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[The following Dispatch appeared Oct. 3 in Foreign Policy (with five of my photos in the FP Slideshow The Red Monster). It's the second of my three-part package to commemorate the "Red Sludge" tragedy, with Part I here and Part III here.]

One year later, Hungary is still reeling from its worst-ever environmental castrophe.

BY MICHAEL J. JORDAN | OCTOBER 3, 2011

DEVECSER, Hungary—Imre Vagi, 56, doesn’t scare easily. Even when facing a flood of biblical proportions.

Hungarian Imre Vagi, with his young poplars, has bounced back from the lethal flood. (Photo: mjj)

Vagi has scraped for survival ever since Hungary’s communist regime crumbled in 1989. As industries collapsed, he was laid off in the early 1990s by Magyar Aluminium (MAL), a huge state-owned employer in the western half of this small Central European country.

Many folks in Veszprem County are like the stocky Vagi, with his unshaven face and long sideburns, and trace their roots to the peasants who harvested holdings of the nobility, on undulating fields of potatoes, corn, wheat, even strawberries. The Catholic Church claimed the first portion; nobles, the second; and the miserable souls who’d actually picked the stuff, the last.

Agriculture has been a way of life and mode of survival for centuries, yet as the communist system disintegrated, party-run farms were also in crisis. Nevertheless, Vagi tapped into his farming genetics and in 1995 bought his own plot of five sandy hectares. By last fall, he was tilling up to 400 hectares of mostly grain, cereal, and sunflower — an impressive feat of post-communist entrepreneurship.

Then, the “red sludge” hit. On Oct. 4, 2010, MAL’s communist-era but still active reservoir of toxic waste ruptured, unleashing a crimson wave of 184 million gallons of the caustic byproduct of aluminum production. The noxious goop washed over a swath of 15 square miles, including Vagi’s land.

The first to be walloped was the village of Kolontar; 10 people drowned in the alkaline muck, including a toddler. The torrent then splashed across the town of Devecser, burning scores of victims, poisoning hundreds of homes, and killing off most of the plant and animal life in the Marcal — a tributary to Europe’s second-largest river, the Danube. It was Hungary’s worst-ever chemical accident: one part Chernobyl, one part Pompeii.

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[The following appeared March 18, 2011, on The Mantle.]

BRATISLAVA The UN Security Council’s 11th-hour intervention to save Benghazi may have sparked a Libyan ceasefire – or brief respite – but one criticism caught my eye as Gaddafi loyalists tightened the noose around the rebel stronghold.

“There are 1 million people who believed the Western promises that said Gaddafi is no longer legitimate,” said the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy, who had met with rebel leaders in Benghazi.

Memories of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution come flooding back. Not that I was there, mind you. But Hungarians have for years resented the West for “promised” assistance – via the U.S. Congress-funded Radio Free Europe, the UN, and others – should Magyars take up arms against a Soviet-backed Communist regime several years into its reign of terror.

Spurred on by those words of support, the Hungarians rose up, heroically, on October 23, 1956. Except, the West never came. In Budapest, street-by-street gun battles against Soviet tanks lasted less than two weeks, before being snuffed out. The Hungarian toll: more than 2,500 killed and 200,000 refugees – including my father and grandparents.

My question is not if the international community should’ve intervened in Hungary then, or in Libya today. (As my Mantle colleague Corrie Hulse has suggested.) Rather, if you encourage others to lay their lives on the line, what moral responsibility do you bear if you ultimately fail to back words with action?

For Libya, this depends on your definition of promise. I try to imagine myself in the shoes of an ordinary Libyan who over the past month has seen: the globe rejoice at revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt; world leaders, even Arab allies, brand Gaddafi as “illegitimate” for his ruthlessness against civilians; Libya suspended from the UN Human Rights Council; French President Nicolas Sarkozy shake hands with rebel leaders and call for air-strikes; and the Arab League agree to a no-fly zone against one of their own.

If I’m Libyan, it sure sounds like the world is telling me: Keep fighting. We won’t let the Colonel get away with this. Help is on the way. Yet each day, while Gaddafi’s forces pounded and demoralized the rebels, the international community dragged its feet.

The aftermath of Hungary 1956 was marked by mass arrests, show trials, executions and long prison terms. In Libya, there seems no option but fight to the death. Imagine what revenge awaits Benghazi, after Gaddafi vowed “no mercy, no compassion.” If the ceasefire collapses and the world fiddles while Benghazi burns – as it did for Budapest 55 years ago – the blood won’t only be on the hands of its executioners.

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[This "Dispatch" appeared March 9, 2011, in Foreign Policy. It was re-published March 10 on The Mantle.]

Hungarian Premier Viktor Orban (AFP/Getty)

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia — Just days before Christmas, Hungary’s new right-wing government, which now controls a near-invincible two-thirds of parliament, succumbed to temptation: It rubber-stamped a draconian-sounding new media law that looked as if it would slip a leash of censorship around the necks of both traditional and online media.

The law would have required all domestic and foreign-owned media, including websites and blogs, to register with the authorities. It could also smack media organizations with crippling fines if their coverage was deemed to be lacking sufficient “balance” or respect for “human dignity.”

Moreover, all this would be interpreted and enforced by a new five-member “Media Council” — each member tapped by the party that steers parliament. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe was understandably beside itself, and a representative branded the new law as “unprecedented in European democracies.”

Hungary is already one of the most worrisome countries in Europe. One poll of ex-communist Eastern Europe suggests that Hungarians are the most disillusioned with democracy and capitalism. And in last April’s elections, the European Union watched anxiously. Reigning Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany had been caught in September 2006 lying about the country’s economic woes, which incited the public and spurred a chain of events that decimated support for his Socialists. The right wing won big. Historically big. The leading opposition party, Fidesz, seized 53 percent of the vote; the scaremongering far right claimed a startling 17 percent, another landmark in the post-communist world.

In the months since, Fidesz and its parliamentary majority have tightened their grip by politicizing the Constitutional Court, central bank, state audit office, and the largely ceremonial post of president. Then came the media law.

For the European Union, the heavy-handed tactics of a ruling government in a smaller, ex-communist member might have been easier to ignore if not for the inconvenient fact that Hungary assumed the rotating EU presidency on New Year’s Day. With Budapest holding the gavel — and the limelight — Brussels was red-faced. It responded to the new Hungarian law with unparalleled scrutiny, including a European Commission inquiry.

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[This post appeared Jan. 7 on The Mantle with the photos posted beneath it.]

One face of Hungary. (Photo: mjj)

BUDAPEST – Remnants of the past. I always look for them, especially in Central Europe. How else to stay stimulated in the land I’ve called home for most of the past 17 years?

I discovered a different sort of relic over the holidays in Budapest. When an icy chill swept the region, it rendered most warm-blooded humans homebound. Or hop-scotching from family to friend’s flat. Or scurrying from mall to shiny mall.

These mega-malls are a mecca of modern-day ostentation, just two decades after the era of Communist-imposed blandness. To me, they’re also a relatively new phenomenon. Heck, I just visited the Polus Center for the first time since its grand-opening in 1994 or 1995. (Back then, hovering above the bottom rung of foreign correspondence, I succumbed to writing about stuff like property deals.)

I remember Polus greeted with great fervor, especially its indoor ice-skating rink encircled by kitschy, ethnically diverse food court. What a revolutionary concept, imported from the West: Shopping as entertainment!

Today, though, Polus is itself a quaint artifact. Outstripped by hyper-modern malls that rival anything in the Western world, they’re the domain of an expanding middle class, the nouveaux riches, and blue-collar, wanna-be nouveaux riches who recklessly dispose of their not-so-disposable income.

However, given how many Central Europeans have since been pushed into poverty, these malls are surely a source of envy and resentment from the have-nots. Who are the have-nots, you ask?

During our rare stint in the frozen outdoors, abandoning the warmth of the mall cafe, bowling alley and multiplex cinema, I couldn’t ignore the striking contrast with the sad souls milling about.

The elderly. Themselves a relic of the past. (more…)

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[These photos appeared Jan. 7 on The Mantle with the post above.]

Armed with 300-mm lense, I planted myself on a street corner, shooting at waves of elderly coming at me from the left, the right, and from straight ahead. My Hungarian brother-in-law thought I might get punched for daring to shoot without first asking nicely. But I wanted these Hungarians au naturel. Sure, it was -6 Celsius, and we were all pretty miserable. (By the end, my hand was cryogenically petrified.) But I detected a deeper despair in these faces. [Special thanks to my Romanian colleague, Clara Stanescu, for co-editing. Mulţumesc!]

For more portraits … (more…)

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[The following post appeared Nov. 8 on The Mantle.]

Thrill of the Hong Kong hunt: the shop where I bagged my trophies. (Photo: mjj)

HONG KONG – A big fat discount. That’s what I wanted on my last day in Hong Kong – a reasonably priced memento of my seven weeks here.

So, I stalked my prey: an antique store in the heavily Chinese neighborhood of Yau Ma Tei. I’d already visited twice and was sufficiently impressed by the layer of dust on their paintings, carvings, calligraphy sets and other crafts.

Maybe these things are truly old … not just scuffed to look that way?

I spotted two small pictures in my modest price range. The larger, an elaborate peacock painted on porcelain (for my burgeoning peacock-themed collection, naturally), had a sticker price of 1,800 Hong Kong dollars (US$232). The second, a father and two children painted on glass, was HK$650 (US$84).

I wanted both. Life’s too short to choose between tchotchke. Better to snag both. Yet, not at these prices. Which is why I needed a strategy. Since everything in such places is marked up exponentially – as if shopkeepers are giggling at the thought of gouging suckers like me – each price-tag is negotiable. Despite any Oscar-worthy protest by the proprietor.

Worse, though, is the nagging fear I’ll be ripped off. Or in China’s case, it’s the inevitability of being ripped off. After all, the Chinese are world-class forgerers of purported “antiques.” According to some estimates, as much as 95 percent of the antiques peddled are fakes.

And it’s not just the antiques, of course. (more…)

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[A Hungarian friend and journalist colleague, Gabor Miklos, responded to my Sept. 1 Mantle post "Mitteleuropa: Not Just a State of Mind," with this Oct. 22 piece, "A Virtualis Retesbirodalom," in the Hungarian daily Nepszabadsag.]

BUDAPEST — Mike amerikai, és Pozsonyban lakik, ott találkoztunk. Régi az ismeretség, hiszen vagy tizenöt éve még Pesten élt. Vannak ilyenek. Járják a világot, de a valódi otthonuk az óceán túlsó oldalán van. Azt fejtegeti, hogy most rájött, a régi Közép-Európa újra létezik. Azt tapasztalta, hogy a szlovákok szívesen vesznek házat Magyarországon, az osztrákok a magyar oldalon esznek, és mind a három nemzet együtt fürdőzik a határhoz közeli osztrák vagy magyar termálfürdőkben. És ehhez jön még a rétes.

Különösen a mákos. Mike ugyanis magáévá tette az elméletet, miszerint Közép-Európa ott van, ahol rétes van. És mák. Mert például mákos ételeket – bejgli, rétes, metélt, guba, nudli és társai – szerinte kizárólag az egykori Monarchia utódállamaiban fogyasztanak. És ő ezt most kiválóan tapasztalja, sőt megéli. Hiszen Pozsonyban lakik, s Szlovákia sokszorosan utódállam.

Pár évvel ezelőtt néhányan megpróbáltunk utánajárni ennek az ügynek. Létezik-e valóban a virtuális mákosrétes-birodalom? Szóval, hogy ahol kilencven-egynéhány éve még egyforma indóházak épültek, és Fellner és Helmer építette színházakban bécsi és pesti operetteket játszottak, ahol tükrös kávéházakban friss nyugat-európai újságok várták a feketére betérőket. A felfedezőút kiterjedt még némileg irodalomra, kultúrára, hangulatokra és nosztalgiára. Szép kalandozás volt, jó könyv született belőle.

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HONG KONG – The barista greets me with a grin. He’s seen me in his café many times before. He knows my shtick. But his cheerful young colleague, it’s new to her.

“Mgoi, yat bui dung gafe. Mou naai, mou tong.”

Please, one glass cold coffee. No have milk, no have sugar.

With that, I’m just about smacking the ceiling of my Cantonese skills. Good enough for this young woman, who smiles wide. “You speak Cantonese very well,” she said. “We can understand you.”

Is there any greater sign of cultural respect than to try and speak someone else’s mother tongue? Even if it’s just a few words? I say no.

Hello … Thank you … Goodbye … That’s just courtesy. To elicit a laugh, take it to the next level: Delicious! … Cheers! … No problem!

With Cantonese, the southern Chinese language spoken by 60 million-plus people worldwide, I now know more than a few words. To put a number on it, I hover around 2 percent fluency. Is there a name for that? “Beginner” is too abstract, unsatisfying. So, I’ve just coined it: “Café Cantonese.”

This fulfills my curious need to alliterate when describing my linguistic limitations. “Survival Slovak” is what I speak around my beloved home-base, Slovakia.

(more…)

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[This podcast aired on Oct. 5, 2010, by the World Policy Institute.]

World Policy on Air podcast: Michael Jordan

Michael Jordan, a journalist based in Central Europe and author of “The Roots of Hate,” published in the World Policy Journal’s Fall 2010 edition, believes that the ruling Fidesz party, the overwhelming winners in Sunday’s nationwide municipal elections, must now make good on their promises for prosperity and jobs if they are to cement their center-right hold on their nation.

At the same time, they must also reconcile Hungarian distrust of the Roma with obligations to the European Union. He also discusses the factors leading to the power of the right-wing in Central Europe. Finally, Jordan describes his experiences in Hong Kong teaching mainland Chinese journalists how to blog.

Jordan is a guest of World Policy Journal editor David A. Andelman on the weekly World Policy on Air podcast.

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[This piece appeared in the Fall 2010 issue of Harvard's Nieman Reports.]

Press releases and broadcast-ready video substitute for European Union coverage, as news organizations cut back on staff reporters in Brussels.

By Michael J. Jordan

Irina Novakova

At the age of 28, Irina Novakova holds a lofty perch in Bulgarian journalism, covering Brussels as European Union (EU) correspondent for both the most serious newspaper and weekly magazine in Bulgaria. She is prominent among the pack of correspondents from ex-Communist Eastern Europe who try to explain the often bewildering EU to its newly democratic members.

The watchdog role of the press resides at the core of any healthy democracy. For countries that have little or no tradition of democracy, as in Central and Eastern Europe, the absence of the journalist in the broad mix of policy discussions is a troubling trend. Nevertheless, she’s anxious. The economic crisis is roiling the region’s media. Finances are so bad for her paper in Sofia, the Bulgarian capital, that management hit the staff with pay cuts.

In Brussels, meanwhile, recent EU member Lithuania is already down to zero correspondents. The last Latvian fends for survival, and a Hungarian correspondent tells Novakova how his country’s sagging interest in EU affairs may force him to freelance, moonlighting in public relations. A veteran Serbian correspondent whose postwar nation aspires to join the EU laments he might need to leave because no client in Belgrade can afford to pay him to report from there. Novakova has attended several farewell parties where the correspondent departs without being replaced.

This trend, though, is not limited to Eastern Europe. The EU press corps itself is dwindling: According to the International Press Association (IPA) in Brussels, the number of accredited reporters has shrunk from some 1,300 in 2005 to 964 in 2009. What’s happening in Brussels is part of the same storm system battering the journalism industry globally. The pressure is not only financial. EU agencies are embracing multimedia and using the Internet to deliver messages directly to constituents in what we might consider political spin-doctoring in real time. Back home, some editors think that European affairs, like so many other stories today, can be covered cheaply and easily from the newsroom via the Internet and telephone. Why keep a correspondent in pricey Brussels?

Novakova describes the “sense of gloom” that permeates the press corps. “I wouldn’t call it a crisis or panic but when you talk to colleagues over a beer, they say, ‘What can you do, these are the times we live in?’ ” she says. “There’s a lot of dark humor.” (more…)

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Embodiment of Mitteleuropa: strudel stuffed with sweet poppy seeds and sour cherries. (Photo: mjj)

HAINBURG, Austria – Lounging by the pool in this medieval Austrian town, overlooked by 17th century castle ruins on a hilltop nearby, you can enjoy a schnitzel, a schnapps or an eiskaffee mit schlag. But listen closely, and virtually all you hear on the blankets of fellow sun-bathers is the Slovak language. (Indeed, a sign jammed in the grass helpfully reminds guests, in both German and Slovak, to please urinate in the WC, not on the lawn.) After all, the Hainburg schwimm-ing pool is just a stone’s throw from the Slovak border.

The pattern repeats throughout our corner of Central Europe. Lake Balaton – the beloved “Hungarian Sea” – sees a sizable sprinkle of Austrian, Slovak, Czech and German license plates. The Hungarian thermal baths in Mosonmagyarovar, along Slovakia’s border, lure loads of Slovaks and Austrians. The nearest Alpine ski slopes in Austria, in Semmering, are a favorite among Czechs, Slovaks and Hungarians.

Ninety years after World War I broke up the old Habsburg Empire, and two decades after the collapse of Cold War divisions of the continent between “East” and “West,” there are subtle signs that the old notion of “Mitteleuropa” – the common culture of Middle Europe – is gradually re-emerging. Some dispute if that is actually reviving regional identity, as my colleague Colin Woodard explored last year for the Christian Science Monitor.

Yet from my vantage point in the Slovak capital, Bratislava – at the confluence of Slovakia, Hungary, Austria and Czech Republic – Mitteleuropa is more than a nostalgic state of mind. (more…)

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[This piece appeared Aug. 13, 2010, on The Mantle.]

 

PRAGUE – I’m no war correspondent. (Though, rubber bullets whizzing overhead, in a night-time street battle during Albania’s 1997 civil unrest, wasn’t exactly fluffy feature-writing. Read here, here and here.)

A Romani man in the Hungarian town of Heves describes the widespread unemployment his community faces. (Photo: mjj)

In fact, in recent years the only time my reporting from Central and Eastern Europe turns “dangerous” is when I enter Roma neighborhoods. At least, that’s what everyone seems to tell me: “Don’t go in that Gypsy ghetto – you won’t get out alive!”

It’s one of the ugliest stereotypes of a heavily stereotyped minority: the Roma are so savage, the mere sight of an outsider gadjo on their street will unleash the beast within. Yet here I am, unscathed, after exploring Roma quarters in Romania, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Kosovo, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic.

I don’t doubt isolated incidence of violence, where, say, local police or media perhaps went in provocatively, were surrounded and attacked. Centuries of victimization make Roma understandably suspicious of the majority population’s intentions.

Or, an ordinary person may wind up in the wrong place, wrong time. The most tragic example: in October 2006, a Hungarian teacher driving through the northeast village of Olaszliszka struck a Romani girl with his car. Some say she wasn’t hit, let alone injured. Who knows? Nevertheless, the incensed crowd of Roma beat the motorist to death – while his two daughters watched.

As journalists, we have a simple but ethical duty: if one source bad-mouths, or even demonizes, another, we must give the second side a chance to defend itself. Even if that means overcoming our own fears, implanted and fanned by others. With that in mind, I’ve devised a strategy for reporters to enter Roma neighborhoods – and win over their denizens. I shared this with two participants from my latest journalism training in Prague. (more…)

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[The following appeared July 15 on The Mantle.]

BRATISLAVA – To be fair, I didn’t give Gabor Vona much warning.

When Foreign Policy contacted me about writing a profile of Vona [see post just below], an exciting new leader for the far right in Europe, my first goal was to humanize him a bit. That meant visiting his hometown and provincial corner of northeast Hungary. I only had thirty-six hours to do it, so I had to prioritize.

Speaking with himself Vona – whom Budapest analyst Alex Kuli likens to a “rock star” in Western media – would be dealt with later. Over the phone. From back home. Across the border in Bratislava.

That is, if I’d even get the chance. Based on his “Jobbik” party’s track record, I had my doubts. So, I wasn’t entirely surprised that after a week of back-and-forth via an intermediary, Vona rejected my request: he was “certain” his words would be “twisted, altered and falsified.”

My pursuit of a Vona comment is no failure, though. It not only sheds light onto the mentality of the newest political force on the eastern half of the continent. It also illuminates a lingering authoritarian impulse, especially when it comes to more independent-minded media.

Now, again to be fair, it’s understandable if Jobbik were to view me as “unfriendly.” I’ve freelanced from the region for the past 16 years, primarily for Western, liberal-leaning publications. I’ve written plenty about nationalism, minorities and inter-ethnic incitement, particularly as a barometer of the post-Communist transition from dictatorship to democracy.

I can imagine Jobbik wasn’t thrilled with my first article about its militaristic Magyar Garda, or “Hungarian Guard,” in March 2008. (more…)

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[This piece appeared July 13 on ForeignPolicy.com.]

With Web-savvy “radical nationalism” — and a dash of anti-Semitism and Roma-baiting — firebrand politician Gabor Vona has touched a chord among Hungary’s disaffected and disillusioned young voters.

BY MICHAEL J. JORDAN | JULY 13, 2010

Gyongyos, Hungary – While running for a parliamentary seat in Hungary’s April elections, far-right candidate Gabor Vona made one campaign promise that was controversial even by his standards: If voted into parliament, the 31-year-old extremist would report for duty wearing the insignia of his outlawed paramilitary organization, the “Hungarian Guard” — a taboo symbol that, with its ancient, red-and-white-striped emblem, bears a striking resemblance to the flag of Hungary’s Nazi-era fascist party, Arrow Cross.

The suggestion was intolerable to many Hungarians. Arrow Cross’s brief period of political dominance, during which the party murdered thousands of Hungarian Jews and shipped many tens of thousands more to concentration camps outside the country, is still a painful subject. More to the point, the insignia itself is illegal. Vona’s announcement directly flouted a court decision banning the Hungarian Guard, and it provoked the outgoing prime minister into asking the Justice Ministry to investigate.

But the controversy appeared only to reinforce the popularity of Vona’s far-right, Web-savvy Jobbik party, which went on to win a stunning 16.7 percent of the vote — the best performance of any hypernationalist party in post-communist Eastern Europe. And Vona kept his word: At the May 14 inauguration, he took off his suit jacket to reveal a black vest with the Hungarian Guard’s emblem.

Vona’s intransigence may have been shocking, but it wasn’t surprising. Central Europe may be two decades removed from communist dictatorship and ensconced in Western institutions such as the European Union and NATO — but few people are cheering. Promises of a glorious new post-communist life have resulted only in rising prices, growing unemployment, and endemic corruption. And resentment is fueling a greater appetite for right-wing extremism across the region, according to a new survey by the Budapest-based think tank Political Capital. In Hungary alone, right-wing attitudes have leapt from 10 to 20 percent since 2003.

“It’s been constant disillusionment that many people [in Hungary] are susceptible to. They’re bitter about the whole system,” says Alex Kuli, a Political Capital analyst. “That’s what Vona is responding to and manipulating — this deep-seated disillusionment.” (more…)

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[The following appeared June 25 on The Mantle.]

 

BRATISLAVA – That’s what the Slovak commentator screamed from the TV.

Goodbye, Italy!

How about ‘dem Slovaks?! Our scrappy Central European friends today sent the reigning champion – mighty Italy – tumbling out of the World Cup, 3-2. Even I cheered in the pub today.

“After you, France … Want to share a taxi to the airport?”

Bratislava is celebrating tonight. Flags are fluttering. There’s chanting in the streets. Slovaks are greeting strangers with warmth. My wife and kids are congratulating them as well. Smiles everywhere.

All this reminds me of one plain truth: nothing compares to living in a small, almost-invisible country during a major sporting event, like the Olympics or World Cup.

Seeing how they come together to root for the national team really warms the heart – especially if you focus on the negative most of the time, as I tend to do. (Scroll down for countless examples!)

Living here, though, you connect. You develop relationships. You pull for the people, for the land. You want them to do well.

I’ve now been very, very fortunate to experience this in two countries. First Hungary, now Slovakia. (more…)

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RAJKA, Hungary – One great annual activity out here is fill-your-own-bucket fruit-picking. In early summer, cross the Hungarian border to Eperföld, or “Strawberry Land,” outside the small town of Rajka. In late summer, it’s into Austria for apricot season. Sure, half the fruit may rot in your kitchen. Your back will ache for days. But what fun rediscovering your peasant roots! As you’ll see from my Rajka photos.

In Hungarian, prices are listed: 385 forints (or $1.70/1.4 euro) per kilo. Pick more than 20 kilos, save 35 forints!

With sweet jam at stake, wise choices require team consultation.

Heavy rains, though, have kept the strawberries small.

For more photos … (more…)

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[The following appeared June 10 on The Mantle.]

Hungary's 19th-century Parliament ... now stands in Slovakia. (Photo: mjj)

 

BRATISLAVA – There’s nothing that nationalists in Central Europe relish more than to commemorate an historic injustice, harping on their victimization. If it falls during an election season, even better.

The 90-year-old Treaty of Trianon – which dismembered the old Kingdom of Hungary, carving up its land and its people – has resurfaced in an ugly spat between Slovakia and Hungary, influencing Slovakia’s upcoming June 12 elections. In the middle of this scrum is the half-million-strong Hungarian minority in Slovakia.

In a land once known to the Magyars as “Upper Lands,” it also poisons what just may be the worst neighborly relations of any ex-Communist countries to join the European Union.

The fact it comes on Trianon’s anniversary, on the eve of Slovakia’s national election, creates almost perfect-storm conditions for petty but dangerous politics. What caught my eye, though, is how similar the tactics are by mainstream nationalists and extremists on both sides.

This comes from someone with a fairly unique perspective: during my 17 years of reporting from the region, I’ve lived in both countries. I try to appreciate the narratives of both nations.

Preserving identity at the Hungarian school in Bratislava: Viki M, Viki V, Dia, Mate, Andrea. (Photo: mjj)

Bratislava, known to Hungarians as Pozsony, served as Hungary’s capital during the first half of the 19th century. This is why I commemorated Trianon with a short walk from my home to the city’s greatest living symbol of Hungarian identity, the Magyar alapiskola es gimnazium – the Hungarian-language primary and high school. The elegant, 130-year-old building dominates an entire block downtown.

It’s there I met a quintet of 18-year-olds stung by the slings and arrows fired from both sides of the mighty Danube: the ethnic Hungarians of Slovakia. It may have been their great-grandparents sheared from the motherland in 1920, but they’re savvy to their quandary today.

“In my family we say, ‘Yeah, both sides are just using us,’” says Andrea Menyhartova. (more…)

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For a taste of the anti-Hungarian tenor prior to Slovakia's June 12 elections, there are billboards like this. Hungarians who live here and in Hungary proper continue to refer to Bratislava, their early-19th-century capital, as Pozsony. The Slovak far right, though, says "Nie" to that. (Photo: mjj)

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Inciting hatred via campaign billboard. (Credit: TASR)

[This post appeared May 25 on TOL's "Roma Blog"]

BRATISLAVA – It started out this morning as a café breakfast with the press, for the European Roma Rights Center to introduce its range of litigation, advocacy and research to the handful of Slovak media even interested in Roma issues.

The chat, though, led inexorably to the role these reporters themselves – and especially, their less-empathetic colleagues – play in shaping harsh Slovak attitudes toward Roma, a.k.a. “the Gypsies.” For me, it also revealed the need here for what some call “human rights-based journalism.”

One reporter opened eyes with his calculation that of the 15 journalists in his office, “thirteen are racist.” Another admitted, “We live in a racist world, and my company is absolutely racist.”

This is no surprise to anyone living in Eastern Europe, where you’re hard-pressed to find any minority on the entire continent more harassed than the estimated 8 million to 12 million Roma.

Yet this is relevant today in Slovakia, on the eve of June 12 elections. Following in the footsteps of neighboring Hungary and its elections last month, the Roma question is once again an irresistible platform for parties pandering to a public ready to scapegoat minorities for their frustrations with the whole post-Communist transition. And oh, by the way, both countries are now members of the European Union — an exclusive club of European democracies.

Several Slovak parties, for example, are advocating the “voluntary” placement of Roma schoolchildren into new boarding schools – which smacks some as ethnic segregation.

More notoriously, the ruling coalition’s far-right partner, the Slovak National Party, produced billboards featuring a bare-chested, obviously Romani man, heavily tattooed and gold chain draped around his neck. Beneath, the slogan: “So that we don’t feed those who don’t want to work.” (It’s since been revealed that the photo was, in face, digitally altered for dramatic effect.)

Defending the billboard, one SNP official creatively – but unconvincingly – accused critics of being the real racists: after all, they were the ones who assumed the man was a Gypsy. (more…)

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My photos from Hungary’s Szentendre, formerly an ethnic-Serb settlement, then an artists’ colony, now a quick tourist jaunt from the capital, Budapest. 

Entry from the Danube.

Lounging by the river.

To view more photos …  (more…)

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BRATISLAVA – I just listened to a podcast in which a popular American sports commentator, Bill Simmons, interviewed the co-creator of “Lost,” a TV show whose fan base is so rabid, some have created websites in which they dissect and critique every plot twist.

The host and guest both seek audience feedback, and they agreed on one point: happy fans tend not to take the time to comment. Instead, it’s typically the “loud minority” that does. (As opposed to Nixon’s “silent majority.”)

Of course, there’s no way to prove how representative any comments section is. Which raises the question: do their often angry voices add any value at all?

This strikes a chord, as my Hungarian wife translated for me a batch of reader comments to my May 7 commentary in the major Budapest daily, Népszabadság. (See post below.)

I knew it would raise hackles: it was about the escalating incitement of hatred against the Hungarian Roma and Jewish minorities, and why I doubt the new government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban will reverse this trend.

The very first of the 203 “komments” caught my eye: a super-sleuth pasted a link to my bio that appeared in a Jewish newspaper in Los Angeles. The message: “Ah-ha, a closeted Jew! Only a Jew would criticize us.”

OK, maybe I read too much into this, but I know the machinations of some Hungarians. (For more of the flavor, I also accepted onto my blog a May 5 comment from Hungary, which creatively called me the “idiot son of an asshole.” He nailed us both, Pops!)

Many of the remaining comments were negative as well, yet I pestered my wife to translate them. Sure, I can be as thin-skinned as any journalist, but I was curious to know if anyone had addressed the substance of my critique, on Hungarian hatred. Many, in fact, did not. (more…)

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[Note: The following commentary, entitled “Hatred and Democracy” appeared May 7, 2010, in the leading Hungarian daily, Népszabadság. For the English version, see the post below.]

Gyűlölet és demokrácia – Orbán most is hallgatni fog?

Michael J. Jordan

A Fidesz az általa megszerzett hatalmas többséggel, a politikáját elgáncsolni képes ellenzék hiányában – vagy megújítja Magyarország gazdaságát, vagy nem. Az idő majd eldönti, mivel ehhez hasonló helyzetre még nem volt példa.

A Fidesz kétharmados többsége vagy javít, vagy nem a határon túl kisebbségben élő, zaklatott magyarság helyzetén azzal, ha a párt tartja magát ígéretéhez, és állampolgárságot ad nekik.

Az idő majd eldönti, mivel ehhez hasonló helyzetre még nem volt példa. És vajon a Fidesz elsöprő többsége jót tesz-e majd a magyar demokráciának, különösen a demokrácia minőségének? Nos, erről már van tanulságos példánk: Orbán Viktor első miniszterelnöki ciklusa.

Éppen ez az, ami nyugtalanít engem, a több tucat magyar rokonnal bíró amerikait, aki külföldi tudósítóként hat évig Budapesten élt, négy éve pedig a szomszédos Szlovákiából tudósít.

Azokban az elemzésekben, amelyek megpróbáltak magyarázatot találni a Jobbik feltűnő térhódítására, kevés szó esett az elmúlt évtizedben a sajtóban és a parlamentben egyaránt elburjánzó uszításról és gyűlöletről a kisebbségekkel és a politikai ellenfelekkel szemben.

Az én hazámban, az Egyesült Államokban is átitatja a társadalmat az egyes politikusok, kommentátorok szájából áradó gyűlöletbeszéd, mely a hallgatóság legmélyebb félelmeit mozgósítja, és a félelem új forrásait fakasztja fel. A különbség az, hogy Washingtonban még néhány felelősen gondolkodó republikánus is fellép ez ellen, és kimondja: „Van egy határ, amit nem szabad átlépni”.

Amikor majd a parlament üléstermében a Jobbik ott liheg a nyakában, tesz-e majd Orbán bármit, hogy csillapítsa a démonizálás szenvedélyét, amely szétszakítja a magyar demokráciát? Miként reagál majd, ha reagál egyáltalán, amikor a Jobbik rádobja az első verbális gránátokat a „cigány bűnözőkre” vagy az „izraeli tőkésekre”. Nehéz derűlátónak lenni, mivel tíz évvel ezelőtt maga Orbán is szította az efféle szenvedélyeket. (more…)

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[The following is the original English version of a May 7 commentary published in the Hungarian daily, Népszabadság. See post above.]

BRATISLAVA – The Fidesz super-majority may or may not rejuvenate Hungary’s economy, without a pesky opposition to block its new policies. Time will tell, as there’s no precedent for such a situation.

The Fidesz super-majority may or may not improve life for harassed ethnic Hungarians across the borders, if the party follows through on its vow to grant them citizenship. Time will tell, as there’s no precedent for such a situation.

But will the Fidesz super-majority enhance Hungarian democracy? Specifically, the quality of its democracy? For that, we do have precedent: Viktor Orban’s first run as prime minister.

That’s what concerns me, as an American with dozens of Hungarian relatives – and as a foreign correspondent who lived for six years in Budapest, then the last four next door in Slovakia.

Among all the analysis I’ve read that tries to interpret the remarkable rise of Jobbik, I see little mention of the incitement and hatred that has flourished over the past decade: whether against minorities or political opponents, whether in the media or even on the floor of Parliament.

As in my country, the United States, the drumbeat of hate speech from certain politicians and commentators now permeates society, stoking the audience’s deepest fears – or creating fears they never had before. The difference between here and there, though, is that even some responsible Republicans now stand up to say: “There’s a line that shouldn’t be crossed.”

When Jobbik is breathing down his neck from across the aisle of Parliament, will Orban do anything to extinguish the flames of demonization that tear at Hungarian democracy? How will he react, if at all, to the first verbal grenades that Jobbik lobs at “Gypsy criminals” or “Israeli investors”?

I find it difficult to be optimistic, since Orban himself fanned those flames ten years ago. (more…)

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[The following appeared May 1 in The Mantle.]

BRATISLAVA – Peter is a young Slovak journalist, just 21, and splits his time between writing for the financial-advice pages of a leading economic paper and finishing his university degree.

When I was a greenhorn reporter like him – in the inland deserts of Southern California – I, too, could be intimidated by an imperious, tough-talking official. So I wasn’t surprised to hear of Peter’s recent struggle to extract information from a spokesman for the Slovak social-insurance agency whom he says is “famous for answering by saying nothing.” But the flak happens to be close to the ruling party in government, as is the agency boss.

When Peter’s article appeared, the spokesman hit him with five pages full of complaints. Only a few cited minor factual errors, says Peter; the rest read like he was simply irritated with the article itself.

“Don’t worry,” Peter’s editor told him. “I’ll handle it.”

That’s apparently not enough for the young reporter, who didn’t want to be further identified, or his paper either, since the matter is yet to be resolved.

“I want to learn how to speak with people like this, to be sure of what my rights are,” says Peter.

That’s why he was among the dozens of journalists who attended the “Journalists in Conflict” conference this week in Bratislava – to mark World Press Freedom Day. Not war-zone conflict, but the sorts of conflict reporters run into with sources, employers, the audience, or their own self-interest.

The forum, though, opened a window onto the myriad issues affecting Slovakia and its post-Communist neighbors, from worsening economic pressures, to the various forms of political coercion. (more…)

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[The following appeared April 20 in The Mantle.]
 
MOSONMAGYAROVAR, Hungary – The Hungarian restaurateur in a Harley Davidson jacket wants you to know he’s not a fascist. Nor a racist. And certainly no anti-Semite. He has a Jewish friend, he says, and expresses sympathy for his Holocaust-surviving father.

“Zsuzsa!” he suddenly calls out to one of his restaurant workers – a Romani woman wearing a white cap, t-shirt and apron. “How do you feel here?” he asks tenderly, touching her shoulder. “Does anyone bother you?”

“No, never!” she says, flashing a smile, but with a look of understandable bewilderment.

“That’s good,” he says. “Sorry to interrupt you.”

As she walks off, the restaurateur leans in, lowers his voice. “And she’s one hundred percent Gypsy,” he says. “If I’m a Nazi, why would I hire Gypsies?”

Miklos and Maria Kraz, in the doorway of their shop, like the new right-wing combo. (Photo: mjj)

With his anti-racist bona fides out of the way, the man dives back into the topic at hand.

“Why do we never hear about Slovak criminals, or German criminals, or Greek criminals,” he asks, “but we only hear about Gypsy criminals and Jewish criminals?”

The businessman is a zealous supporter of Jobbik, the hard-right party that for two solid years has demonized the Roma and Jewish minorities, who comprise some 500,000 and 100,000, respectively, of a population of 10 million.

The Jobbik message strikes a chord. On April 11, the party raked in a stunning 17 percent of the vote in national elections – a record high for such parties in ex-Communist Eastern Europe, especially the 10 that are now members of the European Union. (more…)

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Hungarian Guardsman garb on Election Day. (Photo: AP)

[This piece appeared April 16 in Transitions Online.]

MOSONMAGYAROVAR, Hungary – It hasn’t gone unnoticed in Europe that the real story of Hungary’s April 11 elections wasn’t just that the right-wing Fidesz party ousted the tiresome Socialists to return to power amid economic hardship. It was that Jobbik, a self-described “radical” party, strategically and successfully scape-goated the country’s large Roma and Jewish minorities to win 17 percent of the vote.

Not only did the number soar past the 5 percent threshold to enter Parliament, it was triple the high-water mark achieved by an earlier Hungarian far-right party in 1998.

For the European Union, there ought to be concern that it also represents the greatest triumph of any openly anti-minority party among the 10 ex-Communist states who are its newest EU members.

Let me explain why this is bad for Hungary, which for years was a leading light amid the region’s entire post-1989 transition from dictatorship to democracy. I say this as a foreign correspondent sitting next door in Slovakia, but also lived it first-hand in Budapest, from the mid- to late-1990s.

First, the fact a whopping two-thirds of Hungarian voters thrust rightward – Fidesz secured 53 percent of the ballots; the Socialists, just 19 – does not threaten to upend a 20-year-old democracy.

However, the quality of Hungarian democracy is sickly indeed. The drumbeat of years of political incitement has imbedded a hatred that even drives apart some family and friends. Not to mention what it’s done to swathes of society.

Anti-minority barbs may lead elsewhere. The past two years have seen six Hungarian Roma murdered. On the flip side, in September 2006, several Roma beat to death a Hungarian motorist, while his children watched, after he hit and injured a Romani girl. Last February, in a pub fight, a Rom stabbed and killed a renowned Romanian handball player, competing in the Hungarian league.

Hungary is hardly unique. (more…)

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(This post appears on my newest client, The Mantle.)

BRATISLAVA — A few years ago, I had a rare opportunity: to visit a real ghetto.

Located in eastern Slovakia, it was populated by minority Roma, known more pejoratively as “Gypsies” in Central and Eastern Europe. These Roma were booted from the downtown of a small city, shunted to its undeveloped outskirts. For me, entering their settlement was like walking into a National Geographic video. Except this wasn’t sub-Saharan Africa, or deep in the Amazon. This was the European Union.

Corrugated-metal and wood shacks. Mounds of stinking garbage. Leaking pipes that kept the place a muddy swamp. Hordes of disheveled (but playful) kids, dressed in rags.

“This, too, is Europe,” I muttered to myself.

I was reminded of that visit in recent days, following the troubling news about Slovakia and its half-million Roma. Last month, my Budapest colleague, Adam LeBor, reported for the Times of London about a new wall that separates Roma from Slovaks in the village of Ostrovany. Built by local authorities, with government funds.

Then, on March 8, Prime Minister Robert Fico floated the idea of taking Roma children from their homes – with parental consent, of course – and sending them to specially created boarding schools.

Slovakia is hardly the only ex-Communist country with a Roma problem. I’ve written about an anti-Roma climate in the Czech Republic so bad that scores have sought asylum in Canada, and a resurgent far-right in Hungary, including a uniformed militia, that rails against “Gypsy criminality.” (Coincidentally, a half-dozen Hungarian Roma have been killed in recent years.)

(more…)

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BRATISLAVA — This weekend, Serbia followed through on its threat to boycott and torpedo a Balkans-European Union summit, over a simple but enormously symbolic issue: it rejected the attendance of “independent” Kosovo.

This interested me for two reasons. First, as a journalist who’s reported from Kosovo three times (including the aftermath of the 1999 NATO airstrikes), it underscores the continued fragility of the now-severed Serbian province. I’m now putting the finishing touches on an article that explains why Kosovo Roma refugees are reluctant to return home. Serbia’s stance adds to their anxiety.

Second, from my vantage point in Slovakia, I’m reminded the EU is hardly united on the issue of Kosovo statehood. Washington and most of Western Europe stand behind Kosovo, which declared independence in 2008. But Serbia has in its corner Orthodox-Slav big brother, Russia. As one of five veto-wielding members of the UN Security Council, Moscow blocks Kosovo’s UN integration.

More quietly, though, EU members Slovakia, Romania, Cyprus, Greece and Spain also oppose Kosovo statehood. Why? Because of the domino effect of Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence.

Greece and Cyprus fear the same for the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (recognized only by Turkey); for Spain, it’s the Basques; and for Slovakia and Romania, it’s their large ethnic-Hungarian minorities, who primarily populate lands that were once part of Hungary.

Spain’s position on Kosovo is most awkward, considering Madrid holds the EU’s rotating presidency. For me, the Slovakia-Hungary-Romania tension is most palpable. Anxiety over Hungarian “irredentism” – whether real or contrived – rears its head surprisingly often, as a weapon to whip up the masses.

In fact, there’ll be lots of noise on June 4th, when Hungary’s far-right marks the 90-year trauma of the Treaty of Trianon, which lopped off two-thirds of Hungary’s territory, and left one-third of its brethren inside new, alien borders.

I’ll surely have a few thoughts about that.

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BRATISLAVA – I stopped in a local sports shop yesterday to buy my older son a birthday present: a Slovak hockey jersey. (Yes, I’ve been bitten by the Olympic bug. See Feb. 19 post, “The Thrill of Victory”)

I wound up in a pleasant conversation, in Slovak, with the shop clerk and his buddy. After my hiatus to study some Cantonese (see Sept. 22 post, “Easy For You To Say”), I’m regaining the sea legs with the Slovak language. Four months away set me back. Yet during this unexpected chat, I felt it return to me.

Where I stumbled, I could see the friend furiously recalling the English he’d learned in high school. So, we bantered, and I heard all about their Slovak friend who’d lived in the U.S. for 30-some years, fathered two children – both U.S. citizens – but was then deported back here. For some reason. That part escaped me. But I understood the gist!

(I settled on a 20-euro jersey of Slovak Marian Hossa, a leader of the current Olympic team. I later showed my son online how Hossa plays professionally for the Chicago Black Hawks. I figured, he needs to know just how cool this over-sized jersey really is. He caught my drift … and wore it as pajamas last night.)

With the jersey tucked under my arm, I moved on to a café: time for some espresso. I plugged in at a table next to three pleasant-looking young women. Speaking Hungarian. Their mother tongue. So pleasant to my ear, since I hear it every day, between my wife and our kids, and often between our sons. (Me, only when I scold them – in code.)

(more…)

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BRATISLAVA – Following up on the post above, whenever the topic comes up among Slovaks in Bratislava, I do indeed acknowledge that I speak a pretty decent Hungarian. The non-reaction I get provides a clue to how much of the inter-ethnic tensions are manufactured at the political level.

Slovaks I meet recognize immediately there must be a unique relationship between me and their historic nemesis, the Hungarians. Not that they themselves feel it. But even today, as fellow members of the European Union, the far right in both countries win votes by inciting hatred among ordinary folk.

Hostilities have smoldered since the Communist system collapsed twenty years ago: between the Slovaks and their large ethnic-Hungarian minority, and across the Danube, between Slovakia and Hungary themselves. As I’ve now lived in both countries, I grasp both narratives.

With the lifting of censorship, new nationalists reignited a historic grievance by the Slovaks: we toiled as peasants, while the Magyar overlords cracked the whip. One of the current government’s coalition partners, the Slovak National Party, scores points by stoking such resentment.

In Hungary, though, pain festers from a 90-year-old wound: the Treaty of Trianon. It punished Hungary by severing chunks of present-day Slovakia, northwest Romania, northern Serbia and even bits of Croatia, Slovenia and Austria. On Hungarian roads today, you will often come across bumper stickers that proclaim the much-larger map of “Greater Hungary” … that is, pre-Trianon.

Such imagery may seem innocent, but it sparked fears of inter-ethnic clashes back in the 1990s, during the reign of Slobodan Milosevic and his bloody drive toward “Greater Serbia.” (more…)

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Laszlo Takacs serves up traditional langos to vacationers at Hungary’s Lake Balaton. (Photo: mjj)

Since 1989, post-communist choice and pre-communist tradition have changed the way Central and Eastern Europe eat. A Transitions Online special report.

by Michael J. Jordan
Dec. 8, 2009

LAKE BALATON AND PRAGUE | Laszlo Takacs sweats over a bubbling fryer, deftly wielding his tongs to pull out another Frisbee-shaped langos. One swimsuit-clad customer after another requests Takacs’ deep-fried dough disks, especially the classic: slathered with sour cream, sprinkled with grated Trappist cheese, and drizzled with garlic sauce for good measure.

“Hungarians have always loved langos, and they always will,” Takacs says. “It’s a national specialty, like goulash.”

This was Hungary’s communist-era version of fast food – oily, cheap, tasty, and reliably belly-filling. Today it’s a relative rarity, overwhelmed by Western staples like pizza, hamburgers, hotdogs, even shwarma and Chinese food. Langos now is mostly relegated to flea markets and Lake Balaton, Hungary’s favorite summer spot, just as zsiros kenyer – or “fatty bread,” smeared with lard and sliced onions and sprinkled with paprika – is now primarily a pub snack.

Much has changed in the former Warsaw Pact countries since the Iron Curtain parted 20 years ago, of course, but gastronomic culture in particular opens a fascinating window into how lifestyles here have become Westernized, from higher quality food and slick advertising to the rise of customer service and the onslaught of obesity.

It all began with open borders and open competition, says top Czech gourmet Pavel Maurer.

“We’re hungry for new things: hungry for freedom, hungry for travel, and hungry to try new foods,” says Maurer, who founded the annual Prague Food Festival and publishes the Grand Restaurant dining guide. “We’re hungry to try all the things that weren’t possible for so many years.” (more…)

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The Hungarians deserve credit for courage.

In 1956, a puny country of 10 million stood up to the mighty Soviet Empire, demanding reforms and an end to Stalinist repression. Moscow ordered in troops. More than 2,000 Hungarians were killed, another 200,000 fled into exile. (Including my father and his family.)

Then in 1989, as my Christian Science Monitor colleague Colin Woodard recently highlighted, the Hungarians literally snipped the first hole in the Iron Curtain.

I was delighted to be reminded of this tonight, way out here in the Far East. Walking through a campus lobby, I stumbled upon a Hungarian exhibit, connected to a symposium that’ll be held at HKBU later this week to commemorate the end of the Cold War twenty years ago.

I was struck, though, by the exhibit’s very first sentence: “The Red Army occupied Hungary in the Second World War.”

Well, that’s only partly true. In fact, it was the Nazis who occupied Hungary first, in Spring 1944, which suited some Hungarians just fine. The Nazis and their Hungarian collaborators cleansed the countryside of hundreds of thousands of Jews. A Hungarian Nazi-puppet regime then continued the blood-letting – until the Soviet Red Army liberated the capital, Budapest, in January 1945.

That the Soviets then stayed on is another story.

I can imagine why the Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, co-sponsor of the symposium, wants to keep hush-hush what else happened during World War II. And, why it prefers to paint Hungary as only a victim. Thousands of miles away from Hungary, the ministry will likely get away with this distortion.

But at least one observer has taken notice.

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This restored synagogue in Samorin, Slovakia, today houses an art exhibit. (Photo: mjj)

This restored synagogue in Samorin, Slovakia, today houses an art exhibit. (Photo: mjj)

The region’s Jewish communities are now largely gone, but a growing movement seeks to restore and protect the synagogues, cemeteries, and other remaining landmarks.

 

 

By Michael J. Jordan | Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor, June 25, 2009

 

BRATISLAVA, SLOVAKIA – For architectural historian Maros Borsky, the story begins five years ago.

 

He was documenting the synagogues of Slovakia, which, like the rest of post-Holocaust Eastern Europe, saw its countryside depopulated of Jews, with most provincial synagogues abandoned. Slovakia itself has seen a war-time community of 137,000 shrink to some 3,000 Jews today, with only five of 100-plus synagogues functioning.

 

In the course of his work, Mr. Borsky came across a donor who wanted to renovate a rural synagogue. But which one?

 

“I realized it’s important to create an audience for these synagogues, for Jews, non-Jews, locals, and tourists to learn there once was a community here – and what happened to it,” he says.

 

The result of Borsky’s work, the “Slovak Jewish Heritage Route” will soon connect 23 restored synagogues.

 

The Slovak project will be just one of scores discussed this weekend in Prague as representatives from 49 countries convene for the landmark Holocaust-Era Assets Conference. The agenda ranges from charting the progress made in returning Nazi-looted artwork and restituting Jewish property to caring for elderly survivors of the camps. (more…)

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lencikejta

Lenke Livia Jordan, shown approximately 15 minutes after her birth, is officially without a religion in Austrian records. (Photo: mjj)

By Michael J. Jordan      January 26, 2009

HAINBURG, AUSTRIA (JTA) — “Ich bin ein Israelitischer!” While it doesn’t quite have the ring of John F. Kennedy’s famous pronouncement in Berlin, it’s a German construction that, surprisingly, I recently had to learn.

Last year I wrote an article about the ongoing obstacles to producing ethnic data to more accurately count Central and Eastern Europe’s millions of marginalized Roma, aka Gypsies. The count would provide data detailing their miserable living conditions, with an eye toward creating better policies to improve their existence.

One reason many Roma refuse to identify themselves officially is that during the Holocaust, Nazis and local collaborators seized upon such personal census material to track down Jews and Roma in towns and villages and send them to concentration camps. Today, some Roma vow never again.

This resonates with me, a Jew whose family was deported from the Hungarian countryside during World War II.

But it was only after the birth this month of our third child that I tasted the self-identification dilemma firsthand. (more…)

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The author says it was "gratifying" to see his sons Kende, far left, and Miksa, second from left, "find their Jewishness a comfortable fit" at a Jewish camp in Hungary. (Photo: mjj)

The author says it was "gratifying" to see his sons Kende, far left, and Miksa, second from left, "find their Jewishness a comfortable fit" at a Jewish camp in Hungary. (Photo: mjj)

By Michael J. Jordan · June 23, 2008

 

 

SZARVAS, HUNGARY (JTA) – A friend told me recently about an article he had read proposing that one way to encourage children to eat salad is to drizzle a dab of dressing on top. This way, they would associate healthy eating with something positive rather than the parental harangue, “Because it’s good for you.”

 

I was reminded of this advice earlier this month when we immersed our two sons, ages 6 and 4, in their first meaningful Jewish experience: five days at the renowned international Camp Szarvas in southeastern Hungary.

 

On this occasion, though, instead of the hundreds of Jewish youth from across Central-Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union who gather here each summer at this Jewish oasis, it was Family Week for Hungarian Jewish families with young children.

 

It was particularly important for my boys to have a positive experience, as my Hungarian wife and I have agreed to raise them with dual identities: Hungarian and Jewish – with a dash of American. And while Agi has held up her end of the deal, I – a tribal agnostic – need to offer up some Jewish substance. Or, as we say in journalism, “show, don’t tell” what being a Jew means to me. (more…)

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[This piece appeared March 21, 2008, in Transitions Online.]

 

A Hungarian far-right party spins off a contingent of uniformed marchers and takes aim at “Gypsy criminality.”

 

by Michael J. Jordan

 

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY | Tamas Gyimesi has a style all his own, like a cross between a nightclub bouncer and Hungarian folkloric dancer.

 

 

 

Below his shaved head and gold loops that dangle from both ears, he’s wearing a striking floral, hand-woven vest over a billowing white shirt.

 

On marching days, though, Gyimesi breaks out a more ominous look. He and fellow members of the new, far-right Hungarian Guard don black boots, black caps and black vests stamped with ancient Hungarian stripes last embraced by the Nazi-allied Arrow Cross – a regime that killed tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust, dumping many of them in the icy Danube.

 

Members of the Guard, which claims at least 650 adherents, say their mission is to protect Hungarians, their culture, their traditions.

 

“Here, all the minorities have rights, but unfortunately, I don’t have rights,” Gyimesi explains from the outset. “We’re becoming a minority in our own country.” (more…)

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Rosy and Frank Jordan in a recent photo with two of their grandchildren – Kende, 2, and Miksa, 4, the author’s sons. (Photo: mjj)

Rosy and Frank Jordan in a recent photo with two of their grandchildren – Kende, 2, and Miksa, 4, the author’s sons. (Photo: mjj)

By Michael J. Jordan · October 25, 2006

BRATISLAVA, SLOVAKIA (JTA) — The first came to America with parents, delivered via U.S. Army transport plane. The other arrived alone, six months later, aboard an ocean liner. 

My mother and father were refugees from different lands. This week marks the 50th anniversary of the simultaneous Cold War events that spurred their journey to freedom. October 1956: The Hungarian Revolution. The Suez Canal Crisis.

 

“It was the most crucial month of the most crucial year, the most dramatic time in the entire history of the Cold War,” historian John Lukacs wrote a decade later in “A New History of the Cold War.”

 

As the world confronts a nuclear North Korea and nuclear-aspiring Iran, the 50-year anniversary reminds us of the world’s first nuclear showdown. Coming at the height of the nuclear-arms race, the Hungary-Suez entanglement sparked the first Soviet threat to attack the West with what Nikita Khrushchev called “rocket weapons.”

 

The American reluctance to intervene in Hungary — after encouraging Hungarians to rise up against their Stalinist oppressors — also was a turning point in U.S.-USSR relations, signaling to the Soviets that their grip on half of Europe would go unchallenged.

 

Meanwhile, the British-French maneuver against Soviet-friendly Egypt to reclaim the Suez Canal — in concert with Israel, but without U.S. support — almost shattered the NATO military alliance. With London and Paris ultimately forced to climb down, the Suez adventure drove the final nail in the British imperial coffin.

 

For me, October 1956 was a pivotal time in my parents’ teenage lives — though they would actually meet only a decade later, as newly minted U.S. citizens in Philadelphia. Dad was born and raised in Budapest; Mom in Alexandria, Egypt. (more…)

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Newly arrived Hungarian Jewish immigrants to the U.S. who fled their country due to the 1956 Hungarian Revolution.  (Courtesy HIAS)

Newly arrived Hungarian Jewish immigrants to the U.S. who fled their country due to the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. (Courtesy HIAS)

By Michael J. Jordan · October 25, 2006

 

BRATISLAVA, SLOVAKIA (JTA) — The second half of the 20th century was marked by crises that sparked waves of Jewish flight and immigration — but it was rare for two such crises to happen simultaneously.

 

In late 1956 and early 1957, the Hungarian Revolution and the Suez Crisis in Egypt rattled their respective Jewish populations, disgorging about 20,000 Jews apiece. For those who fled, the anti-Jewish strain in each event was the final straw.

 

“Ask anybody who had to flee once: It’s just a matter of pure physics,” says Valery Bazarov, director of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society’s location and family history services, who bolted the Soviet Union with his family in 1988. “You have a scale: When the fear to stay is greater than the fear to leave, then you go. But it depends on your physical and spiritual mindset, how you interpret what you see and hear.”

 

For neither community was this the first wave of emigration: On the heels of a Holocaust that decimated their community, thousands of Hungarian Jews migrated to pre-state Palestine or to the West. Others didn’t have the means to leave or stayed with elderly relatives.

 

But thousands more — especially young Holocaust survivors grateful to the Soviets for liberating them — flocked to join Soviet-backed Communists who sought to ensure that fascism would never return. (more…)

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