This month, I was invited to watch a private preview screening of the documentary Keep Quiet, which will have its Toronto premiere at the Toronto Jewish Film Foundation Festival on May 8, 2017. The film, directed by Joseph Martin and Sam Blair, focuses on the political coming of age of Jobbik and Hungarian Guard co-founder Csanád Szegedi–a young man who represented and propagated some of the most vile forms of antisemitism in Hungary, up until he discovered that his maternal grandmother was an Auschwitz survivor and that he was of Jewish origins himself. It is a story of self-discovery, with lingering undertones of incredulity and doubt surrounding Mr. Szegedi’s honesty. How can the leader of a fascistic paramilitary group, a prominent promoter of hate and Holocaust denial, suddenly go from being a far right Member of the European Parliament to being a Hasidic Jew within just one year?
The documentary weaves together the story of Mr. Szegedi’s upbringing and family background in the eighties and early nineties, his political coming of age in 2006, during a period of turmoil and unrest in Hungary, from which the nascent Jobbik party profited, through to his rise to prominence after 2009 and then his eventual political demise and period of self-discovery. What holds this narrative together, in a sober and poignant manner, is a train journey to Auschwitz. The film begins with Mr. Szegedi buying a train ticket to Auschwitz in Budapest, along with elderly Holocaust survivor Eva “Bobby” Neumann. The two initially sit in somewhat awkward silence at the Nyugati train station before they begin talking about remembrance and how society processes, or fails to process historic tragedies. The films speaks to how so many Hungarian Holocaust survivors did not feel comfortable talking about their experiences for years or even decades after the end of the War. There was a feeling that nobody wanted to hear about their pain, because everyone had suffered trauma of some kind.
In some cases there was also fear, even after 1945, about future persecution. The most moving part of the film was when Mr. Szegedi spoke with his elderly grandmother, an Auschwitz survivor who never told her grandson about her experiences or her Jewish origins, even after he had become a far-right politician. He asked her about what Jews in Hungary should do today. Her answer was unequivocal: “keep quiet.” Mr. Szegedi also asked his mother, who knew of the family secret, about why she never stopped him during his slide into antisemitism, Holocaust denial and the far-right. His mother indicated that she did not know how to process what was happening to her son and did not intervene, since by that point he was already so deeply involved in Jobbik. This was the wrong approach, she now realizes.
In the film Mr. Szegedi comes across as a thoughtful, well-spoken and even charismatic man. His seemingly amicable personality is contrasted with some others on the far-right, including one especially disturbing man: a former skinhead and supporter of paramilitary groups, who ultimately outed Mr. Szegedi as being a Jew. We learn that some in Jobbik, including the party director, wanted to capitalize on the fact that a leading politician was of Jewish origins, as this, in their mind, would put to rest the charge of antisemitism for good. But Jobbik leader Gábor Vona and others took a more hard line approach and wanted Mr. Szegedi out.
Within mere days of discovering his family’s secret, Mr. Szegedi turned to the Chabad-Lubavitch movement in Budapest and specifically to Rabbi Boruch Oberlander. The rabbi explains in the film that however horrific Mr. Szegedi’s past, he had an obligation to help any Jew, even a Jew who has done terrible things. On the flip side, Mr. Szegedi had an obligation to apologize publicly, show that he is contrite and work to repair what he has damaged. Within a year of leaving Jobbik, Mr. Szegedi had converted and was an active member of Rabbi Oberlander’s Hasidic community.
Not everyone was as open to giving Mr. Szegedi the benefit of the doubt, and it is difficult to blame those who remained incredulous. When the former Jobbik politician philosophized and lectured about the nature of Jewish identity at a Jewish conference in Berlin, it was too much for some participants. When he tried to speak to a Jewish community in Montreal, but was ultimately instructed to leave Canada before he could speak in person, Rabbi Oberlander fielded the sharp criticism of a handful of Hungarian Canadian Jews.
Watching the film, I was looking for moments of raw honesty–something to latch onto and be able to say that I believe Mr. Szegedi, his conversion and his new outlook to be authentic. Doubts lingered and continue to linger even after watching the documentary. But there were two such moments of what I would call raw honesty. When asked whether he will embrace Judaism to this extent for the rest of his life, Mr. Szegedi hesitated and said that he ultimately cannot say for certain that he will, even though he sees the possibility that he will turn his back on this identity as unlikely. And when Rabbi Oberlander was asked about whether he truly believes that his new convert is honest, he said that he prays that he is truthful and he prays that he will not be disappointed.
The lingering doubt, the uncertainty and the somber manner in which this narrative is presented makes it a powerful film. It is perhaps only journalist Anne Applebaum’s suggestion that the reason why so many Hungarian families kept their experiences during the Holocaust a secret was because of the “fifty years” of communism and this system based on lies and deception, which I found problematic. Even based on the words of the survivors speaking in the film, silence was not a result of deception built into the communist regime. This secrecy was tied to shame, fear of future persecution, a feeling that society was uninterested in the suffering of others and was even disdainful, a desire to just “move on” in the postwar world and the complete disintegration of the Jewish community and identity in almost all of Hungary, outside of Budapest.
Keep Quiet spoke to me in a personal way as well. I am the same age as Mr. Szegedi and my family kept quiet about their Jewish identity and the family tragedy during the Holocaust too. I discovered that my father was Jewish and had survived the Holocaust in the Budapest Ghetto and that my grandfather was deported and killed in Dachau around the same time that Mr. Szegedi made this discovery in 2012-13. Like Mr. Szegedi, I had been told ever since I was a child that my family had strong Christian (Protestant) and patriotic Hungarian roots, and not a word about the Holocaust. While Mr. Szegedi’s grandmother spoke about the importance of “freshening the family blood” or outbreeding (vérfrissítés), in reference to her daughter marrying a non-Jew, my paternal grandmother, who saw her husband and brothers killed in the Holocaust, was very supportive of my infant baptism as a Roman Catholic, in light of my Catholic mother.
The difference between us–and this is where I have some trouble understanding Mr. Szegedi–is that I had an acute interest in the Second World War and the Holocaust even as a teenager. When I was 16, I wrote to Elie Wiesel after reading Night and Dawn, and received a response from him. The story of the Holocaust was formative in my understanding of the society and world in which I lived. I did not need to know anything about my family’s Jewish origins and their experiences in the Shoah to want to understand this tragedy in Hungarian and European history and to feel a combination of anger, compassion and solidarity.
Finally, what do we know about Mr. Szegedi and his activities in most recent months? In late 2016, he announced that he was making Aliyah and was open to the possibility of eventually entering Israeli politics.
To view the complete program of films during the Toronto Jewish Film Foundation Festival, please click here.