Blood-Libel Anti-Semitism in Hungary, Past and Present

Recent surveys have shown that anti-Semitism in Hungary has increased to such an extent that it is almost at the highest level of any European country.  The country appears to have forgotten that 565,000 Hungarian Jews, over half of the Jewish population, were deported by Hungarian police in only an eight-week period and then murdered in the death camps in the Holocaust.  The Hungarians acted in this way when only about 150 Nazis, under Adolf Eichmann, were present in the country.  Anti-Semitism in Hungary today has been expressed both politically and physically, as witnessed by recent violence against Jews in Szegad, the third-largest town in Hungary.

Politically, the main expression comes from Jobbik, the third-largest party in the Hungarian parliament, with 43 of the 386 seats.  It is openly anti-Semitic, as well as anti-Roma (gypsies) and anti-gay, and is often regarded as a neo-Nazi party.

A member of parliament, Marton Gyongyosi, representing the Jobbik party, linked past and present in a speech last year.  In March 1944, more than half of Hungary's Jews perished when the Nazis invaded Hungary and used the list given to them of Jews living there to supervise the Holocaust in Hungary.  Gyongyosi, on November 20, 2012, ominously called for a list of Jewish representatives to assess their allegiance to Hungary.

In Hungary today, there are echoes of Nazism and Fascism.  Related to, and probably financed by, the Jobbik party is the Magyar Garda, regarded as a paramilitary organization or a party militia.  Its members wear uniforms with black boots, black trousers with white shirt, and black vest.  It is all too reminiscent of the Nazi brownshirts (SA) and the Fascist Arrow Cross Party in Hungary.  The Magyar Garda still appears to exist in some form, though the Hungarian court banned it for violating the human rights of minorities.

An opera, The Red Heifer, composed by Ivan Fischer, which had its premiere in Budapest in October 2013, is a reminder that prejudice against Jews has a long history in Hungary, as in other countries of Eastern Europe.   The opera is based on an important if little known case abroad from 1899 in Polna, a town in Bohemia in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  A 22-year-old Jewish man named Leonard Hilsner was accused and found guilty of murdering a 19-year-old Christian seamstress who had disappeared on her way home from work.

Two things are important about the case: the basis of the accusation and the personnel involved in its proceedings.  The arrest and conviction of Hilsner revived the age-old blood libel charge -- the accusation that Jews murdered Christians in order to get their blood for ritual purposes such as the baking of unleavened bread (matzos) for Passover.  The case led to anti-Semitic riots and the destruction of property in the Jewish part of Polna, where the body of the girl was found.  It generated hatred against Jews that was expressed in newspaper articles, cartoons, picture postcards, letters, and songs.

Blood libel accusations have a long history in Central and Eastern Europe, starting from those in Fulda, Germany, in 1235 and Trent, Italy, in 1475 and continuing to the present.  Between 1864 and 1914, twelve ritual trials were held in Germany and German Austria.  Only Hilsner's case ended in a conviction.  In spite of the falsity of the charges brought against Jews who were indicted in these trials, the accusations of ritual murder have persisted.  A number of popes warned that these accusations should be stopped because they illustrated Christian enmity towards Jews, but blood libel charges have continued, most recently expressed by the former minister of defense in Syria.  The accusation of Hilsner can therefore be seen as brought against not only a particular individual, but more importantly a whole people.

The Hilsner case became an event of historical significance when Thomas Garrigue Masaryk, the distinguished academic and rising politician, entered the picture.  He became the most prominent and unexpected of the non-Jewish critics of the trial, and above all of the blood libel accusations.  Though he knew little of the details of the case and had no personal sympathy for Hilsner, Masaryk referred in a letter in September 1899 to the case as revealing an international and widespread anti-Semitism occurring in differing countries around the same time.  He linked Hilsner with the Dreyfus case in Paris.

Masaryk recognized that the prosecution's arguments were faulty and sought to answer them by forensic analysis.  But even more important was his argument that the Hilsner trial was a travesty, a miscarriage of justice.  It had taken place in an atmosphere of strong anti-Semitic feeling in the area.  It was an indication of increasing spiritual and physical violence against the Jewish people.

Masaryk spoke out when almost all others in the academic and legal professions and those in the media were silent about the injustice being perpetrated by false accusation.  In a sense, Masaryk, embodying with physical and intellectual courage an abstract moral principle of justice, can be regarded as the Zola of the Hilsner case.  Though he later became the first president of the new country of Czechoslovakia, he suffered professionally for a time as a result of his courageous criticism of the trial and his rejection of anti-Semitism as a hateful disease.

A century after the case, a ceremony was held in Polna in 1999 at which the trial was criticized and the verdict on Hilsner was declared false.  Yet simultaneously, a pamphlet appeared proclaiming the guilt of Hilsner.  The cover of the pamphlet bore a photo of Masryk wearing a yellow star of David on which were the words "Perish, deport, shame."

In view of the rising anti-Semitism today in Hungary, it is to be applauded that Fischer's opera has been composed and performed in Budapest.  Performances of it may remind people that Jews did perish and were deported by Hungarian citizens.  Perhaps the impact of the opera can play a role in helping end the virus of anti-Semitism that has endured so long.

Michael Curtis is author of Jews, Anti-Semitism, and the Middle East.