Hungarian filmmaker fears for his children

Adam Csillag  [Gabriella Csoszo photo]

Hungarian Jews are fearful of how openly antisemitic and xenophobic their politicians and non-Jewish countrymen are becoming.

Some are even declaring their fear that the EU state is on the path toward an ultra-nationalistic regime bent on persecuting Jews and Roma, not unlike Germany in the early-to-mid 1930s. 

The trepidation being felt by Jews, Roma and other minorities in Hungary prompted an independent Jewish-Hungarian documentary filmmaker, Adam Csillag, to start detailing his government’s activities and those of the far-right wing Jobbik opposition party. He’s particularly focused on efforts to limit freedom of the press and on antisemitic and anti-Roma activity over the past few years.

A recent Canadian billboard campaign in Hungary targeting would-be Roma asylum-seekers to Canada with the message that new immigration laws severely limit their ability to seek refuge from persecution here led Csillag to contact The CJN to alert Canada’s Jewish community to the situation in his country.

Related: Is Canada saying ‘none is too many’ to the Roma?

Hungary is on Canada’s designated “safe countries” list of democratic nations that it deems to have adequate legal and institutional protection for their citizens.

Csillag said there are legitimate reasons for Roma, and perhaps soon Jews, to seek asylum elsewhere.

“Hungary is lying to Canadian politicians when it says it is democratic,” he said. “Jobbik and its paramilitary [groups] are doing terrible things to Roma. I witnessed serial killings of Roma in 2008. The police are against the Roma.”

In a recent phone interview from his home in Budapest, with his daughter Anna translating, he said public discourse in Hungary has reached the point where “a disturbing amount” of people are unabashed about insulting minorities, particularly Jews and Roma.

He said he’s now advising his daughter and all Jewish youth in Hungary to leave for their own safety and a better future.

Anna, who is half-Jewish on her father’s side, confirmed that for the past few years while attending university, her friends and classmates have never been shy about telling her how much they like her “despite” her heritage.

Beyond that, Csillag said, many politicians in both the ruling Fidesz party – led by Prime Minister Viktor Orban – and Jobbik share similar ideas regarding foreigners and minorities on Hungarian soil.

A Jan. 31 report in Spiegel Online  seems to confirm Csillag’s assertions that the boundaries between Fidesz and Jobbik’s ideologies “are blurring.”

Csillag, who acknowledged that his speaking out and raising an alarm might endanger him, pointed out that while Orban was in opposition, he began setting up grassroots, nationalistic groups to promote a pure Hungary.

Many of the “main personalities” of those groups have since become influential members of Jobbik, he said.

The reason Orban set up the civilian groups was to discredit the then-ruling Hungarian Socialist Party and those on the left by labeling them anti-Hungarian, according to Csillag.

Orban’s friend and Fidesz co-founder, prominent Hungarian social commentator Zsolt Bayer, wrote in the daily Magyar Hirlap newspaper in January that Roma are “unfit for coexistence. They are not fit to live among people. These Roma are animals, and they behave like animals. These animals shouldn’t be allowed to exist. In no way. That needs to be solved. They should be stamped out – immediately and regardless of the method.”

Neither Orban nor any other Fidesz member denounced the article.

In the past, Bayer has also referred to Jews as “stinking excrement called something like Cohen,” according to the World Jewish Congress. 

Members of Fidesz have also publicly demonstrated support for Miklos Horthy, the World War II-era Hungarian prime minister who helped the Nazis murder tens of thousands of the country’s Jews and Roma.

Last November, Jobbik member Marton Gyongyosi called for Jews to be registered on lists as threats to national security. Massive protests broke out in Budapest, prompting Gyongyosi to apologize and say his remarks were misinterpreted.

However, the parliamentarian was never disciplined for his comments.

Orban’s office eventually denounced Gyongyosi’s remarks, though it only did so 16 hours after the comments were uttered. Jewish groups in Hungary were critical of the delay.

At the time, Hungarian Holocaust survivor and executive director of the Hungarian Jewish Congregations’ Association Gusztav Zoltai said the event and lack of action by Fidesz and Jobbik made Hungary “the shame of Europe.”

Csillag said Fidesz has also slowly been curtailing freedom of the press and free speech, saying that most of the country’s TV and radio stations are increasingly falling under the control of the government and provoking anger at anyone who dares speak out against it.

“My activities aren’t big enough to be a threat to the government,” he said, noting that he’s usually out on the streets about three times a week to document “the decline in democracy” in Hungary.

“There’s only one radio station that you could still consider to be ‘free’, and that’s only because of international media scrutiny,” Csillag said.

“The government is building a façade of democracy, behind that they are destroying basic rights. They are giving Hungarians the option to focus their economic fears through hate.”

The net result, he said, is similar to what transpired in prewar Nazi Germany, where Roma and Jews were scapegoated for all of the country’s problems.

Csillag said that while there are still “plenty of goodwilled people” in Hungary, power resides with Fidesz, which continues to foment “anti-foreigner sentiment.

“This is not just against Roma. It’s also against Jews,” he said.

“I tell my daughter she needs to find a way to leave Hungary and find a more stable place to live. If I am being honest, I cannot tell my children that Hungary will be a good place to live in the coming years. I tell them to prepare to leave at any moment” Csillag added.

“The [official] Jewish community organizations must stop making compromises and speak much more loudly now. They believe they only have Jobbik to fear, but they should know better, that Fidesz is also the danger.”