by Menachem Posner – Chabad.org
Csanád Szegedi grew up in a mildly racist milieu in Miskolc, a midsized town in northeastern Hungary. His father was the scion of an old noble family of Magyars, a point of pride for the young Szegedi, who was born in 1982 and came of age in the chaotic years following the fall of the Soviet-influenced Hungarian People’s Republic.
Although the city had a large, crumbling synagogue in its center, like most of his peers, Szegedi chose to ignore it. For them, it served as a fading manifestation of the city’s Jews, many of whom had met their deaths in Auschwitz or at the hands of Hungary’s eager Nazi sympathizers.
As the young ideologue began to associate with Hungarian nationalists—many of whom were anti-Semites and anti-Roma—his star rose quickly, perhaps too quickly. While not openly embracing outright Nazism, he preferred to use veiled terms such as “cosmopolitans” and speak of a “Tel-Aviv-New York-London Triangle.”
By the time he was 24, he was vice president of the Jobbik, Hungary’s far-right nationalist party. He then founded the soon-to-be-outlawed Hungarian Guard, a paramilitary organization modeled after the Arrow Cross, Hungary’s Holocaust-era Hungarian Nazi Party.
His crowning achievement was his 2009 ascension to the European Parliament in Brussels. He took his seat, all of 26 at the time, wearing his Hungarian Guard vest.
But things began to unravel quickly. In the spring of 2012, a jealous party rival, Zoltán Ambrus, started spreading rumors that Szegedi was a Jew.
Szegedi’s maternal grandmother, an elderly matron with blue eyes and blond hair, had always been quiet about her family and the family of her late husband. Faced with unsettling suspicions that threatened to throw his life into chaos, Szegedi asked her for answers—and learned the truth. She was indeed Jewish, a survivor of Auschwitz. She went as far as to show her grandson the numbers tattooed on her arm, something she had carefully hidden for more than half a century.
Csanád Szegedi, the notorious neo-Nazi, was indeed Jewish.
As the news began to spread, he resigned from the party he helped catapult into prominence. But where was he to go from there? An avowed anti-Semite who associated with likeminded individuals, he was left with nary a friend in the world.
“I was hoping it was all a bad dream,” said Szegedi in the recently released documentary film “Keep Quiet. “I was wishing to wake up and hear, ‘No it’s not true. You were misdiagnosed. You’re not terminally ill.’
“I had nowhere to turn.”
Except to a rabbi.
Rabbi Boruch Oberlander was born in 1965 in Brooklyn, N.Y., to Hungarian immigrants, both of whom had survived the Holocaust. His mother had been deported to Austria, and his father lived along with most of his family in Budapest under false identity papers. The Oberlanders built their home in the Chassidic enclave of Brooklyn’s Williamsburg section, where Hungarian and Yiddish were heard more often than English.
Naturally studious and keenly curious, he and a small group of friends were drawn to Chabad Chassidism, which offered an intellectual approach to Jewish mysticism and a pragmatic worldview. He studied to become a Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi.
By 1989, Oberlander and his young Italian-born bride found themselves in Budapest, tasked with rebuilding a community that had been ravaged by World War II and the ensuing decades of Communist repression.
They quickly founded Lubavitch of Hungary and began nurturing Jewish life, one Shabbat meal at a time, one soul at a time.
In the following decades, with the help of their colleagues, they would go on to found schools, children’s groups, humanitarian organizations and publishing houses. But Oberlander’s favorite activity was teaching Torah, to children at school all the way up to lecturing students at Budapest’s prestigious universities. Despite the burden of communal leadership and the obligations of raising a large family, he continued to write peer-reviewed essays on a dizzying array of subjects in Jewish law and history, both in Hebrew and Hungarian.
When news broke of Szegedi’s disgrace, the rabbi recalled: “I immediately thought, what an interesting class this would be. Here’s something new—a Jewish neo-Nazi. Was he considered a Jew? Should he be allowed in synagogue? Could he be taught to pray?”
Oberlander adds that “it was a new vista to apply age-old traditions. I spent several days collecting materials and writing up a position paper.”
The rabbi, who also serves as head of Budapest’s Orthodox beit din (rabbinical court), concluded that Szegedi had a status similar to that of a moser, a Jew who handed over his fellow Jews to cruel, non-Jewish authorities. Such a person was barred from most communal functions and scorned. However, if he came forward and expressed remorse, he was to be accepted.
After he finished editing the paper, he received a call from Rabbi Shlomo Köves, his protégé-turned associate who was planning on translating the paper into Hungarian for publication.
“You’ll never believe who called,” said Köves, known for his playful side. “Csanád Szegedi.”
“Stop kidding!” replied Oberlander.
“But it was true,” he continued. “Csanád Szegedi did call, and we had no idea what we were to do next. So we met him.”
Teaching the Beauty of Torah
The rabbi invited him to visit his synagogue, Sász Chevra Lubavics, a 19th-century structure hidden behind iron gates in a small alleyway on the fringe of the Nazi-era Budapest ghetto, just minutes away from the Hungarian State Opera.
“The rabbi was one person who understood my problem,” said Szegedi. “He didn’t approach me with anger. He just extended his hand, saying, ‘Csanád, what you did is absolutely horrifying. If you want to change, I’ll give you a chance. Here is my hand. Take it.’ ”
The fallout came fast.
“People were upset,” acknowledged the rabbi. “They would tell me, ‘How could you trust the guy? He’s our enemy! The truth is that I myself wasn’t sure if I should trust him, but what choice did I have? I am a Chabad rabbi, and my mandate is to share Judaism with every Jew, even the most remote.”
The incident brought into relief something Oberlander often heard from the Lubavitcher Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—who would quote the Alter Rebbe, the founder of Chabad, saying: “We must love a complete sinner with the same love we accord for a completely righteous person.”
“Here I had a textbook example of a complete sinner. How could I not love him?” concluded Oberlander.
Every time Szegedi walked into the sanctuary, some people would walk out or ignore him. Neither he nor the rabbi was deterred.
The two visited the Jewish cemetery on a hilltop overlooking Miskolc. There, they found Szegedi’s great-grandmother’s grave, which Szegedi would soon refurbish as a final gift to his grandmother, who passed away shortly thereafter.
Oberlander guided Szegedi through the process of teshuvah, in which a person acknowledges the misdeeds of his past and resolves to make amends. Over the following months and years, Szegedi needed to confront and rethink many of the dogmas he had espoused, including Holocaust denial and that the existence of anti-Semitism in the world was the fault of the Jews.
He also began to incorporate Jewish observance into his life: putting on tefillindaily, eating kosher food and celebrating Shabbat.
A year after he left Jobbik, in July of 2013, he celebrated his brit milah and took the Hebrew name Dovid, after his great-grandfather.
As part of his teshuvah, he undertook to speak about his experiences all over the world, especially in Hungarian high schools and to youth groups, in an attempt to combat the vitriol of anti-Semitism that he himself helped foment.
It wasn’t—it isn’t—an easy task. He was often greeted with skepticism from Jewish and non-Jewish groups alike, suspecting that he was an opportunist wishing to remain in the public eye, or worse, an agent of the far-right.
In one instance, Szegedi was forcefully deported from Canada before a planned speaking engagement in Montreal, leaving Oberlander to face the combative, yet questioning audience.
Today, Szegedi lives in Budapest with his wife and young children. He studies Torah with the rabbi on a weekly basis.
Reflecting on the past four years, Oberlander says he has no regrets.
“People may still doubt him,” says the rabbi. “There is never any way to know what a person is truly thinking, but I am convinced that he is sincere, and I know that I have done what I needed to do—teaching another Jewish person the beauty of Torah, of Judaism and of the power of teshuvah.”