When I taught Hebrew High School, I showed students scenes from a film called The Believer, where Ryan Gosling plays a Jewish man who became a Nazi. The film was based on the true story of Daniel Burros, a member of the American Nazi Party who committed suicide after a reporter discovered Burros was Jewish. I showed the students scenes from this film because the plot raises challenging questions about what makes someone a Jew, what it means to embrace or renounce Judaism, and how hatred or self-hatred of Jews continues to impact us in unexpected ways.
This weekend, I read an amazing article by Anne Applebaum of The New Yorker entitled “Anti-Semite and Jew,” where she profiles Csanad Szegedi, a former leader of Jobbik, an ultra-right political party in Hungary that uses overt and implicit expressions of anti-Semitism to gain political power. While Szegedi was one of the ringleaders of the party’s attempts to scapegoat Jews for their country’s economic challenges, Szegedi recently discovered that his maternal grandmother was Jewish, throwing his entire identity into chaos. Today, Szegedi is estranged from the political party he helped bring to power, yet he nows attend a Chabad in Budapest, engages in Torah study, and is slowing attempting to better understand his Jewish identity, and what wrongs he did in the past.
As Applebaum notes in her article, Szegedi’s grandmother hid her Jewishness because the Holocaust led many Jews who remained in Europe after the war to decide that erasing their Jewish identity was the only way to overcome generations of abuse and hatred. As a result, we can assume that countless individuals in Europe are currently unaware of their Jewish identity, or feel that they must hide their identity. While Szegedi’s story is unique, as we commemorate Kristallnacht this weekend, I hope that this story will remind us that the last chapters of the Holocaust’s impact on Judaism have not yet been written, and we are responsible for ensuring that we continue to help world Jewry heal from this horrific chapter in our history.