Fascism, the next generation
A radical, right-wing party is complaining that Jews have ‘colonized' Hungary, while members of the Roma minority are being gunned down in the night. Is history repeating itself?
Anna Porter, The Globe and Mail
TATÁRSZENTGYÖRGY, HUNGARY — With its cream-coloured houses, red tile roofs, white church and spring flowers, Tatárszentgyörgy has all the trappings of a bucolic village.
But at the far end of the cemetery, on the outskirts of town, there is a freshly dug grave covered with plastic flowers and a few wilting lilies. Beneath a large wreath of white silk roses, a simple marker reads: “Csorba Robert 1981-2009; Csorba Robert Jr. 2004-2009: Rest in Peace.”
Father and son lie together – just as they died together.
On the evening of Feb. 23, the community of 1,200 about 50 kilometres south of Budapest was the scene of a deadly attack on members of Hungary's Roma minority.
It wasn't the first – there have been at least 18 assaults with seven lives lost in the past year – and others have died since. But the killing of Robert Csorba and his five-year-old son have made the village a symbol of evil in a country that, in the same year little “Robika” was born, joined the European Union with high hopes for a bright, post-communist future.
I have come to Tatárszentgyörgy because I am writing a book about what Europe has become in the 20 years since the Iron Curtain parted and members of the former Soviet bloc welcomed democracy. The new freedom, I have found, has brought something that its proponents never anticipated: public demonstrations of spite, racism and intolerance.
The dark forces of hatred have been embraced by people so unhappy with what that future has brought, they've gone looking for someone to blame.
Now, the world is awakening: This week, Hungary called in the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation to help track down the killers, and raised the reward for their capture to more than $250,000.
The great Polish intellectual Adam Michnik says that “Central Europe came as a messenger not only of freedom and tolerance, but also of hatred and intolerance. It is here that the last two world wars began.”
It is also here that the Holocaust was perpetrated.
Researching Kasztner's Train, my 2007 book on the wartime fate of Hungary's Jewish community, was a horrific reminder of how easily nations can slip into carnage. But the war ended in 1945. Who would have thought that less than 65 years later, the ghosts of that demonic past would come crawling out of their graves?
BULLETS MEANT FOR A CHILD
The Csorbas lived at the end of a row of Roma homes on an unpaved road leading to a small forest and patches of cultivated land. The house is painted a bright marigold, and near the door that was blown open when a Molotov cocktail exploded, you can still see brush strokes amid bullet holes in the wall at just the right height for a five-year-old. Charred timbers are all that remain of the roof and the windows are gaping holes, while the floor inside is covered in glass, blackened bits of furniture, torn blankets and, face down in one corner, a doll.
The men came shortly after midnight, Robert Csorba's father, Csaba, tells me. He says his granddaughter, Bianka, remembers seeing something fly through the window and then flashes of light and shattering glass. After that, the smoke and flames made it hard to see. Robert must have grabbed his son, run out the door, and been cut down by blasts from a shotgun fired at close range.
Bianka, 6, was hit, and lost two fingers, but survived, as did her mother and the baby. “She is a strong little girl,” says Erzsebet, her grandmother.
Erzsebet and Csaba live a few metres away. Wakened by the gunshots, they ran out to find Robert's house in flames, his wife and daughter screaming. Mr. Csorba leads me to the place where his son and grandson fell, just a few steps from the door. “He was still breathing when I found him. But he was terribly quiet. I felt the bullet wounds with my fingers. He tried to speak, but the bullets had pierced his lungs.”
The police didn't arrive for about half an hour. Even then, Mr. Csorba says, they “stopped up the road, and the men came strolling down here, as if nothing much had happened.
“The ambulance came about half an hour after. I kept telling them to get my boy to the hospital fast. I know about lead pellets. My son could have survived, but none of them believed us.”
The medics tried to revive the boy, but barely glanced at his father, so Mr. Csorba, an army veteran, cleaned the wounds himself. “I don't know much about medicine, but lead will kill you if not removed fast.” He says the authorities wouldn't agree that arson was to blame. The police and medics insisted the fireplace had exploded, while firefighters said they suspected an electrical fire. No one examined the bullet holes or paid any attention when Mr. Csorba told them he had heard gunfire. As they moved around in the house, one man stepped on the remnants of a bottle that could have held the gas.
The lines on his face make him look much older, but Mr. Csorba is only 45 and his tearful wife a year younger. Roma, who make up 6 per cent of the 10 million Hungarians, start families very early.
“It's one of our problems,” says Aladar Horvath, a leader of the Roma Civic Rights Movement, who reached the scene from Budapest soon after the police left. “Too many children, too young, and almost impossible to find work. The rules don't work when it comes to Gypsies. The job is already filled when you show up and they see you're one of us. And the house is no longer available. They don't want us as neighbours.”
Mr. Horvath has accompanied me back to Tatárszentgyörgy. A self-professed “troublemaker,” who refuses to accept that Roma do not deserve a better life, he made sure the crime investigation headquarters in Budapest sent a unit to the village. But by then, few traces of heavy boots remained on the ground, and there was no one to back up little Bianka's claim she had seen a big black car nearby.
Mr. Horvath says that in the last census only a third of Hungary's 600,000 Roma admitted to being Roma. The nervousness is understandable – even though as many as 1.5 million European Roma may have fallen victim to Hitler's “final solution,” today I see them being singled out for criticism in national newspapers, and hear about cigánybûnözés (a relatively new word in Hungarian that means “Gypsy crime”) as callers to radio shows complain of Roma taking over their neighbourhoods. JUST STEP ON THE GAS
Just as the Nazis came to power amid the Great Depression, hard times are being blamed for the current resurgence of the far right. Some observers suspect that in Hungary the seed was sown on Oct. 15, 2006, when 44-year-old teacher Lajos Szogi was beaten to death in front of his two daughters after his car bumped an 11-year-old Roma girl. No one was charged, but news outlets assumed the killers were Roma and launched coverage so sensational that one journalist advised anyone unlucky enough to hit a Roma child just to step on the gas.
Also in 2006, Hungary's Socialist government decided to replace its delegate to a United Nations agency that fights discrimination against women.
The incumbent was Krisztina Morvai, a graduate in law from Budapest's renowned Eötvös Loránd University who'd gone on to study at the University of London and been a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Wisconsin before joining the European Human Rights Committee in Strasbourg.
But upon learning that, after four years, her time in New York was up, the human-rights champion with a Jewish husband fired off a surprising letter in which she accused the government of trading her for a “Zionist” because she was pro-Palestinian.
Today, the youthful-looking blonde with a soft voice, a gentle smile and an alluring manner has her sights on a bigger prize. All signs indicate that two weeks before her 46th birthday on June 22, she will be elected to the EU's ruling body carrying the standard of a party so far to the right that critics call it “neo-Nazi.”
Prof. Morvai (she teaches law at her alma mater) is the leading candidate in the June 7 European Parliament elections for Jobbik, a party whose full name in Hungarian means “more to the right” and whose policies certainly fit the bill.
To see this rising political star in action, I attend a Jobbik rally in Budapest and watch as she makes her way to the podium, greeted by the crowd as though she is a celebrity. Many of her fans have been handed a flyer asking if they mind being “beggars” in their own country – Jobbik has struck a chord with its attacks on foreign companies that enjoy tax-exempt status in Hungary.
But Prof. Morvai also has other targets in mind. She opens by distinguishing between “our kind” and “their kind,” making it very clear that, as well as liberals, socialists and people employed by big corporations, the latter includes Jews and Roma. “Will you stand by,” the flyer asks, “while government throws more aid at Gypsy criminals?”
She tells the crowd that it's time for Hungarians to “take back” what is theirs, and party vice-president Zoltan Balczo complains that Jews have “colonized” the country and draws a cheer by cracking a joke about Gypsies.
As they speak, enormous flags from ancient Hungary adorn the walls and the gathering is ringed by members of Magyar Garda, or Hungarian Guard, the uniformed paramilitary that Jobbik created in 2007. Now said to number in the thousands and to play a leading role in the party, the Garda has thought better of its early affection for black shirts, yet carries a red and white banner identified with Hungary's wartime Nazi regime.
Glaring at anyone who moves, the Garda are clad in black leather and have, in some cases, arrived by motorcycle. Today, everything is peaceful, but they have sparked controversy in the past by holding marches in most of the small towns where Roma have been killed, inspiring supporters to come out and applaud. In Budapest, they have paraded in front of the parliament building, tangled with riot police and once brought along a white horse in honour of Miklos Horthy, the leader of Hungary when its Jews were sent to Auschwitz.
The Garda has grown in tandem with the rising violence against the Roma. As well as the seven fatalities since last November, the barrage of Molotov cocktails has seen a two-year-old nearly burned to death. The killers' usual modus operandi is to throw the flaming bottle of gasoline into a house on the outskirts of a village and then shoot the occupants as they flee. But two weeks ago, Jeno Koka, a worker at a pharmaceutical factory northeast of Budapest, was gunned down as he left home for the night shift. A few days later, five Roma children were beaten badly by masked men as they waited for a bus.
Jozsef Bencze, the chief of Hungary's national police, says he thinks there are only four or five bombers, and they've had military training. But there appear to be no suspects and, despite the big reward and FBI assistance announced this week, Roma leaders are not optimistic. “I used to believe in a political solution,” Aladar Horvath tells me. “I no longer do. There are too many lies, too much play-acting. Pretending that you care does not add up to caring. The system itself is compromised.”
As a result, the Roma have formed self-defence units (not especially effective, considering that an activist in Tatárszentgyörgy was burned out while she was off on patrol) and begun to mount public demonstrations. A mass rally is planned for next Saturday in front of Hungary's parliament, as well as in 10 Czech cities.
JOBBIK COMES TO CANADA
All this may seem far away to Canadians, but distance is no guarantee of immunity. Recent reports have shown a spike in Roma refugee claimants – 570 Czechs, mostly Roma, in January and February alone. And just 18 months ago, Krisztina Morvai came to call, making public appearances at Carleton University in Ottawa and Hungarian House in Toronto. The latter event drew a crowd of 250, and her call to reclaim territory lost after the First World War seemed to resonate with older people, still upset that the Treaty of Versailles deprived Hungary of more than half its land and people.
There was a lone protester at the Toronto event – a man who arrived with a message of dissent written on his umbrella – as soon as he opened it, he was unceremoniously ejected from the meeting.
At the time, Prof. Morvai and her party were little more than a blip on the political radar. Today it's assumed that she will soon have a place on the European stage.
As I say goodbye in Tatárszentgyörgy, Erzsebet Csorba shows me a photo of her son and grandson. In the wooden casket that is their final resting place, Robert has his arms around Robika as though still trying to protect him.
Despite all the animosity, past and present, Erzsebet is mystified that things are suddenly being taken to such extremes. “I don't understand it,” she says. “Why they killed my beautiful boys.”
Toronto writer Anna Porter is the author, most recently, of the award-winning Kasztner's Train. Her book on democracy in Central Europe will be published next year.
[This article was originally published in the Globe and Mail Friday, May. 15, 2009.]