Rest in Peace, László Rajk Jr. (1949-2019)

Hungarian democratic activist, architect and designer László Rajk Jr. died on September 11, 2019 at 71 years of age. Mr. Rajk, whose father served as Interior Minister until 1949 when he was sentenced to death in a Stalinist show trial, was one of the key figures of opposition to communist rule in Hungary during the 1980’s. In the early eighties, he was blacklisted by the one-party dictatorship, although he continued to demand democratic reforms through Samizdat publications that he edited with Gábor Demszky, who would later go on to become Lord Mayor of Budapest. Mr. Rajk’s name was also attached to the reburial of martyred revolutionary prime minister Imre Nagy, as he designed the striking stage and scene of this televised historic moment in Hungarian history. In the early nineties, he served as a Member of Parliament with the Alliance of Free Democrats and in 1999 became a Chevalier in France’s l’Ordre National du Merite.

László Rajk Jr. also has a connection to Canada: he studied at McGill University in the seventies and much more recently, in November 2016, he spoke at a symposium hosted by Concordia University on art and the Holocaust, and organized by HFP contributor and Professor András Göllner. We are re-sharing Dr. Göllner’s address prepared for this occasion below in memory of László Rajk Jr. (HFP)


András Göllner with László Rajk. Photo: C. Adam.

Ladies and Gentlemen:

Today, November 4th, is the 60th anniversary of the Russian suppression of the Hungarian revolution of 1956. 60 years ago, Russian tanks crushed a heroic people’s fight for justice and liberty. Today, the Russian army is doing the same thing, to the people of Syria.

60 years ago, more than 200,000 Hungarian refugees departed for the West, to escape war and oppression. They were greeted with open arms, and settled throughout the western world. Today, hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees are trying to flee their war torn homeland, but instead of helping them, the current Hungarian government has put up a razor-tipped fence, to bar their way, and is engaged in a hate campaign against all refugees, who are trying to flee westward from the ravages of war.

I would like to reassure this audience that we are not going to spend the next two hours pondering the tragic dissonance I raised in my opening sentences.  It is, however, completely apposite, to begin today’s discussion, by drawing our attention to these matters.

It is also apposite to begin my discourse, by telling you, that while our guest was only 7 years old when the Russian tanks rolled into Budapest at dawn, on that fateful November day 60 years ago, he and his mother, Júlia, were among the very first prisoners removed from Hungary by the Russian troops, in order to quell the uprising. Though Rajk’s father had been executed 7 years before the October 1956 uprising, it was the reburial of his remains, on October 6th, 1956 that sparked the revolution which broke out two weeks later, and shook the Kremlin to its foundations. It was the chain reaction set off by Rajk’s reburial that produced the subsequent exodus of 200,000 Hungarian refugees, of whom 38,000 settled in Canada. My family was amongst those, who found safety in Canada. It is the chain reaction produced by Rajk senior’s reburial in 1956 that catapulted me onto this stage, to serve as your host, and to introduce you to his son, László Rajk Jr.

László Rajk Jr. comes to us from Budapest, to talk about Art and the Holocaust and about his Oscar winning film, Son of Saul. I think, that by now, most of you have realized, that we will have the pleasure of talking about much more than what we had bargained for. Allow me now, to cut to the chase.

I only met our guest speaker, in 1972, and we have been friends ever since, but I already heard of his father, László Rajk Senior, from my communist school teachers when I was a first grader in Hungary in 1950. They told me that our guest’s father was a traitor, a criminal, and if anyone followed in his steps, they would end up dead. A brief retelling of this story is apposite, because it has changed the lives of millions of Hungarians, including mine and many of those who may be in this room.

László Rajk senior, was Hungary’s Communist minister of the interior, between 1945 and 1948. He was a Che Guevara-like figure, a guerilla fighter in the Spanish civil war, a member of the Hungarian Communist underground during WWII. He was the man that the occupying Soviet military command in Hungary mandated to head up the country’s new security forces after the war.

Rajk Senior set up and ran the machine that caught and brought to justice those who committed crimes against humanity in Hungary during the war. He also spearheaded the physical liquidation of the democratic elite that could have turned Hungary into a democracy after the war. He was the man who executed the Hungarian Communist Party’s „salami-tactics” which enabled the Communist Party to seize power in 1948, and to implement the dictatorship of the proletariat in this small central European country. As Bob Dylan would say, he was no gentleman Jim.

Once the Communist Party seized total power in Hungary in 1948, something happened that made everyone in Hungary, including myself, stop dead in their tracks. Instead of decorating and promoting our guest’s father as a hero of the revolution, the security forces that Rajk set up, arrested him in 1949. They tortured him, until he was but a pale shadow of himself, put him on trial, made him confess to charges that only the „wicked witch of the West” could dream up. Once they got their confession, they executed Rajk.

We have heard of the saying: The revolution devours its children. In the case of Rajk senior, the revolution departed from the Marxist script and metamorphosed into a Greek tragedy. It devoured its hero, and then, 7 years later, regurgitated him. In 1956, our guest speaker’s father was pardoned by the people who executed him. They hoped, his son, and his wife would go away quietly, and forget about his body. Instead of going away quietly mother and child stood at the front of a 400,000 strong procession in the streets of Budapest on October 6, 1956, and provided a proper funeral to their unjustly murdered loved one.

Son of Saul, the Oscar winning film is about the desperate efforts of a Sonderkommando at Auschwitz, Saul Auslander, to bury with dignity, the body of a dead child he pulled out of the gas chambers, as part of his daily routine. (Sonderkomando was the name given to those Jewish prisoners who were also destined to be murdered by the Nazis, but would first have to spend weeks doing the dirty work the Nazis themselves couldn’t stomach.) Auslander’s effort is intimately wound up with a hopeless rebellion by his fellow Sonderkommandos against the Nazi guards who reigned supreme at Auschwitz, the unforgettable death camp deep in the heart of Nazi held territory.

The Sonderkommandos had three guns amongst them. They had no hope of winning. And amongst them was Saul, whose only mission was to provide a proper funeral for the dead child he was clutching in his arms.

The similarities between the Sonderkommandos rebellion, and the 1956 Hungarian rebellion are striking. The Hungarian freedom fighters were as badly outgunned by the Russian Red Army, as were the Sonderkommandos of Auschwitz. Neither had any hope of winning their desperate fight. But in the case of 1956, the protagonist in the middle of the rebellion is not a father who is trying to find a proper burial for a dead child, but a living child, László Rajk Jr and his mother, Júlia, who are trying to find a dignified burial for a father, a husband, who has been unjustly murdered 7 years earlier. Perhaps, one day, an Oscar winning film will be made of that rebellion as well, with the unlikely title of Son of Rajk.

What I can tell you about László Rajk Jr’s life-work? He epitomizes the artist who is socially engaged, like Albert Camus, like the young Bob Dylan, like our great native songstress, Buffee Ste Marie or Vaclav Havel, the writer and former President of the Czech Republic. His entire adult life has been devoted to teaching his countrymen, that they should not be afraid of challenging authority.

How best to summarize the body of work that he is known by? I don’t think he will object, if I call it radically eclectic. It spans the world of architecture, theatre, film-making, set design, writing and teaching, politics, civil and human rights activism. The common denominator of everything he does is a frontal assault on the conventional, the everyday.

Though he is a professional architect, he has more than 50 film credits to his name, having worked with such internationally famous directors as Ridley Scott, Costa Gavras, Béla Tarr, Miklós Jancsó, Tony Gatlif, Fatih Akin to name just a few.

We’d be here for a long time if I were to list all his awards and distinctions. He was Artistic Director of last year’s Oscar winning Son of Saul. This year he won the Art Directors Guild award for his set design for Ridley Scott’s – The Martian. Most recently, he worked on the internationally acclaimed Mexican film, Empty Box – directed by Claudia Sainte-Luce, which premièred at the Toronto Film Festival in September of this year.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention at least a few of his installations, which have also earned him international recognition:

  1. He designed the highly acclaimed Hungarian permanent exhibition at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Poland
  2. He is responsible for the Raul Wallenberg memorial reconstruction in Budapest’s St Stephen Park
  3. He designed the award winning memorial – the Symbolic Grave of Imre Nagy – at the Pére Lachaise cemetery in Paris.
  4. He designed, with Gábor Bachman, the memorial stage for the June 16, 1989 reburial of Imre Nagy and the martyrs of 1956.
  5. His most recent memorial to the victims of the 1956 revolution was inaugurated in Budapest in the garden of the Imre Nagy Memorial House, on October 23, 2016.

He is the recipient of the highest artistic award of Hungary, the Kossuth Prize, along with many other Hungarian and international distinctions, including the Chevalier de l’Ordre national du Mérite.

When I met László Rajk Jr in 1972 he was already well on his way to becoming a leading member of the underground democratic opposition to one-party rule in Hungary, a task his father may not have approved of. I met him on my first trip back to Hungary, after my family fled the country to Canada in 1956. I was a graduate student at the time in London, Lászlo was finishing his first degree in Budapest. I can still vividly recall our first encounter. It took place in a small, rundown hall, where an underground theatre company was performing a play, in which Lászlo had an unusual part to play. Ha had to walk back and forth on stage, on two long wooden stilts, doing things I simply could not fathom at the time. I was invited to the after-show cast party, in a large, sprawling Budapest apartment, where the wine, the pálinka flowed like the river Styx in Dante’s Inferno, and the cigarette smoke was as impenetrable as the iron curtain. Many in that party ended up in New York as part of Péter Halász’s famed Squat Theatre Group. Others, including the man on the stilts, became members of Hungary’s first democratically elected Parliament in 1990.

The man, with whom I struck up a lifelong friendship at that cast-party in Budapest in 1972, became one of the most visible and active leaders of the Hungarian civil-rights movement of the 1970s, 1980s. It was the members of this movement, with a little help from Mikhail Gorbachev that put an end to one party rule in Hungary in 1990.

To this day, the son of Rajk, László Junior, is a staunch advocate and combatant for civil rights in a country that by now, has once again changed its course, and has departed from many of the values that fueled the 1956 uprising or the post-1990 democratic turn.

The disasters that regularly sweep over Central Europe, are like pieces of wool that stick to the eye, and prevent us from clarity of vision. László Rajk is one of the few that has been able to tear the wool off our eyes, and show us the world in its stark reality. This is what he does in Son of Saul, a film that depicts a day in the life of Sonderkommando Saul Auslander.

I do not wish to engage in a discussion of László Rajk’s latest cinematographic masterpiece. I leave the discussion of the film entirely to him. I would, however, like to say a few words about the circumstances that culminated in the tragic massacre of not only the son of Saul, or Saul himself, but virtually the entirety of Hungary’s Jewry. I would like to take this opportunity, in this, the closing part of my introduction, to pay homage to the 600,000 who perished in the Hungarian Holocaust.

The Jews of Hungary, from the middle of the 19th century, until 1920, constituted the driving force of progress in all facets of Hungarian life – in the arts, literature, theatre, music, higher education, and all of the sciences. They were also the engines of Hungary’s economic modernization, a modernization that distinguished itself by its high levels of social and ethical responsibility. Historians agree: nowhere else in the world did the Jews integrate more fully, more willingly, nowhere were they more patriotic, nowhere did they contribute more to the nation that took them in, than in Hungary. More than 300,000 fought heroically in the Austro-Hungarian army during WWI. And yet, by the end of 1945, of the 800,000 Jews of Hungary, 600,000 were murdered, under the most brutal of circumstances, and the responsibility for the hatred that resulted in their massacre, is to this day, the subject of an official cover-up.

It is a fact, that Hungary was the European pioneer in the persecution of the Jews in the 20th century, and at a time, when Hitler was not even a blip on the radar. Hungary was the first country in the world, in the 20th century, to enact an anti-Jewish law (June, 1920).

It is a fact, that Hungary was a willing ally of Nazi Germany. Unlike Poland, Czechoslovakia, or the Balkans, Hungary was spared military occupation because hundreds of thousands of Hungarian soldiers fought enthusiastically alongside the Nazis on the Eastern front, till the closing days of WWII.

It is a fact, that on March 19th, 1944, German troops entered the territory of Hungary, to shore up the two country’s defenses against the advancing Red Army from the East. To call the deployment of German troops into Hungary an occupation is a misnomer… Allies do not occupy each other’s territories. The German troops that entered Hungary in March 1944, were greeted with open arms by the population, no shots were fired at them, unlike elsewhere in Europe.

Last but not least, it also needs to be mentioned, that Hungary’s responsibility for the mass murder of its Jews, is being relentlessly whitewashed by the government that is in power in Hungary today. It is a fact, that on the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the official historian of the Hungarian government, Sándor Szakály celebrated in Toronto, with the Hungarian Nazi officers who fought to hold up the liberation of Auschwitz during the dying days of the war. It is a fact, that on August 20th of this year, on Hungary’s National Day, the Hungarian President gave one of the nation’s highest distinctions to a writer whose entire career is about spreading hatred towards the Jews.

László Rajk Junior is one of the more than 100 Hungarian artists, and intellectuals who stood up to say: Enough is enough! He and others like him, returned their decorations to the Orbán government as a collective sign of protest against the blasphemy, the gross insult to the memory of the victims of the Hungarian Holocaust. They followed the example set earlier by the unforgettable Nobel Laureate, Elie Wiesel, who returned all his awards to the Orbán regime 4 years ago. They also followed the example of the greatest Jewish scholar of the Holocaust, Randolph L. Braham, who did the same in 2014.

Ladies and gentlemen. It is my honour and privilege, to give you the son of Rajk, László Rajk Junior, the artistic director of Son of Saul.

András Göllner

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