KEEP QUIET – St. Louis Jewish Film Festival Review
Thursday, June 8, at 1 PM, Plaza Frontenac Cinema
England/Hungary; in English and Hungarian with English subtitles; 92 minutes
The mind-boggling documentary KEEP QUIET is about a far-right, anti-Semitic Hungarian politician who discovers his own hidden Jewish heritage when it is revealed that his beloved grandmother is an Auschwitz survivor. Faced with this new reality, he decides to embrace his heritage and become an Orthodox Jew. You can’t make this stuff up, is the phrase that springs to mind in this head-twisting true story.
KEEP QUIET not only follows the course of events around far-right politician Csanad Szegedi but illuminates the pervasive and persistent antisemitism still found in Hungary. A British and Hungarian co-production, it is an eye-opening documentary.
Csanad Szegedi had been drawn to anti-Semitic beliefs since high school, views drew some uncomfortable looks from his mother but no comments. He became a founding member of Hungary’s far-right Jobbik party, which supported a range of anti-Semitic views along with Holocaust denial. Riding a wave of popular political backlash after the fall of communism, the Jobbik Party did well in elections and Szegedi was elected to a member of the European Parliament. When extremists seeking to uncover Jewish “infiltrators” in the Jobbik Party uncovered the Jewish heritage of which Szegedi himself was unaware, a cascade of events drove him from the political party he helped found and into a synagogue.
The documentary proceeds in a linear fashion, so we follow along as Szegedi’s experience unfolds. A number of people are interviewed for the film, including Szegedi and the rabbi that spoke to him at the synagogue. The film also includes archival footage and stills from the Jobbik rallies and political campaigns.
It seems astounding that Szegedi could not have known the truth about his maternal grandmother, with whom he was close. But as this fascinating documentary reveals, Jewish survivors in Hungary found it safer to simply “keep quiet” about their Jewish identity after the war. People chose not to look too close at neighbors families or even their own, afraid to find forgotten Jewish connections. Szegedi’s grandmother always wore long sleeves, to cover the number tattooed on her arm, and never spoke about her Jewish identity. Her daughter, Szegedi’s mother, married a non-Jewish man, and never asked about her parents’ religion, although she suspected. Szegedi never noticed the what Grandma’s long sleeves hid.
Forced out of the political party he helped found and forced to resign his elected office, Szegedi finds his world in tatters. In an on-camera interview with his grandmother, he asks the questions he never had before, and she freely tells him about the family history he never knew.
The footage of Szegedi grandmother is among the most startling and moving in the film, as we hear Szegedi question her off camera, and watch her calm reactions. When he asks about how she felt about his antisemitic activities, she admits it made her “a little sad.” Smiling at her beloved grandson she readily answers his questions, answers she could have given long ago if only he had asked. He asks about her last name, which he assumed was German, she says, “no, Jewish.” When he asks if she was in Auschwitz, she shows him the tattoo he never noticed. The grandmother calmly expresses the view that antisemitism will always be part of Hungarian life, and even that she expects the persecution she saw under the Nazis to return at any time. All a Jewish person can do is “keep quiet,” she says.
As unlikely as it seems, Szegedi embarks on an exploration of his Jewish heritage with an accepting rabbi, Rabbi Koves, and decides to convert to Judaism from his father’s Hungarian Reformed Christian faith.
Whether the politician’s conversion is real or a step by a man long known for his loose grip on truthfulness is part of the puzzle. Along the way, we get chilling insights into the pervasiveness of antisemitism in Hungary.
Certainly the members of the Jewish congregation at the synagogue Szegedi visits are more than skeptical about the veracity of his embrace of his maternal grandparents’ faith. The rabbi, however much he might wonder, feels compelled to welcome him into the synagogue, given his matrilineal descent from a Jewish woman, which qualifies him as Jewish in the eyes of the rabbi. Rabbi Koves answers his questions, and provide guidance as Szegedi explores Jewish belief.
Is Szegedi’s religious conversion real? After a lifetime of hatred towards Jews it seems hard to swallow. At one point in the film, one of those being interviewed talks about Szegedi’s ease with lying. Kicked out of the anti-Semitic party he helped found and his career as a politician over, could his embrace of Judaism merely be a way to find a substitute for something to belong to? That is among the speculations posed in this engrossing documentary.
KEEP QUIET is truly a must-see film, a sad and horrifying look inside distasteful attitudes that persist in Hungary today. The screening includes an introduction by Jewish Federation of St. Louis CEO and President Andrew Rehfeld.