There was word, Csanad Szegedi was told, of a secret so explosive it would destroy his career.
By 2012, the 30-year-old Szegedi was a rising star in the hothouse world of Hungarian politics, vice president of the extreme-right Jobbik party and a Member of the European Parliament. Jobbik had, in less than a decade, taken on an outsize place in Hungarian politics, resuscitating a long-dormant authoritarian tradition, and its deeply held anti-Semitic prejudices along with it. In 2007, Szegedi had helped to form the Hungarian Guard, a brownshirt organization whose iconography deliberately, and frighteningly, echoed that of the World War II-era Hungarian Fascist Arrow Guard. The rumor being peddled by Zoltan Ambrus, an ex-skinhead with a grudge, was that Szegedi—an anti-Semitic provocateur and pronounced Holocaust skeptic who had once made reference to the extensive damage done to the Hungarian Holy Crown by Jewish artists and intellectuals—was himself Jewish.
Szegedi, in disbelief, turned to his grandmother, Magdolna Klein, who shocked him by confirming the story in all its details. Not only was she Jewish, but she was herself a Holocaust survivor.
Three weeks before deciding to leave Jobbik, Szegedi’s grandmother had told him for the first time about his grandfather’s wartime experiences. He had been deported from Hungary as part of a forced-labor battalion, leaving his first wife and two children behind. When he returned after the war, he discovered that his entire family had been sent to Auschwitz and murdered. At the time, Szegedi’s children were the same age as his grandfather’s murdered children, and the chronological conjunction—one father contemplating another’s unbearable loss from a nearly identical vantage point—was irrefutable.
For Szegedi—one of the most prominent anti-Semites in Hungary and one of the most compelling voices on the European extreme right—the moment offered three distinct but overlapping realizations. In an instant, Szegedi understood that the Holocaust was real, that his family had been personally affected by the mass murder of European Jewry, and that his career as a politician was over.
Jobbik initially offered Szegedi a chance to maintain his leadership position. (What better inoculation against accusations of anti-Semitism than to have a Jewish vice president?) In a recent interview with Szegedi in Manhattan, he admitted he was tempted to maintain his ties with Jobbik. Soon, however, Jobbik accused Szegedi of seeking to bribe his accuser into silence about his Jewish heritage, and kicked him out of the party. “I am not a hero who made the right decision immediately,” Szegedi told me. “But I had a lot of spiritual suffering before I could make this decision.”
Sam Blair and Joseph Martin’s new documentary Keep Quiet, released this month, and playing recently at the Tribeca Film Festival, picks up the story here, with Szegedi’s career and reputation in tatters: Where does a young man in a hurry go when life forces him to a halt?
Szegedi, now 33, was a man without a country, and he wanted to know more about his Jewish heritage. He faced a dilemma: unwanted in Jobbik, or in the extreme-right circles in which he had traveled his entire adult life, the face of Hungarian anti-Semitism was also persona non grata among the Jews of Hungary.
Soon, Keep Quiet‘s producer Alex Holder came across Szegedi’s story during a trip to Hungary in search of stories about contemporary European anti-Semitism, and convinced him to participate in the documentary by pitching it as an opportunity for him to apologize, and to demonstrate his transformation.
“He is a man whose home is the stage,” said Holder. “He likes the platform, he likes the megaphone.”
Szegedi’s grandmother had told him she knew little about Judaism, not being religious herself. (Later, he would discover that she had been raised in an Orthodox family, and knew substantially more than she first felt comfortable revealing.) After the war, she had hidden her Jewish roots out of fear of a rekindled Hungarian anti-Semitism. “Here they will always be against the Jews,” Klein says in the film. The only solution was to keep quiet, a decision echoed by the film’s title.
When she had gotten married to Szegedi’s grandfather, in 1946, she kept her past secret. But Szegedi wanted answers, and to grow closer to his Jewish identity, and he eventually found his way to a Lubavitch rabbi in Budapest named Boruch Oberlander, the director of Chabad Budapest. After some trepidation (“I had many sleepless nights,” he remembers), Oberlander agreed to take Szegedi as a student. “I was scolded, in a way,” Szegedi told me, “but I was also offered the possibility to learn.”
Much of Keep Quiet revolves around the interactions between Szegedi and Oberlander, with the young ex-politician thirsting for wisdom and community, and the veteran rabbi relishing an unprecedented challenge: How does an anti-Semite become a Jew?
In the film, Oberlander acts as Szegedi’s guide and interlocutor, taking him to sites of Jewish memory and gently nudging him toward acknowledging his own culpability in the rise of Hungarian neo-Fascism and anti-Semitism. At the Budapest shoe memorial, where empty shoes commemorate the place where the Hungarian Arrow Cross murdered Jews, Szegedi mentions that the shoes were filled with pig trotters. “Why hurt people who aren’t alive any more and who died so horribly?” Oberlander wonders. Eventually, Szegedi travels to Auschwitz, in order to see the place of terrors where his grandmother had been.
I interviewed Oberlander and Szegedi, who spoke through a translator, together offices of the film’s publicists in the SoHo, Manhattan. Oberlander, whose twenty-six years in Budapest allowed him to leap in and correct the translator’s rendition of Szegedi’s Hungarian during our interview, forcefully preached the Jewish virtue of dan l’kaf zchut, or, extending the benefit of the doubt to others. But talking to Szegedi, who showed up for our interview wearing a black velvet yarmulke, reminded me that in order to assess other people’s behavior, we must first have a solid sense of their identities; a Jewish joke told by your rabbi might come off differently if you heard it from Louis Farrakhan. When I asked Szegedi what he does professionally now that his political career is over, he told me he works in real estate: “There are typical Jewish professions, and I didn’t have enough time to study to be a doctor or a lawyer, so I started to deal with real estate.”
The joke is decidedly mild, nothing that any of my Jewish friends who work in real estate might not make, but the fact of Szegedi even made it unexpectedly alarmed me. Was this merely a variant of the same joke he might have made as an anti-Semitic provocateur? Was being Jewish a free pass to mild, unquestioned anti-Semitism? Perhaps, I thought, some relatively innocent jibes ordinarily accepted from members of a community might better be forsworn by individuals with complex histories like Szegedi’s.
Oberlander was surprised by the extent of his community’s anger with Szegedi’s presence. “Csanad is a different situation,” Oberlander acknowledged. He didn’t only start from zero, you could say he started with a big minus.”
Some members of Oberlander’s congregation vehemently disagreed with their rabbi’s decision to accept Szegedi, walking out each time he entered the synagogue. Oberlander was unflustered by the tempest: “Rabbis should not work according to what’s good for public relations.”
Tempers only began to cool in 2013, after Szegedi arranged to have a brit milah as evidence of his newfound commitment to his Jewish heritage. Szegedi took on the Jewish name David, after his murdered great-grandfather.
And yet, Szegedi still held onto some uncertainties, at least for a time. “It’s not a very positive thing I tell you about myself now, but I doubt,” said Szegedi. “I always doubt in everything.”
Szegedi’s doubts about the Holocaust were mostly dispelled by his grandmother’s story, but he still needed to see it for himself to fully accept the reality of the death camps. While standing at Birkenau with a survivor (his grandmother having died in the intervening time), Szegedi came to understand that the camp’s crematorium was as close as the members of his family would come to having graves. This was their final resting place.
The question haunting Keep Quiet is one of seriousness: how devoted is Szegedi to Judaism? Is this a genuine commitment, or merely a skin-deep transformation? In the film, Szegedi and Oberlander repeatedly discuss the proper time and place for a full expression of apology for Szegedi’s anti-Semitic past, and yet the film pointedly ends without showing him genuinely apologizing for the harm he caused by bringing anti-Semitic thought and explicit Holocaust denial out of the shadows in Hungarian politics.
“In Judaism, repentance means that you tried to rectify and repair the harm that you did,” said Oberlander. “Meaning there’s no question that Jobbik brought into everyday life expressions and talk of anti-Semitism which wasn’t there before.” Oberlander had prefaced his response by noting that Judaism has no equivalent to the Catholic principle of absolution. “So this major, major damage was done,” he continued. “What I say to Csanad is to try with all his skills—and he has skills as an orator, as an organizer—to fight that as much as possible.”
Szegedi notes his work lecturing to high school students about the perils of anti-Semitism, and suggests that it will be up to others to determine his sincerity: “I’m not sure that I have to decide whether I have repaired my earlier faults or errors,” he said in our interview. “Maybe it’s not my job to decide that.”
“I think he’s got a lot more to do,” says Holder, the film’s producer, of Szegedi’s efforts. “[But] I think he has tried.”
For our interview, Szegedi, who speaks little English, made use of a translator’s services to answer my questions. While she rendered his answers into English, Szegedi often sought to make eye contact with me, seeking my eye as if to assure me of his dependability and veracity.
As we looked at each other, I was suddenly reminded of my friend’s grandmother, a Czech Holocaust survivor who had lived in Queens. Something clicked. When, a number of years ago, her granddaughter announced her plans to have a traditional Jewish wedding ceremony, she balked. What was the need for such a ritual? Why attract attention in so flagrant a fashion?
Her grandmother eventually changed her mind, but the story of Csanad Szegedi and his family serves as a similar reminder of the psychic havoc caused by Nazism. Szegedi was solely responsible for the vicious actions he took as Jobbik leader, but the unimaginable, unpredictable arc of his family history was a product of Hitler’s destruction of European Jewry. “A lot of people don’t know they’re Jewish,” Oberlander observed. “That doesn’t make them become leaders of the Jobbik party.”
But Oberlander’s experience educating his most famous student also caused him to see Szegedi as emblematic of postwar Hungarian Jewry as a whole. “This whole Csanad story is a caricature, and really represents in caricature form, Hungarian Jewry after the Holocaust,” Oberlander argued. “A big part of Hungarian Jewry, when the survivors of the Holocaust came back from Auschwitz, and all the other concentration camps, they left Judaism and completely hid their Jewish identity.”
For many European Jews and their descendants, Judaism became something to ignore, something to hide. Szegedi believes it took the stranger-than-fiction transformations of the last few years to bring him back into the Jewish fold, an anti-Semite now enthusing about the array of kosher cafes to be found in Budapest. Szegedi’s grandmother and my friend’s grandmother found vastly different means of articulating their discomfort, but each was, in their own way, a reflection of the tragic aftermath of the Holocaust, which continued to snuff out Jewish self-expression long after it had ceased to snuff out Jewish lives.
Like the work of documentarian Errol Morris, Keep Quiet asks us to assess the trustworthiness of its shape-shifting central figure. How much confidence can we have in a man who once made a profession of peddling lies about Jews? With Oberlander belatedly educating his student in the tragic story of Hungarian Jewry, the film is a Rorschach test for our confidence in the nobility of our fellow man, and our belief, or lack thereof, that hatred can be overcome by the patient application of knowledge.
Saul Austerlitz is the author ofSitcom: A History in 24 Episodes from I Love Lucy to Community. His Twitter feed is @saulausterlitz.