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
In November 1942, shortly before departing on a kindertransport headed for Palestine, Pfeifer asked his uncle why he wouldn’t sell his lumber business. “Haven’t you heard that Jews are being burned in gas ovens in Poland?” Pfeifer asked.
“What?” his uncle replied. “Where did you hear that?”
Pfeifer said that the source of the information was the BBC, but it was actually his comrades in Hashomer Hatzair who had told him. Regardless, this revelation had little effect on his uncle, who replied that he bad been a decorated officer in the Austro-Hungarian army during World War I and that such things could never happen to patriotic Jewish Hungarians. “You’re an adult,” Pfeifer responded. “You have to decide for yourself.” Pfeifer’s uncle and his family, including his wife, two sons, daughter, son-in-law, and grandchild would be deported to Auschwitz. Only his uncle’s son-in-law survived.
After joining the Palmach and fighting in the 1948 Israeli war of independence, Pfeifer had an itinerant, 30-year career working in the shipping and hotel industries. After the fall of the Soviet Union, he continued his journalism career but turned his attentions from Hungary to Austria, where his anti-fascist credentials proved useful. Writing for newspapers, reporting for Kol Israel International radio, and appearing on television, Pfeifer became a leading figure in the campaign to correct the historical misperception that most Austrians continued to hold about their nation’s innocence during World War II and to reconcile that myth with its deep complicity in the Holocaust. “For the Austrian political establishment, the argument was a simple one: from 1938 to 1945 Austria did not even exist,” Pfeifer has written. “Thus Austrians could not be held responsible for what happened to their Jewish compatriots and only the Germans were to blame for the Holocaust. Quod Erat Demonstrandum.” Austria’s continuing inability to come to terms with the nation’s role in the crimes of the Third Reich became evident in the rise of a man who would become a Pfeifer nemesis, Jörg Haider, the late leader of the far-right Freedom Party.
In 1995, Pfeifer published a review in Die Gemeinde of a Freedom Party “yearbook,” accusing it of possessing “Nazi tones.” More than half of Pfeifer’s article consisted of quotations from an article written by an Austrian academic named Werner Pfeifenberger, who alleged that Germany had not started World War II because “in 1933 Judea had already declared war on all of Germany.” Pfeifenberger had written that “this world war” started by Jews “is by far not yet over” and cited as evidence “the hate tirades of the slander campaign against Kurt Waldheim,” the former United Nations secretary general who was elected president of Austria in 1986 despite his having participated in Nazi atrocities. Pfeifenberger sued Pfeifer for libel and lost.
In 1999, the Freedom Party finished second in nationwide legislative elections, with 27 percent of the vote. At a press conference in which Haider announced that he would join a coalition government, a move that eventually led the European Union to impose sanctions on Austria and Israel to recall its ambassador, Pfeifer directly confronted Haider. Citing Haider’s association with a wide variety of Holocaust deniers and Nazi enthusiasts, Pfeifer asked, “What kind of credibility do you have if you are unable to cut ties to these people?” By chance, two weeks later, the Vienna Public Prosecutor’s office announced that it would press charges against Pfeifenberger for violating the country’s National Socialism Prohibition Act for the claims made in his 1995 article. On May 13, 2000, days before he was to stand trial, Pfeifenberger committed suicide.
The following month, a far-right Vienna magazine accused Pfeifer of being part of a 10-man conspiracy that “opened up a man hunt, which was to result in the death of the hunted.” Pfeifer sued the paper for defamation, and he initially won in a Viennese court. The magazine appealed the verdict to Austria’s highest tribunal, however, which overruled the earlier decision. One justice on the three-judge panel, Doris Trieb, pointed her finger at Pfeifer while telling him that he bore “moral” responsibility for Pfeifenberger’s suicide.
In 2003, Pfeifer brought the case before the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France. Four years later, in a landmark decision, the Strasbourg panel ruled against the Austrian government, finding that “the reasons advanced by the domestic courts for protecting freedom of expression outweighed the right of the applicant to have his reputation safeguarded.” The European Court ordered the government of Austria to award Pfeifer a settlement of 5,000 euros in damages and 10,000 euros for legal expenses. “It was hard enough to stand three years in Austrian courts because I did not believe that ‘the Jews declared war in 1933 on Germany,’ ” Pfeifer told Haaretz at the time. “But then to see Dr. Trieb point her finger at me and accuse me of being responsible ‘only morally’ for a man’s suicide was even harder.”
In the nationwide Hungarian elections held in April of last year, the right-wing Fidesz Party of Viktor Orbán won a landslide victory: Its 53 percent of the popular vote, due to the country’s electoral system, translated into two-thirds of the seats in parliament. The previous Socialist government, which had ruled for eight years, had been tainted by countless scandals, and its incompetence was largely blamed for the country’s being one of the hardest hit by the 2008 economic crisis, during which it was forced to borrow $25 billion from the International Monetary Fund. With Fidesz’s overwhelming victory, Hungary became the first country in Central Europe since the breakup of the Soviet Union to be governed by a single party not in coalition.
Since taking power, Orbán—who first earned fame in Hungary as a student activist when he gave a speech in 1989 calling for the withdrawal of Soviet troops from his country—has introduced a series of nationalistic and centralizing measures that have earned international opprobrium as signs of creeping authoritarianism. The first was his decision to grant passports to ethnic Hungarians who are citizens of other countries—a sop to those within Hungary who continue to view the 90-year-old Treaty of Trianon with resentment and shame, and a major provocation to neighbors, like Slovakia, where sizable Hungarian minorities reside. In June, the speaker of the Hungarian parliament said that the use of arms to settle a border dispute in the 1990s with Slovakia would have been justified.
In January, Orbán’s government launched what many claimed was a politically motivated investigation of five Hungarian academics for the misuse of research funds. The academics, including the Jewish philosopher Agnes Heller, are all vocal critics of the Fidesz party and were accused of misappropriating portions of the $2 million in government money they had received in support of various research projects. Attacks in the right-wing press have taken on an anti-intellectual tone, demanding to know, for instance, why one of the researchers used funds for new translations of Plato when the works had already been translated into Hungarian.
Israeli-born land-speed racer Amir Rosenbaum is the fastest Jew on earth. This weekend, at the Bonneville Salt Flats, he hopes to take his machine, the Infidel, back into the rarified territory of 400 miles per hour.