It’s the tragedy of Eastern Europe in a single life – with a redemptive coda thrown in. Csanad Szegedi is the towering 31-year-old Hungarian whose career as an extremist politician, MEP and deputy leader of the notoriously anti-Semitic Jobbik party, was brought to a crashing halt when it emerged that he was Jewish.
A history graduate from a university in Budapest, Szegedi was politicised as a student when the Communists returned to government. Searching for an anchor for his identity, he was a founding member of the radical nationalist party which took a hard line against Gypsies and Jews.
Jobbik specialises in garish, violent rhetoric and simple solutions to knotty problems. Szegedi was seen, approvingly, as the “fist” of a party which dreamed of returning to the nationalistic rule of Miklos Horthy, who in 1944 helped the occupying Nazis send 400,000 Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz in a mere eight weeks. Although Jews were a tiny minority in post-war Hungary, the community was one of Jobbik’s favourite targets, blamed for plundering the country and allying with Gypsies to turn “pure” Hungarians into a minority.
But the Szegedi family nursed a secret, about which the young politician knew nothing, and Szegedi’s undoing was his precocious political success. He excited envy among some of his comrades, including an acquaintance called Zoltan Ambrus, who had served time in prison for possession of a pistol and explosives.
Documents, which found their way to Ambrus, showed that Szegedi’s origins were Jewish. Szegedi, by now one of Jobbik’s three MEPs, tried to bribe him into silence. Instead Ambrus spilled the beans to the party. The consensus was that he should be thrown out. One colleague said: “The best way would be to shoot you in the head right now.”
Szegedi learned that his grandmother, maiden name Magdolna Klein, had been herded into a cattle car in 1944 and sent to Auschwitz where the first German she met was Dr Josef Mengele – who sent the 25-year-old to join those assigned work duties, instead of to the gas chambers. The following year she was liberated by the Red Army, returned to Hungary and married another Auschwitz survivor, whose wife and two children had been killed.
They resumed the normal life of Hungarian Jews, visiting the synagogue every Friday. But during the uprising against Communist rule in 1956, the ancient prejudice was back, and the family chose to disappear into mainstream society. Magdolna made sure the Auschwitz number tattooed on her wrist stayed always well covered.
Expelled from the party that had been his life, Szegedi turned to an Orthodox Lubavitch rabbi for help. Initially suspicious, Rabbi Koves agreed to meet him. “I met a man who was in freefall,” he said. “He had lost all his friends and all his certainties.” The rabbi encouraged Szegedi to reinvent himself as what he was. He adopted the name Dovid, wore a kippah, grew a straggly beard, learnt Hebrew, visited Israel, had himself circumcised. He obtained thousands of copies of his book, I Believe in Hungary’s Resurrection, dumped them in an oil drum and set them on fire.
Jobbik, Szegedi sees now, offered an illusory exit from the problem – into the euphoria of hatred. “The political intention of Jobbik’s leadership is to generate tensions in society,” the reborn Dovid Szegedi says. “It does not make much sense to debate with them, but the majority of Jobbik’s one million voters are not anti-Semitic or racist – they are simply people in despair.”