An Early Answer to a Difficult Question

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Friends, acquaintances, and strangers in the U.S. often ask me, “How much anti-Semitism is there in Hungary today?” To answer, I would need much more knowledge than I have right now. I would need to be fluent in Hungarian to understand the many layers of conversation around me. I would need to know Hungary’s history; my knowledge right now is elementary and spotty at best. Beyond that, I would need to speak with a range of people, of different backgrounds and walks of life. Here I will try to convey (much too briefly) what I understand as of now: that Jews in Hungary have a rich and painful history, as does Hungary itself, and that my personal experiences so far have been of profound kindness.

First, for those who do not know it, a little about my ancestry. My mother is Jewish (of Hungarian, Ukrainian, and Lithuanian origins); my father is not (his ancestors came from France, Norway, Ireland, Holland, and elsewhere). I consider myself fully Jewish but not only Jewish; I am heritage, experiences, education, choices, practices, languages, and the millions of things that make up a person. I was not brought up Jewish; how I came to it six years ago is a longer (and wonderful) story, possibly for a much later time. But yes, I am a Jew, by lineage and practice–not strict practice, but practice nonetheless.

From what I understand, Jews in Hungary date back at least to the Kingdom of Hungary in the Middle Ages. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many Jews had assimilated into Hungarian life, occupying a range of professions and trades, attending school with non-Jews, and intermarrying. At the same time, undercurrents of anti-Semitism could erupt in violence at any time. I don’t know what drove my great-grandfather’s family to leave Györke, Hungary (now Ďurkov, Slovakia) in 1890–but their lives may have been affected by the Tiszaeszlár Affair–the blood libel of 1882–and its repercussions.

The Hungarian Holocaust was swift and brutal, but with long antecedents. Jews and non-Jews–or many, anyway–are now grappling with what happened during those years. There are memorials, commemorations, studies, but also efforts to forget or to deflect responsibility–and bitter controversies over the way history is portrayed or apportioned. There are new beginnings, too. At Szim Salom (my synagogue in Budapest) we sometimes have newcomers who are looking into their heritage, or exploring their Judaism, for the first time; some are Holocaust survivors or children of survivors, while others may have just discovered that a parent or grandparent was Jewish.

But what about anti-Semitism today? Is it strong? I have heard varying responses to this, from Jews and non-Jews alike. I have met only one person who said anything anti-Semitic in my presence: an old man in the village of Pácin, who was standing with me under the eaves of a grocery store, waiting for the downpour to stop. He began ranting about Jews and the Holocaust until he realized I was Jewish. His theory (if I understood it correctly–this was all in Hungarian, and his speech was slurred) was that Jews didn’t really die in the Holocaust, and that Viktor Orbán was now bringing them back.

Orbán is contradictory, for that matter, as is his milieu; his anti-Soros posters have obvious anti-Semitic tropes, as do some of his anti-liberal statements. Yet he also supports Israel (in some way) and Jewish life in Budapest (in some way). Jewish life in Budapest is thriving–with about 22 active synagogues, kosher stores, Jewish festivals, Jewish schools, and more. It may be one of the safest places in Europe, or even in the world, for Jews today.

But Orbán’s policies and statements do not account for everything; there are also rules, spoken and unspoken, in workplaces and elsewhere, with long histories of their own. Some people have told me that they never bring up being Jewish, except among other Jews or others they especially trust. There is still a fear of abrupt loss, or subtle ostracism and exclusion. It is also rude, I am told, to ask people whether they are Jewish (or Roma, or any other Hungarian minority); if they are, it’s up to them to decide whom to tell. Many people keep their heritage under wraps, from what I understand.

Compared to Hungarian Jews, I am in a fairly secure position; as a foreigner, I am already different, and as a teacher of English, I am needed and appreciated. So far I have felt genuinely respected for who I am and what I do. In Szolnok as well as in Budapest, I have been open about my Jewishness, and here are some things I have seen.

My colleagues–and other adults I know–show respect for Jews and Jewish history in their words and actions. On the day of the Holocaust commemoration, two colleagues arranged for a chorus of students to sing at the main event at the gallery (the former synagogue, shown in the picture above). Another colleague told me about the Holocaust memorial run at the end of that day; we both joined the run, along with another colleague. Two more colleagues introduced me to the people in charge of the gallery so that I could discuss the possibility of holding an event there. The event took place, and it was beautiful. I have colleagues who wish me well at the time of the Jewish holidays–and the school has allowed me, every year so far, to take a day off each for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Around me I hear people discussing Judaism, Jewish writers, the Holocaust, anti-Semitism, and more–and the discussion is thoughtful and searching. There are people who readily admit–with shame and pain–not only to Hungary’s role in the Holocaust, but to Szolnok’s as well.

As for students, I am reluctant to repeat their words on this blog, especially on sensitive subjects–but they often bring up Jewish writers, films, and musicians, as well as Jewish history. They are curious about Judaism as well; they ask questions about it and read about it on their own. Several students cited Miklós Radnóti’s “Nem tudhatom” (“I cannot know”) as a favorite poem; one recited it from memory. I later memorized it too and recited it for one of my classes one day; a student said, “That was amazing. But do you know what it means? Do you know what it means?” I began to explain what I thought it meant, and I saw the vague nods, meaning, yes, yes, but there is much more.

Jews and non-Jews are not entirely separate or separable here; as I mentioned before, many non-Jews have someone Jewish in their family, and the synagogues–many of them now used as galleries, concert halls, libraries, museums–stand side by side with the churches. During the Holocaust, some courageous Hungarian gentiles risked their lives to save Jews; Zsuzsanna Ozsváth describes one such person in her memoir When the Danube Ran Red. In addition, Hungarians, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, have suffered sieges, wars, relocations, regime changes, impoverishment; it is a lot to put together in the mind and heart. One should not relativize history–the suffering of Jews and other Holocaust victims cannot be likened to anything else–but Hungarians are familiar with trauma. An outsider comes to understand it in glimpses; a story, a saying, or even a bitter joke lets you see, for a split second, what people here have gone through.

I will not be surprised if I eventually encounter negative attitudes toward Jews, even coming from people I like. In the U.S. I have met people who are resentful of certain Jews’ money and power, or baffled by certain Orthodox practices, or critical of certain Israeli government policies. The dangerous error here–as with all prejudices–lies in turning a particular criticism, dislike, or misunderstanding into a judgment of an entire people, or even an entire person. Criticism has its place, but generalized criticism loses the very faculty of discernment and becomes tragically uncritical.

Here in Hungary people have told me, again and again, how much they appreciate my open-mindedness–and have shown me kindness and openness too. But how people treat me is just a fragment of what I want to learn and understand. The experience in a country is inevitably personal, but it can also be more–not through abandonment of the personal aspect, which is there no matter what, but through attention to things outside the self. Give me a few years. I will come back to the question that started off this piece, perhaps with more of an answer.

I took the photo of the Szolnok gallery (formerly the synagogue) on Friday.

I made a few minor edits to this piece after posting it.

Ady Endre, “Köszönöm, köszönöm, köszönöm”

117_Ady utolsó fényképeToday I found an astonishing poem by the Hungarian poet Ady Endre (1877–1919; Ady is the surname). I know only a few Hungarian words, phrases, and basic forms, but even this much lifted the latch, with the help of translations. Immediately I saw some of the difficulties of translating this work.

You can hear a recording on YouTube and read both the Hungarian and Leslie A. Kery’s translation in the Babel Web Anthology. There’s another translation, by Zsuzsanna Ozsváth and Frederick Turner, in Light within the Shade: Eight Hundred Years of Hungarian Poetry. Both brought me closer to the poem yet stopped before coming too close. I sense something burning here, something a translator might try to make cooler and softer.

Let us consider first the title, “Köszönöm, köszönöm, köszönöm,” which means “I thank you, I thank you, I thank you” (root “köszön” + personal suffix -“öm”; the “you” is implied). Kery translates the title as “My Thanks to Thee” (making the address to God explicit and removing the repetition). Ozsváth and Turner translate it “Thank You, Thank You, Thank You,” keeping the repetition, making God less explicit, but dropping the sense of “I,” which in turn allows for a sense of relation. It’s a difficult call, whether or not to keep some sense of “I”; “köszönöm” is basically an equivalent of “thank you,” and an added “I” might seem stilted. In any case, the repetition is important, as is the sense of relation; each translation conveys one or the other.

Now let’s look at the first four lines. These are enough to make a person fall in love with the poem, and they only hint at what’s coming.

Napsugarak zúgása, amit hallok,
Számban nevednek jó íze van,
Szent mennydörgést néz a két szemem,
Istenem, istenem, istenem,

Here’s Kery’s translation:

It is the hum of sunbeams that I hear,
Thy name is tasting sweet within my mouth
And my eyes, oh Lord, oh God of mine,
behold the holy thunder.

Here’s what Ozsváth and Turner do:

Dazzling in my ears is the roar of the sun,
Sweet in your mouth the savor of your name,
Loud in my eyes your holy thunder,
Lord of light, lord of sweetness, lord of wonder;

What a difference! I am torn between them. I like the bareness of Kery and the incantation of Ozsváth and Turner. But neither seemed to want the “Istenem, istenem, istenem” (“My God, my god, my god”) in bare form; the one turned it into “oh Lord, oh God of mine,” the other into “Lord of light, lord of sweetness, lord of wonder.”I see what they are doing–they’re conveying the nuances within the repetition–but I miss the repetition itself.

What are the alternatives in English? “My God, my god, my god” lacks the cadence and subtlety of “Istenem, istenem, istenem,” and anything with “O my god” would sound too casual. Maybe the best way around this is to read the original and translations side by side (and listen to the original).

But I jumped ahead. The first line lets us hear the rays of sun:

Napsugarak zúgása, amit hallok,

“[It is] the sunbeams’ hum that I hear,”

The onomatopoeic”zúgása” (“the hum”), which reminds me of the Russian жужжанье, comes right after “Napsugarak,” “of the sunbeams.” In these very sounds, you can hear the beams humming. “amit hallok” means “that I hear.” Here I prefer Kery’s translation (“It is the hum of sunbeams that I hear”): the euphony and syntax work beautifully. Ozsváth and Turner‘s “Dazzling in my ears is the roar of the sun” seems cranked up too loud; moreover, it loses the sense of a question. “It is the hum of sunbeams that I hear” answers the implied “What is it that I hear?”

The third line, “Szent mennydörgést néz a két szemem,” does something spectacular with the first. “Szent mennydörgést” means “holy thunder” (as direct object); “néz,” “watch”; “a két szemem,” “my two eyes”; together, “my two eyes behold the holy thunder.” This is directly followed by “Istenem, istenem, istenem,” which looks like thunder itself. The hum of the sunbeams and the view of thunder go together–but what matters here is not just the joining, but the person who hears and sees.

I have only inched into the poem here. If this post encourages someone to read and listen to it, I will be glad. Over time, I hope to understand it more accurately and deeply. In the meantime, I adopt it into my life.

 

Image credit: Photograph of Ady Endre, courtesy of the Babel Web Anthology.