MONTREAL — Award-winning Hungarian-Jewish writer Akos Kertesz, 80, has been granted political asylum in Canada, where he fled last year, claiming to be the victim of a state-led “hate campaign.”
Kertesz arrived in Montreal in February 2012 saying his life in Hungary had become intolerable because of his outspokenness abroad on Hungarians’ role in the Holocaust and his denunciation of the country’s right-wing government.
He has been granted refugee status despite the Canadian government having placed Hungary on a list of “safe” countries in a controversial move one year ago.
In an article in the American Hungarian-language newspaper Amerikai Nepszava, Kertesz expressed gratitude to Canada for “ensuring security” for himself and his wife, calling this country “an island of peace and tolerance.”
He said his “painful decision” to leave his homeland was not an indictment of the Hungarian nation, but rather “its current political authorities which seek to destroy the country’s newborn democracy.”
In August 2011, Kertesz, a novelist and winner of Hungary’s most prestigious literary citation, the Kossuth Prize, wrote an open letter in Amerikai Nepszava excoriating his countrymen for not owning up to their shameful record during World War II and for supporting the “dictatorial” Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
His use of the term “genetically subservient” to explain why Hungarians prefer autocracies proved to be especially inflammatory. He made that charge also to describe why they “do not feel the slightest remorse for the gravest of historical crimes; they shift their responsibility to others and always put the blame on others.”
A few days later, he deleted “genetically subservient” from the piece, but his contention that, “The Hungarians remain responsible for the horrors of World War II and the Holocaust because they have not, in contrast to the Germans, ever confessed to their historical crimes” stood. More than half a million Hungarian Jews died in the Holocaust.
The article caused a firestorm in Hungary. Kertesz said he became the object of a “witch hunt” and feared for his life after being physically assaulted on the street, harassed and threatened. Much of the invective was blatantly anti-Semitic.
Kertesz claimed the campaign was instigated by the parliament after the government denounced him as “racist and traitorous.” The Budapest city council rescinded his honorary citizenship.
The pro-government media further incited extremists against him, he claimed.
“I came to this conclusion with grave difficulty, because for me the Hungarian language means life,” he wrote in a statement upon his arrival in Montreal.
“Hungary is my birthplace, my home. I made this painful decision not against Hungary and the Hungarian people with whom I always shared the same fate.
“I was forced to make this decision because of the current Hungarian government. I hope that one day I will be able to return to a democratic, tolerant, humane Hungary.”
Eva Balogh, the Hungarian-born U.S. academic who edits the pro-democracy website Hungarian Spectrum, wrote that, with the granting of asylum to Kertesz, the “fiction” that the Hungarian government tries to promote abroad that there is no anti-Semitism in their country is “definitely dead.”
Kertesz is the author of more than 20 books and plays that have been translated into several languages, but not English. One of his best-known novels, Makra, is expected to be published in Canada next year.