This politician hated Jews. Then found out he was one
Csanad Szegedi was a fiercely anti-Semitic member of a Far Right political party in Hungary. A remarkable conversation with his grandmother – an Auschwitz survivor – made him change his ways
Csanad Szegedi is a former member of the European Parliament Photo: Lawrence Purcell
It started out as a cosy afternoon away from politics as Csanad Szegedi, deputy leader of Hungary’s far-right Jobbik Party and a staunch anti-semite, decided to pay a visit to his 92 year-old grandmother.
Sitting in her cosy apartment, much of the conversation involved nostalgic reminiscence of times gone by.
But then, without warning, events took an unexpected turn, as his grandmother made an extraordinary revelation: one she had been concealing for more than 60 years.
Clasping her grandson’s arm – a man whose sustained invective against the Jews was legendary in the world of the Far Right – she disclosed that she was Jewish . And because of Judaism’s matrilinial line, her daughter, Szegedi’s mother was also Jewish. All of which made Szegedi a Jew, too.
The shocking disclosure floored the man sitting before her.
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“I just broke down. I couldn’t absorb what my grandmother was telling me. It didn’t make sense. How could this be happening?” recalls the former politician, whose public life was peppered with incendiary remarks about the EU, the Roma and above all, the Jews.
But there was more. Gingerly rolling up her sleeve, Szegedi’s grandmother exposed a string of numbers tattooed on her arm. A heinous hallmark of time spent interned Auschwitz death camp. (His grandmother wore long-sleeved shirts or a plaster in summer, to cover the tattoo.)
Tattoos on arms of Holocaust survivor, a remnant of imprisonment in a Second World War Nazi concentration camp (Ira Nowinski)
“I couldn’t believe it, I just couldn’t believe it,” says Szegedi, still perhaps shaken by the ultimate branding of Jewish hatred and persecution. “I thought, this is the worst thing that could ever happen – there couldn’t ever be anything worse than this.”
“There had been no clues. Nothing could have prepared me for this. Though looking back, when I think about it, my mother and grandmother took issue with my anti-Semitism. Not because it was about Jews, they said… They just made the point that it was wrong to hate anyone. I suppose I just didn’t take any notice.”
That was in April 2012. Spool forward three years, and today 32 year-old Csanad Szegedi is the fabled changed man – though such description barely gives credit to the pendulous swing in his lifestyle, beliefs and perspective.
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For since making the discovery about his heritage, he has quit the Jobbik party, severed all ties with his political past and embarked on remarkable journey to learn, practise and embrace his Jewish faith (including having circumcision two years ago).
Today he looks quintessentially benign – tall and a little rounded. It’s hard to imagine that he was a reactionary who co-founded the Hungarian Guard – a paramilitary formation which marched in uniform through Roma neighbourhoods – and who blamed much of society’s ills on the Jews and Jewish conspirators.
Yet what makes this an even more remarkable story is that Szegedi’s anti-Semitism sprouted from the very fact that his family had fought so hard to conceal they were Jews.
This distorted trajectory began following his grandmother’s liberation from Auschwitz. She met her husband, a fellow, Jew who had been imprisoned in Nazi labour camps, and they started a new life together in their native Hungary.
Slowly, out of fear of anti-Semitism, they began to assimilate, even changing their Jewish surname to something that sounded more Hungarian. His mother, encouraged by her parents to “marry out”, met a non-Jewish boy, with whom she settled down in the industrial city of Miskolc in north eastern Hungary.
“My father was not only a non-Jew, he was a nationalist – and my grandparents were quite happy. They felt they had ‘made it`’ that they had escaped their past,” Szegedi says.
Meanwhile, the atmosphere in Hungary was becoming increasingly anti-Semitic with the Far Right publishing material about the so-called Jewish conspiracy. There were also protests about Nato, the EU , while a high crime rate and rising gypsy population fuelled the combative atmosphere
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“There was just this ever growing spiral of hatred, I worked hard to be a real racist. I read about it, studied it, and became one,” he says.
In 2001, when Szegedi embarked on a degree in history at Budapest University, he began to formalise his association with the nationalist cause through activism on the Far Right.
But had he ever actually met a Jew?
“Actually, there were a couple of Jewish students on my course and they were OK. We went to parties together,” he says. “But anti-Semitism isn’t about the Jewish people, it’s about the anti-Semite. The anti-Semite is projecting his own fears.”
A Jobbik supporter, the tattoo reads ‘My Honor is Loyalty’ (Reuters)
After his grandmother`s revelation, Szegedi acted with supreme loyalty to his party and went immediately to its leaders to break the news and tender his resignation.
Though equally horrified, there was no knee jerk reaction. Over the next two months they considered keeping it a secret – mulling over the idea of using him as a poster boy “token Jew” to deflect accusations of grass roots anti-Semitism within the party,
By July 2012, he had resigned.
Meanwhile, Szegedi’s parents, unsettled that their son had discovered the family secret, tried to fathom his reaction. “My father said, ‘Why on earth do you want to be Jewish?’. I told him that it wasn’t a desire. It was who I was. That it wasn’t a matter of choice. There were people in Auschwitz who were murdered for being Jews. They may not have wanted to be Jews but had no choice.”
And so, as his old life began to unravel Szegedi began to piece together a new reality. He burnt his own biography, I Believe in the Resurrection of the Hungarian Nation, and went to see one of Hungary’s most eminent rabbis for help.
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“He told me to do a complete about turn and to do the opposite of everything that I had done before. He said that in the Talmud it says that if you become a better person through study and doing good deeds you will cure the bad deeds you have done in the past. Repentance was the key. And he said that I should educate Jews about anti-Semitism find out why people feel this way and connect with my Judaism.”
And so this is what Szegedi has done, becoming increasingly orthodox and embarking on an almost evangelical mission to talk to schools, groups, colleges – anyone who will hear his story – about the toxicity of anti-semitism.
It hasn’t been an easy journey. Early trips to synagogue were greeted by remarks pointing out “that Nazi” and he has also faced anti-semtic remarks.
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