Jewish background was surprise to Hungarian right-winger

Csanad Szegedi speaks to students in St. Louis.

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

The rise of right-wing nativist sentiment in Europe — sometimes tinged with anti-Semitism — has been making news for some time now; until a few years ago, Csanad Szegedi might have been a poster child for the movement.

Born in rural Hungary in the early 1980s, the young man moved to Budapest to get a university education. It was during his days as a student when he and others became part of Jobbik, a new radical nationalist outfit whose anti-globalist populism has, in just a few years, moved it from the realm of youthful campus idealism to being the second-largest party in the Eastern European nation despite accusations by many that it trades in anti-Jewish sentiment.

But when political opponents began spreading gossip that Szegedi himself was Jewish, the rising star in the ultra-nationalist party found himself asking his grandmother about his family’s heritage. 

The elderly woman stunned him by revealing numbers tattooed on her forearm — a reminder of the time she had never spoken about as a prisoner at Auschwitz.

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“It was a dramatic moment,” said the 33-year-old Szegedi through a translator. “It would be a long conversation to tell you in detail all the eternal struggles I had within myself when I discovered this.”

Since that 2012 conversation, Szegedi has been putting some of those struggles on public display for students in Hungary and around the world warning of the dangers of anti-Semitism and hatred. He was in St. Louis Monday where he spoke with students at University of Missouri-St. Louis and Washington University in events sponsored by Chabad on Campus.

In fact, Chabad was Szegedi’s first contact with Judaism when the former nationalist found himself in the odd position of seeking out a rabbi. Not only was he Jewish but both his maternal grandparents were Holocaust survivors. After World War II, the couple had chosen to assimilate into Hungarian society.

His grandmother talked little of the past and didn’t reveal her time in the camps, apparently so traumatized by her harsh experiences of suffering and struggle that she felt ashamed or fearful regarding her family’s true heritage.

“At the beginning, she told me about being Jewish as if it were some kind of a sin,” Szegedi said.

As for Szegedi, he became attracted to right-wing political movements during youth. At first, there was little anti-Semitism. He said most of Hungary’s Jews lived in the capital and growing up in the countryside, he had no contact with Judaism.

“I didn’t know what Jewish was,” he said.

But he was attracted to the simplicity of the rhetoric that nationalism offered and that eventually gave birth to Jobbik. In fact, he doesn’t feel that most Hungarians are anti-Semitic.

“It was patriotism. It was nationalism. It was traditional Christian values,” said Szegedi. “In the beginning we didn’t start off as an anti-Semitic group. However, we did somehow shift to a more anti-Semitic and more radical direction.”

Szegedi said that he was often exposed to reading materials that included conspiracy theories in which Jews controlled the media or the financial and political systems. He even began to feel that history had been embellished to make Jews more sympathetic figures.

“I did not question the fact that the Holocaust did occur however, I questioned the magnitude of it and I thought it was exaggerated Jewish propaganda,” he said.

He said his grandmother’s firsthand experience at one of the Nazis’ most infamous death camps cured him of such myths. These days, he attends synagogue services, wears kippot and has visited Israel. 

For its part, Jobbik denies it is anti-Semitic. Its leadership has made attempts to recast the party as a more mainstream faction, easing its strident rhetoric while expressing a desire to marginalize its most outspoken members.

“I am much more consistent now about the wild offshoots that I used to allow, look away from, or sweep under the carpet,” party head Gabor Vona said last year in an article in the Forward. “The responsibility that flows our way from Hungary’s voters demands we do that…With time the (extremist) elements of Jobbik you may see as prevalent will fade out because they no longer find their calling here.”

Regardless, Szegedi is no longer associated with the group. Elected to the European Parliament in Brussels in 2009 as a member of Jobbik, Szegedi has since disowned his old party and served as an independent adopting a pro-Israel position. He now says he’s finished with politics entirely after leaving the body in 2014 at the expiration of his term. 

Having changed his path, he has a new mission and he hopes his story helps others.

“One of the key messages naturally is that hatred doesn’t lead anywhere. Hatred closes you in,” he said.

He said the far-right worldview presents everything in stark terms of patriots versus traitors.

“The world is not black-and-white,” he said. “Every being has his or her own story and every person is unique.”

His grandmother’s unique story ended with her appearing to come to terms with the past.

“On her very deathbed, she was finally able to somehow face the reality and accept her Judaism,” Szegedi said. “Just a few days before she passed away, she was able to recall and recite blessings and different prayers that she learned from her childhood.”

Szegedi said that no matter how bad someone’s circumstances, there is always hope, something his new faith has helped him understand.

“When I turned toward Judaism and tried to learn about it, I feel that the hardest thing was to make the first steps,” he said. “If you want to change your life, you should trust in God and you should not be afraid of taking those first steps.”