Hungary is not the best place to be Jewish at the moment, with rising antisemitism and the extreme nationalist Jobbik party a major force in the country’s parliament. Earlier this month, on the eve of the World Jewish Congress’s defiant plenary assembly in Budapest, Jobbik was allowed to stage a quasi-military antisemitic rally.
Yet unlikely as it seems, Jewish culture appears to be enjoying a revival in Hungary’s capital city. Budapest has more than a dozen active synagogues, a kosher butcher and several Jewish restaurants. There is a regular Jewish summer festival and the old Jewish quarter has, I am reliably informed, the best nightlife in the land.
Though far from being the presence they were before the Second World War, Jews still figure within the general Hungarian cultural fabric, too. And in a country that has produced such Jewish writers as Arthur Koestler, Ferenc Molnar and Antal Szerb, it is not altogether surprising that Jews can still flourish in the literary field.
The two most eminent Jewish writers are Gyrorgy Konrad — whose latest book is perhaps tellingly titled A Guest in My Own Country — and the Nobel Prize-winning Imre Kertesz. They continue to enjoy great popularity despite being strong critics of the establishment. Kertesz has issued uncomfortable reminders of Hungarian complicity in the Holocaust. Konrad speaks out against Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s indulgence of right-wing extremism.
One Jewish writer who has lived in Budapest for several years is Adam LeBor, an ex-JFS boy married to a Hungarian Jewish woman. A foreign correspondent who covered the Balkan wars for The Times and the Independent, LeBor is in the unusual position of having two books published more or less simultaneously in the UK.
LeBor’s previous offerings include The Budapest Protocol, a somewhat prescient thriller with a backdrop of an increasingly authoritarian Hungary; a biography of Slobodan Milosevic and a blistering dissection of the United Nations. Adept in both fiction and fact, he is now releasing the former with one hand and the latter with the other.
Due out next month, Tower of Basel is an investigative history of the Bank for International Settlements (BIS), the Swiss-based umbrella for numerous international central banks, which was founded in 1930. The book emerged from LeBor’s research for Hitler’s Secret Bankers, his influential exposé of Swiss economic complicity with Nazi Germany. He discovered, inter alia, that the BIS had accepted looted Nazi gold. “But, more than this,” says LeBor, “I found an extraordinary, shocking story. The bank was the central channel for secret contacts between the Allies and the Axis powers throughout the war.” It seems that its American president Thomas McKittrick (whose deputy was a Nazi) “was cutting deals in 1944 with Nazi industrialists to guarantee their profits after the war, even as American and British soldiers were walking into a hail of bullets on the beaches of Normandy”.
The BIS was the place where the euro was hatched. Today it hosts the bi-monthly gatherings of the likes of central bankers, Sir Mervyn King, Ben Bernanke and Mario Draghi. LeBor’s new fiction title, now in UK bookshops, is The Geneva Option, a thriller whose heroine Yael Azoulay is an Israeli UN official who uncovers a plot to take over the world’s supply of Coltan. “Most people have never heard of Coltan, which is a mineral essential for computers and mobile phones,” LeBor explains. “Without it our modern world would not function.
It’s mined in the Congo, often by children, in horrific conditions.”
He says the novel’s origins can be traced back to his JFS days in the 1970s, where he learned the biblical story of Yael. “After the Israelites defeated the Canaanite general, Sisera, Yael offered him sanctuary in her tent. When Barak, the Israelite general, passed by, Yael ushered him in. There was Sisera, dead, with a tent-peg in his head. Some versions say Yael seduced Sisera seven times to ensure that he was exhausted before she killed him.
“This story had it all — sex, murder, betrayal. I began to look at the Bible — and the nice Jewish girls in my class — in a whole new light. The school camping trip suddenly seemed much less appealing.”