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Hungarian Literati Divided by Salvo That Ignited Anti-semitic Firestorm

May 14, 2004
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When Hungarian writer Kornel Dobrentei implied at a right-wing rally earlier this year that Jews were imposing a moral Holocaust on Hungary, didn’t just spark one of the ugliest anti-Semitic episodes the country has seen in years.

He also shook up Hungary’s literati.

Since that rally in January, more than 160 writers have resigned from the country’s largest literary organization, the Hungarian Writers’ Association, over the group’s failure to distance itself from Dobrentei’s remarks.

The brouhaha started last Christmas eve, when the radio host of a left-wing Budapest radio station — a former punk-rocker who was drunk — said he would like to exterminate all Christians.

The station quickly apologized, condemned the host’s remarks and fired him.

But that didn’t stop 5,000 demonstrators from gathering 10 days later at the station’s headquarters in downtown Budapest. Some of Hungary’s most notorious right-wing pundits whipped the crowd into a frenzy before Dobrentei, a writer and executive member of the Hungarian Writers’ Association’s board, took the stage.

As the crowd chanted “dirty Jews,” Dobrentei delivered a diatribe.

“It is good if one has the will and courage to protest the religion-cloaked war waged on us to eliminate our people; to protest the moral holocaust of the Hungarian nation directed by fake prophets dressed in camouflage and hiding their faces behind masks — only their beards are real!” he said.

“And they are waiting, ready to pounce, to censure our gripe as nationalism and anti-Semitism, to sully our reputation worldwide,” he said.

Beyond the effects on Hungary’s literary community, the scandal underscored the debate in Hungary over what kind of dissent is acceptable and what crosses the line into hate-mongering.

Even before the January rally, Dobrentei had made a name for himself with remarks perceived to be thinly veiled anti-Semitism, including his critiques of the Holocaust-related books of Imre Kertesz, a Holocaust survivor who won the 2002Nobel Prize in literature.

Kertesz left the writers’ association in 1990, after an incident in which another Hungarian writer suggested that local Jews were working against the interests of the “Hungarian nation.”

The split among Hungarian writers has deep roots.

Gabor Szanto, an author and editor of the Jewish cultural and political monthly Szombat, says the debate is part of a split between “urbanites” and “populists” among Hungarian writers, which harks back to the 1930s.

The urbanites, many of whom were Jewish, were cosmopolitan and Western in orientation, while the populists viewed Western ideas as dangerous and harmful to “true” Hungarian culture.

Populist writers openly supported wartime Hungary’s anti-Semitic political stance, which culminated in the mass deportation and extermination of more than half a million Hungarian Jews during World War II.

“What we are facing here is the classic, old-school version of anti-Semitism that once paved the way to Auschwitz,” Kertesz wrote after Dobrentei’s speech. “It was nothing unusual in the long line of similar events over the years. The only difference is that this time members of the writers’ association have finally got fed up with being only passive onlookers.”

Kertesz said the real scandal was the reaction of Marton Kalasz, the writers’ association president, who refused to distance the organization from Dobrentei’s remarks. In an official statement, the association said it did not want to “play the role of the thought-police.”

Kalasz later said he was dismayed by the “slanderous charges of anti-Semitism against the organization.”

After the association’s botched attempt to quell the storm, other internationally renowned Hungarian writers announced their resignations from the organization.

“An insignificant poet talked about the holocaust of Hungarians, prepared by a satanic minority, and the crowd chanted ‘dirty Jews’ approvingly,” Gyorgy Konrad wrote in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. “While it would never occur to me to think that the majority of the writers’ association’s members would be anti-Semitic, the majority who should have condemned what was uttered was nowhere to be seen. This silence was disappointing for many of us.”

The rift was further exacerbated in March when the Kossuth Prize, intended as an “alternative” counterweight to Hungary’s most prestigious art prize, went to Dobrentei. Though it’s of little professional repute, the reward — from the Union of Hungarian Writers, a group representing Hungary’s populist writers — carries a $25,000 cash prize.

Its presentation to Dobrentei was widely seen as an endorsement of his views.

A flood of resignations quickly wrecked a fragile coalition of various Hungarian writers’ groups that had come together to lobby for provisions in a new law that seeks to regulate the flow of government subsidies to various literary organizations and writers.

Meanwhile, the country’s traditional anti-Semitic nationalists are trying to reinvent themselves, often using the new fashion of anti-Israel messages to win adherents to the cause.

At the rally in January where Dobrentei spoke, protesters chanted “Islamic Jihad” and “Palestine” and burned an Israeli flag. Chants against Jews were heard as protestors raised their arms in the Nazi salute.

“It’s scary and sad at the same time,” said Peter Zsolt, deputy director of Hungary’s new Holocaust Memorial Center. “These people are lost and aggrieved and, in a sadly familiar way, find release for their various frustrations through old-school Jew-bashing.”

But the real problem, Zsolt said, is that “they see political capital in them.”

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