Hungarian Suicide Song Redux
Hungarians are disappearing faster than any other nationality. Ethnic Hungarians, according to unpublished government data, have a fertility rate of 0.83 -- fewer than one child per woman, after the high birth rate of the local Roma population is excluded. If the Roma are included, the fertility rate is just 1.28. In the global ranking of suicide rates, Hungary ranks sixth out of 107 countries where data is available, at 40 per 100,000 population per year -- a four-way tie with South Korea, Guyana, and Kazakhstan (only Lithuania is noticeably higher).
Hungary's best-known pop culture export, appropriately enough, is the so-called suicide song "Gloomy Sunday." The term "cultural pessimism" doesn't begin to describe the Hungarian view of the world. Built as a capital to rule a territory with 25 million under the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Budapest is a hydrocephalic changeling, a pantheon rather than a capital for the mere ten million people left in present-day Hungary.
At Jewish Ideas Daily, Elliot Jager reports on an eruption of Hungarian nostalgia for the kind of wartime leaders that the rest of the world thinks of as war criminals, along with the resurgence of extremist nationalism and anti-Semitism. A recent Bloomberg story reports on a new fashion for building statues to Hitler's wartime Hungarian ally Miklos Horthy, who helped the Nazis murder half a million Hungarian Jews. Jager observes:
Security is tight at all Jewish institutions. Unlike in Western Europe, the threat stems less from Islamists than from locals. In fact, Muslim visitors have not been immune to attacks from local thugs while the Roma (Gypsy), the perennial bête noire of South-Eastern Europe, again find themselves under attack from the far Right. Indeed, the populist-oriented government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban finds it politic to kowtow to Gabor Vona's ultra right-wing Jobbik Party, which holds 46 out of 386 parliamentary seats.
While I was in Budapest last month, Elie Wiesel repudiated a Hungarian state award he had received in 2004 because government officials recently attended a ceremony for World War II-era Nazi sympathizer Jozsef Nyiro. For the same reason, Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin disinvited his Hungarian counterpart, László Kövér, from a Jerusalem ceremony honoring Raoul Wallenberg. Instead, President Janos Ader will represent Hungary.
Hungary is the anti-Israel to the extent that objective measurement can tell. In my book How Civilizations Die, I construct a rough-and-ready index of life preference, namely fertility vs. suicide rates. People who like babies generally like life, and people who kill themselves don't. With the highest birth rate (at 3 per female) and just about the lowest suicide rate in the world, Israel is off the charts on the happy side. Hungary is off the charts on the sad side, with competition from no one but Lithuania.
Between 100,000 and 200,000 Jews still live in Hungary (it's hard to tell how many because few identify openly as Jews). Jewish tourism is still an enormous business, with busloads of visitors converging on the main synagogue with its Holocaust memorial. Large numbers of Jews were martyred there, and it is hard to stand in its courtyard with dry eyes. If Jewish life were to disappear entirely in Hungary, the loss would be irreparable, for the remnant of the observant community cooks like no other Jews in the world. The most important thing a Jewish visitor can do in Budapest is to eat what we elsewhere call gefilte fish, but locally is called Stuffed Carp: a whole fish with bones removed, with a filling of ground fish and spices surrounded by the carp's own meat, accompanied by a sweet-and-sharp sauce (horseradish and fruit compote) unique to Hungarian cuisine -- unlike the insipid, pallid lumps of gefilte fish consumed by Jews elsewhere.
Hungary's gefilte fish stands as the last living memorial to one of the most talented communities the world has ever known. Hungarian Jews included seven of Hungary's ten Nobel Prize winners, physicists like Von Neumann, Teller, Szilard, and von Karman, conductors like Solti, Szell, Kertesz, and Reiner, and a host of other cultural and scientific giants. This magnificent community, which made Hungary a world leader in intellect during its brief flourishing, no longer can be seen nor heard; it only can be tasted. Judaism is a religion of the body, explains the great Jewish theologian Michael Wyschogrod (his mother tongue is Hungarian although he was born in Berlin), and it seems fitting that extraordinary kosher food is the last remnant of Jewish life in Hungary.
Hungary's suppurating Jew-hatred and warped nostalgia for Nazi-allied wartime figures are consistent with the knowledge that this proud and ancient nation will be the first of Europe's sovereign states to disappear for lack of population. Some Jewish charity should send interns to train in Budapest's remaining kosher restaurants for purposes of cultural preservation. Otherwise, there's not much to do but give them another chorus of the Hungarian Suicide Song and avert one's gaze.
Sunday is gloomy, my hours are slumberless
Dearest the shadows I live with are numberless
Little white flowers will never awaken you
Not where the black coach of sorrow has taken you
Angels have no thought of ever returning you
Would they be angry if I thought of joining you?
Gloomy is Sunday, with shadows I spend it all
My heart and I have decided to end it all
Soon there'll be candles and prayers that are sad I know
Let them not weep let them know that I'm glad to go
Death is no dream for in death I'm caressing you
With the last breath of my soul I'll be blessing you