When we watch a documentary film, we assume that we are seeing a true story and that there will be sufficient information for us to contemplate its veracity. In this film about a former leader of Hungary’s far-right, anti-semitic, holocaust- denying Jobbik party, there are huge blocks of missing information that would have helped to put the main character in better context. Csanad Szegedi is the protagonist whose life is upended by the discovery that his grandmother is a Jewish woman who was deported to Auschwitz and bears the tattoo which she has concealed until now. Not wanting to relive the horrors that she had already experienced, she married a non-Jew and raised her daughter without any reference to Judaism. Similarly the half-Jewish daughter followed in her mother’s footsteps and never mentioned it to her son, Csanad.
When he is kicked out of his political party because even a drop of Jewish blood can contaminate a barrel of water, Csanad seeks out Rabbi Oberlander, an ultra-orthodox rabbi who undertakes the task of bringing this anti-semite back to his religion - including circumcision, putting on tefilin, davening with the congregation and speaking out about his past transgressions in an effort to atone. Here are some of the myriad questions that occurred to me:
Why didn’t Csanad remain a secular Jew? Where is the family of this seemingly middle-aged man - wife, children, brother - and how does this orthodox conversion sit with them? We meet his mother and grandmother - is he single, divorced, gay? How many Jews are there in Hungary, where do they live and what is their demographic? Is the English-speaking rabbi an American sent to Hungary by Chabad? What is the current Hungarian attitude towards Israel? Are they one of the pro-Palestinian European countries who boycott Israeli products as well as their artists, scholars and athletes? The filmmakers follow Csanad to Auschwitz because the grandmother was imprisoned there. Bobby, another woman survivor who speaks Hungarian but seems to be American tells the chilling story of children forced to climb into the toilets and use their caps to clean out the contents, then put those caps on their heads. Just ponder this plan - no comment would be sufficient to characterize its cruelty.
Throughout the film other people question the sincerity of Csanad and the willingness of the rabbi to welcome him back into the fold. Since none of is gifted enough to see into a man’s soul, this seems a pointless question to debate. As to the rabbi’s conviction that we must love all Jews, this seems unmindful of the fate of Israel’s greatest liberator. God himself punished Moses for the sin of striking the rock and did not allow him to enter the promised land. Perhaps another rabbi might not have been as eager to believe Csanad’s spiritual resurgence and might have suggested a trip to Israel (instead of Canada) where he could have devoted himself to helping survivors both physically and financially. Csanad remains an enigmatic and unachored character in this movie; flanked only by the rabbi, the failing grandmother and a defensive mother forced to justify herself for behaving exactly as she was raised to. Keep Quiet remains a superficial probe into a man whose life is defined solely by its extreme swing from anti-semite to orthodox Jew. We never find out how he supports himself, who lives with him and what he does in the hours that he isn’t in shul. Mainly, we don’t know the crucial answer to what is the current mode of anti-semitism in the Hungary of 2017, far more relevant to our understanding of their politics , leadership and Jewish identity.
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