Photo: STF/AFP via Getty Images
Hungarian writer Imre Kertész poses with his 2002 Nobel Prize for literature during the awards ceremony in Stockholm’s Concert Hall Photo: STF/AFP via Getty Images
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Hungarian State Secretary Zoltán Kovács Responds to Tablet

Was dumping Imre Kertész from the school curriculum an act of state anti-Semitism? A letter of reply.

by
Zoltán Kovács
February 21, 2020
Photo: STF/AFP via Getty Images
Hungarian writer Imre Kertész poses with his 2002 Nobel Prize for literature during the awards ceremony in Stockholm's Concert Hall Photo: STF/AFP via Getty Images

Hungary’s recent update of its National Basic Curriculum, a set of guidelines and standards about what should be taught in public schools, sparked a heated public discussion here at home. But the debate remained within professional, pedagogical boundaries. With her article, which appeared on Tablet behind the sensational headline “Jewish Nobel Laureate Imre Kertész Is Dumped from the Hungarian Curriculum,” Susan Rubin Suleiman claims anti-Semitism lies at the root of the changes and adds an unnecessary and patently false element to the debate.

First of all, some basic facts: Holocaust education is a mandatory part of Hungary’s national curriculum because the Orbán government made it so. That’s right. No other Hungarian government saw fit to make sure that all Hungarian schoolchildren learn about the Holocaust in Hungary.

The author bases her claim on the argument that Imre Kertész, the Hungarian Nobel Laureate for literature in 2002 and author of the acclaimed Fatelessness—a novel recounting his experiences in concentration camps as a Jewish teenager in the last years of the Second World War—was “dumped” from the “required” reading list for Hungarian kids in high school, and replaced by “musty” authors who were “convinced anti-Semites.”

It’s quite a stretch to claim that the Orbán government is somehow trying to obscure the work of Imre Kertész. In honor of Kertész, this government has funded an institute charged with the mission of “nurturing his legacy, collecting and processing his unpublished works” and more. Kertész himself was quite clear how he felt about today’s Hungary, but The New York Times buried an interview with Kertész in 2014, seemingly because he wouldn’t call Hungary’s government a dictatorship.

It’s unfortunate to see some attempt to exploit Kertész for some other agenda, and especially when these allegations simply do not square with what is happening in Hungary today. It is not my place to evaluate the works and “convictions” of Hungarian literary figures, but I am obliged to remind those who take an interest in Hungary of how much the governments of Prime Minister Orbán have done to counter anti-Semitism and to support Hungary’s Jewish community. As I’ve written a number of times (see here and here): Anti-Semitism and the Hungarian government are just fundamentally incongruent.

Don’t take my word for it. The facts speak for themselves.

Since 2010, Hungary has become one of Israel’s staunchest international supporters and the government has introduced a zero-tolerance policy on anti-Semitism. Prime Minister Orbán was also the first Hungarian prime minister to speak explicitly of Hungary’s guilt during the Holocaust, saying that “Hungary sinned when instead of protecting the Jews, we chose to collaborate with the Nazis.” It was an Orbán government, as I noted, that made Holocaust education a mandatory part of the national curriculum, instituted the national Holocaust Remembrance Day, came to an agreement with the Claims Conference after its predecessors failed to do so, and made it a priority to back the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation with financial support. The Orbán government created a Holocaust Museum in Budapest and saw to it that our new constitution specifically identifies the Jewish community as a constituent part of the Hungarian nation. Today’s ruling party is responsible for stricter laws against hate speech and outlawing paramilitary groups.

Plus, we have not only helped to restore synagogues and Jewish cemeteries but have also committed funding to the construction of new synagogues.

Countering the current trend in many Western European countries, where the number of anti-Semitic hate crimes is rising, the number of incidents in Hungary has dropped. This coincides with David P. Goldman’s report from Budapest last year, naming Hungary the “safest country for European Jews,” a place where no one gave him a second look as he walked the streets wearing his kippah. Meanwhile, in May, a well-known author, international correspondent and longtime Budapest resident wrote movingly in the Financial Times about a “Jewish renaissance” in Hungary.

As to why certain, so-called musty authors have been included in the new curriculum, it’s important to understand that they wrote about events and a time that brought earth-shattering change to Hungary—changes that people across the political spectrum regard as a national tragedy—a period that for most of the rest of the 20th century, we were forbidden from talking about, let alone studying in school. That’s not irrendentism. It’s about understanding our national heritage.

The debate about our national curriculum is one that we need to have here in Hungary, and ill-informed attempts from outside to exploit the heritage of Imre Kertész to suggest that anti-Semitism or Holocaust denial is somehow at play is not only unhelpful but factually groundless.

***

Susan R. Suleiman replies:

I appreciate State Secretary Zoltán Kovács’ response to my article—or rather, to its headline. My article was not about anti-Semitism or the situation of Jews in Hungary (though we could have a fruitful discussion on those subjects), and I did not state—nor, in fact, did the headline—that the Holocaust was no longer taught there. I stated the fact that Imre Kertész’s great novel Fatelessness, which is about a teenager deported to Auschwitz and other camps in 1944, had been taken off the required reading list in the National Basic Curriculum, and that the proposed curriculum had provoked strong negative reactions from critics. Mr. Kovács does not contest any of the facts I mention. He does not explain why and how the government’s decision was made—why a work by one of Hungary’s greatest writers, a winner of the Nobel Prize in literature who happens to have been a child survivor of the Holocaust, was replaced by mediocre works by two writers, Albert Wass and József Nyírő, who were condemned to death in absentia after World War II for their pro-Nazi activities. Most specialists consider Wass and Nyírő unworthy of canonical status, independently of their politics; yet the government’s proposed curriculum elevates them to the status of required writers, to be read by all schoolchildren.

In my article, I made it clear that the Hungarian professors of literature, heads of literary institutes, and more than 15,000 schoolteachers who have protested against the newly proposed National Curriculum are basing their arguments not on political grounds but on literary ones (and even more protests have appeared since I wrote my article). The proposed new additions are not good choices, these experts say; these works will not appeal to students or make them eager to read Hungarian literature, and their choice was arrived at by bureaucrats who did not bother to consult any specialists in the field. Meanwhile, a truly important writer from the same period, Sándor Márai, does not appear on the curriculum, not to mention more recent Hungarian writers whose works are appreciated all over the world.

The experts, I repeat, are not protesting against the government’s political agenda, only against its ill-advised pedagogical and aesthetic choices. But the agenda itself is obvious and contestable, and Wass’ and Nyírő’s works were clearly chosen with it in mind. Mr. Kovács alludes to this agenda in his mention of the “national tragedy,” which refers to the fact that in the 1919 Versailles Treaty, Hungary lost two-thirds of its pre-WWI territory. Does he really think, and does the Orbán government really think, that by force-feeding mediocre literary works that hark back to a lost “Hungarianness” to today’s schoolchildren they will serve Hungary’s future? Professors of literature in Hungary do not think so, and neither do I.

***

Read ‘Jewish Nobel Laureate Imre Kertész Is Dumped From the Hungarian Curriculum’ here.

Zoltán Kovács is State Secretary for International Communication and Relations of the Government of Hungary.

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