“As a music teacher I have always keenly felt the absence of this instrument during the practicing of songs, but I had no way of buying one on my salary. This is why I appeal to the authority to kindly entitle me to one of the confiscated Jewish pianos. If possible, I would prefer the piano of E.F. of 11 Bocskai Street. I remain trusting in your ongoing benevolence…”
— Anonymous, 7 December 1944, Budapest
Quoted by historian Krisztián Ungváry
There’s much talk about people, who have been dispossessed by governments. There’s less talk about those, who benefited from the monstrosities of the 20th century – even though they might easily be the majority in post-Communist countries.
My accountant is a very chatty lady. Every time I visit she entertains me with the latest details of her bureaucratic adventures. This time it was her parents’ house, she was collecting paperwork for an energy modernization tender and she needed proof of ownership. It was her birth house and she always pictured their family saga revolving around the ivy-covered, old building. She couldn’t have been more wrong.
To her surprise her ageing parents told her it was neither inherited nor purchased, but given to them by the communists. Until 1989 they have been using it as council tenants – then they became the owners.
In order to be worthy under communism, you mustn’t have been one of the following:
- an intellectual,
- a Swabian (descendants of German minorities),
- a liberal,
- a “kulák” (big farmers before Communism),
- an aristocrat,
- an opponent of the Revolution (or an influential council worker), or
- any friend or family thereof.
But that was just communism. Before that it was the Jews. And before that… there was always something.
The family that built my accountant’s birth house were class enemies – “rich kuláks” – who even had the audacity to open a grain mill for profit. It didn’t go straight to her family though. There was a red terror, a white terror, and then red again, before it landed with them. It is not even clear how they ended up as the only tenants. But all these details are mercifully forgotten, no records kept.
An entire generation is silently sitting on the life experience of having their property handed to them by a violent regime. Their only merit was to be of the right social background – or unscrupulously reporting on their fellow citizens.
Many are in denial – or absolutely refuse to discuss it. After all, you may have a righteous reason for moving into the house of a destroyed family – but you still don’t brag about it to your grandchildren. Articles by historians about peasants reporting on the local kuláks (Jews, Swabians, class enemies, etc.) are still met with anger and forceful denial by readers and commenters alike.
Eastern European populist voters can feel in their bones just how unstable property rights have been throughout the 20th century. Getting your first home or making your fortune is a formative experience to anyone. When it entails having been favoured by a violent regime, it puts the notion of property rights into question for life. And this is not just a long-ago, black-and-white image from history books. These people are still alive, often informing their children’s political choices. They have also seen what had happened to those, who didn’t adapt.
Elie Wiesel describes at length his Christian-Hungarian neighbors, who joyously watched the Jews of his hometown being deported in the unpublished, original manuscript of ‘Night‘:
“All the residents stood at the entrances of their homes, with faces filled with happiness at the misfortune they saw in their friends of yesterday walking and disappearing into the horizon – not for a day or two, but forever. Here I learned the true face of the Hungarian. It is the brutal face of an animal. I wouldn’t be exaggerating if I were to say the Hungarians were more violent toward us than the Germans themselves. The Germans tended to shoot Jews.”
Those, who couldn’t perform the necessary amorality in the 20th century, are not around to tell their stories. They have emigrated at best. Died at worst. The others are carrying the formative experience of the need to align, adapt, and forget morality. All it takes is the emergence of a strong leader and/or regression into survival mode for these old strategies to kick in.
For them, reemerging populism is a cue to guess the winning side quickly. You may make your fortune if you stand with the bully. You know the alternatives.
Pál Závada writes in his latest novel about the Kunmadaras pogrom against Jews – in 1946, after survivors returned from Auschwitz. It was not just about guilty conscience and the fact that everyone hates a martyr. It was that everyone was using or wearing something they have looted from the Jewish homes. And of course, someone also occupied those homes.
The intimate pillow talk between the music teacher and the government is still protected by privacy. The records on informants have never been made public in Hungary. Lootings were so frequent that not even police records were kept. It erodes trust between citizens and the belief in private property for generations to come.
My accountant was pensive. Her father always supported strong leadership (and naturally became a fan of Viktor Orbán) and she could never argue with him. But now it seemed to her that his support for a strong, revolutionary leader is really just a front for another, less noble sentiment. The last time such a strong leader appeared, he gave her father his house. He might hope for something similar this time.
Featured image is only illustration – Botanical Garden of Vácrátót
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