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A Fallen Fascist’s Journey to Judaism

A Fallen Fascist’s Journey to Judaism

Two men in synagogue balcony, one in tallit and phylacteries

At 26, Csanad Szedgedi was the poster boy of Hungary’s burgeoning far-right nationalist party. He founded the Iron Guard, a paramilitary organization inspired by the Arrow Cross, a pro-Nazi party complicit in the murder of thousands of Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust. And as national vice chairman of the radically patriotic Christian party, Jobbik, he held one of the three seats it won in the 2009 European Parliamentary Elections.

Three years later, his world crashed down around him after a fellow neo-Nazi broke the news to him and to the world that Csanad’s maternal grandmother is Jewish and had been an Auschwitz deportee.

Filmmaker Alex Holder’s “Keep Quiet” artfully documents the three-year period following this revelation, as Csanad struggles to come to terms with “the worst thing that could ever have happened to me” and to learn why his mother and grandmother had kept him in the dark about their Jewish origins.

Csanad visits his beloved grandmother and gently asks her if she’s Jewish. She says yes and rolls up her sleeve to show him her Auschwitz tattoo. “This word ‘Jewish,’” he tells us after the encounter, “was like a dagger through the heart.”

Having hit bottom, Csanad says, “I felt naked, I could hardly breathe, nothing to hold onto, nowhere to turn.” He searches the Internet for clues. Suddenly he realizes, “I must face up to being a Jew, exactly what I never wanted to be.”

He phones Chabad Rabbi Boruch Oberlander, who heads the Orthodox Rabbinical Council in Budapest. At first the rabbi thinks the caller is teasing him, but when Csanad asks for a meeting, the rabbi agrees, upsetting a lot of Jews who asked, “How can you sit with such a Jew hater?”

Csanad finds the rabbi to be understanding and willing to give him a chance to do t’shuvah (repentance). “Every Jew,” the rabbi tells us “has to be welcomed…. You have to love every Jew, no matter how wicked. You have no right not to help him.”

The 90-minute film (English and Hungarian with subtitles), narrated mostly by Csanad, effectively juxtaposes Iron Guard rallies with black and white archival footage of an earlier generation of homegrown Hungarian fascists mistreating Jews. Holder also injects colorful, candid scenes of contemporary urban Hungarians going about their daily lives in Budapest, perhaps to suggest Csanad’s longing for the life he had before his fall from grace.

Holder, describing his film as showing “the rampant rise of anti-Semitism permeating the fabric of Hungarian society through this remarkable personal story,” allows us to explore the human side of extremism and specifically the ability of the far right to influence and pervade so many through its destructive rhetoric.”

The far right’s influence, explains Pulitzer Prize-winning author Anne Applebaum, includes breaking taboos, challenging the narrative that fascism was bad, and promoting an alternative version of Hungarian history. Jobbik is a party, she says, “that plays with anti-Semitism, using Jewish symbols or implies that Jews are bad without saying so – a game of hints, whispers, jokes and symbols.”

Some of the film’s most moving moments center on Csanad’s conversations with his grandmother.

He asks: “What did you think when I started being active in politics?”

“I was unhappy that you got into such a group. I was hoping you wouldn’t sink as deep, that you wouldn’t become a Jew-hater.”

“What do you think about what’s happening now?”

“Here they will always be against the Jews?”

“So what can a Jew do here in Hungary?”

“I don’t know. Keep quiet.”

At one point, Csanad marvels at how far he has come on his Jewish journey. Exactly one year after quitting Jobbik, he is circumcised and celebrates what he calls his bar mitzvah by “dancing with Jews with big beards and big hats” in the chief rabbi’s Budapest flat. “That was the moment,” he says, “when I felt that this pan-generational chain that had been broken by the Holocaust was repaired again.”

Only after his grandmother’s death does Csanad dare go to Auschwitz. “I was unable to go while she was still alive,” he says, “I wouldn’t have been able to talk to her about it or look her in the eye.”

He travels to Auschwitz by train, accompanied by survivor Eva “Bobby” Neumann, who shows him a book with a photo of herself “with vacant eyes,” standing among traumatized women prisoners. Bobby confirms his grandmother’s account of what happened there.

Standing before the crematorium, Csanad is struck by the realization that this is the burial ground of his own murdered family members, seemingly putting to rest any lingering doubts he might still have had about the Holocaust being a hoax.

Is Csanad’s conversion to Judaism is genuine? Not even his rabbi knows for sure.

“Keep Quiet” is playing in New York and will open in Los Angeles on March 3, 2017.

Aron Hirt-Manheimer is the Union for Reform Judaism's editor-at-large.
Photo credit: Rose Eichenbaum

Aron Hirt-Manheimer
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