This morning I heard on the news that the Jewish cemetery in Gyöngyös, Hungary had been desecrated. Although, sadly, the vandalizing of Jewish cemeteries in Europe is becoming almost commonplace, for me this incident is very personal, since my grandfather and aunt are buried there.
In the Yad Vashem Library there is an album in Hungarian with short biographies and photographs of Hungarian Jewish heroes from the First World War. I have been aware for many years that among them, is my grandfather dr. (small “d” since he was a lawyer, not a medical doctor or PhD.) Miksa Rozett. Miksa served as a first lieutenant in the war on the Eastern Front; and a month after the war had begun, while he was away, my father György, his first son was born. Miksa was a highly decorated veteran which earned him a place in the album.
After the Great War there was a short lived Communist regime in Hungary. My grandfather, a staunch anti-Communist, heard that his life was in danger. He was forced to flee from his home and go into hiding for a while. In short, he was a thorough Hungarian patriot.
Nonetheless Miksa never hid the fact that he was Jewish. The story goes that there was a mayor in his hometown who said something disparaging about the Jews and my grandfather confronted and warned him: “If you see me coming down the sidewalk, you better cross over to the other side. And if you are in the coffee shop and I enter, you better get up and leave.” From what I have been told the mayor always did as he was told from that time onward.
In 1941, after the Hungarian government had passed a series of anti-Jewish laws and had just begun drafting Jewish men for forced labor in the framework of the military, but before the deportation of some 18,000 Jews to Kaments Podolsk to be murdered there by the SS, and before the great deportation, mostly to Auschwitz-Birkenau, of nearly 450,000 Hungarian Jews in spring 1944, my grandfather Miksa died of lung cancer. He was only 55. He was buried in the Jewish cemetery in Gyöngyös, the town in which our family lived. He was buried next to his daughter, my aunt, Magda, who had died at the age of 18 in 1934 of tuberculosis. She was a poet and an enthusiastic Zionist.
In 1977, and several times in 1982, I visited their graves, at least twice with my father. Magda’s tombstone had a poem she had written engraved upon it. My father paid to have the graves renovated toward the end of the 1980s. But neither of us returned to Hungary for a long time. My father passed away in 1997 and I only returned to Hungary in 2010. On a roots trip with my family we tried to visit the cemetery, but were unsuccessful in contacting the man with the key. There was no Jewish community to speak of in the town, which before the Shoah had over 2,000 members, so there was no one else to approach. We followed a dirt road to the main gate, and seeing we could not enter through it, continued down the road until we saw the wall surrounding the cemetery was broken. We tried to enter the cemetery through the breach, but the dense growth of trees and bushes barred our way beyond a few meters.
Last May I was in Hungary again and this time through a friend from the Budapest Rabbinic Seminary and Jewish College Library, we obtained a key. This time we didn’t really need it because it was possible to squeeze through the main gate without opening it. Nevertheless we opened the gate with the key, and we entered the cemetery. We soon discovered that except for the main path, the entire cemetery was a dense forest. We could not even begin to search for my family graves, and so I didn’t visit them on that trip either.
This morning’s report about the desecration of the Jewish cemetery in Gyöngyös did not really surprise me. When I was in the cemetery last year I saw tombstones that had been toppled over. Moreover, support for Hungary’s radical right, antisemitic and xenophobic Jobbik party is very strong in Gyöngyös and its environs.
The Orbán government condemned the act in strong terms and spoke of its plans to renovate Jewish cemeteries in Hungary. I know about the plans, I heard about them from a representative from Orbán’s office and his ambassador to Israel a few months ago at a meeting. On the one hand, this sounds like a good idea. It would allow Jews like me to visit family graves and it would send a message throughout Hungary that their Jewish heritage is valuable and Jews are not the enemies of Hungary. On the other hand, I don’t think that cemetery restoration in itself will do much to stop further acts of anti-Semitism, change the minds of Jobbik stalwarts or dissuade additional people from accepting their ideology of hatred and fear. Ultimately what needs to be done is deeper and more comprehensive. Any genuine political effort would have to include the public example of Hungary’s political and cultural leaders taking a genuine stand against social hatred, as well as the initiation of an ongoing educational process that candidly explores the history of the Shoah and Hungary’s role in it, teaches about pre- and post-Shoah Jewish life and culture in Hungary, and cultivates the values of tolerance and respect for the human dignity of all people.
In my case, at least, I know that my family graves could not have been desecrated because they are unapproachable, hidden deep in the wood, protected from hatred and resurgent anti-Semitism by nature. Perhaps it is best that they should remain safe in nature’s embrace until mainstream Hungarian society is mature enough to do what it must to categorically reject movements like Jobbik, and nurture a social and political culture befitting a democratic European nation.