Shortly after Donald Trump was elected, my friend Renata emailed from Hungary. "I don't know what to say. We are shocked by the result...What happened to America? Is there any hope to wait for anything good?"
Since Donald Trump took office in January, there have been over 100 bomb threats to Jewish community centers in at least 33 states. Swastikas are popping up again in cities and Jewish cemeteries continue to be vandalized. In Evansville, Indiana, where I lived until recently, someone walked across a children’s playground and fired a bullet into an empty classroom at Temple Adath B’Nai. Overall, hate crimes have nearly tripled according to The Southern Poverty Law Center. As I read this news and see toppled gravestones, I can’t stop thinking about Hungary and my Hungarian ancestors.
I wish I had something hopeful to tell Renata.
Hungary is seven hours ahead of the United States. There, history has already taken place. We need to pay attention and learn.
When I was in Hungary a few years ago, the political climate was at a turning point, much as it is today in the United States. I saw Hungarians wearing t-shirts that read: No Order, New Order, Dis-Order. They had just elected a right-wing Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, friendly with Putin, who last year put up a barbed-wire border fence and used water cannons to keep out refugees fleeing from the war in Syria, while announcing to the world that his aim was "to keep Europe Christian."
Orbán also started a sham historical institute called “Veritas,” which specializes in fake Hungarian History, especially the history of the Hungarian Holocaust. Under Orbán, “scholars” openly question the Holocaust and Hungary’s undeniable role in it. Under Orbán, Hungary’s largest circulation national daily, Népszabadság was shut down. Under Orbán, the Hungarian state granted the Knights Cross of the Order of Merit for “the promotion of universal human values,” to Zsolt Bayer, a journalist who referred to Jews as ‘stinking excrement.’
Now Orbán is having a second fence built along its southern border with Serbia, near Pécs, where my Jewish Hungarian ancestors once lived for centuries, until 1944, when they were sent to perish in concentration camps.
Donald Trump campaigned to adoring crowds on a promise of mass deportations and a giant wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Now he’s roaring against the media as "enemies of the people." It's clear that he's intent on fulfilling those promises, and already Trump’s White House blocked a number of established news organizations from attending a press briefing.
New York Times columnist, Paul Krugman, writes, “Mr. Trump is clearly a would-be autocrat… it’s completely reasonable to worry that America will go the route of other nations, like Hungary, which remain democracies on paper but have become authoritarian states in practice.”
There is no doubting that Orbán and Trump work with the same playbook.
Orbán was the first European leader to show his support for Donald Trump. They tweet praises to each other. Orbán hailed Trump’s inauguration as the “end of multilateralism,” suggesting Hungary and others will no longer feel ashamed about putting their own interests before those of their neighbors and the wider good. When Orbán tightened his control over state finances, weakening Hungary's system of democratic checks and balances, and then passed a series of punitive media laws, silencing Hungary’s free press, his visitor, Trump campaign advisor Newt Gingrich had nothing but praise.
Connections between Trump and Orbán don’t end there. Trump’s deputy assistant, former Breitbart editor, Sebastian Gorka recently appeared on a talk show and was asked, Is it “questionable” for the White House to leave out any specific mention of Jews in its Holocaust Remembrance Day statement, which referred only to “innocent people” being victimized? Gorka called the criticism “asinine.” Gorky once served as an advisor to Viktor Orbán.
At Trump’s inauguration, Gorka wore a jacket with a medal signifying a knightly order of merit founded in 1920 by Hungary’s anti-Semitic ruler and Hitler ally Miklós Horthy, who oversaw the deportation of hundreds of thousands of Hungary’s Jews during the Holocaust, including my own family.
From her childhood home in Vienna, Austria, my mother witnessed the rise of authoritarian leaders Mussolini and Hitler. All my life she warned me that it could happen again. I used to roll my eyes and say Oh, Mom. But now, after witnessing the rise of Putin, Orbán, and Trump, I realize my mother was right
The situation for Hungarian Jews has always been difficult. In the 1700’s, Jews were forced to pay "toleration taxes" and were subject to persecution. Laws permitted only a few Jewish families to live in towns -- these few were called “the tolerated ones.”
Even though he paid tolerance taxes in Pécs, Hungary, my great-great-great grandfather Peter Engel could not own property. He was only allowed to travel through Pécs. Because Jews were often seen coming and going from town to town steering big carts, Hungarians furthered the stereotype of the wandering Jew, a homeless foreigner.
Hungary’s struggling economy and a fear of all things foreign or “other” led many Hungarians to use Jews as scapegoats. Something stolen? Someone murdered? Lost your job? Surely the Jews are to blame.
I travelled to Hungary to learn about my family and to say the mourning Kaddish for my great Uncle who died at Mauthausen. A few family members are buried in the unkempt Jewish cemetery in Pécs, guarded by a man with a German shepherd, who expects a few thousand forints when you visit. “To keep the dog off,” he told me, laughing.
In Pécs I visited the town’s synagogue, which my great great grandfather built nearly 150 years ago. Sitting there in a pew carved of Moravian oak, I started to shake. Inwardly, I cursed every last Hungarian who deported or murdered my family. See? Look at me. My mother got out and she had me and I had a son. You didn’t end us.
I pulled down the wooden desk fixed on to the back of the pew in front of me. On it, someone had recently scratched into the wood with a black ball point pen: Aus Juden Seife Siede. Roughly translated: Boil soap out of Jews.
Sebastian Gorka says he wears his Horthy medal to honor his Hungarian parents. But for Hungarians who see it, they think of Horthy, who served as Regent of The Kingdom of Hungary between 1920 and 1944, a self-declared hater of Jews, who wrote: “Concerning the Jewish problem, for all my life I have been an anti-Semite. I have never had contact with Jews…To replace the Jews, who have everything in their hands…requires a generation at least.”
Gorky seems to admire symbols that most associate with Hungary’s Nazi sympathizers. In 2006, he defended the use of the Arpad flag, the flag used by Hungary’s Arrow Cross Party, Hungary’s version of Nazis. The Hungarian Arrow Cross Party killed thousands of Jews during World War II, shooting many of them along the Danube River and dumping them into the water. Some of those dead were my ancestors. Gorka told the news agency JTA that “if you say eight centuries of history can be eradicated by 18 months of fascist distortion of symbols, you’re losing historic perspective.”
In Mississippi, where I was born, a majority of whites, most all of them Trump supporters, use a similar argument for keeping the state flag, which bears the Confederate battle flag in its canton, a clear symbol of white supremacy to its black residents. "You shouldn't erase history," they said. True, but you shouldn't wave symbols of its darkest moments in people's faces, either.
I want to tell my friend Renata that America will get through this, that our democratic institutions are strong enough to withstand the likes of Donald Trump, but really, I don’t see any good coming out of this presidency. I want to believe that the pendulum swings back and forth. There wouldn’t have been Barack Obama, if there hadn’t been George W. Bush. And there wouldn’t be Trump without Obama. Americans can only wonder at the astonishing president that might follow Trump.
But I say to my 20-year old son, who lives in D.C. and witnessed Trump’s inauguration up close, It can happen again.