December 17, 2018

From denier to devout: amazing transformation?

Is it possible for a onetime rabid anti-Semite to be sincere in becoming an observant Jew? That’s one of the questions posed by “Keep Quiet,” a new documentary about a Hungarian Holocaust denier who undergoes just such a metamorphosis.

“The anti-Semitism in Hungary is ingrained in this country’s psyche,” said the film’s producer, Alex Holder. “The genesis of anti-Jewish legislation is [in] Hungary. The Nazis themselves remarked on the Hungarian people being overjoyed to help in the murder of Hungarian Jewry. I do not suggest or imply that all Hungarians are anti-Semitic, but there is no doubt that stereotypical concepts of Jews are still discussed literally today.”

Holder’s documentary, which opens March 3 in the Los Angeles area, traces the emotional, political and spiritual journey of Csanád Szegedi, who, while a university student in 2003, helped establish Hungary’s extremist, right-wing Jobbik party, which espouses such mantras as “law and order,” “taxes for the multinationals,” and “Hungary for the Hungarians.” Szegedi eventually became the party’s vice president, and in 2007, formed the Hungarian Guard, a military-type group, now banned, that was modeled after the World War II pro-Nazi party known as the Arrow Cross. In 2009, he was elected to the European Parliament as a Jobbik representative.

Then, in 2012, at the height of his power and popularity, Szegedi was forced to confront an unbelievable reality: A rival right-wing activist, Zoltan Ambrus, charged that Szegedi — who had written an autobiography claiming his father could trace his pure Hungarian ancestry back 1,000 years — was Jewish on his mother’s side of the family.

In the film, Szegedi at first dismisses the accusation, only to have his maternal grandmother admit that her family is Jewish and that she had been deported to Auschwitz. She then rolls up her sleeve and, for the first time, shows her grandson the tattoo from the camp. She says that, out of fear, she had decided to “keep quiet” about her Jewish heritage.

Holder, who is Jewish, said the grandmother’s decision was not unusual.

“The incontrovertible belief in a future Holocaust by those who survived the concentration camps caused them to erase any aspect of their religion,” Holder said. “Indeed, many converted to other religions, baptized their children and never spoke of their experiences. I by no means disagree with this approach. How could I? However, it is this mindset which affected me viscerally. No person or people should ever fear persecution. If I could choose one lesson for a person to take away from this film, it will be to stand up and be heard.”

Once his lineage becomes public, Szegedi is expelled from Jobbik and, for a time, is utterly lost. The film follows him as he begins to embrace his newly discovered identity with the same fervor that once drove him to promote Jobbik’s ideology. He contacts the leader of the Orthodox community in Budapest, Rabbi Boruch Oberlander, who becomes his mentor as he steeps himself in Judaism. Szegedi starts taking religious instruction, attending services, observing the Sabbath, studying Hebrew and the Talmud, even getting circumcised. He also makes a pilgrimage to Auschwitz in the company of a survivor, who recounts the horrors of her internment.

Alhough he has seemingly thrown himself wholeheartedly into the faith, many Jews who attend his speaking engagements reject him with overt hostility because of his past and challenge his sincerity.

“I don’t think that Csanád himself knows how sincere he is,” Holder said. “Csanád is a young man, confused and wanting. He desperately craves attention and will go to extremes to achieve it. To him, a circumcision at age 33 is less of an issue than actually saying ‘sorry.’ ”

The film’s co-director, Sam Blair, said viewers need to allow for some ambivalence in their reading of Szegedi.

“One of the things I hope the film illustrates is that we are all complex, our identities are complex, our political and social histories are complex,” Blair said. “Csanád was guilty of boiling his identity down to that of a ‘pure’ Hungarian, and is perhaps then also guilty of going completely the other way and trying to understand himself purely as an Orthodox Jew. I think that Csanád’s biggest step forward is that he begins to allow shades of gray into his understanding of himself, and so we should do the same for him simply because I think it’s too complicated a situation to be fixed in our reading of him.

“I also think the way the film illustrates the circular nature of history touches on something much wider and something incredibly troubling,” Blair continued. “It’s not simply that we repeat the mistakes of the past, but also that, if not dealt with, repressed pain is passed on and can find its way out in very destructive ways. It is not a coincidence that within three generations, a grandson began to re-enact the horrors that tormented his beloved grandmother’s life 60 years earlier.”

Blair added that the film must be open-ended and raise more questions than it answers.

“We wanted the film to provoke discussion in an audience, to be a film that was debated and chewed over once it had ended,” he said. “The pleasure of attending screenings and Q-and-As has been that it has done exactly that. Reactions to the film have come in many forms, and we have seen every emotion. People get angry, people cry, people think it’s absurd — and all those responses are totally valid.

“I just hope the conversations around the themes in the film can continue, as we seem to need them now as much as we ever have.”

“Keep Quiet” will be shown March 3-9 at the Laemmle Music Hall 3 in Beverly Hills and the Laemmle Town Center 5 in Encino.