Interview: Adam Kerpel-Fronius

The following is the introduction given by Adam Kerpel-Fronius:

My name is Adam Kerpel-Fronius, I am 47 years old, and I work as a historian at the Foundation Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, the foundation running the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin. You probably know USHMM in Washington – our function is similar (the Holocaust Memorial is the central memorial site of Germany to honour the victims of the Holocaust and to inform about the historical background), but we are a much smaller institution. Germany has a very differentiated and decentralised memorial landscape, ranging from small regional memorials to major memorials at former concentration camp sites, such as Buchenwald, Dachau or Bergen-Belsen.

What is the focus of your research relating to the Holocaust and Holocaust remembrance? What countries do you cover in your work?

My work concentrates mostly on memorial cultures all over Europe. What kind of holocaust memorials are there in different countries, who built them, when and why, how did the memorial cultures evolve over time, how do they change, what are the trends? Memorial culture is something that is constantly changing, every generation is asking new questions and sees things in a different light (see the US, for example, where Black Lives Matter changes the discourse on the legacy of slavery.) But I am involved in different other projects as well, these range from curating exhibitions to participating in international projects to publishing memoirs of Holocaust survivors. By nature, my work covers all of Europe, but in practice, I am concentrating mostly on central and eastern Europe, especially Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, the Baltic States, Romania, Hungary, and, to a smaller extent, the ex-Yugoslav states.

Please describe the complex nature and manifestation of antisemitism in Hungary today based on your research. Is there denial or condemnation of antisemitism from the Hungarian government?

It's important for me to state that I am a researcher of the Holocaust and not an expert on antisemitism. Of course, these things intertwine, especially when it comes to manifestations of memorial culture, but research on antisemitism is something sociologists do, not historians. Still, I can give you my thoughts on this.

Yes, antisemitism in Hungary is a very complex phenomenon. It is interesting in comparison. In Poland, for example, antisemitism is traditionally part of rural, peasant culture and goes back centuries. It is very closely intertwined with Catholicism and folklore. Nazi antisemitism, on the other hand, was something very modern, it was pseudo-scientific racial theories that fuelled it, not religion – and it was murderous and focused on total biological annihilation. In Hungary, there were traces of rural, religious antisemitism as well – especially in the 19th century. However, in the 20th century, it became more an urban phenomenon, especially of nationalistic milieus who feared that Jewish intellectuals, businesspeople, doctors and the like adapted much better to modernity and had an unfair advantage in society. Until today, antisemitism is especially strong in these milieus and it is these themes that fuel it. (Things like: there are Jewish conspiracies, they secretly control business, media and government, stuff like that.)

In my view, the best research on antisemitism in Hungary was conducted by András Kovács of CEU university – they have been researching it quantitatively since the 1990s and could follow its manifestations and put it in an international context. The main takeaways I remember the most: he has a strict definition of antisemitism and defines those as antisemitic who believe there is a Jewish hidden agenda and want to have political consequences (i.e. step up against Jews). The research also looks into prejudices and negative feelings towards other minorities. Anyway, it turned out that antisemitism in Hungary is pretty much European average, with about 15% of people overtly antisemitic. That said, prejudiced against other groups are partly much more negative, especially against Roma and the Chinese (there are tens of thousands of Chinese who live in Hungary, especially in Budapest). What has changed, though, that since the emergence of the far-right party Jobbik around 2009/2010, antisemitic people have become much more vocal, it has become much more accepted in some circles to say antisemitic things out loud. (Not everywhere, though, and in my personal experience you could hear much, much more antisemitic remarks in the 1990s than nowadays).

One interesting aspect of antisemitism in Hungary is that in contrast to some other countries, it rarely turns violent. In France, many Jews feel physically threatened and there are antisemitic murders. In Germany, a right-wing terrorist attacked the synagogue in Halle, and synagogues and cemeteries are often attacked (Molotov-cocktails) or defaced. In Hungary, you sometimes hear about swastikas on cemeteries, or, rarely, about someone harassed for wearing a kippa. But given how many Jews actually live in Hungary (much more than in most European countries), I find it interesting that antisemitic violence is not a wide phenomenon at all.

The record of the Hungarian government on antisemitism is ambiguous. The government always states that they have an absolute zero-tolerance policy against antisemitism – but what does it actually mean? Do they inform and educated people on antisemitism? No, not really. Holocaust commemorations are being done in schools, but mostly on the initiative of individual teachers. On the other hand, openly antisemitic authors from the era of WW2 have made it into the national curriculum (not their antisemitic works though). The government spends a lot of money on preserving Jewish cultural heritage. Actually, also in international comparison, that is remarkable. The Orthodox Rumbach Synagogue, which has been a ruin for decades has been renovated magnificently, also the art nouveau synagogue in Subotica, Serbia, mainly from Hungarian government funds. Cemeteries are being renovated too. So a lot is being done there, in a very positive way. At the same time, these things are always being shown as proof that Hungary has no problem with antisemitism whatsoever, and, almost cynically, Orbán has a demonstratively great relation with Israeli PM B. Netanyahu. That is a political alliance, but it is being shown as proof for not being antisemitic. Still, the government's relations with established Jewish organisations, especially of the traditionally strong liberal Jewry, are strained, and the government seeks alliances and gives money to organisations like Chabad that have no genuine roots in Hungary.

One more thing that needs to be mentioned is the hate propaganda against George Soros. He has never been openly attacked as being a Jew, but words and themes have been used against him in government propaganda that are very characteristic of antisemitic propaganda too: a greedy old rich businessman/speculator pulls the strings in the background, in the guise of liberal democracy he is trying to establish his own rule, but the Christian/European/illiberal/a

anti-migrant Hungarians are fighting back against him and defending their way of life.

Do you think that Hungary has ever properly reconciled with the events of the Holocaust within its borders?

I have to give that question back: do you think that there is ever a stage when a society can genuinely say that they have reconciled with traumatic events of their past, especially if they were the perpetrators? Do you think, for example, that in a hundred years from now, there will be no more controversy about the treatment of native Americans and enslaved people? I think that this is an ongoing process, new aspects, new knowledge emerges all the time – some generations tend more to forget, and then a new generation uncovers new things.

So the answer is no, Hungary has not properly reconciled with the events of the Holocaust, but it has also come a very long way in some respect. First, it is not a taboo, you can talk, write and read openly about the Holocaust, also about the local perpetrators and the Hungarian involvement in the genocide. That has not always been the case – and there is certainly much, much more general knowledge about what had happened than there was 30 or 40 years ago. Even neo-Nazis and right-wing extremists have changed their rhetoric: most of them don't deny the Holocaust outright, they say instead that this was in the past and we shouldn't talk about it anymore, or make false comparisons like the plight of the Hungarian civilian population was just as bad (bombings, rape, forced labour, etc.) What really made a difference was the Nobel prize in literature for Imre Kertész – after that, it was really impossible to speak about the Holocaust in Hungary as having been done only by the Nazis with no help from Hungarian state and local authorities and others. Also, there are a lot of local initiatives to talk about the Holocaust and erect monuments, not only in Budapest. So it is an ongoing process, and while the general knowledge and interest in the population is not huge, it is there. And talking from long experience – this is true for any other country as well. Germans for example are sure of themselves that they know a lot about the Holocaust – but if you scratch under the surface, public knowledge is actually quite rudimentary. I don't think that more than 10% of Germans could associate anything with Treblinka or Babyn Yar, and how many know that Jews were deported from Greece? So I guess most Hungarians know that Jews were deported from all over the country and that Hungarians in uniform had a lot to do with it. That is not reconciliation, but it is necessary knowledge, a prerequisite of being able to accept the past as something that really happened. Even though – and this is the last thing I have to mention – the official government line is that everything bad that happened in the 20th century (Nazism, Holocaust and Communism) was forced upon the Hungarians by foreign powers, and that Hungarians as a collective are basically innocent – it was only collaborators (i.e. traitors) who were responsible, but not Hungary as a nation.

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