As a teenager growing up in the Hungarian city of Miskolc, Csanad Szegedi said, the ideology of neo-Nazism “became attractive to me.”
At the end of the ’90s, Szegedi had no idea that his mother was Jewish. It wasn’t until more than a decade later that he would learn the truth and, after years of far Right activism, quit the movement and renounce its anti-Semitism and xenophobia.
On March 3, Szegedi spoke with NJ Jewish News through an interpreter during a visit to the Rabbinical College of America, the Chabad-Lubavitch seminary in Morristown.
It was a Chabad rabbi in Budapest, Slomo Koves, to whom Szegedi reached out when he learned the truth about his background. “I tried to apologize for my misdeeds, for my wrongs, and I told him I would go to Auschwitz,” Szegedi recalled. “He told me he does not have the right to forgive me on behalf of the entire Jewish people, and he explained the process of repentance, and that I would have to make good for the bad things I had done.”
A documentary about his journey, titled Keep Quiet, will have its U.S. debut on Thursday, April 14, at 6 p.m. at the Tribeca Film Festival in Manhattan.
Szegedi, now 33, grew up in a post-Soviet Hungary, when “a lot of right-wing Nazi propaganda reading material became available that was not available during the socialist time.”
His father, the sculptor Miklos Szegedi, “kind of liked that sort of reading material but my mother naturally did not,” he said. “She knew she was Jewish, and she kept it quiet.”
Although their son was intrigued by what he was reading, he said, “I didn’t wake up in the morning and say, ‘I hate Jews,’ but I thought that the Holocaust as a historic event was much exaggerated,” he said. “I thought it was a ‘Jewish problem.’”
In 2002, he and some university friends founded the Right-Wing Youth Association. It morphed into a far-right political party called Jobbik, which describes itself as “a principled, conservative, and radically patriotic Christian party.” Its earliest targets included communists and Roma, or gypsies.
In 2006 Szegedi became its vice president and second in command. Three years later he helped establish an affiliated paramilitary group called the Hungarian Guards. Although they were nonviolent, he said, “we marched around in uniforms that resembled much the uniforms of the Nazi groups in World War II, and we generated fear and tension in minorities like the Jews and the Roma.”
In 2009 he served as a Jobbik delegate to the European Parliament in Brussels.
‘The biggest sin’
In 2010, said Szegedi, “I started to hear rumors from within and without my close circles that I had some sort of a Jewish origin. It was the biggest sin you could commit if you were on the far Right. You could be corrupt. You could be homosexual. You could be a gypsy, a Roma. But being Jewish was as bad as it gets,” he said.
“I did not pay too much attention to these rumors, but as time went by, I thought I needed to ask my grandmother just to make sure.”
In April 2012, when he returned to Hungary from Brussels to celebrate Easter with his family, Szegedi began a dialogue with, his grandmother, Magdolna Klein. After several conversations, “she told me about her childhood,” he said. “She explained that her mother passed away when she was a young girl and she was brought up by a Jewish aunt and uncle who served as foster parents.”
Then she rolled back her sleeve to show her grandson the numbers tattooed on her forearm by guards at Auschwitz.
“It was a very traumatic moment,” Szegedi recalled. “I knew that nothing in my life was going to be like it was before. Many of my feelings came to the surface. It was when I finally faced the reality that I am Jewish, and I had to face the fact that I am personally related to the Holocaust. I felt sorry for my grandmother and sorry for myself as well.”
He resigned from Jobbik in June 2012 and began visiting Rabbi Koves in Budapest.
In 2014 he went to Auschwitz along with a camera crew to film footage for the documentary.
“The camp broke me a little bit,” he confided. “The cruelty that went on in there is very hard to imagine.”
When his guide showed him the crematoria, she pointed to ditches outside the walls where ashes were shoveled, then soaked with water to keep them from becoming airborne.
“We stood by these ditches and I said to myself, ‘My grandfather is there somewhere, and uncles and aunts and so many thousands of people.’
“People who are anti-Semitic and racist today think that hatred ends when you start screaming at a Jew or spitting at someone, that this is as bad as it gets. But the end of anti-Semitism is a ditch filled with water and ashes.”
Today Szegedi is a businessman involved with real estate and a distillery, which makes a Hungarian version of fruit brandy called palinka. He studies with Rabbi Boruch Oberlander, director of the Chabad in Budapest, but did not have to convert because Oberlander found a certificate showing that his grandparents were married in a Jewish ceremony. He took a Jewish name, Dovid, and in 2013 he traveled to Israel, where he and his wife visited Jerusalem and Yad Vashem.
He speaks at Hungarian high schools and college campuses, and tours other parts of the world as well. (He spoke at the Chabad Center of Northwest NJ in Rockaway on Feb. 27.)
“This is a new beginning for me and my family,” he said. His wife, Christina, is beginning the process of converting to Judaism. Their two sons, ages seven and four, “are being raised so they understand what Yiddishkeit is. Halachically they are not Jewish yet, but they come to shul with me and attend a Chabad Sunday school. I hope they will choose the Jewish path.”
Szegedi said his mother “never got any Jewish education and she was never in a synagogue until she came with me but she is now on a good path of trying to accept her own identity. My father is more complicated. When he realized he had a Jewish family, he was completely taken aback.
“But the main thing is I maintain a close relationship with my parents.”