Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Q&A with Jill Culiner




Jill Culiner is the author of the new book Those Absent on the Great Hungarian Plain. Her other books include Finding Home in the Footsteps of the Jewish Fusgeyers. She is also an artist and photographer.


Q: What inspired you to write Those Absent on the Great Hungarian Plain?


A: In 1999, I was in Budapest, preparing a photographic exhibition about the vanished Jews of Eastern Europe, when I heard about the Kunmadaras pogrom: In May 1946, Holocaust survivors were accused of kidnapping Christian children and using their blood for kosher sausage.


Grabbing iron bars, garden tools, any weapon they could find, the town's residents went on a rampage, murdering Jews and pillaging their homes and businesses.

How could such an absurd accusation have been levelled after the war? I was determined to travel east to Kunmadaras and investigate.


When I arrived, I was immediately accepted by a group of friendly locals who hung around a local watering hole; and although no one seemed to resent my questioning, all denied knowing about the pogrom.


Over the next few months, I returned to Kunmadaras frequently — I was doing research in nearby Romania, Germany, and Austria for my book Finding Home in the Footsteps of the Jewish Fusgeyers, and having a base in Central Europe was very handy. And, soon enough, I had the feeling that, each time I arrived, I was home.


Settling into the neighbouring village of Tiszaörs, I began looking for traces of the vanished local Jewish community. And I discovered that, although Jews had lived here for hundreds of years and had arrived in the country alongside the Magyar tribes in the 9th century, the villagers denied their existence.


Therefore, I became more determined to question, listen, observe, to ferret out the truth about the pogrom and the Jews who were so strikingly absent.


Q: Can you say more about how you researched the book, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: So much depended upon studying Hungarian history, Hungarian-Jewish history, and finding out about peasant life. I also had to learn, as best as possible, the language.


Luckily, I become friends with the late Attila Szabo — musician, storyteller, and amateur historian — and he gave me much information (he also urged me to write this book).

But so many other people also offered their stories: neighbors, former nobles, expropriated peasants, German retirees, teachers, black marketers, members of the Hungarian Jewish community, a former member of the Hitler Youth Movement, and Hungarians who had returned after communism ended.


What surprised (or distressed) me most? Discovering how many people still believe that Jews need the blood of Christians for religious ceremonies, and as a tonic for babies.


Equally disturbing was seeing how willing people are to accept any doctrine, and to admire power and tyranny.


Q: The writer Robin Roger said of the book, “Part memoir, part travelogue, part history, part elegy, this multi-layered homage to the Great Hungarian Plain embraces its majesty and tragedy at virtually the last possible moment.” What do you think of that description?


A: It is an excellent observation. The book is a memoir, a history, and it can also be called a travel narrative.


In order to write it, I depended upon people who had witnessed (or taken part in) the rounding up of Jews in 1944, and in the pogrom; Jews who had survived the Holocaust and created a new community; and villagers who had lost all under communism.


Most of those people are gone now, so I caught them at the last possible moment.


But I was equally lucky to be in the country at a pivotal moment. Communism had ended 10 years earlier; village life was still traditional; yet all was changing rapidly.


Flashy cars, large-screen televisions, computers, and big new houses were being advertised everywhere, but only a few could afford them. Huge new supermarkets were opening, and whole families — like poor tourists in some exotic but prohibitively expensive country — would walk up and down the aisles, staring at foods and goods they were unable to buy.


Soon enough, even my village began changing. Influenced by television’s glossy images, local life and general friendliness were being replaced by a standardized, tidy way of life, and admiration was reserved for the wealthiest, the most powerful, and the most corrupt.


Q: What impact did it have on you to write the book, and what do you hope people take away from it?


A: For me, living on the Hungarian Great Plain was a remarkable experience, for it is a unique region with a fascinating past.


And carrying out an investigation, much as an amateur detective would, allowed me to step into the country’s history, pay heed to people’s stories and opinions — even when strangely skewed.


What I offer to readers is more than a tourist’s view of Hungary. And I hope they will feel the same affection — and confusion — I did when confronting our flawed selves.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Over the 61 years of my adult life, I’ve lived in many different countries, and have had a rather amusing (sometimes dangerous) life. Although people have been pushing me to write a memoir, I can’t think of anything that would bore me more.


However, a memoir with the stories, loves, dreams and fates of the people I’ve known… well… that might be something even I would enjoy reading. So possibly I’ll be working on that next.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Although we were so certain that the old anti-Semitism with its myths, mistaken beliefs, and danger had vanished, here it is again, alive and well.


This book, I think, shows how deeply ingrained the beliefs are that fire the old hatred, and that even our closest friends can deceive us.


And thank you so much for this interview, Deborah Kalb.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Jill Culiner.

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