An historic note on refugees

Every day, new tidings arrive from Russia about the slaughter of Jews. Russian Jews flee towards Galicia, and they might be upon the Hungarian border in a day or two. Counties like Nyitra, Szatmár, and Szabolcs are sending memorandum after memorandum to the Parliament, demanding a stop to this immigration […].

(Gyula Krúdy: A tiszaeszlári Solymosi Eszter, IV., 1931, my translation)

Hungarian writer Gyula Krúdy recounts events that happened in 1882 and 1883, when Jews suffered large-scale pogroms in Russia, and at the same time, the entire Jewish population of Tiszaeszlár, a village in north-eastern Hungary, had been accused of murdering a Christian girl and using her blood for ritual purposes. This event had gained the attention the international press of the time, and became known as the Tiszaeszlár blood libel.

Popular imagination, again and again, made Jews into ritual murderers, which could not be farther from the truth. Jews who came afresh from Galicia (today divided between Poland and Ukraine), Russia, and Poland, were looked at as particularly vile. Part of the Hungarian public didn’t want the refugees any more than they want them today.

At that time, Hungary was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. The late nineteenth century is remembered as the golden age of Hungary, a time like nothing before or after it. Yet Hungarians, at least in the poorer countryside, had their trials and tribulations.

The Hungarian political landscape, at least in the north-eastern counties, was dominated by two parties back then. The Liberal party, who formed the government (led by Kálmán Tisza), were loyal to the Habsburgs, and had accepted the Austrian emperor as the Hungarian king, too. In turn, the Independence party – the opposition – had been propagating the secession from the empire, with varying intensity, and with absolutely no success.

According to Krúdy, the Independence party used its anti-semitism as one of the arguments to secede, for it appeared that the government (in fact, both governments of the empire) had been financed by banks owned by various branches of the Rotschild family, who happened to be Jewish.

Had there been any truth in the Tiszaeszlár blood libel, that would’ve been an enormous advantage for the Independence party (the nationalists, let’s make it clear). Representatives and supporters of the party – holding a firm majority in the north-eastern counties back then – were hoping to prove that those Jews indeed committed the murder, and many of them were working hard on fabricating evidence. They even coerced the son of one of the defendants into a false testimony in court.

These people knew that the blood libel could not be true. But they were so full of hatred and fear of Jews, the immigrants of the time, that they were pressing the charges nevertheless. This hatred of Jews and immigrants is so deeply rooted in some groups that even as recently as in 2012, a ‘national radical’ member of Parliament gave a speech that still assumed this accusation to be true.

These few weeks, as anti-immigration sentiment was increasing, Hungarian public has started circulating tales about misbehaving immigrants and refugees, accusing them of offensive behavior, often of sexual nature. My home town, hosting a refugee center, is particularly prone to this (along with Szeged and Debrecen) – but only since the government-sponsored hate posters appeared.

I find it difficult to believe that the similarities between historic and recent events are purely a coincidence. It’s easier to conclude that something is deeply, fundamentally wrong with nationalist movements and the nation-states themselves. They seem to be extremely efficient at nurturing and spreading evil.

By the way, Hungarian conductor and composer Iván Fischer adapted the Tiszaeszlár story into an opera called The Red Heifer, which, in Krúdy’s work, is the name of a Jewish-owned inn in Nyíregyháza that also housed anti-Semitic meetings. In the Bible, “[…] a man who is ceremonially clean must gather up the ashes of the red heifer and put them in a ceremonially clean place outside the camp. They must be kept for the community of the Israelites for use in the water of purification – it is a purification for sin.” (Numbers 19:9) If you want others to believe that Jews actually require a human sacrifice, you just need to hint that the term ’red heifer’ has a symbolic meaning. But from Genesis:22 on, where the Bible does away with human sacrifice, it’s clear that this interpretation is not possible.

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