The Lives of Others
Hungary has made a hard turn to the political right, but Holocaust survivor Karl Pfeifer, who in three decades of journalism has assailed Hungarian communists and Austrian fascists, refuses to let anti-Semitism return unchecked
Speaking to a group of teenagers in Austria some years ago, the journalist Karl Pfeifer was asked if, in the depths of his sorrows as a young survivor of the Holocaust, he had ever contemplated suicide. “Suicide never,” was his reply. “But occasionally, murder.” Far from seeking vengeance, however, Pfeifer’s motivation arises from a passion for liberal values learned through personal experience with the two totalitarianisms of the 20th century. This has made him vigilant about threats to freedom that other people may be too comfortable to notice and brought him repeatedly back to Austria and Hungary, the countries from which he escaped during the war. Living through these periods made him brave—he has since assailed Hungarian communists and Austrian fascists and is today taking aim at Hungary’s controversial right-wing government—but it also gave him a distinctive sense of humor.
Traveling by train to Budapest, Hungary, from Vienna in the summer of 1980, Pfeifer was questioned by a female customs official who entered his compartment and asked him politely if he had anything to declare. Pfeifer replied that he did not, but the official looked inside his bag, where she found several dozen photocopies of a review of the memoir Seven Thousand Days in Siberia by Karlo Stajner, published in a Hungarian-language Yugoslavian newspaper. An Austrian-born, Croatian Communist, Stajner had traveled to Moscow in 1932 with dreams of building the international socialist revolution. But like so many others, he became a victim of the cold realities of Stalinist paranoia and was condemned to the gulag.
“I’m going to take away this dirt,” the border official told Pfeifer.
“I draw your attention to the fact that this is not dirt,” Pfeifer calmly replied in Hungarian, a language he’d had learned while living in Budapest from 1938 until fleeing for Palestine in 1943. “This comes from the official paper of the Socialist Youth of Yugoslavia,” he said, in which bristling critiques of the Soviet system were not uncommon.
Thus began Pfeifer’s troubles with the Hungarian Communist regime. (He would later discover from Austrian diplomats briefed about the circumstances that it was his use of the phrase “I draw your attention” and not “I beg to draw your attention” that drew the customs officer’s ire.) Pfeifer was taken off the train and brought to the customs station, where a higher-ranking officer informed him that he had “provoked” the official and would be deported back to Austria. Told that the Hungarian government would pay for his return ticket, he replied: “Finally, at 51 years of age, the Hungarian state pays something for me? Very good.”
Until his final deportation from the country in 1987, Pfeifer acted as a courier between Hungary’s dissidents and the West. “Through Karl Pfeifer we obtained real, normal contact with the democratic, liberal, outside world,” Attila Ara-Kovacs, a Hungarian dissident, said in a 2008 interview for an Austrian documentary about Pfeifer’s life, Somehow in Between. “This contact was very important for us. It naturally changed our lives.”
Pfeifer’s courier work started in May 1979, when a friend in Vienna asked him to deliver medicines to acquaintances in Budapest. Meeting those Budapest acquaintances, a group of sociologists, Pfeifer remarked that Hungary, then practicing a form of “goulash communism”—which allowed for a small degree of private enterprise, greater personal liberties, and easier travel to the West—was “quite free for a communist country.” Afterward, one of the sociologists, Tamás Földvári, took Pfeifer outside and said that his impression of Hungary was false. For instance, he said, workers in rural areas who complained about conditions were targeted for physical violence by the secret police.
Back in Vienna, Pfeifer got in touch with the editor of the social democratic newspaper Arbeiter Zeitung, or Worker’s News, who expressed interest in having Pfeifer publish dispatches from Hungary. Writing under the pseudonym Peter Koroly, Pfeifer began traveling back and forth to Budapest, banging out stories on his Hermes Baby typewriter about everything from the country’s periodic economic crises to the tide of young men refusing military service.
In 1982, two years after that first deportation from the Hungarian train, Pfeifer became editor of Die Gemeinde, or The Community, Vienna’s Jewish newspaper. Pfeifer, whose youthful energy belies his 83 years, told me recently at a Vienna café that this assignment changed his situation, “insofar as for the Austrians it was very uncomfortable” that he be denied entry to a neighboring country. Pfeifer sent a letter of protest to Austrian Chancellor Bruno Kreisky, an assimilated Jew who nonetheless had former Nazis in his Cabinet. “I said, ‘Look, Waffen SS men, Arrow Cross men”—from the far right Hungarian party—“can go to Hungary. They get a visa, and I have family that are survivors and I cannot get in. It’s against human rights.’ ” Soon after sending the letter, Pfeifer got his visa.
Because the Hungarian regime of János Kádár was trying to present itself as practicing a more reformed version of communism, it tolerated Pfeifer entering the country. But that didn’t stop authorities from deporting him three more times over the ensuing years. “The more they did it, the more I hated their guts,” he told me. The last straw was a 1987 meeting in Budapest with a high-ranking official from the Hungarian Foreign Ministry, who informed Pfeifer that the Hungarian government would no longer allow him to meet with any members of the opposition. Pfeifer responded that, as “a modest Austrian journalist and not a Hungarian policeman,” he did not know whether the Hungarians he interviewed were members of the opposition. “Would you be so kind as to give me a written list and I promise you I won’t meet anybody on the list?” he asked. This sly retort led to Pfeifer’s last expulsion. When Hungary opened the archives of its Communist-era secret police following the democratic transition in 1991, Pfeifer discovered that he had a 100-page file in which regime agents accused him of “ideological subversion,” an allegation that today makes him “incredibly proud,” he told me.
Anti-Semitism was not, at least initially, a major concern for Pfeifer in his early journalism about Hungary. “I was of the opinion that this problem had more or less solved itself in the people’s republics,” he recounts in the documentary. “Whereby I was terribly wrong.” In 1982, he decided to report on the 100th anniversary of the “Tiszaeszlár Affair,” an incident involving the disappearance of a young Christian girl in a northern Hungarian village that had led to a Jewish blood libel, pogroms, and the formation of a political faction called the National Anti-Semitic Party. Meeting with a high-level official in the Hungarian Foreign Ministry, Pfeifer was told, “We won’t allow you to import anti-Semitism from Austria to Hungary. We have solved this problem once and for all in 1945.”
Living under regimes that denied the particularly Jewish aspects of the Holocaust and the continuing evils of anti-Semitism within their own societies, the people of the Eastern Bloc did not experience, in the same way Western Europeans did, the decades-long, postwar process of atonement and recognition for the crimes committed against their Jewish populations. This is the battle for historical truth that Pfeifer has fought for decades.
Born in the Austrian spa town of Baden bei Wien to Hungarian parents in 1928, Karl Pfiefer fled with his family to Hungary following the Nazi Anschluss of 1938. In Budapest, Pfeifer was recruited into the Hashomir Hatzair socialist Zionist youth movement. Paradoxically, he believes that the anti-Semitism he experienced as a young boy saved him from a far worse fate. “Somehow, one has to be thankful for Austrian anti-Semitism,” Pfeifer says with a chuckle in Somehow in Between. “Of the 180,000 [Austrian] Jews, 120,000 fled thanks to Austrian anti-Semitism.”
Things were not much better in Budapest. “In Hungary, people had illusions,” he says in the film. Every morning, students in his Jewish school rose to recite a nationalistic poem, which went something along the lines of, “I believe in one homeland. I believe in one God. I believe in a divine justice. I believe in the resurrection of Hungary.” That “resurrection” was a not-so-thinly veiled reference to the 1920 Treaty of Trianon, the post-World War I agreement that broke up the Austro-Hungarian Empire and left about a third of ethnic Hungarians living outside the Hungarian successor state and that remains a curse word among latter-day Hungarian nationalists. “I always said it the other way round,” Pfeifer recalls in Somehow in Between. “I do not believe in one God. I do not believe in divine justice. And I certainly do not believe in the resurrection of Hungary.” Pfeifer’s ardent Zionism and disavowal of Hungarian identity led to fierce fights with his father, who beat him repeatedly.
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