In Hungary, the Upstream battle against Fascism Continues
By Andrew Casey
A woman in her early 70’s, a survivor of the Holocaust, has mysteriously disappeared from a small Hungarian town, close to the Romanian border.
Mrs Margit Abonyi Papp has lived in Bekes for most of her life. She was one and a half years old when she and her mother were deported to a slave labour camp in Austria.
Teenage fascist bullies Holocaust survivor
A few weeks ago, while sitting in the local doctor’s surgery, a young thug associated with Jobbik – the neo-Nazi political party now flexing its muscles all over Hungary – verbally assaulted her.
The teenage fascist asked why she was not wearing her Yellow Star. Then he continued to rant at her, saying she should “Move to Auschwitz or Israel”
The young bully taunted Mrs Papp with the fact that a Hungarian MP, from Jobbik, has recently raised in Parliament the need to list all Jews as a national security threat.
Until now, Mrs Papp had run the town’s second-hand bookshop. Her family was well known in Bekes. Her father, pre-war, had been a prominent lawyer, but he died in a forced labour battalion.
Bekes has lost its literal meaning
Bekes translates to mean Peace in English.
But for her there is no peace in Peace.
A mayor associated with the right-wing Fidesz party leads Bekes’ local council. The Deputy Mayor is from the neo-Nazi Jobbik party.
These two are backed up by a council prepared to look the other way as a criminal political gang rampages through this town of around 20,000 people.
Soon after the young fascists’ verbal assault, Mrs Papp disappeared. So far, several attempts to locate her have come to nought.
She is now presumed to be in hiding in Budapest, nearly 200 km to the northwest of Bekes, the town she had hoped to live out her final days in peace.
Neo-Nazis nastiest and best organized in Europe
In this south-eastern corner of Hungary – close to the blood-sucking black-hearted Transylvania of Dracula-fame – the Right, and more particularly, the Far-Right, are now coming into the ascendancy.
Several European commentators say that in an era when fascist parties once more are on the rise, Hungary’s neo-Nazis are amongst the nastiest and best organized.
They feed on fertile soil because the country still refuses to confront its murderous past.
The veteran journalist, Paul Lendvai, has recently noted that only four percent of the present generation of Hungarians aged between 18-30 know the meaning of the word Holocaust. Only 13 percent can give a figure for the number of its victims.
Two-thirds of the country’s adults believe Hungarian Jews are too powerful. Fifty percent blame Jews for the world economic crisis.
Teaching the Hungarian Holocaust
Just ten kilometres up the road in Meszobereny (pop. 11,000), a town half the size of Bekes, a local high school teacher is fighting anti-Semitism and the spread of Fascism from her classroom
Andrea Komodi, who talks frankly about the anti-Semitism and racism which she grew up with in her own family, was just one of a number of Hungarian teachers who last weekend met in Budapest to talk about the curricula available for the teaching of the Holocaust in her country.
Another teacher at the conference was Mago Gyongyi from Kalocsa. She features in a documentary called There Was Once, which was featured with wide applause this year at the Jewish International Film Festival in Melbourne and Sydney.
One town supports Holocaust education, the other does not
There is an interesting difference between Mrs Gyongyi’s Kalocsa and Mezobereny – where Andrea Komodi teaches at the Sandor Petofi Evangelical Secondary School.
Kalocsa is an overwhelmingly Roman Catholic town. The local mayor and local council gave Mrs Gyongyi full support for her Holocaust education work.
Mezobereny is overwhelmingly dominated by Evangelical-Lutherans. There are three largish Evangelical churches in the town but only one Catholic church .
There is a theory that the Hungarian Catholic Church has faced up to his awful Holocaust history in a way that other Hungarian Christian denominations have not yet done so.
Mezobereny’s local council, which includes members of Jobbik, are hostile to Ms Komodi and her work at the school, and the way she reminds the town of its Holocaust past.
Her students are currently completing a short video that will be subtitled in German and English and up on YouTube in January. In this video, the students visit the town’s three Evangelical Churches (one Hungarian, one Slovak, and one Swabian German) and then the students go looking for the now missing, non-existent piece of the town’s puzzle – the Synagogue.
The students in the video – the roughs of which were shown at the Budapest conference on Holocaust curricula in Hungarian schools – talk in particular about one of the Mezobereny’s Jewish survivor families – George Szego.
Mr Szego now lives in Melbourne. His daughter is the well-know journalist and columnist Julie Szego.
Using Skype – Sydney to Mezobereny – for Holocaust education
I met Andrea Komodi earlier this year. I took a very long uncomfortable bus ride across eastern Hungary to meet her in this town 40 km from the Romanian border.
I took this trip to the Hungarian ‘outback’ to thank her and honour her for the work she is doing and the way she had creatively involved my 88-year-old father Stephen Casey (Katona Istvan) who lives in Sydney.
Thanks to the wonders of Skype, my father has now, for a number of years, been beamed into Andrea Komodi’s classes at the Sandor Petofi Evengelical Secondary School’s classrooms.
And he has made himself available for a live chat with her senior students. He talks to them about his experiences as a Hungarian Jewish high school kid in a similar sized Hungarian regional town attending the local Evangelical Lutheran high school before World War II.
My father, who was not much older than many of these kids when the Hungarian Holocaust began, talks to them about his personal experiences. Many of the high school students are visibly stunned when they hear that only five out of a family of 41 survived the tragedy.
Taking an inscribed rock from Hungarian soil to Auschwitz.
Every two years, Andrea Komodi leads a tour to Auschwitz and Cracow. The students pay for the trip out of their own pockets because there is no school government or charitable group around to subsidise her tour. She is often leading a group of 50, as more than just her own students ask to participate.
One year, a group of her students took a large rock from Hungarian soil with them to Auschwitz, inscribing on it the names of my grandparents, who were taken to that death camp. They left the inscribed rock in Auschwitz’s Memorial Garden.
Personal family revelations triggered by Auschwitz
Another of these Auschwitz trips created personal turmoil for one of her students. Just as the student was getting onto the bus she was taken aside by her grandmother. For the first time the 17 year old was told she was Jewish and in Auschwitz she would be walking on ground where her immediate family perished. The stunned young girl has kept this a secret between her mother, grandmother – and her teacher – afraid to lose her boyfriend who is a supporter of the growing far-right.
How Mezobereny still fights its Holocaust past
It is not just in the classroom that Ms Komodi campaigns to ensure Hungary faces her Holocaust past. In the centre of town stands a plinth listing the names of Mezobereny’s dead from two world wars – civilians and soldiers.
There is one group of the town’s pre-war population who are not listed on the memorial plinth – the small Jewish community, more than 200 of them perished in the Holocaust. Ms Komodi approached the town elders querying this oversight – but she was brushed aside by the Mayor and his right-wing cronies.
However with the help of George Szego, one of the survivors who now lives in Melbourne, she was able to collect all the names of those Jews who perished at Auschwitz. The local council however was not prepared to give this monument equal status with their plinth.
The Jewish memorial is hidden. Out of view. Behind a building. Behind a locked gate. Only those who are really curious and insistent to know the town’s Jewish past would ever discover the imposing memorial.
On this official plinth to the memory of Mezobereny’s dead from two world wars there are about 150 names. There is about the same number on the Jewish memorial for just those killed in Auschwitz – there were other Mezobereny Jews who were murdered in other places.
To have these two memorials sitting side by side in the centre of town would be a devastating answer to those in the Hungarian community who would minimize or deny the Holocaust.
Anonynous midnight telephone calls
Behind Ms Komodi’s back there is a lot of gossiping and sniggering …. even from teacher colleagues, about her ‘Jew-loving’ ways. She even suffers anonymous midnight calls threatening her security in her rented Council flat.
The fact that the Council accommodation comes under the supervision of a councillor who is a member of the fascist Jobbik party may not be a coincidence!
Frightened by Peace town’s fascists
This week Andrea Komodi emailed me, upset about the latest neo-Nazi atrocity in Bekes. She had planned to take the ten kilometre drive to Bekes to show solidarity with old Mrs Papp. She was setting out to hug the old woman but now she’s disappeared. A friend in Bekes had promised to help find Mrs Papp’s whereabouts. But then backed out, frightened.
Once again criminal political thugs – neo-Nazis, fascists – have ensured there is no peace anymore in the town Hungarians know as Peace (Bekes).
Andrew Casey is a sometime writer and journalist and trade union activist. He has two religions – Judaism and the labour movement – both of which he realises have many blemishes. While he questions the blemishes he is not prepared to deny either of them.