My father, Aladar Szegedy-Maszak, a Hungarian diplomat, dined with Adolf Hitler three times.
And then he went to the concentration camp at Dachau.
As secretary to the Hungarian ambassador to Germany from 1932 to 1937, my father watched the rise of the Führer. He encountered him socially at a reception and two dinners — the first time on Feb. 10, 1933, at Hitler’s first speech as chancellor. He remembered how sweat poured from Hitler’s face, soaking his uniform. The speech left my father cold, but also deeply unsettled by the rhapsodic reactions of the audience. “This was my first personal experience that we were dealing with a quasi-religious mass movement,” he wrote, “or perhaps more accurately, a mass psychosis.”
My father knew how devastating Nazi rule would be for the Jews. Hungarian Jews came to his office in droves, imploring him for advice as to how they could help themselves as property was seized and small businesses destroyed.
He met movie directors and actresses; small-business owners; a landlord who owned a block of houses in a workingmen’s neighborhood of Berlin who was told that if he didn’t leave, he would be charged with molesting women. There was nothing he could do.
The hardy perennial of anti-Semitism has made a dramatic comeback in Central Europe. Germany has recently reiterated its friendship with Israel, in response to recent anti-Jewish activity. Far-right political parties in France and Austria have gained force. In Hungary, a virulently anti-Semitic party, Jobbik, is now the third-largest in Parliament. One party official has called for a list of all Jewish legislators, to assess their loyalty — a move that even the right-wing government condemned. (Earlier this month, the government pledged, in the face of global criticism, to crack down on anti-Semitism.)
This all would have been troubling yet familiar to my father and other relatives of his generation. They came of age in a country that was a stew of anti-Semitism. After World War I, Communists ruled for more than four months, and since most of those in power were Jews, the link between Communism and Judaism was forged in many minds. For many Hungarians, to be anti-Communist meant being anti-Semitic.
My father was not a convinced anti-Semite, but as a Hungarian Christian from a strong family tradition of support for the monarchy, he flirted with anti-Semitism as a young man — a fact he was ashamed of his entire life. The experiences in Berlin, he wrote, “extinguished the last, minimal remnants of anti-Semitism that I had had as a teenager during the counterrevolution.” His years in Berlin, and his two other encounters with Hitler, were antidotes to any vestiges of anti-Semitism he had once harbored.
At a diplomatic reception in September 1934 before the Nuremberg rally that Leni Riefenstahl famously memorialized in “Triumph of the Will,” my father could not reconcile the old-fashioned, modest, almost shy Hitler with the raving lunatic he had seen at rallies.
The final time he met Hitler was June 7, 1942. The prime minister of Hungary was invited on an official visit to the Führer’s wartime headquarters in East Prussia and asked my father — now deputy head of the political division in the Foreign Ministry — to go with him. They ate in Hitler’s dining car and my father saw what he later referred to as “the Satanic nature of his character.”
Hungary was an ally of Germany, but an extremely unreliable one. Its officials refused to deport Jews to concentration camps. My father, known for his opposition to Nazism, had attempted to organize an effort to negotiate a separate peace with the Allies, an effort that failed and led to his arrest after the Germans invaded Hungary, on March 19, 1944.
After a regime of Hungarian Nazis took over in October 1944, voices of moderation were jailed or killed. Some 440,000 Jews were deported. Members of the gendarmerie were enthusiastic participants in the process. Ultimately some 600,000 Hungarian Jews were murdered.
If anti-Communism represented one side of hatred for Jews, anticapitalism represented another. My mother’s family, the highly assimilated children and grandchildren of the Hungarian Jewish industrialist Manfred Weiss, fell into the latter category.
My maternal grandfather was transported to the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria after the invasion of Hungary, but he was lucky. He and his family were granted safe passage to Portugal after making, in effect, a deal with Heinrich Himmler for freedom in exchange for their property.
Before this deal was made, my maternal grandmother had disguised herself as a Hungarian peasant during the Nazi occupation. She met the wife of the anti-Semitic former prime minister (and Nazi collaborator) Bela Imredy, with whom my mother’s family had once socialized (albeit not with great closeness). My grandmother asked if there was anything Mrs. Imredy could do to save my grandfather. Mrs. Imredy replied that she couldn’t. And as they parted she turned and said, ominously and elliptically, “Now it’s our turn.”
My parents married at the end of 1945, after my father was liberated at the war’s end. He later became the Hungarian ambassador to the United States. He resigned in 1947, after the Communist takeover. He and my mother managed to remain in America. My father died in 1988, my mother in 2002.
I wonder what they would make of Hungary today. The same stereotypes of the past — the association of Jews with Communism and capitalism — fuel the support for Jobbik today.
Into this caldron has stepped the great conductor Ivan Fischer, himself a Hungarian Jew. He recently composed and performed an opera entitled “Red Heifer” that chronicles the story of a small group of Jews in the 19th century who were wrongly accused of the murder of a Hungarian girl from the countryside. It is a true story, one that uses the distant past to illuminate a dark time in the present.
Of course it is unlikely to change any minds. But the simple fact of it is an affirmation of the power of art to accomplish what decent politicians cannot. It is also an example the terrible persistence of a state of mind, a kind of psychopathy that did not begin with Hitler and, tragically, did not end with him.
Marianne Szegedy-Maszak, a journalist, is the author of I Kiss Your Hands Many Times: Hearts, Souls, and Wars in Hungary.