How an iconic Hungarian communist “found” his Jewish identity in Israel…

In many contemporary Hungarian cultural circles, a chill runs through the air whenever the name György Aczél is mentioned. Mr. Aczél was Hungary’s minister of culture and the Hungarian Socialist Workers Party’s (MSZMP) powerful culture “tsar” when it came to the arts and to the limited freedom of expression that characterized Goulash Communism, starting in the sixties. Hungary’s most prominent literary weekly, Élet és Irodalom (Life and Literature), was colloquially abbreviated simply to És (which means “and” in Hungarian) under the Kádár regime, to suggest that life and literature did not exist in the one-party Soviet political system. This, of course, is an oversimplification, but it is undeniable that men in grey suits decided what was to be supported, tolerated and banned when it came to artistic expression, even if the Hungarian regime tolerated significantly more than its neighbours in the eastern bloc, with the possible exception of Yugoslavia. Philosopher Ágnes Heller once said that Mr. Aczél had “several faces…it happened on many occasions that he decided to offer assistance to an artist, only to later cross out his or her career.”

Artists were put into an extremely vulnerable position. For a graphic description of what this looked like in the German Democratic Republic, I recommend the powerful 2006 film The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen).

Last week, I ordered a book entitled Tear Off the Yellow Star (Tépd le a sárga csillagot) from a Hungarian bookstore in Toronto. The anthology was published in 1990 in Budapest and was edited by István Gábor Benedek and György Vámos. Focusing on Jewish resistance to Nazism and to the Final Solution in Hungary, the editors summarize the anthology as such:

“To this very day, Hungarian Jews are perceived to have been people who calmly accepted their fate and who, like sheep, went to the slaughterhouse. In contrast to this perception, a resistance movement existed in Hungary, which was unparalleled in all of Nazi-controlled Europe.” (pg. 6.)

The anthology is comprised of interviews and reports, based on discussions primarily with Hungarian Jews who emigrated to Israel, either shortly after World War II, or during the Stalinist dictatorship that took  hold in Hungary starting in 1949. The book focuses on the activities of  a Zionist organization called Hashomer Hatzair. According to Tear Off the Yellow Star, the group was established in Palestine in 1907 and had as its goal the defence of Jewish communities, as well as the promotion of Zionism. I should note, that elsewhere I have read that Hashomer Hatzair was actually established in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in the early twentieth century. It’s quite possible that the organization was formed simultaneously, in both Palestine, as well as in Central Europe. The editors compare Hashomer Hatzair, which means Youth Guard in Hebrew, to the boy scouts.

The group was present in Hungary until 1949, when the country’s Stalinist authorities arrested and jailed its leadership, alongside the members of the Jewish American organization Joint, which also operated in the country after the War. Hashomer Hatzair was actually connected, on many levels, with the workers’ movement and held some left-wing values, such as social equality, along with its focus on Zionism.

György Aczél (who was born Henrik Appel in 1917) came from an impoverished Hungarian Jewish family in Budapest. But he rose through the ranks to become Hungarian communist dictator János Kádár’s Minister of Culture and, in general, his cultural “tsar” through the sixties, seventies and up until around 1982, when his influence began to wane. He did, however, remain one of the most iconic MSZMP political leaders until the party’s demise in 1989. In many ways, he was the embodiment of Hungary’s unique and more tolerant Goulash Communism.

György Aczél

György Aczél

Mr. Aczél was still alive when Tear Off the Yellow Star appeared in 1990, but he was not willing to grant the editors an interview, as he had hoped to write and publish his own memoirs. As far as I know, this never happened and he died in 1991, at 74 years of age. But the anthology’s editors were adamant that Mr. Aczél appear in the book, so they re-published in Hungarian an interview and report produced during his 1989 visit to Israel, and which had appeared in the Al HaMishmar daily–a left-wing paper affiliated with Mapam, Israel’s United Workers Party–until its demise in 1995. At the time, the interview also appeared in Israel’s main Hungarian-language newspaper, Új Kelet.

In this interview, they describe the elderly Mr. Aczél during his 1989 visit to Israel as such:

“His intelligence and charisma attract his supporters like a magnet, but they equally repel his opponents. He started off in Budapest’s Jewish orphanage for boys and his many talents, as well as his convictions propelled him to great heights. His star faded twice and now, in his old age, he has once again been orphaned. As is so often the case in such circumstances, even his comrades have abandoned him. He became a bitter man, and he has this to say about the situation in Hungary: ‘The country is like a woman with a big belly. It will take some time before we find out if she is carrying a fetus, or if she has a tumour.'” (pg. 205.)

As a child and young man, Hashomer Hatzair played an important role in Mr. Aczél’s development. During his 1989 visit to Israel, he was especially interested in touring the kibbutzim that had been established by Hashomer Hatzair, and he also wanted to meet with one of his former Jewish teachers, who lived in Israel. The kibbutzim — initially — were formed as collectives based on an understanding of social equality. In some cases, this sense of community even sought to replace, to a large degree, the family unit. On some level, the kibbutzim may have resembled, in Mr. Aczél’s mind, a type of communism on a small scale. When Mr. Aczél visited Israel, around 3.5% of the country’s population lived in a kibbutz and unlike today, privatization of services in many of these communities had not yet taken hold.

During the Holocaust, the young György Aczél not only managed to save himself by converting to Roman Catholicism, but also hid other Jews in Budapest, saving several lives. In his interview with Al HaMishmar, Mr. Aczél speaks of his prison years during the Stalinist dictatorship of Mátyás Rákosi, when he was imprisoned alongside his future boss, János Kádár. He even spent six months on death row. He had tried to defend Hashomer Hatzair’s Hungarian leadership from the Stalinist purges, most notably Hájim Deutsch, but this resulted in his own persecution.

“Look, things might turn around, and you might one day be in my shoes,” said Mr. Aczél’s interrogator to him, during one of the lengthy, ruthless questionings. When Mr. Aczél was released from prison, he weighed just 35 kilograms and had lost all of his teeth. (pg. 206.)

During the post-1956 Kádár regime, Mr. Aczél was inescapable for any artist, author or intellectual who wanted to build a career in socialist Hungary. Mr. Aczél always saw himself as a Hungarian. His Jewish roots meant little to him, and he wasn’t really interested in a hyphenated (Jewish-Hungarian) identity.

“Mr. Aczél was, in his own country’s politics and culture, what Jewish intellectuals often are: yeast in the bread. While he did not deny his Jewish roots, he saw these as marginal. To this day, Mr. Aczél recalls Hebrew expressions and Zionist ideas. But of course, these only come to the surface now that he is in Israel. He was only able to confess now, in Israel, that he was wrong, profoundly wrong, when he believed and hoped that assimilation would solve the Jewish question in Hungary.” (pg. 207.)

The elderly Mr. Aczél didn’t suddenly discover his Jewish identity while in Israel, but as his political legacy, party and regime crumbled in Hungary in 1989, he perhaps felt at home with the Israeli left. Back home, while János Kádár lay on his death bed, Mr. Aczél’s political career had also been buried.

“He recounts with a mix of surprise and joy, that while his children did not marry Hungarian Jews, his grandchildren seem to demonstrate a passionate interest in Jewish culture. Of the five of them, three are veritable ‘blind Jews.’ He is taking small blue and white Israeli flags back home to Hungary, as gifts for his grandchildren. The oldest grandchild asked his grandfather to buy him a Hebrew dictionary. He tells us that this is a fairly widespread phenomenon young Hungarian Jews. It’s hard to find an explanation, but–of course, the rise of antisemitism has something to do with it.” (pg. 207.)

This is quite a paradoxical and surprising picture. György Aczél, a leading voice of post-1956 Hungarian communism and one of the most prominent leaders of the MSZMP, boarded his flight from Tel Aviv to Budapest with Israeli flags. But what’s even more surprising and perhaps seemingly out of character for a far left leader is how he reacted to some Mapai politicians who wanted to chat with him about Palestinian human rights or, the lack thereof.

“When one of Mapai’s Arabic politicians complains to him about the persecution of the Arab minority, György Aczél responds by saying that Molotov cocktails, rocks, hijackings and bombs don’t tend to augment their respectability in the civilized  world.” (pg. 208).

The cultural chief of communist Hungary essentially made a declaration that would have been perfectly in line with the Republican Party’s views at this time. Who would have thought?

But perhaps what’s really going on, is that while people in Hungary in 1989 cursed both him, and the decrepit remains of the Kádár regime, in Israel he was welcomed as a minor hero or, if nothing else, as someone a bit exotic. This experience clearly left a mark on his Hungarian, Jewish and Jewish Hungarian identity in the last years of his life.

8 Comments

  1. Miklos Banfi says:

    It is an interesting article, which reminds me of one of Aczél’s right hand, the much maligned Erdős Péter. He died in 87 before the collapse of the regime, but he was the extended arm of Aczél in the music world, boldly put his face out as the one man censorship, not even caring about his reputation in his critics eyes – even if he was not even a communist. He was a multilayered, wise, secretive, jewish intellect, with a very unique set of priorities. I was fortunate to be his protege and he was my mentor for one and a half year, before I left Hungary, just before his death. He was a hated man, but interesting to see, that by now, almost 30 years later some people have discovered his benevolence and acknowledge it. These line of controversial cultural leaders still exist, eg. Kondrád György, but with no political power.

    • Christopher Adam says:

      Interesting point, re: Erdős. These historic leaders are multidimensional characters. I don’t suggest that we absolve them (and perhaps it isn’t our place to even do so) of having been the leaders of an authoritarian regime. But I’ll admit that even just reading that short interview and report with Aczél during his trip to Israel–completely by chance, I might add–gave me a more nuanced view of Hungary’s hated culture tsar.

  2. Pierre Divenyi says:

    Very interesting article. Of course, I knew little else about Gyorgy Aczel than his overriding decision making power to keep all Hungarian intellectual and artistic endeavors strictly in line with the Kadar-communist dogma. After 1956, especially throughout the 60s, expression of thought by way of art had one rule: keep your mouth shot. And Aczel, from what I could gather while living first in Switzerland and then in the US, made it sure that the rule was strictly enforced. The article refers to his 1990 visit to Israel as that of an old man, when he was only 73 at that time. I wish he lived longer and had been able to write his memoir. Reading that, I might have been moved to absolve him from what he did under Kadar, one thing I feel reluctant to do even after reading this article about the very complex person Aczel appears to have been.

    • Christopher Adam says:

      I would have loved to have read his memoirs as well. I feel the same way about Kádár…. I sense that the decision to execute revolutionary Prime Minister Imre Nagy weighed very heavily on the conscience of János Kádár…at least that’s what his last, rambling speech in front of MSZMP tends to suggest.

  3. An ambivalent portrait, and an ambiguous legacy. High intelligence, but too prone toward the authoritarian. Hard times harden the soul. And when the tables are turned, a kind of Stockholm syndrome sets in, and you become like your oppressor. The souls to admire and emulate are the ones who manage to transcend this, remaining faithful to decency come what may. (Nelson Mandela may have been such a one.)

    • For me it seems to be a chain reaction of generational trauma that gets worse at every turn for every new generation and hard times never seem to me to harden the souls, just scalping it, and biting a little piece of it off, and squeezing it smaller and smaller to the point total amnesia. Methinks the whole game is the game of deception designed to prevent us all from awakening.

  4. Fix: to the point of total amnesia.

  5. I found this sequence of ideas quite interesting.

    When one of Mapai’s Arabic politicians complains to him about the persecution of the Arab minority, György Aczél responds by saying that Molotov cocktails, rocks, hijackings and bombs don’t tend to augment their respectability in the civilized world.” (pg. 208).

    The author of the article then states that his words were “perfectly in line with the Republican Party’s views at this time. Who would have thought?”

    Seems that the “Republican” views represent the intelligent and rational perspective when dealing with the conflict, rather than the political correct nightmarish world of Left wing moral equivalency.

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