Appreciating our democracy while seeing Eastern Europe states working on their own

Lew FInfer, Special to the Reporter
Aug. 1, 2013

“It takes six weeks to make a revolution, six years to make an economy, and sixty years to make a civil society.” That’s what one person said when I was in Hungary this month about the challenge to the more than 30 countries of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union that are struggling still to build new societies after the end of communism in 1989.

It took almost ten years for the Solidarity movement in Poland to end communism during the 1980’s, but then, as many Eastern European communist governments fell in weeks in 1989, it took several years for transitions from the communist economic system to a capitalistic approach.

But establishing the institutions to make real democracy work will take many, many decades; in less than 100 years, these countries have been monarchies, democracies, fascist and communist states. Now they are trying to be democracies again.

I was in Eastern Europe in early July on a State Department-funded exchange program that brought young adults working in community improvement organizations in Eastern Europe to our country to learn about community organizing and its work here. Then, six other community organizers from around the country and I went over there to learn and try to assist their organizations. One of the people on the program, Dzhevid Mahmud, stayed with two families in Dorchester in late April under this program and our Dorchester-based community organization called Massachusetts Communities Action Network played host to him and one other Budapest community worker. Dzhevid is from Bulgaria and has worked on human rights issues affecting Roma, or Gypsies, and he’s a Roma.

Economically, many middle aged and older people in Eastern Eutope feel that they were better off under communism. They all had jobs, subsidized housing, food, and health care, though they had no political rights. Today, there’s large scale unemployment and many low wage jobs. So, they joke that they had communism but never real communism and we have capitalism but never real capitalism; and they’ve only seen the grim side of both.

There are cultural barriers to building democratic institutions that we take for granted. Community organizations can work on issues, but people don’t want to feel they are joining and building an organization when they have this legacy of being forced to join organizations under communism or else not wanting to join them. As there was such a high percentage of people serving as informers to the secret services during the years of communism, the notion of speaking honestly about one’s deeply felt grievances is hard to deal with.
There’s a current of suspicion there bout the concept of leadership and being a leader or calling oneself a leader.

Roma or Gypsies are the largest minority group in Europe and they are severely discriminated against. In Hungary, the government keeps them in separate public schools on the grounds that they need so much education to catch up. This seems like the segregated schools we had in the South and the de facto segregated schools we had in the North into the mid-1970’s.

There are many Roma communities with different traditions that have arisen in their 700 years of living in Europe after coming from India, but they are separate and seem alien to the majorities in these countries.

In Hungary, nationalism and blaming economic problems have led to increased discrimination against Jews and Roma. Hungary’s record of anti-Jewish laws passed in the 1930’s, of rounding up some 450,000 of its Jews to be sent to die in the Aushwitz concentration camp, and being an ally of Nazi Germany is a shameful record that one would have thought a people would have learned from, as they have in Germany. But, that is not the case; the third largest party in the Hungarian Parliament, the Jobbik Party, says all Hungarian Jews should be put on public lists since they are somehow different and disloyal. This makes people shudder as they remember Jews being restricted on jobs, forced into sealed ghettos, and then deported to their deaths. The Jobbik Party is even more consumed by its hatred of the Roma and its uses paramilitary patrols that commit violent acts against them.

The Jobbik Party line, according to Roma human rights worker Dzhevid Mahmoud: “The Jews took our money and gave it to the Roma.” That’s a convenient way to blame your economic troubles on two minority groups.

I met with Rabbi Markovics at the synagogue in Szeged, Hungary’s second largest city. The lobby of his large temple is filled with lists of victims of the Holocaust, a group that includes most of his family. His grandmother was a victim of Dr. Mengele’s infamous “medical” experiments in the Auschwitz concentration camp. The rabbi grew up in the town of Kisvarda in northeast Hungary during a time when it had a population of 10,000 people, 7,000 of whom were Jewish. Only 500 survived the Holocaust, and they all left in the face of renewed threats against them in the 1950’s.

Markovics is trying to work through a national committee with Catholic and Protestant leaders to publicly take on instances of discrimination. “If a scapegoat needs to be found,” he says, “ Jews are in the first place.”

I saw the Jobbik Party militia dressed in black boots, pants, and black shirts at they marched in Budapest against a gay rights parade.
They even at one point adopted symbols similar to the fascist Arrow Cross Party that the Nazis put in control of Hungary’s government in the fall of 1944. Near the Danube River, there’s a memorial to the 10,000 or more Jews the Arrow Cross killed in those following months. It consists only of about 20 pairs of shoes commemorating where the Arrow Cross would make Jews take off their shoes, shoot them to death, push them into the river, and then reuse their shoes. In a bitter irony, as I stood at that memorial, across the street stood the Jobbik militia in their black shirts; the heirs to the WW II killers had their backs to the memorial to the victims.

It was moving to see these Eastern Europeans beginning to build community organizations that enable average residents together to have their say in what their government does. It was emotionally moving for me to find one relative in Hungary, Gyorgy Florek. His mother’s first husband was my cousin and was killed during WW II in the infamous Hungarian Labor Battalions whereby Jews were forced to walk through mine fields to identify the explosives by being blown up; or to be “human minesweepers,” as they bitterly joked about this work. But he was still alive as we sat in a cafe in Budapest with his wife on a Saturday evening in July 2013.

Lew Finfer is a Dorchester resident.