Csanad Szegedi was an antisemite before becoming a Jew.
A leader of Hungary’s extreme right-wing Jobbik Party, and the founder of the fascist-style Hungarian Guard militia, he was one of the rising stars of the political scene in Hungary.
And then it all came crashing down after he was “outed” as a Jew, a sickening revelation he compared to a dagger thrust into his heart.
Szegedi’s astonishing journey from rabble-rouser to repentant Jew is the subject of Keep Quiet, a riveting documentary by Joseph Martin and Sam Blair to be screened at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival on May 8 and May 11.
As it gets under way, Szegedi, a thick-set man, boards a train in Budapest bound for the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp in Poland. He’s accompanied by a Hungarian Jewish survivor who’s paying her first visit to Auschwitz since its liberation by the Red Army on January 27, 1945. Szegedi’s trip is part of an elaborate process devised by an Orthodox rabbi to rehabilitate him.
In much of the film, Szegedi sits quietly as he relates his tryst with antisemitism, a phenomenon deeply embedded in Hungarian society. As he recalls, he received a “nationalist” upbringing at home and adopted a right-wing perspective by the time he had graduated from secondary school. He admits that antisemitism was a powerful motivating factor in his decision to join the newly-founded Jobbik Party in 2003. In 2008, Szegedi was appointed Jobbik’s national vice-chairman. Shortly afterward, he won a seat in the European Parliament.
Feeding on discontent, Jobbik attracts skinheads, antisemites and gun lovers. The Hungarian Guard challenges the narrative that fascism is ignoble.
As Keep Quiet veers back to the Auschwitz-bound train, Szegedi claims that the Holocaust is really no different than other European tragedy, that he has no desire to be constantly reminded of it. He then says that Jews have brought antisemitism upon themselves by being “aggressive” and “different.”
This definitely does not sound like a man who’s rejected his ugly past.
In the next segment of the movie, Szegedi is exposed as a Jew by one of his rivals, Zoltan Ambrus. The revelation shakes him to his core. He can hardly believe that his grandmother was deported to Auschwitz in 1944 by the pro-German Hungarian regime, which passed a series of antisemitic laws before the deportations got underway in the spring of that fateful year. “I must face up to being a Jew,” he says without the slightest conviction.
Taking him under his wing, Baruch Oberlander, an Orthodox rabbi in Budapest, agrees to be his mentor and confidant. Members of the Hungarian Guard, who once respected and admired Szegedi, denounce him as a “filthy Jew.”
He speaks to his grandmother to find answers about his Jewish ancestry. She tells him that, in a country like Hungary, Jews must “keep quiet,” lest they be persecuted again. Szegedi’s mother, a thoroughly assimilated Jew who long abandoned her faith, now regrets she concealed the truth from him about his Jewish ancestry. His father, presumably a Christian, remains absolutely silent.
As the film moves forward, Szegedi submits to circumcision. In Germany, he delivers a speech about his conversion. The audience is skeptical, being far from convinced he’s a sincere convert.
The ruins of Auschwitz visibly move him. He grieves that his great-grandfather was murdered here.
On a tour of a Jewish cemetery in Hungary, he promises the rabbi he’ll atone for his sins, but the rabbi believes he still has a long way to go before he can shed his antisemitic trappings.
After arriving in Montreal, he’s questioned for three hours by airport authorities and then ordered to take the next flight back to Hungary. To the Canadian government, Szegedi is still a fascist demagogue. At the synagogue where he was supposed to have delivered a speech, two congregants sharply question Szegedi’s sincerity. The rabbi defends him as best he can, but his interlocutors are less than convinced.
Later, when Szegedi is asked whether he would ever turn his back on Judaism, he gives three different answers. Judging by his convoluted response, his journey from fascism to Judaism is far from complete.