Hungary’s Crackdown on Artists and Academics

In Eastern Europe, people are being targeted because of who they are, what they study, the stories they tell.
March 2, 2021
Hungarian film and theatre director János Szász at the 48th International Film Festival Karlovy Vary on 3 July 2013. (Photo by Paul Katzenberger/Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)

The Hungarian-Jewish filmmaker Janos Szasz is best known in the United States for his 2013 film “The Notebook (Le Grand Cahier),” released here in the summer of 2014. It’s based on the international bestseller of the same name, written in French by the Hungarian-born novelist Ágota Kristóf. “The Notebook” is an almost fairy-tale parable of Holocaust resistance and resilience, focusing on two twins who live out the war with their witch-like grandmother in rural Hungary, learning not to feel in order to survive.

Now, Janos Szasz is going through his own parable of resistance.

Some years ago, Szasz made a film for USC Shoah Foundation, using our archive of survivor testimony. In 2014, he spent some time in Los Angeles, and we got to know each other. He came to my house; we shared meals. His parents survived the Holocaust, and we’re both interested in history and legacy, in the truth of that horrible time and how it affects future generations. We kept in touch, and he has written to me over the years in some despair.

Since Victor Orbán came to power in 2010, Hungary has been a prominent example of democratic backsliding in Europe. Szasz has felt targeted, both as an academic and as a Jew. For more than 20 years, he’d been a teacher at the prestigious, 155-year-old Academy of Drama and Film in Budapest. In 2020, however, Orbán’s government took over the Academy, stripping its faculty of their autonomy. Szasz, like many of his colleagues, quit. “Hungary is no place to raise Jewish children,” he has said to me. “Everyone is hostile. It is difficult to be a high-profile Jew here.” I’ve told him I’d look out for opportunities, but, even in Los Angeles, academics like me don’t regularly trip over job postings for film directors.

A recent letter from Szasz was much more urgent. In the early morning hours of February 5, 2021, his home was raided by government forces. Eight or so officers arrived with guns on their belts. They spent hours searching his house. Szasz and his wife, a breast cancer survivor, were recovering from COVID-19, but that didn’t matter to the authorities. Officers searched the bedrooms of their two sons, eight and 15 years old, and interrogated the older boy. Szasz was not permitted to call his lawyer. He and his wife were not permitted to take their medications. The authorities seized much of their technology — computers, cell phones, hard drives. Without that tech, the boys lost their ability to continue with remote schooling.

What were the authorities searching for? It’s not clear.

Szasz’s latest project is a documentary about a Hungarian surgeon in Bangladesh who attempted to separate a pair of conjoined twins. Miraculously, both survived. The surgeon has not signed a release, so the project is on hold. Szasz hasn’t even begun editing the footage — and he won’t, unless and until he gets a release.

This is, at heart, a rights dispute, not a crime. And without any work underway, it’s not even a rights dispute yet. But the surgeon complained to important people. And so Szasz’s home was raided.

In Eastern Europe, people are being targeted because of who they are, what they study, the stories they tell.

Was this crackdown anti-Semitic? It’s hard to say. Szasz has a prominent identity as a Jew. When he took on a project about a medieval Hungarian hero, János Hunyadi, several years ago, he was attacked by the government press: What right did a liberal Jew have to tell a classically Hungarian story? 

Szasz also recognizes he is carrying historical trauma. He lives just a short walk away from the Danube, on whose banks half his family was shot. Other relatives died in the camps. He has difficulty giving Hungarian society the benefit of the doubt.

But across Europe today, many societies don’t seem to deserve the benefit of the doubt. Orbán’s government is increasingly nationalistic. Earlier this month in Poland, another Eastern European democracy that’s backsliding, a court ordered two historians to apologize to the niece of a mayor who, according to Holocaust testimony they cited in a two-volume academic history, was complicit in some Nazi crimes.

How can courts adjudicate academic debates? How can police ransack a home because of an unsigned release form?

In Eastern Europe today, people are being targeted because of who they are, what they study, the stories they tell. They are losing their academic freedom, their creative freedom, their freedom to think critically.

We know how that story can end. We must not let it.

Stephen D. Smith is Finci-Viterbi Executive Director Chair of the USC Shoah Foundation. He is also the UNESCO Chair on Genocide Education.

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