A year ago he was still arguing that Hungary had to protect itself from the Jews. He was an anti-Semite of the most extreme kind and a senior official in his country's far-right Jobbik party. The fiery extremist, Csanad Szegedi, even appeared in the black uniform of the Hungarian Guard, the militia group that he founded, at an opening session of the European Parliament. And then, last year, he suddenly discovered he has Jewish roots.
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"It will take me some time to digest this information," he said at first. "What is important is not [needing to] know who is a purebred Hungarian, but who protests like a Hungarian. From my standpoint, being Hungarian means demonstrating responsibility for the homeland," he explained.
But over the past year it turns out that this anti-Semitic fascist leader has become enamored with Judaism. In a report that appeared over the weekend in the German newspaper Welt am Sonntag, it was disclosed that Szegedi has decided to live as a practicing Jew. He observes Shabbat, attends synagogue, is studying Hebrew and is even trying to familiarize himself with the Talmud, the code of Jewish law. "He is attempting to observe the 613 commandments," the newspaper said, referring to the basic obligations of an Orthodox Jew. But Szegedi admitted that he was not always successful at this. "Kosher cuisine - without pork, salami and the other things that Hungarian cuisine is based upon. It will take me time to wean myself from them," the former right-wing leader acknowledged.
The transformation that Szegedi has undergone is just about as radical and wild as some of the views he expressed at the European Parliament. "This budget proposal reads like a document written by [Israeli President] Shimon Peres," he once stated. "[It's] a budget that will make the Hungarians poorer and the rich Jews richer." And he accused what he called "the Jewish intelligentsia" of doing harm to the "holy throne" of St. Stephen, Hungary's first king, who is considered the founder of the Hungarian state and the spiritual authority for all the rulers who followed.
Szegedi's popularity began to put off his adversaries and political competitors, who began to look for dirt on the rising right-wing leader. Ultimately they found it. It turns out that his grandmother on his mother's side is a Jewish survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camp and his maternal grandfather was also Jewish and was interned in a labor camp. In fact, half of his family perished at Auschwitz.
In investigating further, Szegedi discovered that his grandfather had a previous wife and together they had two children. The wife and children all died at Auschwitz. After the war, the grandfather married Szegedi's grandmother, a Jewish survivor of Auschwitz. The couple were married in an ultra-Orthodox wedding ceremony but several years later distanced themselves from religion. His grandmother chose not to speak about her past, although when Szegedi's mother was 14, his grandfather disclosed the family's Jewish past to her. But he warned, however, her not to reveal it to anyone out of concern that there would be "another Auschwitz." The grandfather was said to be very pleased when Szegedi's mother married a non-Jew "as protection," he explained.
Now, however, the former fascist anti-Semite acknowledges his past failings. "I hurt other people. When I spoke disparagingly of Jews or Gypsies [or Roma, as they prefer to be called], I was also harming children who had never done anything wrong and may have talents that they could develop, but I blocked their path," he conceded. "You start hating until the hate becomes an aim unto itself. At the beginning, it was 'the crimes of the Gypsies.' Then it was anti-Semitism, and then we also started hating Romanians and Slovaks, because they had persecuted the Hungarian minority [in their countries]. Ultimately you hate the whole world and most of [the world's] peoples because they have not met your standards."
The disclosure of his Jewish background distanced Szegedi from many of his friends. "All of a sudden, people who I thought were my friends stopped being friends," he recounted, and from his position as No. 2 in the Jobbik party, he became the party's No. 1 problem, Welt am Sonntag, the German newspaper, noted. Even his friends in the party did him no favors. "The best thing would be if we shoot you so you can be buried as pure Hungarian," one told him. Another suggested that he deliver a public apology. "And then," Szegedi said, "I thought, wait a minute, I am supposed to apologize for the fact that my family was killed at Auschwitz?"
He quit the Jobbik party and began searching for his roots. He spoke to his mother and grandmother. He had discussions with rabbis and developed a relationship with rabbis from the Chabad Hasidic outreach movement. He even made a visit to Jerusalem with them to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial museum and the Western Wall.
Nonetheless, in choosing to describe him, Welt am Sonntag gave the article about Szegedi the headline "Not entirely kosher."