J'Accuse - My Tale of Two Countries

J'accuse and déjà vu -- French words that seem particularly apt in looking at the rising anti-Semitism in Hungary and France.

J'accuse, because it was the name of Emil Zola's 1898 tract on the anti-Semitic miscarriage of justice that led to the 1894 imprisonment of Alfred Dreyfus on false charges of giving French military secrets to Germany. (Ironically, it was a French army major with a Hungarian name, who turned out to be the real culprit.) Déjà vu, because we're witnessing an instant replay of the beginnings of Hitler's anti-Semitic fascism.

But, this is a much smaller story. It's my tale of two countries.

I was born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1946 -- right after World War II. My parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins were victims of the Holocaust that killed so many Jews. My uncle was shot into the Danube by Hungarian fascists. My grandparents were killed in the ovens of Auschwitz and in the ghettos of Poland. I could go on with the details, enumerating the concentration camps to which they were sent and the forced labor battalions in which they served. But, suffice it to say that most perished and a few survived. My mother and father were among the ones who survived. Against all odds, I was born. By 1947, the communist Iron Curtain had dropped in Hungary. We escaped to France in 1948.

France was a haven for us -- a place of healing. We lived first in Paris and then moved to Lyon. My father and a partner started a business manufacturing shearling coats. Each afternoon, after his work day ended, my mother and I met him at the Place des Terreaux where they would have an aperitif and I would be treated to a grenadine a limonade. My mother found nurturing and enduring friendship in the Catholic family that lived in the same building as we on Quai Clemenceau on the banks of the Rhone. It's a friendship that has lasted three generations: the grandchildren of that family are friends of my son.

We stayed in France for five years, until a long-awaited visa allowed us to emigrate to the United States.

France was a haven for other branches of our family, as well. My maternal uncle, Charles, left Hungary in the late 1930s, to escape its anti-Jewish laws and to find work in France. His timing was bad. He arrived shortly before the implementation of France's Anti-Jewish statutes in 1940. When he found there was no work for Jews, he joined the French Foreign Legion. He lived and worked as a geologist in Algeria until 1962, when the Revolution drove him and his family back to France. He had four sons, each of whom married and had several children. There are now numerous great grandchildren emanating from that survivor.

Similarly, a couple of my father's cousins escaped to France. Several years ago, I, along with my husband and son, attended a Passover seder in their home. I hadn't seen them for more than 50 years, and I marveled at the size of this boisterous, warm family. But today, they're considering leaving France, their home for three generations.

I had an aunt and a cousin who survived the war, but they stayed in Hungary. They didn't escape until the Hungarian revolution in 1956. They came to the U.S. and lived here for many years. My aunt died here. My cousin, after getting laid off at the age of 65 or so, returned to Hungary so that he could manage to live on his Social Security. Now, he's trying to sell his apartment in Budapest and return to America.

I'm scared for all of them.

In France, anti-Semitism is often attributed to tension between the Muslim and Jewish communities as well as to critical attitudes toward Israel on the French Left. But, France is a paradox. It houses the largest Muslim and Jewish populations in Europe. According to a Pew global survey, 71 percent of French Muslims have positive attitudes towards Jews -- the highest positive rating in the world, as do 82 percent of French people as a whole. On the other hand, 72 percent of racist crimes in France are acts of anti-Semitism, according to its National Advisory Committee on Human Rights. These data were gathered between 2003 and 2006 -- and things seem to have changed.

SPCJ, the security unit of France's Jewish communities reported a 58 percent rise in anti-Semitic incidents in 2012 compared to the previous year. These included the widely reported murder of a rabbi and three students at a Jewish school in Toulouse. But, the incident that impelled me to write this article was the nauseating sight of 17,000 anti-government protesters marching in the streets of Paris on the eve of 2014 International Holocaust Remembrance Day, screaming hate-filled epithets against Jews. The scene had a haunting familiarity.

They could have been Hitler Youth or the Hungarian Arrow Cross. The French "Day of Anger" was punctuated with repeated calls of "Jews, we don't want you!" "Jews, out of France." "Jews, France is not for you."

Ah, but this Jew remembers a time when France was for us -- the France that, after the war, welcomed those members of my family who were refugees from the Holocaust that so many of these marchers denied.

In Hungary, the collapse of Communism has enabled a resurgence of anti-Semitism. According to researcher Andras Kovacs, only 10-15 percent of the Hungarian adult population held strongly anti-Semitic views in the 15 years following the fall of Communism. By contrast, a 2012 ADL survey reveals that nearly two-thirds of Hungarians responded "probably true" to at least three out of four anti-Semitic stereotypes. Kovacs correlates this rise with the appearance of the far-right Jobbik party, and finds that bigoted views are strongest in the regions where Jobbik holds sway. Notably, support from Jobbik doesn't derive from anti-Semitism. Rather, Jobbik drives the generation of these attitudes. In a longitudinal series of surveys, Kovacs found that anti-Semitism increased during political campaign years. As in Hitler's Germany, "the Jewish question" is cynically employed to rile up the populace.

Central European Political Scientists Bojan Todosijevic and Zsolt Enyedi identify authoritarianism as a key variable in the anti-Semitic attitudes of Hungarian parents and children. This is consistent with Theodor Adorno's groundbreaking 1950 study, The Authoritarian Personality. Doing his research in the U.S., he found that traits of the authoritarian personality included anti-intellectualism and stereotyping -- two features that undergird so much bigotry; two traits that need to be challenged to counter bigotry.

According to a Pew Global Attitudes survey conducted in 2012, "Jews, who comprise less than 1 percent of the world's population, experienced harassment in a total of 95 countries." How sad that two of those countries should be great centers of European culture. How disgraceful that the countries from, and to which, my family and I escaped are again centers of escalating anti-Semitism in Europe.

My early childhood was spent on the run. That ended when the Ile de France brought us to the West Side piers of Manhattan. The passenger manifest bore the word "stateless" next to our names, but America gave us a home in which we never wore out our welcome.