weather report. If the station is more left-leaning, then the weather shows the map of the country of Hungary. If the station is more right leaning – which given the current near-complete government monopoly means the vast majority of the media – then the weather report includes Transylvania, Eastern Slovakia and Northern Serbia.
During my recent visit, I came across a rally bemoaning the loss of “greater Hungary” and the foreign, “cosmopolitan” forces that were taking space and resources away from “real” Hungarians. The rally took place on June 4th in Heroes’ Square, a prime tourist attraction, though a place I would rarely go to myself.
I was there waiting for a friend, a Romani friend who recently relocated from Macedonia to work for an international organization. Her husband, one of my best friends who is also Roma, now works for the Council of Europe. Upon my arrival, I noticed the huge flags in the rally. The flag for the Jobbik party, the far-right party that equates Roma with mosquitos and offers itself as the exterminating solution, immediately caught my eye. The Jobbik party was one of the main sponsors of the legislation to make the “Jewish registry.” The speaker, a man about my age with a shaved head, stood at a podium framed by a 20 meter high cross with flames coming out on the side. The crowd was a mixture of men and women, young and old. I began to take pictures as I ventured to inch closer and closer.
I heard my name and turned around, my friend Nena came over. We hugged, cooed over the baby and then I pointed to the rally. “Do you see that? That’s Jobbik and other right wing groups. They hate us both. They want both of us gone.” I paused and then proudly took out my camera, “Look, I took lots of pictures.”
She looked confused and a bit shocked, “Jobbik – that’s Jobbik?” She instinctively drew the baby a bit closer to her chest and her eyes got bigger. “Why are you taking pictures?”
Then she paused, “No wait, you should take pictures. Document that. Fight back.”
Since 2011, people who are on social assistance for more than 3 months are mandated to work for free for the government. The government assigns the work places. If the work places are more than 2 hours from their home they are provided housing near the labor camps. That’s right, there are labor camps in Hungary again and, predictably it has led to physical altercations, pogroms and murder.
In 2008-2009 there were modern day pogroms throughout many parts of rural Hungary – ethnic Hungarians who were members of the Hungarian Guard, sometimes working in partnership with local police, were trying to create a modern “race war” through intimidation, assault, arson and eventually murders throughout the North East of Hungary. In fact, Hungary’s entry for the 2012 academy award, Just the Wind, was a fictionalized account based on many of these events.
The day after the rally bemoaning the loss of Greater Hungary, I met a man, a Hungarian, who was fighting back: Adam Csillag, a feature filmmaker in his 50s turned citizen journalist. As the Hungarian media becomes more censored and self censored – all the television stations, most of the newspapers and many of the online news sources are owned by companies with ties to the Fidesz government – Csillag spends his day documenting alternative truths, putting the unedited footage online and going back to the street. He claims to have over 3000 hours of footage. I asked how he expects any one to sit down and watch 3000 hours of unedited footage and he threw up his hands and said “I don’t know how to make the package nice when the soup is sour! It is not good what is happening.”
In 2011, Csillag spent 20 days in villages in a Romani village in rural Hungary as the embers of racism began to, once again, erupt into full fledge pogroms. Currently, he has been spending hours documenting the building of the “innocent Hungary” statute; but he also interviews everyday Hungarians trying to speak truth to power, giving voice to those who do not want to see this rise of the right again. He is a lone warrior, living off the donations of people who appreciate his documentation of ugly truths.
When I asked him why he does what he does, he says that he documents what is happening around the country to show that Hungarians are not free. Since “all the media has connections to Fidesz now,” he is one of the only sources to show the “story of how contemporary Hungary is unfolding.” He explains, “Like a teacher has a responsibility to their students, I am a film director and I too have a responsibility.”
One of the things that has always shocked me about Europe in general, but especially Hungary, is how ordinary thoughtful left-leaning people have a completely visceral reaction to Romani issues, or at least the Roma in their country. Therefore it was a bit surprising that Csillag, who is not Roma, seemed to have a particular interest in what is happening to the Roma in the country. He explained, “Roma are a minority of about 1 million people. In the future they will be the majority in many of the villages….They are our future victims of the new Holocaust or the explosive material of a new…I don’t know…future [for Hungary]. In the village they will be the next generation. What happens to them is in the interest of the entire country.”
Csillag paused for a long time, “people are scared of the stranger and we have our strangers inside – the Jews and the Gyspies.”
FIGHTING BACK BY CREATING ALTERNATIVES AND SOLIDARITIES
I return full circle.
Racism, anti-Semitism, and nationalism in Europe is becoming more acceptable “in polite company” throughout Europe. That is not paranoia speaking – that is truth. Right wing groups that equate Roma to mosquitos (Hungary) or fingerprint Romani children because they are all assumed to be future criminals (Italy) are now in power. Countries that advocate locking up asylum seekers in empty stadiums in the scorching sun (Malta) and who face annual summer riots between second generation “us” and “them” (Sweden and France) all lie in the heart of Europe. In fact, many have had their turn serving as the president in the European Union – “guardians and protectors of Western civilization.”
So yes, maybe “they” do hate “us” – but that is not something that needs to be accepted.
Yes, history has taught us – but what are the lessons we have learned?
‘We” are a larger and stronger “We” than my grandparents assumed. “We” are not only a “we” of blood connections but rather a “we” of refusal and alternatives. We refuse to allow nationalism and racism to become normal. And we also refuse to allow fear to be our logic. Rather we can turn to our pens and cameras to each other and ask what alternatives we will create and ultimately, what are we willing to do about it?