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Suddenly Jewish

Binyamin Rose, Budapest

Articulate, ambitious, and xenophobic, Csanad Szegedi was the embodiment of Hungarian Jewry’s worst fears. The far-right politician was fast gaining a following for his fiercely nationalistic views and frightening displays of anti-Jewish and anti-minority sentiment. Then a shocking discovery forced Budapest’s Jewish community into a stormy moral dilemma — and compelled Szegedi to confront the anti-Semitic demons revisiting modern Europe, along with his own shadowy past.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Csanad Szegedi was a conflicted man.

Szegedi, at 28, was a rising star in Hungarian and European politics. The Jobbik (Yo-bick) Party he had founded as a university student eight years earlier, in October 2003, now held 47 seats in Hungary’s parliament — about a 12-percent share — and three of Hungary’s allotted 22 seats, including his own, in the European Parliament.

Szegedi was telegenic, brash, articulate, and convincing in expounding the extreme right-wing views that were his mother’s milk. The Jobbik Party, like most ofEurope’s neofascist parties, is fertile breeding ground for anti-Semites and Holocaust doubters, and Szegedi fit right in.

Politics being the sordid business that it is means that some rival is always trying to undermine the top banana and knock him off of his perch. Szegedi would soon fall victim to this game.

An old party foe met with Szegedi and threatened him. “You are a Jew,” said the foe, “and there are documents that can prove this.”

Calling Szegedi a Jew was not unusual. It was normal political-speak for one Jobbik to accuse another of being Jewish. Europeans often use the word “Jew” as a pejorative term in describing a rival, both in politics and in sports.

The supposed documents were a different story entirely. But when the party rival declined to produce them, Szegedi dismissed him and shrugged off the rumors.

“In an ultra-right wing party, it is not a plus to be Jewish,” says Szegedi, seated across from me in the home of Budapest’s rosh beis din, Rabbi Boruch Oberlander, who is Szegedi’s rabbi and our interpreter.

Still, Szegedi had a nagging suspicion that wouldn’t go away. He decided to get to the bottom of it. His investigations began on December 25, 2011, with his then 91-year-old maternal grandmother inMiskolc, her home and Szegedi’s birthplace. That talk was the first of a four-stage process in Szegedi’s personal transformation.

“We had a long conversation,” recalls Szegedi, who, except for absentmindedly bending the business card that I handed him, seems quite at ease. “My grandmother said that the people she grew up with — her adoptive parents — were Jewish and the Nazis deported them in World War II. I never asked her if she herself was deported and she didn’t volunteer the information.”

While her maiden name of Klein should have been a dead giveaway, she insisted the name came from the above-mentioned Jewish family who adopted her after her mother passed away.

“So from my point of view, I began to understand where the gossip about me came from,” says Szegedi. “People mistakenly took her adoptive parents to be her parents, but they really weren’t. As far as I was concerned the case was closed.”

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