Silencing the Seagull

Budapest.      Posters block the windows of the pale, two-story building at Király u. 50, one of the oldest in what used to be the main thoroughfare of Budapest’s Jewish quarter. Behind a peeling corner, one catches sight of an empty room. Upstairs, the lights are on, and someone is smoking a cigarette in the open window. Since they haven’t been evicted—yet—some of the former employees of the Jewish cultural podium Sirály have set up house on the first floor. They are cleaning the spacious rooms, keeping up the building that, until recently, belonged to no one.

Sirály—or “Seagull”—was at the heart of the city’s secular Jewish community until it was forced to close its doors in May this year. In Kisüzem (“Little Workshop”), not far from Király u., I meet Ádám Schönberger, one of the directors of Marom, a grassroots Jewish NGO run by young Hungarian Jews. He recalls the idea behind Sirály: “Community and culture, those were the two most important things. But we had some spiritual moments, too. Sirály provided a hint of belonging to those who stepped inside. It wasn’t a big step to make.” But for a community that for decades had not been allowed to exist, this was a crucial leap. “Sirály was the only independent and informal institution of its kind. A ‘normal’ place,” says Ádám. With hundreds of events annually, the former squat quickly became the light of the newfound Jewish community.

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It got caught up in a mix of local politics and national history. The dispute about proprietary rights, rooted in corrupt deals from the time of the country’s regime change, finally ended after a ten-year trial. But, as so often in present-day Hungary, things remain unsolved. Ownership of Sirály’s premises—occupying only parts of the building—fell into the hands of the right leaning Budapest mayor, who aims to exploit the locale commercially, while the local municipality of District VI refuses to allow the establishment to be open after 11:50. The municipality, Ádám says, has no recognition of the importance of the place. “But those who do understand want to close it.” The irony is not lost on him.

“They don’t like this kind of underground culture here,” he says—“they” being those in government who share the anti-liberal ideology spreading rapidly not just across Hungary, but most of Europe. Yet the situation of the Jewish community in Budapest is unique. It is the only original surviving community in Central Europe, making it an idiosyncrasy, a kind of existential anomaly. While from the point of view of antisemitic rhetoric and slander this summer has been particularly bad—in his latest editorial János Kőbányai of the Jewish review Múlt és Jóvo says it rekindled “the fires of hell”—Ádám Schönberger is careful not to aver that Sirály’s closing was motivated by antisemitism. “Here, it is part of the ‘package.’ But of course those who feel implicated by these harsh verbal attacks of the anti-liberal right are Jews.” Due to their particular historical ties to liberalism, Hungarian Jews are “caught in the middle of these difficult times,” says Ádám.

In Hungary, antisemitism has become institutionalised. The far right is only making explicit what is implied elsewhere. The recent wave of ideological “sweeping” of the theatre world, replacing progressive, European-minded directors with nationalist ones, only further calls into question Sirály’s future. Schönberger fears the outcome of the current EU survey on antisemitism. “It will be shocking.” But at the moment, he is trying to find a way to resurrect Sirály, and with it, Budapest’s secular Jewish community. It will be difficult. “Either way,” he says, “we’ll lose some of our freedom.” And with the echoes of the past still ringing, it is a freedom best to guard.

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