The Hungarian Horseradish

Posted March 7, 2014

Categories: Blog, Eastern Europe, Featured, Uncategorized

In East-Central Europe, the Hungarians are something of an anomaly. They are not Slavic. They don’t speak a Slavic language. Even their origins are hotly contested, as some Hungarian nationalists have challenged the conventional “Finno-Ugric” explanation that present day Hungarians and Finns both derive from older Eurasian tribes. Instead, they argue that the Magyars derive from the ancient Scythians or even the more ancient Sumerians.

The physicists on the Manhattan project had an equally unlikely theory: Hungarians came from Mars. The sheer number of Hungarian scientists with otherworldly capacities – Edward Teller, Leo Szilard, John von Neumann – perplexed the envious non-Hungarians. That they found the Hungarian language impenetrable only reinforced their belief in heavenly origins. Even more strangely, this particular argument reappeared in a 2000 statement of a leading member of the current ruling party in Hungary when he said that “While human DNA has two or three spirals within a given length, the DNA of the Hungarian race has nine … which is identical to the number of rotations of light from the planet Sirius when it reaches the Earth. The cosmic origin of Hungarian intelligence, the Hungarian soul and the Hungarian minds is a result of this fact.”

The 10 million inhabitants of Hungary today take pride in the often hermetic nature of their culture. But it can also create a hothouse environment in which outside influences are slighted – or worse – in favor of the indigenous. Many Hungarians speak other languages and participate in wider political and cultural conversations. But many Hungarians, particularly in the countryside, are restricted to a single language.

“The isolation of speaking this language and reading this media: you think the whole world is like this,” observes Bob Cohen. “As we say in Yiddish, for a worm that lives in a horseradish, the whole world is horseradish.”

Cohen occupies his own unusual position. He grew up in the Bronx, the son of Hungarian immigrants. In his twenties, on the trail of Yiddish folk music, he established himself in Budapest and eventually became a Hungarian citizen. He has worked as a journalist, a teacher, a musician, and a bridge between Hungary and the outside world. But he has also been a bridge between the vanishing world of Yiddish folk music and a culture brought up on a more eclectic klezmer sound.

“The way I play is different from the way other people play because I basically went looking for what constitutes a Yiddish aesthetic,” he told me in an interview in Budapest last May. “Klezmer music is almost 50 percent Romanian. Why is it we play it this way? Who can I ask that is still alive, who can tell me how they danced and how people responded to the music? I’d bring recordings of klezmer music from 1912 to people who were 80 years old and see if it rocked.”

Cohen has also watched the cosmopolitan culture of Hungary become overwhelmed by an increasingly narrow nationalism. “I saw in Hungary in 1989 a chance for the new generation to sweep out the old,” he recalls. “I thought they were all going to get the Whole Earth Catalog and look at it and say, this is the world that we’ll be making. Everything will be a geodesic dome. Here’s your free Birkenstocks. That’s what I thought. Hungary had been closed off. They couldn’t travel or have access to outside media. And now everything was open and they wanted to taste and sample and learn about everything from abroad. People would come up and shake my hand on the street. Then it closed off in reaction. In politics and society here, there’s always been this tension between being open and closed — between being North and South Korea.”

The most sensitive issue is the very identity of Hungarians. The far-right party Jobbik has made the identity issue central to its program. “The nationalists want to control what is being taught. One of Jobbik’s political points, which is absolutely entertained by Fidesz, is that they will not teach that Hungarians speak a Finno-Ugric language. They say that Hungarians are Sumerians. Jesus was a Sumerian — I’m not kidding about this! — Jesus was a Sumerian taken by Jewish slave traders. Hungarians are noble Sumerians or Scythians, not Ugric-speaking people from way up in Siberia. This is what they are talking about in parliament instead of fixing our problems.”


The Interview


Do you remember where you were and what you were thinking when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?


I was in Budapest. I don’t remember specifically where. I remember seeing it in the newspaper. At that time you didn’t get much news on TV. Everything you got was through the newspaper and the radio. I used to listen to BBC. We knew that things were happening, and the Hungarian newspapers were covering it step by step. I was here when the East Germans flooded into Budapest. The taxi drivers were giving free rides. My friends were putting up a lot of East Germans. We were pretty aware of what was going on.

The Berlin Wall itself didn’t mean so much as what was going on in Hungary. Maybe that’s a very Hungarian way of looking at things. It was symbolic. But it was quickly overshadowed by the Romanian revolution, the so-called revolution. That was the reality. That was what we were going to see for the next decade, not all the euphoria. I remember at the same time, there were Turkish Bulgarians coming through Budapest. People were just getting the hell out. The real symbol of that time was people moving for the first time: freedom of movement. I used to go the Keleti train station, the eastern train station, to see who was coming in and coming off. If you could speak a language you were immediately press-ganged into being a translator.


When did you first come to Hungary?


When I was a kid. My mother is Hungarian and she had living relatives here. I was born in 1956 in the Bronx in New York. My mother is from Veszprem. During my childhood I remember lots of Hungarians, as soon as they got out of the displaced persons camps, would come to our house and live in the basement. That’s how I maintained some Hungarian. I was a five-year-old translator for these guys who amused me with stories of dropping grenades down tank turrets. When I was a child in 1966 we came here. This here, this modern downtown area, was all just rubble. No building had a roof on it. And there were Soviet soldiers with machine guns standing everywhere.


Ten years after the uprising?


Yes. I came back in 1972-3. I developed a very strong affinity for Hungarian folk music as a teenage Jewish American playing bluegrass. I heard this fiddle music in the countryside, met people from the countryside, and my uncle would take me around to hear live music and learn how to play it. I went back to the US with a Hungarian fiddle. I was press-ganged into bluegrass bands, but I always had a love of playing traditional Hungarian music and I always wanted to go back. But I was poor as a church mouse and couldn’t afford it. In the 1980s, some Hungarian bands started to come over to the US. They were often teaching workshops. I was the weird American punk rasta guy who would take them out to punk clubs and blues clubs. In 1985 I came back to Hungary. I came back again in 1987. In 1988, I came back and stayed. I taught English at the university.


And you started to play music.


I played music in the States. But I loved the sound of the violinists here in Eastern Europe, especially in Transylvania, in Maramures. In the States I played everything. I worked with African musicians. I played reggae. At one point in Boston I had a Hungarian Transylvanian folk band consisting of me, a Guinean on the cello, and a Senegalese on second fiddle. They lived in my house — I liked their music, they liked my music!


But you also incorporated klezmer music.


I knew the klezmer scene in the States. I knew a lot of the people studying at the Berklee College of Music and the New England Conservatory, which produced the Klezmer Conservatory Band and Frank London who lived on my street. I wasn’t really much attracted to that music. I knew it, I heard it as a kid. My parents spoke Yiddish. I’m from the Bronx, the secular Yiddish world.

When I came here, people were really interested in it, and I had some cassettes of it. I traveled around Transylvania looking for older Gypsy musicians. I had a beard. They’d take one look at me and they went, click! They play tunes specifically for the ethnicity, and that’s how they get their tips. People would say, “Oh, you played a Saxon tune,” or “You played a Polish tune!” I systematically began to collect that stuff. It was the end of that world, people still playing live music. Romania is still a very good place for folk music, and so is Hungary. But I went to older Jewish people. I found an amazing man, Itsik Shvarts, who became my mentor. He was the director of the Iasi Yiddish theater and had been the first methodical linguist working in Yiddish. I learned an awful lot from them. I had to regain my Yiddish. That generation is gone. It’s the shock of the new, now.


It was kind of an Alan Lomax experience going around and collecting this music?


No, Alan Lomax was an outsider. I’d been an outsider as the Jewish kid playing bluegrass or reggae. But here were my own people. I was trained as an anthropologist at Boston University. This was not a different people. This was a small disappearing tribe and a disappearing language and an almost dead art form. The way I play is different from the way other people play because I basically went looking for what constitutes a Yiddish aesthetic. Klezmer music is almost 50 percent Romanian. Why is it we play it this way? Who can I ask that is still alive, who can tell me how they danced and how people responded to the music? I’d bring recordings of klezmer music from 1912 to people who were 80 years old and see if it rocked.


Did you compile the music recordings and release it here in Hungary?


No. People in the klezmer scene internationally have the tapes. It’s such uncommercial music – like it’s played by an 86-year-old Gypsy who hasn’t played the fiddle in four years and is now working the fields and his knuckles are like tomatoes. It’s just not going to compete. I have enough recordings to put out a commercial CD. But I’ll probably just put it out on the Internet. In the 1990s, I was working as a lecturer in English at the university. With inflation running ahead of us, I eventually stopped because, on a professor’s salary in those days, I couldn’t even afford a cassette player! I ended up freelancing and doing music and doing all sorts of different businesses. But the cassette player was a major issue through my whole music career. I was always going to junk shops trying to find a working cassette player — and cursing Sony every day of the year for their damned compressor that died after six months so you had to buy a new machine.


What’s the level of Yiddish culture here in Budapest? It still has one of the largest Jewish communities in Europe.


Fifteen years ago, I would have said there were 400 Yiddish speakers throughout Hungary. But it’s a different situation now, especially in the 7th district. In the orthodox community one block down, the Hasids of Hungarian background from New York and Belgium and elsewhere have come back. On any Saturday, you’ll hear Yiddish here. You’ll hear Hasidic Yiddish. But there are kids here who speak Yiddish, are learning Yiddish. It’s Hasidic, which is the reality of Yiddish these days. Only in Montreal or Antwerp or New York will you find secular Jews being raised in Yiddish. It’s not as widespread socially, but in a certain small group it’s actually growing.


What about interest in the Jewish community for Yiddish culture?


Nope. It’s not theirs. It was, but they assimilated. In 1867, the Jewish community split here in Hungary. One community was strongly assimilationist or Zionist. The Neologs established their community, assimilated, and adopted Hungarian as their language. Until the 1930s, people in that community probably spoke or understood Yiddish. Theodor Herzl was born just one block down that way. The other community, the Orthodox, were like the Satmar Hasids in New York, maintaining a separation from the others. The Orthodox maintained the Yiddish, but they were not in any sense an economic power.

I started a klezmer band here and then left it. It was the Neolog community’s idea of a klezmer band. It was what I call “fake lore.” They wanted to present the Fiddler on the Roof image. I was collecting this stuff in Transylvania and Moldavia, so I made a band to play my own music. I’ve been virtually blacklisted here in Hungary. We rarely play in Budapest, except occasionally at alternative clubs and folk festivals. We played for the last six or seven years at a club up on Kiraly utca, the traditional Jewish street, until about one or two months ago.

A lot of Jews went to Israel in the 1990s when Istvan Csurka scared them. They used to call the El Al flights from here the Csurka flights! They spent four or five years in Israel, and now they are the single largest group coming back from aliyah. During that very formative 1990s period, they lived in a capitalist culture, a multicultural culture, and they came back. A lot of these businesses in this area — bars and restaurants – are owned by returnees who left as teenagers in 1993 or 1994. They did their army service in Israel, their parents are living there, and they came back. There’s a very strong Israel influence here, which is not related to Yiddish. Until about a month or so ago, they squatted the old Communist book club building that had a theater in the basement. They were allowed to function for about six years as a theater, and the club upstairs didn’t have a liquor license. There was a Jewish library on the top floor, a wonderful place. Then they were shut down a month ago by the mayor. He had every right to do so. They were allowing student demonstrators — against Fidesz and Orban — to use the basement for meetings. That prompted the municipal government to shut it down.

They didn’t see this as an Israeli thing. They came back because they’re Hungarians and see their life here as Hungarian Jews. Especially in the 1990s, this was not such a bad place. It’s developing, it’s not stagnant. The anti-Semitism that we’re seeing now is a very modern thing. It was modern when it began in the early 20th century. We’re now seeing a political movement that existed since 2002. Before that, it was mostly skinheads, it wasn’t organized, and it didn’t have a carefully elucidated political program. Now, politics here involves either the use or the non-use of anti-Semitic rhetoric.


Is the anti-Semitism that exists now fundamentally different from the sentiment that existed during Csurka’s time?


When I arrived in the late 1980s, I’d go out with my folk music friends, many of whom are now nationalists. They’d hear something anti-Semitic said, and they’d have a negative reaction. Once we were out at a restaurant and there were Hungarian army officers saying, “Ah, you Jew, you faggot Jew.” It was something that Hungarian officers had picked up at the officer-training academy in Leningrad. It was considered part of the Russian officer bullying that carried over into the Hungarian army. A friend of mine, a very assimilated Jew, was with me, and he clenched up, and my friends were ready to fight these officers. Two or three years later, these friends, other than the Jewish friend, were all asking me, “Why are the Jews trying to buy up Hungary?”

The political issue at that time was foreigners buying real estate, which Hungary didn’t allow for a very long time. Of those people interested in real estate, having some claim to property here or having inherited old property, the largest community of Hungarians living outside of Hungary is living in Israel! The nationalists didn’t want these Hungarian Jews coming back with their capital and their ability to speak the language, which they’d been doing anyway. That was one of the big themes at the large Jobbik demonstration the other day while the World Jewish Congress was meeting in Budapest. The main theme that Vona Gabor kept hammering was: “They’re buying up Hungary!” They’ve been hammering on that theme for years. Honestly, the Irish and the Saudis have been buying up Hungary too, but no one has been demonstrating against them!


In the early 1990s when I was here, anti-Semitism appeared largely as veiled criticism of the Alliance of Free Democrats (SzDSz).


Yes. But that wasn’t really effective. They had to go lower. In the 1990s, while there was this veiled criticism, there was also Csurka and his party MIEP. Csurka was a piece of work. He was a banned writer, and many of his best friends were Jews.


He was also an agent for a period of time.


Yes, and he outed himself because he didn’t want to give Prime Minister Antall Jozsef the pleasure of pulling that envelope out of his pocket. Csurka’s followers didn’t mind that. He came from a family that was very nationalist, very Turanist during the World War II period. But a lot of them ware basically disillusioned old Commies, Workers’ Guard people, who were too old to adapt and needed a way to channel their ferocity of opinion. Very few of them did that by maintaining their Communism. And then there was the growth of the Kisgazda, the Smallholders party, a nebulous bunch of interest groups that became the personality cult of a guy named Torgyan Jozsef, who was kind of a bumpkin figure. But his party attracted what would be the right wing, especially those Communists that wanted to cleanse themselves. It was supposedly a Peasant party that existed before World War II. But in essence it was just a loose confederation of oddballs. They were actually involved, and so was the Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF), in the training of “nationally sensitive youth” — skinheads. Torgyan was something of a laughing stock, but a very powerful one.

Eventually the breaks in the party had a lot to do with Fidesz deciding in the early 1990s that they were not going to get anywhere being the junior party to the SzDSz. Orban Viktor decided to go Right. The power of the Right was mainly in the hands of the Smallholders. As the Smallholders became more disorganized and preoccupied with internal fighting, Fidesz brought those people into Fidesz. We now know that Fidesz pushed disinformation and placed agents to help break up that party. Orban made a lot of promises the first time he was elected in 1998: Torgyan would get this ministry or that ministry. He broke those promises and rewarded all the Kisgazda by making them Fidesz members.

There’s a joke where Orban and the speaker of the parliament — Kover Laszlo — are fishing in the Danube and they catch a golden fish. If you catch a golden fish, it grants you three wishes. They’re finishing up, and Kover sees that Orban has caught the magic golden fish.

“Oh this is great,” Kover says, “You get three wishes, Viktor!”

He goes over to Orban and what does he see? Orban is gutting the fish, scaling it, and cutting it up. “Viktor, Viktor, what are you doing?” Kover says. “That’s a magic golden fish! If you ask, it will grant you a wish.”

And Orban says, “I already asked.”

That’s a telling joke.


I’ll come back to Fidesz. But I want to ask you about the World Jewish Congress meeting here and the report of the Anti-Defamation League on the high level of anti-Semitic sentiment in Hungarian society. Do you think the report is pretty much accurate?


I haven’t read it. But as I said, anti-Semitism in Hungary is the political rhetoric. There haven’t been pogroms, nothing along the lines of what has happened with the Roma community. I tell people: the right wing here talks against Jews and acts against Roma. The Gypsies are defenseless. The idea that they would create a self-defense squad, as they were proposing to do last year, enrages the police and the right wing. But as far as anti-Jewish pogroms in Budapest, I’ve been predicting one for years.




In this district, the 7th district.


But this is such a diverse district.


Not a widespread pogrom. It might be a political demonstration that gets out of hand. Or a firebombing. Or breaking some windows and hurting some people. There are times when I expect it to be tomorrow or next week and then it doesn’t happen. As in the 2006 riots, the local police wouldn’t know what to do. Many of them sympathize with the Right, they’re not trained well, something would happen, and they wouldn’t know what to do. Or they would be under orders from the Right. But it hasn’t happened.

The thing I like least in the political discourse here in Hungary is “provocation.” Nothing wrong is going on, and they decide to do something wrong and blame it on the other side or say that they made us do it. We’re sitting here having a good time and suddenly I slug you and say, “You provoked me! We have a problem, now we can talk about it.” That’s endemic here. There’s a lot of that on the right-wing side. But Hungarian Jews can play this provocation game as well. About a week ago, the head of the Raoul Wallenberg Association went to a football match between two team, Ferencvaros (nickname Fradi) — a right wing team that does the Nazi salute — and Videoton, which is the personal favorite team of the prime minister. He brought his family. Someone said something against Jews, and he said, “I don’t like the fact that you’re saying that.” And they said, “Shut up, Jew.” And afterwards he got his nose punched in. Immediately he held a press conference. Dude, what were you doing at that match?! The Jewish team is MTK. We don’t go to Fradi unless there’s a bunch of ex-Israeli soldiers with us. You went there knowing what you were getting into. That’s provocation. Two wrongs don’t make a right. But that’s Hungary. The isolation of speaking this language and reading this media: you think the whole world is like this. As we say in Yiddish, for a worm that lives in a horseradish, the whole world is horseradish.


I was talking to someone in the Roma community who predicted that Jobbik would move to the center, shed much of its anti-Roma rhetoric.


I don’t know who you were talking to.


You don’t think that will happen?


It will go further right. It is pulling Fidesz to the right. Fidesz is on the right because it wants to pull in Jobbik voters. In the next election, the Left is so weak that Fidesz doesn’t even need to pull in Jobbik supporters. They won’t need to run on tickets together in countryside towns. But they might have to, and you will see several such tickets. I don’t see Jobbik becoming milder. I can’t see Golden Dawn becoming milder. Those are not mild movements.

George Szirtes, translator and poet, wrote a good article about this. The Jewish issue is the “wedge.” It splits the country. Especially Morvai Krisztina and Jobbik talk about “us and them.” On the Fidesz side, they talk of two Hungaries. The Socialists and SzDSz will say there aren’t two Hungaries. But the country is split. I’ll go to this restaurant and not that restaurant. My son likes folk dancing but he goes to a secret folk dancing group up in Gellert Hill because he doesn’t like to go to the ones full of nationalists. He was saying to me, “Why does everything have to be politicized? Why can’t I be just a normal Hungarian kid who wants to do folk dance. Why do I have to go to a nationalist thing?”

The political class now is a bunch of C and D students. As for the intellectual elite, we call them the “beardies.” They really are a parody of cafe society. They don’t want to be in power. They prefer to be in opposition. What enrages them is that those in power don’t care about the opposition, so there’s nothing to oppose. I like listening to Tamas Miklos Gaspar, but they’re all part of this elite. They created a society based on the stereotypes of Hungary that they learned during Communist times. They all want to be the guy with the top hat in the Monopoly game because that’s capitalism. Nobody wants to be a worker in that capitalism. And definitely no one wants to represent those workers.


For a moment it seemed in 1989-90 that this intellectual elite was going to be the political inheritors.


In 1990, I was an English teacher in the Bibo Collegium, which was the Fidesz college where they were originally the student government. They were still liberal at that time. I knew a lot of the guys involved, not Orban, but the other ones, who were older students at that time. At one point I was having fun, teaching what was at that time banned material: George Orwell, not the censored version. Everyone loved that I was teaching this stuff. Orwell wrote an essay against nationalism, specifically against British nationalism in World War II. On hearing this, people said, “Orwell couldn’t have written that!” Orwell in their mind was this particular thing. The writer who so eloquently speaks out against the adoption of nationalist sentiment could not possibly be Orwell.

I remember the debates one summer when we were going to a big party at Lake Balaton. Someone was saying, “Viktor says we have to be conservative now.”

“But we’re not conservatives, that’s ridiculous,” someone else said.

“But Viktor says!”

In 1990, Orban had long been outside the collegium, the residential college. But Fidesz had controlled student government for seven years after they left — by changing the constitution.


In anticipation of what they would do later.


Just after they became an official political party, they did this strange thing. I noticed a crowd of people going to the auditorium in the collegium. “

“What’s going on?” I asked.

This English student said, “Someone committed a crime and we Fidesz have to address this.”

“What did she do?”

“She was working in the cafeteria at the university and she ate peaches from a can. She stole peaches.”


Later, this student who had “committed the crime” came to me, and she was crying.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“The university said what I did wasn’t bad, I’m docked three days pay.”

“Then what’s this about?”

“Party discipline.”

“Dudes, this is what we call kangaroo court. Snowball is the enemy! What have I been teaching you?”

Over the years, you noticed their style. They were raised in the 1970s and 1980s. That’s what they know. At one point, Orban about a year ago openly said, “We weren’t against the system back then just those who were running it.” Now he’s returning Hungary to that system.


One last question about anti-Semitism. Have you personally experienced any here?


Not really. I’ve got the skin of a rhinoceros. I’ve been called zsido. But not much. Most of the negative things that have affected me as a Jewish cultural worker have come from within the Jewish community — which is not rare anywhere. I avoid situations. At rallies I’ve seen people make anti-Semitic comments, but they’re not addressing me personally. I have been in situations when someone tried to provoke me, to which I responded, “I’m a New York Jew, I’m very cynical, and I’ll beat you up.” I’ve done some crude things in those situations, but I always win. As my son, who’s now 20 years old, was growing up, I made sure that he had a positive impression of what a Jew is because in Hungary it’s not a positive image if you listen to the media and so forth. I used to be very socialized into the folk scene and when I see hardcore Jobbik at the dance, I didn’t feel like being there. I’d point it out to a friend, saying I don’t feel comfortable with that. He says he wouldn’t allow such a thing to happen, but there it is and he doesn’t see it. I have to be on my guard about that, or I have to restrict myself to certain social circles.

I used to go on road trips around the countryside, but I don’t do that much any more. I go to Transylvania a lot, or to Slovakia — and I visit Hungarian and non-Hungarian communities there. I feel much more relaxed there than the countryside here. I don’t have to worry about Jobbik over there. Particularly in Transylvania, I hear criticism of the way the Hungarian Right treats them. As to the future, I don’t know. My wife is Japanese. She has been actually cornered by people who say, “Are you Chinese?” And she says, “No, I’m Japanese.” They apologize: “Oh, that’s okay, then, they were on the Axis side. Sorry!”


Has the increased presence of returnees toughened up the Jewish community here in any way?


No. The returnees who are Hasids have isolated themselves. There are Israeli Israelis and then there are Hungarians who lived in Israel for a little while. Israelis don’t generally mix with the larger community. They have their bars and restaurants, their own synagogues. Actually, I’ve been told that if a pogrom ever broke out, they’re in touch with each other and they have a plan.


Let me switch to Roma. As you said, racists engage in anti-Semitic rhetoric but anti-Roma actions. You’ve been here since the 1980s. I’m curious to hear what you think has happened over the last decade.


It’s gotten worse, much worse. I told this to Viktoria Mohacsi way back when she was 20: Hungary needed at that time not a Gandhi figure but a Malcolm X figure, and it didn’t get one.


It’s funny you should say that. I just interviewed Aladar Horvath, and at the end he said, when I asked him if he had any second thoughts, “I should have been less like King and more like Malcolm X.”


It’s a political dead-end, but it has a greeter ripple effect. Politicians never want to go down a dead-end. I respect Aladar more than anyone else who has ever dipped his foot into politics here. The problem with politics here is that it’s all about pork barrel – and that applies to the very few Roma who are involved in politics, too, with a few exceptions like Viktoria Mohacsi. It’s all about the contract vendors and getting your sister-in-law a job. No one wants to share the pork with Roma. And it’s hard for Roma to come together in a united front because so much of what they do is based on what they can do for their own families.


And contact between Rom and non-Roma has become even more divergent.


It depends on where — the countryside or the workplace. Roma are disproportionately discriminated against at work. But go to a shopping mall, a bank, anywhere downtown, and show me one Roma in the front selling sweaters or Westel phones. It’s not that they don’t have the education. They all graduated from high school. Girls especially took the secretarial course. They just don’t get the jobs.

There was a survey by people at the Roma Press Center, which Horvath Aladar started. They called around for job interviews. If they gave a typically Gypsy name — Balog, Lakatos — they never got a call back. If they gave a non-Gypsy name, of course they got an interview. These are people who would be qualified for these jobs. When it comes to Roma in Hungary, for someone watching the situation for many years, the only emotion I can express is despair. I can’t see a way out. That’s been the situation for Roma for 600 years.

And then there’s migration. Hungarian Roma don’t want to leave. They’re Hungarians, and Hungarians traditionally don’t leave. You don’t find Hungarian neighborhoods in France or massive waves of Hungarians working construction in Spain. The most they’ll do is two months in Germany fixing roofs, and then they come home, because they can’t get Hungarian bacon or paprika. When I was traveling with Hungarian musicians in Italy, we were in Bologna, at the best restaurant with transcendently good food, and they said: “We want to go home and eat real food.” Back in the 1990s, there was this issue in Szekesfehervar, it got so bad the Roma there went to Strasbourg, asked for refugee status, and they got it. I met them in Strasbourg, speaking Hungarian. And they asked me, “How is it in Hungary?” They can’t go home. A Romanian Roma or a Bulgarian Roma who speaks Romany identifies as Roma strongly. The majority of Hungarians who are Gypsy are not into the Roma identity thing. They call themselves tzigane, they don’t speak Romany, they aren’t ruled over by a real strong structure. When you have that structure, you have something to run away from.

One of the saddest things is what happened to Viktoria Mohacsi. She was SzDSz in Parliament, then she became the EU ombudsman for Roma in Strasbourg. And then when Fidesz came to power, she returned to Hungary. She couldn’t get a job. Nobody would hire her. She couldn’t get a job at Central European University (CEU). She applied for one of the CEU jobs in an area involving Roma education. She was so highly overqualified. And she was getting threats — she has a mouth, she’s a Hungarian woman. Her mother didn’t want her to learn Romany. She had to learn it on her own. She eventually left Hungary and asked for refugee status in Canada, where she works on Roma issues. She was one of the successful highlights of Roma education in Hungary in the 1990s. She went all the way to Brussels. She was a very effective leader. Some people in the NGO scene say that she couldn’t control her mouth. I knew her very well, and I think she was a very effective leader.


With examples like this, you can understand kids in the Roma community who say, “Why go to school? I won’t get a job. I won’t get treated with any respect.”


Efforts are being made by, for example, the Gandhi school in Pecs. It’s a residential high school and training school. They give kids a focus on language skills, business, and computer skills. When they come out at the age of 18, they have something they can sell. But they sell it abroad. You speak Dutch and English, kid, and you can code? Go! Because there won’t be much for you here.

At one point, a couple years ago, a journalist I know from Belgium came here and said, “Bob, I have an idea involving Gypsy education.” So I called some friends at European Roma Rights Center to listen to him. He told them, “There’s excess money this year in the EU and they want to start a Roma university, what do you think about that?” But what will this give them? The problem is not getting Roma into university. The problem is getting them out of high school. They are pretty well socialized in the Roma community up until they’re 12 or 13 years old. Until then, all the kids in the village are running around playing in mud puddles, playing Angry Birds, whatever. They don’t realize that the cards will be stacked against them until they hit their early teens. At that point, getting to high school graduation becomes very difficult. That’s why the Gandhi school is so important. It gets people out of high school, so that they can go to college or get a job. I’ve known Gypsies who are completely intelligent, gifted, smart, adaptable, and who know that they’re just not going to get even a telemarketing job. At best, they’ll unload trucks at Tesco. Go into any butcher shop in town: in front are the white guys. Who delivers the meat, who cuts it up in the abattoir? Roma. People say they don’t work. You just don’t see them. They’re not put where you can see them. The guy with the mental capacity to run an NGO or a bank is in the back slitting a cow in half. It’s depressing


Are there plans to reproduce the Gandhi school model elsewhere?


I don’t know. It worked in Pecs partly because they had the cooperation of different Roma groups. The people down there are mostly Boyash. The local Romany speaking and Boyash groups decided to do this together — that’s hard to duplicate. Derdak Tibor, a teacher down there, was able to broker that.


Let me shift to the foreign policy of the Fidesz government. Orban has indulged in some Euroskeptical language. And there’s been some pro-Moscow rhetoric that ruffles feathers in Washington. Is this bluff?


It’s partially bluff. It’s also the traditional third road — the same that Kadar did, the same that Horthy did. It’s this idea of “we the Hungarians.” A friend of mine, her mother was the translator for all of Orban’s correspondence in a West European language in the first round of Fidesz governance in the late 1990s. “You can’t imagine the stuff,” she said. Hungary wanted to get into the EU and they were getting loads of Phare development money. For example, the EU wanted the money to go toward building a road in a particular place. And Orban would say, “You insult the pride of the Hungarian people! We do not take orders like this.” Actually, we know that they used the Phare money to build the Millenaris (Millenium) center, this big concert hall with a secret TV station, all set behind this mall in Buda. We call it the Milliomos (Millionaire) Center.

The Fidesz people are a piece of work. Like I said, they’re C students. They’re the Sopranos, not the Gambinos. When Orban was in power and even when he was Mr. Opposition Leader – and he wouldn’t disagree with me — his political ideal in Europe was Berlusconi. He offered Berlusconi amnesty to come to Hungary. They were two peas in a pod.

The attitude toward Brussels is mainly a defense against transparency. Get your nose out of our media, our courts. The lack of transparency protects immense corruption, which we all know about. But the Socialists weren’t that much less corrupt — it just involved their people. That reinforces the classic Hungarian cultural syndrome: normal people don’t want to know about politics. I have friends my age, who grew up in the 1980s and are intelligent people, who don’t read newspapers. I go on tour with my band for a month or two, and when I’m hanging around our German hotel waiting for breakfast and I have Hungarian newspapers, they don’t want to read them. They’d rather watch tennis. This is also their attitude toward the press. All the foreign press critical of Hungary must be in the pay of the opposition: “why else would you write something I don’t like?” When Kim Lane Scheppele wrote her piece for Paul Krugman – about the constitutional court issue – many Hungarians said, “She’s anti-Hungarian. She’s in the pay of our opposition.” But why would you spend so much time learning about Hungary if you were planning to be anti-Hungarian? And she doesn’t need your pay. She’s a Princeton professor — see how much she makes and how much you’re offering.

My son was on a program in high school where the media class was taken to see an old-fashioned local newspaper. My son has learned from me to pick up the paper and count the advertisers to see if the paper is making money. He does that, and he asks, “How do you make money with so few advertisements?” And this older guy, old enough to have been raised under Communism, answers, “The party helps.” Which party? In that district, it was the MSP. They too don’t want to reform that tradition. Ber toll — rented pen — that’s what Hungarians call the press. There’s nothing of the quality of even Fox News. People don’t see why you wouldn’t press your argument past the point of prevarication.


This is the Italianization of the media, and it’s not just here in Hungary.


Another thing: they don’t understand the Internet. There’s a plurality of information, but most of it is not going to be in Hungarian. And that which is in Hungarian, and I read a lot of it, is unpaid prevarication. It’s just blah-blah versus blah-blah. There are some good websites. But the government has paid for Internet trolls. When suddenly everybody is saying “if you look at the unemployment figures from 1932…,” you start wondering where everyone suddenly got these 1932 figures.

Then there was the student demonstration, the second one that took place at the Fidesz headquarters on Lendvai utca near the city park. There was a huge poster across the side of the headquarters saying something like “Bajnai Gordon is being paid by Gyurcsany and the same Socialists as before.” Bajnai was the caretaker prime minister after Gyurcsany left. He wasn’t a politician, though he is one now. This was basically a troll comment four stories high on a huge piece of canvas!

A couple weeks later student demonstrators tried to occupy the entrance of the Fidesz building. It was a bunch of 20-year-olds wearing keffiyeh, carrying signs, being non-violent. Usually the police comes to remove them. No, the police were told to stay away. By whom? Who tells the police to stay away from the Fidesz headquarters? And they brought in the football hooligans from the rightwing football team as their special security squad to remove the students. Football hooligans had been showing up at these student meetings in the winter, disrupting the meeting by saying, “Why do you want money? We want a football stadium!” One of the main advisors for Orban is Gabor Kubatov, who is a major organizer of the Fradi, the ultras, the guys who like to fistfight. So, when you need to do something, you call Kubatov and he calls in the football hooligans to do what the police can’t do.


What do you think about LMP?


It’s called Politics Can Be Different, but its politics weren’t different. Andras Schiffer, the party leader, is an Orban wannabe. He wants to be the head of the party. The people in the party, from various NGOs, couldn’t agree on anything. He would say, “I’m not aligned with the Socialists.” But he was making agreements with Orban, and Orban was treating him like he treats everyone — gutting the golden fish! He doesn’t have a bright political future — not until he joins Fidesz, which we all expect he will.


When you want to be even modestly optimistic, what do you look to?


There are two options. Most people say that Fidesz will win the next elections, and we’re looking at an economic collapse.


Because of their policies or international reactions?


Both. The whole third-road thing translates into unorthodox economic policies like bringing George Matolcsy into the national bank. He’s not a capable economist, not an economist at all, never worked in a bank. But when Orban wants to raise taxes, Matolci will raise taxes.

Hungary is unique in this part of the world, except for Montenegro and their cigarette smuggling, in that the only resource we have to exploit is other Hungarians. Nobody wants what’s left of our little bauxite. There’s no oil left in Zala. Spain makes paprika too. The only thing that this country can sell is manpower. At this point, it will get worse before it gets better. Already large numbers of young Hungarians are going to Britain and Canada and France for jobs because they don’t see a future here. Orban says he wants to be in power for the next 20 years. He wants a revolution. Yes, Pol Pot, I understand what you’re getting at!

I’m now a Hungarian citizen. But I’m only here because my son is here. He’s interested in what’s going to be here in the future. But he’s likely to finish university in the States and make connections there.


You might follow him?




After spending so many years here?


I was divorced from his mom. I owned property, and I lost property through that. The reason my relationship with my girlfriend is successful is that she’s not a Hungarian. So we’re both foreigners here, but not of the same culture. What I keep coming back to here is going to Transylvania, to Maramures, to the Balkans, basically getting out of Budapest. In the long term, I don’t see what’s going to happen here. A lot of my friends who are long-term foreign residents are leaving. They can’t get jobs in the work they’ve been doing here for years. A woman I know has been a music professor, can’t get jobs because they’re being given to her students. A woman who does translation for one of the folk music institutions was told that, not being Hungarian, she couldn’t possibly do a good job because she couldn’t feel it in her soul.

I’ve managed my own band. When we were in a sense blacklisted from playing domestic gigs, I went through agents abroad to organize tours. Gigs have been drying up, but I do a lot of writing for scholastic reader type school books in the States. I haven’t had to work for Hungarian employers much.

Hungarians have lots of proverbs about themselves. The Hungarian back doesn’t bend, it breaks. Don’t bother the Hungarians. They have a whole semi-fictional self-image. Everyone here knows this. They all think of themselves as supermen, but they have an overwhelming inferiority complex. If they think they’re so good, why can’t they fix that hole in the street.


They could create the bomb — like Edward Teller. They –


Individuals can do that. They always say that Teller was a great Hungarian. But he only did it because he got out of the country. I say to Jobbik: you don’t like Zionism? But that was a movement based on the desire to get the hell out of Hungary and never come back again! They want to get away from you!

This is the thing with Orban. He doesn’t have any charm, no gentlemanliness. He’s a country bumpkin, a football guy. That’s what he wanted to do, play football. Previous to him, the other power leaders were also bumpkins like Torgyan. The MDF and SzDSz were aristocratic. Dudes, just be normal! Be Obama. Just communicate like a normal person. But they can’t do that. They come across like cartoon characters. Therefore, people’s political vocabulary is based on cartoon extremities.


When you think back to your worldview circa 1989-90, have you changed you mind about anything substantial?


Yes. I was much more positive then. I saw in Hungary in 1989 a chance for the new generation to sweep out the old. I didn’t resent the socialists so much — they showed initiative in the way they treated the East Germans and the way they dismantled socialism around themselves. I quickly learned that they were also grabbing up hotels. But basically everyone in Hungary did that, except for those of us without relatives who had connections to hotels. I thought they were all going to get the Whole Earth Catalog and look at it and say, this is the world that we’ll be making. Everything will be a geodesic dome. Here’s your free Birkenstocks. That’s what I thought. Hungary had been closed off. They couldn’t travel or have access to outside media. And now everything was open and they wanted to taste and sample and learn about everything from abroad. People would come up and shake my hand on the street. Then it closed off in reaction. In politics and society here, there’s always been this tension between being open and closed — between being North and South Korea.

Part of the issue right now is control over the education system. The nationalists want to control what is being taught. One of Jobbik’s political points, which is absolutely entertained by Fidesz, is that they will not teach that Hungarians speak a Finno-Ugric language. They say that Hungarians are Sumerians. Jesus was a Sumerian — I’m not kidding about this! — Jesus was a Sumerian taken by Jewish slave traders. Hungarians are noble Sumerians or Scythians, not Ugric-speaking people from way up in Siberia. This is what they are talking about in parliament instead of fixing our problems.


You didn’t anticipate that, did you?


I was so amused by it that I didn’t think it would become mainstream. I have cardboard boxes of this stuff from decades ago. I have a cardboard box of Hunnia, a rightwing magazine that predates all of this stuff from the early 1990s when it was considered really outrageous and almost underground. Now that stuff is completely mainstream. Furthermore, the Internet has had a big effect on this because now a lot of people are getting computers. But they only read Hungarian.


Was this inevitable? Was there a point between 1988 and 1993 when this –


It wasn’t inevitable. The causes for what I consider to be this malaise is that the intellectual class here did not want to make bridges with people they didn’t like, like Gypsies. When there was the Wikileak story, I went through all of the materials related to Hungary. In one of them, the U.S. embassy invited the head of the Jewish community and the head of the Gypsy community to come to talk about collective strategies for tolerance. The representative of the Jewish community said, “Oh we can’t work with them!” It’s not so much that the C students won. They were allowed to win. The Soros strategy was to throw money at the problem. The intellectual left strategy was to go out to restaurants with that money.


There was a presumption that cafe society will produce democracy almost magically, in a clean way, by talking.


Each year I take a few gypsy bands abroad and get them gigs in Holland. You need a couple thousand euros? Then let’s go make it. They relate to that, and I relate to that.

In Bulgaria, I saw the last Roma bear handlers. It was inhumane and everything, but it was how they lived and had been living since Byzantine times. All of a sudden, some guy comes along and says, “We’ll buy the bear. Here’s 6,000 euro. Take the money and go to a computer training course.” Do you think anyone went to a computer training course? No!


I thought there were still bear handlers in Romania.


No. They were in Turkey. But the last place was in Bulgaria. Now they’re only in Pakistan, India.

I’m not impressed by the intellectual class here at all. When I leave Hungary, they are the people that I will not miss. I’ve always had a hard time reading Hungarian literature. I like, as an American English speaker, something approaching colloquial language — keep it clear and easy, Mr. Mencken. Here the idea is to show your command of the language by making these long sentences.


LIke Laszlo Krasznahorkai.


Yes, or Konrad Gyorgy. I once had to edit a translation for him. One sentence went for two pages, during which he contradicted himself twice.


But that’s a sign of intellectual rigor!


My ex-wife and I were working on it, and she’s a native speaker. We called him and said, “Here you say the Palestinians are wrong and here you say the Palestinians are right, then you say again they’re wrong and here again they’re right. We’ve gone over this a lot, this two-page sentence.” And he said, “If they don’t understand it, who cares!”


The last three questions are quantitative. When you look back to 1989-90, and everything that has changed or not change in Hungary since then until today, how would you evaluate that on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 least satisfied and 10 most satisfied?




Same period of time, same scale: your own personal life?




Looking into the near future at the prospects for Hungary over the next two or three years, how would you evaluate that on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 most pessimistic and 10 most optimistic?




Budapest, May 6, 2013


Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *