I’ve grown up around people from Poland, and my godmother is from there, so I got a good dose of The Racial Understanding of the World According to Poland all through my life. Plus, both Poland and Hungary claim to be like brothers from another mother, so let’s compare. Enter the briefest of brief side-by-sides, as this is only the beginning and there is yet more to come throughout the months. While the focus is largely on Hungary and Finland, I do want to incorporate some of the other cultures I’m familiar with. But back to Hungary and Poland and the Very Brief Review.
Both are fairly insular, with an almost equal amount of what few minorities there actually are, though Poland has done more invading than its brother, and we’ve all seen (or heard) the news about Hungary. Both are pretty Catholic, though Poland (slightly) more so. And both have deported Jews during the Holocaust. You’d think there might have been a lesson to be learned, but judging by people’s reactions the only takeaway seems to be, we need to build better barriers between Us and them, yes, Us, with a U, because we really are that important. That and any variation of, “I didn’t know,” “it wasn’t my fault” (because, you know, “I really didn’t know”), and the old tried and tested, universal, “we suffered, too.”
All of which will be dealt with in more depth over time, but for now let me just briefly state that maybe, just maybe, we shouldn’t make suffering into a competition but rather a connecting point of empathy. If I suffered and you suffered, shouldn’t we just come together and prevent suffering, or at least try to? A very idealized viewpoint, though it shouldn’t be. In my experience, though there are voices to that effect, both Poland and Hungary still have miles to go.
Both are very quick to label someone as Jewish, or rather refer to someone as the Jew, while those who can, hide it, claiming Italian or Armenian heritage, when the family name clearly gives the game away. Grün is not exactly an Armenian name when it’s blatantly obvious that it’s closer to Yiddish than to Ladino. But before the advent of the Internet, and with Communism protecting its citizens from mass communication, some things were able to slide through the cracks. And this last bit is based on a true life story concerning someone in my godmother’s circle. In my experience Poland is ahead of Hungary in that respect, or rather more overt about it by always stating “he’s Jewish,” no matter how many generations ago the family settled in Poland. Hungarians just assume you know when you hear the person’s name, no need to insult your intelligence by pointing out the obvious. But they are very quick to label someone as “the Jew” based on some perceived slight only a Semite would commit, so something to do with money in one way or another. Rohadt / mocskos zsidó is a very common slur. Then again, Hungarians tend to swear a lot, so some insults could be taken with a pinch of salt. On the other hand, with the language being so creative and rich you could find other ways of insulting someone / expressing your dissatisfaction.
Neither system is ideal, though you’d think the overt one is at least more honest. Poles are very proud of their nation and will not tolerate any form of critique or back talk, so will tell you immediately that you are wrong and why you’re stupid for it. Hungarians, more used to being trodden upon, will still bristle and deflect, “no, but look at the world. The Jews own everything. It’s the Jews.” Always the Jews. And if you think these last statements are themselves discriminatory and hypocritical in their generalization, you are completely justified and right. Welcome to the dilemma of discrimination, where some just happen to be better than others. One case in point is some Poles and Hungarians complaining about how they are discriminated against in the West (yes, to them it is still the West with all its promises and glory), while themselves pointing out how they a) don’t want to live among “them brown-skinned folk” and b) are much better than said “brown-skinned folk” because they just are. But tell a Pole or a Hungarian they’re being racist, and they will bristle. “I’m not racist, but . . .” is the prelude to every racial and bigoted and discriminatory stream of consciousness I’ve ever heard.
The thing with racists and bigots is, they really do come in all shapes and sizes. It’s too easy to just write them off as mindless thugs driven by their baser instincts. A lot of them are also fiercely intelligent, hold positions of high esteem and are better able to argue their point verbally than they are able to defend themselves with their firsts. The arguments for why [insert group of choice] is not as good as our fine specimen are clearly thought out and presented in – what on the surface at least – appears to be logical. Dig a little deeper and you find the whole thing is based on gross generalizations.
I saw this in a documentary ages ago but the title escapes me, because at the time I was so shocked, even though I’d been around some form of it all my life, I never would have believed it. I’d read about Polish Catholics saying they hated Jews, because they killed Jesus, but even though we lived in a Polish neighborhood in Chicago, and I played with a lot of the kids there, it never came up. I figured out pretty quickly that Poles didn’t like Jews (also because my mother told me to keep my Jewish friends away from them), but I’d never imagine there to be such violent hatred until I was confronted with it later. In that Hungary was not far behind, proving that in this aspect, too, the countries really are brothers. But back to the documentary.
The producer (himself a French Jew of Polish origin (if I remember correctly) was traveling all around Poland to see how they felt about the people who gave them Jesus today. The reactions were disheartening. The usual, “they’re so rich,” “they own everything,” and, of course, “the banks.” To be fair the idea was to find out why Poland hated the Jews so much, in which case you’re pretty much wanting to meet the biggest bigots and anti-Semites around. And some of the comments from the local were really harrowing. But the one that really took the cake was a man who, while his brethren (all of whom had lived through the war) were talking, agitatedly adjusted his tie over and over again, pushing slightly forward. Clearly he had something to say, and in due course he did. He had, he staunchly maintained, a story from WWII.
“My grandfather told me he witnessed the rabbi ask the SS guard who rounded them up if he could say some words, and when the SS guard agreed told them that they had to go to the camps, and to go without a fuss, because ‘we killed their Savior nearly 2000 years ago. This is our punishment, and we must take it.”
Hearing me recount the tale my otherwise very bigoted and anti-Semitic Polish relative (who had also survived the war) countered with, “like that ever would have happened, an SS guard letting anyone but a German, never mind a Jew, speak.”
I would have drawn comfort from that, except that my point had been to point out how anti-Semitic the country really was, and the only thing she could focus on was this tiny detail of untruth. She married a Hungarian Jew and even had children with him. She even related the story of the Crucifixion to me when I was young to explain Easter to me. And to her credit she told me it was the Romans who had had Him killed. When I asked her why, she simply shrugged and replied, “because people are cruel and evil.” Which, considering the other options, was a pretty good answer to give a child.
I mentioned the whole “the Jews killed Jesus thing” to my godmother’s son, with whom I’ve always had a good relationship, and his response was, “the Jews did kill Jesus, but I don’t think they should be held eternally responsible for it.”
I don’t even know what to say to that.